Interfaith Lecture Recaps

Mirabai Starr describes the paradox of the feminine spirit

mirabai starr

Feminine spirituality, Mirabai Starr said, is a paradox in a world that prioritizes masculine energy and attitudes.

“The feminine inhabits this paradoxical space between form and formlessness, between interconnection and very specific embodied experience,” Starr said. “The masculine spirituality has emphasized this world, this body. Many of our spiritual practices, that most of us take for granted, are actually predicated on this belief in the illusory (feminine) quality of human experience.”

Starr delivered her lecture, “Fierce & Tender Wisdom: Reclaiming Women’s Voices Across Spiritual Traditions” at 2 p.m. EDT Tuesday, July 28, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. Starr pre-recorded her lecture on July 19 in her Taos, New Mexico, home. Her discussion centered on her book, Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce & Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics.

Starr is an international speaker and teacher on contemporary interspiritual dialogue and practice. Her spiritual journey began when she moved to the Lama Foundation at 14 years old and was influenced there by the late interspiritual scholar and teacher Ram Dass and other teachers from faith practices including Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism.

Chautauqua’s Director of Religion Maureen Rovegno led the subsequent Q-and-A with Starr, who called in from her publisher’s recording studio in Boulder, Colorado, where she is recording an audiobook version of Wild Mercy. Audience members submitted questions through the portal and on Twitter with #CHQ2020. During the Q-and-A, Starr clarified that feminine spirit is not only found in the traditional definition of a woman.

“When I am speaking about feminine spirituality and the sacred feminine, I am speaking about and to the feminine in all of us,” Starr said, including men and other gender expressions.

Starr said the feminine spirituality in all faith practices deals in relationships, emotions, ambiguity and a wild creativity that threatens masculine values of human life.

“We have, for way too long, taken … the prototype for humanity, for humanness, as white maleness,” Starr said. “The white male is the picture, the prototype, for what it is to be human. It’s time to subvert that paradigm, to dismantle it, to allow it to come undone.”

Starr used meditation as an example. Masculine meditation styles “often beat us into submission” while feminine meditation could best be described through the Hindu tradition of Hridaya, or the heart cave, where a meditator looks inward into a sanctuary space where they are able to challenge and let go of false thoughts holding them back.

“Meditation practice becomes a refuge, a sanctuary, a space of refreshment and renewal, and also an intimate coming to know the nature of our own minds so that we don’t take ourselves so seriously when it really counts,” Starr said.

Starr said in Judaism, the faith she grew up in as a child, the Shabbat on Fridays is part of an extended space of celebration that allows for a return to a spiritual space that is inherently feminine.

She said Shabbat allows people “to disentangle from the tyranny of tasks that bosses us around most of the week and allows ourselves to take some time to just be, rather than do.”

Shabbat is a return to the Shekhinah, or an in-dwelling that Starr said is a feminine spirit, which is an internal source that mirrors the unknowable divine presence found everywhere. By joining with the community, people can be realigned with God. She said this was similar to a Taoism teaching which calls for rest, so a person can develop enough patience for dust to settle and to act from a space of deep listening.

This feminine energy does not equate to submissiveness, Starr said, but a powerful silence.

“It is a space that is deeply alive and listens, tuned to the realities of what is,” Starr said.

In Taoism, Tao is something that cannot be fully defined, though some of its aspects outlined in Tao Te Ching teachings can be considered as an eternal mother. It is a classic feminine paradox of both knowing and not knowing.

Starr said Judaism’s command to keep Shabbat holy is similar to Buddhism’s refuge vow, where Buddhists are invited to take refuge in learning about the life of Buddha, Dharma (Buddha’s teachings) and the Sangha, which are teachings from the community of Buddhist practitioners.

God transcends distinctions in many faiths, including Islam, though its texts and prayers primarily use masculine language to describe God. However, Starr said, the names Rahman — mercy — and Rahim — compassion — are both names of God found in all five daily prayers and the Quran.

The root found in both words, rah, means womb.

Starr has always felt drawn to many different faith traditions, but she said now she takes greater care in acknowledging their cultural origins.

“I have always felt drawn to many different faith traditions, but I do so now without the entitlement that I used to carry as a white person in this world, that I could just help myself to the cultural treasures of any tradition that I pleased,” Starr said.

Starr’s award-winning work in creative nonfiction and translations of sacred literature of mystics includes her translations of “The Dark Night of the Soul,” a poem by Saint John of the Cross, and The Interior Castle by Saint Theresa of Ávila. She first came across the two writers when studying Spanish Christian mystic literature in college.

“The Dark Night of the Soul” describes times in life when everything dries up and there is no access to a felt sacred presence, when constructs of the self and its belief systems are deconstructed. With only masculine spirituality, Starr said these moments can feel dark and cold without a feminine spiritual presence.

“‘The Dark Night of the Soul’ is about the liberation (we experience) when we’re able to let go of our sensory and conceptual attachments, to the way we think spiritual life is supposed to be, and have a naked encounter with what is, with love itself,” Starr said.

Saint Theresa of Ávila’s The Interior Castle describes the soul as she saw it from a vision — as an interior crystal, a castle with many sacred spaces inside. Theresa detailed a three-part journey of Christian mystical experience: purification, illumination and union. Purification under masculine scrutiny is defined as the task of fixing oneself to be worthy of God’s love, while the feminine acknowledges the catastrophes that naturally occur in life and calls people to show up fully in those moments.

Starr herself has found that traumatic events of loss, including the death of her brother when she was 7, her boyfriend at 14, and the death of her own 14-year-old daughter in 2001 when she was 40 years old, catapulted her spirituality into a transformation each time.

“Grief empties us,” Starr said, and allows room for a person to be an instrument for peace.

All faith traditions have a feminine spirit, so they need women as teachers to light the way, Starr said. Starr said that people, regardless of what faith or faiths they call home, should seek guidance from women teachers they know and also seek out those they may not — including those who are young, old and especially women of color, who Starr said have been radically silenced in traditions around the world.

“If you can’t find them, create them,” Starr said.

Sister Joan Chittister frames the state of inequality today and the roles of women and men to achieve equality

Joan Chittister Screen Shot 2020-07-27 at 2.03.53 PM

Equality. “Good event, bad event. Who knows?”

Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister framed each expansion of women’s legal rights with this question. While women gained new legal freedoms over time, remaining social and legal restrictions would keep the full expression of those freedoms just out of reach. 

After (white) women in the United States gained the right to vote in 1920, women wouldn’t be allowed to serve on juries until the 1970s. And after being encouraged to work in male-dominated fields during World War II, many were forced to give up these jobs when the war ended.

Chittister spoke at 2 p.m. EDT Monday, July 27, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. She discussed topics such as equality and its impacts at both national and global levels in her lecture “A Woman’s Life: A Good Event/Bad Event World.” She pre-recorded the lecture on July 24 in Erie, Pennsylvania, where she resides.

When Chittister was 14, she found three books on spirituality authored by women in her high school library, including a book of poems by an unnamed nun from Stanbrook. 

Now, after experiencing extensive discrimination as a woman in her own career as a nun and former Catholic high school teacher, Chittister is an award-winning author of 60 books and an international lecturer.

Chittister kicked off Week Five’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “The Feminine Spirit,” with a story about a farmer and his son. With each failure and success in his life — losing his horse, the horse returning with a horde of wild horses for the farm, a wild horse crippling his son and his son not dying in war as a result of his condition — the farmer said, “Good event, bad event. Who knows?” in response to his neighbors’ questions.

Chittister said this can also describe the constant give-and-take of women’s rights. When the Equal Pay Act of 1963 passed, companies worked around its requirements by giving men and women the same job responsibilities with a different job title and a higher wage for the man. This loophole wasn’t resolved until 2009 with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

Similar roadblocks occurred with Title VIII, which opened up collegiate programs for women. As many women as men attended college by 1980, then women surpassed men in doctoral degrees by 2004.

But promotion and wage opportunities have not increased along with higher education. To this day, women reach their peak earning point at 40 years old with an average of $60,000 annually. Men in comparison peak at 65, earning $102,000 a year on average.

“Women got the jobs, but they didn’t get the money,” Chittister said.

Two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women who make $7.25 per hour, a non-negotiable federal rate (though this varies by state). While working 40 hours a week at this rate, a single mom and two kids would be $8,000 short of a livable wage.

The United States is also one of the worst developed countries for women. In 2019, National Geographic ranked the United States as one of the worst countries in the developed world for women due to less political, economic and social opportunities and heightened personal, physical and psychological abuse which occurs despite legal protections.

“Men do not really respect women,” Chittister said. “We have found out they harass them. And when women get a job at the highest level, they too often find that the job depends not on their talents but on their sexualization. You don’t believe me? I wouldn’t believe me either. Why don’t you leave here and ask the Weinsteins, and the Aileses, and the Epsteins, and the Cosbys, and the media, and the number of offices we’ve had to empty because women weren’t safe six feet away from the door?”

Chittister said this is not just a problem of the working and domestic worlds of the United States, but also in the global shadow economy of human trafficking.

“Why don’t you ask the little girls on the roadsides out there now who are being trafficked for pleasure, left in poverty, used up and thrown away while we do little-to-nothing except maybe pretend that we don’t see them at all on Super Bowl Sunday?” Chittister said.

Chittister then cited a Pew Research Center poll which reported that 40% of women under 30 want to leave the United States.

“Our daughters have figured out that they are neither safe nor valued here,” Chittister said.

Chittister said that above all, women everywhere need education. Women make up two-thirds of the world’s illiterate. And women in many developing countries still need freedom over their own finances and marriages, as in choosing who they want to marry and gaining the right to divorce someone if needed. Forty-nine countries lack domestic abuse laws while women killed by a domestic partner make up 47% of homicides worldwide.

“Men kill women the way they kill animals,” Chittister said.

Chittister said that religions like Christianity — despite Genesis calling for men and women, both created in God’s image, to take responsibility for dominion over the world — that enshrine male gods and establish male values play a part in the patriarchy’s oppression of women.

“This moral sickness is a sickness of the soul,” Chittister said.

While the U.S. Constitution and subsequent amendments are supposed to protect the rights of women and other vulnerable groups, Chittister said that presidential executive orders and the Supreme Court have been stripping away rights for women.

“(The) Constitution is being shredded for its lack of specificity,” Chittister said.

The federal government’s lack of respect for women is presented on a global stage by maintaining trade relationships with countries who enslave women in open contract work.

“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Chittister said. “We have simply allowed it to be like this.”

Chittister cited the Rule of Saint Benedict from the sixth century, which was the first document in the West to define human relationships. Written in a world defined by male authority and rule, Benedict not only defined appropriate behavior of benevolent rulers to be nonviolent, non-dominant and non-authoritarian — the antithesis of Roman men who ruled the Western world at the time — but also outlined women to have similar agency.

This document outlined eight corollaries for both men and women to follow, which throughout called for men to stop putting themselves above women, who also need to speak up for their needs.

Chittister said these attitudes can be boiled down into four behaviors that need to be happen to make space for equality and in turn, a better world: Men need to listen to women, women need to speak up for their needs, men need to stop “blustering commands” at women, and women need to be treated like fully functioning adults.

Chittister said multiple times that women should not tolerate unacceptable behavior by men in their marriages, workplaces or anywhere in the world. She ended her lecture with one last warning.

“The patience of women may be what destroys women,” she said.

Lisa Sharon Harper reframes Jesus on Interfaith Friday

lisa sharon harper

Black. Indigenous. Colonized. To Lisa Sharon Harper, this is Jesus.

“People of African descent and other people who have been colonized around the world, when they read the text for themselves, irrespective of what their master told them what the text meant, they see a Brown, colonized, indigenous Jesus,” Harper said. “They see a people serially enslaved and serially colonized. There is a kinship of experience and social location with every single writer of this text.”

Harper, founder and president of Freedom Road, spoke on progressive Evangelical Christianity for Week Four’s Interfaith Friday at 2 p.m. EDT July 24 on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform.

Chautauqua Institution’s Vice President of Religion and Senior Pastor Gene Robinson joined her in a conversation while the audience submitted questions through the portal and through Twitter with #CHQ2020.

