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Theologian Pelikan builds a different type cathedral

He's like a medieval craftsmen who devoted his whole life to building a cathedral for the ages. But instead of shouldering huge gray stones into place, carving trefoils, or raising flying buttresses, he is building his cathedral on paper.

He is Prof. Jaroslav Pelikan, whose massive five-volume work-in-progress, ''The Christian Tradition,'' is the print equivalent of a Salisbury Cathedral or Chartres.

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Professor Pelikan, Sterling professor of history and religious studies at Yale, is an ordained Lutheran pastor, a scholar-theologian, and a man with one of the fastest typewriters in Christendom. In addition to editing a 30-volume, all-English edition of Martin Luther's writings, Professor Pelikan is just doing a final polish on the fourth volume of his megatext, ''The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine.'' He expects the fourth volume, titled ''Reformation of Church and Dogma,'' which covers the period from 1300 to 1700, to be published next fall. Meanwhile, there are the lectures, the international tours, his classes at Yale. And the honors.

On May 4, for instance, he strolled off with the highest honor conferred by the federal government for outstanding achievement in the humanities. He was chosen to deliver the 12th annual Jefferson Lecture on the Humanities, titled ''The Vindication of Tradition,'' by the National Endowment for the Humanities. He gave Part 1, on ''Tradition as History,'' in Washington; Part 2, on ''Tradition as Heritage,'' will be given at the University of Chicago May 9. Professor Pelikan keeps heady company; previous Jefferson Lectures have been given by historians Barbara Tuchman, poet Robert Penn Warren, novelist Saul Bellow, literary critic Lionel Trilling, and psycho-historian Erik H. Erickson.

While he appears pleased with his late-20th-century honor, Professor Pelikan hints that, for him, the real action went on several hundred years ago. He is a man for whom 100 years is but a blink. ''I live in the 20th century, it's all I've got, but that's not where I work. . . . I don't have an active role in contemporary church debates. By my own choice I stay out of them, because there ought to be somebody who speaks to the other 19 centuries. Not everybody should be caught in this moment. I'm filing a minority report on behalf of the past.''

Still, he can be drawn into talking about the prevalence of religious wars today and their significance. As a Lutheran pastor and historian, does he believe we should brace ourselves for another version of the Crusades before there is religious peace?

His response is a warning: ''You have to ask yourself: In what sense is the Marxist vision of world revolution a kind of atheist holy war, with all the belief that holy-war advocates have always had that their cause is righteous, and that it's bound to triumph, the 'history is on our side' kind of thing.''

Professor Pelikan's prose style in what he describes laughingly as the ''penitude'' of five volumes on the Christian tradition is quite different from his vivid, breezy, and controversial style in conversation. Here he is writing on tradition in his first volume in the series, ''The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition'':

''The history of Christian tradition is the most effective means available of exposing the artificial theories of continuity that have often assumed normative status in the churches, and at the same time is an avenue into the authentic continuity of Christian believing, teaching, and confessing. Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.'' He quips: ''And I am trying to figure out the difference.''

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His ''Christian Tradition'' books are demanding scholarly works, the footnotes and cross-references thick as raisins in a fruitcake. His second book, ''The Spirit of Eastern Christendom,'' lists 15 pages of primary sources, from Abdisa of Nisibis's ''The Book of the Pearl'' through the ''Chronicle of Voskrosensk'' and Leendert Westerink's ''De Omnifaria Doctrina.''

A linguist who learned to read at age 2, by the age of 20 he knew seven languages besides English: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, Serbian, Russian, and Slovak - the last one from his Czechoslovakian heritage. His paternal grandfather had been bishop of the Slovak Lutheran Church in the United States, and his father was a Lutheran pastor. As a boy he knew he wanted to study theology; at 22 he had not only graduated from Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis but he had also earned a doctorate from the University of Chicago. By the time he was 26 he had written an 84-page prospectus that was the scaffolding for his life's work, this five-volume history of Christian doctrine, published by the University of Chicago Press.

The three volumes that have emerged so far have carved his significant niche, Newsweek magazine said, ''alongside . . . major church historians.'' Library Journal called it ''monumental in its comprehensiveness, meticulous in its judicious scholarship,'' and the New York Review of Books described it as ''a masterpiece of exposition.''

During the last three decades he's also written more than 15 other books, including ''Fools for Christ'' and ''Obedient Rebels.'' But always there's been ''the haunting awareness'' of his magnum opus, and when to stop researching, start writing. ''I decided I wanted to get the first volume out before I was 50, and the last volume sometime before I was 60. I'm now finishing Volume 4, and I'm 59. Not quite on schedule, but close.''

The books' effect on his own faith has been mixed. ''There are times that are inspirational,'' he says, ''. . . some of these people as I read along said things profound and brilliant, and that have windows into the heart of God.''

But he also tripped over plenty of clay feet along the way as he studied church history and individual striving for power and ambition. ''So I wouldn't recommend to anyone that he go into this to get his faith strengthened. He may have his faith destroyed. A lot of people do. . . . I believe less than I used to, but what I believe, I believe more.''

He explains that the more you study history, the more you see all the absolutes that are supposed to be present turned into relatives. In Part 1 of his Jefferson lecture, he discussed what happens when the absolutes are shaken. Part 2, another aspect of tradition: The question of ''Whether it clips the wings of the human mind and spirit in such a way that it prevents people from being truly creative. . . . I don't believe that.''

We are sitting in an impersonal, off-white government office belonging to the National Endowment for the Humanities, with watery sunlight coming through the windows. Professor Pelikan rocks comfortably in a stranger's chair and occasionally takes a sip of water from a glass on the desk to punctuate the flow of his answers. He is a reassuring-looking man who gives off an aura of professional competence that suggests a lawyer or business executive; he has been dean of the Yale graduate school. He is, in a phrase, traditional looking, with wavy white hair, gray-rimmed glasses over hazel eyes, and quiet clothes: a gray suit; blue shirt with white stripes; blue, black and gray wool knit tie.

''I'm sitting here drinking this glass of water,'' he says during a long dialogue on healing and Christianity. ''The Gospel says that you give a cup of cold water to someone in the name of Jesus,'' he says, speaking of Christian healing. Historically, he points out, ''the word that's translated 'salvation,' the word that's translated 'saviour' in the New Testament, of course means 'healed.' The Greek word for salvation means 'restoration of health.' It is one of several metaphors the New Testament uses for the recovery that comes through Christ. And perhaps the best term to use would be the recovery of wholeness.''

Professor Pelikan, steeped in church doctrine, history, and symbolism as he is, delights in finding significance even in the name he bears. He's taken a lot of kidding, but he really doesn't mind all those pelican gifts he's been given.

He's decided to use the unforgettable name for his own purposes, and has a collection of over 100 pelican images, sends out ''pelicards'' to answer mail, and uses a Christian pelican symbol as his bookplate. ''In many medieval windows there are beautiful representations of this pelican,'' he says. Which pleases Jaroslav Pelikan.

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