The Riddle of Jaroslav Pelikan (died 13th May 2006 – RIP)

Jaroslav Pelikan, one of the greatest theological historians of our age, died on Saturday at the age of 82.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord :
and let perpetual light shine upon him. Amen.

The son of a Lutheran pastor, Pelikan was a renowned professor at Yale University before his retirement. Many will have read his 1959 book “The Riddle of Roman Catholicism” (I have it in my brief case right now) in which he forthrightly rejects the path of conversion (to another denomination) as a path of ecumenism. Yet the riddle of Roman Catholicism was destined to became the “Riddle of Jaroslav Pelikan” ) when, in 1998 at the age of 74, he stunned his fellow Lutherans by converting to the Russian Orthodox faith.

I once spoke to the great man on the telephone. Here is the story, from my 26th June 2000 entry in my “Year of Grace” journal:

“So what was the answer to this riddle? I decided to try and get in contact with him and ask. I was looking for his email, but in actual fact, I found his telephone number, and phoned him in New Haven, Connecticut! It was thrilling to be talking to the great man himself, but disappointing in the end, because he declined to talk about his personal journey. He said that he doesn’t do email. I told him my situation, and he declined to go any further with his own comments. He says J. H. Newman converted at the age of 44 years, and wrote a 600 page book; whereas he converted at 74 and would require a 1000 page book to do my query justice. He also said that he had had between 750 and 1000 calls similar to mine. I apologised for interrupting his evening, but he was very gracious about it. I said that if he ever did write that book, I would definitely buy it, and he said, “Yep, I think it will be a best seller!”

Well, the book will never be written. The best we can hope for is that he will have left some unpublished paper somewhere that may solve the riddle, and which may one day see the light of day. In the mean time, as Melanchthon said, he is now in the “heavenly academy” where such questions will no longer matter.

You can read or listen to an interview with Pelikan on this week’s edition of the Religion Report.

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2 Responses to The Riddle of Jaroslav Pelikan (died 13th May 2006 – RIP)

  1. Mshoreret says:

    Actually, the key to Mr. Pelikan’s conversion is available, albeit in a veiled manner, to readers of volume II of his five-volume magnum opus. The mask of the historian there slips a bit to reveal an emotional, nay personal, engagement.

    It’s a pity you didn’t use the opportunity of your call to talk about other topics. He probably would have been more forthcoming!

    He will be sadly missed.

  2. Schütz says:

    Mshoreret, how blessed you were to have Prof. Pelikan for a teacher! Alas, all I ever had access to were his books–and that one brief phone call. Yes, I am sure he would have been happy to talk about other things, but I was a selfish git at that time (ask my wife) and I couldn’t think of anyone elses issues but my own. Truly a lost opportunity. Ah well. There is always eternity!

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