Interfaith Lecture Previews

Macky Alston to explore role, responsibility of film in religious, social issues


As senior vice president for prophetic and creative leadership at Auburn Seminary, and as an award-winning filmmaker, Macky Alston believes faith and film have a powerful connection.

But this connection, he said, has not been utilized in 21st-century filmmaking.

Macky Alston

“I’m a documentary filmmaker,” he wrote in his blog. “I have seen the power of documentary film to transform lives. I am also an organizer for justice in communities of faith. I have seen the power of communities of faith to transform lives. What I yearn to see is the full power of documentary films in communities of faith to transform lives.”

At 2 p.m. Wed., Aug. 22, in the Hall of Philosophy, Alston will discuss faith and film in his lecture, “Playing (with) God: Revelations from the Filmmaking Front about God, Good Storytelling and How to Do Right by Each Other as We Make Sense of Life.” Alston’s lecture is part of the Week Nine interfaith theme, “The Intersection of Cinema and Religious Values.”

Alston premiered his first film, “Family Name,” in 1997 at the Sundance Film Festival. The film followed Alston’s journey to uncover the history of his last name, a pursuit that led him from New York to Alabama. Along the way, Alston meets several African-American families with the same last name, all of which have a different story to tell. The film received Sundance’s Freedom of Expression Award.

Since “Family Name,” Alston has directed four more films, which have explored topics like economic inequality and LGBTQ+  issues like same-sex marriage.

“I have learned some lessons in my own work at the intersection of faith-rooted justice work and documentary filmmaking,” he wrote on his website.

Alston’s most recent film, “Love Free or Die,” tells the story of the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Chautauqua’s vice president of religion and the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church.

“The last film I directed, ‘Love Free or Die,’ told the story of the church putting its life on the line for LGBTQ justice, following Gene Robinson, the first openly gay person to be elected bishop in the high church traditions of Christendom, and the movement he was a part of that changed policy and culture in church and state in the U.S. and abroad,” Alston’s website reads.

The film was released in 2012, before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on marriage equality. Alston wrote in a blog post that before film production, he had worked on research at Auburn Seminary on how to shift the mindset Christian voters who were conflicted on the issue of same-sex marriage. He said the research focused on teaching people to support LGBTQ+ rights because they were Christian, and not in spite of it.

“During the year of our screenings, we used that research to equip those who attended the 400 screenings to engage their conflicted Christian friends and family in conversation to help them vote on the right side of history,” he wrote on his website. “We also worked with the state campaigns, in partnership with national LGBTQ justice organizations, to train leaders of faith to make the moral case for equality in public and in the press.”

Alston described this experience as enlightening and wrote that it showed him the influence — and responsibility — he has as a filmmaker to engage the public in pressing social, political and economic conflicts.

“Key to movement work, to faith traditions and to documentary film is (the)  right relationship,” he wrote. “Creating a practice and a world in which the full humanity of all is honored and the conditions needed for all to flourish exist.”

Friar Michael Calabria to discuss universal meaning in religious films


The film “The Sultan and the Saint” tells a tale of an 800-year-old encounter between St. Francis of Assisi and the sultan of Egypt on a battlefield during the infamous crusades.

Centuries later, Michael Calabria, OFM, said this historical event is increasingly relevant.

Friar Michael Calabria

“Although it’s portraying a historical encounter 800 years ago, this film has enormous relevance and importance for conversations about interfaith relations and interreligious dialogue,” Calabria said.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 21, in the Hall of Philosophy, Calabria will discuss the importance of this movie, his role in production and the intersection of religion and film during his lecture, “The Sultan and the Saint: A Franciscan Reflection on an Interfaith Encounter.” This lecture is part of the Week Nine interfaith theme, “The Intersection of Cinema and Religious Values.”

Calabria, founding director of the center for Arab and Islamic Studies at St. Bonaventure University, served as a consultant for “The Sultan and the Saint,” which was released in 2016. The Unity Productions Foundation film has been nominated for an Emmy Award and received 19 other accolades. “The Sultan and the Saint” will be screened at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 21, at the Chautauqua Cinema, and Calabria will participate in a talkback following the film.

Calabria said his role on set was to engage in conversation with director Alex Kronemer, an experience that gave him an inside perspective about the depth of the film. For his lecture, he said he will share his reflections with Chautauquans.

“I’m going to highlight and supplement some things about the film, so that when people see it, they have a little bit more information,” he said. “I want to really flesh out why this encounter continues to be so relevant.”

Though the film focuses on a historical religious event, Calabria said its purpose is not confined solely to religious discussion. He believes films like “The Sultan and the Saint” play a larger role in demonstrating the long and disputed struggle for tolerance, among other social issues.

“Very often, religious films are made because they are speaking to a contemporary issue or audience, even though they may be portraying a Biblical incident or a historical incident from the distant past,” he said. “So religious films can often speak to our contemporary experience of society, of politics and of various social issues, one of which is religion.”

Calabria has a personal history of interfaith work and teaches courses on Islam, the Quran, Christian-Muslim relations and Middle Eastern culture. He also serves as the special assistant for dialogue with Islam for the Order of Friars Minor.

In his role at St. Bonaventure, Calabria said his center targets four different disciplines: on-campus instruction, off-campus instruction, scholarship and community outreach. He said each of the center’s responsibilities targets a different aspect of interfaith work through Islamic studies.

On-campus and off-campus instruction includes lectures, courses and other educational opportunities, while scholarship and community outreach look toward impacting the larger community.

