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Interfaith Lecture Preview

Buddhist Judith Lief to reflect on spirituality inside and outside of religion

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Go to a place of worship. Listen. Leave.

Go home. Do the dishes. Return next week.

Judith Lief, a Buddhist acharya, said it’s not fair to separate daily life from how a given religion describes spirituality.

“Life itself is a spiritual experience,” Lief said.

In her upcoming lecture “Human Longing and the Search for Meaning,” Lief hopes to raise questions on what it means to practice a religion and what it means to navigate spirituality outside of a religion. The lecture, to be broadcast at 2 p.m. EDT Tuesday, July 7, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, is part of Week Two’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “Forces that Shape Our Daily Lives: The Contemporary Search for Spirituality.” The lecture was recorded June 23, but upon its release, the audience can submit questions for the live Q-and-A at www.questions.chq.org or on Twitter with #CHQ2020.

Lief will focus on people who consider themselves to be spiritual while not aligned with a religion. Some call them “nones,” though Lief doesn’t quite agree with the term.

“I don’t think it’s intentional, but there’s a sense of dismissal, that the real ‘ones’ are religious and other people are less than that,” Lief said.

Spirituality can be part of a religion, but this group of people reach for the spiritual without the framework of a religion.

Lief said the roots of the two words, spirituality and religion, denote differences between the two. The spir in “spirituality” is shared with the word “inspiration,” for example — to inspire breath. This indicates that spirituality is as intimate as breathing.

The lig in “religion” is shared with “ligament,” which defines religiosity as tying or binding oneself to a particular path with more structure and a fixed set of values.

Religion and spirituality have both benefits and detriments. Lief said the “obvious drawbacks” of religion include tying patriarchy, bigotry and racism into that same set of values, while spirituality on its own can be “flaky.”

Whether a person has spir, lig, both or neither, “We’re just trying to figure out what we’re doing here,” Lief said.

Lief has found this in Buddhism, but she grew up Protestant with an ex-Catholic father. She found herself asking more questions about her faith in a congregation that was not deeply religious.

Even in this congregation, the religious hierarchy found her questions “threatening.”

“It was a strong message of, ‘This is the way it is and you shouldn’t ask questions, and you shouldn’t take it too seriously. We don’t really need it that much, it’s just kind of a cozy tradition we have,’” Lief said of the church’s response. “And I found that very frustrating. I’m sure they found me annoying.”

Disillusioned with organized religion while still seeking answers, Lief later studied at Lutheran College while not being affiliated with any religion herself. 

While living in New York, she attended a talk by the person who would become her teacher and spiritual guide, Tibetan meditation master Ven. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Though he was trained in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Chögyam, Rinpocha did not introduce himself as a Buddhist to his audience. Lief felt like he was just speaking the truth.

Later, meditation would deeply impact Lief, because it required sitting with questions (rather than reach for answers) and the raw uncertainty and immediacy of life. Lief felt the experience connected her with others.

“You can believe one thing, you can believe other things, but underneath it all, there is something very human, something very powerful and good that I thought I was reconnecting with,” Lief said. “That’s continued to be an important part of my life.”

In Buddhism, people can go through the formal process of becoming initiated into the faith, or not. While formally trained, Lief said she was told not to take the Buddhist label too seriously.

“Jesus was not a Christian. Buddha was not a Buddhist,” Lief said. “They were just people asking questions about life and trying to find answers. Later, churches and temples and organizations of all kinds developed, which have good qualities and not-so-good qualities.”

By raising important questions in her lecture, Lief hopes to impart what is important beyond institutions of religion.

“It’s not all about institutions, it’s what we do with them,” Lief said. “Being in a religion can be used to check out of things we don’t want to face. … Whatever we call ourselves, we’re humans.”

This program is made possible by the Deloras K. and L. Beaty Pemberton Lectureship.

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin to speak on the value of religion, even among ‘nones’

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It’s common for people to encounter questionnaires, surveys, or paperwork with the question:  “what is your religion?” Some may check the box labelled Christianity, others Judaism, others Buddhism, and so on. But a growing population finds themselves checking a box labelled “none.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin will address this population in a lecture called “Looking for God in All the Right Places: an Appeal to the ‘Nones,’” premiering at 2 p.m. EDT, Monday July 6, on CHQ Assembly. 

Salkin said that these “nones” describe themselves as having no religion. This could be because they never had one, or because they’ve left their own. This could even mean people who see themselves as spiritual, but do not participate in any organized religion. 

“It is not my experience that people leave religions because of anger; they’re more likely to leave out of disappointment. I’m speaking about what we can do to reinvigorate mainstream religion,” Salkin said, iIn particular, looking through my lens, which is modern Judaism.”

Aside from his work as a rabbi, Salkin has written 10 books and maintains a blog about Judaism and culture titled “Martini Judaism: for those who want to be shaken and stirred.” Salkin said that in his writing, he hopes to challenge general assumptions of what faith should look like.

