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Interfaith Lecture Recaps

‘Laughter Should Ring Out’: Rev. Susan Sparks Talks importance of Humor

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Rev. Susan Sparks speaks during the Interfaith Lecture Series about “What’s So Funny about Religion from a Christian Perspective: Reinhold Niebuhr Was Wrong,” on Wednesday, July 31, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy.
MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Ethicist and professor Reinhold Niebuhr had a bit of a different take on the relationship between humor and religion.

“ ‘Humor remains healthy only when it deals with immediate issues and faces the obvious and surface irrationalities,’ ” the Rev. Susan Sparks said, quoting Niebuhr’s essay, “Humor and Faith.” “ ‘It must move toward faith or sink into despair when ultimate issues are raised, and that is why there is laughter in the vestibule of the temple. Only the echo of laughter in the temple itself, but nothing but faith and prayer and no laughter in the Holy of Holies.’ ”

Sparks, an author, Baptist minister and stand-up comedian, presented her lecture, “What’s So Funny about Religion from a Christian Perspective: Reinhold Niebuhr Was Wrong,” at 2 p.m. Wednesday, July 31 in the Hall of Philosophy, as a continuation of this week’s theme, “What’s So Funny About Religion?”

Her lecture covered 20th-century theologian Niebuhr’s writings and ideas, a topic she first took on in a 90-page honors thesis in college.

“So in modern-day terms, Niebuhr is saying laughter in the vestibule in the world is great,” Sparks said. “A bit of laughter, just a hint of laughter in the temple, in the church is OK; but, laughter in the Holy of Holies and the presence of God? Never.”

Sparks said this is completely wrong. Laughter “must ring clear and true in the Holy of Holies.” For people to forgive themselves and others, they have to laugh at themselves. And, in a world of imperfect people, forgiveness is essential. So, laughter is the only way, Sparks said.

“Laughter helps us live our faith in the difficult times and the silly times; it helps us with the weird contradictions that we have to live in everyday life,” Sparks said. “There are so many weird contradictions of life being a southerner in New York.”

Sparks told a story of a time she went to a fundraiser and met a man named Butler Beauregard Dixon IV, and he told her to call him “Boo.”

“The bottom line is laughter in life just helps us realize we’re a little more human,” Sparks said. “We’re all just human beings trying to get through this together.”

She said, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much money one has; purses, clothes, designer cars and popularity don’t matter because “the size of our funerals will depend on the weather.”

Sparks said everyone has to learn to let go to live, and laughter helps people let go of what they are holding on to. So, laughter should ring out in the world. Sparks said laughter does not ring out enough in church, though.

“You’ve got to have a sense of humor in the church,” Sparks said. “You have to.”

Sparks recalled one moment in her church that called for laughter.

“We had a guy for the longest time in our congregation by the name of Charlie McCarthy, and Charlie was hard of hearing and he loved to just spontaneously share what was on his heart in the prayers, and it always seemed to hit at some tragic national moment, right?” Sparks said. “So I’m in the prayers, and I’m trying to talk about something horrible that’s happened in our country. And, I would pause to take a breath, and Charlie in the front row would just take a deep breath and he’d go, ‘Lord, you have got to help the Mets. They stink.’ ”

Niebuhr believed laughter only echoed in the church and vestibule because laughter and power do not get along well. Sparks said humor threatens power because it’s unpredictable and opens up new ways of thinking. 

“That’s exactly why Jesus was so threatening to the powers that be,” Sparks said. “His messages were unpredictable; they threatened the top-down power structure; and he used tools of comedy in his messages: irony, exaggeration, satire, reversal.”

Yet humor was demonized among many religious people, like the Baptists and Puritans. In the Middle Ages, humor was not celebrated. However, some people could infuse humor into Biblical storytelling.

“In the late 14th century, something known as the York Cycle of Mystery Plays performed Biblical dramas annually on the Feast of Corpus Christi, which freely used humor,” Sparks said. “One play, for example, told the story of the building of the ark, portraying Noah as a lazy bum. And in the drama, when God asked Noah to build the ark, Noah replies in this play (saying) that he knew nothing of shipbuilding and reminded God that he, Noah, was old and out of shape and disinclined to do a day’s work unless great need constrained him.”