“Scholarship refers to the scholarship that I engage in in the field of Islamic studies, which involves presenting at conferences and things like publishing a newsletter,” Calabria said. “The community outreach refers to reaching out to the Muslim community locally, within New York state and internationally, as well.”

Filmmaker Daniel Karslake to speak on intersection of homosexuality, religion

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Daniel Karslake recalls his childhood at Chautauqua growing up down the hill from the Hall of Philosophy.

Dan Karslake

“The Hall of Philosophy was always my favorite building at Chautauqua because when I was really little I’d run up the stairs, run past the benches and run to go get bubblegum,” he said. “I later learned that was the place for interfaith dialogue at Chautauqua, and I tried to never miss those lectures. This is super deep in me, and it has been a place for conversation and looking at different ways of belief.”

Years later, Karslake will return to his favorite childhood place — this time on a different side of the podium.

At 2 p.m. Monday, Aug. 20, in the Hall of Philosophy, Karslake will discuss how filmmaking intersects with religion and social issues during his lecture, “For the Bible (& the Constitution) Tells Me So.” Karslake’s lecture is part of the Week Nine interfaith theme, “The Intersection of Cinema and Religious Values.”

Karslake’s 2007 film “For the Bible Tells Me So,” which was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, explores the intersection of religion and homosexuality. The film has been translated into more than 20 languages and has received numerous Best Documentary Audience Awards around the world.

During his lecture, Karslake said he will explore the influence the Institution had on production of his first film.

“As someone who grew up here, Chautauqua Cinema is my home theater,” he said. “The Cinema has always been a place that has had a mission of its own to have popular but very quality message films here. I was always very moved by virtually every movie I ever saw here. Everything comes back to Chautauqua.”

Karslake, who also produced a movie about hunger and poverty called “Every Three Seconds,” is also connected to Chautauqua through the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion. Robinson appeared in “For the Bible Tells Me So” to offer his experience as the first openly gay Episcopal bishop.

Upon the initial release of the film, Karslake said there was negative pushback from opponents who “clearly had not watched the film and didn’t understand its purpose.” More than ten years later, Karslake said the documentary continues to act as a catalyst for conversation about social change.

Unfortunately, he acknowledges that the conversation is not always positive.

“About three years ago, I started getting death threats again out of the blue,” he said. “I live in Berlin, so my husband and I weren’t tuning into what was happening in the United States at that time. The next day there was a Republican debate… and seven or eight of the candidates were saying some of the most anti-LGBTQ+ things I’d heard in years. I hadn’t heard that in public discourse in America in quite a long time.”

Despite negative pushback, Karslake said his role as a filmmaker is instrumental.

“What tends to come out of the film is much more understanding and hope for kids who are LGBTQ+  and who are growing up in religious environments,” he said. “It’s a message around the world that keeps resonating. The power of film is amazing, I’m in awe of it. It’s a huge responsibility, but I’m lucky.”

Karslake said the intersection of religion and homosexuality continues to be a contested issue, and he is currently working on a sequel film to “For the Bible Tells Me So” called “For They Know Not What They Do.”

At 4 p.m. today at the Chautauqua Cinema “For the Bible Tells Me So” will be screened.

Joel Hunter to represent evangelical Christianity in interfaith Friday talk


For nine years, Joel Hunter served as a spiritual adviser to former President Barack Obama, a position that sent him across the globe on scholarly and spiritual pursuits. In 2014, Hunter attended a conference in Tehran called “World Free of Violence and Extremism from the Perspective of Abrahamic Religions,” which was dedicated to dismantling stereotypes of religious extremism as a means to work toward peace.

“We believe that we have something in common, and out of the commonality of our religious communities, we can build the kind of relationship and trust that politics simply can’t,” he said to Payvand. “Only through religious leadership or the exchange of religious leaders, we believe peace is going to be successfully built between our two countries.”

Joel Hunter

At 2 p.m. Fri., Aug. 17, in the Hall of Philosophy, Hunter will bring years of interfaith dialogue experience to inform his discussion during the Institution’s eighth Interfaith Friday. Hunter will represent evangelical Christianity as he engages in dialogue with the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Chautauqua’s vice president of religion.

For 32 years, Hunter served as senior pastor of Northland Church in Florida, and grew the congregation to about 20,000 weekly attendees across three locations. In 2017, he left that leadership role to pursue volunteer and nonprofit work. Hunter described this transition as a calling from God.

“When I knelt at the altar to give my whole life to Jesus, I was a part of the Civil Rights movement,” he wrote on Northland Church’s website. “My focus on Jesus was not only for personal salvation after this life but also for compassion towards the marginalized in this life. My call to follow Jesus and serve the vulnerable is stronger than ever.”

Hunter now serves as founder and chairman of the Community Resource Network, an organization dedicated to helping homeless and impoverished families. He also chairs the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, a Florida nonprofit group that works alongside government officials and other organizations in a collaborative effort against homelessness.

Hunter said the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness represents an intersection across political, spiritual and social spheres.

“We have huge community leadership and momentum here,” Hunter said on the show “Welcome Home.” “Everyone from our government officials to our business people to our nonprofit provider people specializing in homelessness and the faith community guide about $50 to $60 million in this central Florida area to the most effective way … to get people permanently housed.”

Having spent years in the public sphere, both as a well-known pastor and as Obama’s adviser, Hunter is often cited as both a religious and political figure. However, Hunter’s friend and radio co-host, the Rev. Bryan Fulwider of Orlando, said Hunter does not let politics divide his character.