“One of the things I like to talk about is the intersection between Judaism and American culture (at large),” Salkin said. “I think that one of the great aspects of religion is that it has always been able to speak truth to power. I also would like Judaism to speak truth to culture.”

Recently, Salkin’s work has been informed by the Black Lives Matter protests erupting across the country. He said that as a Jewish man, he feels compelled to sympathize and align himself with any person facing oppression. 

“American Jews have historically felt and expressed vital sympathy and empathy for African Americans. We know what it is like to have lived in fear. As I said to my teenagers: Racism is to America as anti-Semitism is to Europe. It is our original sin,” Salkin said. “It is incumbent upon Jews to, in some way, create and deepen their relationships with African Americans, and to hear the cries of those who deem themselves oppressed.”

This concern manifested itself in one of his recent articles for “Martini Judaism,” about a young Black, Jewish woman who found herself as the target of a hate crime. He said in this article that her attack was likely due to her race and not her religion, but that distinction doesn’t matter. He wrote that those who hate Black people are the same who hate Jewish people, so the two peoples should live in solidarity. 

Salkin has been addressing subjects like these since publishing his first book nearly 30 years ago, but his passion for religion came much earlier. 

“It started when I went to Jewish summer camp. I fell in love with spirituality, and the sense of community, and the gateway to social justice that it provided and by the time I was 16, I knew I wanted to be a rabbi,” Salkin said. “I’ve been at it now for almost 40 years. It continues to be what wakes me up in the morning.”

This program is made possible by the Deloras K. and L. Beaty Pemberton Lectureship.

Hogue to ask ‘Why is it that we should care at all about nature’ in first Interfaith Friday

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At the end of the day, Michael Hogue wants his virtual lecture to raise questions about religion and naturalism in his audience — and to inspire that audience to ultimately begin researching the answers to those questions themselves. 

Hogue considers himself a religious naturalist — a theological perspective that involves the pursuit of religious meaning through the natural world.

“Religious naturalism doesn’t have a religious body that requires membership or creedal loyalty,” said Hogue, a scholar and professor at the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, Illinois. “To me, it’s a way of being religious and thinking religiously from within and across other religious traditions. It’s a mindset and way of thinking about the religious life that can deepen and enrich your own religious practice.”

At 2 p.m. EDT Friday, July 3, on CHQ Assembly, Hogue will kick off Chautauqua’s Interfaith Friday lecture series with a unique perspective on religion and nature. Hogue will be joined in conversation by Gene Robinson, Chautauqua’s vice president of religion and senior pastor.

Hogue said that two of his central motivating issues are climate justice and climate emergency.

“One of the questions I’ll raise in the talk is, ‘Why is it that we should care at all about nature?’” he said. “Different religious traditions have different responses to that. Religious naturalism has its own kind of response.”

For Hogue, climate disruption is one of the key reasons why religious naturalism is relevant.

“Instead of God being at the center of this religious option, nature is at the center,” he said. “Nature is all there is for the religious naturalist. There’s no outside of nature, no creator God, and in fact, nature itself has no center.”

But Hogue — whose spiritual and academic inspirations include the scholars Ursula Goodenough, Wesley Wildman and Carol White — said that though nature lacks a center, that doesn’t mean there aren’t purposes and values to be discovered there. 

“In fact, once we decenter human life and human concerns and the idea of a supreme being from our religious habits and thinking, then I really think we can discover the value and the fragility of life on our planet,” he said. “For me, it comes back to our way of understanding what care for nature, care for the planet, care for the many forms of life that are more than human — what it all means.”

Though the current outlook on the climate change crisis is bleak, Hogue said his reasons for forging on with his life and his work haven’t changed.

“I get up in the morning because I’m committed to the practice of hope,” he said.

This program is made possible by the Gertrude Elser Schroeder Fund.

History in the making underpins Interfaith Lecture Series

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As the Department of Religion’s programming moves online for the 2020 season, the crowds of people in the Hall of Philosophy and the grove will be absent this year; still, department leadership aims to create a robust experience on CHQ Assembly, with Interfaith Lecture Series theme that grapple with the issues of our time. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHAUTAUQUA INSTITUTION

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.”

The Rev. angel Kyodo williams to Champion Liberation from Racism in Interfaith Lecture

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The Rev. angel Kyodo williams believes that addressing racism in the United States can lead to the sense of belonging the American dream promised, but never fully delivered on.

A multiracial, black and queer Zen Buddhist teacher, williams said those intersections of race, religion and culture, in some ways, are what have brought her to Chautauqua.

“People hear I’m Buddhist, and suddenly I’m a foreigner,” said williams, an author, activist and ordained Zen priest. “I’m American; and like every American that grew up in New York, I’m also deeply steeped in Judaism, certainly in cultural Judaism. So I think that sitting at these intersections gives me access to a wide array of sensibilities and experiences that allows me to touch on many different aspects of what is impacting all of us.”

