Interfaith Lecture Preview

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


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


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


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


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’


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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.”

Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, to Speak on ‘Intelligent Compassion’ in Lecture on ‘The Resistance’


It’s Fr. Richard Rohr’s hope that his interfaith lectures will give people “intelligent compassion,” for themselves and for others.

“If the only agenda that’s given to you is what I call the ‘first half of life,’ then you keep trying to attain fame, power, money and success,” said Rohr, a spiritual writer, Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Repetition of that agenda eventually leads to disappointment, according to Rohr.

“(People) will not just be disappointed, but bitter,” he said. “They won’t know how to deal with being an exception.”

At 2 p.m. Wednesday, July 17 in the Hall of Philosophy, Rohr will discuss the importance of “The Resistance” in growing through life. Rohr’s lecture is part of Week Four’s interfaith theme, “Falling Upward: A Week with Richard Rohr.”

“We name things ‘evil’ in such a trivial way,” Rohr said. “I’ll pick a gross example: I was raised Catholic, and you’ve probably heard the jokes about not eating meat on Friday. Before Vatican II, we couldn’t eat meat on Friday. But when you think eating meat on Friday even approaches the meaning of ‘evil,’ and when you concentrate on things like that being evil, when the real evil comes, you have no eyes to see it.”

According to Rohr, focusing attention on the “inessential features” of religion over its “essential features” is missing the point.

“Every church has done this,” he said. “It’s just heartbreaking. I’ve been a priest for 49 years, so I’ve had to see this happen again and again and again.”

Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM to Open Week of Lectures with Insights and Advice on ‘First Half of Life’

Richard Rohr, author of “The Divine Dance.”. Photo courtesy of Whitaker House

It’s Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM’s, opinion that in life’s beginning, people need structure — they need continuity, predictability and impulse control before they can develop their own internal values.

We are a ‘first-half-of-life culture,’ largely concerned about surviving successfully,” wrote Rohr, an author and Franciscan friar, in his 2011 book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life

It’s the first half of life that Rohr’s interfaith lecture will provide guidance for.

At 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, Rohr will speak on “The First Half of Life,” part of his Week Four interfaith journey “Falling Upward: A Week with Richard Rohr, OFM.”

All week, Rohr will be lecturing and preaching on how best to navigate life’s obstacles, with the interfaith lectures “The Transition” on Tuesday, “The Resistance” on Wednesday and “The Second Half of Life” on Thursday.

“When I entitled the book, ‘Falling Upward,’ I actually thought it would not be accepted by the publisher, because I presumed there had been many other books already that would have thought of that title,” Rohr said in a speech at Texas Lutheran University in 2011.

Rohr said the “mystery and the paradox of the wording “falling upward” isn’t an easy thing for people to discuss.

But as a Christian, I’m convinced it’s at the very heart of what we call the ‘death and resurrection mystery of Christ,’ ” he said in 2011.

Still, Rohr was quick to admit he didn’t have all the answers to life’s questions.

“I quote Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, in the front of the book: ‘The greatest and most important problems in life are fundamentally unsolvable. They can never be solved, but only outgrown,’ ” he said. “I had to live to 68 to absolutely believe that’s true.”

Life’s enigmas exist to teach lessons, according to Rohr, and the same goes for life’s failures.

“Life, if we are honest about it, is made up of many failings and fallings, amidst all of our hopeful growing and achieving,” Rohr wrote. “Those failings and fallings must be there for a purpose, a purpose that neither culture nor church has fully understood. Most of us find all failure bewildering, but it does not have to be.”

In fact, according to Rohr, simply identifying the curve of life’s arc can resolve a whole host of potential problems.

Most people are trying to build the platform of their lives all by themselves, while working all the new levers at the same time,” Rohr wrote. “I think of CEOs, business leaders, soldiers or parents who have no principled or ethical sense of themselves and end up with some kind of ‘pick and choose’ morality in the pressured moment.”

And that’s what Rohr’s book markets itself as — a defense against the danger of the “pressured moment.”

“Perhaps (this book) is like a medical brochure that describes the possible symptoms of a future heart attack,” he wrote. “Reading it when you’re well might feel like a waste of time, but it could make the difference between life and death if a heart attack actually happens.”

A central component to Rohr’s philosophy is that human beings need “containers,” or a clear sense of self-identity, in the first half of life.

Rohr wrote that “without law in some form, and also without butting up against that law, we cannot move forward easily and naturally.”

