Jaroslav Pelikan: “A Portrait of the Christian as A Young Intellectual” (1960)

jaroslav-pelikanJaroslav Pelikan’s (1923-2006) commencement address at the University of Wittenberg in 1960 is a gem. (He was 37-years-old at the time.) In it he argues that Christians should have (1) a passion for being, (2) a reverence for language, and (3) an enthusiasm for history — each of which is grounded on the Trinity.

To give a taste of what he says, here is Pelikan on reverence for language:

“[T]he Christian cause depends upon language, and without it the life of the church would be impossible. I do not pretend to know why Johnny can’t read; but I do know that if enough Johnnies can’t read, Christian faith and thought as we know them will end. . . .

[T]here is nothing “mere” about words, and it is the task of the Christian intellectual to insist upon this. When the God of the universe, the Lord of heaven and earth, chose to make Himself known to men, He spoke to them through the prophets; and when the early Christians sought to describe what God had done to them and for them through Jesus, they called Jesus the Logos, the Word and Mind of God. The Christian intellectual knows, therefore, that man’s capacity for speech lies somewhere near the center of his uniqueness. Both the misery and the grandeur of humanity are bound up with the gift of language. The serpent spoke to Eve in the garden; God spoke to Moses on the mountain. And ever since then the temptations and the revelations of man have come through language. They still do. Hence a reverence for what language can do if it is used properly and a horror of what language can do if it is misused belong to the equipment of the educated man. Hear one educated man, E. B. White, who also incarnates the chastity of English prose style, giving voice to this reverence and horror: “Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose; it is a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded roadsign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram” — and, let the theologian add, betrayal of the faith once handed down to the saints by careless or deliberate ambiguity in the language of theology or devotion. . . .

[C]larity begins at home. I can think of no service more important for our culture than the growth of a reverence for language. Sins against syntax are often funny, but sometimes they are serious. Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, and Charles de Gaulle all prove that language does not merely describe action; it is action, and sometimes the only action equal to the despair or the glory of the hour. In the beginning was the Word: the capacity for words is still the point at which God contacts man, still the point at which the devil finds man most vulnerable. If you carry away from your courses in literature and language no more than an awe for the fearful potentialities of human speech and a zeal to make that awe a light of your life in home, church, and community, this university has served you well. A Christian intellectual is not necessarily one who has read all the Great Books on the lists compiled at the University of Chicago, though he could do worse in his reading and probably will. But a Christian intellectual is one whose reading and writing, speaking and listening, are informed by a reverence for language as the divine gift . . .”

Man, this is a great speech! I would encourage every person to read it multiple times, print it out, save it, and dwell on his points. There’s a lot of fodder for thought. Read it here.


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