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Interfaith Lecture Recaps

Eberhardt reflects on social psychology of American racial biases

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Author and Professor Jennifer Eberhardt gives a lecture about racial bias and prejudice as part of the Week Nine Interfaith Lecture Series Thursday Aug. 22, 2019 at the Hall of Philosophy. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

When Jennifer Eberhardt’s son was 5 years old, he and his mother sat side by side on an airplane. With an eager and observant eye for his in-flight surroundings, her son pointed out a passenger, saying “that guy looks like daddy,” Eberhardt recalled.

The only other black person on the plane, the man looked “nothing at all” like Eberhardt’s husband.

“I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to have to have a talk with my 5-year-old about how not all black people look alike,’ ” she said.

But as Eberhardt prepared to give her son such a talk, she was met with a startling remark: “I hope he doesn’t rob the plane,” her son said, referring to the black man down the aisle.

“Why would you say that?” Eberhardt asked her son. “And he looked at me with this really sad face, and he said: ‘I don’t know why I said that. I don’t know why I was thinking that.’ ”

Using this memory as a starting point, Eberhardt, a Stanford University professor of psychology and 2014 MacArthur Fellow, expanded on her 2019 book, Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice that Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, and delivered a lecture of the same name on Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy, as part of Week Nine’s Interfaith Lecture Series, “Exploring Race, Religion, and Culture.”

“Even with no malice, even with no explicit hatred, this black crime association made its way into the mind of my 5-year-old,” Eberhardt said. “It makes its way into the minds of all of our children, and into all of us.”

As the co-founder and co-director of Stanford’s SPARQ — Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions — Eberhardt and a team of social scientists have gathered data on criminal justice, economic mobility, education and health disparities since around 2011. Initially called the Lewin Center, after social psychologist Kurt Lewin, SPARQ was established by the late Nalini Ambady, a Stanford professor of psychology, along with Eberhardt and social psychologist Hazel Rose Markus. The team consists of other Stanford faculty, as well as undergraduate and graduate student research assistants.

Using personal bias experiences, professional studies of national and city-specific bias data, Eberhardt took Chautauquans on a four-stop “tour” of bias in the United States: bias in the criminal justice system, bias in schools, bias in the workplace and, finally, actionable steps for confronting those biases. Acknowledging the prevalence of all types of disparities, Eberhardt clarified that she would focus on the “black-white dynamic, where the research is most advanced, where the disparities are especially extreme and where those extreme disparities seem to exist in almost every facet of life.”   

Bias in the criminal justice system, Eberhardt said, “changes how we see.”

“Although African Americans make up less than 13% of the U.S. population, they make up nearly 40% of the prison population,” she said.

To demonstrate the power of the association of black people with criminality, Eberhardt and her colleagues have conducted studies that explore how racial bias can function as a “visual tuning device,” altering the reality of a situation and affecting “what we see and where we look.”

“Racial bias can influence us more than we think; we can express bias unintentionally, despite our motivation and our desire to be fair,” she said. “And most importantly, bias does not require bad actors. Instead, bias can be triggered by the situations that we find ourselves in.”

Eberhardt turned to stop-and-frisk practices and “furtive movement” to further explain how racial bias is indoctrinated in the human brain. Furtive movement, which can generally be described as being shifty or unsure, is ultimately a subjective lens through which police officers see subjects they might consider stopping, she said. And furtive movement is a commonplace justification for stop-and-frisk incidents. In 2010 alone, City of New York Police Department officers made 600,000 stops, with over 300,000 of those stops based on furtive movement; “It was, by far, the No. 1 reason people were stopped on the streets of New York City,” Eberhardt said.

But importantly, the biases embedded in those policing practices have enabled lasting, disparate realities for black people, particularly black men, in the country’s criminal justice system.

“In all of the stops made for furtive movement, 54% were of African Americans, in a city that is only 23% black,” Eberhardt said of the 2010 New York City data. “And we found that black people that were stopped for furtive movement were more likely to be frisked and subjected to physical force than white people who were stopped for the same reason — even though black people were no more likely to have a weapon, and in fact, only 1% of all those stopped for furtive movement actually had a weapon.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the majority of New Yorkers at the time were supportive of “broad and aggressive stop-and-frisk practices,” so Eberhardt’s team followed up. Those follow-up findings revealed that “the more people were reminded of racial disparities in the criminal justice system, for example, the more black they thought the prison population was, the more they thought aggressive practices were necessary to keep order and to stay safe.”

“So the mass incarceration of African Americans not only affects those who are incarcerated, it affects us, it affects how we think and what policies and practices we are inclined to support,” she said. “It leads us to fear black men; it leads us to associate black men with criminality.”

And that association is inherently tied to biases that are born in school settings and “shadow our children as they learn.”

Continuing her tour, Eberhardt described the role of racial bias in school discipline, specifically in how teachers discipline their students.

“In the U.S., black students are more than three times as likely to be suspended or expelled from school than white students,” Eberhardt said. “And close to 70% of those black students who are pushed out of school end up in the criminal justice system at some point in their lives.”

Even with such extreme disparities, Eberhardt’s research considered: “To what extent are these racial disparities in discipline due to bias that teachers may hold, as opposed to the possibility that black children are simply misbehaving more so than white children?”

So Eberhardt and a colleague, Jason Okonofua, now a professor of social psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, designed an online study of teachers in regions across the country. They created a “race manipulation” scenario in which teachers were given hypothetical office referral records for two students — Greg, a stereotypically white name, and Darnell, a stereotypically black name. The referral records for Greg and Darnell were identical, save for the name listed at the top. Initially, the race of the students did not clearly influence how the teachers viewed the identical, minor infractions. But when the teacher read that the same two students misbehaved again, three days later, bias began to show.

“We found that when it came to Greg, the teachers were more inclined to view these two minor infractions as isolated incidents; so one had nothing to do with the other,” Eberhardt said. “But for Darnell, those incidents were connected. They were connected, they were related, they were indicative of a pattern of misbehavior that was problematic — and it needed to be shut down.”

Eberhardt used the word “troublemaker” to describe how the teachers participating in the study perceived Darnell — and that qualifier, especially when attached to black children in primary school or earlier, has enduring implications.

“It has real implications for the mental well-being of black students and for their ability to achieve in school; and over time, those students worry about how they might be treated in school environments,” she said. “Those concerns can influence their day-to-day interactions with teachers, it can influence their academic engagement and their identity as learners.”

On Eberhardt’s third stop, she examined the role of race in hiring decisions in the U.S. labor market — at both the low- and high-wage ends of the labor spectrum. In what Eberhardt described as a “now classic study,” economists Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan developed and sent 5,000 resumes to potential employers who were advertising jobs in Chicago and Boston. The results: Resumes with black-sounding names received 50% fewer callbacks than identical resumes with white-sounding names. And those results of disparity, Eberhardt said, are not limited to the United States; replicated studies in Canada, Australia and across Europe have been met with similar results.

On the higher-wage end of the labor spectrum, within an investment firm for instance, Eberhardt has found that highly qualified, black-led teams of venture capitalists are viewed more negatively in terms of their track record and expertise. Those qualified black-led teams are out there, she emphasized, “but they’re not seen, they’re not equally valued.”

On her fourth and final stop, Eberhardt cited California’s Oakland Police Department as an example of a powerful collaboration — between social scientists, police officers and the citizens of the City of Oakland. The Oakland Police Department implemented better-informed stop-and-frisk practices based on research recommendations from Eberhardt and her team. The number of law abiding citizens stopped by police from 2017 to 2018 decreased from over 32,000 stops, to less than 20,000.

“African American stops alone fell by 43%,” Eberhadt said.

The efforts involved requesting that officers ask themselves a question before every potential stop: “Do I have credible information to tie this particular person to a crime?”

“So they have to think about and answer that question to make the stop,” Eberhardt said. “So by simply adding that checkbox to the form that officers complete, they slow down, they pause, they think, ‘Why am I considering pulling this person over?’ It pushes them to use evidence of wrongdoing in place of intuition.”

But a paradoxical story serves as a reminder of the systemic work needed to affect both widespread and personal change. Eberhardt recalled a story a black police officer once told her. Working undercover, the officer walked the streets of a city and noticed a figure in the distance, who “didn’t look right.” Though he couldn’t clearly identify the figure, the officer knew he saw a black man, with his same build and height.

“So the officer decided he needed to keep an eye on him,” Eberhardt recalled.

As the officer approached a large office building with glass exterior walls, the man also approached, and as the officer looked closer, he realized the man was inside the building and was looking at him through the glass. Losing sight of the man for a moment, the officer panicked, but then he spotted him again. The officer’s pace quickened; and the man’s pace matched. Then the officer stopped, and so, too, the man stopped. Reflected in the glass, the officer was looking at himself.

“He was looking at his own eyes,” Eberhardt said. 

With a humbling sadness, that deep association of black people with criminality touches lives on all possible levels. But, Eberhardt said, reminded of Oakland’s success, “real change is possible in policing.”

“Real change is possible in many settings — sometimes the root of that change is hard and is complicated and expensive, but sometimes change can be produced by simply checking a box,” she said. “I’m hopeful that this Biased book can contribute to shifting the conversations that we’re having about race in this country right now, so that we don’t slip back in time, so that we remain hopeful and faithful — so that we have faith that we, as individuals in our institutions, can actually do better.”

In interfaith lecture, Sutton suggests 4 steps for racial equality

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Reverend Eugene Taylor Sutton speaks to a crowd of chautauquans on Tuesday, Aug 21, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy about the current atmosphere of racism we’ve been living in since the 2016 election, as well as how it is resembles and is different from the time of Martin Luther King and the initial uproar of the Civil Rights Movement. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

At the top of his lecture, “The Dream Still Lives: 50 Years after Martin Luther King Jr.,” the Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton warned the audience that they should “prepare to get angry.”

“There’s no need to walk out,” he said. “I just want you to stew where you are.”

As the third speaker in the Week Nine Interfaith Lecture Series, “Exploring Race, Religion, and Culture,” Sutton suggested how to move forward from a present plagued by social injustice and outlined the “the gap between where we are and where we want to be,” at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy. Addressing “his white brothers and sisters,” the 14th and current Episcopal Bishop of Maryland detailed the results of a Pew Research Center study that found that a majority of Americans think that race relations in the United States are “bad.”

After a brief musical interlude to sing “Age of Aquarius,” he recalled the generation of young people who attended Woodstock and crusaded for civil rights in the streets. What happened to that promised era of peace and harmony?

Born to parents “escaping the worst of segregation,” Sutton grew up in Washington, D.C., where he attended Mt. Bethel Baptist Church.

“In church, we could hold our head up high,” Sutton said. “We could be somebody there. Because a lot of the rest of the week, we were nobodies.”

His family eventually moved to a different part of D.C., becoming the only black family living in that area. Sutton and his brother played with the neighborhood children, until, within two years, all of them moved away.

“When I speak today … I’m speaking as one who had to overcome what a society was telling him and all of his friends,” Sutton said. “Where are we now, 50 years after King? Are we better now than we were when I was growing up?”

In many ways, he acknowledged, the nation has pursued racial justice in concrete ways: There are no more “White Only” signs, there are more black individuals on television and film and “the president has a black person in his administration.”

“There are fewer instances of, ‘She or he is the first black person to,’ and you fill in the blank,” said Sutton, who himself is the first black person to serve as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

“Forty years earlier, at the time of Martin Luther King Jr., I, with my dark, black, beautiful skin, would not be welcome as a worshipper in more than half of the churches in my diocese,” he said.

While celebrating the struggles of those who forced a greater commitment to racial equity in the United States, Sutton also recognized the “millions of descendants of slaves who are entrapped, this day, in a pernicious circle of hopelessness, poverty and rage” due to segregation, redlining and inferior schools.

“The widespread assumption that everyone and anyone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is a lie,” he said, citing statistics proving racial biases in drug arrests and stop-and-frisks, as well as widespread reported anti-black sentiment. Everyone has implicit biases, Sutton contended, especially those who claim the opposite.

“I would love for a candidate to say something like, ‘You know, I was raised like you and everybody else — in a racist society,’ ” Sutton said. “ ‘I have to struggle against that racism in my own life every day.’ … We can’t be honest about what we’re struggling with. We know, if you’ve been to any of the other talks this week, a good case has been made that, basically, we swim, all of us, in an ocean of racism. (We are) just like a fish in the water who doesn’t know it’s wet.”

He referenced a sleep analysis study that found that doctors exhibit “more racist attitudes” toward their patients when they are sleep-deprived.

“Here’s what I want you to know, my white brothers and sisters: I am very invested in your getting to sleep,” he said. “I know some of you are going to begin right now. Rest up, people.”

Debunking the belief that a younger, more accepting generation will eradicate racism — “I’ve heard that for the last 50 years” — Sutton described a systematic structure that produces complicit citizens. He offered four suggestions for those interested in tangible, anti-racist actions.

The first is to commit to “civil conversations” — in other words, “no more name calling.” Sutton lives in Baltimore — the target of President Donald Trump’s July Twitter tirade about a population of rodents apparently overwhelming the city — and wrote a letter to Trump that every major Christian leader in Maryland signed unanimously.

“When you say ‘vermin infested,’ we know what you mean,” Sutton said. “Human beings don’t live there. It’s only said about brown and black communities. … We need to have civil conversations, but if we’re going to do that, stop calling names and stop that language.”

