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Interfaith Lecture Previews

Yale University’s Rev. Willie James Jennings to talk culture, race, religion for Interfaith Friday

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Jennings

The Rev. Willie James Jennings has always been inquisitive.

“I have always been drawn to questions about the way life is. Questions about God. It wasn’t just a question about why people believe, but really questions about God,” Jennings said. “If God exists, now what? And I was raised in a context which said God does exist. Now what?”

These questions led him to his livelihood now. Jennings is a professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale University, as well as an author on the intersections of race and religion. 

One of the great things about the life of faith is that it does offer people a way to see the world, a way to see not only what is, but what ought to be, or what could be,” Jennings said. “Oftentimes when you get people of faith together, you have a lively, creative moment for people to dream about what could be different.”

Jennings will discuss Christianity, culture, and race at 2 p.m. EDT Friday, July 10, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform for Interfaith Friday. He looks forward to sharing this conversation with more than just his Christian peers. 

“One of the great things about the life of faith is that it does offer people a way to see the world, a way to see not only what is, but what ought to be, or what could be,” Jennings said. “Oftentimes when you get people of faith together, you have a lively, creative moment for people to dream about what could be different.”

From his research to his writing, Jennings’ outlook on religion is informed by his religious upbringing.

“I grew up watching two things happen simultaneously. I grew up watching people who were serious about their faith, in our case Christianity, but who were also very comfortable in a very thick racial world,” Jennings said. “I couldn’t understand how one could be deeply serious about one’s faith, but also deeply committed to a racial, and in many cases racist, vision of the world. That’s why (race and religion) have always been together for me.”

This manifested in his career as an author. In 2011, Jennings wrote The Christain Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, which examined how Christianity inadvertently creates racial divides despite being built on neighborly love. 

For his next book, Jennings will shift from the lens of a minister to the lens of an educator. In his upcoming book, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, Jennings will explore harmful expectations of education. 

“What I’m arguing in this book is that Western education, along with theological education, has been plagued by a very detrimental, overarching pedagogical image that is an image for what we’re trying to form when people go to school,” Jennings said. “That overarching image that presses the goal of education is to form everyone to be white, self-sufficient men who embody three, what I call, demonic virtues in their education: master, control and possession.”

Jennings said that in this book he will argue that the “overarching image of what it means to be educated in the West” must change to something less harmful or narrow. 

Through his work, Jennings hopes to encourage those of all faiths to pursue a deeper meaning in life. 

“My goal is twofold,” Jennings said. “One is to help people think a little more deeply inside their faith, with a view toward giving witness to a God that wants the fullness of life for everyone. And (the second goal is) to help people who have no faith, or different faith, envision the possibilities of a better life together.”

This program is made possible by the H. Parker and Emma O. Sharp Lectureship Fund.

The Off-Label Benefits of Religion: Minister and Atheist Gretta Vosper will Speak on Spirituality

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Gretta Vosper is an ordained minister who has served congregations at several Canadian churches. She is also an atheist.

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Vosper

Vosper “came out” as an atheist to her congregation at the West Hill United Church in 2001, after a sermon where she deconstructed the idea of “a god named God.” She then renounced her traditional religious views in support of several Pakastani bloggers who had been imprisoned and faced execution for questioning the existence of God. 

At 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, July 9, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, Vosper will present a lecture on the search for contemporary spirituality by those who eschew religious belief, in keeping with the Interfaith Lecture Series theme of Week Two: “Forces that Shape Our Daily Lives: The Contemporary Search for Spirituality.” Her lecture is titled “Falling in Love with Being Together, Because We Can’t Afford to Fall Apart.”

Vosper believes that there are many “off-label benefits” for individuals for whom traditional religious practices and views are no longer meaningful. She refers to these individuals as “nones,” and believes they can experience improved subjective well-being through spiritual participation.

“(Nones) ‘practice’ their spirituality outside of religious boundaries, often cobbling together a series of practices that may be grounded in several distinct traditions,” Vosper said. “The point is not to ‘do it right,’ but to find wholeness, peace, and space enough within one’s own heart for resilience to take root.”

In addition to her extensive ministry, Vosper is also the author of several best-selling books on spirituality and atheism: With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe; Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief; and Time or Too Late: Chasing the Dream of a Progressive Christian Faith.

Vosper also serves on the board of The Oasis Network, an organization supporting the “creation of meaning-making community beyond religious belief.”

Above all, Vosper believes that community is one of the most important elements of any religion or spiritual practice. 

“Through the magic of falling in love with being together, with one another, in the so many different ways religious congregations provide, we strengthen individual subjective well-being which, in turn, strengthens community bonds beyond our synagogues, mosques and churches,” Vosper said. “If we lose the goodwill liberal religion has thus distributed far beyond its own walls, we will lose much more than the religious practices we try to protect by maintaining the exclusive nature of our language, symbols, and rituals. Indeed, I think we will lose everything upon which goodwill depends. And that will be a very grave loss.”

This program is made possible by the Deloras K. and L. Beaty Pemberton Lectureship.

Hartford Seminary’s Joel N. Lohr to talk communication across beliefs for Interfaith Lecture

In preparation for this week’s Interfaith Lecture Series, “Forces that Shape Our Daily Lives: The Contemporary Search for Spirituality,” speakers were asked to contemplate a question: How might the non-religious, or “nones,” unite with the religious mainstream to create a better future?

Joel N. Lohr is more interested in the reverse question.

“Instead of trying to help ‘nones’ see why religion is important,” he said, “why don’t we, as religious people, learn from those who have journeyed away from faith, or have never had a deep connection to faith, or just choose not to identity with organized religion?”

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Lohr

Lohr, the president of Hartford Seminary, a nondenominational theological college, has spent much of his career advocating for dialogue across belief systems. He will be speaking as part of the Interfaith Lecture Series at 2 p.m. EDT Wednesday, July 8, on CHQ Assembly.

Lohr’s speech, titled “Finding Myself in the Other: Learning from Those Outside My Faith,” will focus on his personal faith journey.

“In some ways, the journey that I’m on has helped me to know myself more fully, and I’ve only been able to achieve that through my engagement with those who are true outsiders, or through people who don’t necessarily share my faith or my outlook on faith,” he said. “There’s a helpful model there for us, especially as religious people.”