Robinson said the two have been friends for many years, but he had not heard Harper speak on the subject of her latest book, The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right. The book, which references the Book of Genesis, best fit the creation focus for this season’s Interfaith Friday series.

“When I chose this theme to bring before our Interfaith Friday presenters, I immediately thought of you because of this wonderful book,” Robinson said.

The journey to Harper’s latest book began 17 years ago on a trip across the American South with her college ministry. On a bus of 25 people and children, she retraced the Cherokee Trail of Tears before retracing the African experience in the United States, from slavery to civil rights. She hoped to understand how the Biblical concept of shalom intersects with the value for racial consideration, justice and healing.

Both legs of the trip reminded her of her own family. On the Trail of Tears, she said she recalled this history’s ties to her ancestors, who most likely escaped from the trail and hid in the nearby mountains. Slavery had also pulled her ancestors apart.

“My family was enslaved in nearly every state in the South, according to DNA,” Harper said.

Considering her family roots, Harper’s mind returned to her great-great-great grandmother Leah Ballard, the last adult enslaved woman in her family. Harper asked herself if Ballard would react to the gospel as she did.

“If I were to share my understanding of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, would that good news cause her to jump and shout for joy?” Harper said. “Would it cause her to scream hallelujah?”

By the end of that summer, Harper realized that her great-grandmother had 17 children likely because she was a breeder — “her job on the plantation, for which she never got paid, was to breed money for her master,” she said. “She lost children to the slave trade. She lost children and husbands to death.”

So if she told her Grandma Ballard that God gave her a purpose and all she had to do was pray to enter heaven, would Grandma Ballard rejoice?

“When I was honest with myself, I realized the answer was no,” Harper said.

Harper said this launched a yearlong bout of depression.

“If my entire understanding of the gospel would not be received as good news by my very family, then could it be good news?” Harper said. “If my understanding of the gospel could not be good news to the ones that need it most, I came to understand that it’s actually not good enough.”

This prompted Harper to study the Book of Genesis for 13 years. Four Hebrew words in the beginning of the Bible reframed her understanding of the gospel: tov m’od (very good), tselem (icon), radah (dominion) and dmuwth (likeness).

Greeks translated the good in tov m’od as a perfection that existed inside a person or thing. But in Hebrew, it means “overwhelming goodness” between things.

“God saw everything He had made and saw that it was not just good, but very good,” Genesis 1:31 states.

Harper said that this referred to the relationship between God and humanity, men, women, all genders, systems and all of creation.

Tselem means an icon or representative figure. “Let us make humankind in our image,” but not just in kings and queens. Some Biblical scholars believe that either Moses wrote all of the Book of Genesis or that this text was written by priests fleeing Babylonian in exile.

“No matter who you think wrote this text, the context of the writing was oppression,” Harper said. “They were oppressed while they were writing this text. They were enslaved. They were — in Moses’ case — just been enslaved. And that is what moved them to write this text.

Harper said that these people had been enslaved for 70 years and still chose “radical goodness.” They could have easily said to make either the priests or Moses in our image. 

“But they didn’t,” Harper said. “Instead, they took that power and cast it out for all humanity at exactly the moment they could have grabbed it for themselves.”

The word radah has been mistranslated to dominate earth. There are eight different ways to say “dominion” in the Book of Genesis, but this one means “to tread down,” to exercise agency and ensure the wellness of relationships between all things and protect radical goodness. Harper said that to till and keep the Garden of Eden translates to serve and protect.

“That’s what dominion looks like,” Harper said. To be human is to be made in the image of God and called to serve the world.

Harper moved onto Genesis 2, the story of the two trees. One was the Tree of Life, which Adam and Eve could eat from and live forever. The other tree was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

It was distinct because the eater experienced evil in relationship to the command attached to it. Planted in the center of paradise, the tree confronted Adam and Eve with the decision to conclude that humans are in need of God, must trust God and choose God’s way to peace. They were given an opportunity to trust God and choose God’s way. By eating, they experience evil.

“The evil is the very act of not trusting God, of not choosing God’s way to peace,” Harper said.

Harper said that Shalom can only be accessed through God.

“If we trust our own way, then we forfeit God’s peace.”

Human shalom, in comparison, is broken peace. Harper said this starts the blame game between men and women. It breaks the relationship between all of dominion. It begins human mortality.

“Who wants to live forever in a broken world?” Harper said.

The stories following Genesis track the breaking up of the world. War in the Bible comes in the context of colonization. On a screen behind her, Harper flipped through images of Manifest Destiny, lynchings, exploitation of Black slave labor and Asian stereotypes, Japanese internment camps in the United States, and transgender discrimination.

“(These are the) kind of discussions, conversations about how the polis will live together that remove the other, or crush the other or twist the other or hang the other or exploit the other or exclude the other or exclude any people or people group from the capacity to exercise dominion in the world,” Harper said. “What we are also doing is we are removing, we are hiding, we are exploiting, we are crushing, we are excluding the image of God on Earth.”

Harper said images of ancient kings marked where that king ruled and indicated the health and richness of a kingdom. Meanwhile, busted, fallen images of a king indicated war against the kingdom.

“What if God understands that to be a declaration of war against that kingdom, against God’s kingdom, against God’s rule?” Harper said.

Harper said this will require the coming of the kingdom of God, or moments in the world when God’s followers show up. This would look like the message in Luke 4, when Jesus explains he’s come to free the oppressed and captives. 

“Those captives would likely have been political prisoners,” Harper said. “Because the year Jesus was born, that same year, there was an attempted insurrection in northern Galilee. And more than 2,000 men and boys were crucified in one day because they attempted to rise up against those who tried to colonize them.”

The writers of the Bible look like the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. They look like Gallatians 3 and 27. And in Gallatians 29, Paul writes to his people: “As many of you who were baptized into Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek. There is no longer male or female. There is no longer slave or freed, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

“It is Brown, colonized, indigenous people who are writing this text,” Harper said.

Before being baptized, Harper said a person sees others through a hierarchical lens of power. But the water washes away differences and only leaves the image of God in the other.

“It means you see their inherent dignity and you see their divine call to steward this world,” Harper said.

But it takes conscious effort to operate in a God-like way when the world is not created for it.

“This world has not been crafted around this truth,” Harper said. “It has been crafted around the lie of human hierarchy.”

To actually deliver good news to her ancestor Leah Ballard, Harper now knows what she would say to her: “The king has come to confront the kingdoms of this world that are hell-bent on crushing the image of God on Earth. And Leah, this includes you.”

“That’s some good news.”

Then Harper would turn to Leah Ballard’s master and deliver the fourth Hebrew word: dmuwth, likeness. It means an image according to our likeness. Like God, but not God. 

“Oh Leah’s master, I have good news for you,” Harper would say. “You are not actually a master. You are simply human. You have the ability to come down off of the scaffolding of human hierarchy that you have built for yourself through the constructs of race and gender and all the other hierarchical categories we have given for ourselves.”

Robinson said this would be the hardest to ask the privileged to do, to give up their power.

“It was going to demand of them the very thing they didn’t want to give up,” he said.

Harper said that the principle sin for people of European descent in the United States has been to try to be God, to try to define everything and everyone.

“When those people said that my people were three-fifths of a human being, it became so according to the law,” Harper said. “Only God should be able to make that kind of (decision). And you have an opportunity to lay down your arms and join the community of the rest of creation.”

Then she laid out a thought exercise. She guided her audience to close its eyes and imagine a person who is normally hierarchically below them. She said to find their eyes,  look beyond them and find the image of God on the other side of their eyes. Then repeat: “I see the image of God in you. Let it be so.”

Harper said that repentance was the path to right past wrongs, including the assassination of George Floyd by four officers.

“To defund the police means to move funds to create actual public safety, to repent for saying, ‘This is law enforcement,’ when actually it was never created to enforce the law,” Harper said. “It was created to contain and control Black bodies and to protect the supremacy of whiteness. That is why the police were created. So we need to repent of that structure that we have allowed to exist from 1704 all the way to present.”

Harper also referenced the Bible when Jesus says “I have people you know not of” to explain how God’s people are not only the ones who know him.

“I have come to believe that it is not just believing in a set of principles,” Harper said. “Jesus is not about principles. Jesus is about God, the kingdom of God … on Earth, the image of God being set free, and I believe that no matter where we are in the world there are people who are following the Jesus way, even if they don’t know the name of Jesus.”

St. John’s University professor Noreen Herzfeld warns against serving technology instead of humans

noreen herzfeld

For centuries, technology simply amplified humans’ physical abilities. A hammer amplifies the force of an arm. A telescope helps us see something far away. But Noreen Herzfeld said the difference in modern technology like computers and artificial intelligence programs is that they extend the human mind.

“While technologies generally reflect and refract our purposes, amplify our natural abilities, they can also get away from us, embodying a power or purpose of their own,” she said.

Herzfeld, the Nicholas and Bernice Reuter Professor of Science and Religion at St. John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict, delivered her lecture that posed the question: “Tool, Partner, or Surrogate: How Autonomous Should Our Technology Be?” The lecture, at 2 p.m. EDT Thursday, July 23, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, returned to the Week Four Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “Ethics in a Technologically Transforming World?”

Herzfeld’s academic background spans degrees in computer science and mathematics from The Pennsylvania State University and a Ph.D. in theology from The Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley. She has contributed to four books on technology and religion as an author and editor.

Herzfeld pre-recorded her lecture on July 12 in Collegeville, Colorado, and attended a Q-and-A the day it was released with Maureen Rovegno, Chautauqua Institution’s Director of Religion. Rovegno delivered audience questions submitted through the portal and on Twitter with #CHQ2020.

The purpose of developing any technology has always been to alter a condition or change an environment in a way that makes an action or condition easier — like taming the elements, disease, predators — and to make life more comfortable. Most recently, this has played out in COVID-19 solutions.

Herzfeld said machine learning was used to test over 6,000 existing drugs that had already passed clinical trials to see if they could be repurposed to fight COVID-19. Google’s DeepMind team trained a neural network to predict protein structures associated with the virus to help develop a vaccine.

Technology can be useful, but it can also re-shape the society it was created in. 

“Often we’re the ones who have to bend to technology, not vice versa,” Herzfeld said.

Technology can also alter its environment. Herzfeld cited German existentialist Martin Heidegger, who said that when a craftsman constructed a chair out of wood, he didn’t change the inside of the wood to create the chair. But a genetically engineered bacterium is new to the “natural order.”

Herzfeld looked to the Christian book of Genesis to explain the relationship between God’s creation and human creation, which are linked because God created humans in his image. Genesis 1 also gives humans dominion over everything in nature.

“We, too, are destined to be creators because we are in God’s image,” Herzfeld said.

But for Herzfeld, some Biblical scholars take the mandates in Genesis for humans being made in God’s image and having dominion over Earth too far when they view humans as deputies for God on Earth. Negative consequences can arise in human relationships, she said, as when Cain kills his brother Abel in Genesis 4-9. And the development of agriculture thanks to technology led to hubris and the construction of the Tower of Babel, which further divided people.

Herzfeld said that creation, both by God and humans, has three relationships. There is God’s image of himself, God’s relationship with humans as his creation, and humans’ relationships with one another. The story of Noah’s ark is an example of technology used to successfully augment these relationships between Noah and his family, the animals and his covenant with God.

“Human nature is only completely full when we are in relationship with God and one another,” Herzfeld said.

The closest relationship that humans have that emulates God’s hierarchical relationship with humans is the creation of artificial intelligence and robots. Herzfeld said she is not sure this is what we want, lauding the Amish for their careful consideration of technology they do bring into their communities.

“Contrary to popular conception, the Amish have not ‘stopped the clock,’” Herzfeld said. “They accept some technologies and reject others.”

The Amish use phones, but don’t install one in every home because it would discourage face-to-face conversations. They use refrigerated milk tanks, but don’t install one in every kitchen.

For every piece of technology they consider, the Amish ask if it provides tangible benefits — but also if it would hamper the relationships in the community.

Herzfeld said another way to look at how artificial intelligence could work for humans is to reframe the technology as “intelligence augmentation,” a term coined by Douglas Engelbart. Artificial intelligence indicates a surrogate in a human task relating to holding God-given dominion over the world, while intelligence augmentation describes a tool under human supervision and control.

