Column: Confronting a ‘crisis of identity’ and a ‘cultural climate change’

Editor’s Note: Daily staff writer David Geary is on assignment for the Department of Religion this week, providing dispatches from the field as the Chautauqua community wrestles with lectures and dialogues on the theme “A Crisis of Faith?”

The world is undergoing “a cultural climate change,” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks told the packed Amphitheater at Thursday’s morning lecture. And the forecast, he suggested, is stormy and dark.

In a presentation that was both deeply erudite and often quite funny, Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth and a member of Parliament, said the world faces a historic crisis because the three common assumptions on which people have relied for the past four centuries are coming apart, and what will replace them is uncertain.

Those assumptions are that: the world is growing more secular; the world is growing more westernized; and religion has to accommodate cultural changes, that it must go with the flow. Today, he argues, people across the globe are becoming more religious, not less, especially in the Middle East; the rise of China, India, Russia and Islam have led to a less-westernized planet; and religions are more isolated, insular and less accommodating than ever, something he called “religion as resistance.”

“This is the biggest thing to happen to the West since the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries,” Sacks said.

What this all means, he said, is that the pillars of civilization — family, community and society — are being reshaped in alarming ways, which is why religious communities are more important than ever.

“Worship is the greatest source of community,” Sacks said, arguing that, historically, secular communities have not lasted as long.

Religion, Sacks said, has three pathways forward: It can try to conquer society, in which case we would “return to the Dark Ages”; it can withdraw from society, where it might survive but would remain in the dark; or it can “reinspire society” through loyalty, love, altruism and compassion.

“We just have a chance,” he said.

As they filed out of the Amp into the drizzle, Chautauquans reflected on Sacks’ words.

“He’s given a case for religion not as a devotion to a particular concept of God, but as a sanctified community,” said David Boyd of Princeton, New Jersey. “It’s community that survives, as opposed to an individual passing on his good genes. He didn’t say anything negative about anything. He said all positive things.”

“It has been a good week because we’ve been getting at the real causes of the darkness that’s settling over this land,” he added. “These talks help us understand what divides us much better than the clichés we usually hear.”

Karen Johnson of Charleston, West Virginia, said Sacks had “somehow tied all my thoughts together. It reinforces what I believe.”

“I think he outlined a visionary program for the entire planet,” said Lynn Cheyney, a longtime Chautauquan from Los Angeles. “His wisdom and intellect were breathtaking. It stirred the soul of me.”

Not everyone was as impressed.

Wes Edell and his wife Louisa Harvage-Edell, from Berkeley, California, consider themselves humanists.

“It rubbed me the wrong way,” Edell said. “There were a lot of holes in his talk. I’m not taking his arguments on faith.”

“I had mixed reactions,” Harvage-Edell said. “He had some interesting points, but he was condescending to humanists.”

It has been a good week because we’ve been getting at the real causes of the darkness that’s settling over this land. These talks help us understand what divides us much better than the clichés we usually hear. – David Boyd of Princeton, New Jersey

“It seems to me the dilemma you’ve got is we’re having a bipolar conversation of West versus East,” said Paul Womack of Chattanooga, Tennessee, who drew parallels between Sacks’ talk and a speech that President Donald Trump gave in Warsaw, Poland, earlier this month in which he questioned the West’s “will to survive.”

“I wouldn’t say Trump and Sacks are anything alike,” he said, “but I wonder if their analyses are similar but their solutions are different.”

The examination of this week’s theme “A Crisis of Faith?” continued in the afternoon at the Hall of Philosophy as the legendary journalist Bill Moyers introduced and interviewed the author and activist Rabbi Sid Schwarz, whose topic was “Religion, Identity and Communities of Meaning,” with a focus on Judaism.

Jews, Schwarz began, are “less a community of faith than a community of fate,” a people with a sense of common history and common destiny whose binding ties are more cultural and sociological than religious.

What unites Jews are the Holocaust, the pursuit of social justice and the state of Israel, he said. The scars of the Holocaust and of centuries of persecution and pogroms have made Jews acutely aware of their historical mistreatment and committed to seeing that it stops: “Never again.” The championing of social justice and human rights grew from the tradition of “protecting the stranger, the orphan, the widow” and evolved into the wholehearted embrace of workers’ rights, civil rights, women’s rights and gay and lesbian rights. The creation of Israel permitted the Jews to take the culture and civilization that they had carried from place to place for a thousand years and enter the community of nations under their own identity.

But Schwarz said he worries that Jewish identity is eroding, that young Jews consider themselves more global than tribal, creating what he calls “a crisis of faith.” Jews are now marrying outside their religion at a rate of 70 percent and only about 30 percent of Jewish households are passing along a Jewish identity, he said. Jewish institutions including synagogues, Jewish community centers and groups like Hadassah and B’Nai B’rith are hemorrhaging members.

And yet, Schwarz said, he believes that “core covenantal traditions,” like caring about the vulnerable and the environment persist. Embracing wisdom, social justice, community and a sense of sacred purpose, he said, will allow the next generation of Jews to create “communities of meaning,” in which members “walk the talk.”

“If we can be humble enough to resist judging, if we can listen to them, they may just be able to create a just and loving world,” Schwarz concluded.

“I thought he made a lot of good points, though it isn’t all so new,” said Craig Weisz of Teaneck, New Jersey. “The pursuit of personal solace is the antithesis of faith.”

Eldon Reibolt of Hudson, Ohio, concurred: “Saving ourselves is not enough.”

“It’s the kind of food for thought that we take home with us from Chautauqua,” said Ken Wilde of St. Louis.

“This is my first trip here,” said Mary Ann Meanwell of Cincinnati. “Nobody could have told me how much I’d be getting into. Chautauqua is one giant athenaeum.”

Barbara and Bill Holden of St. Petersburg, Florida, are visiting the Institution for the first time.

“It’s been stimulating,” Barbara Holden said. “We’ve been to most of the talks. I like the fact that you can do that and then wander into a Sufi meditation group. People here are respecting and listening to each other.”

“That Michael Hill got it right when he talked about civil, civic discourse,” Bill Holden said. “It’s desperately needed today.”

Tags : Bill Moyerscrisis of faithDepartment of Religioninterfaith lecture seriesmorning lectureRabbi Lord Jonathan SacksRabbi Sid SchwarzWeek Three

The author David Geary

David Geary has been a reporter and editor for more than 40 years. He retired in 2015 from The New York Times, where he was the late-night news editor. He also has worked for The Boston Globe and other newspapers. He currently freelances for the Times and for The Trace, a nonprofit journalism website focused on gun violence and gun policy in America. He lives in Westfield with his wife, Karin Henry.