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Interfaith Lecture Preview

Avett Brother bassist Bob Crawford joins Bishop Gene Robinson for a conversation on ‘Faith on Stage’

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The Avett Brothers’ 2012 song “Live and Die” begins with the lyrics, “All it’ll take is just one moment and / you can say goodbye to how we had it planned.”

The band’s upright bass player Bob Crawford is credited as a songwriter on “Live and Die,” off the Avett Brothers’ album The Carpenter, and Gene Robinson has a feeling he knows the exact moment that changed Crawford’s plans forever.

“His faith journey took on a real serious note,” said Robinson, Chautauqua Institution’s Vice President for Religion, when Crawford’s daughter, Hallie, experienced her first seizure. Doctors subsequently found a tumor in the 2-year-old’s brain.

“His whole life changed at that moment,” Robinson said. “(I’m curious about) how it changed his perception of God, his relationship with God, and what it’s like to be in the public eye and go through something like that when many people in the world are watching and listening.”

Robinson and Crawford will interview each other in a live Skype conversation at 2 p.m. EDT Wednesday, July 22, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. It’s a departure from the Week Four Interfaith Lecture Series theme, but the program, titled “Faith on Stage,” has been long in the works. With the thrice Grammy-nominated band originally set to perform July 22, 2020, on the Amphitheater stage, Robinson and Vice President of Performing and Visual Arts Deborah Sunya Moore worked together to bring band members on the 2 p.m. platform as well, to be interviewed about their faith journeys for Crawford’s podcast, “The Road to Now.” With COVID-19 postponing the Avetts’ third Amp performance to Aug. 4, 2021, Robinson and Crawford moved forward with the 2020 program that they could.

“We’re going into it with a wonderful spirit,” Robinson said. “I’ll be interviewing him, he’ll be interviewing me, and even our own audiences will learn something new about each of us.”

“The Road to Now” podcast, co-hosted by Ben Sawyer, brings together “historians, politicians, journalists and artists to the table for conversations that illuminate the map that brought us to where we are today.” An offshoot called “RTN Theology” focuses on faith, art, religion, and theology. But one word sticks out for Robinson in the podcast’s name, a word he thinks relates back to those opening lines of “Live and Die” — “now.”

“The name of the podcast speaks to this, that the only moment you can be sure of is now,” Robinson said. “(Those lyrics are) what happened to him with that experience. You can say that about so many things, that change everything. It struck me as a life lesson that we have these plans and we pretend that they’re all going to happen until they don’t.”

Crawford took time off from the Avett Brothers’ 2011 tour to be with his family while his daughter underwent chemotherapy; while Robinson will ask for an update on Hallie in their conversation, in 2017, the Sun Sentinel reported she had been in remission since 2013.

“It’s my impression that we come closer to God and our relationship with God deepens almost completely when we are at our wits’ end,” Robinson said. “Being in an extreme situation, we are more able to apprehend God. I’m looking forward to asking Bob his perspective on that.”

Crawford has spoken with several media outlets about how his family’s experiences have deepened his faith, and impacted his work. The band’s 2017 album True Sadness is an indication, written as band members were dealing with death, divorce, and illness.

“My daughter lost the right side of her brain. She’s severely disabled. It’s never going to be OK. My wife and I are constantly working through it,” Crawford told the Sun Sentinel. “But she’s such a joy to be around, you know? So I think that true sadness is where we walk through life, feeling the sweetness of joy. We experience that while also suffering a little bit, feeling the pain and fragility of life.”

To put that pain and fragility into a song, Robinson said, while living in the public eye, is admirable.

“My own experience is that there’s the public Gene and the private Gene, and yet my public face is a face related to religion,” said Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the history of Christendom — his appointment to lead the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire was met with controversy and death threats, ultimately resulting in his being put under FBI protection in the days leading up to his consecration in 2003. “I think for any public person, you just have to preserve (yourself), and not lose track of who you actually are. And one of the things I admire about Bob in particular, and the Avett Brothers in general, is that they take that really personal stuff and put it into their music. It’s one thing to have someone in Nashville write a great song and then you record it; it’s another thing to not only write your own, but to have it come out of your own lives.”

In an interview with the Sioux City Journal, Crawford said he was “comfortable where life is, for all the tragedy and upheaval.”