Though artificial intelligence programs can execute human decisions, most can’t reason with these decisions.

“A machine with true agency would have a further ability to reason independently about its own actions and unpredictably change course should it consider those actions unethical or in violation of some overarching value or intention,” Herzfeld said.

Philosophers Michael and Susan Anderson have three rules for determining if a robot or program is a moral agent: they must not be under direct control by another agent or user, they choose to interact with their environment, and fulfill a social role or relationship with responsibilities. In the example of a robot health caregiver, Herzfeld said it fulfills the first two, but is not aware of its responsibility to the patient.

But there are also robots and programs with high autonomy in settings with serious consequences and moral implications. In warfare, lethal autonomous weapons systems operate on algorithms, making life-and-death decisions without synchronous human control.

For example, the AEGIS Weapon System is a naval air defense system used by the United States, Australia, Japan, Norway, the Republic of Korea and Spain. It searches and guides missiles in the air, on the surface and underwater. It chooses where and when to fire on its own.

Another example is the Cargo II, a 15-pound multicopter drone that tracks and engages targets using facial recognition technology. Drones can operate in swarms of 20 led by one head drone, which can be operated on its own or by a human.

Herzfeld said that Turkey has ordered 500, and the drone could have attack capabilities.

While providing cost-efficient benefits for commanders — since drones work without getting tired, don’t need to be paid and can work in harsh conditions — Herzfeld said the costs to the larger human community are comparable to the use of nuclear weaponry, which redefined the ethics of war for ethicists and theologians. It is unclear if a drone’s lack of emotion would make war atrocities more or less likely, or if a drone could shrug off human control and turn on the person it was previously taking orders from.

“A species with multiple ways of destroying itself or its environment has to grow smart,” Herzfeld said. “It has to have the wisdom not to do so. Essentially, it becomes a race between the development of technology and the development of morality. If technology wins, we lose.”

Faith-based ethics: Southern Baptist Convention’s Jason Thacker weighs in on how technology can be used for both good and evil

Screen Shot 2020-07-23 at 9.34.11 AM

Whether people regard artificial intelligence as a tool that can turn into either a future friend or a threat, Jason Thacker said the technology is already here.

“The reality is that AI is everywhere in our society, and if you don’t believe me I dare you to say something like, ‘Hey Siri,’ or, ‘Hey Alexa,’ because ultimately something around you will likely light up,” Thacker said. “Whether it’s wearable tech like a watch or smartphones, something around you is connected to the cloud and connected to these AI systems.”

Thacker delivered his lecture “The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity” at 2 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, July 21, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. The name of Thacker’s lecture matches his book and was part of the Week Four Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “Ethics in a Technologically Transforming World?”

Maureen Rovegno, Chautauqua’s director of religion, led the subsequent Q-and-A while the audience submitted questions through the portal and through Twitter with #CHQ2020.

“Your faith-based ethics give you that joyful kind of optimism that counteracts the pessimism that many people have started to feel — that technology is taking over areas and directions that have shadow sides to them,” Rovegno said.

Thacker is Chair of Research in Technology Ethics at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He said his work with the ERLC revolves around the message in the Book of Matthew, specifically Matthew 22.

“The ethical system in Matthew 22 is more robust than any challenges we will face and any innovations that will come,” Thacker said.

He holds a Master of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Ethics and Public Theology at the seminary. In the meantime, he writes articles on technology ethics for the ERLC site and has also written for Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition and other online sites. His work with the ERLC’s document, “Artificial Intelligence: An Evangelical Statement of Principles,” was featured on Slate.

Thacker said that new technology is not actually bringing up new questions.

“Questions that are posed by today’s technologies like artificial intelligence actually aren’t new at all,” Thacker said. “This is because AI doesn’t really cause us to ask new questions of humanity, per se, but to ask age-old questions of new opportunities. It’s the same old vices and sins and proclivities we’ve always dealt with in humanity, but with new opportunities before us.”

Thacker said that artificial intelligence poses two questions. What does it mean to be human? And what is the role of technology in our lives?

What being human means, for Thacker, is based on the fact that in Christianity, God created humans in his likeness and image. Others, however, have claimed that religions are no longer necessary to guide ethics because of science’s progress.

“Many secular folks will caricature faith as believing in something without fact or knowledge, but fail to see that science itself has some faith to it,” Thacker said. “Because we’re not only able to explain what is seen, we have to identify the design behind it.”

Thacker cited Professor John Lennox of Oxford, who said that past philosophers and scientists — including Galileo and Isaac Newton — believed that God created the laws of nature, which drove their scientific inquiries and major breakthroughs.

As an ethicist, Thacker thinks about his work in a similar way.

“I simply cannot buy into this role of autonomous thinking untethered from any natural law framework of the world with a creator god at the center,” Thacker said. “I simply find it unsustainable and unconvincing ethically, as well as unsustainable with the pursuit of truth and the way this world works and what it means to be human.”

Thacker looks to the Book of Genesis to answer the old questions. In the story of creation, God created everything and made humans separate from the rest of the world, including animals, in his image to take dominion over all things and be stewards of the world. Thacker believes technology allows for humans to fulfill this role.

“This creativity and these abilities to make things to aid us in our role as image-bearers is the core of what technology is,” Thacker said. “ … But these tools and technologies are made by fallible and sinful human hands, and they are quick to show the brokenness of this world.”

Thacker said that tools can be used to lord power over others and dehumanize them, and therefore dishonor God. It reflects Cain’s sin in the Bible, when he used his strength, given by God in order to work, to kill his brother Abel instead.

Along with the promise of what technology can do, it can also open up new ways to hurt others.

“It expands what is possible for us to do, and ultimately we are the ones who are responsible for it, not the tools themselves,” Thacker said.

Pulling morality from the Bible allows for Christians to be unfettered by changing social mores over time, Thacker said. Christians instead seek to love God and their neighbor as fellow image-bearers.

Thacker said that technologies that follow a natural order, aligning with protecting God’s creation, fulfill proper uses.

“There are so many God-honoring benefits in these technologies,” Thacker said.

Thacker said technology, including technology used in warfare, has uses in protecting people as fellow image-bearers, regardless of differences.

“And so that’s why I’ll stand up for Uighur Muslims in China, just like I’ll stand up for the person next door or the elderly lady down the street or the baby in the womb,” Thacker said. “It’s because of this concept of human dignity in the image of God.”

As a Christian, Thacker is not afraid of any negative outcome from humans’ misuse of technology because of the message in the Book of Revelations, the final book in the New Testament that describes Jesus returning to Earth to save believers once again.

“I don’t fear killer robots, or massive job loss, or catastrophic downturn, because I know that my God is reigning and ruling and holding the entire universe together in his hand,” Thacker said. “There is nothing that will catch my God off-guard, and nothing that will stop his plans for this world.”

Dr. Gerard Magill presents technology’s current and future moral conundrums in lecture


The fall of Adam and Eve by “playing God” could mirror how human civilization eventually falls, Dr. Gerard Magill said in his lecture at 2 p.m. EDT Monday, July 20. 

Magill connected the Biblical story of the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden to the possible ends of the world in his lecture “Technology, Ethics, & Imagination” on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. His presentation was the first in the Week Four theme for the Interfaith Lecture Series, “Ethics in a Technologically Transforming World?”

Magill contributes his expertise in multiple roles in ethics at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Since 2007, Magill has held the Vernon F. Gallagher Chair for the Integration of Science, Theology, Philosophy, and Law at the university, where he is a tenured Professor in the Center for Healthcare Ethics. Magill is also a board member for Duquesne’s Carl G. Grefenstette Center for Ethics in Science, Technology, and Law. His name is credited in 10 books on medical ethics, often with an added layer of religious morality, as an author, co-author and editor.

Perceiving any future outcome requires imagination, Magill said in his lecture, because the “image” only exists in theory until it takes place in reality. He used the situation of considering someone for marriage as an example.

“We get this image: ‘I can spend my life with this person. This is mesmerizing me. And I get the data and the rationality and the reasonableness (to support this),’” Magill said. “So you come to the conclusion, ‘Yes, we should marry. I’m sure about this.’”

Magill said a person imagines a future with someone just as people imagine God. But when thinking about God, people can set logic and reasoning traps for themselves when it comes to technology.

“What we assume to be normal is the result of major breakthroughs that past civilizations would have been mesmerized by,” Magill said.

The existence of technology that borders on playing God, Magill said, does not always mean it should be used. But people can also use new technology to protect life, God’s creation.

“Save the life that can be saved,” Magill said multiple times throughout his lecture.

He used “maternal and fetal” conflicts as an example of a difficult ethical situation. In a hypothetical situation where a doctor discovers that a womb is cancerous and would kill the mother before the baby could be born, there is a difference between foresight and intent.

“(The mother and the doctor) foresee with assuredness that the baby will die, but it cannot survive out of the womb,” Magill said. “But that knowledge has got nothing to do with intent. Because the mum knows in advance that the baby will die does not mean the mum wants the death. It’s a very important ethical distinction.”

Magill used another example of a woman who was against abortion, but had pulmonary hypertension — a condition that is common in women and can be fatal. Faced with life-threatening complications, she agreed for the doctor to evacuate her womb at 11 weeks.

“They could have tried to save both, but it’s almost certain that both would have died,” Magill said.

The debates surrounding frozen embryos, early adoption, in-vitro fertilization, and surrogate motherhood provide another ethical challenge. Frozen embryos become a situation of rescue ethics because they carry potential for creating kids that can be adopted by a third party.

Magill then switched gears to describe the conundrums in end-of-life situations created by technology. He began with the case of Terri Schiavo, who fell into a permanent vegetative state after cardiac arrest. For 15 years, her parents and her husband Michael fought in court over her parents’ wishes to keep her alive indefinitely with a feeding tube, while her husband said that she would not have wished to stay alive in that way. Eventually the court ruled to allow her to be removed from life support.

Magill said there are thousands of patients like Schiavo who can be kept alive for years. He cited the Christian prayer for a peaceful death, to die quietly in one’s sleep, which stands in conflict with modern technology’s ability to extend life past this point. But technology can also allow the outcome of a peaceful death through managing disease until the end.

“It’s simply about removing technology at the correct point to let the body slip away peacefully, without suffering, without pain and with the dignity of the family being there,” Magill said.

Magill then switched back to technology that can control the beginning of life: human genomics.

About 20 years ago, hundreds of millions of dollars funded the sequencing of the first human genome. To go to a facility and sequence your own human genome today takes five hours and $1,000. Magill said it will take less and less over time to do this, and could eventually only cost $100.

Currently, hospitals track 27 traits in newborn babies to ensure proper healthcare, though it’s possible to map a baby’s entire genome sequence. Magill said that Americans are more resistant to this, while Europeans are already doing this because of what he called a “solidarity mindset.” By collecting the full genomes of a mass population, doctors can detect early-onset conditions and disease likelihood, while also locating treatment solutions within the same genome.

Making health decisions for minors, who are not legally allowed to make their own decisions until they become 18, can also become thorny. Magill used the example of a young teen who wanted to stop her cancer treatments but lost her case in court with her parents. When she turned 18, she decided to continue the treatments after all.

But the case of the Nash family brings up the ethics of making decisions on behalf of an embryo. Their child, Molly, was projected to die early from Fanconi anemia. To save her, they chose to implant via IVF an embryo without Fanconi anemia traits specifically to birth a second child, Adam. The umbilical cord and blood from the pregnancy was donated to Molly, and Adam would later donate stem cells to Molly.

Magill said this could easily become a difficult situation. The younger sibling had to donate blood over time and later donate spinal fluid, which is painful.

“What if he said, ‘I can’t do this for my sister anymore’?” Magill said.

Magill continued with CRISPR, a gene editing tool that works like computer shortcuts to edit genes. First it finds all parts of the DNA in every cell of the body that it’s looking for, then replaces it with a desired trait. A doctor in China, against the wishes of his own country, the United States and the United Kingdom, used CRISPR to edit the genes of two young girls to protect them from HIV. The doctor altered other genes in the process and is now in jail for “playing God.”

