Human rights. Public health. Climate change. The novel coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated and exposed these issues.
“(The pandemic) shines a spotlight on important problems that we have all been ignoring,” said Maureen Rovegno, director of religion at Chautauqua Institution. Rovegno organizes speakers for the Department of Religion’s Interfaith Lecture Series, and she cited renewed attention to the climate crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement as examples.
Interfaith lecturers, according to Rovegno, often come from five different focuses (religious, theological, spiritual, ethical and humanitarian) and take an “angle of vision” based on the corresponding theme of the morning lectures. This season, Chautauqua’s Interfaith Lecture Series aims to shed light on the multiple, major historic events the world is facing through its weekly themes.
“It’s hard to imagine that any of our lectures would be the same if COVID-19 or Black Lives Matter (weren’t happening),” said Institution Vice President of Religion and Senior Pastor Gene Robinson.
Robinson said that while they did not call confirmed speakers and ask them to realign their discussions, he expects lecture content to reflect what’s happening in the moment because of the caliber of the speakers selected. Topics that have been “put off” will be front and center.
“With climate change, it is always unfortunately pushed to the bottom of the list,” Robinson said. “You can’t put off COVID. You can’t put off responding to Black men being killed.”
The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas will kick off Week One as the chaplain-in-residence at 10:45 a.m. EDT Sunday, June 28, on CHQ Assembly. While Bullitt-Jonas will be preaching at the 9:15 a.m. EDT morning devotionals every weekday and not participating the Interfaith Lecture Series, Robinson — who counts Bullitt-Jonas as a mentor — said her background as a climate activist aligns with Week One’s climate change focus, and will tie the week together from the start.
As the Chautauqua Lecture Series focuses on “Climate Change: Prioritizing Our Global and Local Response,” at 2 p.m. EDT every week day, Week One’s interfaith lecturers will shift into the theme of “Faith to Save the Earth,” answering the question of how faith can inform how people understand their role in protecting the environment.
“With faith traditions, the onus is put on understanding creation, and what we need to do and how to preserve creation,” Rovegno said.
Interfaith lecture speakers in Week One will answer these questions from various perspectives.
Randolph Haluza-DeLay’s work focuses on history based on multiple Christian denominations. Rabbi Nate DeGroot leads Hazon, the first international Jewish environmental organization. Beth Roach co-founded the Alliance of Native Seedkeepers.
Jim Antal represents the United Church of Christ (UCC) as its president and as a climate justice adviser to the UCC’s general minister. And on the first Interfaith Friday of the season, religious naturalist Michael Hogue will take CHQ Assembly’s virtual stage.
Week Two broadly focuses on “Forces Unseen: What Shapes Our Daily Lives.” Rovegno said forces like the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and, in particular, a need for moral leadership currently shape American life.
The interfaith platform takes the idea of the weekly theme one step further with “Forces that Shape Our Daily Lives: The Contemporary Search for Spirituality.”
“In my 73 years, I have never seen something affect every person in the world at a given moment,” Robinson said. “I think all of us are trying to put the (moment) we’re living in into a spiritual context, and Week Two and Three do this.”
Speakers during Week Two represent Judaism, Buddhism, interfaith perspectives and “nones,” a growing group of atheists and agnostics who don’t identify with a specific religion but crave the support and spirituality that an organized religion provides.
Willie James Jennings, an Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale University Divinity School, will speak from an Evangelical Christian perspective on Interfaith Friday in Week Two. His book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race is one of his many publications, including a book coming out this year titled After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging.
The “Art and Democracy” overarching Week Three theme spins into “Art: A Glimpse into the Divine” for the Interfaith Lecture Series.
“We can experience the divine through art,” Rovegno said. “It can penetrate the spirit.”
Week Three mixes multiple forms of art and theology, featuring art historian Ori Soltes; Jewish multimedia artist David Moss; a four-time Grammy winning Christian cellist — whose performances, Rovegno said, are “a spiritual experience in itself” — named Eugene Friesen; and artist Azzah Sultan, who draws on her experiences as a Muslim immigrant as well as family lineage traditions in her work.
For Week Three’s Interfaith Friday, Eryl and Wayman Kubicka will describe creation from the perspective of Buddhism, which Rovegno said is notable because Buddhist teachings do not emphasize creation to the same degree as other religions. Wayman Kubicka will also lead various Mystic Heart Meditations throughout the season.
Week Four focuses on “The Ethics of Tech: Scientific, Corporate and Personal Responsibility,” and 2 p.m. lectures will answer how “Ethics in a Technologically Transforming World?” can coexist.
Interfaith lectures for Week Four kick off with Gerard Magill, an expert in healthcare ethics who serves on the board of the Carl G. Grefenstette Center for Ethics in Science, Technology, and Law at Duquesne University.
He is followed by Jason Thacker, who is the research chair for technology ethics within the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for Southern Baptists, and a to-be-announced speaker on Wednesday, July 22. Thursday, July 23, features Noreen Herzfeld, who explores prospects for AI, ethical issues in technology, and Islam, in addition to her roles as a Nicholas and Bernice Reuter Professor of Science and Religion at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict.
On Interfaith Friday, Lisa Sharon Harper will speak from her experience as a theologian focused on reformation in the church across five continents, from Ferguson and Charlottesville in the United States to South Africa, Brazil, Australia and Ireland.
To a degree, Robinson said everyone is experiencing technology’s influence on daily life in real time, and the recent expansion of technology use for the sake of social distancing is happening inside and outside Chautauqua.
“Maureen and I did not go to seminary to learn about technology,” Robinson said. “Yet here we are, using it every hour of every day.”
While COVID-19 has forced Chautauqua Institution’s season online, it has also expanded the significance of its daily discussions.
“What we say (in interfaith lectures) is very pertinent to living our lives,” Rovegno said. “It’s informative, but meant to teach us how to live in the best way possible.”