Lohr recognizes that it’s common for people, religious and non-religious alike, to fear and avoid situations outside of their comfort zone. In his experience building relationships with people with vastly different beliefs and perspectives, he’s found that approaching new situations with an “appreciative curiosity” can transform these interactions.

“Find something to appreciate in the ‘other,’” he said. “Express what brings about a certain sense of wonder or appreciation for the ‘other,’ and from there you can ask respectful questions.”

He cautions against generalizations and snap judgements.

“I really think that the key to finding friendships and growing in our relationships with those that are different from us, is to work really hard and intentionally (to) not make assumptions about who we might encounter or what they might think,” Lohr said.

He said that much of his philosophy on interacting across beliefs comes down to entering conversations with a “posture of humility.”

“Go into the conversation assuming that the other person has something that you can learn and that you don’t know,” Lohr said. “Assume you might be blessed by engaging (with) that person.”

But what if the fear isn’t of the unknown, but of judgement from religious peers for keeping the “wrong” company?

According to Lohr, there are worse things to be judged for.

“Jesus spent most of his earthly life engaging with those who were considered outsiders,” he said. “If we’re never being accused of hanging around with the wrong people, we’re probably not doing it right.”

This program is made possible by the Deloras K. and L. Beaty Pemberton Lectureship.

Buddhist Judith Lief to reflect on spirituality inside and outside of religion

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Lief

Go to a place of worship. Listen. Leave.

Go home. Do the dishes. Return next week.

Judith Lief, a Buddhist acharya, said it’s not fair to separate daily life from how a given religion describes spirituality.

“Life itself is a spiritual experience,” Lief said.

In her upcoming lecture “Human Longing and the Search for Meaning,” Lief hopes to raise questions on what it means to practice a religion and what it means to navigate spirituality outside of a religion. The lecture, to be broadcast at 2 p.m. EDT Tuesday, July 7, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, is part of Week Two’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “Forces that Shape Our Daily Lives: The Contemporary Search for Spirituality.” The lecture was recorded June 23, but upon its release, the audience can submit questions for the live Q-and-A at www.questions.chq.org or on Twitter with #CHQ2020.

Lief will focus on people who consider themselves to be spiritual while not aligned with a religion. Some call them “nones,” though Lief doesn’t quite agree with the term.

“I don’t think it’s intentional, but there’s a sense of dismissal, that the real ‘ones’ are religious and other people are less than that,” Lief said.

Spirituality can be part of a religion, but this group of people reach for the spiritual without the framework of a religion.

Lief said the roots of the two words, spirituality and religion, denote differences between the two. The spir in “spirituality” is shared with the word “inspiration,” for example — to inspire breath. This indicates that spirituality is as intimate as breathing.

The lig in “religion” is shared with “ligament,” which defines religiosity as tying or binding oneself to a particular path with more structure and a fixed set of values.

Religion and spirituality have both benefits and detriments. Lief said the “obvious drawbacks” of religion include tying patriarchy, bigotry and racism into that same set of values, while spirituality on its own can be “flaky.”

Whether a person has spir, lig, both or neither, “We’re just trying to figure out what we’re doing here,” Lief said.

Lief has found this in Buddhism, but she grew up Protestant with an ex-Catholic father. She found herself asking more questions about her faith in a congregation that was not deeply religious.

Even in this congregation, the religious hierarchy found her questions “threatening.”

“It was a strong message of, ‘This is the way it is and you shouldn’t ask questions, and you shouldn’t take it too seriously. We don’t really need it that much, it’s just kind of a cozy tradition we have,’” Lief said of the church’s response. “And I found that very frustrating. I’m sure they found me annoying.”

Disillusioned with organized religion while still seeking answers, Lief later studied at Lutheran College while not being affiliated with any religion herself. 

While living in New York, she attended a talk by the person who would become her teacher and spiritual guide, Tibetan meditation master Ven. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Though he was trained in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Chögyam, Rinpocha did not introduce himself as a Buddhist to his audience. Lief felt like he was just speaking the truth.

Later, meditation would deeply impact Lief, because it required sitting with questions (rather than reach for answers) and the raw uncertainty and immediacy of life. Lief felt the experience connected her with others.

“You can believe one thing, you can believe other things, but underneath it all, there is something very human, something very powerful and good that I thought I was reconnecting with,” Lief said. “That’s continued to be an important part of my life.”

In Buddhism, people can go through the formal process of becoming initiated into the faith, or not. While formally trained, Lief said she was told not to take the Buddhist label too seriously.

“Jesus was not a Christian. Buddha was not a Buddhist,” Lief said. “They were just people asking questions about life and trying to find answers. Later, churches and temples and organizations of all kinds developed, which have good qualities and not-so-good qualities.”

By raising important questions in her lecture, Lief hopes to impart what is important beyond institutions of religion.

“It’s not all about institutions, it’s what we do with them,” Lief said. “Being in a religion can be used to check out of things we don’t want to face. … Whatever we call ourselves, we’re humans.”

This program is made possible by the Deloras K. and L. Beaty Pemberton Lectureship.

Beth Roach to speak on connection between culture and community gardening

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Roach

Beth Roach, a councilperson of the Nottoway Tribe of Virginia, believes that a packet of seeds can do more than grow a bountiful garden. With seeds in hand, Native American communities can rebuild culture and remedy food insecurity. 

This is why in 2018, Roach co-founded the Alliance of Native Seedkeepers, a non-profit that supplies seeds to tribes across the country. A history of stolen land and government-imposed culture and language erasure has left many Native American communities struggling to re-discover their history and cultural traditions. Roach hoped that returning to the practice of community agriculture would revitalize some aspects of a tribe’s unique culture. 

While working on a traditional mound-style garden, a Nottoway elder named Yvonne was reawakened with memories of tribal and family practices from her childhood that she then shared with fellow gardeners. 

“The physical methods of actually being in the garden … activated memories of (Yvonne’s) elders. That shows the line (of) ecological knowledge we still have coursing through our being,” Roach said. “It’s so important for us that we have people in the gardens doing these things so that we are building up that collective memory muscle.”

At 2 p.m. EDT Wednesday, July 1, on CHQ Assembly, Roach will present a lecture titled “Growing Hope,” where she will share her experience with cultural reconstruction. It’s part of the Interfaith Lecture Series theme for Week One: “Faith to Save the Earth.” Roach will also tell the tribal creation story that inspired her efforts with the nonprofit: the story of the Sky Woman.

