Jaroslav Pelikan: The living legend in our midst

Rev John H.
Erickson

When the faculty of St Vladimir’s Seminary selected “Living
Tradition” as the theme for its 2003 summer Institute of Liturgical
Music and Pastoral Practice, the choice of keynote speaker was obvious.
Seminary trustee Jaroslav Pelikan has devoted much of his scholarly career
precisely to the subject of tradition. His goal has been the “vindication
of tradition,” as the title of one of his many books puts it. As
he now approaches his 80th birthday, he not only is eminently qualified
to speak on the subject of “Living Tradition.” In many ways,
he himself exemplifies this tradition, particularly for those of us living
in the West.

Jary – as his friends at the seminary are now
bold enough to call him – traces many of his academic and religious
interests to his Slovak background. His grandfather, Jan Pelikan, was
born in Slovakia – that
remarkable meeting-place of cultures and religious traditions – and
after coming to the United States became one of the founding fathers
of the Slovak Synod of Lutherans.

Jary’s father, also a Slovak Lutheran pastor, once told him that “he
combined German Lutheran scholarship and Slavic Orthodox piety – and
fortunately not the vice-versa.” One result of this happy coincidence
of qualities has been Jary’s remarkable academic career. After
receiving both the B.D. and the Ph.D. degrees in 1946, at the ripe old
age of 22, he went on to teach at Valparaiso University (1946-49), Concordia
Theological Seminary (1949-53), the University of Chicago (1953-62),
and Yale University (1972-96), where he also served as Dean of the Graduate
School of Arts and Sciences (1973-1978).

Jary retired from his responsibilities at Yale in 1996,
his title changing from Sterling Professor of History to Sterling Professor
of History Emeritus,
but this did not mean an end to academic appointments. Since then he
has held a succession of chairs at Boston College, the University of
Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, and the Library
of Congress, where he inaugurated the John W. Kluge Chair for Countries
and Societies of the North. He now serves as Scholarly Director for the
Institutions
of Democracy Project of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands.

Also remarkable is Jary’s record of publication. In addition to
serving as editor for several major series, he is the author of over
thirty books. One of the most recent of these, Divine Rhetoric: The
Sermon on the Mount as Message and Model in Augustine, Chrysostom, and
Luther,
was published by SVS Press in 2001. And the list keeps growing! Credo:
Historical and Theological Introduction to Creeds and Confessions of
Faith in the Christian Tradition
has just appeared in January 2003.

For this scholarship Jary has been recognized by learned societies and
academies, libraries, colleges and universities from around the world
with diverse awards, medals and citations, including (at last count)
forty-one honorary doctorates. In 1983 he received the Jefferson Award
of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the highest recognition
conferred by the Federal Government on a scholar in the humanities. In
2000, in the course of celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the
Library of Congress, Jary was officially named a Living Legend, along
with General Colin Powell, publisher Katherine Graham, violinist Isaac
Stern, and – as he notes with a twinkle in his eye – Barbra
Streisand, Gloria Steinem and Big Bird.

Jary’s interests and areas of expertise are as wide-ranging as
the honors he has received. They cover everything from philosophy, literature,
political and legal theory, the visual arts and music to education, the
natural sciences and even sailing. The titles of his books give some
hint of this: Bach Among the Theologians (1986), Imago Dei:
The Byzantine Apologia for Icons
(1990), Eternal Feminines:
Three Theological Allegories in Dante’s “Paradiso”
(1990), The
Idea of the University: A Reexamination
(1992), Faust the Theologian (1995), What
Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem? “Timaeus” and “Genesis” in
Counterpoint
(1997)…. And whether he is lecturing on Aristotle’s
Rhetoric to the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, curating an
exhibit on visual depictions of Jesus through the centuries, critiquing
productions of Wagner’s Ring cycle, or just discussing the flora
and fauna of the parklands near his home in Connecticut, he brings the
same matchless style and wit that readers of his books have come to expect
and relish.

