Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pericope of the Week

The epigraph to the published edition of the Jefferson Lecture by the most famous person to have taught at Valparaiso University, Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006), is a quote from Goethe’s Faust: “Was du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast, Erwirb es, um es zu besitzen” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition, [Yale, 1984]). Translation: “What you have inherited from your fathers, acquire it in order to make it your own.”

Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan
 Following Dr. Pelikan's own example, I have tried to make this aphorism the motto of my work as a teacher and scholar. Like him, I have undertaken this work primarily as an historian of ideas, although my final designs have never ceased to be theological.

On the one hand, I have sought to understand and teach “the Christian tradition” as a person of faith, indeed as one who publicly identifies himself as a Lutheran Christian by conviction. Following the example of the author of the Augsburg Confession I have striven to be irenical and ecumenical in my approach to Christian theology and the ideas and experiences in other religions, to maintain in myself and to convey for others a basic respect and appreciation for the wider catholic “Great Tradition,” its texts, basic institutions, and influential characters. In view of the fact that most everybody is an expert on the present, I will continue to try, again in the words of Dr. Pelikan, “to file a minority report on behalf of the past.”

On the other hand, I have also sought to convey the benefits of engaging the Christian tradition and other religious traditions critically through the same interpretive strategies that are brought to other human phenomena. In this respect I do not hesitate to indicate where and why the Christian tradition, its texts, and institutions have been and are being criticized by scholars, including myself. I thus agree with Richard Hughes’ description of a Lutheran approach to “tradition,” which serves as this week's pericope:

Lutherans can never absolutize their own perspectives, even their theological perspectives. They must always be reassessing and rethinking, and they must always be in dialogue with themselves and with others. But there is more, for if Lutherans must always be in dialogue with themselves and with others, it is equally true to say that they are free to be in dialogue with themselves and with others. For knowledge that one is justified by grace through faith grants the Christian scholar a profound sense of freedom to question his or her own best insights, to revise them, or to discard them and start again. This is the genius of the Lutheran tradition. (How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind [Eerdmans, 2001], 88; emphasis is in the original)

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