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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Insight into Benedict XVI's view of the problem of secularism.

An interesting couple of parables taken from the new preface to Introduction to Christianity:

According to Ratzinger’s analysis, post-Enlightenment Christianity in Europe had been conned into adopting an evangelical strategy too superficial in its approach and too intimidated by Enlightened objections to Christian doctrine. He illustrated the reasoning behind this anemic strategy with a parable, one that Søren Kierkegaard once recounted about a fire that breaks out backstage right before a circus is set to perform. In panic the stage manager sends out one of the performers—a clown as it happens, and naturally already in costume—to warn the audience to leave immediately. But the spectators take the clown’s desperate pleas as part of his schtick; and the more he gesticulates the more they laugh, until fire engulfs the whole theater. This, said Kierkegaard, is the situation of Christians: The more they gesticulate with their creed, the more laughable they seem to their skeptical neighbors, until the world becomes engulfed in the flames of war and mutual hatred—a hell on earth as prelude to the hell after death. If only these Christian clowns had first thought to change out of their goofy costume, he implied, the theatergoing world might have been spared.

Kierkegaard did not explicitly say just what kind of funny clothes he thought Christians should now strip off to make their message of impending doom more credible. But whatever costume this Danish philosopher felt Christians should doff, his parable, at least for the professor from Regensburg, does not get at the real dilemma of preaching the gospel to a secular culture. The very news that a fire is on the way—and, above all, that we can be spared by the simple expedient of a belief in a transworldly message (why not just leave the theater?)—strikes the contemporary secular spectator as much more incredible than any costumed language in which it might be couched.

Change the rites of the Mass from Latin to the vernacular, call on nuns to modernize their habits, introduce guitars and folk music in the Church’s worship, address the modern world in tones of respect and hope, praise modernity for its achievements—the core of the message will still seem absurd to the secular mind.

So maybe Kierkegaard misled us with his famous parable. Perhaps another story is more appropriate. For that reason, the future cardinal began his book with an even more somber narrative, one of the fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm. Once upon a time, a poor widow sends her young son Hans into the village to fetch a simple meal, and along the way into town he discovers a lump of gold. Thrilled, he heads back home to show his mother his amazing good luck. But no sooner has he started back than he meets a knight who persuades him to exchange the gold for the knight’s steed. “The better for plowing!” the knight assures the boy. Further down the way, a farmer explains that the widow can’t eat a horse, so why not exchange the horse for the farmer’s cow? After making this seemingly reasonable bargain, the boy continues home but then meets up with a neighbor carrying a goose under his arm. Of course the widow wants a meal today, says the neighbor, so why not exchange cow for goose? Done. Finally, nearly home, he meets up with a boy who tells him that if he exchanges the goose for a whetstone he can keep his knife sharpened for slaughtering any number of geese in the future. Done again. But when he gets home he notices the clumsy stone in his pocket and, puzzled at its presence, throws it away before crossing the threshold of his home, none the sadder and certainly none the wiser.

Anyone who has followed the path taken by Protestant theology in the past two centuries, and by Catholic theology in the past four decades, already knows the point of this story: All the costume changes in the world won’t matter if the messenger has squandered his treasure by altering his message to suit the convenience of the audience.

For Ratzinger, creeds matter only if what they proclaim is true, and if Christians deep down don’t really think so, then all the translation strategies in the world will mean nothing:

"The worried Christian of today is often bothered by questions like these: has our theology in the last few years not taken in many ways a similar path? Has it not gradually watered down the demands of faith, which had been found all too demanding, always only so little that nothing important seemed to be lost, yet always so much that it was soon possible to venture on to the next step? And will poor Hans, the Christian who trustfully let himself be led from exchange to exchange, from interpretation to interpretation, not really soon hold in his hand, instead of the gold with which he began, only a whetstone, which he can be confidently recommended to throw away?"

Here we have a very helpful insight into where the Pope intends to steer the Church in the 21st Century. Buckle up--it sure won't be dull.

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