Sparks said Godly humor is evident as early as the 14th century B.C.E. Such evidence, in the myth of Adapa, for example, came from Acadia. The myth tells the story of a priest, the gods and how one attains eternal life. The myth is full of humor and laughter between both the gods and the priest, Sparks said.

Sparks said there is proof that God himself has a sense of humor — in Samuel 5:9.

“The Israelites go to battle, lose the battle, lose the Ark of the Covenant,” Sparks said. “And as the Philistines are carrying the Ark home, and God is understandably upset, and it was so that after the Philistines carried the Ark about, the hand of the Lord rose against the city with a great destruction, and the Lord smote the men of the city, both small and great, and they had hemorrhoids in their secret parts.”

Sparks said again: Niebuhr was wrong. Not only does laughter need to ring in the temple, it must ring in the Holy of Holies, in the presence of God. In fact, Sparks said that not only does laughter belong in the Holy of Holies, but it should be redefined because the Holy of Holies is much broader.

“God’s dwelling place, the Holy of Holies, can be found in some of the most unexpected places of life, especially in the broken and painful places of life,” Sparks said.

Sparks explained this through two Scriptures: Isaiah 43 and Psalm 57.

Isaiah 43 states, “Do not fear. Do not fear for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name and you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you and through those rivers, they will not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire, you will not be burned and the flames will not consume you.”

Psalm 57 says, “Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me, for in you I take refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.”

Some of “the most unexpected places” for the Holy of Holies, Sparks said, include times of pain, anger and judgment. And, in places where the Holy of Holies is found, laughter should also ring out, Sparks said.

“The Holy of Holies might be even found in the midst of the end of life,” Sparks said.

Sparks, at one point, did some work at a clown camp. There, she met a clown named Shubie Doobie who told her a story of going into a pediatric ward where she met a young girl named Beth, who was in the final  stages of a terminal disease. Shubie Doobie walked into her room with her colorful outfit and orange hair, and Beth was apprehensive and quiet.

Beth asked Shubie Doobie why she wore the large nose, and Shubie Doobie replied, “Well, I’m a clown.”

Then, Beth asked, “What’s going to happen to me after I die?”

Shubie Doobie said, “Well, Beth, you’re going to heaven.”

Beth then asked where Shubie Doobie was going to go. Shubie Doobie said clown heaven, and explained that when a person lets a balloon go, that balloon goes to clown heaven. Beth, lit up with joy, exclaimed that she wanted to go there and asked how she could.

Shubie Doobie pulled a little red nose out of her bag and put it on Beth’s nose.

“And she said, ‘All you have to do, Beth, is go out with your nose on,’ ” Sparks said.

Two weeks later, Shubie Doobie received a call from nurses that Beth had passed away. They said she died with her little red nose on.

Sparks concluded with the preface of her honors thesis.

“The disciples sought to learn from the master, stages he had passed through in his quest for the divine,” Sparks said. “ ‘God first led me by the hand,’ he said, ‘into the land of action and there I dwelt for several years. Then, he returned and led me to the land of sorrows. There, I lived until my heart was purged of every inordinate attachment. That is when I found myself in the land of love, whose burning flames consumed whatever was left of me, of self. This brought me to the land of silence where the mysteries of life and death were bared before my wondering eyes.’ ‘Was that the final stage of your quest?’ the disciples asked. ‘No,’ the master replied, ‘one day, God said to me, ‘Today, I take you to the innermost sanctuary of the temple, to the very heart of God, and it was then I was led to the land of laughter.’ ”

Rabbi Bob Alper Highlights Importance of Laughter in All Parts of Life

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Rabbi Bob Alper talks about how he interweaves comedy with religion during the afternoon lecture Tuesday, July 30, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Rabbi Bob Alper said religion isn’t funny enough.

One man in the Talmud named Raba used to begin his lessons with a joke because it relaxed students, while allowing them to take in the important message that followed.