“He is always willing to stand on principle for what he truly believes in,” Fulwider told The Washington Post. “Joel likes to say that the reason he works across religious lines as an evangelical Christian was that he knew that no one group could do the job of caring for the needs of the community and the world alone. He did some courageous stuff.”

Hunter regularly works to engage different communities through “A Community Conversation,” a program he started that hosts radio shows, blogs and videos that discuss current social issues.

The program’s radio shows include “Power Talks” and “The Bright Side,” in which Hunter brings in social issue experts to engage in thoughtful dialogue.

Drew Dellinger to discuss Martin Luther King Jr.’s advocacy for interconnectedness between people, nature


Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and activism are often identified by famous speeches and writing, notably pieces like “I Have a Dream” and “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” King’s ability to empower social justice advocates through the written and spoken word is a staple of his legacy.

But Drew Dellinger commends King for extending his activism far beyond race relations. He remembers a less famous statement made by King in 1965 that he deems “ecological ethos.”

“At one point, King says, ‘One cannot be concerned (just) with civil rights. It’s very nice to drink milk at an unsegregated lunch counter — but not when there’s Strontium 90 in it,’ ” Dellinger said. “He was concerned about this nuclear testing that was pouring radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere. That’s an environmental statement.”

Drew Dellinger

At 2 p.m. Thurs., Aug. 16, in the Hall of Philosophy, Dellinger will discuss King as an ecological and cosmological scholar during his lecture, “All Life is Interrelated: The Interconnected Vision of Martin Luther King Jr.” Dellinger, author of the award-winning book of poems, Love Letter to the Milky Way, is speaking as part of Week Eight’s interfaith theme, “Not to be Forgotten: A Remembrance on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Dellinger is the founder of Planetize the Movement, a progressive movement dedicated to encouraging the intersection of justice, ecology, cosmology and art. A well-known poet and scholar, Dellinger has studied the interrelated nature of the world. He said this interconnectedness is an ancient idea, but the idea is not a core belief in the modern Western world.

Instead, Dellinger said Western culture ascribes to a separation between humans and nature.

“Interconnectedness is a staple of spiritual, religious and mystical wisdom over the millennia,” he said, “ … but it’s one that we lost track of in Western culture and in the worldview of modernity. Indigenous traditions have always felt that all things are connected, and we have a deep kinship with all species of the planet. In Western culture, they began to develop this idea that humans were separate from the Earth and nature. That’s a bizarre turn in the thinking of human beings.”

By “separating” humans from the Earth, Dellinger said humans disregard their responsibility to care for other beings. This encourages abusive behavior in social, political and economic spheres.

“We still behave as if we can dump poisons and toxins and nuclear waste into this living, interrelated system of the Earth’s biosphere and think we’re somehow going to be insulated from that,” he said. “Our practices and our politics have yet to catch up with both the ancient understanding of interdependence, and our new scientific and spiritual ways of reconnecting to that age and sense of interconnectedness.”

Part of King’s activism was established around returning to roots of interconnectedness, Dellinger said, as a means to practice respect and tolerance. When Dellinger first began studying King, he said he immediately recognized that King’s purpose was much larger than racial equality.

“Because I was coming to King’s work with a background in ecology and cosmology, I was especially attuned to the ways in which King was talking about interconnectedness,” Dellinger said. “As I delved into these primary sources, looking at his speeches, writings and sermons, it really jumped out at me — he’s talking about interrelatedness and interconnectedness.”

The deeper Dellinger dove into King’s life and writing, the more he uncovered about his ecological and cosmological insights. Dellinger’s essay, “The Ecological King: A Vision for Our Times,” originally published by the Institute of Noetic Sciences, explores this aspect of King.

Now, after years of research, Dellinger said he sees King as a different type of activist and scholar. But this perspective on King, he said, is often overshadowed by King’s work as a civil rights movement leader.

“I think we had pigeonholed King as a social justice, civil rights and human rights thinker, and he certainly was one of the great examples of that, but he’s more than that,” Dellinger said. “He’s not just talking about social justice, civil rights and human rights. He’s talking about the interrelated structure of all reality. He’s talking about the survival of the planet.”

Clara Ester to reflect on being witness to Martin Luther King Jr. assassination


It’s been 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and Clara Ester still describes the experience as “almost unspeakable.”

Ester, now a retired deaconess of the United Methodist Church, was a college student and activist for the sanitation workers strike in 1968. She was outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis when King was fatally shot.

“I witnessed him being lifted up and thrown back,” she said. “I cannot figure out how I managed to do it, but I took off and ran up a flight of stairs and stepped over his body and tried to get a pulse. I couldn’t.”

Clara Ester

At 2 p.m. Wed., Aug. 15, in the Hall of Philosophy, Ester will reflect on the enduring impact of this experience through her lecture, “Spirituality, Advocacy and Activism: an MLK-Inspired Life,” presented in conversation with the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Chautauqua’s vice president of religion. Ester’s lecture is part of the Week Eight interfaith theme, “Not to be Forgotten: A Remembrance on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” Ester will be lecturing instead of Ruby Nell Sales who, due to health issues, was unable to be at Chautauqua.

In the years following King’s death, Ester said she could not discuss her experience.

“Nobody pressured me for years,” she said. “Even when I speak of it today, it kind of tears me up on the inside because of who he was and what he was doing. For him to be taken away was so hard.”