But the newest platform for ethical discourse, Magill said, is data science. Artificial intelligence uses algorithms to collect huge amounts of data for targeted marketing and other purposes. And AI is already transitioning into machine learning, where computers are able to speak, train and guide each other without humans. Eventually, they will be able to work thousands of times faster than a computer chip.

The use of 5G technology allows for machines to collect data at record speeds and reach conclusions faster. China is moving the fastest in implementing 5G, and its citizens already use devices — instead of currency — to pay for goods and services. China reaps massive amounts of data this way.

Pharmaceutical companies are using data science and genomic science to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. Through genomic science, scientists were able to find a possible trait for a vaccine quickly, while computational models — not doctors — quickly deduced possible solutions. 

But the collection of health data, which is normally protected by healthcare organizations, reaches Google, Facebook, Apple and other companies through their partnerships with those healthcare organizations. While these huge corporations are working for free to help these organizations with algorithms, their minimum requirement is access to 100% of the data ,with nothing anonymized. Magill said these companies in turn use it for themselves.

“If (machines) begin to do things for us — supposedly ‘for our welfare’ — we are now talking about in the not-so-distant future the concept of transhumanism, human enhancement,” Magill said.

However, he did say this would likely not happen in this generation.

“We are in the portal from the old world, where it was kind of straightforward medicine — ‘I went to see the doctor, got the stethoscope, got the injection, got the surgery’ — through this portal to machine learning that is going to be able to do things and suggest things and be able to treat the somatic and the general level, thereby changing the species and moving it forward,” Magill said.

After 500 million years of history leading up to this technology, Magill said it is now possible to end the human species within 100 years of gene editing going too far.

But Magill shifted the topic again to the matter of the eventual vaccine for COVID-19, which he said was not as vicious as other viruses but still a threat. 

“This is not about me getting sick and dying,” Magill said. “This is about populations getting sick and dying. These can be stark numbers.”

He said the rise in pandemics is directly linked with pollution, which actually allows viruses and other problems to arise. As early as 2050, rising sea levels will force thousands to move out of Eurasia, which will be an even larger number coming into Europe than its most recent struggle to support Syrian refugees fleeing war.

“It’s not just genomics that can kill us, it’s not just algorithms that can threaten us,” Magill said. “It’s also just the air we breathe, the planet we live in. We can pollute it to the point of destroying it.”

Considering all the ways humankind could die, Magill said humankind could fall the same way Adam and Eve did.

“If we killed ourselves in these ways, the planet would recover,” Magill said. “… It’s just that it would survive without humanity. And maybe that’s the story of the fall. Not of the past, but of the future.”

Wayman and Eryl Kubicka answered questions about creation with Buddhist “non-understanding of creation” on Interfaith Friday

kubickas interfaith friday

Wayman and Eryl Kubicka answered questions about creation with their “non-understanding of creation” as Zen Buddhists For Week Three’s Interfaith Friday.

The lecture was broadcast at 2 p.m. EDT Friday, July 17, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. Audience members also participated by submitting questions through the portal and through Twitter with #CHQ2020. Gene Robinson, Chautauqua’s Vice President of Religion and senior pastor, joined in the live virtual conversation and delivered audience questions.

Eryl and Wayman have taught Buddhist meditation in Chautauqua’s Mystic Heart Meditation Program for 10 years. Wayman, an ordained Buddhist priest since 2010, runs the Rochester Zen Center’s retreat in New York, teaching meditation and overseeing training. Eryl teaches meditation and coordinates the youth program for the center. 

They each became interested in Buddhism and meditation before meeting each other in the province of Quang Nyi in Vietnam. Wayman was part of an American Friends Service Committee (Quaker) team located there to build and run a rehabilitation center for injured civilians.

Eryl met Wayman when she joined the team in 1969 as a physical therapist and practicing Buddhist. They were married in 1970, and have practiced Zen meditation for four decades. They first studied under the guidance of Roshi Philip Kapleau, who helped Wayman with post-Vietnam PTSD through meditation, and under the current abbot, Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede.

Wayman began the lecture with the opening story from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time: an old anecdote where an elderly woman speaks up at the end of a prominent astronomer’s public lecture. She tells him his understanding of how the universe works — the moon revolves around the Earth, which revolves around the sun with other planets, while various galaxies exist far and wide — is not true, because the world is flat and rests on the back of a turtle. The astronomer asks what the turtle is standing on, and she says, “‘You’re very clever, young man, very clever. But it’s turtles all the way down.’

“Why do we think we know better than that?” Wayman said.

Zen Buddhism is about being content with not knowing all the answers.

“I think most Zen Buddhists would affirm that we do not, and perhaps cannot, know very much about the universe, and what ultimately could be behind this creation,” Wayman said. “Of course, this doesn’t mean there isn’t a great deal of scientific thinking or religious thinking that cannot tell us what is likely true, and what is exactly not true, and especially what is of value.”

Being content in the present while accepting change is another priority in Zen Buddhism.

“Regarding creation, we can probably surmise that nothing will stay as it is forever,” Wayman said. “But that does not likely apply to laws that govern change, development and interaction. Personally, it has become more clear to me that I will not be around forever.”

Wayman turned to science to fully answer questions about creation, citing astrophysicist Ethan Siegel, who said that from a symmetrical universe, nothing after the Big Bang happened broke up in equal amounts. An excess of matter was created, but the existence of anti-matter is still an unanswered question.

“Until (technology reveals otherwise), we can be certain that there is no anti-matter in the universe, but no one knows why,” Wayman said.

Wayman said that for non-Buddhists, many Zen Buddhist teachings can be confusing and can feel like the turtles mentioned in Hawking’s story. He dropped common sayings from fundamental Zen Buddhist writings like, “Form here is only emptiness, emptiness only form;” and, “Feeling, thought and choice. Consciousness itself is the same as this.”

Emptiness is a state to be achieved in Zen Buddhism.

“Here are empty all of the primal void,” goes a Zen Buddhist Dharma, or a teaching. “None are born or die, neither stained or pure. Nor do they wax or wane.”

Zazen samadhi is an awakening experience in Zen Buddhism in which a person releases their ego.

Wayman said it is achieved through “constant meditation and prayer to the point of complete self-forgetfulness. It takes years of work in meditation.”

While this is given a name within Buddhism, the faith does not own this state exclusively. Wayman mentioned Byron Katie as a secular American author who describes how she has achieved this herself. And Christians might describe this same feeling as the love of God. 

Wayman and Eryl were exposed to Zen Buddhism later in life. Eryl grew up in the Church of England while Wayman grew up in a Unitarian Church in Chicago. But recalling the message on the ceiling of his Sunday school, “God is love,” Wayman said there are similarities.

“I don’t think we’re at a different place here in Buddhism,” Wayman said.

Robinson inquired about the geographic differences in Buddhism practices, specifically between the East, where it originated, and in the West as a budding practice. 

“The tradition is monastic, so that already sets the stage for a certain kind of practice,” Eryl said. “But each time the tradition moves to a new culture, it has to adapt. That’s still in the beginnings here in America, of Buddhists learning how to mix the lay-practice, because that’s really mostly what it is here.”

There are varying levels of seriousness in Buddhists who live where Buddhism is common, which is similar to how Christians who grew up in faith communities take it less seriously or forgo it as adults.

In the West, meditation has become a big draw for new Buddhists, and Wayman said it’s because meditation works.

“You see the difference in your life,” Wayman said. “How you respond to problems, how you can handle others,  and the ease with which you can feel other people with all those things that used to be difficult, now become easier and easier as you practice meditation.”

Meditation helps return to a silent mind.

“(Letting thoughts settle) gives you a gap,” Eryl said. “Let’s say you get angry. You have a little, one tiny centimeter of time when you can choose whether you react or you respond.”

Wayman noted that meditation and praying had similar uses of re-centering a person back to their original silent mind.

Robinson agreed, recalling when a spiritual director had told him that before praying, he should imagine he’s getting on a bus and forgot to get off on the right stop. So he has to get out, return to where he started and “wait for God.”

The difference between Buddhism and Christianity, the Kubickas said, is that Buddhism is better defined as a practice.

“We don’t have stuff we need to believe in, but we do need to work on becoming quieter,” Wayman said. “That’s the work.”

Eryl also said that being kind to oneself during meditation or prayer is also important.

“When you retrace your steps to the bus stop, you don’t want to be criticizing yourself,” Eryl said. “Because that judging mind is always there waiting to say, ‘Oh, you’re such a poor meditator.’ That’s the tricky little gremlin up there.”

Concentration of the mind, and as Wayman says, discarding of “random thought-ing,” is the purpose and practice of meditation. One way to achieve this is by focusing on a word and nothing else.

Robinson said this would be personally difficult for him.

“It’s like telling someone not to think about their nose and that’s immediately where their mind goes,” Robinson said.

This got a laugh from the Kubickas. They also suggested following the breath and counting breaths in meditation to focus.

It’s terribly important to be present with everything and not to escape with your thoughts,” Wayman said. “Be present with pain. Be present with love. Be present with talking with somebody. Be present with walking the dog. Be present with lifting up a glass to drink. That’s the way we work on living.”

Robinson asked about personal responsibility to others in Buddhism, since meditation is often practiced on an individual level, but can also be used in social causes such as climate change and the Black Lives Matter movement protesting police brutality. 

Buddhists also practice group meditation, and also have a duty to help others since everything is seen as being interconnected.

“There is no duality in Zen Buddhism,” Eryl said. “So if we’re all one, then you cannot ignore, you can’t be indifferent. Pragmatism and indifference can just be another way of avoiding what you should be doing.”

The same goes for dealing with tragedy.

“It’s terribly important to be present with everything and not to escape with your thoughts,” Wayman said. “Be present with pain. Be present with love. Be present with talking with somebody. Be present with walking the dog. Be present with lifting up a glass to drink. That’s the way we work on living.”

Eryl pointed out that the only symbol in Buddhism is the circle, which represents oneness between all beings, including those that are not human.

“If we are the divine nature, not as a god concept, but if we are the divine nature, we’re all connected,” Eryl said. “And so everything is interrelated, interconnected, and so what happens to you actually happens to me, too.”

The final enlightenment in Zen Buddhism is that nothing exists. A question came in from the virtual audience that brought an understanding to the concept of “nothing.”

“Might Buddhism infer that ‘nothing’ is the foundational reality that other traditions feel the impulse to call God?” the questioner asked.

To the Kubickas, enlightenment as defined in Buddhism can be achieved through other belief systems.

“Fundamentally, it’s the same mystics,” Eryl said. “It’s where all the same streams lead into the ocean somehow.”

The concept of time, beginnings and endings is seen in a new light in Zen Buddhism, which includes the belief in rebirth and emphasizes the importance of the present moment.

“Everything is in flux,” Eryl said. “We’re like energy in flux, and so change is our nature.”

Robinson said Buddhism’s emphasis on staying present reminded him of how he guides couples through pre-marital counseling. He tells couples that his goal is “for them to be present in their own wedding” without worrying about small details like flower arrangements or how people in the crowd might feel while they’re at the altar.

“It seems to me that Buddhism invites each person to attend each moment,” Robinson said.

No idols, no problem: Jewish folk artist David Moss explains how he bends through styles of art in his lecture “A Glimpse into the Divine?”


One of the 10 Commandments states, “thou shalt not make yourself any carved idol of anything that is in heaven or the earth.” But from micrography designs to Jerusalem-inspired architecture, Jewish folk artist David Moss makes art without material boundaries, thanks to Judaism’s creative limitations.

At 2 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, July 14, Moss presented his lecture “A Glimpse into the Divine?” on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform as part of Week Three’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme: “Art: A Glimpse into the Divine.”

The question mark in the title of his lecture is a crucial difference in how Moss talks about his distinctly Jewish work.

My work must therefore somehow convey the sharpness of a Talmudic insight, the creativity of a surprising new Biblical commentary, the imagination of a midrashic fantasy,” Moss said.

In comparison to Christianity, which has identifiable art symbols such as the lily that refer to Christ, “Jewish culture is focused not on the arts of the eye, but the ‘oh’s’ of the ear: literature, music, narrative, poetry, law, legend and commentary,” Moss said. “Yet here I stand before you as a Jewish visual artist.”

