With due respect to Smithsonian Magazine’s 2014 assignation of Chautauqua as the “No. 1 Small Town to Visit” in America, the fact is we are not a town. We are instead a not-for-profit institution, dedicated to the exploration of the best in human value and the enrichment of life, which employs the assembly of people as its organizing principle. Indeed, early on the very name of this undertaking was the Chautauqua Assembly.
This is not a modern concept. Given the remarkable capacities of our rapidly advancing technology, one can “connect” to groups of people from all over the world without leaving home. Our access to information grows exponentially. But access to information isn’t necessarily access to meaning. Meaning implies an ability to put information in a context, recognize oneself and others in that context and formulate one’s responsibility for thought and action. There is therefore a need to decide where to put our attention; where to devote our focus. Such effort can yield meaning.
Effort is a key component to this assembly. First, it takes a certain amount of effort just to get here. Once here the program offerings are densely packed throughout the day. We put our focus on a theme and an in-depth exploration of that theme from multiple points of view and multiple disciplines. The programs themselves depend upon a thoughtful give-and-take between the presenters and those engaged in the assembly.
The word “attend” comes from attendere, meaning “to stretch.” That is what we ask of ourselves during this assembly, we seek to stretch our minds, spirits and our souls. We look for the vigorous exercise of critical thinking. We look for an energetic engagement with moral imagination.
We take religion seriously. We are interested in weighty, challenging theology that has a place in people’s hearts and minds. I am reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer writing from a Nazi prison cell in 1944: “I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. … I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.” Bonhoeffer believed in a God whose will is hidden within possibilities. Our work is to explore those possibilities. The lenses we employ in this assembly include art, civic affairs, creativity, spirituality, tradition and innovation. And it is all in service to a life that is fully engaged.
We are a messy, self-contradicting species living in a messy, constantly changing world. There is a Barnum on every corner of our life selling the solution to the confusion, requiring only that we stop searching for our place and responsibilities. These exercises embraced in this assembly are necessary to the work of a functioning democracy. The stretching that goes on here enables us to better chart the focus of our attention in the rest of our lives. This annual assembly is as relevant and important today as it was some 142 years ago when, through great effort, people gathered here for the work of a reverent, thoughtful life.