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, August 20 in the Hall of Philosophy, williams will untangle “Race in America: Myths, Madness, Redemption & Belonging,” as part of the Week Nine interfaith lecture series, “Exploring Race, Religion, and Culture.”

“My particular focus is liberation from things that hinder us from seeing reality as it is,” williams said. “And there is nothing more obscuring of being awake to the nature of reality as it is, at this particular time, than the things that many of us had hoped were at least receding into the past. Race is one of those things.”

According to williams, people tend to only think about race in a way that focuses on people of color, and the problems it causes for them.

“Racism was built to police white people,” she said. “We don’t think about that in that way. My journey into all this was to realize that Western Buddhist communities here in the (United States)   and in the West in general, are largely and overwhelmingly white. I realized that the question of race was not being dealt with at all.”

Ignoring that fact was “socially convenient” for these communities, williams said.

“It was socially convenient for them to not pay attention to the collective impact, but it was also keeping them from their personal liberation, as well,” she said. “If you walk into a room and someone doesn’t register you as a human being of equal value, that means that thing is fundamentally diminishing your humanity and human capacity.”

While she’s only the second black woman to be recognized as a teacher in the Japanese Zen lineage, williams said people shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of representation in Japanese Zen.

“It’s not just that black people aren’t in Japanese Zen — they’re not in Vietnamese Zen, they’re not in Chicano or indigenous culture,” she said. “White people are everywhere, taking everything everywhere they go. That’s entitlement. It finally occurred to me that we always ask why we’re not represented. The question actually is, ‘Why are white people so represented everywhere?’ ”

In 2016, williams co-authored Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation along with Lama Rod Owens and Jasmine Syedullah.

“We have done a lot of advocating about race, but we’ve never really had a national conversation about race,” she said.

In response to the absence of that national conversation, williams and her co-authors held four conversations in different locations across the country.

“It was born out of the idea that we need a national conversation about race,” williams said.

The pattern of problems concerning race in the United States is cyclical, according to williams.

“Here we are again, right?” she said. “I think that this time is really our time. We know enough. We have intersectionality and relationships across different lines. Through the vast network of love, we have the tools to put this myth to rest, and begin our journey towards becoming the America that was promised.”

‘Equally Divine’: Simran Jeet Singh to Present Interfaith Friday

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Simran Jeet Singh’s worldview doesn’t allow for the existence of evil.

“Everything is equally divine and sacred and beautiful,” said Singh, an author, activist and senior fellow at the Sikh Coalition. “This idea — that evil doesn’t exist — is a really tough thing to put into practice in today’s world. It’s been something that I’ve tried to negotiate my whole life. It’s especially tough now when you have such public hate and bigotry, and intentional harm being done to people.”

One of the things that’s helped Singh view the world through this lens is to try to find the humanity within people.

“To be beyond hate, racism and oppression, even when it’s directed at me and my family — this is a powerful way to help counter prejudices that people have against me,” he said.

At 2 p.m. Friday, August 16 in the Hall of Philosophy, Singh will lead the penultimate Interfaith Friday lecture of the season. Singh will be discussing the existence of evil in the world from a Sikh perspective, and will be joined in conversation by the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Chautauqua’s vice president of religion and senior pastor.

“I had always felt a tension, growing up, between the cultural assumption about the existence of evil and my own way of looking at the world,” Singh said. “The two didn’t really fit together. My parents always taught me that God is in everything and everyone — that was the first thing I ever learned.”

Because of his upbringing, the existence of evil didn’t make sense to Singh, who said that it “felt really liberating to have the opportunity to learn how to question those assumptions and to reconcile something that had seemed incoherent.”

Singh’s career as an activist and author on the subjects of diversity, race and religion began in the aftermath of 9/11.

“I was in high school when 9/11 happened, and I saw the racist backlash sweeping around the country and felt compelled to try and serve the communities who were being affected,” he said. “As things have gotten worse, my commitment to antiracism has only increased.”

Singh has also written about issues in the United States concerning the view that a person or group of people are inherently different from oneself, otherwise known as “othering.”

“Our othering experience is primarily through racialization,” he said. “Sikhs have a distinct physical identity, that, in the U.S., primarily gets seen through the lens of violence and terrorism.”

The experience of being othered, according to Singh, makes it difficult for Sikhs to answer the question, “How do we not fall into the trap of othering the people around us?”

Singh wants Chautauquans to come away with — at the very least — a better understanding of the existence of Sikh culture in the United States.

“We are equally human and deserve the same respect that everyone else does,” he said. “I would love for people to sincerely consider the things that Sikh wisdom has to offer. There are some real gems it could give to society right now, especially when it comes to respect, justice and basic dignity.”

Veteran Andrew Bacevich to Illuminate ‘An Age of Illusions’ in Interfaith Lecture

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Andrew Bacevich believes the nation — and the world — is in the midst of a profound moral and political crisis.

“I’m going to argue that President Trump is not the cause of that crisis, but merely a symptom,” Bacevich said. Bacevich is an author, professor of history and professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University.