“Two men were walking down the street; one had a German Shepherd, the other had a Chihuahua,” Alper said. “The guy with the Shepherd said, ‘Look, there’s a very good sale going on here in the department store. Let’s go in.’ The guy with the Chihuahua said, ‘Well, we can’t. We have our dogs.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but you’ve got your sunglasses, right?’ The guy said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, let’s put them on.’ The guy with the Shepherd went into the store; guy with the Chihuahua went into the store. The guard stopped him, and he said, ‘Sir, you can’t bring that dog into the store.’ He said, ‘Well, this is my seeing eye dog.’ The guard said, ‘A Chihuahua?’ And he said, ‘What? They gave me a Chihuahua?’

Alper, an author, stand-up comedian and one-third of the Laugh Peace tour,  continued Week Six’s interfaith lecture series, “What’s So Funny About Religion?” Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy with his lecture, “Defining ‘Religion’ (You’ll Be Surprised) and Making It Meaningful through Humor.”

Alper began by explaining two different definitions of religion — Wikipedia’s and his own. First, he reviewed Wikipedia’s definition of religion as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal god or gods.” Alper said that this definition would work if there weren’t people in the world who were religious, but didn’t believe in a “superhuman controlling power.”

“I subscribed to a different definition of religion when I learned from my rabbinical school professor and thesis adviser, Rabbi Alvin Rinus,” Alper said. “Dr. Rinus defines religion as ‘a response to finitude.’ ”

Because all people are finite, but their desires are infinite, Alper said the way these two ideas are reconciled is what religion truly is. It’s simple and inclusive, he said.

“One of my philosophy professors at Lehigh University used to say, ‘Whether you will philosophize or won’t philosophize, you must philosophize all people, even if they are not aware,’ ” Alper said. “One can equally suggest that all people respond to finitude in one way or another. All people are religious and it’s clarifying to add that while by this definition, all people are religious, not all people are ritualistic.”

While some are religious and ritualistic, and others are simply religious, Alper said, for everyone, contemplating one’s limited life can be frustrating and confusing, not to mention scary. But Alper believes he has solutions for the annoyance of such a concept: creative life-cycle events and the enhanced use of humor.

“One of the most successful enterprises of all organized religions is their ability to help people confront transitional moments in their lives,” Alper said. “Birth rituals, weddings and funerals — these touch us; they draw us in; they speak to our hearts. The rituals surrounding these moments help us cope with life-altering times.”

Another transitional moment Alper discussed was when kids leave home for college or begin living their own lives. Alper described the moment his son, Zack, left for college.

“It’s a time that literally begs for a life-cycle event, a life-cycle ceremony to smooth the deeply intense transition for a child and particularly for the parents,” Alper said.

With such life-cycle events, Alper asked where humor fits in. The response? Nearly everywhere.

“One example: In the course of my rabbinate, I’ve delivered a vast number of children’s sermonettes, and you know which one people remember most?” Alper asked. “Hands down, it was Rosh Hashanah 1978.”

Alper had just adopted a kitten named Pounce de León. He brought Pounce to the family services for Rosh Hashanah. At one point, Alper carried Pounce out onto the pulpit. 

“With my free hand, I picked up the shofar, a ram’s horn that’s used during the New Year holiday,” Alper said, “And I asked, ‘OK, how many of you think that this kitten can play the shofar?’ ”

Alper said the crowd burst into laughter, and he was able to begin the new year on a good note before he started to talk about more serious things. But importantly, out of the countless sermonettes Alper has done over the years, the 1978 one sticks out because it was funny.

“Maya Angelou observed, ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said and people forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,’ ” Alper said. “Laughter makes people feel good. … It’s healing, uplifting. There’s an intensely spiritual aspect to laughter. … It’s much more than entertainment. Laughter is life-giving; it’s life-affirming.”

The way the teacher Raba used humor to invite students in, to help relax them, Alper does, as well. For example, Alper once opened a Rosh Hashanah sermon with the joke: “For the past two weeks, my wife and son were in Peru on vacation. I stayed home to write sermons and prepare for the High Holy Days. You’re welcome.”