For the past decade, Roach used her public speaking experience to share the legend of the Sky Woman, which Roach said stresses the importance of interdependence between species and living in balance.

“I’ve gotten deeper in my studies of the story. It turns out that seeds are the integral part,” Roach said. “She brings seeds down with her, and our original instructions say that our duties are to not waste the seeds, and to share them.”

Roach’s organization works to share seeds with all tribes across the country. Through this, they are encouraging tribes to grow and repopulate endangered plants and seeds historically associated with their tribes. 

“There’s a Cherokee family that lives outside of Richmond. They were just growing corn and big tomatoes, and we were like, ‘You should grow some Cherokee stuff,’” Roach said. “Three years later, they’re growing like a dozen Cherokee varieties, and it’s just taken off.” 

Native American communities face food insecurity at higher rates than the rest of the nation. Nearly all Native American reservations are in food deserts — regions that lack access to fresh produce as a result of a lack of grocery stores and markets. 

Food insecurity can also be classified as a lack of access to healthy food in particular, sometimes caused by financial barriers. The percentage of Native families living in poverty is about five times higher than the percentage of families nationally, leaving Native communities less likely to afford fresh and healthy produce, even if it is readily available to them. Driven to less healthy food options, Native American people are more likely to experience diabetes and kidney failure

Roach said that with these seeds, Native communities can grow community gardens to bring more, and healthier, food to the table. This can remedy hunger and nutrition-related conditions. 

“If you look at our food systems you know the Native people have high rates of diabetes,” Roach said, “but if you look at our traditional foods — they can help with that so much.”

Food insecurity has been exacerbated since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, Roach said the organization has had more people interested in stocking up on seeds than usual. To address this added need, the Alliance offered a deal to customers that for every bundle sold, seeds would be set aside for a community in need. 

The Alliance would typically spread the word of their work through community events like Pow wows, where they would set up tents and invite people in to share stories and learn about the organization. 

But, after the pandemic, many of their outreach plans were canceled. But, one major outreach plan stayed the same: a presentation at Chautauqua Institution. Roach said that she is excited to be able to connect to people wherever they are quarantining, and hopes that the audience can reflect on the history and culture in their individual communities. 

“(My presentation is) grounding everyone in the space where they are, hoping that they can start to think about how we can continue to grow our own kind of hope,” Roach said. 

This program is made possible by the Gertrude Elser Schroeder Fund.

Hazon Detroit’s Rabbi Nate DeGroot to center climate activism in “Earth-based faith” of Judaism

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DeGroot

When Rabbi Nate DeGroot attended the Center for Earth Ethics conference several years ago, the founder Karenna Gore gave a presentation describing the center’s origins, and the bringing together of 12 faith leaders to envision what the center could be. At the end of the day, DeGroot remembers Gore sharing, all of the faith leaders came to the same conclusion.

“(That conclusion) was that our understanding, our understanding of ourselves as separate from nature, is an illusion,” DeGroot said. “It’s a fallacy that we are separate from each other, and separate from the natural world. … We share a common root that what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.”

Bridging this separation is part of DeGroot’s work at Hazon Detroit, where he is associate director and the spiritual and program director. Described as the Jewish lab for sustainability, Hazon — the Hebrew word for “vision” — is dedicated to creating a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community, and for the world.

“We’re putting forth a vision of a different kind of world,” DeGroot said. “The world doesn’t have to be like it is right now. … We recognize we’re in the midst of a global environmental crisis, and Judaism compels us to respond.”

DeGroot will launch Week One’s Interfaith Lecture Series — dedicated to the theme of “Faith the Save the Earth” — with his presentation, “Tikkun Adam(ah): A Jewish Response to a World in Upheaval,” which goes live at 2 p.m. EDT Tuesday, June 30, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform.

Work at Hazon focuses on three “buckets,” DeGroot said: supporting, empowering and uplifting the food and environmental justice movement led by Detroit’s Black and Native communities; helping the Jewish community in the suburbs to reconnect with their earth-based Jewish roots; and reconnecting those two demographics in a way “that is accountable to our various histories,” DeGroot said.

Judaism, he said, is “foundationally grounded in the earth — our traditions, our holidays, the way we tell time — is borne of a deep relationship with the earth.” The “clarion call” of Shema Yisrael —  the prayer at the center of morning and evening prayer services — is “an all-encompassing Oneness that there is nothing other than God.”

“On this deep, fundamental level, Judaism begins as its starting point that we are not separate from nature; we are all connected as one,” DeGroot said. “That lays the foundation for environmental sustainability work. Instead of the earth being objective, separate, something we have dominion over that we can use or extract for human purpose, human projects and human gain, it’s integrated into a holistic system. How we treat the earth is how we treat the divine. The natural world is a manifestation of how we treat the divine, and how we treat each other.”

But in Contemporary Judaism, those roots — of a faith tradition deeply grounded in the earth — have been undernourished, and DeGroot traces that schism to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Judaism was temple-based, DeGroot said, with the faithful gathering crops and animals to bring to the Temple as offerings, and very geographically based, with seasonal holidays dedicated to seasonal needs — like praying for rain.

“At that point, we were an Earth-based religion, … but when the diaspora began, there was a major shift,” he said. “… Instead of Temple being our center, the Torah and our stories and our recitations became the central driving forces of Judaism.”

Essentially, Rabbinic Judaism took the place of Temple Judaism, and “we’re still in that Rabbinic paradigm. Because we weren’t on the same land of our rituals and traditions, we lost touch with it,” DeGroot said. The evolution of traditions is a story of migration and assimilation, of marginalization and adaptation — and the work of reclaiming those traditions being done at Hazon goes hand-in-hand with the work the organization does with the Black- and Native-led food and environmental justice work in Detroit.

“It’s important to situate any conversation about climate within the larger conversation we’re reckoning with as a country — COVID and social uprisings, our systems and histories — in the context of white supremacy and extractive capitalism,” DeGroot said. “The point that Judaism leads us to, is that this isn’t just how we treat the earth. The way we treat the earth is a symptom of a much larger structure — the same system at play that allows COVID to impact people of color, (the system) that’s killing Black lives. It’s impossible and irresponsible to engage in conversation about climate without talking about the roots of these problems that prioritize and reward systems and companies and individuals who denigrate the earth and other people.”