At 2 p.m. Thursday, August 15 in the Hall of Philosophy, Bacevich will discuss societal issues in his lecture, “An Age of Illusions,” which is part of the Week Eight Interfaith Lecture Series, “The Power of Soft Power.”

“During the latter part of the Cold War, I was a serving military officer,” Bacevich said. “I vaguely imagined that if the Cold War ever ended, the U.S. would become a ‘normal nation,’ minding its own business. Just the reverse occurred. American ambitions grew, as did the U.S. willingness to use force, more often than not, with negative consequences. I’ve been trying to figure out why that happened.”

Part of the reason America didn’t end up as a “normal nation,” according to Bacevich, was because of lingering Cold War mentalities.

“The outcome of the East-West conflict persuaded American political and intellectual elites that the ‘end of history’ had arrived,” he said. “The American way defined the inevitable future to which all others would be obliged to adhere.”

Bacevich said that soft power and its relationship with foreign policy in the United States can be traced to the events surrounding the Cold War.

“For starters, (soft power from a foreign policy perspective) means recognizing the limitations of hard power,” he said. “A central theme of U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War has been the misuse of American military might. A crucial step toward an effective approach to policy is to recognize what military power can and cannot do.”

In 2009, Bacevich published The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, which immediately became a New York Times best-seller.

Part of the reason for his book’s popularity was due to acclaimed broadcast journalist Bill Moyers, according to Bacevich.

“A decade ago, he had me on his television show to discuss my book,” he said. “(Moyers’) interview with me made the book a success.”

Bacevich’s writing process for Limits of Power was to “get up early in the morning, take the dog out for a pee, make myself a cup of coffee and get to work.”

For his lecture today, Bacevich said he wants to encourage his audience to “look beyond Trump.”

“Americans were asked either to perpetuate the direction of American politics or to choose a radically different course,” he said. “Those who voted for Trump or who couldn’t be bothered to vote, in effect, rejected the status quo. Trump did not create the conditions that led so many Americans to act as they did. He merely exploited them.”

In Interfaith Lecture, Heather McGhee to Argue for Overcoming Prejudices

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Heather McGhee was a guest on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” when she received a call from a white male listener who was openly racist.

But instead of issuing a hateful diatribe, this caller frankly admitted his preconceptions, and asked McGhee for advice on how to overcome them.

“What can I do to change, to be a better American?” disabled Navy veteran Garry Civitello asked McGhee, an author and senior fellow at the left-leaning think tank Demos.

McGhee’s tender response represented a rare moment of kinship between disparate groups that reverberated across the internet and led to a genuine friendship.

At 2 p.m. Wednesday, August 14 in the Hall of Philosophy, McGhee will discuss the story of her friendship with Civitello and more in her lecture, “Beyond the Zero-Sum: Building a New American Demos.” McGhee’s lecture is part of the Week Eight interfaith lecture series, “The Power of Soft Power.”

“There’s a need for soft power as we try to overcome racism and division, and as we forge a united American people,” McGhee said. “This question of ‘what does it mean to be a better American in the 21st century, in an era of demographic change?’ is part of the conversation and talk I’m going to have.”

McGhee grew up in Chicago’s South Side at a time of economic upheaval.

“I started asking questions about why so many people were unable to get ahead no matter what they did,” she said. “That led me to the rules and the policies that shape opportunity.”

Eventually, McGhee said she was able to get an entry-level position at Demos, rising through the ranks to become the think tank’s president in 2014.

Though she stepped down as president in 2018, McGhee is now a distinguished senior fellow at Demos, and she’s currently working on a book, to be released in May 2020, on the many ways racism is harmful to society.

“It’s harmful not just for people of color, which is how we usually think about it, but it also distorts our entire society, our economy and our democracy,” she said. “So it has costs for white people as well.”

McGhee hopes her lecture today will inspire her audience to “bridge the racial divide.”

“We can overcome our biases and prejudices,” she said. “There’s a way for us to define who is an American that’s inclusive and still has meaning. There are people working against a tide of division and hate to make a fairer and more inclusive country for us all.”

Hardy Merriman to Inspire Hope Through Stories of Nonviolent Resistance

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In a world roiled by conflict, Hardy Merriman wants to project a message of hope.

“I want to talk about the emerging challenge of rising authoritarianism in the world, and declining democracies,” said Merriman, an author and president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. “I’ll talk about how nonviolent and civil resistance movements are a critical aspect of reversing the trend of declining democracy.”

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, August 13 in the Hall of Philosophy, Merriman will discuss “Power From the Bottom Up: Civil Resistance as a Driver of Rights, Freedom and Justice.” Merriman’s lecture is part of the Week Eight interfaith lecture series, “The Power of Soft Power.”

“Hard power is often defined as ‘either the threat or use of violent force,’ ” Merriman said. “Nonviolent movements, by definition, do not do that. However, they wield a great deal of power.”