Sutton’s second suggestion is to “remind ourselves that social critique of our nation’s history and present life is both healthy and patriotic.” He cited his friend William Sloane Coffin, a chaplain and activist, who claimed that there were three types of patriotism, two bad and one good. Patriotism, according to Coffin, in the form of “a loveless criticism” or “uncritical love” is unproductive and harmful to democracy.

“The only chance that a liberal democracy such as ours (has to) succeed is if there is an informed populace deeply in love with their country, who love it enough to challenge, critique and protest when the nation does not live up to its ideals,” Sutton said. “The nation’s founders knew that dissent in a democracy is not a synonym for disloyalty. In fact, what is really unpatriotic is blind subservience.”

It is best, Sutton maintained, to participate in an extended “lovers quarrel” with the United States — a necessarily contentious relationship he connected to that of God’s love of the world.

“I can’t think of a more narcissistic, self-centered religion than, ‘It’s all about me going to heaven, and my God,’ ” he said. “What kind of religion is that?”

His third suggestion revolved around “(calling) out the perniciousness of racist language and behaviors.”

He explained how cognitive dissonance enables individuals to hold contradictory ideas in their minds simultaneously. For example: “I voted for Trump,” “I am not racist,” and “Trump made a racist comment.”

“Don’t leave it to black and brown people to say, ‘That’s racist,’ ” he said. “You, a Republican Trump supporter, you need to be the first out there to say that, but, sadly, where is that leadership?” 

Sutton’s fourth and final suggestion is for financial reparations, a word that literally means “to repair what has been broken.” The act, he testified, is not “throwing money at the problem of racism,” but it would help heal centuries of the “denial of humanity, jobs, education and any reasonable chance of wealth and livelihood in this nation.” This history of racism has “left a scar not just on black persons, but on the souls of white persons.” 

“I learned something in Sunday school, at Mt. Bethel Baptist Church,” he said. “I learned that if you steal something from someone, you got to pay it back.” 

Descendants of slaves are among “the most loyal group of Americans you’ll find,” Sutton argued, and black Americans are “not leaving.”

“We built this country,” he said. “We’re here. We’re going to stick around. Part of our thing is to make America squirm as much as we possibly can until she lives up to her soaring creeds about freedom and justice for all. You’re welcome.”

Reparations is not a transfer of money from individual white people to individual black people, he clarified. He himself would “pay to repair this damage” because “this is the mess we have inherited.”

“Now if you want to help me buy a house in Chautauqua…” he said. “We could GoFund this. That’s not reparations.”

He proposed $500 billion, half of one year’s worth of deficit, and contrasted it with the $6 trillion the U.S. government has spent on wars since 2001. That money could be allocated to schools, job training, housing, environmental sustainability and nursing homes. 

“How do you repay 450 years of abject degradation?” Sutton asked. “But unless we do something, we are in a moral ditch. That’s the problem between whites and blacks. Every encounter, there’s a background facade. It’s, ‘You stole from my people,’ or, ‘I know that my people did, or our nation did, but I am not willing to do anything about it.’ ”

Concluding with Micah 6:8 — a verse that asks, “What does the Lord require of you?” — Sutton urged the Hall of Philosophy audience to love kindness, do justice and “walk humbly before your God.”

“Nobody has all the answers,” he said. “But I have a feeling that if we can just be kind enough and committed enough to justice, the answers will come.”

The Rev. williams Talks Myth of Race and ‘Social Madness’ of Whiteness

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Author, teacher and founder of Center for Transformative Change Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams speaks about how culture and a social construct uphold racism in America as part of Week Nine’s Interfaith Lecture theme of “Exploring Race, Religion, and Culture” Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019 at the Hall of Philosophy. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“This is at least 2.0, if not Advanced Placement,” said the Rev. angel Kyodo williams, prefacing her afternoon discussion on the intersection of race, religion, history and culture.

A multiracial, black and queer Zen Buddhist teacher, williams delivered her lecture, “Race in America: Myths, Madness, Redemption & Belonging,” at 2 p.m. Tuesday, August 20 in the Hall of Philosophy, continuing Week Nine’s Interfaith Lecture Series, “Exploring Race, Religion, and Culture.”

“We often think about race and racial justice in terms of the law and … advocacy,” williams said. “But we all know that, actually, human beings don’t shift so much around the law as we do around hearts and minds. We have never had a conversation about race in America; we’ve had a lot of talking at it, we’ve had a lot of talking about it. … A conversation is where hearts and minds get changed.”

Heralded as “the most intriguing African American Buddhist” by Library Journal and “one of our wisest voices on social evolution” by “On Being with Krista Tippett,” williams has been transforming society through transforming individuals’ inner lives for over 20 years.

“Love and justice are not two,” williams said. “Without inner change, there can be no outer change. Without collective change, no change matters.”

America, williams said, rests upon myths deeply embedded in institutions, which leave out marginalized people who — metaphorically and physically — built this nation.

“We leave these people out of our history, and so we are left with the myth of an America that is and has been founded upon meritocracy,” she said. “The myth of our country is a country that has come about as a result of meritocracy, the hard work of people — a limited number of people — most often defined and relegated to a small corner of heterosexual, white, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon males.”

With a nearly 400-year history of oppression in this country, williams said that these myths are blindly supporting ideas of opportunistic nationalism and freedom in the United States. This renders people confused and dazed by ignorance, she said, wondering: “What is wrong with people that are not able to take advantage of those opportunities?”

However, the metaphorical “race” — as williams put it — was never equal. People who are slow to cross the finish line are deemed incapable, ill-equipped and untalented; conversely, those who win the race, are dubbed talented and “endowed with great capacity,” she said.

“We have this enormous gap, not just in our sense of a race divide, but actually in our imagination of who each other are and what it is we are capable of — no one acknowledging the fact that, actually, the race began and the firing gun went off and a certain set of people were allowed to run and run, and run further,” williams said. “But before they were allowed to run and run further, they tied up the other folks. … They got to tie them up first, bind them, leave them behind the finish line and start running — 200 years, give or take.”

The result is a narrowed view of the “fruits of the meritocracy”; the success of some is to the detriment of others, she said. This is now imprinted in American culture, and “culture is not so easily unsettled,” she said.

The remnants are left in U.S. institutions like the justice system and even the U.S. Constitution, which intended to exclude women, people of color and immigrants — nearly 30% of Tuesday’s Hall of Philosophy attendees, she argued.

“(The Constitution) certainly didn’t intend for us to be in this space together,” she told the crowd. “And it certainly, certainly didn’t intend for me to be up here in front of you. We continue to reference this document and pin all our hopes and prayers, our sense of possibility and potential, on a document and the system and the myths, as if that does not … degrade us.”

Such a circular approach created a sense of madness for williams — that she continues to participate and pin her hopes and optimism in a system set out to belittle nearly 50% of the population. Such a system positions “whiteness” as the “height of human achievement,” she said — an unscientifically supported claim that has indoctrinated a population.

“It has created, for my white siblings, a reduced inability … and induced them into a kind of social madness, so that we’re not able to actually see and recognize that the brokenness in our society is — and not primarily a brokenness that affects people of color — a brokenness that affects all of us. … This is a large-scale social illness that has kept us from each other and kept us from being able to recognize and relate to each other with a … capacity for humanity that is our birthright.”

Comparing this phenomenon to taking a pill that would remove all feelings of empathy, compassion and humanity, williams said that “pill” has been passed on for generations, and such emotions are now obsolete. The pill has been so prolific, she said, that society can’t remember when it was “seduced” into the idea of whiteness.

“We no longer recognize, even though it’s written in the history books, the ways that laws were set up to induce us and participate in a system of enslaving human beings and treating them as property to be traded like currency,” she said. “We no longer, therefore, recognize that we have reduced our collective humanity to a system, to an idea, to a myth, that exists for no other reason but for profit or gain.”

But dismantling these myths is greater than tackling racism — it’s about attacking a culture rooted in celebrating whiteness, she said. Above the scholarly works, historical evidence, media, lectures and seminars, williams said the answer is an internal conversation.

“If we’ve been seduced into an idea of who we are …  or who we are not, I don’t know how it would be possible to be the fullest expression of ourselves or step into the fullest expression of our humanity, if we don’t actually know who we are,” she said. “If we’re happy with the pill that has induced us into this myth, then we should just carry on. But if we’re just a little bit curious as to what it would be like to not have the myth of race obscuring our vision, our sense of possibility, our sense of promise, … then we owe it ourselves to ask these questions, be in these conversations and redeem ourselves and generations behind us.”

History Hidden in Plain Sight: Debby Irving Speaks About her ‘Waking up Process’

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Debby Irving, author of the book, “Waking Up White,” speaks to her chautauqua audience about her experiences realizing that there was more she could, and should, be doing to make the world more equal for people of color and minorities during her afternoon lecture on Monday, Aug 19, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

U.S. history, at times, can be a distorted history. Everybody knows that Martin Luther King Jr. “had a dream” — that one day, all people would be free of race-based judgment. It’s a “beautiful aspiration,” according to Debby Irving, but it’s also one that is advantageous to white people.

“This is all I heard, that he had a dream,” Irving said. “And I could say it: That one day we would judge each other by the content of our character and not the color of our skin, which is a beautiful aspiration — and that’s also really convenient for people who want to be colorblind.”

Growing up, Irving, racial justice educator and author of Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race, never knew about King outside of how he was portrayed by white people.

“What I didn’t know about, for instance, with Dr. King was his incredible body of work around power,” Irving said, “and his power analysis, called the ‘triple evils,’ in which militarism, racism and poverty cycle together — it’s kind of a three-part synergy holding racism in place.”

Irving spoke to Chautauquans about her “waking up process” on Monday in the Hall of Philosophy. She began her process after the first inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009 — a time when she saw people in her “white circles and spaces” who were “clinking wine glasses to being a post-racial country.”

For reasons she couldn’t explain at the time, this didn’t feel right to her. As someone from the Norman Rockwell-esque suburb of Winchester, Massachusetts, she would need to build the necessary understanding and vocabulary to unpack this feeling.

Irving described herself as the U.S. “poster child” of the uninformed, and “waking up white” is how she describes her process of becoming more attuned to race and racism. As a child, she formulated ideas about race without anyone even uttering the word “race” — Winchester was an affluent suburb north of Boston, where talking about racism was considered rude.

“Now, imagine somebody coming to my town and saying to me, ‘Oh Debby, this is where you grew up? My God, all I see is racism,’ ” Irving said.

Had she chosen to respond, Irving would have said something like, “It’s comments like that, that keep (racism) alive. If you would stop talking about it, racism would go away.”

Her childhood normalized Irving into whiteness — everything and everybody around her resembled what she had learned to be all-American, from figures like Rockwell, a white illustrator whose work was regularly featured in publications like The Saturday Evening Post.

“I’m seeing these images, and how convenient for me that what I’m being told is all-American looks exactly like my house — and my neighborhood, and my parents,” Irving said. “Everywhere I go, I’m having my own version of the all-American life being reflected back at me.”

Irving never asked, “Mom and Dad, where is everybody?” She never asked why all her parents’ friends were white, why all her friends were white, why all the teachers and the doctors were white. Not asking these questions is what it means to be normalized into whiteness.

“When I use the term ‘whiteness,’ I don’t just mean the optics of whiteness,” Irving said. “I mean all of the cultural behaviors; the beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s appropriate and inappropriate. Who’s beautiful, who’s not. All of those norms are being baked into me and my belief system, without me knowing it.”

And like many children, she was taught to be polite, to never complain or be unpleasant. Talking about politics and religion, which are foundational to the perpetuation of racism, in polite company was, and still is, considered taboo, which severs any and all pathways to discussing racism.

“These are ways that I remained in an information vacuum my entire childhood,” Irving said.

This was the post-World War II era, amidst prevalent rhetoric about the possibilities of people from all over the world coming to America and seeking refuge. The United States was portrayed as a safe harbor for all people — those willing to put in the hard work necessary — to pursue the American Dream.

Because of her surroundings and environment, Irving unconsciously bought into the idea that one particular type of person — a white, cis, Christian man — was naturally, or biologically, more valuable than others.

“I think we need to meet the times where we are, and we are in a very tense time,” Irving said. “I am not going to mince words — I want to give you what my definition of ‘white supremacy’ is.”

Despite being raised by loving people, she believes that she was raised in a white supremacist household; a household that upheld the ideology that all people are not created equal. That white people are superior to others. And the modern era continues to uphold the idea that certain people have more value than others — Irving told Chautauquans to “merely look at the currency” in their wallets.

From day-to-day interactions, like Irving standing up at book signings to shake the first white man’s hand that she encounters, to the whitewashing of important historical moments and information, white supremacist ideology runs deep in American life.

The chosen narrative of King is just one example. Other aspects of American history, such as “Black Wall Street,” a thriving and affluent black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the early 20th century where numerous successful businesses existed, have been left out of the American historical narrative.

If people, like Irving, don’t understand Black Wall Street’s proliferation and ultimate disintegration as a result of white rage, in addition to the hundreds of situations that have disadvantaged black people, then they are “sitting ducks” in the level of discrimination present in the United States.

“The other thing that I am a sitting duck for is not even seeing the systems that have been structured all around me to advantage families like mine,” Irving said. “I don’t know anyone who had a harder time wrapping their heads around systemic racism than me. The thing that finally helped me understand it has to do with the G.I. Bill.”