“We are not always helping our children by preventing them from what might be necessary falling, because you learn how to recover from falling by falling,” he wrote. “Law and tradition seem to be necessary in any spiritual system both to reveal and to limit our basic egocentricity, and to make some community, family, and marriage possible.”

According to Rohr, the students and workforce of America have been largely deprived of “necessary falling.”

If you want the opposite (of a job done well), hire someone who has been coddled, been given ‘I Am Special’ buttons for doing nothing special, and had all his or her bills paid by others, and whose basic egocentricity has never been challenged or undercut,” Rohr wrote. “To be honest, this seems to describe much of the workforce and the student body of America.”

Carol Meyers Explores Evidence Proving Multiple Cultures in Sepphoris

Mary Grace Wilson Professor Emerita of Religion at Duke University, Carol Meyers, speaks during her lecture “Jews, Christians, and Romans: Multiculturalism at Ancient Sepphoris,” about evidence of multiple cultures Sepphoris on Wednesday, July 10, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy.

Archaeologists are impacted by the time in which they live, and in that time, they do two important things.

“One, decide where we want to excavate,” said Carol Meyers, a field archaeologist and the Mary Grace Wilson Professor Emerita of Religious Studies at Duke University. “And two, how we focus on the things that we found, what things we think are most important.”

Wednesday afternoon in the Hall of Philosophy, as a continuation of Week Three’s interfaith theme, “What Archaeology Tells Us About Biblical Times,” Meyers discussed the city of Sepphoris, in which three cultures managed to live among each other in relative harmony. Her talk was titled “Jews, Christians, and Romans: Multiculturalism at Ancient Sepphoris.”

Meyers first questioned how archaeologists could know of three specific cultures living together so long ago in the same place. She described three texts that answer the question.

The first text derives from a Jewish historian from the first century C.E. named Josephus. In his writings, Meyers said, this historian repeatedly mentioned a Roman presence at Sepphoris and called the city “the ornament of all Galilee.” Meyers also said she thought the city could have been termed an “ornament” because of the stunning mosaics that covered the floors of many of the city’s buildings.

Josephus also called it the “capital of Galilee” under Roman Procurator Felix, which gives archaeologists a clear message that Romans were in Sepphoris.

The second text is the Talmud, the record of ancient rabbinic writing, that refers to a man named Jacob who talked about Jesus with Jews in Sepphoris. Despite the criticism Jacob received for the conversations, the general story provides archaeologists evidence that Jewish people were in Sepphoris.

“And sometimes these are called Jewish Christians, or the first Christians,” Meyers said.

The last text, or texts, are Christian sources. Meyers said that, by the Byzantine period, there are references to a bishopric in Sepphoris, and there wouldn’t have been a bishopric present  without a large group of Christians.

Another Christian text tells the story of an unnamed traveler who said Sepphoris was the home of Ana and Joachim, Mary’s parents.

“So Christian tradition certainly weighs in on the importance of (Sepphoris) as a Christian site,” Meyers said.

After providing proof of the existence of the three cultures, Meyers described the location of the site.

“It lies in Galilee, about halfway between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea, between Akko on the coast and Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee,” Meyers said.

Meyers said, through architecture, artifacts and mosaics from the site, there is strong evidence to support the existence of “these possible multiple cultures, multiple religious groups or ethnic groups that are related to the site.”

Beginning with architecture, Meyers discussed a Roman theater in Sepphoris. Most likely built in the late first or early second century C.E. , it would have seated 4,000 to 5,000 people, and it was a vital part of the culture in Sepphoris. This was the only theater, and it entertained its audience with comics, mimes and juggling acts — circus acts.

Another piece of architecture in Sepphoris is a mikvah or a narrow, stepped pool. The mikvah, in Jewish tradition, was known as a small “bathing installation for establishing ritual purity.” Women would use it after a menstrual cycle, for example. Others would use it before particular holidays.

“There were dozens of them; almost one on the basement level of every domestic structure,” Meyers said. “And as a result, if these are firmly — as I think they are — identified as a Jewish structure, there are so many of them under the homes (that make up) the upper city, what does that tell you about who lives in this part of the city? This is, as some people have called it, the ‘Jewish quarter.’ ”

The last architectural structure is a church from the Crusades, “one of the earliest Gothic structures,” dating back to the 12th century. It was built by the Knights Templar, Meyers said, and was destroyed in the 13th century. What is interesting about this church is that there is a remaining architectural fragment with an inscription of an early Christian symbol on it.