All of these systems are related, DeGroot said, and in his lecture he wants to offer up what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “a revolution of values.”

“If we want the earth to be in full and abundant health, we need to transform ourselves as individuals and as a society … and undertake a major reckoning of the foundations this country was built on, and be ready and willing to replace those and transform those,” DeGroot said. “I want to offer that. … I really pray that we can transform those systems, because we have very grim reports of what will happen, and we know who it’ll happen to. I do see in my own line of work that (climate activism) is a very white-led conversation. This is much bigger than that, and the people impacted (by climate change) should be leading that conversation. The rest of us should follow.”

This program is made possible by the Gertrude Elser Schroeder Fund.

Author Jennifer Eberhardt to Expose Hidden Prejudices and Biases in Penultimate Interfaith Lecture

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Eberhardt

Jennifer Eberhardt believes that in order to overcome bias, it must first be embraced.

“Bias is not a trait but a state,” said Eberhardt, an author and professor of psychology at Stanford University, in a March 2019 interview with NPR. “So, some situations make us more vulnerable to bias than others. And the more we understand this, the more powerful we are.”

With that understanding and power, Eberhardt said, people can begin to consider: “What are the situations where bias is more likely to come up?” And how can those situations be avoided?

Eberhardt grew up in an all-black neighborhood when her parents decided to move to a majority-white suburb. After they moved, Eberhardt said she noticed she was having trouble telling white faces apart from other faces.

“It’s like a precursor for bias, basically, because if your brain isn’t processing those faces, you’re not able to individuate the faces,” she said. “You’re thinking about those faces in terms of their category. Once you put a face in a category, then that can also trigger your beliefs and feelings about the people who are in that category.”

At 2 p.m. Thursday, August 22 in the Hall of Philosophy, Eberhardt will discuss being “Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do,” as part of the Week Nine Interfaith Lecture Series, “Exploring Race, Religion, and Culture.”

“Bias is not so much a stable trait,” Eberhardt said in an interview on “CBS This Morning.” “It’s something that can be triggered by the situations we find ourselves in.”

Eberhardt said she was on a plane with her son when she experienced racial bias from a surprising source.

“(My son) sees this guy, and he says, ‘Hey, that guy looks like daddy!’ ” she said. “I look at the guy, and he doesn’t look anything at all like daddy. It turns out he was the only black guy on the plane. I thought I was going to have a conversation about how not all black people look alike.”

According to Eberhardt, babies as young as 3 months old begin to show preferences for people of their own race.

“So this starts early,” she said on CBS. “It has to do with who we’re surrounded by. Our brains get conditioned to looking at those faces and being able to distinguish among them.”

Eberhardt said this conditioning comes from experience, and is therefore subject to the possibility of new experiences.

“If you have a social experience where we’re living with each other and we’re not living in segregated spaces … and we’re exposed to faces of other races all the time, then your brain gets tuned up to that,” she said on CBS. “It’s something that is wired in; but it’s a flexible wiring.”

Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton to Reflect on 50 Years Since Assassination of MLK in Interfaith Talk

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The Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton thinks the United States has been given an incredible opportunity.

“We can show the world that the world can live in peace,” said Sutton, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese in Maryland, and director of the Washington National Cathedral’s Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. “The world is coming to our shores. The world is here, in the United States. I want people to be left with excitement and hope at that fact.”

At 2 p.m. Wednesday, August 21 in the Hall of Philosophy, Sutton will declare that “The Dream Still Lives: 50 Years after Martin Luther King, Jr.” as a continuation of the Week Nine interfaith lecture series, “Exploring Race, Religion, and Culture.”

“I’m reflecting on roughly 50 years after the death of Martin Luther King Jr.,” Sutton said. “I’m really asking the question, ‘Are we where we have expected us to be, 50 years ago?’ If you ask most Americans that question, the answer would really be sobering.”

According to Sutton, in some areas there have actually been significant improvements to race relations in the United States.

“By some measures, we are better off — certainly in racial justice,” he said, “and especially in terms of the attitudes of white persons towards black persons. They’ve greatly improved as compared to 50 years ago. We don’t have separate bathrooms, restaurants, that kind of thing.”

Still, Sutton said that it doesn’t feel like “we as a nation are closer to being a more racially harmonious society.”

“In 1968, white supremacy, in an act of gun violence, shot a person of color because that person could not agree with his solution of a racially harmonious country,” he said. “What are we lamenting today? Still, white nationalist groups are shooting people of color, because they reject the vision of a racially diverse, multicultural society.”

One of the things that gives Sutton hope when confronted with that outlook is the plasticity of the U.S. Constitution.

“We have a system that can correct itself,” he said. “We can amend the Constitution. We have a system of justice and laws. In the main, what gives me hope is that we keep referring back to the ideals of equality and justice for all.”

Sutton’s advice for political leaders is simple: They ought to say less.

“Maybe they need to be more silent and reflective, rather than be reactive and just say whatever’s on their mind,” he said. “That moment of reflection — as a nation, we as a people can practice this.”

Adam Jortner to Shed Light on Social Reforms Relating to the Burned-Over District

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Thanks in part to the people of the Burned-over District, America is a country where women have the right to vote, slavery is illegal and the temperance movement effected policy change at the federal level.

Beginning in the early 19th century and fueled by the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening, the Burned-over District encompassed a region of western and upstate New York where social and religious revivalism had reached a fever pitch.

“Protestant Christians, living in upstate New York and elsewhere, wanted to solve a bunch of different problems,” said Adam Jortner, an author, scholar of early American history and Goodwin-Philpott professor of history at Auburn University. “They wanted to use their faith to address social problems in substantial ways.”

At 2 p.m. Thursday, July 25 in the Hall of Philosophy, Jortner will give his lecture, “How the Burned-Over District Changed America,” continuing the Week Five interfaith theme, “Chautauqua: Rising from the Ashes of the Burned-Over District.”

“Every single person who’s talking this week is going to have a different idea about why the Burned-over District became what it was,” Jortner said. “I’m going to say it was all about organization. A guy named Charles Finney recreated the American revival and made it into what we know it as today — a highly organized and highly effective movement.”

According to Jortner, Finney stewarded Evangelical organizations for revival that were later used to conduct social reform.

“Frances Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, used the basic revival model started by Finney,” he said. “Susan B. Anthony, in the suffrage movement, basically used that same revival model.”

In 2012, Jortner published his book, The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier.