Officially known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, the G.I. Bill was designed to benefit World War II veterans in a number of areas, such as housing and education.

“I want to focus on the housing portion of the G.I. Bill,” Irving said. “Black and brown veterans were largely cut out of the G.I. Bill, even though it said nowhere in it that it was a white-only bill, because there were already barriers all through U.S. systems that made it nearly impossible for black and brown returning veterans to access it.”

These preexisting barriers stem back to the Great Depression, when the New Deal took a heavy focus on erecting new housing and infrastructure across the country.

“(The suburbanization of the U.S.) is all happening, and the FHA, the Federal Housing Authority, and also a loan-arm of the government, got created because, ‘How do we get people coming out of a depression to buy a home?’ ” Irving said. “We have to make a loan, and that loan gets named the mortgage.”

With the mortgage, the FHA needed a set of risk guidelines to assure the government and banks didn’t lose out on their loans.

“The FHA decides — and writes this into their document — that the presence of even one or two non-white families can undermine real estate values,” Irving said. “And so with that government warning in mind, private banks all over the country lay out maps of their cities and towns, and they engage in a practice known as redlining.”

Black neighborhoods were the ones redlined, or the ones whose residents were systematically denied financial services, leaving white neighborhoods to be advantaged.

Filling in these historical gaps, Irving said, allows people to change their perceptions on economic inequality, which didn’t result from white people working harder than others, but rather four centuries of governmental policies that have “intentionally and unintentionally diverted wealth to white, wealthy people again and again and again.”

History has been hiding in plain sight, according to Irving.

“It’s a horrific history,” Irving said, “and the longer we deny it, I believe the more horrible it becomes, and I’m all for leaning into that now.”

Irving said she believes in shifting resources, and that reparations have to be “both material and psychological.” But she also said there’s more internal work that white people can start now and continue to work on every day: to normalize talking about race in a productive and progressive manner; to understand the prejudices and social normalization that not only live within society, but also oneself; and to understand that this work is a layered journey.

“I have come to love the truth, no matter how painful — and it can be incredibly painful — because of that old adage that ‘the truth will set us free’; there’s also something about when the truth gets told,” Irving said. “It unleashes a kind of energy that propels us to the next layer.”

Heather McGhee Speaks on Journey to Uncover Racism’s Impacts in Society

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Demos Distinguished Senior Fellow and former president Heather McGhee speaks to a crowd of Chautauquans about the hazards of racism not only to racial minorities, but to white people and the world as a whole also, recounting a story of a man named Gary from North Carolina who came to her, admitting his prejudices and wanting to change to, “become a better American,” during her afternoon lecture in the Hall of Philosophy. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

For the past two years, Heather McGhee has been on a walk — one that has taken her from Mississippi, to Alaska to California — a walk that began after an unexpected phone call.

McGhee, author and distinguished senior fellow at the think tank Demos, began her interfaith lecture on Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy by taking Chautauquans back to the “racially charged” summer of 2016, when she made her first appearance on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” The show invites guests — typically journalists and policymakers — to discuss current issues, and viewer calls are a staple of the program.

Originally, McGhee planned to touch on issues like rising student loan debt, raising the minimum wage for low-paid workers and voting rights during the program.

“But about halfway through the show, I got a call with a question that I was absolutely not expecting,” McGhee said.

The call was from Garry Civitello — a white man from North Carolina who openly admitted his prejudices, particularly toward black men, on live television. But Civitello wasn’t seeking to spread his prejudiced preconceptions; he was trying to change them.

“ ‘I want to know what (McGhee) can do to help me become a better American,’ ” McGhee said, quoting Civitello. “So there I am, in this seat, with this earpiece, … and I just said the first thing that came to mind, which was, ‘Thank you.’ ”

She thanked Civitello for his courage to admit something most would never admit.

“I also thanked (Civitello) because I felt that he had opened up a conversation that, at the time, was becoming electrified and charged; and in the static and the noise of all that, we weren’t hearing each other at all,” McGhee said.

But most importantly, McGhee was thankful for Civitello’s acknowledgment that overcoming his prejudices would make him a better American. So she offered him advice on how to do just that — she recommended he get to know black families, read about the contributions African Americans have made to the United States throughout history, and if he’s a religious person, to join an interracial church.

And then her discussion with Civitello was over, but his journey was not — his journey, or “walk” as he described it, had just begun.

Civitello later told McGhee, “It was like you wiped the dirt from a window, and let the light in.” He held himself accountable for his discriminatory fears and anxieties — prejudices that affect the daily lives of black Americans.

“He has a responsibility to get over (his fears) and he knows that,” McGhee said. “One of the other things he did was to start taking little pictures on his iPhone of all the Confederate flags he saw on people’s jackets, on their bumper stickers, on people’s lawns. For him, before his ‘walk,’ as he calls it, he didn’t really think about (Confederate memorabilia).”

Civitello is on a walk to overcome his prejudice for personal reasons, according to McGhee. Through his walk to rid himself of what he described as a weight on his chest, McGhee was forced to ask herself: What are the costs of racism to white people?

She said she needed to focus on this question because American society has been sold into “a zero-sum way of looking at the world.”

“What’s good for you is bad for me; my gain has to come at your expense,” McGhee said. “That’s really the worldview that’s being sold so often right now, particularly when it comes to race. ‘If there are more immigrants of color in the country coming from … Central America and the Caribbean and Asia, well — that must be why the factories are closing. That must be why the schools have less money.’ ”

McGhee thought extensively about this zero-sum paradigm and had an “a-ha” moment — many racial and economic justice advocates have only been talking about how racism benefits white people, and not how it harms them, as well. If this sentiment holds true, then McGhee asks, “How can a multi-racial democracy thrive?”

Currently, Americans — especially white Americans — are buying the idea that “some groups of people are simply worth more than others.” It’s an old belief that McGhee said is not just present in modern America, but is vigorously marketed. 

“My journey these past two years has been to ask the question, ‘Yes, they are buying it; the Garrys of the world are buying it,’ ” McGhee said. “But what are they paying for it? And what have we all paid for it over the course of our history?”   

Two years ago, McGhee began her own walk — she has traveled throughout the United States to uncover the ways in which racism is strategically and politically employed to divide neighbors. She has been exploring how this deliberate use of racism alters everything in U.S. society, from wages down to the air different citizens breathe.

“One of the most profound ways that this zero-sum lie has shaped America has been to make cross-racial solidarity between working class people almost impossible,” McGhee said. “This has happened — it’s been a tool of division to undermine collective action for all of our economic history.”

As this zero-sum lie exists and thrives in the United States, workers frequently act against their own best interests. She witnessed factory workers at an auto-manufacturing plant in Canton, Mississippi, vote against unionization. It was a divisive vote, and had the majority of workers voted in favor of unionizing, they would have received higher wages, health care and other benefits. McGhee wanted to know why the majority of workers turned these benefits down.

Many of the factory workers viewed unions as a system to benefit black people.

“It seemed that the word ‘union’ itself had become a dog whistle with code for the North,” McGhee said, “for undeserving people of color who need the union’s help to compensate, perhaps, for some flaw in their character.”

Elsewhere, she has talked with fast food workers of all races and ethnicities at restaurants like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Popeye’s and Domino’s Pizza who have come together to advocate for a $15-hourly wage. One worker, Terrence, said the uniting factor between all the employees is that “they all get up and work,” that all of the employees, of all races, are struggling and should fight together for what’s right.

So these are the material costs of racism, but what about the spiritual ones? In the midst of discussions centered on systematic financial racism and how segregation is to everybody’s detriment, McGhee said people would “turn to how they felt, on a soul level.”

She quoted Jim Wallis, American theologian and activist, who referred to whiteness as an idol, something that separates people from God.

“ ‘It gives us an identity that is false, one filled with wrongful pride, one that perpetuates both injustice and oppression,” McGhee said, quoting Wallis. “He says, ‘For American democracy to be real for all its citizens, we must die to whiteness.’ ”

The identity of whiteness was created to establish who holds societal privilege.

“It was identity created for violent, oppressive profit, to say who had the privileges of our society and who did not,” McGhee said. “So (Wallis) says, ‘Only if we die to whiteness, can we become alive to our true identity, as human beings of one race, the human race.’ ”

McGhee believes that the zero-sum paradigm can be rejected, and everybody can be welcoming to people of all races, and come to realize the societal benefits from that inclusion. She visited Lewiston, Maine, a rural town that had been depopulated due to mills and factories moving out of the area.

“But towards the end of the main street, you could see it came alive,” McGhee said. “And it came alive with the shops and businesses of black, Muslim immigrants from Africa. … And they have reanimated this town.”

Lives are being transformed across the country by interracial community relationships in towns like Lewiston, according to McGhee — a narrative subverted by rhetoric leading many Americans to believe that immigrants are dangerous, or that there should be a Muslim ban.

“But that doesn’t have to be our story, does it?” McGhee asked. “It doesn’t have to be our story. If a man named Garry, who spent most of his days, and still today, watching TV with his dog, can reach out to the most unlikely person — a black, dreadlocked, progressive woman from Brooklyn — and forge a friendship and change, well then for Garry’s sake, don’t you think we all can?”

Hardy Merriman Calls for Nonviolent Resistance as Method of Change

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President of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, Hardy Merriman speaks during the Interfaith Lecture Series about “Power From the Bottom Up: Civil Resistance as a Driver of Rights, Freedom, and Justice,” on Tuesday, August 13, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy.
MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In his first visit to Chautauqua Institution, Hardy Merriman had something to prove: Nonviolent civil resistance is a more effective sociopolitical strategy than violent insurgence.   

For the sustainability of democracy, for women’s rights, immigrants, labor, minority communities — for all human rights causes — Merriman believes nonviolent resistance is an essential collective tool for any activist.

“There’s clear evidence to show that civil resistance movements have a crucial role to play in advancing peace, democracy, accountability, justice and human rights in the world,” Merriman said.

Merriman, president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, delivered his lecture, “Power from the Bottom Up: Civil Resistance as a Driver For Rights, Freedom and Justice,” on Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy, as part of the Week Eight Interfaith Lecture Series, “The Power of Soft Power.”

Using social science methods and a data set commissioned by the ICNC in 2007, Merriman explored the differences between nonviolent and violent action, the relative effectiveness of those actions and a new conception of what it means to be an “activist.”

To begin, Merriman first described civil resistance movements as having a concerned-citizen structure, one that is based on two types of acts — acts of commission and acts of omission.

“In all these movements, people voluntarily mobilize; no one paid them to mobilize, they weren’t forced,” Merriman said.

That mobilization, Merriman said, can either be predicated on acts of commission — people doing things they are not supposed to do, not expected to do, or forbidden by law from doing — or acts of omission, when people “refuse to do what they were supposed to, expected to do or required by law to do.”

These acts can include strikes, protests, boycotts — more conventionally “seen” methods — as well as divestment and withdrawals of support for particular institutions, all of which, Merriman said, challenge the status quo and the fact that “power comes from obedience.”

Hardy Merriman speaks during the Interfaith Lecture Series about “Power From the Bottom Up: Civil Resistance as a Driver of Rights, Freedom, and Justice,” on Tuesday, August 13, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy. MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“When we do the things we’re supposed to do, this creates the status quo, and certain people and groups have learned to really benefit from that, profit enormously and then sometimes take that power and use it in ways we don’t like,” Merriman said. “When we withdraw our cooperation and obedience, we can make that status quo costly, and shift the balance of power in society.”

Perhaps inherent in all people is the desire for change — even before it bubbles over into wide and collective action, Merriman said, citing John Adams, who described this concept in 1815 with respect to the American Revolution.

“A history of military operations is not a history of the American Revolution,” Merriman quoted. “The revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people. It was substantially affected before hostilities commenced.”

Providing examples from the last few years, months and days, including nonviolent movements in South Korea, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Sudan and Hong Kong, Merriman said nonviolent civil resistance is “not culturally specific” and is a “global phenomenon.” As part of the ICNC and directed by American political scientist and professor Erica Chenoweth, a research project was developed in 2007 to help characterize this phenomenon. A data set of events spanning from 1900 to 2006 was compiled and analyzed for the effectiveness of nonviolent and violent movements; the research was used to develop Chenoweth’s award-winning book Why Civil Resistance Works, co-authored by Maria J. Stephan.

The findings offer a better understanding of maximum objectives, which “fundamentally change a government or who is governing,” and what it takes to fulfill them. On average, Merriman said, “nonviolent civil resistance movements were able to achieve their stated goals 53% of the time over the last century,” whereas violent movements achieved their goals 26% of the time. According to Freedom House, authoritarianism has been rising and democracy has been declining in the last 13 years, Merriman said.

But Adams’ perspective that “the revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people,” is not something young people are being exposed to in formal education settings, Merriman said.

“Should children learn this?” Merriman asked. His answer: “Absolutely.”

And the need for educational reform is not limited to educating people about nonviolent civil resistance; it pervades every aspect of moving toward a more nonviolent-oriented world, including in what makes an activist, an activist, and how those activists can be better assisted.

Activists are not just “people with bull horns,” Merriman said. Rather, activists are all types of citizens with diverse skill sets.

“Numbers really matter,” Merriman said. “If you want to win, you need a lot of people, which means you may have to reach out to people who are different from you. You may have to build coalitions; you may have to build unity in a society that’s been divided and ruled.”