“This life we live, I don’t know how you can handle it without God,” he said. “We’re all kind of over our heads.”

This program is made possible by “The Lincoln Ethics Series,” funded by the David and Joan Lincoln Family Fund for Applied Ethics & the Carnahan-Jackson Religious Lectureship. 

Jason Thacker to probe artificial intelligence’s imbalance with human safety and privacy in lecture

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“Should I Stay or Should I Go” is more than just a song by the Clash; it also neatly summarizes the debate about the United States starting and ending stay-at-home directives.

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For Jason Thacker, who writes and speaks on issues including human dignity, ethics, technology and artificial intelligence, the decision to stay home was easy. Dorie, Thacker’s wife, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma last fall and had just finished chemotherapy, so their family isolated at home well in advance of the U.S. government’s stay-at-home directives for her safety. But Thacker said that in addition to public health dilemmas, a larger debate due to COVID-19 was the use of tracking technology to protect human life while also giving up privacy.

“When humans try to be all-knowing — without the love and sacrifice God perfectly demonstrates — it leads to trouble,” Thacker wrote for The Gospel Coalition.

Thacker will deliver his lecture, “The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity,” on his book of the same name, at 2 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, July 21, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform as part of the Week Four Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “Ethics in a Technologically Transforming World?”

Thacker serves as Chair of Research in Technology Ethics at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He holds a Master of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Ethics and Public Theology at the seminary.

“We are delighted to welcome Jason Thacker to this week’s important conversation on the question of ethics, in this world in which technology is changing almost every aspect of our lives, here and globally,” said Director of Religion Maureen Rovegno. “Jason will address the possibility of how and why technology could eventually call into question our very humanity, and he will do it through a religious-ethical lens and voice that will give depth and relevance to the conversation for so many of our audience participants.”

Thacker’s work has been featured at Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, Slate and Politico, in addition to his articles on the ERLC site. In the last few months, he has concentrated on how the COVID-19 pandemic is a new factor in his sphere of work.

“Even as COVID-19 brought some national unity, we are beginning to see the fraying of American society once again,” Thacker wrote in April. “Political, social, economic and religious issues have sorted us into tribes and tribes of tribes. It is difficult to keep up to date on the number of differing viewpoints and interest groups. But there is one concern that seems to bring the fraying parties and purported enemies together: the power and influence of technology on our lives.”

The value of personal data grows every year, and has become more valuable than the price of oil in the last few years.

In 2019, Thacker called for the ERLC to create a public statement of principles for artificial intelligence, which he contributed to later that year. Thacker said that overreaches in artificial intelligence technology, for the sake of short-term but serious public health or safety concerns, can create worse privacy and security issues in the future.

“AI is everywhere in our society and is often working behind the scenes,” Thacker wrote. “As Christians, we need to be prepared with a framework to navigate the difficult ethical and moral issues surrounding AI use and development. This framework doesn’t come from corporations or government because they are not the ultimate authority on dignity issues and the church doesn’t take its cues from culture.”

This program is made possible by “The Lincoln Ethics Series,” funded by the David and Joan Lincoln Family Fund for Applied Ethics & the Carnahan-Jackson Religious Lectureship.

Duquesne University professor Gerard Magill to speak on imagination’s role in ethics

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When a bride and groom stand at the altar to exchange vows, what justifies their commitment? Is it faith, or reason, or something else? Vernon F. Gallagher Chair for the Integration of Science, Theology, Philosophy, and Law at Duquesne University Gerard Magill argues that their commitment is a result of imagination.

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Magill

“Those young couples have the imagination to see themselves living together,” Magill said. “Reason helps explain it, faith helps support it, but the actual discernment of falling in love to the point of marriage is a function of imagination.”

Imagination doesn’t just lend itself to romantic decisions. Magill argues that imagination is a crucial, but often overlooked, aspect of ethics. Magill will explore this in a presentation called “Technology, Ethics, & Imagination” at 2 p.m. EDT Monday, July 20, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. His presentation is part of the Week Four theme for the Interfaith Lecture Series, “Ethics in a Technologically Transforming World?” 