Ester, one of the founders of People United to Advance the Dream, turned her pain into activism. After graduating from college in 1969, she joined the United Methodist Church Women’s national organization. She was stationed in Mobile, Alabama, where she worked through the Dumas Wesley Community Center in the distressed area of Crichton, which was predominantly African-American.

Ester fought for more programs that benefit African-American community members and helped transform the neighborhood. The DWCC continues to serve the Crichton community through resources like transitional housing and the After School Achievement Program. In 2017, 95 percent of the clientele were minority families in Crichton.

Through her work with the sanitation workers strike and the DWCC, Ester said she never forgot King’s mission.

“I have stayed engaged,” she said. “He’s gone, but his dream is still with us because that dream is still so alive. We still have to get on the battlefield and do the necessary things we need to do to make this a better world.”

Ester was born in Memphis in 1947, before the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and said it is undeniable that progress has transpired. She said racism is vocalized less in modern society — though that does not translate to complete equality.

“I come from a city where I know the Ku Klux Klan (members) are still alive, and I know they raise their children that way,” she said. “But now, we don’t hear or see from their actions like we used to.”

In terms of digression, Ester said she has seen an increased presence of hatred across political and social institutions.

“Now we are back at a point (where) we are not hesitant to say that we hate, and we are not hesitant to (commit) hate crimes,” she said. “That’s the kind of hate I thought would go away, but I guess it doesn’t go away until it dies.”

Rochester Zen Center teacher John Pulleyn to represent Zen Buddhism by engaging in interfaith dialogue


Fifty years ago, John Pulleyn first found Zen Buddhism through a simple shelf mushroom. While hiking with friends in Vermont, Pulleyn spotted the fungi growing off the side of a tree and remarked how disgusting it was.

“My friend turned to me and said ‘You know, Alan Watts would say that it’s your mind that’s disgusting,’ ” Pulleyn said. “For whatever reason, I knew that was exactly right. Then I started reading Alan Watts, who was an early popularizer of Zen Buddhism, and I just went on from there to read everything I could get my hands on.”

Now, as head of Zen training at Rochester Zen Center, Pulleyn is able to share and teach Zen Buddhism every day — and next, he’ll bring his passion to Chautauqua.

At 2 p.m. Friday, August 10, in the Hall of Philosophy, in the Institution’s seventh installment of the Interfaith Friday Series, Pulleyn will represent Zen Buddhism. Pulleyn will engage in interfaith dialogue with the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Chautauqua’s vice president of religion.

Pulleyn describes Zen Buddhism as an accepting practice and said he believes Chautauquans of all faiths will benefit from learning about his religion.

“The wonderful thing about Zen Buddhism, and I think about almost all forms of Buddhism, is that they’re so tolerant of other paths,” he said. “You hear a lot of people saying all these different paths lead to the same mountaintop, metaphorically speaking. I think that’s a strong thread in Buddhism — this understanding that what’s important isn’t the particular path you take, but your sincerity and your determination and sticking to it.”

As a meditation teacher, Pulleyn admits it can be difficult to connect with the present. He said the practice of meditating is a “lifelong experience,” meaning Zen Buddhism is a constant journey of awareness.

“Most of us spend an awful lot of time sifting through thoughts in our heads,” he said. “That’s fine when there’s something you need to figure out, but most of the time that activity is just a separation between us and the reality of where we are … and Zen is just like any other practice — the more you do it, the better you get at it. Zen is really about living in a world of direct experience and noticing what needs to be done and responding with compassion.”

In addition to encouraging awareness, Pulleyn believes Zen meditation can strengthen believers of all religions and “fortify their faith.” At the Rochester Zen Center, he said being a Buddhist is not a requirement for members. Pulleyn said by welcoming everyone, the center fulfills a Buddhist ideal to pursue a unique path to happiness.

“At our center, we don’t say you need to be a Buddhist to be a member; you just need to have faith that this path is going to be helpful for you,” he said. “The Buddha was really strong on the idea that you need to try things for yourself and find what works. Find what’s conducive to happiness for the benefit of yourself and others.”

Pulleyn last came to Chautauqua in 2017 to share his practice through the Mystic Heart Meditation Program, which he said is another great opportunity to spread the positive intention of Zen.

Director of ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief Daniel Mach to examine presence of religious discrimination in recent Supreme Court rulings


As director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, and as an adjunct law professor at the George Washington University Law School, Daniel Mach has spent much of his time studying religious freedom. Amid advocacy work and teaching, Mach also frequently comments on political and social events related to religious liberty.

At 2 p.m. Wednesday, August 8, in the Hall of Philosophy, Mach will deliver his lecture, “Masterpiece Cakeshop and Beyond: Discrimination and Religious Liberty in the Supreme Court.” His lecture is part of the Week Seven interfaith theme, “Let Them Eat Cake? Defining the Future of Religious Freedom in the U.S.”

Mach, who previously worked as a partner for D.C. law firm Jenner & Block, will discuss the controversial June 2018 Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In an article written for the ACLU, Mach connected this case to Trump v. Hawaii, the Supreme Court case that upheld President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban.

“The wildly divergent results in those two high-profile cases — Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and Trump v. Hawaii, the Muslim ban case — send troubling mixed messages, which threaten to undermine religious freedom, fairness and equality for all,” Mach wrote.

Mach criticized the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, which ruled that a Colorado baker was allowed to deny a same-sex couple service because of his religious beliefs. Mach said the case was based on “flimsy evidence” and that the baker’s argument amounted to “very little.”