To become more effective activists, better organizers and dissidents, Merriman said, an “enabling environment” for nonviolent resisters must be created. In an effort to create that environment, Merriman co-authored Right to Assist with Peter Ackerman. Preventing Mass Atrocities From a Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) to a Right to Assist (RtoA) Campaigns of Civil Resistance, or RtoA for short, is part of the ICNC’s special report series and was released in May. The report provides an extensive outline of needs for nonviolent civil resisters, mostly focusing on a reimagining of how activists can be trained. 

We should not shrink away from these challenges, even though they’re complicated. We need to develop these ideas further. We are at our strongest in the world, and our safest in the world, when we work in solidarity with others and fight together for rights, freedom and justice.” Hardy Merriman President, International Center on Nonviolent Conflict

“Consider this, in any other profession — a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a soldier — they have institutions and established processes to support their learning, development of skills and the practice of individuals in those professions,” Merriman said. “Activists have virtually none of this.”

RtoA suggests a more vocational style of education for activists, one that could be implemented in schools, professional associations, unions, clubs and religious groups.

Merriman returned to the data, pointing to the relative success of nonviolent resistance over the last century and emphasized how remarkable it is for those activists to have achieved their goals “learning on their own time, with very little support.”

“What would it mean if they had much more rigorous support of their cultivation of knowledge, skills and mentorship with other activists?” Merriman asked.

But the assistance shouldn’t end at education, he said. Nonviolent civil resistance movements could benefit from receiving support during transitions of power and in the aftermath of those transitions. 

“Many people who have been living under an authoritarian state have been divided and ruled,” he said. “It takes time for people to build the bonds, to come back together and think about how to unify, not just about what they’re against, but also what they’re for; what do they want to win afterwards?”

The transition is the “first step,” Merriman said, and can require engaging international groups and nongovernmental sectors. That engagement, though, often presents situational challenges, including where and how transition assistance is given, and what parties — international or otherwise — offer that assistance.

“We should not shrink away from these challenges, even though they’re complicated,” Merriman said. “We need to develop these ideas further. We are at our strongest in the world, and our safest in the world, when we work in solidarity with others and fight together for rights, freedom and justice.”

Without that solidarity, a more authoritarian world is imminent, one that is “more prone to warfare, to violence, humanitarian crises and atrocities.”

“It’s a world in which human rights abuses and spreading corruption are more likely to happen, and it hampers the international community’s ability to respond to a whole other range of issues,” Merriman said.

The bad news: Democracies are backsliding and authoritarians are “on offense.”

“Some good news is that the data is very clear that grassroots activists and organizers waging nonviolent struggle are a cornerstone of defending and advancing accountable government,” Merriman said. “We need to take their work seriously and treat it with the same seriousness as any other vocation, build infrastructure that supports the development of skills and knowledge related to this work and provide much more coordinated support to these movements when they face repression and their human rights are being violated. These steps, among other approaches, can help us turn the tide.”

Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede Discusses Years of Experience with Zen Buddhism

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Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede talks about Zen Buddhism and the relationship between evil and humanity during the seventh interfaith lecture of the season. Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson and Kjolhede continue the conversation after the lecture Friday, August 9, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

On Aug. 3 in El Paso, Texas, 22 people lost their lives after a man armed with an AK-47 assault rifle opened fire at a Walmart. Just a day later, another armed gunman killed nine and wounded more than two dozen in a deadly attack in the Oregon District in Dayton, Ohio. These acts of mass violence, like the famine in Yemen, the AIDs epidemic and other global crises that affect millions, are examples of the evil that exists in this world.

Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
“Evil, suffering, violence and tragedy have been around since the beginning of humankind,” said the Rt. Rev. V Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor, who opened the Interfaith Friday lecture in the Hall of Philosophy.

So how can evil be explained? How is it that bad things can happen to good people, and vice versa?

Before joining Robinson for the Interfaith Friday conversation, Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede, abbot and director of the Rochester Zen Center, approached these questions with the three most famous words in Zen Buddhist practice.

“I. Don’t. Know,” Kjolhede said. “I don’t know, and I think this takes us into the depths of the mystical traditions of all the different religions, … ‘mystical’ meaning that which is beyond the intellectual, beyond the conceptual, that which is the intuitive or contemplative. This is what unites all religions that have a mystical aspect to them; this realm of not knowing.”

Kjolhede began his lecture by quoting a famous Chinese Zen master who once said: “To speak of a thing, misses the mark.”

“That’s what I’m up against, and that’s what anyone in speaking about Zen is up against,” he said. “Anything I say falls short, because the true essence of Zen cannot be encompassed in words — it’s beyond words.”

The Zen school of Buddhism has historically been known as the school that doesn’t rely on words, or “the school of direct experience.” Kjolhede said the point of Zen Buddhism is to get behind the words.

The word “Zen” is the transliteration of the Chinese word, “Chan.” These two words simply mean “meditation” — Zen is a practice based entirely around meditation.

“Now here comes the hard part,” Kjolhede said. “If we’re talking about God, or evil or any noun, we’re always left with what that really means.”

Buddhists believe that all truth has two sides — the conventional and the ultimate, joined together to create a two-fold reality. The conventional side is the dualisms people face throughout life: time and space, success and failure, etc.

“But then there’s this other side, which you could call the undifferentiated,” Kjolhede said. “The eternal, the absolute. And reality, or I could say enlightenment, is seeing these two sides as just two sides of reality.”

In other words, this “other side” of reality is the unknowable side.

“But you can’t speak about either side as anything except half the truth,” he said. “The truth is ‘this,’ the whole thing. In addressing the matter of evil or God, or anything … we have to talk about it from these two sides.”

Reaching the unknowable side of reality requires emptiness. According to the Buddhist belief of emptiness, nothing in the world is fixed — everything is in flux. For example, an audience member who walked into the Hall of Philosophy 20 minutes before Kjolhede’s lecture began, wasn’t the same person when they left as they were when they walked in.

Everything is insubstantial, according to Kjolhede, including God and evil. Not that evil things don’t happen — he recognizes that heinous crimes and cruelty occur all over the world — but evil is not a fixed thing, it’s not permanent, it’s not a thing as it is in other religions.

“That’s not just what I believe; it doesn’t matter what I believe,” he said. “It’s what I’ve experienced.”

Kjolhede’s experience with Zen has spanned 49 years. Like his teacher, Philip Kapleau, Kjolhede became invested in the practice after an experience that left him “shredded.” He was arrested after being caught with peyote as a 21-year-old, and his night in prison was one Kjolhede described as a “night in hell.”

“I was with 13 other convicted prisoners convicted of murder; heroin addicts screaming and vomiting all night,” he said. “This is the suburban kid who grew up in Rochester, Michigan, by the way. … I realized that I had to change my life.”

Originally, Zen bored him — he was looking for stimulating philosophy, rather than rigid practice. Now, he believes, “a little bit of understanding inclinith one’s mind to philosophy, deeper understanding inclinith one’s mind to religion,” once said by Francis Bacon.

“I believe that,” Kjolhede said. “I believe it because to go to the depths of reality, to the depths of our own nature, requires us to go beyond this rational, logical mind.”

When addressing the question, “How can bad things happen to good people and vice versa?” Zen Buddhists don’t rely on any doctrinal points such as reincarnation or Karma, which states that everything results from a chain of cause and effect.

“In Zen, we don’t need to stay there in talking about Karma,” he said. “I would say that in Tibetan Buddhism, (Karma) is more of a thing. In fact, I’ve seen real, serious debates between Tibetan Buddhists about whether you need to believe in reincarnation to come to enlightenment. In Zen, that’s beside the point. In Zen, it’s this moment, it’s now. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in rebirth, or past life or future life. It’s, ‘Are you present now?’ That’s the important thing.”

Katherine Ozment’s Lecture on Grace Illuminates Secular Journey for Answers

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Katherine Ozment began her interfaith lecture on grace by harkening back to a time when that word wasn’t part of her vocabulary.

She was watching a Greek Orthodox ritual in the church across the street from where she and her family lived, when her son asked, “Why don’t we do that?”

“I said, ‘Because we’re not Greek Orthodox,’ ” said Ozment, a journalist and author of Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age. “My son asked, ‘Well what are we?’ And I blurted out without thinking: ‘We’re nothing.’ ”

At 2 p.m. Thursday, August 8 in the Hall of Philosophy, Ozment discussed “Grace without God,” part of Week Seven’s interfaith lecture series, “Grace: A Celebration of Extraordinary Gifts.”

Ozment, who was raised Presbyterian, said she and her husband assumed they’d find the answers to life’s questions outside of organized religion.

“(But) when I said that, I felt like I’d really failed my son,” she said. “Not just because I hadn’t given him a clear sense of identity and belonging, but also as a writer, because I didn’t have the words for what we were doing and how we were living, and the values we were trying to impart. I felt like I had really shirked my responsibility.”

After that realization, Ozment said she went to her editor at Boston Magazine and pitched an idea for a story about how Boston families were raising children in the absence of religion.

“(My editor) had two young children, so he said, ‘Please write that story,’ ” she said. “ ‘Because I need to know, everyone I know needs to know. There are so many of us doing this right now.’ ”

While researching the story, Ozment said she encountered statistics from Pew Research Center that showed a dramatic increase in the amount of “nones” — people who check “none of the above” in surveys about religion affiliation — in the United States.

“When Pew came out with their new numbers in 2012, they’d lept from 5% to 20% (of ‘nones’),” she said. “Since then, the number has grown to 25%. In addition, millennials are driving this movement. At that time, 2012, 33% of millennials said they were religiously unaffiliated. Now, that number is up to 39% or 40%.”

After Ozment wrote her article, she went to give a talk to a group of atheists in Boston who had become her friends.

“One guy I’ll never forget raised his hand at the end of the talk and said, ‘I know why I left the church, and I know why my wife left the church,’ ” she said. “ ‘We don’t really want to go back; it doesn’t really feel like home to us anymore. But I don’t know where to go instead. I don’t know where to find a place for my two young children where we can escape the commercial forces in society.’ ”

Ozment realized she didn’t have an answer for him.

“I had presented the issue, but I realized I had to focus my energy on going out and finding out the answer to the question, ‘What do we do now?’ ” she said. “Because to walk away from something that has provided so much for so long, without asking ‘What are we going to do instead?,’ I think, is a shirking of responsibility. I think generations to come deserve more thought than that.”

So Ozment began her three-year journey around the country, researching the answers to the questions she’d uncovered.

“I traveled around to meet people either in houses of worship, in families’ homes, in gatherings of Humanists and atheists and secular Buddhists, trying to find examples of what I termed ‘grace without God,’ ” she said. “The things that religion once gave us — how do we find it in a secular way?”

During her journey, Ozment said she encountered many people who were burned out by the rituals common in many faiths, despite their possible benefits.

“I discovered a professor at Harvard named Michael Pewitt who studies ancient Chinese philosophy,” she said. “In a talk I attended, he talked about how what rituals really do for us is allow us to create an ‘as-if world.’ We walk into a ritual space, we enact a ritual that allows us to act as if we are living in harmony with one another, as if we are in harmony in ourselves, and we are rising to the occasion.”

By way of example, Pewitt described how after a monarch died in ancient China, there was a need to bring in a new leader.

“There might be rivalries or potential violence,” Ozment said. “And there was a ritual in which the leaders would stand in the formation of the celestial bodies during this handover of power. That reminded people, in a ritualistic way, the importance of harmony and of keeping everything together. That here, we act as if we live in harmony. Here, we act as if this is a smooth transition.”

In a ritual, Ozment said it’s possible to find “an elevation, an increase of yourself in the direction that you want.”

At the end of her quest for answers, Ozment published Grace Without God, and included in the epilogue a letter to her children concerning the things that she’d learned.

“For years you’ve been asking me the big questions, like miniature Greek philosophers, Catholic theologians or Buddhist monks,” she read. “You walk up to me as I wash dishes, or unpack groceries, or pay bills, and say, ‘What happens when we die?’ ‘Why are we here?’ ‘Who is God?’ ”

Ozment said, while she fears she knows very little, she wanted to dedicate the letter in her epilogue to the answers to those questions.

“No. 1: Your life is a privilege; live it well, and seek to help others live well, too,” she said. “No. 2: Find your people. Find friends that share your values, but not necessarily your beliefs. No. 3: Learn the religious stories. They are part of your heritage and your history, whether you like it or not. Study, too, the rich history of non-belief. Learn about the doubters and atheists and secular Humanists, who have likewise shaped our world.”

For her fourth point, Ozment said she encouraged her kids to “mark time with ritual.”

“Rituals help us feel connected through time to those of us who came before, and those who will come after,” she said. “Create new holidays, solstice parties, harvest festivals, baby namings, that speak to where you’ve come from, who you are and who you want to be.

And for Ozment’s fifth point, she reminded her children to “open yourself to awe and wonder.”

“Visit art museums, climb mountains and read poetry,” she said. “Pay attention, too, to the mundane. Notice the cracks in the sidewalk, the green of the leaves. Marvel at the full harvest moon, low in the autumn sky. The two-week-old baby in her mother’s arms. Don’t get so busy that you forget that we are all living in a mystery.”