According to Magill, ethicists tend to consider two main pillars — faith and reason — in their ethical thinking. But, without imagination, Magill believes that dilemmas cannot be thoughtfully examined. To illustrate this, Magill pointed to the example of climate change. If people cannot fully picture the effects of climate change, they cannot fully make changes to combat it or find a solution. 

If you look at the pace of civilized societies over the past 500 years, things developed slowly and solidly, and we eventually ended up with the democratic societies that we have today. What took 400 to 500 years to develop, we are now capturing in five to ten years,” Magill said. “Technology is moving at such a pace across everything that we’re doing, that it is crucial to ask the question: ‘Should we do something, simply because we can do it?”

“If we are incapable of our imaginations telling us, ‘There’s a red light flashing here,’ if we don’t have the imagination to see the problem, then we will certainly not have the imagination to solve the problem,” Magill said. 

After establishing imagination’s role in ethics in his presentation, Magill will explore how these elements play a role in technology. 

“If you look at the pace of civilized societies over the past 500 years, things developed slowly and solidly, and we eventually ended up with the democratic societies that we have today. What took 400 to 500 years to develop, we are now capturing in five to ten years,” Magill said. “Technology is moving at such a pace across everything that we’re doing, that it is crucial to ask the question: ‘Should we do something, simply because we can do it?”

Magill’s professional experience is in medical ethics. At Duquesne University, he has researched a multitude of topics from human genomics to research ethics to patient safety. 

“What brought me to ethics in general was a sense of a call to advance value in people’s lives. I decided medical ethics because medicine fascinated me,” Magill said. “I’ve always been fascinated by the science and research of medicine.”

In his career, Magill has contributed to 10 books, either as author, co-author or editor. These books cover issues of medical ethics, and many with the added lens of religious morality. Like his decision to pursue life as an ethicist, Magill narrows down subjects that inspire him, and chooses to only write about the things that matter most to him.

“The most important thing is that you fall in love with the topic. I try to explain to students if you’re going to push your research into writing a book, you’ve got to be driven, you’ve got to fall in love with your topic,” Magill said. “A topic’s got to be not just important in health or something. It’s got to be driven by your inner charisma.”

This program is made possible by “The Lincoln Ethics Series” funded by the David and Joan Lincoln Family Fund for Applied Ethics & the Arthur and Helen Reycroft Memorial Religious Lectureship Fund.

Buddhist meditation teachers Wayman and Eryl Kubicka host Interfaith Friday

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Eryl and Wayman Kubicka

Their paths first crossed in the war-torn Vietnam province of Quang Ngai where they volunteered with the American Friends Service Committee at a rehabilitation center for injured civilians, but it was their shared faith that truly brought Eryl and Wayman Kubicka together. 

Wayman and Eryl Kubicka will bring their Buddhist perspective to Week Three’s Interfaith Friday at 2 p.m. EDT Friday, July 17, on the CHQ Assembly Virtual Porch.

Chautauqua Institution Director of Religion Maureen Rovegno is looking forward to the shift in spiritual discussions, as the previous two Interfaith Friday speakers spoke from the perspectives of religious naturalism and Evangelical Christianity.

“Because our Interfaith Friday conversations engage with a different religion or faith or spiritual tradition each week, focusing on the same questions throughout the season, it is important to include traditions that might not traditionally focus on the particular questions of the week — to shine a light on why a particular tradition might take a different perspective relevant to the issue of the week,” Rovegno said. “Stepping into Buddhist philosophy this week will be particularly interesting to our audience.”

Wayman Kubicka began his journey with Buddhism after he departed Vietnam; his years spent volunteering with the AFSC in an active war zone had left him with a severe case of PTSD that he treated with meditation under the guidance of Roshi Philip Kapleau, founder of the Rochester Zen Center. In 2001, Wayman moved to Batavia, New York, to assist in the creation and leadership of Rochester Zen Center’s country retreat location where he currently resides, teaching meditation and acting as the head of training. 

Born in England in 1941 during World War II, Eryl Kubicka looked to the practice of Zen Meditation as a solution to the uncertainty that came with growing up in a country at war. She became a practicing Buddhist and in 1963 graduated as a physical therapist, the role she filled when she joined the AFSC in 1969 in Quang Ngai, where she then married Wayman in 1970. 