“(The Gods of Prophetstown is) a hidden history about the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa, the brother of Tecumseh,” he said. “He probably organized the most significant resistance to U.S. control of Indian lands in the history of the U.S. … He essentially created a Native American city out there.”

Jortner said his book was about both Tenskwatawa and William Henry Harrison, a U.S. territorial governor and ninth president of the United States who led a military strike against Prophetstown.

“It’s looking at those two men, and how religion influenced how they saw the world and what they did,” he said. “Ultimately, I think it’s about how the War of 1812 was actually really important, and we just don’t remember it because we lost to Canada.”

But for Jortner’s lecture today, he said his primary goal is to discuss the gradual shift of social movements, as opposed to rapid change.

“These are changes that took a century to take place, sometimes,” he said. “I think that’s a valuable lesson. It was all locally done work by people who were excited about their faith. They worked at it and worked at it. A lot of them lived and died and never saw the broad changes that they initiated. But the changes did happen.”

Spencer McBride Dives into History of Burned-Over District and its Chautauqua Connection

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Historian and documentary editor, Spencer McBride speaks about how western New York gre to be named the Burned-over District, during his lecture “The Origins And legacy of the Burned-over District” on Monday, July 22, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy.
MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Chautauqua was founded 14 years after the Burned-over District ran its course. Many may think that Chautauqua has no connection to the Burned-over District, but Spencer McBride, a historian, author and editor for The Joseph Smith Papers, said that solid connections exist between the two.

On Monday, McBride opened Week Five’s interfaith theme, “Chautauqua: Rising from the Ashes of the Burned-Over District,” in the Hall of Philosophy with his lecture, “The Origins and Legacy of the Burned-over District.”

The Burned-over District, McBride said, was an early 19th-century movement, in which religious revivals became popular nationwide, and locally in Western New York.

It took place, McBride estimated, between 1790 and 1860, and it was a part of a national development termed “The Second Great Awakening,” which was a revival of religious fervor that drove Americans to churches. The movement spanned as far as Britain, and as close as local cities and regions in New York, including Buffalo, Albany, Rochester, the Finger Lakes and Chautauqua.

McBride said this deep religious fervor in the 1790s doesn’t imply that there was no religious presence in America prior to that. Before this Burned-over District, in the Revolutionary War era, there was a “very rational approach” to religion by preachers who were predominantly from the elite class. In stark contrast, coming into the 1790s, religion was growing more personal and influential.

“What we see in the Second Great Awakening,” McBride said, “is this move for people to experience religion, to become converted through a spiritual experience that they felt.”

Because of those “spiritual experiences,” many entered ministry claiming it was their calling. They were called by the spirit to serve in ministry, which completely destroyed the commonly held belief among preachers that one had to be from the elite class to preach. So, throughout the country in the 1790s and into the 1800s, many who felt a calling studied the scriptures and became ministers.

“And the driving engine of all of this is the revival meeting,” McBride said. “Often held outdoors, a revival meeting would take place over several days, and you’d have preachers preaching enthusiastically, encouraging their congregations to seek salvation, to be saved, to have that spiritual experience of conversion that ultimately changes their lives.”

The meetings were so effective, McBride said, that church membership rapidly grew throughout the country — from 2 million in 1790, to over 20 million in 1860. The number of preachers tripled — instead of one minister for every 1,500 Americans, there was a preacher for every 500 Americans in 1850.

Even though this change was nationwide, some areas experienced religious fervor more intensely than others. So, McBride asked, why was Western New York a highly concentrated area of religious fervor? One answer, McBride said, is termed the Yankee Invasion.

“There is a huge population in Western New York following 1790,” he said. “One of the results of the American Revolution, and one of the reasons some people felt inclined to fight against the British, is King George and the third parliament had declared after the Seven Years’ War that there could be no white settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains. Well, after the revolution, a settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains opened up and many were anxious to get there between the years 1790 and 1820.”

In this 30-year period, a flood of people left New England for Western New York. This meant that about 10% of the American population was on the move. McBride said that, in addition to being a large group, 60% of the people moving were under the age of 25. What this meant was that a lot of families in New England were sending their children off to New York.

And, as a cautionary measure to keep their children from losing religion during this move, families sent missionaries — who knew that when one is young, it is easy to question or reconsider one’s religion — to New York to encourage their children to continue attending church.

“We don’t often use the word ‘marketplace’ when we talk about religion,” McBride said. “But if we think about it in terms of a marketplace, there were more religious choices than ever, and here was a large group of people anxious to consider those choices. And so, this demographic shift makes New York a prime spot for religious revivalism.”

So, how did the name, “Burned-over District,” come about? McBride said the religious fervor from 1790 to 1860 was not necessarily constant, but there were actually surges of religious intensity that would last a couple of years before dying down.

For example, Charles Finney — one of the best known revivalists, who was remarkably famous for his preaching — arrived in Oneida County in 1826 to preach. But not many people showed up to listen to him talk because he had arrived at the tail-end of a wave of revivalism, and people didn’t want to hear him.

“And so, Charles Finney wrote a letter, quite frustrated, in 1826,” McBride said. “And he said, ‘I found that region of the country, what in the western phrase would be called a burnt district. There had been a few years previously, a wild excitement passing through that region, which they called a revival of religion. And it resulted in a reaction so extensive and profound as to leave the impression on many minds that religion was a mere delusion.’ ”

Finney termed Western New York the “Burnt District,” and McBride said the name eventually evolved into the “Burned-over District” because of a young historian from Harvard University, named Whitney Cross, and his dissertation adviser, who both felt that the “Burnt District” didn’t sound right.

Western New York stands out as part of the Burned-over District, McBride said, because there was a large number of new religious movements in the area.

“The Shakers originally came from New England, and they come to a settlement just outside of Albany called Watervliet,” McBride said. “You get the rise of the Mormons, … the Oneida perfectionists … (and) spiritualists.”

Some of this religious revivalism coincided with social reform, McBride said.

Examples of these social reforms are abolitionism, the temperance movement, the women’s rights movement and a great number of political reforms heading toward stronger democracy.

“Now, this is not to say that all of these reforms were necessarily religious reforms,” McBride said. “You could be an abolitionist without being a devout Christian. You could fight for women’s rights without being a devout Christian, so on and so forth. But we also see, in other parts of the country, religion being used to confront or battle these reform movements.”