By his own admission, Jary is above all a historian.
As he puts it, “Everybody
else is an expert on the present. I wish to file a minority report on
behalf of the past.” But for him the study of the past has not
been simply an academic exercise. This is especially evident in his magnum
opus, the five-volume Christian Tradition: A History of the Development
of Doctrine
(1971-89), which is the first – and to date still
the only – major history of Christian doctrine to take seriously
the Orthodox East. In a 1997 lecture on “The Predicament of the
Christian Historian,” presented at the Center of Theological Inquiry
in Princeton and co-sponsored by the local Orthodox Christian Fellowship
(available
online at http://www.ctinquiry.org/publications/pelikan.htm),
Jary touches on some of the challenges that he faced when writing that
monumental
work. On the walls of his study, he observes, there are only two conventional
portraits. One is of Fr Georges Florovsky, whom he describes as “the
last of my mentors and the one to whom I owe the most.” The other
is of Adolf von Harnack, “who, as the author of the greatest history
of Christian doctrine ever written (completed in 1889, precisely one
hundred years before I completed mine in 1989), has been my lifelong
role model.”

Both Harnack and Florovsky wrestled with a question
that anyone who tries to be both a historian and a Christian must confront:
What is the
relationship between universal truth and its particular embodiments?
The answer, Jary suggests, is to be found not in reductionism (cf. Harnack’s
attempt to identify the “essence of Christianity”) but rather
in a living tradition that mediates between past and present. Thus, when
asked on another occasion about those two portraits on his study walls,
Jary replied with another of his one-liners: “Harnack showed me
what it was to be a scholar. Florovsky showed me what it was to be a
scholar and a Christian at the same time.”

The most memorable and most often quoted of Jary’s one-liners
has a direct bearing on the theme of the seminary’s 2003 summer
Institute, “Living Tradition.” In an interview in U.S. News & World
Report (July 26, 1989), he said: “Tradition is the living faith
of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition
lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and
when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes
that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed
to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony
of this homogenized tradition.”

When he gave that interview, Jary had already elaborated upon the difference
between tradition and traditionalism in his book on The Vindication of
Tradition (1984). There he adopts a distinction between icon and idol
that developed in the Byzantium in the course of the iconoclastic controversy
of the eighth and ninth centuries. An icon “does not present itself
as coextensive with the truth it teaches, but does present itself as
the way that we who are its heirs must follow if we are to go beyond
it… to a universal truth that is available only in a particular
embodiment” (p. 56). An idol, on the other hand, is “the
embodiment of that which it represents, but it directs us to itself,
rather than beyond itself.” Thus, when tradition becomes traditionalism,
it becomes idolatrous; “it makes the preservation and the repetition
of the past an end in itself” (p. 55). The truth is at once universal
and particular; it refuses to choose between these two alternatives, “knowing
that an authentic icon, a living tradition, must be both” (p. 57).

In addition to recalling his debt to Florovsky, Jary likes to speak
of his friendship with two other former Deans of St Vladimir’s
Seminary, Fr Alexander Schmemann and Fr John Meyendorff. A long-time
supporter of the seminary, Jary was invited to give the 1975 commencement
address, in which he spoke on “Continuity and Creativity” (available
online at http://www.jacwell.org/articles/1998-SPRING-Pelikan.htm). In
introducing him, Fr Schmemann noted that “the hardest thing for
me to say about Professor Pelikan is why he is not Orthodox.” But
that was to change. On March 25, 1998, on the feast of the Annunciation,
Jary was chrismated by Metropolitan Theodosius, primate of the Orthodox
Church in America (OCA), and received into the Orthodox Church. His wife
Sylvia joined him in embracing Orthodoxy a few months later, and together
they worship regularly in the seminary chapel.

In a conversation shortly after his entrance into the Orthodox Church,
Jary likened his path to Orthodoxy to that of a pilot who kept circling
the airport, looking for a way to land. Orthodox Christians can be thankful
that he landed before running out of fuel. Since then, in addition to
serving on the seminary’s Board of Trustees, he has addressed a
number of Orthodox gatherings, including the OCA’s 12th All-American
Council in Pittsburgh (1999), and he now also serves on the OCA’s
Department of History and Archives. St Vladimir’s is fortunate
that he consented to serve as keynote speaker for this year’s Institute
before his schedule became totally booked. In the months leading up to
his 80th birthday in December 2003, Jary will be honored at a series
of lectures at academic institutions with which he has been associated:
St John’s University in Collegeville MN, Yale University, the University
of Chicago, Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology,
the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism, the Library
of Congress, and - on September 14, 2003 - St Vladimir’s Seminary,
where the lecturer will be Fr John McGuckin, Professor of Early Christian
History at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Byzantine Christianity
at Columbia University. Those unable to hear Jary at the 2003 summer
Institute will want to consider how they can at least meet and honor
this Living Legend at one of his birthday celebrations.

[Originally published in the collection of Preparatory Readings for the 2003 Summer Institute]