For eight years after their marriage, Eryl and Wayman continued their work with the AFSC in efforts to rebuild communities following the end of the war. Upon their return to the United States, they began practicing Zen Meditation with the Rochester Zen Center, where Wayman was ordained as a Buddhist Priest in 2010. 

Since then, both Eryl and Wayman have been teachers of Buddhist meditation at Chautauqua’s Mystic Heart program, which is dedicated to supporting programs and education about spiritual practices outside the Abrahamic traditions.

This program is made possible by The Myra Baker Low and Katharine Low Hembree Family Fund.

Artist Azzah Sultan to showcase the prints and folds of her work beyond others’ misconceptions of her religion in lecture “Navigating Culture and Faith Through Art”

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Azzah Sultan received her MFA a few months ago from Washington State University. But she has already shown her work in exhibitions in Paris and across the United States in the states of New York, Washington, Maryland and Connecticut.

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Sultan

Now, she will showcase her work virtually through the CHQ Assembly Video Platform in her lecture, “Navigating Culture and Faith Through Art.”

To reach outsiders’ misunderstandings of her religion and culture, Sultan’s latest work puts traditional Malay and Islam prints — batik wax print, headscarves and prayer rugs — front and center. It moves her viewers beyond the misconception that Islam’s customs oppress her and other Muslim women, which she will discuss in her lecture at 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, July 16, for Week Three’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme: “Art: A Glimpse into the Divine.” Viewers will be able to ask questions during the lecture and subsequent Q-and-A at questions.chq.org and on Twitter at #CHQ2020.

Sultan received her BFA from Parsons School of Design in 2016. The Malaysian native was born in Abu Dhabi and grew up in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Finland and Bahrain.

She first moved to the United States from Malaysia to study fine arts at The New School’s Parsons School of Design at 16 years old. In true-to-form fashion as a 15-year-old girl, she included the former boy band One Direction in the lower corner of a piece she submitted for her portfolio application to Parsons in 2013. While this specific element was not unexpected for a 15-year-old girl at the time, the piece dealt with thoughtful themes of beauty within society.

At 23, she has spent the last six years in the United States practicing and showcasing her art, which has been featured in 18 exhibitions and two solo shows.

In 2016, she handstitched a U.S. flag out of headscarves donated by women across the country.

“The act of me hand stitching these scarves together brought the different backgrounds and stories of these women into one piece,” Sultan said in an interview for HuffPost. “This is a testimony of coming from various backgrounds but still sharing the common idea of being a Muslim and an American.”

In 2018, she partnered with Adobe Project 1234 to create an ATTN: video titled “I Fear” featuring her work and her voice.

“I fear praying in public by myself because others might think I am up to no good,” Sultan said in the video’s voiceover. “You fear that my culture will integrate into your lifestyle. You fear my foreign tongue because it is too alien. You fear that my abnormal practices will infiltrate how you live your life.”

Since then, she has completed various exhibitions in New York, but the COVID-19 outbreak forced her most recent installation, her MFA thesis titled “Anak Dara,” onto an Instagram Live virtual reception on March 29.

“Anak Dara” in Malay translates to “young, unmarried child,” which Sultan’s mother calls her as a term of endearment. The installation is about Sultan reclaiming her understanding of her culture after leaving home.

The first part of the installation, called “Membalut,” includes three performance videos that Sultan created, played on tube TVs wrapped with Malaysian batik prints. Sultan purchased many of the items included in the installation in Malaysia while visiting home during winter break.

If a viewer were to experience it in person, they would kneel on one of three prayer rugs, one in front of each TV, to watch each performance. But underneath the TVs is a larger single plastic mat “commonly used in the homes of brown families,” she said in a virtual Instagram Live reception of the installation. She found the mat in an Idaho thrift store.

In one performance video, covered in a greenscreen suit, she plays with her mother’s jewelry. In another, she is invisible and blends into a distorted batik print background behind her as she puts on a square headscarf like her mother does (Sultan said she prefers wearing hers in a different way).

For the first performance video, Sultan filmed herself in a greenscreen suit while folding a sarong in a traditional method from a village back home.

“You can’t see me at all, and you only get a sense of what my identity is through the fabric and through the print,” Sultan said during the virtual reception.

This program is made possible by the Mackenzie Fund for Chautauqua.

