Almost 40 years later, still the best book of its kind . . .
10 years ago when I was considering whether to convert to my wife's faith, a Baptist minister friend singled out this book as one of his own, all-time favorites - the one that best lived up to its title, as an "Introduction to Christianity."
First drafted in the summer of 1967, this book is based on a series of lectures father Joseph Ratzinger gave to students at Germany's university at Tubingen. As if it were written just this morning, it centers on the timeless communications dilemma faced by any Christian, trying to speak about God to young people in today's world.
Writing the "Introduction to Christianity" 16 years after his ordination, the un-heralded priest from the land of Luther (who would one day have his arm twisted to remain in Rome for 24 years, by his predecessor as Pope) cited a famous story by Kierkegaard, about "the clown and the burning village" - to best sum up the difficulty faced by any Christian attempting to communicate theology to young people.
"According to the story," he wrote, "a travelling circus in Denmark had caught fire. The manager 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 would spread across the fields of dry stubble and engulf the village itself. So, the clown hurried into the village and requested the inhabitants `come as quickly as possible' and help 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 clear to them he was speaking in 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, and both circus and village were burned to the ground."
And that, said Father Ratzinger, almost 40 years ago, is the "theologian's position today . . . the appearance of a clown trying in vain to make people 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 his (seriousness) 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 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."
The German priest of 40 years ago, (who would no doubt express the same views on this day of his election as "Peter's successor") - will now face the same dilemma on a global scale -- when he reaches out to non-Catholics. The villagers in his story, by analogy, he says, are those OUTSIDE the church.
And to communicate with those who comprise the five sixths of humanity who are NOT a part of his 2,000 year old Church, the young German priest states in this book it would not be enough to "take off our make-up and don the mufti of a secular vocabulary or a demythologized Christianity in order to make everything right" (in communicating 2,000 year old theology). That, he said, would be "rather naive."
"Anyone today," he said then, "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."
The man who would this day be named Pope Benedict Sixteen cites "that lovable saint Therese of Lisieux, who looked so naive (as a nun who would die of tuberculosis, age 24) . . . this very saint . . . apparently cocooned in complete security, left behind her in the final weeks of her passion, shattering admissions which her horrified sisters toned down in her literary remains. (She wrote of her dark night of the soul) `I am assailed by the worst temptations of atheism. Everything has become questionable, everything is dark.' . . . what is at stake (for believers) is the whole (theological) structure; it is a question of all or nothing."
As reason for optimism about the ultimate triumph of Truth, the future pope then cited "a Jewish story, recounted by Martin Buber which presents in concrete form the above-mentioned dilemma (of being human):
"An adherent of the Enlightenment, a very learned man, who had heard of the Rabbi of Berditchev, paid a visit in order to argue, as was his custom, and to shatter his old-fashioned proofs of the truth of his faith . . . but Rabbi Levi Jizchak (said) `My son, the great scholars of the Torah with whom you have argued, wasted their words on you; as you departed you laughed at them. They were unable to lay God and his Kingdom on the table before you, and nor can I. But think my son - Perhaps it's true.' The exponent of the Enlightenment opposed him with all his strength; but this terrible `Perhaps' which echoed back at him time after time, broke his resistance."
And that, said the German priest of almost 40 years ago, "in however strange a guise (is) a very precise description of the situation of man confronted with the question of God. No one can lay God and his kingdom `on the table' for another; even the believer cannot do it for himself. But however strongly unbelief may feel itself thereby justified, it cannot forget the eerie feeling induced by the words, `Yet perhaps it is true.' "
(My copy of this terrific treatise is the out-of-print "Herder & Herder" edition of 1968, `translated by J.R. Foster.' I now shall order the latest version of a book I was "recommending highly" years ago, a recommendation that feels `vindicated' given this day's events in Rome!)
April 19, 2005