A Worthwhile Essay
"The future cardinal [Joseph Ratzinger] 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?."