The “Courtyard” of Paris. An Assessment
An exchange between Cardinal Ravasi and the agnostic Julia Kristeva. And with them, dozens of other thinkers, believers and nonbelievers. In Chicago, in Quebec, in Stockholm, the next stages of the dialogue desired by Benedict XVI
by Sandro Magister
ROME, March 29, 2011 – The idea came from Benedict XVI himself. And the name, too: Courtyard of the gentiles. “To the dialogue with the religions,” he said, extending Christmas greetings to the Roman curia on December 21, 2009, “must be added today the dialogue with those to whom God is unknown.”
And the idea took off. After a prologue on February 12 in Bologna, at what was the first great university of Europe, the Courtyard of the gentiles held its first encounter on March 24 and 25 in Paris, in the “Ville Lumière,” in the city that is the symbol of the modern Enlightenment.
Those “gentiles” who entered the temple in Jerusalem in a space reserved not for the Jews, but for them, are today those far from God, the nonbelievers.
But theirs is not a closed courtyard, as Paul said in writing to the Christians of Ephesus. Because Christ knocked down precisely that wall of separation which divided Jews and gentiles, “in order to create in himself, of the two, a single new man, making peace, reconciling both in a single body.”
This was the goal in Paris. Believers and agnostics spoke out in friendship. On borderland terrain. Each with his feet planted in his own space, but ready to listen to the reasons of the other.
Even the locations of the encounter had symbolic significance. UNESCO, l’Institut de France, the Sorbonne are secular places par excellence. While the Collège des Bernardins is an ancient cenacle of Catholic culture. And the cathedral of Notre-Dame was both of these at the same time: the square for all men of good will, and the interior of the cathedral for prayer led by the community of Taizé, with doors open.
The program of the two days, with the places of encounter and the profiles of the speakers, are on a website in French created for the occasion by the pontifical council for culture and the Institut Catholique de Paris:
Benedict XVI’s message to the participants in the encounter, transmitted on a screen in the square outside of Notre-Dame on the evening of March 25, is on this page of http://www.chiesa:
But in order to understand better the vision of Benedict XVI that lies behind the Courtyard of the gentiles, one must reread the final part of the speech that he gave on September 12, 2008 in Paris, at that same Collège des Bernardins which was the setting of one of the encounters in recent days:
“The fundamental structure of Christian proclamation ‘outwards’ – towards searching and questioning mankind – is seen in Saint Paul’s address at the Areopagus […]: ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’ (Acts 17:18). To this, Paul responds: I have found an altar of yours with this inscription: ‘to an unknown god’. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you (17:23). Paul is not proclaiming unknown gods. He is proclaiming him whom men do not know and yet do know – the unknown-known; the one they are seeking, whom ultimately they know already, and who yet remains the unknown and unrecognizable. The deepest layer of human thinking and feeling somehow knows that he must exist, that at the beginning of all things, there must be not irrationality, but creative Reason – not blind chance, but freedom. Yet even though all men somehow know this, as Paul expressly says in the Letter to the Romans (1:21), this knowledge remains unreal: a God who is merely imagined and invented is not God at all. If he does not reveal himself, we cannot gain access to him.
“The novelty of Christian proclamation is that it can now say to all peoples: he has revealed himself. He personally. And now the way to him is open. The novelty of Christian proclamation does not consist in a thought, but in a deed: God has revealed himself. Yet this is no blind deed, but one which is itself Logos – the presence of eternal reason in our flesh. ‘Verbum caro factum est’ (Jn 1:14): just so, amid what is made (factum) there is now Logos, Logos is among us. Creation (factum) is rational. Naturally, the humility of reason is always needed, in order to accept it: man’s humility, which responds to God’s humility.
“Our present situation differs in many respects from the one that Paul encountered in Athens, yet despite the difference, the two situations also have much in common. Our cities are no longer filled with altars and with images of multiple deities. God has truly become for many the great unknown. But just as in the past, when behind the many images of God the question concerning the unknown God was hidden and present, so too the present absence of God is silently besieged by the question concerning him. ‘Quaerere Deum’ – to seek God and to let oneself be found by him, that is today no less necessary than in former times. A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences. What gave Europe’s culture its foundation – the search for God and the readiness to listen to him – remains today the basis of any genuine culture.”
