Exploring the harmony of thought in Christian universals

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THE MELODY OF THEOLOGY: A PHILOSOPHICAL DICTIONARY by Jaroslav Pelikan

Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 274 pp. $20

THIS is the ultimate bedside book. Replete with sinuous, compact discussions of first and last things - sin, faith, grace, and John Henry Newman - it reflects Jaroslav Pelikan's lifelong commitment to what he calls ``the great new fact of Christianity'' - ecumenism, the search for Christian universals in the various particular faiths. Author of ``The Christian Tradition'' in five volumes as well as the hit ``Jesus Through the Centuries'' (1985), Pelikan is a nondogmatic historian of dogma, not so much interested in what Paul thought as in what Paul is thought to have thought.

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This dictionary is autobiographical. Aside from occasional references to turning points and continuities of devotion, it's the perfection of the style that suggests the quality of the life. The style has the sturdy clarity of Latin and the grit of English. It calls to mind a phrase for the ideal detective hero: a hard man, not a cold one.

There is heat (under ``Duty,'' Pelikan writes of contemporary theology's ``endemic tendency to capitulate to the zeitgeist'' - zoning the sounds like a poet) and wit (as described by Thomas Aquinas, angels have ``qualities now ascribed to quarks''). There is an exquisitely composed essay on ``Solitude.''

Some topics - as well as Pelikan's capacity for terse and feeling generalization - remind one of Ralph Waldo Emerson's in his essays. The entry on Emerson reflects a lifetime of reading ``the sage of Concord.'' Pelikan offers no pills or substitutes for experience. He writes well about Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-81). He recognizes that many of his readers will have come to theology through the back door of nihilism and skepticism.

He does not preach (though the entry on ``Sin'' has its moments, and Augustine and Luther are everywhere). The title ``Melody of Theology'' sums up what has kept him working through a long, productive life. The melody in question is not by Bach, who is mentioned along with the early, mostly unrecorded hymns in the entry on ``Melody.''

For Pelikan, melody is that which ``calls'' a person, but which remains ``a simple, meager series of notes'' (Pelikan is quoting a modern thinker) unless religion ``raises the simple song to a full-voiced, glorious harmony.''

This book works like a tuning fork for the mind. With it, the harmony of Pelikan's thought and life has itself become part of the great Christian tradition.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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