Column: ‘A Crisis of Faith?’ encourages dialogue among Chautauquans

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?”

“Is God Dead?”

Those were the words, blood red on a black background, on the cover of Time magazine on April 8, 1966. While the article itself was a good deal more nuanced than the headline, it nevertheless caused considerable controversy. At that time, surveys showed that 97 percent of Americans believed in God, as opposed to today, when fewer than 65 percent say they are certain of the existence of a supreme being, according to the Pew Research Center.

Many readers were outraged. But that outrage generated dialogue. And dialogue is good.

The theme of Week Three at Chautauqua is “A Crisis of Faith?” As with the headline on the Time article, the title is posed as a question. The Institution chose this provocative topic in hopes of fostering a dialogue that brings people of different faiths — and of no faith — together to discuss the pressing questions of religion, identity and community at a time when participation in organized worship is steadily declining. It is the kind of civil and enlightening dialogue for which Chautauqua Institution is internationally known. The activities, lectures, symposia, music and song scheduled reflect a remarkable breadth and depth of intellectual and spiritual traditions.

The Time article of 1966 presented a look at the state of theism in America at a time of great cultural upheaval. A lot had changed from the complacent 1950s to the tumultuous 1960s. People who had long been disenfranchised were demanding fundamental fairness. The civil rights movement and the assertion of black pride were transforming the way African-Americans were viewed and treated. Women were declaring their equality and independence. Gay and lesbian people were accepting themselves and calling for wider acceptance. Sexual mores were rapidly changing, thanks in part to the birth control pill. The taking of illicit drugs was beginning to be commonplace, even celebrated, among young people. The Holocaust and its inconceivable evil were little more than 20 years past, the wounds still open and fresh. The war in Vietnam continued to escalate.

Today, we face our own challenges. Huge strides toward greater equality have been made in the last 50 years, and yet it seems that the American people are divided as never before. Deep racial, economic and cultural divides remain. Moral relativism and tribal identification blur our definitions of good and bad, right and wrong. Public discourse has coarsened. The internet has radically restructured the way we gather information and communicate. North Korea’s successful launching of an intercontinental ballistic missile last week reminds us that the threat of apocalyptic war remains. Social and religious institutions that once provided a locus for community and shared values have declined or vanished altogether.

As the week’s theme description puts it: “Some detect crisis amidst these changes, but in this week we look to the possibilities. What impacts do shifting religious norms mean for other aspects of public life? How are churches reinventing themselves as moral centers of the communities they serve?”

This week, Chautauquans will imagine the future of faith. We will gather in groups large and small, in places ranging from the Amphitheater and Hall of Philosophy to Bestor Plaza and our denominational houses and private homes. We will talk. And we will listen. With respect. It’s what we do here.

Among the distinguished speakers and guests this week:

Bill Moyers, the legendary journalist and author, who will moderate the Interfaith Lectures Series at 2 p.m from Monday through Friday in the Hall of Philosophy.

He will speak on Monday with Robert P. Jones, the founder and director of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization “dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture and public policy”; on Tuesday with the Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith, the founder and leader of Crazy Faith Ministries, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to teaching the concept of faith as a spiritual force (not religious, necessarily) to do social justice work; on Wednesday with Greg M. Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University and author of Good Without God: What A Billion Nonreligious People Believe and, on Thursday with Rabbi Sid Schwarz, a social entrepreneur, CEO of several nonprofits and author. On Friday, Moyers will moderate a roundtable discussion on faith.

The morning lecture at 10:45 a.m. in the Amphitheater this week will feature: on Monday, Andrew Sullivan, the provocative political and social commentator; on Tuesday, Katelyn Beaty, the editor-at-large of Christianity Today and author of A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World; on Wednesday, Dahlia Lithwick, a senior editor at Slate and respected legal scholar; on Thursday, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth; and, on Friday, Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core.

Throughout the week, I hope to meet with you — the Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics and atheists — who make up this vibrant community as both visitors and residents. I may come up to you after a lecture or discussion and seek your reaction. I may stop by your front porch or run into you by the fountain. I will be asking you about the topics of this week and issues of faith and community. Each day, I will share your thoughts, your opinions, your hopes in The Chautauquan Daily. So, please, don’t be a stranger. Talk to me. More importantly, talk to one another.

Tags : A Crisis of FaithDepartment of ReligionreligionWeek 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.