After the debut in Paris, the Courtyard of the gentiles, under the leadership of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, already has more appointments scheduled in various places of the world: in Tirana, in Stockholm, in the United States, in Canada, and also in Asia, where Western-style atheism is less present but various forms of religiosity no less far from the Christian God are widespread.
The following is an initial assessment of the encounter in Paris, on the part of Cardinal Ravasi, and a conversation with a French intellectual of Bulgarian origin, Julia Kristeva, who has been one of the most dedicated participants in the Courtyard.
Both of the interviews were conducted by Lorenzo Fazzini for the newspaper of the Italian episcopal conference, “Avvenire.”
RAVASI: “THE DIFFICULT THING WILL BE DIALOGUE WITH THE INDIFFERENT”
Q: Your Eminence, the first Courtyard is concluded. Your assessment?
A: Very positive, on multiple levels. First of all the thematic level, which turned out to be very creative. We hope to collect all of the talks, because they permit the creation of guidelines for future Courtyards. In the second place, there was the utmost expansion of cultural expression, from the socio-political genre to UNESCO, to the intellectual expression of the Sorbonne, and finally to the thematic expression at the Collège des Bernardins. We plan to address more categorized themes in the future, for example faith and science, or faith and art.
Q: What reaction have you seen in French culture and society, on the issue of the encounter between atheists and Catholics?
A: Yesterday the agnostic philosopher Jean Luc Ferry asked me for an audience at the nunciature, because he wants at all costs to write a book with me on the Gospel of John. Something that used to be unthinkable! This is an emblematic episode, because on the secular side there is a desire not only to talk together, but also to elaborate a common reflection with believers. Ferry is one of the most prominent figures of French culture. And the rector of the Sorbonne himself has approached me on the issue of “secularism,” asking me what we as Catholics have to say about this argument. The secular French atmosphere has shown itself to be much more open than we thought to religious issues, to theological elaboration.
Q: No fear on the part of the atheists that the Church might attempt a sort of hidden evangelization?
A: No. I have found this concern only in the media. I have found no fear on the part of our interlocutors. Besides, the entire initiative of the Courtyard was presented as a strictly cultural event.
Q: How do you plan to address the “new atheists”?
A: On the one hand, there exists an ironic and sarcastic atheism, which has become a significant element: Michel Onfray is part of this, but he has written to one of my colleagues to tell us that he wants to show how his proposal does not share this view. So we will also study this form of atheism, “lesser” from an intellectual perspective, but “greater” in terms of popularity. But there also exists the camp of indifference, which in my view is more grave and important. Asking oneself about the questions of the “humanists” – as Julia Kristeva does, for example – represents the ultimate problem for the indifferent. On this front, we have no true interlocutor. We have few studies available on this issue, apart from the sociological work of Charles Taylor, in order to ascertain the profound structures at the basis of this attitude. This will be the most difficult work to be done in the future.
Q: What is in the future for the Courtyard?
A: Adjusting the presentation according to the situations. For example: in Québec or in Chicago, where we will go next, we will have to stay in the field of technology and science, and not make such “lofty” proposals as the ones made here in Paris. There remains the problem of continuity: a proposal like the Courtyard should be a fixture of the pastoral activity of every diocese.
KRISTEVA: “SECULAR FRIENDS, DO NOT BE AFRAID OF RELIGION”
Q: In your book “The need to believe,” you write that humanism “is not contrary to the religions, nor in agreement with them.” Can you explain why?
A: We find ourselves in a period in which dialogue between Christians and humanists is very important. Nothing makes this encounter easier: both of these communities are in a crisis of identity, and as a result are vulnerable and have difficulties with their interlocutors. For me, this exchange is absolutely necessary in order to address the current economic and political crisis. But first of all it must be understood what I mean by humanism. I am referring to something separate from religion, which was born in the Renaissance with Erasmus, traversed the Enlightenment with Rousseau, and came down to us, for example in psychoanalysis. It represents what Hannah Arendt and Alexis de Tocqueville called “the uninterrupted thread of tradition.” This process is irreversible, and today is faced with the danger of freedom, of extreme individuality and unbridled passions. But it brings us to the need to reinterpret our “uninterrupted” tradition, because something has been lost.
