Part 1 Faith – Week 2

Introduction to Christianity: Doubt and Belief (I)

Based on a series of lectures he delivered to students in 1967, Introduction to Christianity was the work that instantly shot Ratzinger to fame. It remains one of his most read and commented upon books, and scores of scholarly articles, conferences, and even doctoral theses have been based upon it. Intended as a commentary on the principal affirmations of the Creed, it contains Ratzinger’s answer to what the essence of the faith is and why its proposal to man is still valid and meaningful in the 20th century. While it is thus far from a simple read, Introduction to Christianity lays the platform for the rest of Ratzinger’s writings and is the best place to begin our journey of discovery into his world.

Chapter 1 of the work is entitled ‘Belief in the World Today’ and begins with a reflection on ‘Doubt and Belief’. In fact, the opening paragraphs of the work, in which Ratzinger uses the famous story of a clown and a traveling circus to describe the situation of the ‘theologian’ – and indeed of every Christian and every believer – before the question of God today, have become legendary…


“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 (whether by vocation or by 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, an allegory taken up again recently by Harvey Cox in his book The Secular City. According to this story, a traveling circus in Denmark 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 would 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 this was no stunt, that he was not pretending but was 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; 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 that has little or nothing to do with reality. So they can listen to him quite happily without having to be seriously concerned 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 need only take off his costume and his makeup, 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 makeup, 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 that, 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 of 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 need only change his clothes in order to be able to impart his teaching successfully. Rather he will 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”.

Questions for reflection:

Just like the clown warning the town of the approaching fire, how often does the culture ignore the wisdom of the Church simply because it comes from the Church?

As a Christian, do I feel people take me seriously?

Am I also aware of the insecurity of my own faith, of the fact that perhaps at times, I too can look at some aspects of the faith with eyes of incredulity and skepticism?

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