Rabbi Saul Berman Discusses Role of Prayer, Free Will and Divine Intervention in Judaism

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Rabbi Saul J. Bernam speaks to the chautauquan congregation on Aug 2, 2019, as a part of the Institution’s Interfaith Friday series, on the purpose on evil and suffering, and what roles free will and divine intervention truly play in our indivual lives, and in the spiritual bug picture in the Hall of Philosophy. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

For Week Six’s Interfaith Friday Series in the Hall of Philosophy, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor, posed a series of questions to Rabbi Saul Berman, who spoke on behalf of Modern Orthodox Judaism.

Berman attended Yeshiva University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree and was ordained. He then studied law at New York University, and earned a master’s degree in political science at the University of California, Berkeley. Now, Berman balances teaching as a professor at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva, and at the Columbia University School of Law.

What follows is an abridged version of Berman’s conversation. Berman and Robinson’s remarks have been condensed for clarity.


Robinson: Was the call to Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac — was that asking Abraham to bend over backwards for God?

Berman: No. The Jewish tradition views that as a divine test and the test to Abraham was two-fold. One, would he be obedient? Two, would he use his judgment at the final moment to turn away from such action and to know that neither he nor anyone else could claim the right to take life at the sound of God that only he heard? Different Jewish commentators place greater or lesser emphasis on one or the other of those sides in the Bible. I believe that was a dual test and that Abraham succeeded. He succeeded, first, in his expression of willingness to submit to the divine command. But he also succeeded in gaining the understanding out of that experience that one could not be justified in taking the life of another human being simply because he believed that he had heard God tell him to do that.


Was it a bad thing for Adam and Eve to want to eat of the tree? Was that just a test, or is there something inherent about the knowledge of good and evil that God wanted them to steer clear of?

There are centuries of discourse around that particular issue. My own sense is that was not a test, but rather a description of the process by which we became human. And, humans needed to understand that, in fact, we had to be able to hear God’s command; we had the freedom to choose to disobey; and there are consequences to disobedience. In order for us to be fully human and in order for us to ultimately achieve God’s will in this world, we need to know all three of those things: that God’s will can be known, that we have the capacity to either submit or reject and that there are consequences to that decision.


If I have a seriously ill friend and I want to pray for her, what do I have a right to ask God to do, and what might God do in response to that request? And then, what is my responsibility?

First of all, the rabbinic thought in fact identifies the notion of inappropriate or wrongful prayer; that is, we do not have the right to ask God to reverse what already is factual. So, as the tongue would express it, if someone is returning home and sort of sees a fire in the distance, he should not pray to God, “Let that not be my home.” There are two reasons for that. First of all because, if it’s not yours, it’s somebody else’s. So, you should not pray in a manner that would simply shift the burden to somebody else. Secondly, because there’s a fire there already, it’s burning in a particular home. So, if it’s already burning in your home, you can’t ask God to reverse that and make it be that the fire never existed in your home. What you can ask God in prayer is that those who can still be saved will be saved; that those who are not injured should not be injured; and that the fire should be extinguished rapidly.

You can pray for things that are still possible, even though some of those things also related to the future may appear to require miraculous intervention. It might take miraculous intervention for somebody who is at risk to be saved. But, so long as the event has not yet occurred, you can still pray for God to intervene to prevent a particular event from occurring. A part of that also requires a sense of awareness of one’s own responsibility in relation to that circumstance. So, the prayer needs to give you the strength to comfort, the strength to give hope, the strength to manifest empathy, the strength to call that person and say, “How are you? I’m praying for you.” Rabbis insist that visiting the sick relieves one-60th of the illness of the suffering.

There was no question in my mind that people visiting someone who is sick take away a little bit of that. Sometimes it’s momentary and sometimes it’s long-lasting, but it takes away a little bit of the pain because it takes away a little bit of the isolation. For any one of us who have experienced illness ourselves or of those we love, we know that one of the deepest feelings in such an experience is the experience of being alone. And the ability to alleviate that sense of loneliness is a critical element that we can contribute.


So, you can want God to change what is, but it’s not right to expect it?

Expecting God to respond to our individual prayers is, of course, an extraordinarily difficult challenge. I struggle with that all of the time. The text often appears to us to be sort of a script. It’s a monologue; it’s us talking to God and then we ask ourselves, “How come he hasn’t responded?” The more I study the Jewish prayer book, the siddur, the more I realize that implanted into the text of the siddur is really a dialogue, not a monologue. Every few paragraphs, there is a paragraph which quotes what God said, as it were, on the assumption that God’s words are eternal. If God’s words are eternal, then they continue, as it were, to reverberate throughout the universe continuously.

So, when the Prophet said in the name of God, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth and I will fill it,” those are in the text of the siddur. That’s not us speaking to God. That has to be our hearing God say to us that God hears our prayers, that he is responsive to our prayers, that he is with us. “I am with you,” says God, “in your times of trouble.” We have to be able to hear and know the truth of that because we believe that God is responsive in that way. So does that mean that God will cure every illness and prevent any disaster from occurring? No. It doesn’t mean that, because God created the natural order and grants it, as it were, the maximum possible liberty to act in accordance with its rules — as he gave us free will and enables us to act as fully as we choose to in consonance with our free will, even when that is against the will of God. He allows that to take place except in those moments when he intervenes. And, thank God we do not know the moments of intervention, but we continue to pray for them.

Gibran Saleem Shares Journey and Importance of Laughter in Personal Faith

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Co-member of, “The Laugh in Peace Tour,” Gibran Saleem, speaks about his personal journey with religion in his lecture “What’s So Funny about Religion from a Muslim Perspective: A personal Journey,” on Thursday, August 1, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy.
MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

 

One has to go through experiences in life’s journey before they reach their destination.

“Whether you know good deeds or sins or confusion or internal conflict, all that leads to something,” Gibran Saleem said. “We’re always growing in a direction whether we know it or not, and we don’t necessarily need to be there as long as you’re kind of working towards something, and sometimes you’re working towards something on a subconscious level.”

Saleem, a stand-up comedian and one-third of the Laugh in Peace Tour, presented his lecture, “What’s So Funny about Religion from a Muslim Perspective: A Personal Journey,” on Thursday, August 1 in the Hall of Philosophy, as a continuation of the Week Six theme, “What’s So Funny About Religion?”

Saleem talked about his childhood and the obstacles he faced as a young boy, being the only darker-skinned child in his class, sitting alone at lunch because of the food he brought to school and the split that existed between his life as a “regular child” and his life within the Muslim community.

“I’d go to Sunday school on Sundays,” Saleem said. “I even went to a karate class in our local Masjid, which was a very interesting experience because there was a Pakistani man with a thick Pakistani accent, and when we’re doing karate … can you imagine a thick Pakistani accent trying to speak Japanese? We’d get kicked out because we were just laughing so much at the wrong time. So, it was weird. There’s this dichotomy between me just being a regular kid at school and then me being a Muslim kid.”

As this dichotomy remained throughout his childhood, Saleem became more resistant, not wanting to pray as his family did — five times a day in the household. Some days, when he was sent to his room, he would genuinely pray, or he would do a Dua, a type of prayer Saleem described as a “personal confessional” or “a direct connection to God at your fingertips.”

“It was just my own personal dialogue, and that was me kind of exploring the world of religion and the different ways to connect to God through various lenses,” Saleem said.

Prayer was not all Saleem rebelled against. One time in school, a young boy approached Saleem and asked if he was Pakistani. Saleem said he wasn’t and that he was from North Carolina.

“Basically everything in my life, I just wanted to run away from,” Saleem said. “I was constantly embarrassed by my family, like most kids are.”

As Saleem grew, he started to think about his community and the similarities shared between all religions — one being the sense of community that religion creates.

“Part of what’s so funny about religion is that it’s not funny, and that makes it so much more funny,” Saleem said. “But also, what’s so funny is the communities, because within the communities is its own culture that’s part of the community, your own personal culture. And within that culture and within that community, there’s an arsenal of punchlines from people that you know and see all the time. There’s so much funny there, rooted from the people, that’s rooted from the culture, from the community, from the overarching religion.”

Saleem began to realize this, and he began to feel this sense of community when he went to college. Saleem went to Virginia Commonwealth University, where he was exposed to a great deal of diversity.

Again, Saleem wanted to distance himself from his religion and community. Part of the reason was that he didn’t want to represent Islam in a bad way, as many people tend to see one example of a group and use it to define the whole group. He also wanted to feel like and fit in with everyone else.

“There was a lot of internal conflict, and part of that conflict is learning how to unwind and take that ball of conflict, and turn it into a thread of clarity,” Saleem said. “Part of that was going through experiences, learning who I am, learning part of what the world is and what is my identity versus what is perception; what is someone’s perception of my identity?”

Finally, Saleem learned that he needed to stop fighting himself and stop rebelling against his identity. He said he was once washing a strainer, and there was a spot at the bottom that he could not get out. He flipped the strainer over and realized it was his own hand through the bottom of the strainer.

“Maybe those holes in the strainer really just represent an opportunity for my family to come through,” Saleem said. “Maybe that’s the way that I want to go. Rather than focus on negative or internal conflict, the solution is to just look at it positively and find a resolution within myself.”

Saleem began to have positive experiences in college with people of different religions, as well as people of his own religion. He said he began to create his own sense of community, and he also reconnected with his own community through the Muslim Students Association at his university. He even created his own university organization, PASA, which stands for Pakistani American Student Association.

After graduation and some time living in New York City, Saleem decided to pursue his master’s degree. While earning that degree, he went to England to work as a cognitive behavioral therapy coach at an obesity camp.

One day, he and a girl he met through individual counselling were skipping rocks. She could not skip the rock for anything, and at first, neither could he. But, from watching how she was skipping it wrong, Saleem was able to learn how to properly skip the rock. From this experience, he said, he learned a spiritual lesson.

“Your goal isn’t to give them the conclusion,” Saleem said. “It’s not to give them an answer on how to handle your situation or conflict. The goal is to help someone to arrive at their own conclusion, to help guide them along their way; it’s their journey.”

Saleem also learned that meeting and interacting with people enhances one’s journey and allows people to learn from one another.Because of his interactions, Saleem became more socially and spiritually attuned.

“Faith comes even when you’re not looking for it,” Saleem said. “Sometimes, there’s things around you that are there to teach you, to help you, to save you. … I started realizing that if you don’t keep an eye open or an open heart, … things in life happen that force you to think on a spiritual level.”

Everyone is on a path — a journey — to a destination, Saleem said. And, though everyone will face obstacles and be pushed to learn serious lessons, all people need laughter to make the journey a bit more enjoyable. Laughter doesn’t deviate one from their path, it only makes the passing time sweeter.

“Without conflict, without understanding, I wouldn’t be able to arrive to where I am and do comedy,” Saleem said. “So I get to laugh all the time along the way. And that makes me feel good. And when I feel good, I feel like I’m a better person to other people. I try to make people laugh; I try to make myself laugh because I know when I’m in that funny place, I get to be my best self, and I get to share my best self with every other faith, community and culture. … That positive feeling, in a way, feels like it helps everyone head towards the path that they’re headed toward anyways.”

‘Laughter Should Ring Out’: Rev. Susan Sparks Talks importance of Humor

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Rev. Susan Sparks speaks during the Interfaith Lecture Series about “What’s So Funny about Religion from a Christian Perspective: Reinhold Niebuhr Was Wrong,” on Wednesday, July 31, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy.
MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Ethicist and professor Reinhold Niebuhr had a bit of a different take on the relationship between humor and religion.

“ ‘Humor remains healthy only when it deals with immediate issues and faces the obvious and surface irrationalities,’ ” the Rev. Susan Sparks said, quoting Niebuhr’s essay, “Humor and Faith.” “ ‘It must move toward faith or sink into despair when ultimate issues are raised, and that is why there is laughter in the vestibule of the temple. Only the echo of laughter in the temple itself, but nothing but faith and prayer and no laughter in the Holy of Holies.’ ”

Sparks, an author, Baptist minister and stand-up comedian, presented her lecture, “What’s So Funny about Religion from a Christian Perspective: Reinhold Niebuhr Was Wrong,” at 2 p.m. Wednesday, July 31 in the Hall of Philosophy, as a continuation of this week’s theme, “What’s So Funny About Religion?”

Her lecture covered 20th-century theologian Niebuhr’s writings and ideas, a topic she first took on in a 90-page honors thesis in college.

“So in modern-day terms, Niebuhr is saying laughter in the vestibule in the world is great,” Sparks said. “A bit of laughter, just a hint of laughter in the temple, in the church is OK; but, laughter in the Holy of Holies and the presence of God? Never.”

Sparks said this is completely wrong. Laughter “must ring clear and true in the Holy of Holies.” For people to forgive themselves and others, they have to laugh at themselves. And, in a world of imperfect people, forgiveness is essential. So, laughter is the only way, Sparks said.

“Laughter helps us live our faith in the difficult times and the silly times; it helps us with the weird contradictions that we have to live in everyday life,” Sparks said. “There are so many weird contradictions of life being a southerner in New York.”

Sparks told a story of a time she went to a fundraiser and met a man named Butler Beauregard Dixon IV, and he told her to call him “Boo.”

“The bottom line is laughter in life just helps us realize we’re a little more human,” Sparks said. “We’re all just human beings trying to get through this together.”

She said, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much money one has; purses, clothes, designer cars and popularity don’t matter because “the size of our funerals will depend on the weather.”

Sparks said everyone has to learn to let go to live, and laughter helps people let go of what they are holding on to. So, laughter should ring out in the world. Sparks said laughter does not ring out enough in church, though.