His work revolves around the human call for the hiddur mitzvah, the beautification of the Commandments: If you need an object for religious purposes, let it be beautiful.

“My work must therefore somehow convey the sharpness of a Talmudic insight, the creativity of a surprising new Biblical commentary, the imagination of a midrashic fantasy,” Moss said.

His work began when he moved to Israel after college in 1968 — not with formal artistic training, but when a friend wrote out the Hebrew alphabet for him. Moss’ fascination with calligraphy launched a hobby of giving an artful ketubah, or a Jewish marriage contract written in Aramaic, to friends as wedding gifts.

By the time Moss learned about ketubah history, it had essentially become paperwork signed by the couple and a rabbi. The purpose had remained the same, to protect the woman’s rights during marriage and after marriage in the case of divorce or the husband’s death, but the reflection of the beauty of the marriage itself had been stripped.

“Its text is about as romantic as any insurance policy,” Moss said, but the accompanying artistry in past ketubahs was what illustrated the beauty of love and marriage.

In the past, the art form of the ketubah existed across the Jewish diaspora, from Italy, Tunisia and Persia, but had died out over time after the invention of printing. 

Interest in Moss’ ketubahs spread through word of mouth, and he eventually started creating them on commission. By now, he has created hundreds of personalized ketubahs across three generations. He created one for his granddaughter’s wedding, and couples who had already been married with a plain ketubah have asked him for a stylized ketubah after the fact, and Moss invented anniversary ketubahs without legal signatures. Hundreds more ketubah artists have sprung up since he began his work.

He uses traditional folk art techniques, but each ketubah is different based on an extensive interview with the couple on their relationship and as individuals. 

“I believe they vary so much because it is not about me as an artist, but about the couples themselves,” Moss said

For some, he cuts out Aramaic calligraphy like a detailed paper snowflake. Many feature Jewish micrography, an ancient art form where designs are created with intricate, small Hebrew text. One ketubah tells the story of the creation of man and woman on the sixth day. It was customary in the ketubahs of old to feature or mention Jerusalem, and many of Moss’ do this also. Others are more contemporary.

He often chooses religious quotes specific to the couple. For a couple who collected Chinese art, Moss wrote in Chinese calligraphy the words from Proverbs 18: “He who has found a good wife has found very well.” 

When Moss discovered a man who had given his wife of 25 years flowers every week for the Shabbat, Moss calculated how many the husband had given her at that point and illustrated 1,300 flowers into their anniversary ketubah.

Moss’ work is not limited to the ketubah. Through Bet-Alpha Editions, he has published three different illustrated versions of the Book of Haggadah, which is used in retelling the story of Passover, and a book of his ketubah work in Love Letters: A Celebration of Love and Marriage. He created a collage for children that tells the story of the sacrifice of Isaac using 10 different colors and no words, and said that kids as young as 7 have gone through it once and can recite the entire tale from memory afterward. He also created a comic book in Hebrew for teens with translations as footnotes.

Partnering with woodworker Noah Greenberg, Moss ventured into woodwork in order to beautify traditional lecterns and items traditionally stored inside them for daily, weekly and annual holiday rituals. Moss and Greenberg’s design of the Tree of Life lectern and objects inside can be found in Jewish homes, synagogues and museums.

Moss has no boundaries in his work because he started without formal training, so he had no problem transitioning into architecture. He has designed meaningful installations for the United Jewish Appeal Federation building in Manhattan, a thoughtful construction that blended Jewish values with inclusivity in the student building of the UCLA Hillel Foundation in Los Angeles, California, and geographically directed buildings and walkways of the Akiba-Yavneh Academy in Dallas, Texas, that point toward Israel.

In addition to publishing, personalized commissions, and a 70-strong subscription service for annual surprise works for half-market price, his work with Kol HaOt, an organization he co-founded that teaches Jewish traditions and values through art, engages kids and teachers at summer camps and schools.

Summer camps can identify a concern and execute a way to address or even solve it through art. One camp created a Jewish-specific recycling logo with the slogan, “I am the world’s keeper” (based on the phrase, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”). The kids painted the logo on trash cans and designed matching stickers to place above water fountains and toilet paper dispensers around the campus. Another camp created an inclusivity space for anyone who felt sad and needed a hug regardless of sexual orientation or any other aspect of their identity.

Despite not having formal training himself, Kol HaOt runs an annual program called the Teachers’ Institute in the Arts for teachers in North America. It’s designed to show teachers how to incorporate Jewish lessons into art, and vice versa.

Moss’ career started with a fascination of Hebrew letters. His fascination is rooted in the belief that God created the alphabet before creating the world itself. Despite creating commissions all over the world, the heart of his work remains in lettering and is physically in Jerusalem. He answered Chautauqua’s questions, which the audience could submit to or on Twitter with #CHQ2020, from his home in a Jerusalem artist community. Maureen Rovegno, Chautauqua Institution’s director of religion, delivered questions.

“Everything you showed us was one surprise after another,” Rovegno said.

From Pharaoh’s Egypt to Trump’s USA, Ori Soltes links artists’ religious references and political statements in “The Spiritual Soul and Political Body in Art”


From Pharaoh’s Egypt to Trump’s USA, Georgetown University’s Ori Soltes said that artists have used religious symbols to uphold — and dissent against — political power and control.

Soltes is a professor of art history, theology, philosophy and political history, as well as the former director of B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum. As an author of 280 books and a seasoned Chautauqua Institution lecturer, he delivered his lecture “The Spiritual Soul and Political Body in Art” on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform at 2 p.m. EDT Monday, July, 13. His lecture was the first in Week Three’s interfaith theme, “Art: A Glimpse into the Divine.” 

“Anything and everything we say about God — and even how God says anything to us — is really functionally a metaphor, an analogy,” Soltes said. “God is powerful as we understand ‘powerful.’ God is good as we understand ‘good.’ God is interested in as far as we understand ‘interested,’ and that is as far as we can go.”

Visual art in religion has been another way — outside of texts — to express human understanding of God’s will. Religious cues in art can also make a political leader appear god-like or as a direct channel to divine will. 

“As far back as we can trace art, one of its most important purposes has been to be an instrument in the hands of religion,” Soltes said. “But here’s the thing: Religion has also been an instrument in the hand of politics, whether we talk about a pharaoh who wants you to understand that he is divine or rules by divine (authority) … Or in some cases, we may even have a president who thinks he’s the chosen, who wants his constituents to believe that he is virtually God.”

Soltes’ first example of such religious art was the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, an imperial work of carved pink limestone from the Mesopotamian Akkadian Dynasty. Held in the Louvre, the carving exalts King Naram-Sin, who is twice as big as the other figures, and his overtaking of the Lullubi people.

Stele of King Nimran Sin
Stele of King Nimran Sin

“As an (Akkadian), you would know that he is not just a king because he’s got a helmet that has horns that look like the horns of a bull,” Soltes said.

The bull is associated with the chief Akkadian god, Marduk. And above the depicted mountainscape, two sunbursts also signify the god Anu. Even if viewers can’t read cuneiform on the side of the mountain, “and most of them (back then) wouldn’t have been able to,” Soltes said, viewers know that the king has divine will.

Soltes then backtracked to Egypt’s fourth dynasty with a diorite statue of the pharaoh Khafra, which is designed to make him appear physically perfect.

Pharaoh Khafra

“Everything is symmetrical. Nothing is irregular. Nothing is going to change,” Soltes said. “Eternal, unchanging, perfect — this is god-like. But that’s not enough. He has an addition behind him, the image of a falcon hawk, that every Egyptian would know represents the god Horus.”

This depiction of the god of Horus would root itself in the Greek language. Soltes said the Greek word for favor or grace would become chári, or χάρη, which became the root for the word charisma. In the example of the enthroned Khafra statue, this charisma was granted by the god of Horus.

This same tactic of using religious symbols to depict political power carried into monotheistic religious traditions.

On the north wall sanctuary of the 1180-era Monreale Cathedral in present-day Italy, a throned Jesus crowns King William II, who ruled between 1166 and 1189. William II funded the construction of the cathedral, which was finished in 1180.

Mosaic from Sicily cathedral

While Islamic art usually uses abstract geometric shapes and writing forms rather than figures, these elements in architectural structure still exemplify the depiction of political power.

Soltes used the architectural elements of the Dome of the Rock, a holy Islamic site in Jerusalem, as an example.

Its circular dome rests on an octagonal structure, which in turn rests on a squared base. The dome, without beginning or end with one continuous color, is suggestive of heaven. The octagonal structure is the interior of an eight-pointed star with tiny details, while the square base represents human reality of north, south, east and west points.

“The four-sided base and the rounded dome is a point of meeting that signifies the meeting between the human and divine,” Soltes said.

The political role of this structure was the very reason for its construction. 

“It was to mark the place that is referenced very briefly in the first verse of the 17th chapter of the Quran, this miraculous night ride,” Soltes said. “Muhammad went from what turns out to be Mecca to what turns out to be Jerusalem, and in what’s called the Isra and the Mi’raj, where he ascended past all past prophets, had conversations with God and came back down to Mecca.”

Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, who ruled from Damascus, was too far away from Mecca and Medina to protect those sacred sites. But Jerusalem, where he would build the Dome of the Rock in 691, was geographically closer. The caliph could then rule as both a political and spiritual leader since he ruled close enough to protect a nearby sacred site.

In the 17th through 20th centuries in the West, people shifted toward secular influences, art in turn became secularized. But religious symbols still carry weight with some strictly secular artists.

French Post-Impressionist Paul Gaughin was not religious but was regardless fascinated by religious symbols, which he used in “Yellow Christ,” which depicts three women who stopped below a cross to kneel before an imagined Christ.

“It’s a miraculous show of faith that he can’t ignore with his fascination,” Soltes said.

Ben Shahn, a New York-based artist in the 1900s, is another contemporary example who was quoted as saying that he wished he’d been “lucky enough to be alive at a great time — when something big was going on, like the Crucifixion.”

His breakout piece in 1932, “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti,” represented a crucifixion of his own time. This mural criticized the decision of a judge and subsequent committee who put to death two Italian anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, for robbery and murder in 1927. Despite public controversy, the committee sentenced the two radical immigrants to death.

The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti

In the painting, Shahn depicts Judge Webster Thayer taking an oath. The committee in the foreground holds lilies while presiding over the coffins of Sacco and Vanzetti, a treatment that is reminiscent of the condemned Christ.

The same questioning of authority can be seen in contemporary art. Azzah Sultan, who will deliver her own lecture in the Interfaith Lecture Series at 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, July 16, explores Islamophobia, the intersection between Islam and Asian culture, and the politics of gender in her work.

Helène Aylon’s body of work is a contemporary example of Jewish feminist art on the politics of gender. Her structure “All Rise” is a play on the Bedin seats of the three male Rabbinic leaders who oversee judgment for community decisions, including if a woman requests a divorce from her husband. The piece protests the lack of female representation on these benches and in the Rabbinic leadership. The “God Project” was another installation of Aylon’s, where she blacked out misogynistic passages and instances of violence toward women in the Torah.

Marsha Annenburg’s “Home on the Range” is another piece that satirizes the current moment. It is a lazified version of the “American Gothic” painting — a positive representation of rural Christian values painted in 1930 on the cusp of the Great Depression. These quaint elements have been replaced with vapidness and false worship, and “freedom has now been reduced to the size of a TV screen,” Soltes said.

Soltes finished with an example of a work that satirizes Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” which depicts Christ, by replacing Christ’s face with Trump’s.

Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi
Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi and Satirization Salvator Mundi Trump

“He’s taken what was intended to be a marriage between the spiritual and art, and further married it to politics,” Soltes said. “… There’s no question that in this image, the notion of the way in which art and religion and politics have interwoven for thousands of years takes on a new face, if you will.”

Yale Divinity School’s Rev. Willie James Jennings examines interpretations of the flesh in the Bible for Interfaith Friday


For the Rev. Willie James Jennings, sin — racism, sexism and weapons of mass destruction, to name a few — is defined as a misalignment of gospel.

