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“We Can Make Our Lives Sublime”: Jaroslav Pelikan and a Lifetime of Learning

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The following is a guest post by Lauren Sinclair, Program Assistant at The John W. Kluge Center.

Jaroslav Pelikan was awarded the Kluge Prize in 2004 for his comprehensive and prolific study of the Christian tradition. Pelikan saw the history of the Christian tradition as a human science, calling it “an almost unique laboratory of universal history.”[1] He devoted his life to the study of Christian texts, culture, language, and imagery and received many honors and distinctions for his work.

Later in life, as he reflected on his career, Pelikan spoke eloquently about a lifetime of scholarly learning and how libraries, and the knowledge housed within them, are hospitals for the soul, where “the soul can find instruments for diagnosis”–where men and women have recorded the pains of the heart and mind, and deposited their wisdom for its convalescence. “To the library the soul can turn for healing,” Pelikan said. “We can make our lives sublime.”[2]

Pelikan was born a first generation Slovak-American and made himself into a polyglot (he studied and spoke nine languages), a voracious student, and a generous teacher. He completed both his Bachelor degree in Theology from Concordia Seminary and his Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Chicago in the same year, 1946, referring to this achievement as a “chronological convergence”[3] that propelled his ambitious scholarly achievements for the next 60 years. As a teacher he was oft-admired by his students for his support and patience. A former student commented that his teaching style “[made] the listener feel intelligent; one [felt] that one [was] fully understanding (or perhaps discovering for oneself) the intricacies of the argument.”[4] The relationship was reciprocal; in the preface to his popular work “Mary Through the Centuries,” Pelikan acknowledged the role his students played in the writing and conception of his work through their stimulation and insight.[5]

As a scholar, Pelikan was renowned for his recognition of the “importance of exegesis for the understanding of the history of theology.”[6] He acknowledged biases ingrained in the study of Christianity and pursued theological inquiry as a social scientist, maintaining that “absolute faith is incompatible with sincere history.”[7] Language was a fundamental aspect of accessing an innate, transcendent capacity for understanding and communicating theological inquiry.[8] He connected Biblical passages to Greek lore, promoting that the diseases of the mind and spirit could be cured through speech. In this heuristic connection, he persisted toward clarity in communication; according to a former colleague, “The concern that others understand what he [was] saying [was] central to Pelikan’s life.”[9] In his undergraduate courses on great books, he reflected: “I write for people like these students who love language, who love ideas, who don’t know a great deal, but who are willing to learn and to work hard.” [10]

Hospital for the Soul speech
Screenshot of Jaroslav Pelikan’s “Hospital for the Soul” speech in the Congressional Record of the U.S. Senate, May 24, 2000. Courtesy the Government Printing Office website

As a lover of language, ideas and scholarship, Pelikan had an enduring relationship with the Library of Congress. Beyond receiving the Kluge Prize, he served as the founding chairman for the Library of Congress Council of Scholars[11] in 1980, and in 2000 was named a “Living Legend of the Library” by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. In his acceptance speech for the Living Legend Award, titled “Hospital for the Soul,” Pelikan called himself “the offspring of the library.” The speech, documented in the Congressional Record, of the 106th Congress,[12] encourages the chamber to view the Library as a place where “the soul can turn for healing, in the collective memory of the human race.”[13] He also spoke of a partnership between those who are living, those who are dead, and those unyet born, to bequeath the lessons and wisdom of the past through the generations, and to house them in libraries for learning and healing. As he said in 2000:

It was, I firmly believe, providential that exactly 200 years ago today, in this city where there would eventually be so many fiefdoms and kingdoms and dukedoms and monuments, the Congress was inspired to found this monumental institution, of which Shakespeare has Prospero say prophetically, “My library was dukedom large enough.” For as all the other dukedoms have risen and fallen, the Library of Congress has stood as a monument and a “hospital for the soul,” pointing to the life of the mind as the antidote to the twin poisons of political tyranny and moral anarchy. [14]

Pelikan concluded his speech by answering the question that people asked him most after more than a half century of historical research, namely: what are the lessons of the past?

There is one [lesson], which those of you who know me will not be surprised to learn I find stated most profoundly by Goethe’s Faust; and it speaks of the library: ‘Was du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast, Erwirb’ es, um es zu besitzen.’ What you have as heritage, now take as task; For only thus will you make it your own.[15]

This post is the sixth in a series on past recipients of the Library of Congress John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity. The Kluge Prize will be bestowed again on September 29, 2015 to philosophers Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor. The ceremony will be webcast. #KlugePrize.

More about Jaroslav Pelikan:

Previous posts in this series:


[1] Pelikan, J. (8 December 2004). Kluge Prize Ceremony Acceptance Speech. Retrieved August 6, 2015 from:

[2] Senate Congressional Record. Jaroslav Pelikan, Sterling Professor Emeritus (146 Cong Rec S 4370). From:

[3] Pelikan, J. (8 December 2004). Kluge Prize Ceremony Acceptance Speech. Retrieved August 6, 2015 from:

[4] Urschel, D. (2006). Jaroslav Pelikan, Kluge Scholar and Prize Winner, Dies. Retrieved August 6, 2015 from:

[5] Pelikan, 2006, x. From: Pelikan, J. (1996). Mary through the centuries. Yale University Press: New Haven.

[6] Wilken, R. (2010). Jaroslav Pelikan and the Road to Orthodoxy. Concordia Theological Quarterly, 74 (1), 93-103. Retrieved August 8, 2015 from:

[7] Pelikan, J. (8 December 2004). Kluge Prize Ceremony Acceptance Speech. Retrieved August 6, 2015 from:

[8] “Pelikan and Riceur Awarded Kluge Prize in the Humanities” (2005). Retrieved August 7, 2005 from:

[9] Noll, M (2004). The Doctrine Doctor. Christianity Today, 48 (12). Retrieved August 7, 2015 from:

[10] Noll, M (2004). The Doctrine Doctor. Christianity Today, 48 (12). Retrieved August 7, 2015 from:


[12] Senate Congressional Record. Jaroslav Pelikan, Sterling Professor Emeritus (146 Cong Rec S 4370). From:

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.


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