“You’ve got to have a sense of humor in the church,” Sparks said. “You have to.”

Sparks recalled one moment in her church that called for laughter.

“We had a guy for the longest time in our congregation by the name of Charlie McCarthy, and Charlie was hard of hearing and he loved to just spontaneously share what was on his heart in the prayers, and it always seemed to hit at some tragic national moment, right?” Sparks said. “So I’m in the prayers, and I’m trying to talk about something horrible that’s happened in our country. And, I would pause to take a breath, and Charlie in the front row would just take a deep breath and he’d go, ‘Lord, you have got to help the Mets. They stink.’ ”

Niebuhr believed laughter only echoed in the church and vestibule because laughter and power do not get along well. Sparks said humor threatens power because it’s unpredictable and opens up new ways of thinking. 

“That’s exactly why Jesus was so threatening to the powers that be,” Sparks said. “His messages were unpredictable; they threatened the top-down power structure; and he used tools of comedy in his messages: irony, exaggeration, satire, reversal.”

Yet humor was demonized among many religious people, like the Baptists and Puritans. In the Middle Ages, humor was not celebrated. However, some people could infuse humor into Biblical storytelling.

“In the late 14th century, something known as the York Cycle of Mystery Plays performed Biblical dramas annually on the Feast of Corpus Christi, which freely used humor,” Sparks said. “One play, for example, told the story of the building of the ark, portraying Noah as a lazy bum. And in the drama, when God asked Noah to build the ark, Noah replies in this play (saying) that he knew nothing of shipbuilding and reminded God that he, Noah, was old and out of shape and disinclined to do a day’s work unless great need constrained him.”

Sparks said Godly humor is evident as early as the 14th century B.C.E. Such evidence, in the myth of Adapa, for example, came from Acadia. The myth tells the story of a priest, the gods and how one attains eternal life. The myth is full of humor and laughter between both the gods and the priest, Sparks said.

Sparks said there is proof that God himself has a sense of humor — in Samuel 5:9.

“The Israelites go to battle, lose the battle, lose the Ark of the Covenant,” Sparks said. “And as the Philistines are carrying the Ark home, and God is understandably upset, and it was so that after the Philistines carried the Ark about, the hand of the Lord rose against the city with a great destruction, and the Lord smote the men of the city, both small and great, and they had hemorrhoids in their secret parts.”

Sparks said again: Niebuhr was wrong. Not only does laughter need to ring in the temple, it must ring in the Holy of Holies, in the presence of God. In fact, Sparks said that not only does laughter belong in the Holy of Holies, but it should be redefined because the Holy of Holies is much broader.

“God’s dwelling place, the Holy of Holies, can be found in some of the most unexpected places of life, especially in the broken and painful places of life,” Sparks said.

Sparks explained this through two Scriptures: Isaiah 43 and Psalm 57.

Isaiah 43 states, “Do not fear. Do not fear for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name and you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you and through those rivers, they will not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire, you will not be burned and the flames will not consume you.”

Psalm 57 says, “Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me, for in you I take refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.”

Some of “the most unexpected places” for the Holy of Holies, Sparks said, include times of pain, anger and judgment. And, in places where the Holy of Holies is found, laughter should also ring out, Sparks said.

“The Holy of Holies might be even found in the midst of the end of life,” Sparks said.

Sparks, at one point, did some work at a clown camp. There, she met a clown named Shubie Doobie who told her a story of going into a pediatric ward where she met a young girl named Beth, who was in the final  stages of a terminal disease. Shubie Doobie walked into her room with her colorful outfit and orange hair, and Beth was apprehensive and quiet.

Beth asked Shubie Doobie why she wore the large nose, and Shubie Doobie replied, “Well, I’m a clown.”

Then, Beth asked, “What’s going to happen to me after I die?”

Shubie Doobie said, “Well, Beth, you’re going to heaven.”

Beth then asked where Shubie Doobie was going to go. Shubie Doobie said clown heaven, and explained that when a person lets a balloon go, that balloon goes to clown heaven. Beth, lit up with joy, exclaimed that she wanted to go there and asked how she could.

Shubie Doobie pulled a little red nose out of her bag and put it on Beth’s nose.

“And she said, ‘All you have to do, Beth, is go out with your nose on,’ ” Sparks said.

Two weeks later, Shubie Doobie received a call from nurses that Beth had passed away. They said she died with her little red nose on.

Sparks concluded with the preface of her honors thesis.

“The disciples sought to learn from the master, stages he had passed through in his quest for the divine,” Sparks said. “ ‘God first led me by the hand,’ he said, ‘into the land of action and there I dwelt for several years. Then, he returned and led me to the land of sorrows. There, I lived until my heart was purged of every inordinate attachment. That is when I found myself in the land of love, whose burning flames consumed whatever was left of me, of self. This brought me to the land of silence where the mysteries of life and death were bared before my wondering eyes.’ ‘Was that the final stage of your quest?’ the disciples asked. ‘No,’ the master replied, ‘one day, God said to me, ‘Today, I take you to the innermost sanctuary of the temple, to the very heart of God, and it was then I was led to the land of laughter.’ ”

Rabbi Bob Alper Highlights Importance of Laughter in All Parts of Life

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Rabbi Bob Alper talks about how he interweaves comedy with religion during the afternoon lecture Tuesday, July 30, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Rabbi Bob Alper said religion isn’t funny enough.

One man in the Talmud named Raba used to begin his lessons with a joke because it relaxed students, while allowing them to take in the important message that followed.

“Two men were walking down the street; one had a German Shepherd, the other had a Chihuahua,” Alper said. “The guy with the Shepherd said, ‘Look, there’s a very good sale going on here in the department store. Let’s go in.’ The guy with the Chihuahua said, ‘Well, we can’t. We have our dogs.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but you’ve got your sunglasses, right?’ The guy said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, let’s put them on.’ The guy with the Shepherd went into the store; guy with the Chihuahua went into the store. The guard stopped him, and he said, ‘Sir, you can’t bring that dog into the store.’ He said, ‘Well, this is my seeing eye dog.’ The guard said, ‘A Chihuahua?’ And he said, ‘What? They gave me a Chihuahua?’

Alper, an author, stand-up comedian and one-third of the Laugh Peace tour,  continued Week Six’s interfaith lecture series, “What’s So Funny About Religion?” Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy with his lecture, “Defining ‘Religion’ (You’ll Be Surprised) and Making It Meaningful through Humor.”

Alper began by explaining two different definitions of religion — Wikipedia’s and his own. First, he reviewed Wikipedia’s definition of religion as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal god or gods.” Alper said that this definition would work if there weren’t people in the world who were religious, but didn’t believe in a “superhuman controlling power.”

“I subscribed to a different definition of religion when I learned from my rabbinical school professor and thesis adviser, Rabbi Alvin Rinus,” Alper said. “Dr. Rinus defines religion as ‘a response to finitude.’ ”

Because all people are finite, but their desires are infinite, Alper said the way these two ideas are reconciled is what religion truly is. It’s simple and inclusive, he said.

“One of my philosophy professors at Lehigh University used to say, ‘Whether you will philosophize or won’t philosophize, you must philosophize all people, even if they are not aware,’ ” Alper said. “One can equally suggest that all people respond to finitude in one way or another. All people are religious and it’s clarifying to add that while by this definition, all people are religious, not all people are ritualistic.”

While some are religious and ritualistic, and others are simply religious, Alper said, for everyone, contemplating one’s limited life can be frustrating and confusing, not to mention scary. But Alper believes he has solutions for the annoyance of such a concept: creative life-cycle events and the enhanced use of humor.

“One of the most successful enterprises of all organized religions is their ability to help people confront transitional moments in their lives,” Alper said. “Birth rituals, weddings and funerals — these touch us; they draw us in; they speak to our hearts. The rituals surrounding these moments help us cope with life-altering times.”

Another transitional moment Alper discussed was when kids leave home for college or begin living their own lives. Alper described the moment his son, Zack, left for college.

“It’s a time that literally begs for a life-cycle event, a life-cycle ceremony to smooth the deeply intense transition for a child and particularly for the parents,” Alper said.

With such life-cycle events, Alper asked where humor fits in. The response? Nearly everywhere.

“One example: In the course of my rabbinate, I’ve delivered a vast number of children’s sermonettes, and you know which one people remember most?” Alper asked. “Hands down, it was Rosh Hashanah 1978.”

Alper had just adopted a kitten named Pounce de León. He brought Pounce to the family services for Rosh Hashanah. At one point, Alper carried Pounce out onto the pulpit. 

“With my free hand, I picked up the shofar, a ram’s horn that’s used during the New Year holiday,” Alper said, “And I asked, ‘OK, how many of you think that this kitten can play the shofar?’ ”

Alper said the crowd burst into laughter, and he was able to begin the new year on a good note before he started to talk about more serious things. But importantly, out of the countless sermonettes Alper has done over the years, the 1978 one sticks out because it was funny.

“Maya Angelou observed, ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said and people forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,’ ” Alper said. “Laughter makes people feel good. … It’s healing, uplifting. There’s an intensely spiritual aspect to laughter. … It’s much more than entertainment. Laughter is life-giving; it’s life-affirming.”

The way the teacher Raba used humor to invite students in, to help relax them, Alper does, as well. For example, Alper once opened a Rosh Hashanah sermon with the joke: “For the past two weeks, my wife and son were in Peru on vacation. I stayed home to write sermons and prepare for the High Holy Days. You’re welcome.”

“Clearly all of us need to put more and more laughter into our lives at all times, and having a good sense of humor means you can smile and laugh easily, that you are a person who values lightness and fun,” Alper said. “It means you can see more than one side of an issue, evaluating the proverbial glass as being half-full, rather than half-empty.”

Not only is laughter good in general, Alper said laughter can help people confront their finitude.

In one of Alper’s creative life-cycle events, his wife, Sherry, retired and sold her building where she was a practicing psychotherapist. On the day of the property transfer, Sherry’s friends and colleagues gathered in the empty building because Sherry had an important impact on all of them. And they now had to accept that she was retiring.

“From the moment they enter, whether a first visit or part of many years of therapy, they felt  safe in Sherry’s presence, valued, even protected because their sadness is understood and then the work begins on how to diminish the pain,” Alper said. “When we also confront our finitude, humor has an important place in what are, by my definition, also religious events.”

Alper explained that through difficult events in his family members’ lives, humor has been essential. Alper himself was attacked by a pitbull while on his scooter last year. He woke up in a hospital with a broken pelvis, broken scapula, 10 broken ribs, multiple abrasions and a brain bleed.

With such serious injuries, he had to cancel an appearance on the “Tamron Hall Show.” Two days after he was admitted to the hospital, flowers arrived with a card signed by the TV producer reading, “Some people will do anything not to appear on the ‘Tamron Hall Show.’ ”

“And despite my pain, my anxiety, despite my ruminating about what could have been about my own brush with death, my own finitude, despite all I was enduring, when I read that card, I laughed,” Alper said. “I laughed despite 10 broken ribs. I laughed. What an amazing, healing feeling. I laughed, and know I’ll never forget that.”

Sherry Alper has also dealt with health difficulties. She had to have spinal surgery and afterward, was advised to wear a neck brace for four weeks. She was in great pain and miserable, Alper said.

“One day, I began telling people that Sherry was ordered to wear the collar so that she wouldn’t bite her tail,” Alper said. “And, she smiled. She even laughed, and she did something totally out of character; she asked me to take her photo and, along with the caption about biting her tail, put it up on Facebook.”

Humor is powerful, Alper said. Laughter is precious and allows for people to forget about the pain of their lives, both physical and spiritual.

“Truly, everyone we ever meet, everyone we ever meet, is carrying some kind of burden, whether great or just manageable,” Alper said. “Years ago, the young daughter of a couple in my congregation died. After a few months had passed, it seemed appropriate and I recommended that they attend a meeting of compassionate friends, a support group for people whose children have died, and I’ll never forget what the wife reported later. She was surprised and encouraged when she noticed that some of the attendees at the meeting were actually laughing on occasion, because that was one of the parts of her life that she thought had been ripped away from her forever.”

Interfaith Amigos Highlight Importance of Humor in Faith

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The Interfaith Amigos, from left, Imam Jamal Rahman, Rev. Don Mackenzie, and Rabbi Ted Falcon, mix comedy and faith during their afternoon lecture on the spirit of observing and exploring other faiths as well as how their group came to be formed. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

When the Interfaith Amigos first came together, they shared the “riches of their traditions,” each bringing their sacred text to read from.

“My companions have brought their books; I brought the original tablet and we shared sacred words,” Rabbi Ted Falcon joked.

To start off Week Six’s interfaith lecture series, “What’s So Funny About Religion?” Interfaith Amigos Falcon, Imam Jamal Rahman and Pastor Don Mackenzie presented their lecture, “What’s So Funny About Religion? Laughter is Her Language of Hope,” Monday in the Hall of Philosophy.

The group formed after 9/11. After the tragedy, Falcon thought it would be good to invite Rahman to the Shabbat service Friday.

“People had to see a different face of Islam than the one that was blasted at us through the media,” Falcon said.

After listening to each other teach, the two became friends over time and started working together. Eventually, they recognized that they needed the third faith of the Abrahamic family — Mackenzie joined the group six months after 9/11.