Merriman said to look no further than Sudan or Algeria as examples of such movements.

“In Sudan, the fall of a dictator who was wanted on charges of genocide was initiated by a nonviolent movement,” he said. “We saw the fall of a longtime autocrat in Algeria earlier this year. These are just a few examples.”

In America, Merriman pointed to the nonviolent resistance movements of the Civil Rights era.

“For people who say that violence is the most effective or the most powerful way of achieving their goal, that’s actually historically not true,” he said. “For most people who faced oppression, nonviolent resistance has been more effective and powerful.”

Merriman said the United States has been behind the rest of the world in recognizing the critical importance of nonviolent movements.

“Most national affairs experts have underestimated how important these movements are,” he said. “We know statistically that the number of these movements worldwide is growing. We know that they’re shaping things. Ignoring them, or not knowing how to respond, is to our detriment.”

In 2007, Merriman co-authored A Guide to Effective Nonviolent Struggle, a book that was intended to codify nonviolent resistance strategies.

“We can say, ‘OK, if this is a social science, then what are the key attributes of movements that succeed, and what are some of the key attributes that lead to their failure?’ ” he said. “We can study that, and develop frameworks that increase their chances for success. That’s what I’ve spent my career trying to do.”

For his lecture today, Merriman said he wants people to know that there is “really exciting potential here.”

“There’s some good news in the world,” he said. “At the same time, we really have to meet the challenge of rising authoritarianism in the world as well. It’s incumbent upon us to figure out how we can better support human rights movements around the world.”

Bill Moyers to Open Week’s Interfaith Talks by Exploring ‘Other Face of Power’

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His resume, too long to list in full, stretches all the way from before the John F. Kennedy administration to the present day.

As the White House press secretary for President Lyndon B. Johnson, he managed media relations in one of the most politically fraught times in American history.

And as a journalist, he led Newsday from 1967 to 1970 as its publisher, afterwards working as senior correspondent for “CBS Reports.”

At 2 p.m. Monday, August 12 in the Hall of Philosophy, acclaimed broadcaster Bill Moyers will kick off Week Eight’s interfaith lecture series, “The Power of Soft Power,” with his lecture, “The Other Face of Power.”

One of the key ways Moyers has wielded soft power — defined as the power to attract, rather than coerce — is through his journalism.

“The third pillar of American democracy, an independent press, is under sustained attack, and the channels of information are choked,” Moyers said in his keynote address at the 2007 National Conference for Media Reform. “A few huge corporations now dominate the media landscape in America. Almost all the networks carried by most major cable systems are owned by one of the major media common conglomerates.”

According to Moyers, the few elites in control of the modern media landscape have the power to determine “what ordinary people do not see or hear.”

Moyers began his career in journalism at age 16, when he went to work at a daily newspaper in Marshall, Texas, as a cub reporter.

It was while working at The Marshall News Messenger that Moyers said he got his “big break,” according to an essay published on
TomDispatch.com.

Moyers said that, while most of the journalists at his paper were out on vacation or sick, he was assigned to report on what came to be known as “ ‘the housewives’ rebellion.”

“Fifteen women in my hometown decided not to pay the Social Security withholding tax for their domestic workers,” he wrote. “Those housewives were white, their housekeepers black. Because they tended to earn lower wages, accumulate less savings, and be stuck in those jobs all their lives, Social Security was their only insurance against poverty in old age. Yet their plight did not move their employers.”

Ever since reporting on that story, which was eventually picked up by the Associated Press, Moyers wrote, “I was hooked, and in one way or another I’ve continued to engage the issues of money and power, equality and democracy over a lifetime spent at the intersection between politics and journalism.”

After that story, Moyers worked as a summer intern for Johnson, then a senator, eventually becoming his press secretary and chief of staff after Kennedy was assassinated.

“But though he was in politics, he was never entirely of politics,” journalist Neal Gabler wrote of Moyers in a 2009 article in the Los Angeles Times. “One cannot understand Moyers without understanding his theological training and his moral conviction. His mission has always been to make things better, not louder.”

After Moyers left the White House to continue his career in journalism, Gabler wrote that “(he) has always sought the most interesting thinkers, people who would never otherwise be on television, and then discussed their ideas in search of timeless truths.”

“In a world of certainty that forecloses investigation, Moyers has curiosity,” Gabler wrote. “In a world of glibness and superficiality, he has a rare temerity of mind. In a world of ego and bombast, he has always been modest and self-effacing. He not only gives a forum to unusual thinkers, he is truly, visibly, interested in what they have to say and in who they are because he believes that their ideas really matter.”

Author Katherine Ozment to Argue Possibility of ‘Grace without God’ in Secular Age

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Ozment

For those who don’t participate in organized religion, defining “grace” can be tricky.

“It’s what my book is really about,” said Katherine Ozment, a journalist and author of Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, “how secular people can experience all the meaningful parts of religion, how they can try to capture some of that in their secular lives.”