For example, Angelina Grimké, a prolific writer and women’s rights activist, wrote about Christians in the South who were using the Bible to defend slavery, and people who used Christianity to defend the idea that men should have more power and more rights than women.

“This is an important caveat,” McBride said, “because … people walk away thinking that those who are actively involved in their religion and their religious community will always push for social reform, but that’s not the case, and it’s important for us to recognize that.”

Despite the disagreements among the people inside and outside the reform movements, the Burned-over District is essential to the national history of religious revivalism and social reform because those who were in New York during the Burned-over District took all of the religious views, practices and social ideas with them when they moved west, McBride said.

“Chautauqua actually falls outside the chronological boundaries of the Burned-over District, which ended in 1860,” McBride said. “Chautauqua was founded 1874, so, what’s the connection?”

During the Burned-over District’s surge, religions like Protestantism, Baptistism and Methodism experienced extreme growth.

“Prior to 1790 in the United States, we’re talking about a total population of fewer than 10,000 Methodists,” McBride said. “You get to over half a million, and approaching a million, Methodists by the time you’re in 1850.”

After the Burned-over District smoldered out, Methodist Sunday school teachers began setting up camps at Chautauqua, which marked the beginnings of the Institution that serves as a “bastion for educating as many people as can be educated,” McBride said.

McBride concluded his lecture with some thought-provoking questions for the audience.

“Do we see social change influencing or changing religion in our own time?” McBride asked. “Similarly, what role is religion currently playing in present-day reform movements, and on what side of the reform movements do different people’s religious views place them? On a personal level, how does our faith drive us to real action to make our communities better, … stronger … (and) safer?”

As a historian, McBride said, the one question to hold onto throughout the week is, “How does the history of the Burned-over District, of religious and social change, influence the way you understand the world today, and how will it affect the way you build the world of tomorrow?”

Rabbi Deborah Waxman to Delve into Jewish Perspective on Divine Justice for Interfaith Friday

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Rabbi Deborah Waxman

She’s the first woman rabbi to lead both a Jewish seminary and congregational union, and the first lesbian to have risen to the level of national and professional Jewish leadership she currently enjoys.

Her name is Rabbi Deborah Waxman.

“We’re trying to find the richest possible expressions of the collective experience of the Jewish people,” said Waxman, the Aaron and Marjorie Ziegelman Presidential Professor and president of Reconstructing Judaism, a rabbinical college and the central organization of the Jewish reconstructionist movement. “We are looking to create a sense of wholeness for people. We have a conviction that Jewish wisdom and Jewish living enriches and supports us in our efforts to be human.”

At 2 p.m. Friday, July 19 in the Hall of Philosophy, Waxman will give Chautauqua’s fourth Interfaith Friday lecture on the problem of evil and on progressive expressions of Judaism. Waxman will be joined in conversation by the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Chautauqua’s vice president of religion and senior pastor.

I have both a rabbinical degree and a doctorate in American Jewish studies,” Waxman said. “I went to rabbinical school because I wanted to be with people in times of joy and in times of sorrow. I wanted to be in a position to help them create meaning in their lives.”

And according to Waxman, becoming a rabbi was her way of helping to “build communities that would support and sustain people.”

“The reconstructionist approach allows me and every individual to bring our own aspirations and our own questions to that rich tradition,” she said. “I thought, when I was in my 20s, I was choosing between becoming a rabbi and getting that Ph.D. In the end, I was just sequencing it. I’m glad I did the rabbinical piece first because I feel like it cracked my heart wide open.”

As president of Reconstructing Judaism, Waxman has spearheaded progressive initiatives like “Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations,” which she said reflect her organization’s tagline: “Deeply rooted. Boldly relevant.”

It’s a project I feel is really expressive of reconstructionist commitments,” Waxman said. “ ‘Evolve’ is a project of writing and conversation that draws deeply on traditional Jewish teachings and approaches. It looks to bring those insights to pressing issues of the day in a way that promotes civil discourse.”

Waxman said she believes her position as president has enabled her to “draw on the full breadth of (her) interests and capacity.”

“For about two years I’ve been hosting a podcast on Jewish teachings of resilience called ‘Hashivenu,’ ” she said. “That’s one of the ways I get to grow and encounter people in new ways. I interview rabbis, teachers and community leaders about how best to cultivate resilience in their communities and in their own lives.”

In her upcoming lecture, however, Waxman wishes to impart broader lessons on her audience.

I’d like people to have an understanding of both Judaism and progressive expressions of Judaism,” she said. “I’d like people to know about how some liberal Jews think about divine justice, and about how to have a personal relationship with a non-personal God.”

Eric Meyers to Discuss Jesus’ Commitment to Judaism, Stronger Than Once Believed

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Eric Meyers

It’s an archaeological portrait of everyday life that Eric Meyers wants to paint in his interfaith lecture — a portrait of lower Galilee, the area where Meyers said Jesus Christ grew up.

“Literary and archaeological material has shown definitively that there was a strong culture of Jewish life established in Galilee,” said Meyers, a Biblical scholar, archaeologist and Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor Emeritus of Judaic Studies at Duke University.

In 1981, Meyers was part of the team that discovered the oldest known piece of an ark of the covenant while digging in the Israeli town of Nabratein, coincidentally the same year the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was released.

At 2 p.m. Thursday, July 11 in the Hall of Philosophy, Meyers will present “Jesus in Galilee, A Jewish Perspective,” as part of Week Three’s interfaith theme, “What Archaeology Tells Us About Biblical Times.”

Other students of the life and ministry of Jesus had thought and concluded that the Galilee was deeply Hellenized, Greek-speaking and influenced by outside culture,” Meyers said. “Recent research has shown that was completely erroneous. There were virtually no known Greeks in the Galilee in the first century, except in the pagan Roman cities that surrounded it.”

According to Meyers, evidence from the hundreds of former Jewish villages and from his own expeditions has given him indications of “a Torah-led, Biblically inspired everyday life (in Galilee).”

“We have ritual baths, we have half-a-dozen synagogues in the north and a dozen or so in the south, especially in a place called Magdala,” Meyers said. “So, painting this picture, we see that Jesus’ ministry focused on the rural communities in the Galilee in the north and avoided cities like Sepphoris that were deeply Hellenized.”

That assessment is in stark contrast to some other archaeological descriptions of Galilee, according to Meyers.