“Clearly all of us need to put more and more laughter into our lives at all times, and having a good sense of humor means you can smile and laugh easily, that you are a person who values lightness and fun,” Alper said. “It means you can see more than one side of an issue, evaluating the proverbial glass as being half-full, rather than half-empty.”

Not only is laughter good in general, Alper said laughter can help people confront their finitude.

In one of Alper’s creative life-cycle events, his wife, Sherry, retired and sold her building where she was a practicing psychotherapist. On the day of the property transfer, Sherry’s friends and colleagues gathered in the empty building because Sherry had an important impact on all of them. And they now had to accept that she was retiring.

“From the moment they enter, whether a first visit or part of many years of therapy, they felt  safe in Sherry’s presence, valued, even protected because their sadness is understood and then the work begins on how to diminish the pain,” Alper said. “When we also confront our finitude, humor has an important place in what are, by my definition, also religious events.”

Alper explained that through difficult events in his family members’ lives, humor has been essential. Alper himself was attacked by a pitbull while on his scooter last year. He woke up in a hospital with a broken pelvis, broken scapula, 10 broken ribs, multiple abrasions and a brain bleed.

With such serious injuries, he had to cancel an appearance on the “Tamron Hall Show.” Two days after he was admitted to the hospital, flowers arrived with a card signed by the TV producer reading, “Some people will do anything not to appear on the ‘Tamron Hall Show.’ ”

“And despite my pain, my anxiety, despite my ruminating about what could have been about my own brush with death, my own finitude, despite all I was enduring, when I read that card, I laughed,” Alper said. “I laughed despite 10 broken ribs. I laughed. What an amazing, healing feeling. I laughed, and know I’ll never forget that.”

Sherry Alper has also dealt with health difficulties. She had to have spinal surgery and afterward, was advised to wear a neck brace for four weeks. She was in great pain and miserable, Alper said.

“One day, I began telling people that Sherry was ordered to wear the collar so that she wouldn’t bite her tail,” Alper said. “And, she smiled. She even laughed, and she did something totally out of character; she asked me to take her photo and, along with the caption about biting her tail, put it up on Facebook.”

Humor is powerful, Alper said. Laughter is precious and allows for people to forget about the pain of their lives, both physical and spiritual.

“Truly, everyone we ever meet, everyone we ever meet, is carrying some kind of burden, whether great or just manageable,” Alper said. “Years ago, the young daughter of a couple in my congregation died. After a few months had passed, it seemed appropriate and I recommended that they attend a meeting of compassionate friends, a support group for people whose children have died, and I’ll never forget what the wife reported later. She was surprised and encouraged when she noticed that some of the attendees at the meeting were actually laughing on occasion, because that was one of the parts of her life that she thought had been ripped away from her forever.”

Interfaith Amigos Highlight Importance of Humor in Faith

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The Interfaith Amigos, from left, Imam Jamal Rahman, Rev. Don Mackenzie, and Rabbi Ted Falcon, mix comedy and faith during their afternoon lecture on the spirit of observing and exploring other faiths as well as how their group came to be formed. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

When the Interfaith Amigos first came together, they shared the “riches of their traditions,” each bringing their sacred text to read from.

“My companions have brought their books; I brought the original tablet and we shared sacred words,” Rabbi Ted Falcon joked.

To start off Week Six’s interfaith lecture series, “What’s So Funny About Religion?” Interfaith Amigos Falcon, Imam Jamal Rahman and Pastor Don Mackenzie presented their lecture, “What’s So Funny About Religion? Laughter is Her Language of Hope,” Monday in the Hall of Philosophy.

The group formed after 9/11. After the tragedy, Falcon thought it would be good to invite Rahman to the Shabbat service Friday.

“People had to see a different face of Islam than the one that was blasted at us through the media,” Falcon said.

After listening to each other teach, the two became friends over time and started working together. Eventually, they recognized that they needed the third faith of the Abrahamic family — Mackenzie joined the group six months after 9/11.