Grace Without God began after Ozment’s son asked her, in reference to their family’s religion, “What are we?”

“I blurted out, ‘We’re nothing!’ because we weren’t practicing anything,” she said. “I realized that was a terrible thing to tell him, so I spent three years traveling around the country, interviewing everyone from atheists to Buddhists to Humanistic groups.”

At 2 p.m. Thursday, August 8 in the Hall of Philosophy, Ozment will present “Grace without God,” an interfaith lecture from a secular perspective. Her lecture is part of the Week Seven interfaith lecture series, “Grace: A Celebration of Extraordinary Gifts.”

“One of the great things about writing this book was that I typically didn’t confront questions like the one my son asked me head-on, because I didn’t have answers,” Ozment said. “I came to the conclusion that the question, ‘What are we?’ is a bit dated. We’re all so many things. There’s almost an error in the question because it assigns a label to yourself.”

At the end of Grace Without God, Ozment said she wrote a letter to her kids with “10 values I hope that they will take on.”

“It’s less a labelling of who you are or what you are, and more about, ‘What do you value?’ and, ‘How do you want to live your life?’ ” she said.

In addition to her book, Ozment also worked as a senior editor for National Geographic.

During her time at that publication, Ozment said she once rode a donkey through the deserts of Jordan and Israel for a story assignment.

“We were recreating the Copper Age,” she said. “There was this route from Jordan into Israel, and in order to tell the story, we decided to pretend we were Copper Age travelers and metal-smelters. We started in Jordan and camped the entire way. We were led by Bedouins on donkeys — although the donkeys weren’t very fast, so mostly we walked and the donkeys just walked along.”

Ozment and her companions carved ore in Jordan and carried it with them, later melting it down with the help of a metallurgist to try and approximate what it was like to practice metallurgy during the Copper Age.

“There’s a direct connection between (my time at National Geographic) and the conclusions I came to in my book, which is: I find meaning in the here and now,” she said. “One of the really important ways I do that is to be in nature.”

Whether her audience today is “religious or nonreligious people,” Ozment said she hopes they will come away with a deeper understanding of what it means to be religiously unaffiliated.

“I’ve actually come to think that the divide isn’t so much between the religious or nonreligious, but maybe between people who are seeking and people who are not seeking,” she said. “If we could come to see that there are ways to rethink our labels and ways we could rethink how we categorize each other, we would probably have more in common with a religious people than a nonreligious people.”

Abdallah Daar to Combine Islamic Perspective on Grace with Personal Identity and Humanity

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Daar

Abdallah Daar intends to tell a story rooted deeply in his identity.

Through both his book, Garment of Destiny: A Surgeon’s Global Identity and the Ties that Bind, and his reflections on philosophical, ethical and religious aspects of grace, Daar will argue to his interfaith lecture audience that “all life is interrelated.”

“Some of (the book) is about identity, and a lot of it is about how we, as human beings, are interrelated,” said Daar, an author and professor emeritus of global public health and of surgery at the University of Toronto. “And of course, it’s partly a memoir.”

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, August 7 in the Hall of Philosophy, Daar will weave a “Garment of Destiny” through his interfaith lecture, as part of the Week Seven series, “Grace: A Celebration of Extraordinary Gifts.”

“Much of the reflection on grace and religion will be from the Islamic perspective, but not exclusively,” Daar said. “I am, in a way, representing Islam, although I am not a religious authority.”

According to Daar, Garment of Destiny has many examples of grace that he plans to use in his lecture.

“This week’s theme is about the many forms of grace, encompassing also the way we may use our gifts, our grace to lift up others,” he said. “I’ll give a few examples of that in my work, particularly in global health.”

Daar said that his personal identity is part of what informs his understanding of grace.

“The link to grace, for me, is that the rich tapestry of my cultural, geographic and genetic heritage have been a blessing to me,” he said. “ ‘Blessing,’ is another way of saying ‘grace.’ ”

Originally from Tanzania, Daar said he first went to medical school in Uganda.

In August 1972, when the president of Uganda, Idi Amin, declared that Asians had to leave the country in 90 days, Daar said he had to scramble to figure out his next move.

“I was caught up in that maelstrom,” Daar said. “There were a lot of close calls. There was risk to limb and life, but I managed to escape. I ended up finishing medical school in England, and went to teach for a short period in Houston, Texas. Most of my graduate studies were in Oxford, in England, where I later joined the faculty.”

Daar was working as a transplant surgeon when he was invited to a meeting of international parliamentarians in Bangkok.

“They invited me to come talk about organ transplantation,” he said. “In my talk, I mentioned the religion of Shinto, which is a Japanese religion. When I finished, someone came to me and said, ‘Would you mind coming backstage? There is an important guy who wants to say hello to you.’ The important guy turned out to be the secretary-general of the World Health Organization.”

According to Daar, the secretary-general happened to be a Japanese practitioner of Shinto, and was impressed with Daar’s knowledge of his religion and of transplantation ethics in general.