The beauty in nature, the beauty in music: Friesen to present musical Interfaith lecture using his cello

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There’s the rosewood scroll, the strings, the bridge, the tailpiece and the bow. It all comes together to form a cello, a vehicle through which a person can create music and harmony.

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Friesen

But for renowned cellist Eugene Friesen, the instrument is also a vehicle for expressing love — in his case, love for nature.

“The music that I make is really inspired by the time I spend alone, outside, especially in the woods here in New England and in the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River,” said Friesen, a composer, conductor, teacher and four-time Grammy Award-winner. “I’ve been with the whales in Baja, California, I’ve been to Siberia and Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world. These experiences are inspirational and transformational.”

Friesen’s experiences outdoors are “a kind of nature mysticism” that directly informs his music-writing process. 

“At its best, the music really comes from those experiences,” he said. “It’s not stuff that I make or workshop, it’s stuff that just appears, pretty much fully formed.”

At 2 p.m. EDT Wednesday, July 15, Friesen will present his lecture, “The Beauty We Love,” on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform as part of Week Three’s theme for the Interfaith Lecture Series: “Art: A Glimpse into the Divine.”  

The importance of nature in creating art is something Friesen champions as being essential for young musicians today.

“It’s become more difficult — I’m not even talking about the pandemic. I’m talking about being able to get out of the city and into nature that’s really pristine,” he said. “When we think about some of the greatest works of art that we revere the most, many of them are either describing nature, or making metaphors from nature.”

According to Friesen, a whole generation of inner-city kids will not understand the “musical language” that nature provides.

And equally important, Friesen said, is the need for orchestral musicians who are classically trained to nourish their creativity.

“And nourish not only our performance abilities, but also our improving abilities,” he said. “I like to say that it’s not what we play, it’s why we play. Those experiences in nature and the values we have from our spiritual lives as well as our families — these are the things that should shape the sounds we make.”

Friesen said his lecture will consist of a musical program made up of his original compositions.

And though the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted Friesen’s busy schedule of touring and performances with the Paul Winter Consort, he said it’s been “incredible” to be stuck at home for these last months.

“I’ve been able to really go deep into my studies, as well as into my own music,” he said. “I wake up every day really enthused about working on the music, because I never really know what’s going to come out.”

This program is made possible by the Lois Raynow Department of Religion Fund.

David Moss To Discuss His Career as a self-described ‘transformer of Jewish texts, objects, spaces and souls’

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David Moss keeps a stack of pizza boxes as storage containers in his studio in Jerusalem, “and each pizza box (has) a project or idea that I want to do that may be almost finished, or just beginning or in the works.”

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Moss is a co-founder of Kol HaOt, an organization that uses the arts for Jewish inspiration and education. At 2 p.m. EDT Tuesday, July 14, he will present his lecture, “A Glimpse into the Divine?,” on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform as part of Week Three’s theme for the Interfaith Lecture Series: “Art: A Glimpse into the Divine.” 

The focus of Moss’ work is idea-based, whether that concept is applied through books, prints, architecture or programming.

“So I never really consider myself a painter or graphic artist or a sculptor,” Moss said, “because I don’t have training at all — (it was) kind of on the fly as I learned, so I can try something new and enjoy the challenge of putting my mind to thinking of two different media.”

After Moss finished college, a traditional scribe in Israel wrote the Hebrew alphabet for him, and he “just fell in love.”

“Everything grew out of that, just copying the letters and thinking what I could do with it and exploring different ways of using the lettering,” Moss said.

Moss started his career in the arts making traditional illuminated Jewish marriage contracts for his friends. Moss said these texts originate about 2,200 years ago and protect the woman’s rights in the marriage — in the case of something like a divorce — and is required in every Jewish marriage. These texts were decorated with flowers, and were written in a vernacular particular to the region.

“There was this very rich tradition going on for hundreds of years of making up this simple kind of boring insurance policy (into) a work of art — folk art,” Moss said. “So when I saw these things, I got very excited and asked, ‘Who is doing these?’ and I was told, ‘Oh, this form died out, you know, because of printing.’”

In the late ‘60s, Moss started to revive the art form by making these personalized illuminated marriage contracts for his friends, and the form became more popular. Moss said that hundreds of people do this work now.

