Krista's Journal: On the Role of Creeds in Modern Society

October 22, 2009

Every field of human endeavor has its heroes: men and women who may be relatively unknown in the wider culture, but are living legends in the worlds of their accomplishments. Jaroslav Pelikan was one of those.

I first interviewed him at Yale a decade ago. "Jary" speaks in full paragraphs, his friends said to me. He was considered by many to be one of the great minds of the last century. He was a professor of history at Yale University for four decades and a past president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among his many books, he wrote five epic volumes, the defining work of our time, on Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine.

And I was fascinated when I learned that in his eighth decade, Jaroslav Pelikan had taken on another monumental topic: the history and importance of creeds in the Christian church. He collected Christian creeds from biblical times to the present and from across the globe and wrote a dense, wide-ranging historical and theological guide to accompany them. This was the first such effort since 1877, and is already hailed as the standard resource for the coming century.

Jaroslav Pelikan understood what a difficult thing unchanging creeds can be for modern people. He knew as well as anyone that historically creeds were employed in part to consolidate power — both of church authority and of Christian empire. But he insisted on capturing a sense of the profound and positive reasons Christianity, alone among the major traditions, seemed to require creeds. The global spread of Christianity and of the translation of the Bible into now more than 2000 languages, as Pelikan described it, "is the history of how one sought in a new setting not to speak the same thing but to say the same thing."

And creeds, he believed, also meet a deep human need — one that is not diminished but intensified by pluralism. Pluralism, he reiterates during this conversation, is not the same as relativism; the singing of a creed, in fact, is a way of indicating a universality of the faith across space and time. Pelikan's own generous sense of space and time, I think, helped him internalize the original impulse of creeds and communicate their meaning to the rest of us. Every time he recited or sang the creeds, he tangibly experienced the fact that these same words were sung in the Philippines that same morning and recited by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century and Thomas Aquinas in the 13th and intoned by his own grandfather in the 20th century. I have been struck by the number and diversity of people who have told me over the years that this program touched them in a special way. Among them have been more than a few Unitarians, whose faith tradition was formed in part in reaction against the very idea of creeds.

Attempts to make creeds modern and contemporary often seem to sacrifice something in depth and grace. Jaroslav Pelikan compared this, interestingly, to the language of love. We can try to be creative and unconventional but there aren't terribly many ways to say "I love you." Again and again most of us fall back on well-worn words and find that they more than suffice.

Having noted that, in one of the most poignant moments of this program, Jaroslav Pelikan recites one of the newest creeds he discovered — a creed written by the Maasai people of Africa. In 1960, they took the bare-bones summaries the great creeds represent, and enlivened them with the vocabulary of their lives. Pelikan reads this Maasai creed, which includes mention of hyenas and safari, with reverent passion and an almost child-like delight.

And isn't religion at heart about mystery, I had to ask Jaroslav Pelikan, that can never be captured in words? Can creeds ever be sufficient as a statement of faith? He left me with a wonderful statement of St. Augustine, who apparently struggled with this same question in his own theologizing as well. We resolve to speak of these things nevertheless, Augustine concluded — inspiring Jaroslav Pelikan centuries later — not in order to say something, but in order not to remain altogether silent.

I am grateful to have sat with Jaroslav Pelikan during his lifetime, and to have gathered some of the language and ideas he added to our collective resources for pondering ultimate and important matters of faith and of life.

Recommended Reading

Image of Orthodoxy And Western Culture: A Collection of Essays Honoring Jaroslav Pelikan on His Eightieth Birthday
Author: Valerie R. Hotchkiss, Patrick Henry
Publisher: St Vladimirs Seminary Pr (2006)
Binding: Paperback, 231 pages

Orthodoxy and Western Culture is a collection of lively, intellectually satisfying essays by a range of interesting thinkers that commemorated Pelikan's 80th birthday. It includes two succinct essays by Pelikan himself — one autobiographical, one summarizing his reverence for "The Will to Believe and the Need for Creeds" If you are interested in who this man was and what he believed — and how his legacy and these ideas continue to resonate in contemporary scholarship and culture — you will appreciate this book.

Pelikan's most recent book, published in 2004 and written in a wonderful narrative style for popular reading, speaks directly to some of our current cultural debates. Whose Bible Is It: A Short History of the Scriptures condenses Pelikan's lifetime of knowledge about how the Hebrew Bible and New Testaments came to be, and the work of interpretation they have always entailed.

Voices on the Radio

was professor of History at Yale University. He's written more than 40 books, including his 2003 opus, Credo. His most recent work is Whose Bible Is It? A History of Scriptures Through the Ages.