However, he said the decision did not mark a significant change in redefining the First Amendment. Despite the court ruling in favor of the bakery, Mach believes the business actually lost the larger battle over “discrimination in public accommodations.”

“Fortunately, the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision rested on extremely narrow grounds, with the court focusing heavily on the supposed evidence of bias against the bakery owner’s Christian faith,” Mach wrote. “The bakery — with support from the Trump administration — had sought a much broader ruling, one that would have created a new, sweeping First Amendment right to discriminate in the marketplace.”

What Mach did find troubling in Masterpiece was the overarching message the verdict sent.

“Still, the court’s aggressive efforts to root out anti-Christian animus by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission were notable, especially in light of its decision today to ignore far more compelling and egregious religious hostility in the Muslim ban case,” he wrote.

Although the Colorado case was not overtly characterized by anti-religious hostility, Mach said, Trump v. Hawaii was clearly discriminatory.

“In contrast to Masterpiece Cakeshop, the evidence of anti-religious animus in the Muslim ban case is unambiguous and consistent,” he wrote.

While Mach views the two Supreme Court cases differently, he said both pose a threat to religious belief and tolerance in the United States.

“In Masterpiece Cakeshop, the Supreme Court relied on meager evidence of bias to hold that government disparagement of religion is ‘inappropriate for (an official) charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement’ of the law,” Mach wrote. “If the thin record in Masterpiece supports a finding of impermissible hostility, then the mountain of unapologetic, cruel statements from the president in the Muslim ban case surely do, too.”

University of San Diego Professor of Law Steven Smith to identify prevalence of free speech in debate over religious liberty


In the contested Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a Colorado baker argued that his right to religious freedom permitted him to refuse baking a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage.

Although American religious liberty was a prevalent aspect of the debate, law professor Steven Smith believes the case was largely a question of free speech.

“There are free speech defenses and freedom of expression defenses that, in my opinion, were even more substantial than the free exercise defenses in this case,” said Smith, the University of San Diego Warren Distinguished Professor of Law.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, August 7, in the Hall of Philosophy, Smith will identify and analyze the role of free speech and expression in the case during his lecture, “The Cake Artist and the ‘Fixed Star in Our Constitutional Constellation.’ ” Smith’s lecture, which marks his first visit to the Institution, is part of the Week Seven interfaith theme, “Let Them Eat Cake? Defining the Future of Religious Freedom in the U.S.”

Smith has spent years in the field of law and academia and now serves as the co-executive director for both the Institute for Law and Religion and the Institute for Law and Philosophy. As a seasoned scholar of religious freedom, he said attitudes toward the topic have significantly shifted.

“I started teaching and writing on the subject in the late 1980s, and in those days, I think it would be fair to say that nearly everybody, regardless of their political leanings, thought religious freedom was one of our central constitutional rights and something to be celebrated,” he said. “But there’s been a huge change in the climate of opinion about religious freedom. It’s much more contested today than it used to be, which makes it an interesting area to work in.”

At Chautauqua, Smith will speak to the nationwide debate over religious liberty that was prevalent during the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. While he will primarily address the free speech arguments posed by the baker, Jack Phillips, Smith said both sides of the case should be acknowledged.

“I can’t help but try and talk about the counterargument,” he said. “It’s obviously the kind of issue people can argue on both sides, so I’ll try to present both sides.”

To further analyze the debate, Smith, who previously served as Robert and Marion Short Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame Law School, will employ a historical reference to the 1943 Supreme Court case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.

This decision, Smith said, significantly helped define American free speech.

“This is a fairly famous case, one in which the Supreme Court ruled that Jehovah’s Witness school children couldn’t be expelled from school for refusing to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance,” he said. “I think it is central to the freedom of expression defenses made by the baker in this case.”

Part of Smith’s lecture title references this case — “The Fixed Star in Our Constitutional Constellation” — which is pulled from former Justice Robert H. Jackson’s opinion. Jackson believed the constitution’s “fixed star” meant no citizen should ever feel forced to profess another’s beliefs.

Although Smith believes the debates over religious freedom present in these Supreme Court cases are fascinating, he also recognizes the implications behind such fierce disagreement.

“From one point of view, it’s quite worrisome because it looks as if a commitment that has been central to the American constitutional tradition, almost from the beginning, is now in battle,” he said.

Author and Rabbi Daniel Cohen to discuss finding meaning in everyday work and crafting lives of legacy


Rabbi Daniel Cohen came to understand the fragile nature of life when he lost his mother to a brain aneurysm when she was just 44 years old. This experience, though devastating, moved him to dedicate his life to motivating others, both as a rabbi and mentor.

“That brush with mortality shook me and really helped me realize, in a very deep way, that life can change in an instant,” he said. “We have to do our best to realize our potential every day and really try to spread as much light as we can in every opportunity that we have. That really was a strong personal motivator for me to write my book and continue to speak all over about how we lead lives of legacy.”

Rabbi Daniel Cohen

At 2 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 2, in the Hall of Philosophy, Cohen will deliver his lecture, “Leading a Life of Legacy: Finding Mission and Meaning in Every Moment,” as part of the Week Six interfaith theme, “The Spirituality of Work.” Cohen, co-host of the radio show “The Rabbi and the Reverend,” will use what is described on his website as a “unique blend of wisdom and spiritual insight” to inform his lecture.

As author of What Will They Say about You When You’re Gone? 7 Principles for Reverse Engineering Your Life, Cohen has explored how humans often fail to appreciate their potential by defining their worth based on labor.