While these marriage contracts were one sheet of parchment and took Moss a month to six weeks to complete, he spent three years making an illuminated Haggadah — the text sets forth the order for Passover Seder. On each page, Moss said he aimed to bring “my own fresh insights into that, artistically, scholastically, … bringing the old sources and giving them new life.”

Moss’ dream project is “a garden of Jewish exploration,” where people can experience fundamental Jewish ideas and values through the landscape and sculptures. The idea came to Moss decades ago when he realized Israel had places that teach Jewish history, such as the Museum of the Jewish People and the Yad Vashem, but something key was missing.

“What was missing was something about Judaism — not our history and not our suffering and not our successes, but who we are, what we believe in what we stand for and why we’re here,” Moss said.

Due to certain difficulties, like obtaining the land for the garden, Moss has been working on other projects over the past few years. He runs the Teachers Institute for the Arts, which aims to integrate “the arts with Jewish study and learning into Jewish schools in America and North America.” Each year, the institute leads around 25 teachers through a year-long program where they learn how to bring these teachings to their schools.

Moss will be presenting his lecture “A Glimpse of the Divine?” on Tuesday, July 14.

“But from a Jewish context it’s a bit problematic, because (of) the idea of God being invisible and no images of God being allowed, and the 10 Commandments saying you can’t make anything, any image of anything in heaven our honor,” Moss said. “So I tried to resolve that conflict with the talk by showing how I translate what I do, not so much toward the divine, but very much towards the human. And then my art is very people-oriented.”

This program is made possible by the Dr. William N. Jackson Religious Initiative Fund.

Soltes to virtually return to his grown-up ‘Disneyland’ for his main attraction of the spiritual soul and political body in art

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Ori Soltes has been a pass holder to his “grown-up Disneyland” of Chautauqua Institution for the past 23 seasons, and the move to the digital platform was no deterrent. Although he is never sure which ride to pick first, the Interfaith Lecture Series is always a highlight.

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Soltes

This season, he returns to that platform to explore “The Spiritual Soul and Political Body in Art.” 

“You really can’t describe how (Chautauqua is) special if you haven’t been there. It’s just a unique environment (with) the kinds of questions that are being raised and asked,” Soltes said. “The interests that these people have in all these different things, it’s a unique kind of hothouse of sorts — it’s very compelling.” 

Soltes is a professor of art history, theology, philosophy, and political history at Georgetown University, as well as the former director of B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum and a seasoned Chautauqua lecturer. He will speak on the Week Three interfaith theme of “Art: A Glimpse into the Divine” at 2 p.m. EDT Monday, July, 13 on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform.

Soltes is enamored with the subject at hand. In his lecture, he will be speaking on the interwoven nature of art, religion, and politics, as well as how they work together in the context of a democracy. 

There are crisis moments where people, Americans in particular, become much more interested in spirituality and religion than they might otherwise be,” Soltes said. “America has always been a very religious country. We may separate church from state, but I find Americans far more religious than Italians, or French, Spanish or Germans. They all have state religions, but they are much more lowkey about it than we are.”

Soltes said that in the time of ancient Egypt, art was commissioned by those in the ruling class to depict them in a divine light to those beneath them. In the modern day, art is created as a “response,” either positive or negative, to show the artist’s interpretation of political leaders and their actions.

“It’s an angle of an artist who isn’t in the service of whoever is running the state, but rather responding to whoever is running the state to an audience of individuals, some of whom will disagree, some of whom won’t disagree with whatever he or she is depicting in that work of art,” he said. 

In the last few decades, Soltes said he has seen a “reexploration” of religion in America.

“There are crisis moments where people, Americans in particular, become much more interested in spirituality and religion than they might otherwise be,” Soltes said. “America has always been a very religious country. We may separate church from state, but I find Americans far more religious than Italians, or French, Spanish or Germans. They all have state religions, but they are much more lowkey about it than we are.”

Given recent politically charged events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, rising unemployment rates and the Black Lives Matter movement, Soltes believes it is fair to say topics such as race and ethnicity have not been this “front and center” in religion since the 1960s. 

“I would add religion in particular because of the religious aspect of what winds its way around the politics of the moment is particularly acute,” Soltes said. “It couldn’t be more relevant in this moment.”  

