Posted April 26, 2005
Good Advice for those responsible for spreading the Word of God
Taken from an Introduction to Christianity by Joseph Ratzinger
Doubt and Belief —
Man’s Situation Before The Question of God
Anyone who tries today to talk about the question of Christian faith in the presence of people who are not thoroughly at home with ecclesiastical language and thought by calling or convention soon comes to sense the alien — and alienating — nature of such an enterprise. He will probably soon have the feeling that his position is only too well summed up in Kierkegaard’s famous story of the clown and the burning village, a simile taken up again recently by Harvey Cox in his book The Secular City. According to this story a traveling circus in Denmark had caught fire. The manager thereupon sent the clown, who was already dressed and made-up for the performance, into the neighboring village to fetch help, especially as there was a danger that the fire wold spread across the fields of dry stubble and engulf the village itself. The clown hurried into the village and requested the inhabitants to come as quickly as possible to the blazing circus and help to put the fire out. But the villagers took the clown’s shouts simply for an excellent piece of advertising, meant to attract as many people as possible to the performance; they applauded the clown and laughed till they cried. The clown felt more like weeping than laughing; he tried in vain to get people to be serious, to make it clear to them that it was no trick but bitter earnest, that there really was a fire. His supplications only increased the laughter; people thought he was playing his part splendidly – until finally the fire did engulf the village, it was too late for help and both circus and village were burned to the ground.
Cox cites this story as an analogy of the theologian’s position today and sees the theologian as the clown who cannot make people really listen to his message. In his medieval, or at any rate old-fashioned, clown’s costume he is simply not taken seriously. Whatever he says, he is ticketed and classified, so to speak, by his role. Whatever he does in his attempts to demonstrate the seriousness of the position, people always know in advance that he is in fact just — a clown. They are already familiar with what he is talking about and know that he is just giving a performance which has little or nothing to do with reality. So they can listen to him quite happily without having to worry too seriously about what he is saying. This picture indubitably contains an element of truth in it; it reflects the oppressive reality in which theology and theological discussion are imprisoned today and their frustrating inability to break through accepted patterns of thought and speech and make people recognize the subject-matter of theology as a serious aspect of human life.
But perhaps our examination of conscience should go still deeper. Perhaps we should admit that this disturbing analogy, for all the thought-provoking truth contained in it, is still a simplification. For after all it makes it seem as if the clown, or in other words, the theologian, is a man possessed of full knowledge who arrives with a perfectly clear message. The villagers to whom he hastens, in other words, those outside the faith, are conversely the completely ignorant, who only have to be told something of which they are completely unaware; the clown then needs to only take off his costume and his make-up, and everything will be all right. But is it really quite such a simple matter as that? Need we only call on the aggiornamento, take off our make-up and don the mufti of a secular vocabulary or a demythologized Christianity in order to make everything all right? Is a change of intellectual costume sufficient to make people run cheerfully up and help to put out the fire which according to theology exists and is a danger to all of us? I may say that in fact the plain and unadorned theology in modern dress appearing in many places today makes this hope look rather naive. It is certainly true that anyone who tries to preach the faith amid people involved in modern life and thought can really feel like a clown, or rather perhaps like someone who, rising from an ancient sarcophagus, walks into the midst of the world today dressed and thinking in the ancient fashion and can neither understand nor be understood by this world of ours. Nevertheless, if he who seeks to preach the faith is sufficiently self-critical, he will soon notice that it is not only a question of form, of the kind of dress in which theology enters upon the scene. In the strangeness of theology’s aims to the men of our time, he who takes his calling seriously will clearly recognize not only the difficulty of the task of interpretation but also the insecurity of his own faith, the oppressive power of unbelief in the midst of his own will to believe.
Thus anyone today who makes an honest effort to give an account of the Christian faith to himself and to others must learn to see that he is not just someone in fancy dress who needs only to change his clothes in order to be able to impart his teaching successfully. Rather will he have to understand that his own situation is by no means so different from that of others as he may have thought at the start. He will become aware that on both sides the same forces are at work, if in different ways.