“We shared an intuition that if we could penetrate the barriers that have separated our traditions historically,” Mackenzie said, “we might be able to help get to a place where cooperation and collaboration would be possible, and addressing the great moral issues of our times.”

The group began meeting weekly, giving presentations and eventually writing books. However, the Amigos’ beginning was difficult, according to Falcon.

“The truth is, it’s really a risk to open ourselves to the treasures of another’s tradition,” he said. “Sometimes, we feel that our own identity will somehow be watered down or somehow we will be drawn to forbidden territory. And it takes a level of trust to really allow ourselves to hear and to appreciate the treasures of spirit wherever they arise.”

At the dais in the Hall of Philosophy, the three then shared verses from each of their sacred texts. The point of doing so was to demonstrate how similar the messages were, despite that the verses come from different faiths.

Falcon said, in the Book of Micah, people forgot that worshipping God requires one to follow through and apply teachings to everyday life — that performance ritual was not accomplishing anything by itself.

“And so Micah said, ‘It has been told you humankind, what is good and what the eternal one asks of you, nothing other than doing justly and loving kindness and walking with integrity in the presence of your God,’ ” Falcon said. “And the prophet was urging, walking with the fullness of who we are.”

Mackenzie quoted from John 15, in which Jesus was trying to direct his disciples with his wisdom.

“ ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another even as I have loved you,’ ” Mackenzie said. “ ‘No one has greater love than this; to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends. If you do what I command you, I do not call you servants any longer because the servant does not know what the master is doing. But I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I’ve heard from God; you did not choose me. But I chose you.’ ”

Rahman then quoted the Quran: “Repel evil with something which is better, so that your enemy becomes your intimate, close friend.”

Rahman said that the largest overarching problem for all three Abrahamic faiths is exclusivity.

“Brother Jamal, I hear you saying that, but the fact is we Jews are the chosen people from all the peoples of the planet,” Falcon said. “God chose us as God’s treasured people. Deuteronomy 14:2.”

“Excuse me, Rabbi — in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to God except by me,’ ” Mackenzie interjected.

“Not my Bible,” Falcon replied.

“My dear brother, my dear friends, here is the real truth,” Rahman said, interrupting Falcon and Mackenzie. “The Quran says, ‘If anyone chooses religion other than Islam, he too will not be accepted of Him and he’d be a loser here and in the hereafter,’ 3:85. Please make a note for your sake.”

“So that’s it. That’s where our program ends,” Falcon joked.

The three laughed and explained the purpose of their demonstration: to show that exclusivity is a problem.

“At some point, something like that rises (when we see that) our (faith) really is the way,” Falcon said. “It’s just a little bit truer unless we recognize that as a symptom of our straying, unless we recognize that as a symptom of how we’ve forgotten the essential spiritual teachings of inclusivity, of oneness, of love and compassion that are at the heart of each of our traditions.”

Falcon said when one thinks their faith alone is the chosen faith, the consequence will always be violence.

On the other hand, when faiths can come together, as the three Interfaith Amigos have, humor can flourish. The three men explained the role humor plays in their faith and presented jokes as examples.

“Jewish humor is often self-deprecating,” Falcon said. “And Jewish humor is often some attempt to talk about the struggles in generations, … is often some way of enduring hardships and enduring times of suffering, … (and) is often some way of helping us identify ourselves as a minority in most cultures in the world.”

In particular, the Jewish jokes Falcon likes to tell are those that can only be told by a Jew.

“There were three (people) who were traveling across a desert environment — a German, a Frenchman, and a Jew,” Falcon said. “At a certain point, the Frenchman says, ‘I’m so hot, I’m so tired. I must have wine.’ A little bit later, the German says, ‘I’m so tired, I’m so hot, I must have beer.’ And sure enough, a little bit later the Jew says, ‘I’m so tired, I’m so hot. I must have diabetes.’ ”

Mackenzie said Christian humor is funny when it prods at the idea of Christianity being the superior religion.