“Often times, people define themselves and define others by what they do, not necessarily what they are,” he said. “The more that we’re conscious of the special gifts that we have and unique opportunities we have every day, the more that those interactions become eternal.”

Cohen said the modern definition of work suggests a definitive “end,” implying that once a person can no longer work, their life has no purpose.

“There’s no such thing as retirement,” he said. “We may retire from our jobs, but we don’t retire from life. The more we can reorient ourselves to that perspective, the more that our lives will be meaningful.”

As senior rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, Connecticut, the largest modern orthodox synagogue in New England, Cohen said he often helps people in moments of crisis, which is a significant responsibility. To effectively act as both a mentor and spiritual guide, he said he channels courage and confidence through God.

“I pray and I ask for God’s strength three times a day,” he said. “The truth is that I am renewed in my strength because if I thought it was all about me, I would grow tired. I know God’s strength is eternal and that flows through me, and hopefully it flows through others as well. It’s not about us — it’s about a higher service and purpose.”

Though he practices Modern Orthodox Judaism, Cohen said his duties are all-encompassing, and he strives to communicate his message to people of all faith traditions.

“I am a Modern Orthodox rabbi, but I consider myself a rabbi for the people,” he said. “I speak to people of all faiths because I believe every human being is created with a spark of the divine in God’s image. We all want to have a sense of meaning in this world, and the truth is that everybody has that inside of them.”

Benedictine Sister and women’s rights activist Joan Chittister will lecture on finding spirituality and meaning through relationships


Joan Chittister, OSB, a Benedictine Sister of Erie, Pennsylvania, has spent the past 40 years advocating for worldwide peace and women’s rights. As co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women and former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Chittister has demonstrated a commitment to lead in the fight against inequality.

But despite her distinguished roles, Chittister believes in caring for each individual by recognizing their distinct struggles.

“To be human is to listen to the rest of the world with a tender heart, and learn to live life with our arms open and our souls seared with a sense of responsibility for everything that is,” Chittister said in a contributing article for the book, What Does it Mean to be Human?

At 2 p.m. Monday, July 30, in the Hall of Philosophy, Chittister will deliver her lecture, “The Spirituality of Relationship: A New Paradigm for Work,” as part of the Week Six interfaith theme, “A Spirituality of Work.” This week’s theme focuses on uncovering the spiritual meaning of daily work in a culture that often defines individuals by occupation.

Chittister, who has appeared on shows like “60 Minutes” and “Meet the Press” and has authored over 50 books, said she sees a social pattern emerging that disregards human compassion and connection.

“We train our young to get ahead, our middle-aged to consume and our elderly to be silent. … We have abandoned the concerns of the civilizations before us,” she wrote in her article. “We have forsaken the good, the true and the beautiful for the effective, the powerful and the opulent. We have abandoned enoughness for the sake of consumption.”

As founder of Benetvision, an online resource center for contemporary spirituality, Chittister has sought to encourage religious access for all genders, races and economic classes. Growing up in the United States, she said she was taught to appreciate and welcome diversity.

“The United States, I was told as I grew, was a land with an open heart, a land of mixed cultures but one soul,” she said in an article for the National Catholic Reporter. “A land made strong and creative by immigrants, it had become a melting pot of ideas. Thanks to all the citizens of the world who came here to escape poverty and oppression, war and destruction, a cross section of the world worked together here to turn its land and build its buildings and staff its business and shape its future.”

That future, Chittister said, now ignores its diverse roots and hardworking citizens.

“We ‘defend’ ourselves by threatening the globe and our own level of civilized humanness with it,” she said in her article for What Does it Mean to Be Human? “We have chosen technological progress and financial profits over the needs of human beings.”

Chittister, who most recently visited Chautauqua in 2016 for a discussion about women in leadership, said that to regain the nation’s humanity, individuals must learn value one another and recognize their own self-worth.

“I believe in the pursuit of the spiritual, in the presence to pain, and the sacredness of life,” she wrote in What Does it Mean to be Human? “Without these, life is useless and humanity a face.”

Sikh Coalition’s Simran Singh to represent Sikhism during Interfaith Friday


As assistant professor of religion at Trinity University and a 2018 Interfaith Leadership Institute keynote speaker, Simran Singh connects with America’s youth, both as an educator and observer.

His interactions, he said, give him hope for the future of America as a tolerant nation.

“I really take inspiration from the fact that young people today understand and confront discrimination in ways that I didn’t even see when I was their age,” Singh said. “That really gives me hope that as we move forward that we will have leaders coming up who can really address our deepest problems.”

Although Singh said he may not have recognized all discrimination at a young age, he now works every day as an award-winning activist and scholar to combat intolerance.

At 2 p.m. Friday, July 27, in the Hall of Philosophy, Singh will engage in interfaith dialogue with the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Chautauqua’s vice president of religion. Singh, the Henry R. Luce Fellow for Religion in International Affairs at New York University, will represent Sikhism during the Institution’s fifth Interfaith Friday.

As the senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition and author of Covering Sikhs, Singh is devoted to sharing his religion with the nation.

But this responsibility does not always equate to peaceful dialogue and informative discussion. In his personal life, Singh has suffered from injustice based on his religion and culture.

“I was in high school when 9/11 happened, and so in so many ways, that event shaped my life and my worldview,” he said. “One of those ways was realizing that so much discrimination comes from ignorance. So I felt like educating folks and creating awareness was a real meaningful way to make a difference and make this world better.”