As a seasoned lecturer, Soltes said he is excited to be a part of the new virtual experience and Q-and-A session — along with the potential of having a broader Chautauqan audience. 

“The fact that anyone from anywhere can sign in and become a member of the Assembly and listen in to whatever lectures they want, means there’s a possibility of an even broader and more diverse audience than what is ordinarily the case,” Soltes said.

Soltes, like any other Chautauqua lecture speaker, hopes the audience enjoys his lecture, but more than that, he hopes people close the tab with a better understanding of the triangular connection between art, religion, and politics. 

“If they thought about the subject at all, I hope it deepens and broadens the way they think about it,” Soltes said. “If they haven’t thought about it before, I hope it really introduces them to the reality that religion and politics have always been interwoven, that art has always served religion and therefore, by extension, has always served politics.”

Better yet, he is always up for a “challenge.” 

“It really is just a fascinating topic,” Soltes said. “Aside from the challenge of talking to a camera instead of a large audience, there’s always a challenge of, ‘OK what can I squeeze into 40 minutes?’ I like that challenge.” 

This program is made possible by The Myra Baker Low and Katharine Low Hembree Family Fund.

Yale University’s Rev. Willie James Jennings to talk culture, race, religion for Interfaith Friday

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The Rev. Willie James Jennings has always been inquisitive.

“I have always been drawn to questions about the way life is. Questions about God. It wasn’t just a question about why people believe, but really questions about God,” Jennings said. “If God exists, now what? And I was raised in a context which said God does exist. Now what?”

These questions led him to his livelihood now. Jennings is a professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale University, as well as an author on the intersections of race and religion. 

One of the great things about the life of faith is that it does offer people a way to see the world, a way to see not only what is, but what ought to be, or what could be,” Jennings said. “Oftentimes when you get people of faith together, you have a lively, creative moment for people to dream about what could be different.”

Jennings will discuss Christianity, culture, and race at 2 p.m. EDT Friday, July 10, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform for Interfaith Friday. He looks forward to sharing this conversation with more than just his Christian peers. 

“One of the great things about the life of faith is that it does offer people a way to see the world, a way to see not only what is, but what ought to be, or what could be,” Jennings said. “Oftentimes when you get people of faith together, you have a lively, creative moment for people to dream about what could be different.”

From his research to his writing, Jennings’ outlook on religion is informed by his religious upbringing.

“I grew up watching two things happen simultaneously. I grew up watching people who were serious about their faith, in our case Christianity, but who were also very comfortable in a very thick racial world,” Jennings said. “I couldn’t understand how one could be deeply serious about one’s faith, but also deeply committed to a racial, and in many cases racist, vision of the world. That’s why (race and religion) have always been together for me.”

This manifested in his career as an author. In 2011, Jennings wrote The Christain Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, which examined how Christianity inadvertently creates racial divides despite being built on neighborly love. 

For his next book, Jennings will shift from the lens of a minister to the lens of an educator. In his upcoming book, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, Jennings will explore harmful expectations of education. 

“What I’m arguing in this book is that Western education, along with theological education, has been plagued by a very detrimental, overarching pedagogical image that is an image for what we’re trying to form when people go to school,” Jennings said. “That overarching image that presses the goal of education is to form everyone to be white, self-sufficient men who embody three, what I call, demonic virtues in their education: master, control and possession.”

Jennings said that in this book he will argue that the “overarching image of what it means to be educated in the West” must change to something less harmful or narrow. 

Through his work, Jennings hopes to encourage those of all faiths to pursue a deeper meaning in life. 

“My goal is twofold,” Jennings said. “One is to help people think a little more deeply inside their faith, with a view toward giving witness to a God that wants the fullness of life for everyone. And (the second goal is) to help people who have no faith, or different faith, envision the possibilities of a better life together.”

This program is made possible by the H. Parker and Emma O. Sharp Lectureship Fund.

The Off-Label Benefits of Religion: Minister and Atheist Gretta Vosper will Speak on Spirituality

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Gretta Vosper is an ordained minister who has served congregations at several Canadian churches. She is also an atheist.

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Vosper “came out” as an atheist to her congregation at the West Hill United Church in 2001, after a sermon where she deconstructed the idea of “a god named God.” She then renounced her traditional religious views in support of several Pakastani bloggers who had been imprisoned and faced execution for questioning the existence of God. 