One (description) is a very Greek version of the Galilee,” Meyers said. “Another is a Jewish depiction of the background of Jesus that is backward, out-of-touch and not informed by Torah or Biblical law.

Through Duke University and his local Jewish Community Center, Meyers said he’s taken students to archaeological digs in the Galilee area for nearly 50 years.

Meyers said he’s also experienced violent resistance by Orthodox Jews in response to his excavations.

“We’ve been attacked, bullied and had our digs invaded by them,” he said. “They’ve smashed up artifacts and turned over columns, things like that. The Orthodox are against digging graves, which has set back scientific archaeological research greatly in the region. DNA studies know about all sorts of things relating to human disease and health that would be greatly advantageous for scientists and medical research to know about.”

But for his interfaith lecture, Meyers said he wants to focus on demonstrating that Judaism played a greater role in Jesus’ early life and in his community than was previously believed.

These new studies have shown Jesus and his followers’ deep commitment to the Jewish faith as it was in the early decades of the first century,” he said.

Audience members at today’s lecture can access slides that accompany the presentation from their smart devices at
chq.org/screen.

East and West: John Dominic Crossan to Speak on Biblical Images and Depicting Jesus

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John Dominic Crossan

John Dominic Crossan believes the only radical difference between the East and Western Christianity’s portrayal of Jesus Christ’s life comes from the historical imagery of his resurrection.

People don’t realize there’s actually no direct description or depiction of the resurrection in the New Testament, only its effects,” said Crossan, a historian and New Testament scholar. “That left a vacuum that forced artists to ask, ‘How do we depict this thing if there’s no description?’ ”

Crossan’s new book, Resurrecting Easter, deals with the historical differences in how the East and the West attempted to fill this literary gap with imagery and tradition.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, July 9 in the Hall of Philosophy, Crossan will discuss tracing “Jesus: From Archaeology to Text,” and the significance of Easter imagery in collective historical consciousness.

Crossan’s lecture continues an exploration of the Week Three interfaith theme, “What Archaeology Tells Us About Biblical Times.”

“Eastern Christianity has an absolutely different image of Easter than the West,” Crossan said. “Otherwise, the East and West’s (Biblical imagery) is pretty much the same. There’s usually a crucifixion. But when it comes to the resurrection, because there is no direct description of it in the New Testament, the East and the West come up with radically different imagery.”

Crossan and his wife, Sarah, spent about 15 years on 20 expeditions traveling all over Eastern Christendom as part of the writing process for Resurrecting Easter.

In the West, according to Crossan, it’s more typical to see the resurrection depicted as Jesus rising from his tomb into heaven by himself.

But in the East, Jesus is often portrayed as grasping the hands of people around him.

Crossan said the significance of the differences in Easter imagery go back to Paul the Apostle.

Imagine someone saying to Paul, after he describes the resurrection in 1 Corinthians, ‘OK, Paul, we’ve all seen this crucifixion you keep talking about,’ ” he said. “ ‘We know what that’s like. Draw us a picture of the resurrection.’ Would he have drawn the Western image or the Eastern image? I think the Eastern depiction is in closer continuity to the New Testament.

In 1985, Crossan joined the newly formed Jesus Seminar, a controversial collection of critical Biblical scholars that measured the historicity of the stories surrounding Jesus Christ.

“The idea behind the Jesus Seminar was that scholars could discuss pretty much anything they wanted, no matter how radical it sounded,” he said. “Scholars could ask, ‘Did Jesus say this? Did Jesus do that? Did Mark make it up?’ We wanted to do (the Seminar) out in public.”

The Jesus Seminar wanted to use a public platform to show people how historians determined whether or not something in the life of Jesus Christ was historically accurate, or if it was a liturgical parable.

“For example, it’s said that Jesus was crucified, and crucified alone,” Crossan said. “And from that, we draw huge historical implications. The very fact that we can tell he was crucified and the rest of the 12 or 11 other disciples weren’t crucified in a row with him, tells me immediately that Roman judgement was that he was a nonviolent revolutionary. Not just a nonviolent nuisance. A nonviolent revolutionary.”

The story of Jesus’ crucifixion has led Crossan to believe that “the salvation of our species is nonviolent resistance.”

Otherwise, violence tends to spiral,” he said. “And it has been spiralling out for about 10,000 years. The only way to stop this spiral of violence is nonviolent resistance to violence. That’s the message and meaning I’m getting from this.”

NatGeo Archaeology Writer and Editor Kristin Romey to Trace ‘Footsteps of Jesus’

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Kristin Romey

The view of human history may be clouded by the passage of time — but because of people like Kristin Romey, it’s now possible for some to throw their gazes back through the fog of the “used to be,” and glimpse insights into antiquity.

“Unless you’re an emperor and you’ve got your face on a coin, archaeology is super difficult,” said Romey, an archaeology editor and writer for National Geographic, “especially when it comes to zeroing in on a single individual, and even proving that person’s existence.”

Romey has reported on archaeology for National Geographic since February 2016, and in 2017 wrote a feature for the magazine on “What Archaeology is Telling Us About the Real Jesus.”

At 2 p.m. Monday, July 8 in the Hall of Philosophy, Romey will bring clarity to the beginnings of Christendom as part of the Week Three Interfaith Lecture Series: “What Archaeology Tells Us About Biblical Times.” Romey’s lecture will walk “In the Footsteps of Jesus: A journalist’s quest into the origins of Christianity.”

When we set out to look at the archaeology of Jesus Christ, it wasn’t to say ‘he existed or didn’t exist,’ ” Romey said. “That’s not the point. What really interested me, with my background in the archaeology of the Classical world, is the chaos of the first century.

Oppressive Roman rule, squabbling Jewish factions and the antagonism between the two led to a “pressure-cooker of time,” according to Romey.

“So it’s kind of interesting to place this Jewish guy who lived in Roman Palestine into that whole mix,” Romey said. “The development of Christianity really comes out of this first century political pressure-cooker.”

But Romey said Jesus wasn’t the only one proclaiming he was the son of God during that time.

There were plenty of guys out there roaming the deserts and saying that they had a direct line to God,” Romey said. “Why we ended up with this one specific guy who was prosecuted and crucified by the Romans — at some point, we can’t explain what that is. There are accidents in history all the time.”

Part of Romey’s journalistic work has focused on the restoration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which contains what is said to be the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion and tomb.