Jennings represented the perspective of Evangelical Christianity for Week Two’s Interfaith Friday on July 10 for CHQ Assembly. Audience members also participated by submitting questions through the portal and through Twitter with #CHQ2020.

Jennings, associate professor of systematic theology and Africana Studies at Yale Divinity School, is the author of several books, including The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. In 2015, he received the Grawemeyer Award in Religion for his work on race and Christianity, and most recently his written commentary on the Book of Acts won the Reference Book of the Year Award from The Academy of Parish Clergy. His forthcoming book, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, will be published in October 2020.

Citing the Nicene Creed, Jennings said Christianity in all its forms has emphasized the relationship between humans, God and Jesus. Jennings made a point to differentiate Protestant Evangelical Christianity from the sort of Evangelical Christianity that Jennings said had negative interpretations in political and social spheres.

Gene Robinson, Chautauqua’s vice president of religion and senior pastor, joined Jennings in the live virtual conversation.

“I consider myself an Evangelical, which makes most Evangelicals’ blood run cold,” said Robinson, the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop.

In Protestant Evangelical Christianity, the good news, or gospel, is directly tied to God creating the world and humans in his image.

“God created us out of love,” Jennings said. “Not out of compulsion, not out of necessity and certainly not out of arbitrariness.”

To maintain God’s creation is to keep a relationship with God. But it’s possible to step outside the bounds of this relationship.

“Of course, the struggle for us is how to live a relationship that aligns with the loving and life-giving reality of God,” Jennings said. “What we call sin … has to do with this misalignment.”

Misalignment, or sin, is using God’s gift of creation for destruction. Jennings said European colonizers were a major example of this.

“(Europeans) looked out into the world and imagined it as a resource given to them by God,” Jennings said.

Jennings said weapons are another high-level form of misalignment.

“(The existence of weapons) reshapes the social landscape of the imagination,” Jennings said. “A world awash with guns is a world already bent toward fear and violence.”

And both guns and weapons of mass destruction are a reckoning not just for the Christian faith — they point “not only to a weakness in our faith traditions, but a crisis in our belief in a god who creates,” Jennings said.

Even without a crisis in belief, Jennings said God and his creation — including humanity — should still be both a mystery and joy that doesn’t need to be solved.

But the concept of flesh in the Bible has been a source of pain for Black and indigenous people. Jennings said in the Gospel of John, the apostle — a subordinate to Jesus — was not the light but gave witness to that light. This introduction to the treatment of people based on status in the New Testament communicated to people of color that perhaps God had ignored them.

But in Genesis in the Old Testament, however, the story of creation placed all people as equal and important in a “profound, society-breaking, oppression-breaking” affirmation.

The concept of flesh in Christianity changed throughout time. Jennings said there are two levels of its understanding: the flesh and body as a symbol of weakness, and the flesh as an indication of how a larger system treats someone.

“It’s an indication of a wider system … in which the body is captured in political, economical and social forms of oppression and subjugation,” Jennings said. “The Gospel comes to free us from this.”

Fundamentalist Christian thought collapses the two definitions. But Jennings said that in the Christian faith, God frees people from the suffering of flesh by entering the world of the flesh through Jesus to free people from subjugation by going through suffering himself.

“Gods (in many religions) with any sense at all certainly didn’t want to become human,” Robinson said. “The fact that God does, and did (through Jesus), is shocking.”

Sin is also often described through a weakness in flesh.

“The way of the flesh is a life out of control, a life enslaved,” Jennings said. “The creation of race would not have been possible without Christianity. People still think it is as natural as biology. For many people, the word ‘race’ can be replaced with ‘culture’ (and vice versa).”

Jennings said much of sin is tied to not being able to exist in a shared world and undermining an innate connectivity.

Police brutality is an example of this sinful disconnect.

“The way whiteness has formed in some people has caused a deep disconnect from their environment and their world and from other people,” Jennings said. “What drives policing is fear of the ‘other.’”

Diving into the history of how lands have been taken on a local and global level is one way to counter this disconnect.

“We tend to operate in what I call harmless history,” Jennings said. “It’s the history of the heroes, the powerful men. ‘They had their warts, they had their weaknesses, but look at what they accomplished.’ That harmless history is always going to thwart the depth of listening.”

For a person to think they know everything about other humans, he said, is also a disservice to this process of listening.

“The danger is to mistake apprehension with comprehension,” Jennings said. “What’s necessary is a lighter touch that most people in the West don’t tend to have.”

Returning to the Nicene Creed, which denoted a shift in how humans’ understanding of the word of God changed, Jennings and Robinson agreed the council meeting that created the creed was evidence of God’s struggle with creation’s inability to comprehend his meaning.

Robinson said Chautauqua Institution itself has its own reckoning to do in how the ratio of diversity among its speakers is greater than the diversity of viewers in its audience.

“Racial segregation is a highly skilled, profoundly cultivated practice of our collective life,” Jennings said. “No all-white community — or predominantly white community — happened by accident. It happened through a relentless cultivation of segregation. Quietly, subtly, but consistently. Which means that it cannot be overcome without an intentionality that presses in the opposite direction of that subtle, relentless cultivation.”

Gretta Vosper delivers lecture on inclusive religious and spiritual practice — even as an atheist

Gretta Vosper

Despite the name of Gretta Vosper’s lecture, “Falling in Love with Being Together, Because We Can’t Afford to Fall Apart,” she and the audience were not physically together.

“There is one sadness I have today: that we cannot actually be together,” said Vosper, an atheist and ordained minister in the United Church of Canada. “We don’t get the chance to fall in love with being together as I know we would have done, had we been sheltered under that soaring roof of the Hall of Philosophy, surrounded by the mosaics of years gone by.”

Instead, she connected to her audience through the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, where Vosper said the highest value that religious networks can offer is to supplement the lives of individuals — not just within a congregation, but an entire community — in her lecture broadcast at 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, July 9.

The lecture was part of Week Two’s theme for the Interfaith Lecture Series, “Forces that Shape Our Daily Lives: The Contemporary Search for Spirituality.”

Vosper is a minister who first described herself as a “non-theist” in 2001 while delivering a sermon at West Hill United Church. When she realized some of her peers also called themselves non-theists but still believed in a theistic supreme being, she began to question the label she had given herself.

In 2013, she felt it was the perfect time to announce herself as an atheist, in solidarity with atheist bloggers facing violence in Bangladesh. The Toronto Conference chapter of the United Church of Canada investigated her due to public controversy, but ultimately approved her continued ministry.

She spoke to her Chautauqua audience from her vantage point as a minister who — prompted by her congregation at West Hill Church — has replaced the Lord’s Prayer with a similar set of words without mentioning a personified God, and the church welcomes anyone, including Buddhists and atheists. Vosper said those who no longer consider themselves to be religious often still crave the benefits of religion and spirituality. Most of all, they need a contact point for human connection.

Vosper said that stress, like any external force, could act as both a positive and negative force on a person’s life, and that many people turn to spiritual practices that have been distanced from their original religious source to soothe the burden of outside forces that shape daily life. Vosper herself starts and ends her day with martial arts movements intended for meditation and lists what she is grateful for.

“(Spiritual practices) help us cope with the challenges that seem to mount around us at every instance,” she said.

Vosper based her point on a 2017 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) study.

“Spiritual people — regardless of whether they are religious or not — report higher levels of satisfaction with their relationships, communities, and life in general than do nonspiritual people,” the study said.

The same study found that those who were religious but not spiritual were less happy than those who were spiritual, while people who were neither religious nor spiritual reported the lowest levels of happiness. But for people who were spiritual without religion, solitary ritual practices lacked the sense of community that religion often provides.

Through revisions of its statement of faith every five years, the West Hill United Church has gradually broken down “barriers (to) inclusivity we didn’t know we had,” Vosper said. The church has put in writing that it does not accept the Bible as the final word of God and “the way we lived was a greater testament of faith” than religious text. 

As a result of these changes, people with diverse beliefs have joined the West Hill Church, including — but not limited to — atheists and Buddhists.

Vosper said that studies charting declines in religion also show a decrease in social capital that would otherwise be accessed through religious groups. People in religious networks donate, volunteer and vote more often than their nonreligious counterparts. This is not dependent on belief, but on the numbers of social connections that people accessed through their religious network.

Vosper also cited philosopher Loyal D. Rue’s idea that the world needs a new “noble lie,” or a story that allows for self-reflection, which religion previously provided.

But she disagrees with Rue on religion being outdated.

“I think we have a noble truth that can pull all of us together,” Vosper said.

Hartford Seminary President Joel N. Lohr urges learning from outside one’s faith

Joel Lohr

When Hartford Seminary President Joel N. Lohr finds it hard to pray, he doesn’t seek words of strength from the Bible or another religious text. He refers instead to a line from “This Spinal Tap,” a 1984 mockumentary about an English rock band.

I will rise above it, I’m a professional,” says the character Nigel Tufnel, who is played by Christopher Guest in the movie.

Lohr makes a point in poking fun at himself, about not taking himself too seriously and learning to truly know himself.

Speaking with others outside of his religion and worldview, Lohr said, helped him understand himself and others more than any other human interaction.

This was the topic of his lecture “Finding Myself in the Other: Learning from Those Outside My Faith,” which was released on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform at 2 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, July 8. It was recorded during the week of June 28 on the grounds of Hartford Seminary, a nondenominational theological college in Connecticut. Following the lecture, Chautauqua Institution Vice President for Religion and Senior Pastor Gene Robinson spoke with Lohr in a live Q-and-A on behalf of the audience, who could submit questions for the live Q-and-A at or on Twitter with #CHQ2020.

Lohr felt like an impostor while studying in higher education. Before he went to college for an undergraduate degree, he had trained as a carpenter. The only reason he pursued a Ph.D. was because a professor believed in him.

While in the basement of a library as a Ph.D. student, Lohr’s Ph.D. mentor spooked him — Lohr’s mentor intimidated him even when he did expect to see him — and recommended a book.

“Have you read Joel Kaminsky from Smith College?” Lohr’s mentor said. “He’s a scholar who knows who he is.”

Lohr didn’t know who Kaminsky was, or who he was. But he wanted to.

“Taking life and taking yourself too seriously keeps us from being who we should be,” Lohr said. “To be human helps us love oneself and others.”

When his daughter was around 3 years old, Lohr and his wife had started to teach her lessons from their Christian background, in addition to inspiration from Jewish religious thought. Lohr was focusing on the Jewish idea to love God with your mind, your soul and with everything you have, and Jesus’ addition to this principle to also “love thy neighbor.”

He asked his daughter, “What is the most important thing God wants us to do?” hoping she would intuitively say something from scripture.

“To laugh,” she said.

He didn’t correct her. This was just as important.

Lohr at first thought that he would complete his personal journey through studies of his own faith, but he realized he grew closer to knowing himself through encounters with others who don’t share his faith.

All of these stories involved risk, involved becoming vulnerable,” Lohr said. “In doing so, I came to understand the other. And in doing so, I came to understand myself and hopefully become a better person.”

One specific encounter was when he was a multifaith chaplain at a university. The school’s Muslim association didn’t have a supervisor, so Lohr was recommended as one. To offer a learning opportunity for himself and others, he created a multifaith event for students to present on their different faith beliefs.

A Muslim student, Farhiya, discussed her life in California as a Muslim who wears a hijab.

“My jihad has been great,” she said.

Lohr asked her if she could provide context for the word jihad, which means “struggle” in Arabic, since not everyone would know the true meaning. Then Lohr asked what her specific jihad was.

“My headscarf is my jihad,” Farhiya said.

Lohr asked for more details, thinking she was forced to wear it. But the truth was that she grew up in a moderate Muslim home, and her mother did not wear a headscarf. When Farhiya decided to wear one when she went to college, her parents worried for her safety as an identifiable Muslim in the United States.

Her jihad was going against her parents’ wishes because of the headscarf.

In another encounter, Lohr ate lunch with another Muslim student in the cafeteria. When they both sat down at the table to eat, Lohr was uncertain of what to do. Should they pray together? Should he say nothing?

“Do you pray before you eat?” Lohr said.

The student said he only did sometimes, but he always prayed after. He also thanked Lohr.

“What is a prayer you say for this?” Lohr said.