“He told me, ‘I’d like you to be my adviser,’ ” Daar said. “I said, ‘Sure.’ A little while later, I got a letter inviting me to go to Geneva, which is where the headquarters of the World Health Organization are. One thing led to another, and I ended up working with WHO for a very long time as an adviser on many issues: infection, transplantation, global health, genetics, genomics, things like that.”

For his lecture today, Daar said he wants his main message to be that “we’re all connected.”

“I think my argument in the end will be that we’re one species, we’re all human,” he said. “We have one human civilization. That, in and of itself, is the greatest form of grace: the realization that we’re all one.”

Gibran Saleem to Offer Muslim Perspective on Humor

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Saleem

When he was a kid, all Gibran Saleem wanted in the world was to be a Ninja Turtle.

Fast-forward to 2019 — instead of battling crime as an anthropomorphic reptile, Saleem is a stand-up comic with a master’s degree in psychology.

“Who knows, though,” he said. “If I end up in a sewer one day, that might be a sign.”

As a stand-up comedian who has been featured on television shows on MTV and PBS, one of Saleem’s primary interests in his comedy routines and lectures is to increase dialogue between different religious and cultural groups.

At 2 p.m. Thursday, August 1 in the Hall of Philosophy, Saleem will explain “What’s So Funny about Religion from a Muslim Perspective: A Personal Journey” as part of the Week Six interfaith lecture series, “What’s So Funny About Religion?”

Saleem said he grew up in a Pakistani household that emphasized secure jobs over riskier professions, which eventually led him to pursue a degree in psychology.

“I moved to New York (City) to go to graduate school for psychology, and I lived a block away from a comedy club,” Saleem said. “When I got there, I was going to shows pretty regularly, just watching. Eventually I went to an open mic, which was people just trying comedy, trying out jokes. I just saw regular people trying to figure it out, and I realized: ‘Oh, so anyone can try it.’ ”

While the transition from psychology to comedy might seem unusual, Saleem said it was a natural development for him that combined many of his interests into one field.

“I felt like it was incorporating my interest in psychology, but also my interest in public speaking,” he said. “I had a lot of social anxiety in high school. I felt like creatively, intellectually and even in terms of marketing, I felt like it incorporated so many fields into one. It felt more fulfilling.”

Part of comedy’s allure for Saleem was also its link to religion.

“The overall goal for religion is positivity,” he said. “With comedy, the overall goal is to make people laugh and to connect with people. When it comes to religion, I joke about myself and my culture, my religion, a lot of stuff like that. And when I can get the audience to laugh, that means they’re understanding me. Overall, I feel when we can relate to one another, we realize we’re all just human beings.”

It’s finding commonalities with his audience, and blurring the  lines of division between different religions that Saleem said he’s most interested in discussing with his Chautauqua audience.

“Ultimately, I’d like people to say, ‘I understand where he’s coming from. He’s not so much different from me,’ ” he said. “The more you lose the lines of division, the more people can grow together.”

Rabbi Bob Alper to Give ‘Surprisingly Affirming’ Definition of Religion

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Alper

If nothing else, Rabbi Bob Alper wants his lecture audience to know the meaning of the word “religion.”

“I’ll be talking about the importance of life-cycle events and the importance of humor in those life-cycle events,” said Alper, an American author, stand-up comedian and practicing clergy member. “The fact is that we need to recognize life-cycle events like moving out of a home or children going off to college or retirement. We don’t approach those elements of our lives ritualistically, but we should.”

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, July 30 in the Hall of Philosophy, Alper will be “Defining ‘Religion’ (You’ll Be Surprised) and Making It Meaningful through Humor,” the second lecture in Week Six’s interfaith theme, “What’s So Funny About Religion?”

“I often use a phrase by Maya Angelou, who said: ‘People forget what you say and they forget what you do, but they never forget how you make them feel,’ ” Alper said. “And comedy makes people feel good. It’s critical to healthy living.”

Alper said his life as both a full-time comedian and a rabbi comes with a lot of “colleague envy.”

“One of the lines in my routine is: ‘I always use jokes and funny stories in my sermons, which has given me 47 years of experience performing in front of a hostile audience,’ ” Alper said. “The truth is, I’ve always used humor as part of being a rabbi. It’s enormously important. It establishes relationships between me and my listeners.”

Alper said he uses comedy the most, at least in rabbinical settings, when he officiates weddings.

“It’s not always happy or a piece of cake,” he said. “People are nervous, people aren’t happy with their child’s choice of a spouse, things like that. And to do a little humor at the beginning of a ceremony opens people up and relaxes them. It suggests to them that they’ll be able to get through it.”

Alper said he’s often asked if he’s still a rabbi, given his career in comedy.

“I realized that my practice as a rabbi is making people laugh,” he said. “That’s what I do. And that’s every bit as legitimate as a congregational life or teaching. I often say, ‘When I give a sermon, I hope I’ve moved people spiritually. But when I laugh, I know I’ve moved them spiritually.’ ”

For his lecture today, Alper said he hopes to impart “a surprisingly affirming definition of religion” on his audience.