“What I found out through my reporting was that at the time that Jesus was crucified, about 33 A.D. or so, the location of the Church of the Sepulchre was actually outside the walls of Jerusalem,” Romey said. “It was on a main road leading to the coast, between Jerusalem and the coast. That area had been an old limestone quarry that had been repurposed as a burial ground for wealthy Jews. The archaeology shows us all that.”

Romey has spoken to archaeologists who said the New Testament provided clues which, in turn, pointed to that burial site as being the most logical possibility for the location of Jesus Christ’s tomb.

Romey said National Geographic applies a way of approaching subjects for storytelling that can be applied to anything, not just the story of Jesus Christ.

National Geographic provides a very unique perspective on things,” Romey said. “I’d like to (give my audience) not only a background of looking at Jesus as a character in history, but also how the standard approach to reporting and storytelling that National Geographic does works equally well for Jesus as it does for snow leopards.”

Author and Cato Fellow Mustafa Akyol to Delve into Removing Moral Roadblocks in Islam

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Over the past two decades, Mustafa Akyol has studied the complexities of both Islamic theology and the arguments behind religious freedom.

I’m not doing theology for theology’s sake, I’m doing it for human rights,” said Akyol, a journalist, nonfiction author and senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.

And indeed he is — while Akyol has authored books like Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, he was also arrested briefly in 2017 by Malaysia’s “religion police” while giving a lecture there on free will in religion.

At 2 p.m. Friday, July 5 in the Hall of Philosophy, Akyol will lead the second Interfaith Friday of the season with a lecture on Islam and the problem of evil. Akyol will be in conversation with The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Chautauqua’s vice president of religion and senior pastor.

Akyol is a regular contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and is currently working on his next book, titled Reopening the Muslim Mind for Reason, Freedom and Tolerance.

I’m writing a new book which delves into the theological conundrums of early Islam, which I believe are quite important today,” he said.

One key dispute in early Islam that Akyol said he’ll cover in his new book is the Euthyphro dilemma, a philosophical problem involving a view of morality and theism discussed by Socrates in one of Plato’s dialogues.

“It goes back to Socrates,” Akyol said. “It’s based on a question: ‘Does God order something that is objectively right and ban something that is objectively wrong, or do things become right or wrong based on God’s commandments?’ ”

By way of an example, Akyol said to consider the sixth of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill.”

The Euthyphro dilemma, according to Akyol, asks if killing became morally wrong because God included it in the Commandments, or if it was already bad, and the Ten Commandments came about as a reminder of that.

This was a big dilemma for theologians, both in Christianity and Islam,” he said. “In Christianity, it ultimately led to the Divine Command Theory.

According to Akyol, the Divine Command Theory says that “whatever God does is right, and whatever God bans is wrong.”

“In Islam, (the theory) is represented by Ash’arism,” he said, referencing the theological school of Sunni Islam that employs an orthodox guideline in its teachings.

The problem with thinking in such a binary way, according to Akyol, is that it “doesn’t leave much room to discuss the problem of evil.”

The solution from (the Ash’ari) perspective is: ‘Whatever God is doing is good, so why are you even asking?’ That is a roadblock on moral reasoning,” he said.

While Akyol questions the moral frameworks of Islam and their social consequences in his books and lectures, he said he hopes attendees of his Interfaith Friday lecture will understand that Islam, Christianity and Judaism are fundamentally similar religions.

“They’re all different forms of Abrahamic monotheism,” he said. “That’s why the same theological questions that have been asked throughout history have bothered Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.”

In the 20th century, however, Akyol said the politics of modern life drive adherents to these religions apart — even though he said they have more in common than they might realize.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance, makes a lot of Muslims and Jews think that there’s a big rift between us,” he said. “That’s a political issue. There’s a world of faith and belief that should not be boiled down to politics.

Judy Shepard to Discuss Son’s Legacy and LGBTQ Progress

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Judy Shepard

Judy Shepard, co-founder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation along with her husband, Dennis, is an advocate for LGBTQ rights and a public speaker with a purpose.

Shepard’s son Matthew was brutally murdered in October 1998. The murder, an LGBTQ hate crime that helped to galvanize a new chapter in the gay rights movement, led to changes in policy at the federal level in the United States.

“In October of 1998, Matthew accepted a ride from a couple of young men who proceeded to rob him and beat him,” Shepard said in an interview on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in 2009. “They tied him to a fence outside of Laramie, Wyoming, and left him there to die. He was found 18 hours later and passed away four days later.”

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, July 2 in the Hall of Philosophy, Shepard will discuss “The Legacy of Matthew Shepard” as part of the Week Two Interfaith Lecture Series, “Common Good Change Agents.” Shepard will be joined by reporter and co-founder of The Atlantic’s American Futures project, James Fallows.

James Fallows

“I became a sort of spokeswoman for the cause — we thought people would recognize Matt’s name and hear what we had to say and listen to us, and that maybe we could change hearts and minds,” Shepard told DeGeneres.

When the attack occurred in 1998, Chautauqua Institution’s Vice President of Religion and Senior Pastor, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, was watching in horror along with the rest of the LGBTQ community.

Robinson is widely known as the first openly gay man to be elected bishop in the Episcopal Church.

“It hit (the LGBTQ community) hard because we knew it could’ve been us,” Robinson said. “The remarkable thing is that Judy Shepard, who is this shy, introverted person, turns the tragedy into the (Matthew Shepard) Foundation and this amazing work.”

When Shepard walks up to the microphone, however, Robinson said she looks “10 feet tall,” and speaks with the authority of a seasoned orator.

“The fact that she could do that is just amazing,” he said. “It’s like her personal tribute to Matt and to what she did as a mom, to change this unspeakable tragedy into something good for so many people.”

Robinson said he wanted Shepard to lecture at Chautauqua because he thought she fit Week Two’s “Common Good Change Agents” interfaith theme well.

But the prevention of hate crimes like the one that took Matthew Shepard’s life is also on Robinson’s mind.

“The most important agenda item for the future is passing the federal Equality Act,” he said. “At the moment, every state has a different set of protections for LGBTQ people. But 29 states have none. So in a majority of states, you can be fired for being gay. You can be refused an apartment, you can be thrown out of a restaurant. Until we get a federal law that covers all 50 states, LGBT people are going to be at risk.”

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