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Spiritual light in intellectual darkness

Spiritual light in intellectual darkness

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Spiritual light in intellectual darkness

Sept. 29, 2006    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0554}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

The great scholar Jaroslav Pelikan died recently, and during his funeral Dean John H. Erikson of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary told a story that illustrates what Pelikan meant to many of us.
A graduate student described the environment of his university as a “vortex of darkness.” He remembered a remark of one of his professors who said that the writings of the fourth-century Christian, John Chrysostom, were valuable “once you wade through all that Christian junk.” The student went on to describe how he and other students had been sustained by the writings of Pelikan who had been “a beacon of light in the darkness.”
A master of several disciplines and 10 languages, Pelikan was one of the most brilliant scholars of the 20th century, but he was also a devout Christian. During his distinguished career at Yale University he demonstrated how to integrate sophisticated learning with simple faith.
Sadly, Pelikan’s example is not always imitated. Sometimes students have to learn biblical studies, theology and church history from teachers who do not believe or practice the Christian faith.
One wonders how competent instruction in religious studies given by people who do not believe in the subjects being taught can be. Can law be taught competently by an anarchist? Can theology be taught by an atheist? In the case of a secular, private university or a state-owned university, a case could be made that religious studies could be taught competently by a nonbeliever if the teacher possesses a mastery of the scholarly literature and the techniques of the discipline. The justification would be that religion is being studied because of its influence on the culture and society. Indeed, the nation-state, which has an intrinsic aversion to the claims made in religion that there is an authority higher than the state, may prefer that religion be taught by those who do not believe or practice a faith.
It is difficult to respect the teaching of biblical studies, theology or church history by nonbelievers in a church-related college or university, especially a seminary. The church is the origin of biblical studies, theology and church history, and it knows that the true meaning of these subjects cannot be rightly discerned without faith illumined by the Holy Spirit. The ancient church had a motto: “a theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.” Therefore, from the perspective of the church nonbelievers cannot teach these subjects competently. When this is allowed to happen in a church-related institution it is an indication that the trustees and administrators have been poor stewards of the purpose of the institution for which they are responsible.
The challenge for many students, like the one mentioned at Pelikan’s funeral, is to assume the burden of integrating knowledge and faith when they are required to receive some of their teaching from a nonbeliever. It is a blessing when, at least, they can have access to the writings of scholars like Pelikan who have had the wisdom and courage to resist the powerful forces in Western culture by which the study of the Bible, theology and church history was separated from the worship and mission of the church and the light of the Spirit of God was replaced by another light, the cold light of human reason with its pretension to autonomy.
(Among the dozens of books written by Pelikan the notable scholarly works are “The Vindication of Tradition” and the five volumes of “The Christian Tradition.” The notable popular works are “Jesus Through the Centuries” and “Mary Through the Centuries.”)


This article relates to Christian Education.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.