Week Three Column from the President

Welcome to the third week of our 144th Assembly. I, for one, enter this week completely energized after an incredible voyage with our friends and colleagues from National Geographic and the unbelievable explosion of patriotism that can only be found at a Chautauqua Fourth of July celebration.

Each week at Chautauqua brings new faces (at least to me!) to our shores and this grove. If this is your first week at Chautauqua — or your first visit! — I relish the chance to greet you as the 18th president of this sacred place.

For decades, Chautauqua Institution has brought people of all faiths and none together for civil, enlightening dialogue. In Week Three, we dive even deeper into questions of identity, religion and community. Pew Research Center reports that religions are undergoing dramatic change: a decline in mainstream Christianity and practicing Judaism, demographic shifts pointing toward a growing Muslim population, and more young people than ever who best identify as “seekers,” “spiritual” or of no defined faith journey at all. While this seismic shift might be unsettling to some, or even be seen as a massive cultural turn for the worst, we will use this week to look to the possibilities.

In true Chautauqua fashion, we will probe deeply the relevant questions in this week that serves as a question in and of itself: are we, as a nation and society, experiencing a Crisis of Faith? 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? I invite you, as we begin this week, to imagine the future of faith and of religion and to ask where these changing dynamics might take us.

This week is also a particularly important one to me as a new president. I’m committed to strengthening the role of faith and religion in our dialogue here at Chautauqua. We have been extremely blessed by the strong and principled leadership of the Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr. As we announced over the off-season, this will be Robert’s last season at the helm of the Department of Religion, and I am so grateful to him for much of the vision behind this week. We will also have a chance to informally welcome Bishop Gene Robinson, who will assume the post of Vice President of Religion in September. Bishop Gene will be “shadowing” Robert this week. I hope you’ll take the chance when you see them to both celebrate Robert’s incredible contributions, which continue throughout this summer (he’s not getting away that easily!), and to offer a warm welcome to Bishop Gene as he begins to learn the ropes of a Chautauqua season.

As always at Chautauqua, our life is full of so many opportunities to explore the best in human values. In addition to our deep look at faith this week, I hope you will delight in our bountiful arts offerings, take advantage of the many avenues for recreation, or will find time to read a book, take a class or just enjoy being a part of this dynamic community.

For those experiencing our new Amphitheater for the first time, I hope you enjoy the beautiful duality between how much it looks like its predecessor while also providing safer access, more space and better amenities for artists and speakers, and for you, our beloved Chautauquans. We continue to fine-tune the space to allow us to more fully realize its potential, and we’re grateful to all who have enjoyed it as audience members and presenters alike for their patience and feedback.

I recognize that not all Chautauquans can be with us every week of the season. For those who missed the opening “Three Taps of the Gavel,” I asked if we could commit to a new muscular civic dialogue this season and beyond. If you missed that talk, you can find it at I hope you’ll take a chance to relive what was one of the most special moments of my life. And just as that celebration was an honor bound tradition at Chautauqua, its message called us to be more than, better than, to mirror and model and practice what we most hope to see in society. Those opening words also reminded us that we need to find ways to graciously invite viewpoints at the polar opposites of our own with the patience and fortitude needed to truly understand.

Thanks to all who have been challenged by this pledge and have asked for some help. We’re working on some sessions where we might impart tips on active listening and engagement, the hallmarks of a muscular civic dialogue. I hope to have something to share in the coming days, and I look forward to joining each of you in this intellectual workout!

Each week at Chautauqua unfolds like a wonderful new mystery. In the coming days as we explore how faith influences our lives, I want to thank each of you for the faith you’ve shown in me during my inaugural season.

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The author Michael E. Hill