By channeling negative experience into activism, Singh has garnered recognition for his work. He has received numerous accolades, most recently the Presidential Excellence Award for Teaching from Columbia University.

But for Singh, he is simply following his faith tradition. One of the principal duties of Sikhism is “Vand Chhakna,” which literally means “sharing one’s earnings with others.” This can also more broadly translate to charity and caring for all people.

“Sikhism teaches us that there is a long history of injustice in this world, and part of our responsibility as people of faith is to stand up for and speak out for those who are at the receiving end of that injustice,” Singh said.

Though America is far from a perfect and peaceful nation, Singh said he remains optimistic for the future.

“Part of my outlook as a Sikh is to notice the positives,” he said. “That’s how we’re wired in this tradition, and that’s what I think allows us to continue in these seemingly dark moments. There’s always light and there’s always divinity in everything.”

For Singh, coming to Chautauqua for the first time for Interfaith Friday was an extension of his daily mission to build positive and accepting community connections.

“I’m very supportive of interfaith efforts, and I think it’s the way our society needs to move,” he said. “Any opportunity I have to be a part of some sort of cross-cultural, cross-religious intersectional dialogue — I always find that to be a powerful experience.”

CNN commentator and activist Sally Kohn to discuss the opposite of hatred and effective dissent during interfaith lecture


Every day, Sally Kohn’s career challenges her to listen to and respect different opinions. As a writer, progressive activist and CNN political commentator, Kohn’s work requires her to be constantly mindful, and in the public sphere, she has been stuck with a label: nice.

“People tell me I’m a nice person to the point where it’s part of my personal and professional identity, that I’m so nice and able to get along with anyone, even my most fierce opponents,” Kohn said in a TED Talk.

As Kohn considered her role as a “nice person,” she found herself reflecting on her personal character, and recalled bullying a classmate when she was only 10 years old. Though the experience was distant, Kohn became uncomfortable with her label and realized that no individual is inherently “nice.”

At 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, Kohn will deliver her lecture “The Opposite of Hate” as part of the Week Five theme, “The Ethics of Dissent.” Kohn’s lecture is partially inspired by her most recent book The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity.

Kohn, who previously served as a senior campaign strategist with the Center for Community Change, first embarked on a journey to study hatred in response to her memories as a 10 year old, and also experiences she had while working at Fox News as a commentator.

“Part of this was juxtaposition of my memory and my experience, which came more to the forefront when I started to experience hate for the first time in my life when I went to go work at Fox News,” she said. “Getting hate mail and getting attacked on social media brought me face-to-face with this dynamic in the world in not just an abstract and intellectual way.”

While Kohn was the victim of hateful attacks during her time at Fox News, she also acknowledged that she met many positive and accepting individuals in the workplace. She said this experience was shocking because she had clouded her thoughts with negative assumptions.

“When I went to go work at Fox, honestly I thought they would all be hateful monsters. I … expected they would be just hateful in every way — mean to me personally, nasty, homophobic, vitriol,” she said in an interview with Salon. “And I walked in and got to know people on air, off air, viewers … and realized that they were complicated people who were in many ways nice, caring, compassionate — we could find things we agreed on.”

This dynamic occurrence of both hatred and acceptance at Fox led Kohn to reject the notion that people are simply “good or bad.” Understanding this, she said, is the key to undermining hatred.

“Part of it is breaking down this idea that there are good people and bad people,” she said in her TED Talk. “There are people. And we can do good things, and we can do bad things. And the problem is, right now, we have too many excuses, even in small, petty ways that seemingly aren’t that bad, but add up to a culture and a climate that is cruel and allows greater inhumanities and injustices to fester.”

This human connection, Kohn said, is how she defines the opposite of hate. Through her book and work as an activist, she hopes to share this message and promote tolerance and self-reflection.

“What I think we have to understand is in spite of our differences and our disagreements, we share a common humanity,” she said in her TED Talk. “And recognizing that connection, promoting policies and institutional changes and structures that respect that connection and treat people equally is the opposite of hate.”

At Chautauqua, Kohn said she hopes to encourage her audience to fight complacency. While not everyone actively perpetuates hatred, staying silent allows it to grow.

“From my perspective, everyone needs to work on hate in all its forms,” she said. “ … we all need to spend a little less time pointing fingers and a little more time looking in the mirror.”

Historian and Miami University professor Steven Conn will explain history behind American dissent during interfaith lecture


As a seasoned historian and W.E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Ohio, Steven Conn has studied the origin of American intellectual ideas. Current events and beliefs shock the public, but Conn understands that such ideas are often embedded in 19th and 20th century American history.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, July 24, in the Hall of Philosophy, Conn will use his historical background to inform his lecture “Thinking about Thoreau,” which is part of the Week Five theme, “The Ethics of Dissent.”

“What I’m going to do is start with what I think of as the most important document in the history of American dissent, and that’s Henry David Thoreau’s essay called ‘Civil Disobedience,’” Conn said.

First published in 1849, “Civil Disobedience” outlines Thoreau’s qualms with the American government, a system he believed acted only in the interests of the majority. The essay criticizes social institutions, most notably slavery, and encourages individuals to follow moral conscience.

Amid modern protests and rallies, Thoreau’s writing has adopted new relevance, which Conn believes is true of many historical documents and events. As a historian, Conn believes it is important to inform the public of the clear connection between past and present.

“One of the projects that I started when I was at Ohio State University in the history department is an online magazine called Origins,” he said. “What we do there is we invite historians to put issues that are on the front page into a historical context so that people can have a deeper understanding of what’s going on in the world.”

