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Courtyard of the Gentiles: For the first time as Guest in Germany


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 1/2014, pp. 9-11
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    At the end of November, the Pontifical Council for Culture had invited to Berlin, to an event of the initiative "Courtyard of the Gentiles." The discussions focussed on the "experiences of freedom with and without God."


The "Courtyard of the Gentiles" is an initiative from the previous pontificate. It is a forum for the dialogue with the so-called non-believers, and the Pontifical Council for Culture is accountable for it (see HK, May 2011, 220f.).

After all, already before he became Pope, Benedict XVI had consented repeatedly to take part in the discussion with declared atheists and agnostics. When in 2011 he had invited to Assisi to a large "peace meeting," in contrast to 1986, not only the world religions but for the first time also representatives of a decidedly secular worldview took part. To the mathematician Piergiorgio Odifreddi, who as a declared unbeliever had in a book critically dealt in detail with the pope's thinking, Benedict XVI has even after his resignation recently written a detailed, largely friendly, but in the matter ultimately plain letter about the held views.

Thus, it was possible for Pope Francis immediately to take such attempts at dialogue up, and already in the first few months of his term to bring out his own main points. This particularly applies to the publicized letter to the publicist Eugenio Scalfari, which he expressly wanted to be understood as a "letter to the non-believers". Here, the dialogue initiative "Courtyard of the Gentiles", which in 2011 was held for the first time in Paris and in the meantime in two dozen mainly European cities, fits in harmoniously.

For the first time now an event in Germany was planned. It took place from 26 to 28 November with a certain inevitability in Berlin. After all, there is no German city that already for decades is so little shaped by Christianity as the German capital. It is also the only city in this country, where a significant organized atheism exists.

But the description 'spiritual desert' by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council of Culture, given in the run-up to this event, in order to justify the decision and to underline the exemplary trait of the project met with vigorous opposition by the Governing Mayor Klaus Wowereit. According to him, Berlin is not "godless". Before the opening ceremony to which he had invited, he pointed out that in Berlin more than 250 religious communities are active. In a city where not only since 1989 experiences of freedom played an important role, a good climate for the dialogue between believers but also for the dialogue with non-believers is all the more important.

Just as the prelude had been placed in the Rotes Rathaus, the organizers, i.e. the German Bishops' Conference and the Archdiocese of Berlin with its Catholic Academy, had chosen distinctive places which could be identified with the respective topics. There one discussed then the "experiences of freedom with and without God." In the Charité it was about issues of medical ethics, in the Deutsches Theater the topic of religion was discussed on the stage, and in the Bode Museum different views on art were exchanged. In the German Parliamentary Society, a private meeting with members of the German Bundestag took place.

The discussions before 300 to 500 listeners, each after a ten-minute intellectual stimulus by Ravasi, were all performed on a gratifyingly high level. In the Berlin Town Hall, for instance, the (Catholic) social scientist Hans Joas debated about religious and secular approaches to the substantiation of norms with the philosopher Herbert Schnädelbach, who describes himself as a "devout atheist" - wittily presented by the Protestant theologian Christoph Markschies. It was asked in concrete terms whether belief is a threat to freedom or in the first place enables it?

In view of the stark alternative the two agreed on a neither-nor. As it later became apparent also at the other places, it was already here clear that the controversies took place within a certain context, because fiery atheists had not been invited at all. The two theater directors, for instance, admitted from the outset that the Bible is a great narrative material, and theater was simply inconceivable without the subject of religion.



But it was not the pure harmony. Schnädelbach, for instance, at once went over into a frontal attack on the quote by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. One had chosen it as a title for the panel discussion with him, "If there is no God, everything is permitted." This would be absurd and ultimately "intellectual panic-mongering." In order to substantiate ethics, you needn't necessarily take your starting-point from answering the ultimate questions.

During the three days of the meeting, nobody has ultimately held this position - maybe just out of respect for the interlocutors. The Berlin Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki noted that the "Cold War" between believers and non-believers was over. For Christians witness and dialogue belonged together. Only communicating with each other would detoxify from a false resentment, which misrepresents the truth of the Gospel.

