Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Model for Inquiring and Believing

For those interested in the ways in which critical inquiry and Christian believing are compatible (and even mutually nurturing and sustaining), it's hard to commend a better resource than Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006).

At the time of his death, Pelikan was the Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University. Considered by many to be the Church historian's historian, Pelikan is well-known for works such as Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (Yale University Press, 1985) and for his 5-volume history of the development of doctrine entitled The Christian Tradition (Yale University Press, 1971-1989).

Just a few years before his death, Pelikan helped complete the massive project of compiling and editing all of the known creeds and confessions of the Christian tradition from the early Church until the end of the 20th Century. Its initial stand-alone volume is Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition (Yale University Press, 2003). It is a magnificent and impressive book, showcasing the talents of a scholar at the top of his field. [You can get a feel for the breadth and depth of Credo in William Placher's review for The Christian Century entitled, "Why Creeds Matter."]

Writing for Christianity Today, Timothy George captures just some of Pelikan's many achievements throughout his remarkable life and career:

He wrote nearly 40 books and over a dozen reference works on numerous aspects of Christian history. He taught several generations of students at Valparaiso University, Concordia Theological Seminary, the University of Chicago, and, since 1962, Yale University. He served as Dean of the Graduate School at Yale and was also President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received the Jefferson Award of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1983 and the John Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievements in the Human Sciences in 2004. He presented the Gifford Lectures at University of Aberdeen and the Gilson Lectures at the University of Toronto and was awarded honorary degrees from 42 universities around the world.

Many other accomplishments could be listed, but accomplishments alone do not reveal the deepest passion of his soul—to tell the story of the Christian tradition in all of its fullness, drama, coherence, romance, and rigor, thereby exposing the deepest textures of meaning inherent in the Christian message itself.

One of the many impressive aspects of Pelikan's life and career is that he was both a first-rate, internationally acclaimed scholar and also a committed Christian. Originally a Lutheran, Pelikan and his wife received chrismation into the Orthodox Church in America in 1998.

Pelikan's perspective on the need for creeds is insightful. Here are some windows into his thinking from a Beliefnet interview entitled "Why We Need Creeds":

Many spiritual seekers are not comfortable with very idea of creeds. Why are creeds important to Christianity--and all religions? Why do we need them?

A faith that is completely personal and subjective has its ups and downs. You can't count on having only ups. Therefore, what's needed is some kind of continuity both within the faith life of an individual from month to month and year to year, and for that individual with the community of believers from previous ages. The fluctuations of personal belief need to be protected from going off the page by some kind of assertion, a shared faith which provides a floor and a ceiling.

Your book [Credo] talks about the 'deeds and creeds' conflict--how creeds are criticized for coming at the expense of actions. You say it's agreed that dogma and ethics should be inseparable. How can the creed help guide practice?

What's that Gilbert and Sullivan line? "I have a little list." [laughs] Any consideration of Christian life and ethics must always ask "what is distinctive about the Christian life?" What's the difference between being a Christian and being a nice guy, a good neighbor, an upright citizen, or an honest businessman? We all know people to whom we will give our house keys and the combination of our safe who don't believe what Christians believe. So it's quite possible, despite what some evangelists may say, even without faith in God, to be an honest and upright citizen.

So what's the value added of being a Christian?

Part of the answer is the motivation for doing [good], and the safety net when human weakness brings about a minor or major violation of the code of conduct we profess.

What do you do with others or yourself as a sinner?

The trouble with morality is it's not self-perpetuating. You need to have some way of coping with the human propensity to hypocrisy and deception and self-deception. You could say the creed is there to motivate, on the positive side, and to heal when there is a violation. The word salvation in Greek really means healing. Without that, a code of moral conduct by itself--the Scout oath--won't sustain you. That's why St. Paul says all those things about the law without faith.

Would meditating on a certain part of the creed impel you to a certain action?

It often does. Start at the beginning: when you take the interpretation of our environmental responsibility--one that's been articulated so beautifully and powerfully by the current Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew (who's known as the 'green patriarch')--all of that comes from this old man sitting in the middle of Turkey thinking about what it means to say "maker of heaven and earth, of all that is visible and invisible." [Read the statement.]

[It's saying] I live in a world that is a continuum from the angels to the oysters. All of it is the product of divine activity. That's what the creed says. If that's the case, in a very real sense, every creature comes from the same Father, and that makes them all brothers and sisters. Without identifying the world with God in a pantheistic way, it nevertheless provides a direct and powerful motivation for treating creatures as our fellows.

In a memorial service for Pelikan, Robert L. Wilken offered some important insights into the life and career of this important Christian scholar. It's worth sharing in full:

Throughout his life he never wavered from the conviction that it was the central orthodox tradition - orthodox with a small "o" - that was the most consequential, the most adaptable, and the most enduring. In the last generation, it has become fashionable among historians of Christian thought not only to seek to understand the Gnostics or other forms of so-called lost Christianitie, but also to step forward as their advocates and to suggest, sometimes obliquely, sometimes straightforwardly, that orthodox Christianity made its way not by argument and truth but by power and coercion. The real heroes in Christian history were the heretics, whose insights and thinking were suppressed by the imperious bishops of the great church.

Pelikan never succumbed to this temptation. In the classroom, in public lectures, and in his many books, he was an advocate of creedal Christianity, of the classical formulations of Christian doctrine. In one of his last books he cited such writers as Edward Gibbon, Adolf van Harnack, and Matthew Arnold, who believed that "creeds pass" and "no altar standeth whole." But he answered them with John Henry Newman, who said that dogma is the principle of religion, and Lionel Trilling, who wrote that "when the dogmatic principle in religion is slighted, religion goes along for a while on generalized emoti0n and ethical intention ... and then loses the force of its impulse, even the essence of its being." [Robert L. Wilken, "Tribute to Jaroslav Pelikan," Pro Ecclesia, XVI/2 (Spring 2007), p. 124]

Inquiring and believing, Jaroslav Pelikan exemplifies what it means to be both a critical thinker and a Christian. As Timothy George so eloquently writes, "[Pelikan's] legacy will shine especially bright among those who follow Jesus Christ, belong to his church, and see the world through the eyes of the Savior's love."

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