Tuesday, May 16, 2006

My Tribute to Jaroslav Pelikan, Requiescat in Pace

On Saturday, May 13, 2006, a man I never met, but whose impact on me has been monumental, left this world for the "Undiscovered Country" after a long bout with cancer.

Even as I sit here in my office after a full week of "Don Rags" (the end of semester interviews with students on what they had learned throughout the term), I see a visible reminder of his impact on my career as a church historian-The Christian Tradition series. The volumes that gripped me the most-the first three (The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom, and The Growth of Medieval Theology)-influenced my decision to become a medievalist, and to become Orthodox.

It was at a bookstore called "The Bodhi Tree" in Santa Monica where I bought my copy of The Growth of Medieval Theology (I know, how shocking that a place associated with Buddhist and New Age thought should have anything by Pelikan, but I assure you, their holdings are far more ecclectic than one might think). I had graduated with my BA at the time, and wondering about the direction my career as an historian would take. After reading through this volume, I knew exactly what I wanted to do (C.S. Lewis's The Discarded Image had a good hand in this too).

One thing that impressed me about Professor Pelikan is that he always took you to the sources, providing easy access to them. He would cite his sources not as footnotes or endnotes, but as sidenotes, with very little commentary, allowing you to check the references for yourself and draw your own conclusions. He was a master craftsman in opening up these texts to you, unveiling them, much as Sister Wendy Beckett does in unveiling a great work of art to her audience. His kind of scholarship drew you into the world of the medieval theologian, and you came out wanting to go to those sources yourself, and make further explorations. His scholarship always invited you to dig deeper, to explore the terrain of this romance known as Christian theology, and to come out tranformed by the experience.

I remember the great stir in the Orthodox world when he embraced the Orthodox faith by chrismation at St. Vladimir's on Christmas of 1998. For many, this seemed like a "validation" and "vindication" of their own faith. But he himself never saw his own conversion to Orthodoxy in those terms. For him, it was just a matter of "stripping away the layers" to the true core of what he had always been. Having begun his life as a Lutheran, and having spent time in the Missouri Synod and ELCA, the search for true catholicity seemed to have illuded him. Indeed, he left the Missouri Synod, he said, on account of their having become "baptists", and ELCA, on account of the fact that they had become "Methodists."

Be that as it may, he never talked about his conversion to Orthodoxy-very refreshing, I think. The "Why I Became Orthodox, and now making money off my conversion by selling you this book telling you about my "journey"" syndrome never found a place in his calm and prudent demeanor. He was just as charitable and gracious as an Orthodox Christian as he had been as a Lutheran. He was never given over to overly simplified views of church history- as a church historian, he knew better than that. This helped him steer clear from overly romantic notions about Orthodoxy. Rather, his conversion can be characterized as a simple recognition of where true catholicity was to be found. Nothing more need be said, as far as he was concerned. He provides a good model for all of us converts of one who cherished what he had learned in his own upbringing, and coming into Orthodoxy rejoicing, not looking back and shouting.

He will surely be missed. I regret never having had the chance to tell him what an impact he had had on my life as a scholar and as a man of faith, and how his works challenged me to integrate the two. I take comfort in the fact that he probably knows that now, and that I will be able to express my gratitude when the day comes when I too must "cross the narrow streams of death."

+Requiescas in pace, magister!

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