“I want people to understand how critical humor is in a religious life,” he said.

Adam Jortner to Shed Light on Social Reforms Relating to the Burned-Over District

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Thanks in part to the people of the Burned-over District, America is a country where women have the right to vote, slavery is illegal and the temperance movement effected policy change at the federal level.

Beginning in the early 19th century and fueled by the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening, the Burned-over District encompassed a region of western and upstate New York where social and religious revivalism had reached a fever pitch.

“Protestant Christians, living in upstate New York and elsewhere, wanted to solve a bunch of different problems,” said Adam Jortner, an author, scholar of early American history and Goodwin-Philpott professor of history at Auburn University. “They wanted to use their faith to address social problems in substantial ways.”

At 2 p.m. Thursday, July 25 in the Hall of Philosophy, Jortner will give his lecture, “How the Burned-Over District Changed America,” continuing the Week Five interfaith theme, “Chautauqua: Rising from the Ashes of the Burned-Over District.”

“Every single person who’s talking this week is going to have a different idea about why the Burned-over District became what it was,” Jortner said. “I’m going to say it was all about organization. A guy named Charles Finney recreated the American revival and made it into what we know it as today — a highly organized and highly effective movement.”

According to Jortner, Finney stewarded Evangelical organizations for revival that were later used to conduct social reform.

“Frances Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, used the basic revival model started by Finney,” he said. “Susan B. Anthony, in the suffrage movement, basically used that same revival model.”

In 2012, Jortner published his book, The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier.

“(The Gods of Prophetstown is) a hidden history about the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa, the brother of Tecumseh,” he said. “He probably organized the most significant resistance to U.S. control of Indian lands in the history of the U.S. … He essentially created a Native American city out there.”

Jortner said his book was about both Tenskwatawa and William Henry Harrison, a U.S. territorial governor and ninth president of the United States who led a military strike against Prophetstown.

“It’s looking at those two men, and how religion influenced how they saw the world and what they did,” he said. “Ultimately, I think it’s about how the War of 1812 was actually really important, and we just don’t remember it because we lost to Canada.”

But for Jortner’s lecture today, he said his primary goal is to discuss the gradual shift of social movements, as opposed to rapid change.

“These are changes that took a century to take place, sometimes,” he said. “I think that’s a valuable lesson. It was all locally done work by people who were excited about their faith. They worked at it and worked at it. A lot of them lived and died and never saw the broad changes that they initiated. But the changes did happen.”

Patrick Mason to Trace History of Mormon Church Through Burned-Over District

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Patrick Mason

To Patrick Mason, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the most prominent religious tradition to come out of the Burned-over District.

“I’ll be talking about the transformation of Mormonism from very humble origins in Western New York in the 1820s, to the worldwide religion that it is today,” said Mason, an author, historian and Leonard J. Arrington Endowed Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University. “I hope people gain an appreciation for this really surprising religious movement that starts with a farm boy in New York.”

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, July 23 in the Hall of Philosophy, Mason will discuss “Mormonism: From the Burned-Over District to a New World Religion” as part of the Week Five interfaith theme, “Chautauqua: Rising from the Ashes of the Burned-Over District.”

The Burned-over District refers to western regions of New York State that, in the 19th century, experienced religious revivals and movements of the Second Great Awakening.

Mason said that while the Mormon church had a relatively modest effect in the Burned-over District itself, it quickly gained traction and moved west to Utah.

I think it’s emblematic of the Burned-over District — it comes out of that milieu,” he said. “But it doesn’t have the same transformational effect on the Burned-over District as other forms of evangelical Protestantism. It comes out of that environment, and has the Burned-over District stamped all over it in terms of its origins.”

According to Mason, the Mormon church began when a young farmer named Joseph Smith, as he described it, saw the “first vision” of God.

“He organized his church in 1830, but a year after that the church moved out of New York to a new home in Ohio and Missouri,” Mason said. “And it’s because Joseph Smith didn’t feel safe (in New York). He and the other converts were being persecuted and receiving threats of violence that had happened ever since he reported his initial visions.”

Mason said it was ironic Smith was forced to leave Western New York because of religious persecution, since the western part of the state was populated by people who left eastern New York and New York City to find more religious freedom.

“Another irony is that Joseph Smith and the early Mormons felt like they were trying to settle the religious debate,” he said. “The religion came about because there was a cacophony of religious voices in the region. Smith wanted to settle the problem once and for all by an appeal to revelation and heaven itself, and of course all he does is create yet another religion that added to the cacophony, rather than muting it.”

The very existence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is fascinating to Mason, a fascination he said he wants to share with his lecture audience.

“For me, it’s one of the surprises of history,” he said. “I think about just how dynamic and formative the Burned-over District was and continues to be, even 200 years later.”
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