Joas for his part, however, doubted also that the figure of speech "Courtyard of the Gentiles" is suitable for the interest in a dialogue "on equal terms," for which inter alia Woelki had campaigned. According to Joas, what matters in these discussions are always individual people - and not general terms such as "Christianity" or "religion", which ultimately represent very heterogeneous realities. Major religious impulses one could, for instance, expect where people could also then be filled with enthusiasm for moral behavior when they personally would not benefit from it. Especially with a recourse to such religio-psychologically relevant experiences from the past and present, it was possible to revitalize Christianity. But you are not allowed to functionalize this with regard to the substantiation of faith.

Moral questions characterised also a second discussion. What is medically necessary and where do we go beyond the "Rubicon" of manipulation and eventually of transhumanism (asked the medical ethicist Bettina Schöne-Seifert)? With a view to the range of hearing aids up to brain pacemakers in Alzheimer patients, the theologian Ulrich Lüke stated decidedly that man is allowed to play "Prothetheus" but not Prometheus.

Despite all the warnings of the philosopher Volker Gerhardt of a "heuristic of fear," during the debate the participants converged on each other: it is not permitted to intervene, for example, by changing the genetic material in order to influence the development opportunities of the people of the future. The cultural scientist theorist Thomas Macho criticized that here the realm of bondage would begin. This would apply also from a secular perspective - was the tenor. However, Gerhardt conversely demanded that - under intercultural conditions - ethics must be substantiated in such a way that one does not make recourse to religious beliefs.

Then the art: In a round of talks inter alia with the Cologne Theatre-director Stefan Bachmann and Heinrich Detering, lyricist, literary scholar and president of the German Academy for Language and Literature, the expectable questions about the appropriate responses to - presumably - blasphemous works became virulent only at the very end. As a practicing Catholic, Detering expressed understanding of complaints about the violation of religious feelings. But he also warned against the attempt to deal legally with such problems. Before that, the question of how religion and art compete for the interpretation of the world was the focus of attention, because also in art it is often about "world tales". And in the evening above all students were invited in the Bode Museum. There, they were divided by lot into two processions. Under the motto, "Do you believe what you know or do you know what you believe?" they went as believers or non-believers through the dark halls - and met each other at the end again. While they were first individually led through smaller rooms, pupils called out to them questions about the meaning of life, which - in imitation of "Faust" - were named 'Gretchen questions' (Artistic Director: Peter Gößwein). Only a few works of art had been effectively spotlighted, the processions were accompanied by specially composed music.



The actress Sophie Rois and the declared non-baptised journalist Jens Bisky then commented from their personal point of view on three works of art. Bisky, for instance, emphasized that art would be the better way for him to "arrange life as festival." But he also protested against banishing religion into the private sphere. Then society would become impoverished.

Ravasi, who put his dream on record to repeat the two processions under the colonnades of St. Peter's Square, emphasized not least in view of the genius loci the model character of the events in Berlin for the initiative as a whole. And "Vatican Radio" reported that in other meetings of the initiative the participants had far less openly discussed. There, they had "solemnly talked at cross purposes" instead of really debating with each other. Although rather few non-believers were among the Berlin audience, the events of the "Courtyard of the Gentiles" in Berlin were mostly regarded as a success. And when Archbishop Robert Zollitsch rightly emphasized that in Germany at the Katholikentage and in the Catholic Academies similar disputations regularly took place (an example would be the new event series "Freiburger Religionsgespräche," cf - as the host for the Berlin discussions, the Catholic Church in Germany has cut a good figure.

The main problem was that there were no public events. The awareness of this event was thus entirely dependent on the media. But most of them had primarily to deal with the immediately before the event published Apostolic Exhortation. There the "Courtyard of the Gentiles" is at least expressly described as an important initiative for the pontificate (No. 257).

Also Ravasi emphasized, surely quite to the mind of the Pope, that the Church is not in possession of the full truth but rather as s pilgrim in search of it. In the sermon in the final service he quoted convincingly the writer Julien Green, "As long as you are restless, you may be at ease."


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'