Q: So even humanism without faith needs religion?
A: Humanism must find its own deeper richness, and a new relationship with the systems of morality. Personally, this means an encounter with Catholicism, through which it is possible to reestablish my own Enlightenment. The new modern phenomena of the question of women, of childhood, of young people, pose the problem of a new relationship with religious experience, for example in prayer. This encounter must not lead to a mere “grand fraternity” between humanism and religion, but rather to the rebuilding of an entire tradition. From this arises the need for the religions as well, which are usually dogmatic, to be capable of playing a role.
Q: In a conference at the cathedral of Notre-Dame, you stated that Christianity brought about a revolution in regard to suffering. The Christian religion is often criticized for an anti-human attitude toward suffering…
A: I think that Christianity, above all in its practice, was an innovation in the history of the understanding of suffering. According to the Christian, suffering does not constitute a defeat of man, nor does it cause the exclusion of the suffering person from society. Suffering does not constitute a diminishing of man, nor does it make him less of a man. On the contrary: it becomes the path to God. Christ, in suffering, manifests God himself. The human being who suffers becomes worthy of companionship and respect. Two roads open from here. On the one hand, a certain suffering-centeredness that leads to excesses (Nietzsche called it “victimistic,” today it is called “bionegative Christianity”). On the other hand, we find the triumphant Christianity that in the face of suffering unleashes compassion for the other: this is the companionship of charity. It takes place in proximity to the poor, the marginalized, the disabled. And in the face of the moral deregulation of the world of entertainment and capitalism, which interprets everything in a productive sense, we risk losing the sense of the vulnerability of the person. We need Christian tenderness, and we must enlist Christianity to defeat that world which wants to negate suffering.
Q: What examples do you see of this Christian “tenderness”?
A: I think of certain Christian and Catholic organizations, which come to the aid of the least, where the state does not reach. Today the figure that seems most significant to me is Jean Vanier. For one year, I corresponded with him about our experience of suffering, in particular of handicaps, on all levels: political, social, intellectual, and existential. Jean Vanier is a unique example: he has founded 140 of his “L’Arche” communities. He is perpetuating what Saint Francis did centuries ago in Italy.
Q: What is your assessment of the “Courtyard of the gentiles”?
A: It is a wonderful initiative, although I don’t know what results it will bring. It is something surprising, a beginning of that dialogue which seems necessary to me, but of which many are afraid. Both believers and nonbelievers are walking on tiptoes out of fear of losing. I am reminded of the appeal of John Paul II, whom I met in Bulgaria. We all remember his “Be not afraid.” He was speaking to Catholics in reference to communism. And the results were seen: Solidarnosc was born, and the Berlin Wall fell. I want to say it to my secular friends: “Be not afraid of religion.” You have ways of thinking about the need for religion without the fear of being swallowed up by obscurantism. We can do better than Voltaire, overcoming the abuses of religion and looking at the positive side of belief.
Q: “Make God present in the world” is the manifesto of the current pope. Do you see a danger in this perspective of Benedict XVI?
A: When he talks about “making God present in the world,” the pope is doing his job: it would be bizarre if he didn’t talk about it! Besides, it must be emphasized how among the monotheistic religions, only Christianity has promoted the idea of universality. It seems to me that the pope’s tendency is in this direction. The monotheistic religions are exposed to the risk of imposing themselves as truth, even violently, but at the same time they propose within themselves the theme of plurality, the seed of diversity and of the foreign. My hope is that, from the encounter of the Courtyard, we may set out toward that path of universality.
The dossier by “Avvenire,” with these and other interviews with the main speakers at the encounter in Paris:
The speech on December 22, 2009 in which Benedict XVI presented this project for the first time:
And the one he gave in Paris, at the Collège des Bernardins, on September 12, 2008:
In the photo, Cardinal Ravasi speaking at the Sorbonne on March 25.
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.