The student recited the prayer before repeating it in English.

“Well, let that be our prayer today,” Lohr said.

Hearing this distracted the student from eating. The student had never been asked questions like this by someone outside of his faith before.

In a class Lohr was teaching at Hartford Seminary, a Muslim student from Indonesia expressed her gratitude for the class trip to a Jewish synagogue, because she had never had a chance to meet a Jewish person in Indonesia. Her name was Ani.

Months later, another student from the class had invited students and staff to a Shabbat dinner at her home. Another student asked how she prepared the meal.

“I’ve had help all day,” the Jewish student said. “Ani helped me prepare. She was here at 8 a.m. this morning, and we chopped vegetables. And we put things in the oven. We worked together all day together on this meal.”

This was a moment for Lohr.

“Was Ani any less Muslim in that moment? Was the Jewish student, Gilana, any less Jewish in that moment?” Lohr said. “Absolutely not. They were coming to know who they were more fully through the other.”

The last story Lohr told was about a study abroad group he led in Italy to explore various religions, art and cultures. The group, which came from different backgrounds with and without faith, toured the Vatican with another student group they didn’t know. During the tour, the two groups merged and made small talk.

Mo — a nickname for Mahmood, who is Muslim — was speaking with someone from the other group. Mo asked him what the group was doing.

“I’m here to learn about Islam and how to deal with it,” the student said.

Mo looked to Lohr briefly with confusion as Lohr listened in on their conversation.

The other student didn’t know that Mo was Muslim, and Mo continued asking about the group. What were they doing? What were they learning?

The student was part of a fundamentalist Christian group that was in Italy specifically to learn about Islam and how to convert Muslims to Christianity.

Mo’s grace stood in sharp contrast with the horror on this other person’s face when he found out he had unkowingly said this in front of a Muslim.

“It’s OK. I understand,” Mo said. “At least you’ve met a Muslim. Have you met many Muslims? Have you been to the mosque here in Rome? Maybe we can go together.”

They never had the chance to go, but it was another story that highlighted how vulnerability allowed for growth in everyone involved. 

“All of these stories involved risk, involved becoming vulnerable,” Lohr said. “In doing so, I came to understand the other. And in doing so, I came to understand myself and hopefully become a better person.”

Instead of thinking about what someone outside one’s religion might see, Lohr said, “What might we see in them?”

To explain this, he quoted Luke 7:9, when Jesus speaks with a Roman centurion soldier — an enemy of the Israelites — who humbly asks for Jesus to not even enter his home, but to just say a word to heal his partner. 

“Never have I seen such faith as I have seen in this outsider,” Jesus said.

Judith Lief said the search for spiritual meaning can exist outside of religion in lecture “Human Longing and the Search for Meaning”

Judith Lief

Buddhist Acharya Judith Lief has never not questioned faith.

“I find questions more interesting than answers,” Lief said. “Questions open things up while answers close things in.”

In her lecture “Human Longing and the Search for Meaning,” Lief spoke on the importance of investigating what it means to practice a religion and what it means to navigate spirituality outside of a religion. The lecture was broadcast on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, as part of Week Two’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “Forces that Shape Our Daily Lives: The Contemporary Search for Spirituality.” The lecture was recorded in Lief’s Colorado home on June 28, but upon its release at 2 p.m. EDT Tuesday, July 7, the audience submitted questions for the live Q-and-A at or on Twitter with #CHQ2020.

Lief said those who leave or do not practice religion — a rising trend — do not lack spirituality, but want to find it outside of an institution.

“What is mainstream?” Lief said. And what does it mean to be part of a group in the mainstream?

Not all religions are in decline. While forms of Christianity have struggled with retention, religions that have been introduced later into the United States, like Islam and Buddhism, are on the rise.

Lief said before religions became institutionalized, they were loose groups of people often disenfranchised who had dropped out of mainstream options, both religious and secular, to follow prophets addressing human questions like, “What is suffering?”

Prophets and followers alike had to overcome daily challenges and invest their time to search for wisdom and understanding.

“I think that all humans have a longing for something meaningful,” Lief said.

In Buddhism, all living things have an inner spark or a longing to develop, grow and learn — a “tenderness, a quivering suspicion” that something is beyond the superficial level within our lives, which prods us to do things that nurture growth.

Lief said this search takes many forms, and religion is just one way to do that.

Her personal journey before she reached Buddhism started in a casually Protestant family and congregation. But religious leaders did not provide sufficient answers to her questions, and she looked into the studies of other religions.

“The more questions I asked, the more personally I took a spiritual search,” Lief said. “There was a lot of empty talk, and a sense of patterned answers.”

Her dissatisfaction took place at the same time as the anti-war movement in the 1960s. An experience with psychedelic drugs reinforced her questions. She was involved in religious groups that either disconnected from the historic reality of the time, or engaged in social action without spiritual depth. 

Even in groups with “just” causes, Lief observed that these groups were still based in a form of aggression, and power that was a mirror image of the side they were fighting against — which she felt was full of ego and jostling for power.

Lief said her disillusionment was healthy, because it removed her from complacency.

She discovered Buddhism by accident and found that spirituality is about uncovering a deeper understanding on one’s own.

“Spirituality is not about learning new stuff,” Lief said. “It’s about, ‘What is personally meaningful to me?’”

Some of Lief’s questions go unanswered in meditation, but that’s part of why it’s important. From meditation, she learned that wisdom does not come from running around and finding answers, but from stopping and sitting with questions.

She felt that no one had made the link to what Lief felt was a “wellspring” of human potential and wisdom, but meditation did. It was a glimpse of what everyone seeks, already within.

Anyone can possess this “simple, immediate, wholesome” state, Lief said, whether or not it is through religion. The trouble with studying religious texts, she said, is that they don’t always connect with real-life experiences.

“This way, you don’t really need to examine yourself,” Lief said.

She quoted writer Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s idea of some religions being “healthy” while some are “not healthy.” Healthy religions keep an open door to access outside religions.

Religions that are unhealthy become caught in power, money and fear of the other. They are threatened by questions and are unwilling to change over time.

Lief said institutions can positively impact people, but they need to be able to change and adapt with integrity, without being frozen in place.

“They need to pass on a living flame, rather than a relic,” Lief said.

Spirituality on its own, however, can have a superficial quality, Lief said. When spiritual experiences become a public merit badge, spirituality becomes tainted because it is meant to be an intimate experience.

Religion has potential for insights and good experiences, with a lifetime commitment to open one’s heart beyond a person’s individual ego to community. But Lief said the rise in suspicion of religion has to do with the close-minded elements of its messages. And giving oneself a religious label can become an embellishment to a sense of self, Lief said. It co-opts the ego and makes a person need to feel special to feel OK.

“Religion is presented as above the fray,” Lief said, but it’s just one part of a human experience.

The search to know is what is important, Lief said — while connecting through that search to the wonder of a beginner, even if someone becomes an expert.

Lief said that meditation reconnects to the beginner’s mind, and helps access a wellspring of shared human inspiration and potential.

She cited a Zen concept of shoshin as described by Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki to explain this.

“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities,” Suzuki wrote. “But in the expert’s, there are few.”

Michael Hogue shares religious naturalism’s humbling view on humanity in first Interfaith Friday

michael Hogue

As a religious naturalist, Michael Hogue doesn’t think humankind is the center of the universe.

Hogue opened up the first of Chautauqua’s 2020 Interfaith Friday lectures with how centering nature as a religious naturalist has shifted his perspective. Gene Robinson, Chautauqua’s vice president of religion and senior pastor, joined him in this live virtual conversation at 2 p.m. EDT Friday, July 3, on CHQ Assembly. Audience members also participated by submitting questions through the portal and through Twitter with #CHQ2020.

The Department of Religion’s Interfaith Friday series asks questions from each speaker that consider how their faith traditions describe creation, God, how humans fit into the universe and how they view humankind from their vantage point.

Religious naturalism is the wild and wonderful other side of spiritually and emotionally domesticated ways of thinking, Hogue said. It’s not intended to be anti-religious, just open to all influences, including science and philosophy.

The story of creation follows the science of evolution, he said. Nature is beyond God. Humans are not the center, but morality and justice are the work of humankind.

Religious naturalism was first developed in the Chicago theological school of thought in the 1940s, said Hogue, who is a scholar and professor at the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, Illinois.

Throughout his life, his view on how humans occupy nature shifted twice. The first time was when he saw a distant smudge on the water in North Michigan that made him hold his breath before it inched closer and closer, unfurling into rain moments later. Then later, when he returned to North Michigan as a college student of philosophy. He was driving around North Michigan with his cousin and pointed out where his friend’s cherry farm used to be before climate change’s early thaws and late freezes had weakened the multi-generational farming community, and before real estate agents had subdivided the land into “McMansions.”

“What used to be there before the orchards?” his cousin asked.

Hogue felt displaced.

“The land and people on the peninsula were continuously changing,” Hogue said. “And if this was the case, if everything was always changing, then on what basis was I arguing that the orchards and farming community, who, after all, were descendants of white settlers who had harvested forests and taken land from the Ottawa, were morally preferable to the front yards of affluent downstaters?”

Nature itself is the focus of religious naturalism, but nature itself has no center or intrinsic meaning other than what humans have assigned to it.

Hogue said the scale of the universe calls human-centered religion into question, so all levels of life are included. The drive of animals to live — hunt and forage for food, find water, care for their kin — puts them on the same plane as humans.

Religious naturalism does not have a harmonious vision of nature, Hogue said. It is beyond good and evil. There is predation and homicide in nature, but there is also birth, family and the joy of sharing a meal. Observing and reflecting on nature, he said, does not mean that we should pull lessons from nature to think about morals and ethics.

“We have to avoid what is called naturalistic fallacy — there is no reason to mimic nature,” he said. “We cannot navigate a moral dilemma informed by how we think nature works. Morality is a human practice.”

Moral stories and systems emerged out of prosocial tendencies, which Hogue said people “reified” and used to compare their institutions with those of other groups. 

“We survive together by dividing ourselves and reinforcing the validity of our stories compared with other groups,” Hogue said.

There are unanswered questions in religious naturalism that Hogue and others of the faith have to accept.

“Why the universe exists will forever remain out of reach for us,” Hogue said. “The question of God’s existence is not a question that naturalism tries to solve.”

However, sin does exist in terms of elevating one’s self, a group or even a nation above the rest. An inability to consider others above ourselves goes against the task in religious naturalism to take the responsibility to help and lift up others.

Robinson asked if Hogue ever felt guilt, and what he does about it.

“Of course I feel guilt,” Hogue said. “I sometimes ask for guidance for life from the universe, from mystery. … I don’t live up to my ideals, but I actively work toward them in daily life.”

And what is love?

“There are no pre-existing reasons for why we love others,” Hogue said, while acknowledging the prosocial tendencies he mentioned before. “Loving your kids provides a reason to care for them.”

And what makes a worthy life?

“All life has inherent worth, dignity and value,” Hogue said. “A life to be praised is one that lifts others up and is committed to ensuring a world that honors that.”

Jim Antal said “God’s Call” is to preach and act on the science of climate change


As Americans’ acceptance of the overwhelming science of climate change grows, only 9% view climate change as a religious issue. But Jim Antal said that congregations and people of faith have a responsibility to preach and act on the current crisis with urgency in his lecture, “God’s Call — Our Vocation — In a Time of Climate Chaos.”

Antal took up the Interfaith Lecture Series mantle for Week One’s “Faith to Save the Earth” on Thursday, July 2. Antal’s lecture nearly replaced Randolph Haluza-DeLay’s previously scheduled Monday lecture following a cancelation, before a system-wide shutdown moved Antal back to his original time slot.

Antal serves as Special Advisor on Climate Justice to the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ. Previously, Antal led the state of Massachusetts’ 350 UCC churches as their Conference Minister and President. In 2013, he proposed the UCC to be the first to divest from fossil fuels, and the resolution passed.

Early in his lecture, Antal said that climate change is an intersectional issue.

“Climate change multiplies and accelerates injustice in at least three ways,” Antal said.