“It’s a Chi Rho which, as most of you probably know, is one of the earliest symbols of Christianity,” Meyers said.

This gives archaeologists like Meyers reason to suspect the church was used by Jewish Christians.

There are also numerous artifacts — made of ceramic, metal, stone and bone — found in Sepphoris that serve as evidence for the cultures that resided in the city. Meyers began by discussing pottery.

“Pottery is ubiquitous,” Meyers said. “It’s the most often found object at an excavation … and very few of them are found whole.”

As most people used the same pottery, the artifacts cannot always be placed with one ethnic group or another. However, shards of pottery are sometimes found with inscriptions on them, which gives archaeologists more to work with.

Meyers said one shard of pottery, also termed an astrakhan, had one word on it. The word was Greek with Hebrew script, which strengthens the evidence for the presence of Jewish people in Sepphoris.

Another astrakhan that Meyers discussed was black with two lines of text.

“It’s so broken that we can’t be sure, but a plausible reading is ‘Hail Mary,’ and you know what group to which we would assign that,” Meyers said.

The last astrakhan was a surprise, Meyers said. It was a wine jar handle with a Greek inscription, Greek being the lingua franca of the Roman empire.

Despite the information that can be taken from artifacts, Meyers said mosaics were the most beautiful part, and they covered many buildings in Sepphoris. One of the buildings, the Dionysus Villa, located in the upper city, had a mosaic floor decorated with many of the Greek gods, such as Dionysus and Heracles. There were also Greek words to explain some of the mosaics. Other scenes depicted on the floor include the Nile River and, the most popular piece of the mosaics, a portrait of a woman.

Mary Grace Wilson Professor Emerita of Religion at Duke University, Carol Meyers, speaks during her lecture “Jews, Christians, and Romans: Multiculturalism at Ancient Sepphoris,” about evidence of multiple cultures Sepphoris on Wednesday, July 10, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy.

“We don’t know who she may have been,” Meyers said. “(Is she) the Lady of the Villa Aphrodite, the goddess of love, because there’s a little kind of cupid figure over her shoulder? Or is she Ariadne, who’s the wife of Dionysus? These are only questions for which we — so far — have no answers and probably never will.”

The real question, though, is who does such a villa belong to? Was it a Christian, Jew or Roman?

Despite the Greco-Roman mythological theme, Meyers said many believe the villa to have been owned by a Jewish person because the villa is located on the edge of the “Jewish quarter.” Though a firm answer cannot be given, Meyers said one of her colleagues believes the villa to be Jewish.

“I have to say that one of our orthodox, Jewish colleagues, who’s also an archaeologist, quite firmly believes that it was a Jewish villa with a Greco-Roman mythological floor,” Meyers said.

She then described a second building, the Nile Festival Building, which has a mosaic of the festival; the Nile is depicted as a woman. Meyers’ favorite part features two boys working on a long pole with numbers on it. The pole measured cubits, so the boys are measuring how high the Nile River flooded. Another mosaic depicts Amazons, and, as stated in a Greek inscription on a mosaic in the building, it is understood that a bishop commissioned the construction of the artwork.

The last building is a synagogue, located on the northern edge of the lower city, and it has unusual mosaic floors, Meyers said. First, it is basilical but there is only one aisle — traditionally, there are two aisles separated by a nave. Second, the centerpiece of the floor mosaic is a Zodiac, which derives from the Greco-Roman culture.

Through the buildings and mosaics and artifacts, Meyers said there was enough archaeological evidence to prove that the Romans, Jews and Christians lived in Sepphoris. The next big question was: How did they all get along?

“Well, archaeology can’t really directly tell us that, but I can give you two pieces of evidence that (suggest) they did get along,” Meyers said. “One is that the ancient written sources do not mention any kind of strife among them.”

The second piece of evidence is an ethnographic piece from the 19th century. An English man named Laurence Oliphant, who lived in Haifa for many years, decided to visit a small village on Mount Carmel that had a mixed population of Jews, Christians and Druze, Meyers said. Oliphant wrote that he was struck by “the apparent tolerance and amiability with which all the members of these different religions regarded each other.”

“My hope is that we can look at (Sepphoris) as an ornament in terms of its people, of people who can live together, dwell together in some kind of harmony,” Meyers said. “We can all only hope that this kind of past of peoples living together is really not dead, and can be seen as a lesson for the present.”
1 3 4 5
Page 5 of 5