“We shared an intuition that if we could penetrate the barriers that have separated our traditions historically,” Mackenzie said, “we might be able to help get to a place where cooperation and collaboration would be possible, and addressing the great moral issues of our times.”

The group began meeting weekly, giving presentations and eventually writing books. However, the Amigos’ beginning was difficult, according to Falcon.

“The truth is, it’s really a risk to open ourselves to the treasures of another’s tradition,” he said. “Sometimes, we feel that our own identity will somehow be watered down or somehow we will be drawn to forbidden territory. And it takes a level of trust to really allow ourselves to hear and to appreciate the treasures of spirit wherever they arise.”

At the dais in the Hall of Philosophy, the three then shared verses from each of their sacred texts. The point of doing so was to demonstrate how similar the messages were, despite that the verses come from different faiths.

Falcon said, in the Book of Micah, people forgot that worshipping God requires one to follow through and apply teachings to everyday life — that performance ritual was not accomplishing anything by itself.

“And so Micah said, ‘It has been told you humankind, what is good and what the eternal one asks of you, nothing other than doing justly and loving kindness and walking with integrity in the presence of your God,’ ” Falcon said. “And the prophet was urging, walking with the fullness of who we are.”

Mackenzie quoted from John 15, in which Jesus was trying to direct his disciples with his wisdom.

“ ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another even as I have loved you,’ ” Mackenzie said. “ ‘No one has greater love than this; to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends. If you do what I command you, I do not call you servants any longer because the servant does not know what the master is doing. But I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I’ve heard from God; you did not choose me. But I chose you.’ ”

Rahman then quoted the Quran: “Repel evil with something which is better, so that your enemy becomes your intimate, close friend.”

Rahman said that the largest overarching problem for all three Abrahamic faiths is exclusivity.

“Brother Jamal, I hear you saying that, but the fact is we Jews are the chosen people from all the peoples of the planet,” Falcon said. “God chose us as God’s treasured people. Deuteronomy 14:2.”

“Excuse me, Rabbi — in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to God except by me,’ ” Mackenzie interjected.

“Not my Bible,” Falcon replied.

“My dear brother, my dear friends, here is the real truth,” Rahman said, interrupting Falcon and Mackenzie. “The Quran says, ‘If anyone chooses religion other than Islam, he too will not be accepted of Him and he’d be a loser here and in the hereafter,’ 3:85. Please make a note for your sake.”

“So that’s it. That’s where our program ends,” Falcon joked.

The three laughed and explained the purpose of their demonstration: to show that exclusivity is a problem.

“At some point, something like that rises (when we see that) our (faith) really is the way,” Falcon said. “It’s just a little bit truer unless we recognize that as a symptom of our straying, unless we recognize that as a symptom of how we’ve forgotten the essential spiritual teachings of inclusivity, of oneness, of love and compassion that are at the heart of each of our traditions.”

Falcon said when one thinks their faith alone is the chosen faith, the consequence will always be violence.

On the other hand, when faiths can come together, as the three Interfaith Amigos have, humor can flourish. The three men explained the role humor plays in their faith and presented jokes as examples.

“Jewish humor is often self-deprecating,” Falcon said. “And Jewish humor is often some attempt to talk about the struggles in generations, … is often some way of enduring hardships and enduring times of suffering, … (and) is often some way of helping us identify ourselves as a minority in most cultures in the world.”

In particular, the Jewish jokes Falcon likes to tell are those that can only be told by a Jew.

“There were three (people) who were traveling across a desert environment — a German, a Frenchman, and a Jew,” Falcon said. “At a certain point, the Frenchman says, ‘I’m so hot, I’m so tired. I must have wine.’ A little bit later, the German says, ‘I’m so tired, I’m so hot, I must have beer.’ And sure enough, a little bit later the Jew says, ‘I’m so tired, I’m so hot. I must have diabetes.’ ”

Mackenzie said Christian humor is funny when it prods at the idea of Christianity being the superior religion.

“The guy takes the train into Penn Station in New York, runs up, gets into a cab, and tells the cabbie to take him to Christ Church,” Mackenzie said. “The cabbie takes him to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The guy says, ‘No, no Christ Church, I said.’ The cabbie turns around and says, ‘Look, Mac, if he’s in town, this is where he’ll be.’ ”

Rahman said that Sufis, a group of Muslim mystics, wrote humor into poetry, conveying stories that “open hearts and minds, and to really counter the rigid and negative ideologies of these very conservative, self-serving clerics.” Death also plays a role in many of the poems.

“The Mullah is gravely ill — on his deathbed, some think,” Rahman said. “His wife is moaning and lamenting. And now here comes the authority, the allopathic doctor who examines the Mullah at length. Then, he turns to the Mullah’s wife and says, ‘Oh, honorable wife of the Mullah, the Quran says, ‘Only Allah is immortal.’ Your husband’s soul has flown to the bosom of God. He’s dead.’ But, the Mullah is not dead. He’s feebly saying, ‘I’m alive. I’m alive. I’m alive.’ What does the wife say? ‘Quiet. Don’t argue with the doctor.’ ”

Some of the jokes the Interfaith Amigos told during their lecture are based on stories that actually happened to them. For example, Falcon was approached at the end of an interfaith program by a woman who wanted him to sign her book.

“And I said, ‘Sure, I’d be glad to.’ And she hands me … a Bible,” Falcon said. “And I said to her, ‘I didn’t write this.’ ”

Through the humor, the three said they learn from one another. And, through humor and the lessons that accompany it, it is clear to Falcon, Mackenzie and Rahman that laughter is the language of hope.

Rahman told another story, of a Mullah who is on a train traveling to India. He sees the ticket conductor approaching, and the Mullah begins looking into other people’s pockets and bags for a ticket, Rahman said.

One annoyed passenger finally says, “What are you doing?” The Mullah says, “I’m looking for my ticket.” The man says, “You’re crazy. Look for your ticket in your own pocket.” The Mullah replies, “Yes, I know I could do that. But if I do that and if I don’t find my ticket, I shall lose all hope.”

“We need our hope, our deeper wisdom, our greater awareness unto others as if seeking in other people’s pockets what actually belongs to us,” Falcon said. “And such a story is meant to remind us that the laughter we seek, the hope we seek, the wisdom we seek, the connection we seek is waiting to be found within our own pockets, within our own hearts, within our own minds, within our own souls, and to take the time to honor that which each and every one of us carries into each moment of our lives.”

“The need for hope is universal and this is a time when sometimes we have trouble holding onto hope. … Hope has moral value,” Mackenzie added. “It hopes for something good. It engages us, heart, mind and soul, and moves us to act, thanks be to God.”

The Interfaith Amigos ended their lecture with an original song, involving all three singing key verses from each of their sacred texts in Arabic, Hebrew and English.

Philip Gulley and Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson Discuss Modern Quakerism in Interfaith Friday Lecture

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Philip Gulley talks about the problem of evil and the Quaker response to it during the fifth Interfaith Friday lecture July 26, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

For Week Five’s Interfaith Friday in the Hall of Philosophy, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor, posed a series of questions to Philip Gulley, who spoke on behalf of Quakerism.

Gulley is a writer, Quaker pastor and speaker. He received his Master of Divinity from Christian Theological Seminary, and has written over 22 books. His book, I Love You, Miss Huddleston: And Other Inappropriate Longings of My Indiana Childhood, was a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. His best-selling titles include the Harmony fiction series, the Porch Talk series of inspirational essays and If Grace is True, co-written by James Mulholland.

What follows is an abridged version of Gulley’s conversation. Gulley and Robinson’s remarks have been condensed for clarity.


Robinson: You describe a humankind that has agency. That’s a high and empowering view of humankind. Isn’t there some inevitability of justice in it? It sounded very hopeful.

Gulley: The transcendentalist and Unitarian preacher, Theodore Parker, said, “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the good. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe.” He said, “The arc is a long one. My eye reaches, but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of side; I can divine it by conscience. From what I see, I am sure it bends toward justice.”

Nearly a century later, Martin Luther King Jr. would paraphrase that quote in a sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood, when he said famously, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And I say to you today, don’t be so sure. … The myth of the inevitability of justice simply isn’t true. We want to believe the only thing keeping us from a more perfect union is time. We want to believe militant ignorance, small-mindedness and evil, will gradually recede and one morning, the sun will rise on a more enlightened, just and noble world, but there is nothing inevitable about justice. No divine hand bending the moral arc one way or another. It is up to us, up to you and me.

So I believe in the possibility of justice. I do not believe in the inevitability of justice.

I am hopeful, but what buoys my hope is the things that trouble us that we seem to be concerned about, issues that we simply weren’t concerned about when I was born 58 years ago. So, I think that there does often seem to be a higher consciousness at work. Where I disagree with them is its inevitability. We know from studying history that societies, which have been good, can turn very quickly in times of economic peril, in times of great fear. Everything we’ve learned that has been passed down to our ancestors can be forgotten in a moment.


Is there anything left of the apocalypticism that was a part of the founding of the Quakers?

There might be amongst some Quakers that belief in the apocalyptic system, but it isn’t something that most Quakers I know dwell on. It certainly is not a driving force among most Quakers. I know if I were to announce from the pulpit this Sunday that I was giving a 10-week series on the return of Jesus, the next Sunday, the meeting house would be empty. There just isn’t this burning inquisitiveness.


Some (Quakers) consider themselves Christians, others don’t. You mentioned agnostics or possibly atheists, too. How does that work in the Quaker faith, or in a Quaker meeting where you have all of those and more represented?

Very precariously. It does seem to help that one quality most Quakers I know possess is this radical commitment to the freedom of conscience and not insisting that someone believe it just because we do. So, there is real liberty in most Quaker meetings to approach ultimate reality through their own lens, letting others approach this through their own lens, through their own life, through their own experience and reason as opposed to saying, “No, this is how God is experienced. This is what truth is.”


That sounds amazingly mature. How did the Quakers get there?

I don’t know, because we didn’t start out that way. For a good part of our history, (there is) what is called “read out of meeting,” those whom we perceived as having a theological difference, those married out of meeting, those who didn’t meet our dress codes, were all read out of meeting, and therefore, we went from being the third-largest religion in America at one time to being kind of a sectarian little number of folks who eventually, thankfully, before we all died off, got over it.


How often, in a Quaker meeting when someone speaks, is it about a theological question, and how do you know that particular sharing is of the spirit?

Most of the talking and sharing that I hear in a Quaker meeting is informed by a theological conviction, though the concern itself most often is about some social matter that we need to address or that we might not have been aware of that we need to consider and reflect upon. So, while it may not seem overtly theological, it is when you begin to parse it apart. You realize it’s informed and inspired by certain theological convictions.


Am I right to say, when someone shares something in a meeting, no one overtly disagrees and, while someone may stand and speak on behalf of themselves, they won’t attempt to correct someone who’s just spoken?

About the closest Quakers ever get to that — to calling into question the leading of another person — happens most often in our meeting for business and most often around nominations of persons to fill certain ministries or tasks within the meeting. Then, someone — for instance — might feel led to stand up and suggest a name for a position. About the only pushback you might see is another friend standing up and saying, ‘That name would not have occurred to me.’ That’s pretty gentle. So, it tends to be kind of a gentle encouragement to reflect a bit further.


So, how does someone get called to be a Quaker pastor? Who discerns if somebody says, “Yeah, I want to be one.” How does that process work?

Persons who stand up and say, “I’m called to ministry,” among friends are generally looked at skeptically by other friends. It is the community that observes the gifts for ministry and then makes it financially possible for that person to study, have time to reflect and then begin tending to the business of ministry. It was a woman who approached me when I was 21, and said, “Philip, we need Quaker pastors. I think you are gifted. You need to consider that.” And so I quit my job. I went to college, and then I went to graduate school and I returned to that same Quaker meeting to give my first sermon, and that woman came up to me afterwards and said, “Philip, perhaps I was mistaken.”


If you go to a neighboring meeting, are you a pastor there too?

I am if they call me there in that role. It is not an automatic thing. The other thing about being a Quaker pastor is that the position itself never carries with it any authority. Even if you go as a pastor, you are still expected over time to show evidence of wisdom or insight. And, as your new community experiences that, then you are gradually given the opportunity to lead.


You may be interested to know that we had a play here called The Christians. It’s about a megachurch pastor who determines that he doesn’t believe in hell anymore, and what happens as a result. And it’s not pretty. You’re not surprised by that?

When word got out that I didn’t believe in hell and that I was in fact a Universalist, an effort began among conservative Quakers to strip me of what friends call a “recording,” or a member equivalent of an ordination. That went on for eight years. For eight summers, I had to sit and listen as people questioned my birth. It was, at times, painful and, at other times, very liberating because I had worked very hard to become a recorded pastor with the education and the time invested, but ultimately when it began, I thought to myself, “Oh, there’s nothing worse that could happen to me than to lose my pastoral standing, my vocation that I love.” And then, in time, I realized that there were many things a lot worse than that. And, it helped that my own local meeting was very supportive of me and stood with me for those eight years.

Rev. Elaine D. Thomas Talks Spiritualism’s Relevance in Modern Society

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Rev. Elaine D. Thomas talks about Spiritualism at the Hall of Philosophy Wednesday July 24, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Between the 1840s and World War I, people struggled across the world. Many died in wars and, due to a lack of sanitation and advanced medical treatment, many were dying of sickness. More specifically, children were dying of diseases that are now typically present only in developing countries.