Since its beginning in 2007, Origins has expanded to include a podcast called “History Talk,” and publishes book reviews. Most recently, the website published a piece about the 2017 neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, that outlined how “alt-right” groups appropriate symbols of classic Rome to legitimize their beliefs.

Conn, who is also a contributing writer for The Huffington Post, said he hopes these articles help educate readers about historical links that often go unnoticed.

“That’s one of the ways I am trying to bridge that gap between the academic world and the wider world of the interested public,” Conn said. “It’s a very Chautauqua kind of project.”

Conn said he is eager to be on the grounds to discuss dissent from a historical perspective. As one of three Miami faculty on the grounds during the 2018 season as part of a pilot Faculty Fellows Program, he will also lead post-10:45 a.m. lecture conversations at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday in the Hurlbut Church sanctuary. Though this is his first visit to the Institution, Conn has studied Chautauqua and its past through his work as a professor and historian.

“I actually lecture a little bit about Chautauqua in a course I teach on the 19th century, but I’ve never been,” he said. “I’m excited to finally go.”

Interfaith speaker Ori Soltes to discuss spirituality during the end of tsarist rule and beginning of Soviet Union


The end of the tsarist rule and shift to Soviet control marked a dramatic change in Russian leadership and politics. Royal Russian families no longer held power, giving rise to independent communist rulers.

But despite inherent differences, neither style of government could escape the profound religious influence that shaped their reign.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, July 17, in the Hall of Philosophy, Ori Z. Soltes will present his second interfaith lecture of the week, “The Drama of Revolutions: Spirituality and Rebirth in the Ashes.” Soltes, professor at Georgetown University and former director and curator of B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, will guide Chautauquans through Russia’s transition into the Soviet Union and discuss the role of spirituality during this time.

Soltes will begin his lecture at the end of the tsarist regime, when Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra held power. The couple, Soltes said, befriended Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin, who left a lasting impression on the royal family.

“Nicholas and Alexandra were heavily influenced by Rasputin,” Soltes said. “Rasputin was essentially a religious reformer who, contrary to popular belief, really has this ambition to rebuild the church and community from which he came.”

After the revolution, Vladimir Lenin seized control as head of the Soviet Union, representing a movement that Soltes said was “supposed to be entirely anti-religion.”

Yet even Lenin does not completely abandon Russian spirituality.

“You’ve got in Lenin who, on the one hand, is trying to create a secular state. … But he is encouraging of, in general religious terms, different national, ethnic and religious groups to express themselves; so it’s a bit counterintuitive,” Soltes said. “He’s a secularist, and yet he’s not discouraging religious expression, provided it doesn’t get in the way of governance.”

Soltes will use images to help demonstrate the enduring Russian spirit, which will be made available to the audience through smart devices on the website His selections include pieces from the Peredvizhniki, meaning “The Wanderers,” a group of Russian artists who believed in the freedom of creative expression.

Soltes said the Peredvizhniki, among other artists, represented the desire for independence that also existed in the religious realm.

“Their argument was, the serfs were freed, how come art students aren’t freed?” Soltes said. “So they went out among the people and they painted the people and they painted the landscape.”

Georgetown professor, scholar Soltes to talk spirituality inherent in Russian culture


During the Cold War, the term “godless Russia” was used by some Americans who perceived the Soviet Union strictly as an atheist nation.

But Ori Z. Soltes, professor and lifelong scholar, would argue that Russian spirituality never died, even under communist rule.

“There’s no national entity more obsessively religious and spiritual than Russia, in spite of what one might suppose,” he said. “For 75 years, officially, there was no religion in Russia, but you can’t crush the spirituality even if you eliminate the official religion.”

At 2 p.m. Monday, July 16, in the Hall of Philosophy, Soltes will present his first of four lectures, “Icons and Identity: The Shaping of Mother Russia.” Soltes is a professor at Georgetown University, former director and curator of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum and has studied a variety of topics related to history, theology and politics. He has authored over 280 books, articles and essays that serve as testaments to his curiosity.

Soltes dove into Russian culture in the late 1980s when he traveled there as a teacher, during the very end of Soviet control. As the country transitioned from communism to its current state, Soltes became aware of the ongoing religious and artistic developments.

Such changes, he said, are vital to understanding the overall political evolution of Russia.

“When is it exactly that what we think of as Russia really takes shape as Russia?” he said. “Oddly enough, when Russia really crystallizes, it crystallizes by way of an affiliation between what I’d call a national identity and religious identity.”

The country’s two identities quickly fused, meaning that religious affiliation became a necessary part of Russian character.

“It’s almost as if you can’t think of yourself as Russian without also thinking of yourself as not only a Christian Russian, but of a particular sort of denomination,” he said.

Yet Soltes also recognizes the presence of Orthodox tradition, and he will present Russia’s different religious waves to Chautauquans. To assist him with the task of relaying this rich history, he will also discuss the meaning of the art and icons that shaped Russian culture. Artistic expression, he said, helps untangle the country’s complicated past.

“Part of my handling of it will be also to talk about the beginnings of Russian literature and poetry and the beginnings of Russian art,” he said.

Access to Soltes’ selected images will be made available to the audience through smart devices via the website

Soltes said he is eager to spend a week lecturing at the Institution, though he is a seasoned Chautauquan. He first came to the grounds as part of the Smithsonian at Chautauqua program, and found himself routinely returning to deliver lectures. In 2003, he served as one of four theologians-in-residence.

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