While Benedict XVI was still pope, he suggested that we give serious thought to constructing a court of the Gentiles for this group of people. The Gentiles would be those who don’t share our basic convictions about life, especially religious convictions, such as: there is a God, He is Creator of all that exists (things animate and inanimate), that He is a person, that He cares for us, etc.
He borrowed this notion of the court of the gentiles from the bible, that is, from that part of the bible we called the Old Testament or the Hebrew Scriptures. It is there that the temple features very prominently, in many books of the bible, including a rather detailed account of the temple’s architectural aspects. One of these features went by the name: court of the gentiles, and described an area of this mammoth building where non-Jews were allowed entrance. It was a restricted part, an external abutment, not allowing entrance into the inner section, the Jewish house of prayer. Throughout their history, the Jews were very skittish about associating with the gentile, and seemed almost belligerent toward them, but under God’s direction or inspiration they went out of their way to provide an area in their temple where people who did not know the Jewish God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to assemble for their own purposes. They were allowed admission into an outer feature of the temple, where they could gather and engage in whatever practices seemed appropriate to them.
The pope (Benedict), aware of the large number of non-believers in our contemporary world, and also sensitive to the enmity and hostility dividing the peoples of the world, thought that something like a court of the gentiles might be exactly what was needed at this time. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should introduce architectural changes to our church buildings, but that we give serious thought to some arrangement (a meeting hall?) where the welcome mat be provided for believers and nonbelievers to mingle together, and talk amicably about the things of mutual concern to all of us (e.g., the ecological problem), weighing heavily on our minds and hearts. He foresaw nothing but good flowing out of this association with one another—certainly nothing harmful or injurious.
Pope Benedict was, and is, a serious-minded man, not given to whimsy or frivolity, a man of great intelligence and a notable mainline spokesperson for things religious, especially those of a Christian nature. He was, and is, a respecter of persons and their opinions, and over the years has enjoyed exchanging opinions about “things that matter”, hearing what others think, so as to engage their point of view. He did not necessarily hope to win an argument or dismiss others’ opinions, even should they have problems with the very person of God Himself, or with the practice of worshipping Him, or obeying the basic code of life we follow: the ten commandments.
In this day and age of multiple and diversified opinions on every topic imaginable, which are freely and instantly shared via the social media, perhaps the court of the gentiles is already underway. Indeed, something comparable has long been part of American history, in the form of the Town Hall gatherings, where opinions on important issues were freely exchanged. As Benedict recognized, some of us may need, and benefit by, an attitudinal adjustment arrangement whereby we learn to improve upon our long-standing positions on some things: whether religious, political, financial, cultural, racial, social, environmental, etc. Might we discover some opportunity for an exchange of ideas whereby encounters with “opposites” can generate new sources of light or energy we otherwise would probably not have discovered earlier. The effort expended in allowing opposites to rub together might serve as a generator of creativity, insight and appreciation that offsets any conflict, conflagration, disharmony, exasperation or exhaustion involved in the effort. A court of the gentiles can be an open-air market for ideas.
Instead of repulsion developing from opposites meeting, magnetic attraction might result to the benefit of all involved in an encounter with another quite different from oneself. This is what Benedict XVI had in mind when he first suggested that a court of the gentiles might be exactly what is needed to address the downside of contemporary differences of opinion. Such encounters might generate energy, not of a destructive kind, but of a beneficial and enriching kind, where what emerges is not destructive but constructive, of a new way of seeing things, where opportunities develop, not mishaps or endangerments.
The friction developed by opposites rubbing against one another need not be de-energizing. It may generate a new energy source that is creative and constructive for all involved. But can we build that court of the Gentiles?