“There were no antibiotics, there were no emergency rooms or advanced surgeries,” said the Rev. Elaine D. Thomas, spiritual counselor, medium and teacher based in the Lily Dale Assembly in Western New York. “Children shouldn’t be dying before their parents do, and yet they did and they still do. And the gift of mediums and the message that spiritualism has brought, and continues to bring to the world, is the evidence that there is survival after the change that we call death.”

As the first Spiritualist ever to speak on the interfaith platform, Thomas continued Week Five’s interfaith theme, “Chautauqua: Rising from the Ashes of the Burned-Over District,” Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy with her lecture, “Spiritualism’s Role at Its Inception and Its Relevance Today.”

Thomas began with a short story about her grandfather, her mother’s father, who died when she was 5 years old. After his death, Thomas’ mother would talk at the breakfast table about the things she and Thomas’ grandfather would talk about in her dreams.

“I wanted to say, ‘Mom, when are you going to get it? Grandpa’s really there. It’s not just a dream,’ ” Thomas said. “He started appearing to me mostly when I was out with my friends … and he was never judgmental. He always came with love and, whether I heard his voice or not, he’d give me one of those looks where I knew I had a choice to either follow his guidance or not.”

Thomas said she never questioned whether seeing her grandfather was a good or bad thing. Since she was raised Jewish, and the devil played a minor role in Judaism, she never thought it could have been a negative experience.

“I never gave a thought to the fact that it might be something negative because he came in love, and love is the binding force throughout the universe,” Thomas said. “It’s the only thing we can take with us when we leave this planet. We can’t take our investments; we can’t take our accomplishments. We can take the love and leave the residue of love that we’ve shared and other people have shared with us.”

The inception of modern Spiritualism is threaded within the fabric of many changes during the 19th century, and those changes continue to affect the world, Thomas said.

By the end of the Civil War, 750,000 people had died. As a result, the mediums of the 19th century served as a comfort to those mourning and provided them with evidence that those who passed away were still alive and well in another dimension with God, Thomas said.

“There is comfort, there is consolation,” Thomas said. “All religions talk about it. Spiritualism has the unique approach that (mediums) demonstrate and are able to give this evidence and this comfort and consolation.”

Thomas had studied with the late Edith Sandy Wendling. Her mother died before she was 6 years old, and her father spent a lot of time traveling. In England, she was raised by a nanny, a housekeeper and a sister. When Wendling was about 8, Thomas said, her sister told her that she was going to take her to the neighbors’ house to give the nanny and housekeeper a break.

“Their next door neighbors were Sir Arthur and Lady Conan Doyle,” Thomas said. “She was his second wife, and she was a trans-medium.”

When Wendling’s sister took her to the neighbors’ house, she sat Wendling on the couch and told her to behave herself. The sister wanted Wendling to take naps, but Wendling was curious as to what the married couple was doing in the room near where she was sitting. After six months, the couple allowed her to join them in the next room, where they held their meditation group. After many years, they all remained in touch, even when Wendling moved to North America.

“They (visited) her in Lily Dale,” Thomas said. “As they were leaving, Sir Arthur took (Wendling) by the shoulders and said to her, ‘Promise me something, Edith. Promise me you’ll always be a student of life, and a student of your work and your mission.’ ”

Thomas said that Wendling was a vital force in her own life, and it was thanks to the couple who welcomed a child into their meditation group that Thomas had the opportunity to meet her.

“The Bible calls us children of light, and whether we believe in a literal interpretation or we believe that the Old and New Testament were written by inspired people,” Thomas said, “it’s been my experience and it’s my belief that we are children of light and our culture.”

Through her work as a reading specialist for children, Thomas said she found that all of the children she worked with had intuitive mediumistic or psychic experiences. Working with adult students, Thomas said that no one loses that experience, that connection with the divine. It is always within us; it simply recedes with lack of use.

“Somebody once said, ‘Wherever we look, we see what we’re looking for,’ ” Thomas said. “In other words, the world that we give our attention to is what becomes our reality.”

Thomas said that by training in ancient techniques and mixing them with accelerated learning tools, one can “reclaim what they had as children.” Children pay attention instinctively to what modern adults ignore. By returning to this observant behavior, it can be used practically in life, Thomas said.

This mental training is also how one connects to someone who has died.

“What our intuition and communication with those who have gone on, who don’t have a physical body, have to offer us is a broader view and an insight and the love which they had for us when they were here, which can still reach across what some people call the veil to communicate with us, to be of service in the same way that people are of service here today,” Thomas said.

Thomas said it is taught in Spiritualism that everyone is responsible for their own unhappiness and happiness, and the divine is always available to people. And, by taking the time to focus on how one lives and how one works on their spiritual growth, one will be able to find divinity within themselves, allowing them to connect to the divine.

So, Thomas asked, why is this important in our lives?

“It gives people hope that we will meet those that we know and love here on this Earth when we pass into another dimension and leave this life,” Thomas said. “Knowing that they can reach across what the dimensions are and touch us makes a difference in our lives today.”

Thomas said the concept of spirits is a universal idea. The Bible talks about gifts of the spirit, Thomas said. Thomas believes the world will one day outgrow a religion based on the ideas of Spiritualism.

“Its message for over 150 years has been to bring to the Earth, to bring to people, that not only does life continue, but it continues in a way where we can communicate with one another, where comfort and validation are there for everyone, not just a few,” Thomas said.

Thomas said that some people do misuse the powers of Spiritualism, but that is a small minority. In general, the wisdom of the creator is available to each one of us, Thomas said. And, this opportunity should encourage people to improve their lives on a personal level and reach out to improve the lives of those they touch and, ultimately, try to make the world a better place for everyone.

“It’s not about powers, it’s about service,” Thomas said. “And it’s about healing. … That is the gift of mediumship, the gift of healing, the gift that all the knowledge, that all spiritual religions teach that life is eternal and love can reach across the veil that we seemingly call death. And it’s as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago or a thousand years ago.”

Patrick Mason Explores the History of Mormonism

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Patrick Mason shares the story of the Burned-over District where Mormonism’s rebirth started during his lecture on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

On Tuesday, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor, said many crazy and wonderful things have come out of the Burned-over District.

“You only get to call your own religion crazy,” said Patrick Mason, an author, historian and Leonard J. Arrington Endowed Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University. “So, I’m happy to talk about Mormonism — this particularly crazy and wonderful thing that came out of the Burned-over District.”

Mason continued Week Five’s interfaith theme, “Chautauqua: Rising from the Ashes of the Burned-Over District,” in the Hall of Philosophy with his lecture, “Mormonism: From the Burned-Over District to a New World Religion.”

Mason said Mormonism began in 1820, with a 14-year-old boy named Joseph Smith, who was so confused by the religious fervor exploding across Western New York where he and his family lived, that he couldn’t decide which religion had the “correct” view.

“The religious fervor of the Burned-over District left Joseph Smith deeply concerned about the state of his soul and the spiritual state of the world,” Mason said. “Rather than being exhilarated by the intensity of the revivals around him, he found himself exhausted and confused by the spiritual cacophony.”

Advised by a Methodist preacher who told Smith to pray to God and ask for help in choosing a correct religion, Smith went into the forest near his family’s house to pray in private. While praying, Smith felt a sudden, evil presence overwhelm him, and then he felt himself become liberated from it by a “heavenly visitation,” Mason said.

Mason quoted Smith’s writing: “I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me and no sooner. … I found myself delivered from the enemy, which held me bound. When the light rested upon me, I saw two personages whose brightness and glory defy all descriptions, standing above me in the air. One of them spoke to me, calling me by name, and said, pointing to the other, ‘This is my beloved son. Hear him.’ ”

Smith said he asked the two personages which church he should join, and he said that the personage that looked like Jesus said none of the churches were correct. So, Smith returned home, did not join any of the churches, and wouldn’t receive another vision for three more years, Mason said.

When Smith finally did receive another vision, it was September 1823. Smith was 17 years old, and the vision was a result of him praying for forgiveness for his sins.

“While he was praying, Smith said that he discovered a light appearing in his room, which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noon day,” Mason said. “Then, immediately a personage appeared at (his) bedside. In the air before him hovered a man clothed only in a white robe, his entire being seeming to glow.”

This angel, Mason said, called himself Moroni and informed Smith of gold plates under a stone on a hill near Smith’s home. Moroni described the plates as containing the “fullness of the Everlasting Gospel book as delivered by the Savior Jesus Christ to its ancient inhabitants,” Mason said.

Although it would take Smith four years to retrieve the plates and another two-and-a-half years for him to translate the plates’ engravings into English, all of this work resulted in the 588-page tome, The Book of Mormon.

When The Book of Mormon went to press, Smith had gained a small number of followers who believed him to be a prophet. In April 1830, these followers came together to formally organize a church, which they called the Church of Christ.

“Most converts … were drawn to the more visceral aspect of early Mormonism: the outpouring of spiritual gifts that were visions and dreams and healings and speaking in tongues,” Mason said. “They rejoiced in a new era of open revelation. The heavens were opened once again; God was sending his spirit to the Earth; he had called a new prophet; there were angels coming to the Earth. This was all rather miraculous in these early converts’ eyes.”
Patrick Mason shares the story of the Burned-over District where mormonism’s rebirth started during his lecture on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Smith and his followers believed this religion to be an answer to the religious competition in the Burned-over District, but what they found was that the other religions were intolerant of Mormonism. Smith himself experienced hostility and was told his visions were not from God, but from the devil.

And so, Smith and his followers moved from New York, going first to Ohio and eventually settling in Utah. In 1838, Smith changed the name of the church from the Church of Christ to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Despite the intolerance and migration, Mason said, the Mormons could not be kept from sharing their religion with others. Soon after the church was established in New York, for example, Smith’s brother and father traveled to Canada to tell friends about The Book of Mormon. At the same time, missionaries also traveled beyond the western frontier to preach the Gospel to Native Americans.

“Mormonism transcended national boundaries almost immediately,” Mason said. “During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, missionaries traveled to places as far-flung as the British Isles, Australia, Prussia, Germany and Palestine.”

After Smith’s brutal murder in 1844, Brigham Young led the church and served missions in Canada and England. He also expanded the church, sending missionaries to places like Hawaii, Jamaica, Chile, South Africa and India.

Mormons were most successful in converting people in England and Scandinavia. Once converted, many migrated to the United States to join the church.

“It took the LDS church 117 years from its founding in 1830, to reach the 1 million member mark in 1947,” Mason said. “It gained another million members in only 16 years … and since then, the church has added about a million members worldwide, every three to four years. So now, it stands at over 16 million members.”

Mason attributes this intense growth to missionary work. When 65,000 Mormon missionaries are sent out into the world, Mason said, the chances are great that the religion is going to grow.

This religious growth is so profound that, in the 1980s, non-Mormon sociologist Rodney Stark declared that Mormonism stands on the threshold of becoming a major faith, Mason said.

The question is, though: Is Mormonism the world’s next major faith? Is Mormonism a new world religion?

Mason said most of the growth within the religion is international. Over 70% of Mormon churches that are not in the United States are in Latin America, and about 85% of all current Mormons live in North, Central or South America.

Mason said Mormonism is a religion of the new world: the Western Hemisphere. However, Mason said Mormonism must face a number of obstacles before becoming a new world religion.

“So first, there’s a problem with public image,” Mason said. “In 2011, the Pew Forum (on Religion and Public Life) took a national poll where it asked respondents to give a one-word association with Mormonism … and three of the top four answers were ‘polygamy,’ ‘cult’ and ‘different.’ ”

Patrick Mason shares the story of the Burned-over District where mormonism’s rebirth started during his lecture on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Mason himself has dealt with stereotypes. He said he once offered a fellow graduate student a ride to the grocery store, and the student was surprised because he knew Mason was a Mormon, so he expected Mason to have a horse and buggy. Above all, Mason finds one stereotype to be the most misunderstood: polygamy.

“It remains the number one thing that people, both in this country and around the world, continue to associate with the church,” Mason said. “The mainstream LDS church has not endorsed the practice for more than a century.”

Mason said the church also has a history of racism, having denied black men from ordination in the priesthood and all black men and women access to the church’s sacred temples until 1978.

The church has evolved from its past, but Mason believes Mormonism has a long way to go before it can be seen in a more positive light.

For example, although Mormons have become more open to the LGBTQ community, same-sex marriage remains theologically and practically off the table, Mason said. In trying to keep the integrity and unity of the institution, Mason said, the church also makes little effort to accommodate foreign cultures.

“When Mormonism comes to a country, it comes with a ready-made set of doctrines and programs and hymns and all kinds of stuff translated into the local language,” Mason said, “but not with any real accommodations for local culture.”

So the question remains, does Mormonism belong in the list of world religions, or does it belong in the Christian family tree?

“There were moments in the religion’s past, especially in the late 19th century … when the religion might have … charted this course as a totally new religious tradition,” Mason said. “But I think, in the 20th century, church members and leaders opted for a strategy of accommodation, of respectability, and desperately want to be known as Christians.”

Mason said the main challenge Mormons face is when they go to preach the Gospel, they are asking the same questions Smith and his followers were asking in the 1830s.

“The world is changing,” Mason said. “Mormonism will have to adapt … if it wants to remain relevant and impactful. It’s been proven that you can take Mormonism out of the Burned-over District. The question is, can you take the Burned-over District out of Mormonism?”

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