Black, indigenous and poor communities are the most greatly affected by climate change throughout history and the present day, suffering the consequences of the exponentially larger carbon footprints of the rich. However, he said the United States is not willing to pay reparations to these communities, while annually subsidizing fossil fuel companies with over $20 billion a year with taxpayer money.

Antal also said that there is intergenerational responsibility to change systems currently in place, so financial investment and government policy will no longer support practices that are technically legal while damaging the environment and communities.

Referring to the Biblical story of Esther, who had to disobey the secular king to save her people from annihilation, Antal said the shared calling — which he asked individuals, congregations and all of humanity to consider and take action — should upend the status quo if done right.

Paraphrasing the popular quote from Esther 4:14, Antal said, “Perhaps our generation was born to put an end to these injustices.”

To achieve this over multiple generations, religious leaders play a role by using their platforms and speaking out against injustices. He read passages from his book, Climate Church, Climate World, which detail how religious leaders acted throughout history — or didn’t, as when Christian bishops failed to respond to the rise of Nazi Germany.

Antal also called for a sense of urgency, using examples of secular leaders from the present and the past.

In 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Edsel Ford to stop making cars and instead use his factory for World War II efforts. In six months, the Willowrun Complex started churning out a new B-24 Liberator bomber every 24 hours.

“If the alarm of World War II can prompt the largest industry in America to willingly and urgently redirect its resources and change its business plan, then it’s up to our generation to muster the courage that climate change requires of us to create the new story,” Antal said.

Antal is a supporter of the Green New Deal, he said, because that proposal has courage, a sense of urgency, and the correct scale to address climate change — which, as an enormous problem, needs equally enormous solutions.

Antal had countless suggestions for religious leaders, congregations and anyone who wants to take action, with an emphasis on addressing economic causes of climate change on both the supply and demand sides.

Antal proposed the UCC’s 2013 decision to publicly divest from fossil fuel companies, the first religious organization to do so. At the time of the decision, he said he received calls from countless financial advisers telling him it was impossible to have a balanced portfolio without fossil fuel companies.

Since 2013, fossil fuel companies have lost $14 trillion in investments after the UCC decision prompted members of the church to pull those companies out of their stock holdings. And Antal said financial advisers now offer between 20 to 30 renewable energy alternatives for investors who are concerned about their investments’ effects beyond their finances.

Antal said campaigns can be executed by secular leaders and concerned citizens as well, and gave specific examples. Actor Jane Fonda, who has publicly protested on behalf of the climate and other issues, announced that she would cut up her J.P. Morgan Chase credit card if Chase Bank didn’t stop lending to fossil fuel companies, and encouraged others to do the same. 

Chase Bank, which has lent $268 billion to these corporations since the 2015 Paris Agreement, cut off the companies and set aside $50 billion for lending to green projects.

Antal said individuals could run similar campaigns by calling offices of their senators and congresspeople, asking how much campaign donations they accepted from fossil fuel companies, and using their leverage as voters and taxpayers. Callers can specifically threaten to not vote for policymakers next election if they don’t end subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, and prioritize boosting wind and solar energy.

Antal said that religious leaders should normalize social disobedience as another way to serve religious values. He cited the time that Jesus’ disciples Peter and Paul spent in jail after Jesus died on the cross.

“They were serving the church of the future,” Antal said.

Antal’s lecture was pre-recorded on June 22 in Antal’s Vermont home. The lecture’s release, while interrupted sporadically by technical problems, was completed in its original time slot, and a live Q-and-A still took place. Audience members could submit to the portal and through Twitter with #CHQ2020.

Antal answered questions in front of the same background of a wall of books that he recorded his lecture in. He also wore the same green liturgical robe which is traditionally worn during the season after Pentecost to symbolize growth in the church

Rabbi Nate DeGroot links sacred to the science, covers climate issues in historically targeted communities compounded by COVID-19

Rabbi Nate DeGroot 2

Climate change, the pandemic and systemic racism intersected in Rabbi Nate DeGroot’s lecture, “Tikkun Adam(ah): A Jewish Response to a World in Upheaval,” on Tuesday, June 30, on CHQ Assembly’s Video Platform. DeGroot was the first speaker for this season’s Interfaith Lecture Series, and for Week One — “Faith to Save the Earth” — after the Monday lecture was postponed due to technical difficulties.

DeGroot opened with how easy it is to misunderstand one person’s effect on the environment.

“At the end of the day, I can’t break the forest or raze a mountain,” DeGroot said.

But DeGroot cited the Arctic’s temperature rising to 100 degrees Fahrenheit a week prior, and that 19 of the last 20 years have been the hottest on record as reasons that people need to understand their effect on nature.

“And so it is — clearly, I believe — past time to rethink our relationship to nature,” DeGroot said.

DeGroot serves as associate director and the spiritual and program director of Hazon Detroit, a city branch within an international Jewish environmental organization that encourages the Jewish community to reconnect to nature through its initiatives. In Hazon Detroit’s case, DeGroot said that it also serves a supporting role for the city’s Black and Native communities. 

During the Q-and-A, DeGroot said these communities have been underserved in the past and present due to white flight, including the Jewish community leaving for the suburbs after the 1967 Detroit rebellion. As a result, Hazon is reconnecting with those communities left behind, which have created self-sufficient networks like community gardens. 

DeGroot said that with a live audience, he often asks questions aloud for people to answer in real time. He did it anyway and asked his audience to answer to their screen as if they were watching “Jeopardy” while he called on imaginary audience members.

“What is the Hebrew word for nature?”

Whoever answered got it right on the first try — “teva.” The last two questions were harder to answer for his imaginary live audience.

“Teva” was first recorded in Jewish thought in the 12th century. It is never used in the Old Testament while describing creation, the Garden of Eden, or Noah’s Ark, nor used in the Psalms.

Jewish texts had no word for nature until then, because at the center of Judaism, “there was no distinction between God and the natural world,” DeGroot said.

No word could contain the eternal, but Judaism revolves around “intimate relationships with nature,” its whims and its weather patterns.

Agricultural seasons frame Jewish holidays. The setting of the sun until only three stars are in the sky marks the end of Shabbat, or Sabbath. Early prayers for rain were paired with dancing and holding willow branches and palm fronds.

Nature was only a “garb” in which God was dressed.

“(By this definition) how we treat nature is a direct reflection of how we treat God, and perhaps vice versa,” DeGroot said. “If God and nature cannot be separated, then every toxic fume that gets puffed into the air is filling God’s lungs with smoke.”

DeGroot quoted the fifth book of the Torah as a warning of what happens when people deny connection between faith and nature.

“If we follow the Commandments, then Deuteronomy says ‘The rains will fall in their season, our harvests will be abundant, our cattle will have ample food to eat and we shall be sated,’” DeGroot said. “But if we stray, and worship idols, and profane and forget what is most sacred in this world, God’s anger will flare up against us. Until the skies above our heads turn to copper, and the earth below our feet becomes iron, the rain of our land will be dust and sand will drop on us from the sky until we are wiped out.”

DeGroot clarified that this was not a “prescriptive” solution from God, but a natural outcome of people’s actions — or lack thereof.

“This is not God punishing us for straying; rather, these lines are descriptive,” DeGroot said. “The natural result of our own careless and callous actions — which, by the way, much like warnings from the latest U.N. Climate Report — teach us that when we neglect the sacred, the sacred will just as quickly neglect us.”

Linking science to the sacred, DeGroot suggested there is a new way to take God for granted.

“When we live outside the right relationship with the natural world, and puff toxic fumes and spew deadly toxins and etch the Earth with oil, we curse ourselves,” DeGroot said. “Is this not what it means to take God’s name in vain in a 21st-century context? And when we hurt nature, the Deuteronomy text makes clear that not only are we hurting God, but we are also hurting ourselves.”

DeGroot called for a Tikkun Adamah. Tikkun is a healing, while Adamah refers to “the dust of the earth” from which God formed Adam.

“Today we are in need of what in Hebrew is called a Tikkun, a kind of mending, fixing, repairing,” DeGroot said. “Tikkun Adam, a healing of the self, and Tikkun Adamah, a healing of earth.”

DeGroot said climate change has compounded recent events like the coronavirus pandemic and “other pandemics” of systemic racism, extractive capitalism and white supremacy.

COVID-19 specifically proved to DeGroot that the world is interconnected, and as a result, demands people care for each other.

“As a resident of Detroit, one thing was clear: that however bad COVID was going to get generally, Detroit would be hit harder than most because the largest majority of Detroit — the largest majority-Black city in the country, like the residents of many other industrial rust belt cities and urban communities — have seen their neighborhoods systematically divested from for well over 50 years,” DeGroot said.

He noted the breakdown of basic infrastructure, systems and support networks coinciding with white flight in the ‘60s and ‘70s, which left the remaining communities with little support.

“(This) means residents now are left severely lacking in what many of us probably assume are basic services, and (they) are therefore far more susceptible to COVID,” DeGroot said.

Finding healthy food and going to the hospital is more difficult due to the lack of public transportation. Water shut off in thousands of homes prevents families from being able to practice good hygiene or stay hydrated. Those who become sick might fear going to the hospital because they can’t afford treatment or are turned away when they most need care. 

Detroit also has had the worst broadband connection of all cities in the United States since 2015, according to the FCC. Detroit public school students suffer from the school system’s lack of funding, so continuing education without the necessary technology proves “basically impossible,” DeGroot said, while more well-off students continue unphased.

Detroit also has the highest rates of asthma in the state of Michigan.

“This is just one example of the many underlying health conditions caused by environmental racism that generations of Detroiters face,” DeGroot said. “Detroit has the highest Black population of any city in the U.S., (and) suffered from the third-most coronavirus deaths in this country.”

One pastor who Hazon Detroit works with has lost 14 family members to the coronavirus.

“None of this is by accident,” DeGroot said. “But rather, this is what happens when people put profit over populace.”

DeGroot told the story of the Tower of Babel, the second example in Jewish texts where humans challenged the divine. According to midrash writings (or narrative interpretations of the Torah and the books of prophets) as the tower to reach God grew higher, it took a year for someone to climb up to add a precious brick to the top. When someone would fall to their death by accident, “bricks became more precious than people” and those below mourned the ruined bricks instead of the person who carried it.

“It is not a sin to build,” DeGroot said. “It is a sin to build towards a perverted cause, to build towards any vision other than the holiness of life and the celebration of the sacred.”

DeGroot likened current affairs with the sin of Babel.

“Our country’s reality of this lived midrash began with genocide and the forced misplacement of Native people, and was built by the hands and ingenuity of Black people taken from their homeland and brought to these shores to be brutally exploited as property,” he said. “… While the circumstances have changed over the years, the structural underpinnings of our society have not.”

DeGroot quoted an opinion article by Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, the North America Director of which supports anti-fossil fuel organizers and campaigners in the United States and Canada, titled “If you care about the planet, you must dismantle white supremacy.”

She wrote that communities getting hit the hardest by COVID-19 and climate change are also affected by over-policing, incarceration and state-sanctioned violence, which includes “sacrifice zones” of neighborhoods near toxic factories and fumes that have increased multi-generational rates of asthma and other health conditions in these communities.

This adds a grim familiarity to the death-throe pleas of ‘I can’t breathe,’ made by both George Floyd and Eric Garner while they were choked to death by police in Minneapolis and Staten Island, respectively,” O’Laughlin wrote. “… Are you willing to hold accountable all of the systems built off white supremacy — from the fossil fuel industry to racist policing to the prison industrial complex — in defense of the planet? Are you willing to interrogate your complicity in the systems built on white supremacy and commit to dismantling it?”

DeGroot likened this to the exodus of the formerly enslaved Israelites from Pharaoh’s Egypt.

“According to the Midrash, the Israelites’ true and lasting liberation comes not only from the physical leaving of Egypt, but from the Israelites’ emphatic refusal to no longer worship the false idols of Egyptian rule,” DeGroot said.

DeGroot ended with one last call for Tikkun Adam and Tikkun Adamah — the healing of the soul of the people as well as the soil — to soften hearts enough to enact physical change; end false gods of extraction; and follow leaders of the new movement when the world reaches the other side of this moment.

“Nothing less will do,” DeGroot said.

1 2 3 4 5 6 9
Page 4 of 9