At 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, July 9, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, Vosper will present a lecture on the search for contemporary spirituality by those who eschew religious belief, in keeping with the Interfaith Lecture Series theme of Week Two: “Forces that Shape Our Daily Lives: The Contemporary Search for Spirituality.” Her lecture is titled “Falling in Love with Being Together, Because We Can’t Afford to Fall Apart.”

Vosper believes that there are many “off-label benefits” for individuals for whom traditional religious practices and views are no longer meaningful. She refers to these individuals as “nones,” and believes they can experience improved subjective well-being through spiritual participation.

“(Nones) ‘practice’ their spirituality outside of religious boundaries, often cobbling together a series of practices that may be grounded in several distinct traditions,” Vosper said. “The point is not to ‘do it right,’ but to find wholeness, peace, and space enough within one’s own heart for resilience to take root.”

In addition to her extensive ministry, Vosper is also the author of several best-selling books on spirituality and atheism: With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe; Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief; and Time or Too Late: Chasing the Dream of a Progressive Christian Faith.

Vosper also serves on the board of The Oasis Network, an organization supporting the “creation of meaning-making community beyond religious belief.”

Above all, Vosper believes that community is one of the most important elements of any religion or spiritual practice. 

“Through the magic of falling in love with being together, with one another, in the so many different ways religious congregations provide, we strengthen individual subjective well-being which, in turn, strengthens community bonds beyond our synagogues, mosques and churches,” Vosper said. “If we lose the goodwill liberal religion has thus distributed far beyond its own walls, we will lose much more than the religious practices we try to protect by maintaining the exclusive nature of our language, symbols, and rituals. Indeed, I think we will lose everything upon which goodwill depends. And that will be a very grave loss.”

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

Hartford Seminary’s Joel N. Lohr to talk communication across beliefs for Interfaith Lecture

In preparation for this week’s Interfaith Lecture Series, “Forces that Shape Our Daily Lives: The Contemporary Search for Spirituality,” speakers were asked to contemplate a question: How might the non-religious, or “nones,” unite with the religious mainstream to create a better future?

Joel N. Lohr is more interested in the reverse question.

“Instead of trying to help ‘nones’ see why religion is important,” he said, “why don’t we, as religious people, learn from those who have journeyed away from faith, or have never had a deep connection to faith, or just choose not to identity with organized religion?”

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Lohr, the president of Hartford Seminary, a nondenominational theological college, has spent much of his career advocating for dialogue across belief systems. He will be speaking as part of the Interfaith Lecture Series at 2 p.m. EDT Wednesday, July 8, on CHQ Assembly.

Lohr’s speech, titled “Finding Myself in the Other: Learning from Those Outside My Faith,” will focus on his personal faith journey.

“In some ways, the journey that I’m on has helped me to know myself more fully, and I’ve only been able to achieve that through my engagement with those who are true outsiders, or through people who don’t necessarily share my faith or my outlook on faith,” he said. “There’s a helpful model there for us, especially as religious people.”

Lohr recognizes that it’s common for people, religious and non-religious alike, to fear and avoid situations outside of their comfort zone. In his experience building relationships with people with vastly different beliefs and perspectives, he’s found that approaching new situations with an “appreciative curiosity” can transform these interactions.

“Find something to appreciate in the ‘other,’” he said. “Express what brings about a certain sense of wonder or appreciation for the ‘other,’ and from there you can ask respectful questions.”

He cautions against generalizations and snap judgements.

“I really think that the key to finding friendships and growing in our relationships with those that are different from us, is to work really hard and intentionally (to) not make assumptions about who we might encounter or what they might think,” Lohr said.

He said that much of his philosophy on interacting across beliefs comes down to entering conversations with a “posture of humility.”

“Go into the conversation assuming that the other person has something that you can learn and that you don’t know,” Lohr said. “Assume you might be blessed by engaging (with) that person.”

But what if the fear isn’t of the unknown, but of judgement from religious peers for keeping the “wrong” company?

According to Lohr, there are worse things to be judged for.

“Jesus spent most of his earthly life engaging with those who were considered outsiders,” he said. “If we’re never being accused of hanging around with the wrong people, we’re probably not doing it right.”

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

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.”

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