“The guy takes the train into Penn Station in New York, runs up, gets into a cab, and tells the cabbie to take him to Christ Church,” Mackenzie said. “The cabbie takes him to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The guy says, ‘No, no Christ Church, I said.’ The cabbie turns around and says, ‘Look, Mac, if he’s in town, this is where he’ll be.’ ”

Rahman said that Sufis, a group of Muslim mystics, wrote humor into poetry, conveying stories that “open hearts and minds, and to really counter the rigid and negative ideologies of these very conservative, self-serving clerics.” Death also plays a role in many of the poems.

“The Mullah is gravely ill — on his deathbed, some think,” Rahman said. “His wife is moaning and lamenting. And now here comes the authority, the allopathic doctor who examines the Mullah at length. Then, he turns to the Mullah’s wife and says, ‘Oh, honorable wife of the Mullah, the Quran says, ‘Only Allah is immortal.’ Your husband’s soul has flown to the bosom of God. He’s dead.’ But, the Mullah is not dead. He’s feebly saying, ‘I’m alive. I’m alive. I’m alive.’ What does the wife say? ‘Quiet. Don’t argue with the doctor.’ ”

Some of the jokes the Interfaith Amigos told during their lecture are based on stories that actually happened to them. For example, Falcon was approached at the end of an interfaith program by a woman who wanted him to sign her book.

“And I said, ‘Sure, I’d be glad to.’ And she hands me … a Bible,” Falcon said. “And I said to her, ‘I didn’t write this.’ ”

Through the humor, the three said they learn from one another. And, through humor and the lessons that accompany it, it is clear to Falcon, Mackenzie and Rahman that laughter is the language of hope.

Rahman told another story, of a Mullah who is on a train traveling to India. He sees the ticket conductor approaching, and the Mullah begins looking into other people’s pockets and bags for a ticket, Rahman said.

One annoyed passenger finally says, “What are you doing?” The Mullah says, “I’m looking for my ticket.” The man says, “You’re crazy. Look for your ticket in your own pocket.” The Mullah replies, “Yes, I know I could do that. But if I do that and if I don’t find my ticket, I shall lose all hope.”

“We need our hope, our deeper wisdom, our greater awareness unto others as if seeking in other people’s pockets what actually belongs to us,” Falcon said. “And such a story is meant to remind us that the laughter we seek, the hope we seek, the wisdom we seek, the connection we seek is waiting to be found within our own pockets, within our own hearts, within our own minds, within our own souls, and to take the time to honor that which each and every one of us carries into each moment of our lives.”

“The need for hope is universal and this is a time when sometimes we have trouble holding onto hope. … Hope has moral value,” Mackenzie added. “It hopes for something good. It engages us, heart, mind and soul, and moves us to act, thanks be to God.”

The Interfaith Amigos ended their lecture with an original song, involving all three singing key verses from each of their sacred texts in Arabic, Hebrew and English.

Philip Gulley and Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson Discuss Modern Quakerism in Interfaith Friday Lecture

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Philip Gulley talks about the problem of evil and the Quaker response to it during the fifth Interfaith Friday lecture July 26, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

For Week Five’s Interfaith Friday in the Hall of Philosophy, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor, posed a series of questions to Philip Gulley, who spoke on behalf of Quakerism.

Gulley is a writer, Quaker pastor and speaker. He received his Master of Divinity from Christian Theological Seminary, and has written over 22 books. His book, I Love You, Miss Huddleston: And Other Inappropriate Longings of My Indiana Childhood, was a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. His best-selling titles include the Harmony fiction series, the Porch Talk series of inspirational essays and If Grace is True, co-written by James Mulholland.

What follows is an abridged version of Gulley’s conversation. Gulley and Robinson’s remarks have been condensed for clarity.


Robinson: You describe a humankind that has agency. That’s a high and empowering view of humankind. Isn’t there some inevitability of justice in it? It sounded very hopeful.

Gulley: The transcendentalist and Unitarian preacher, Theodore Parker, said, “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the good. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe.” He said, “The arc is a long one. My eye reaches, but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of side; I can divine it by conscience. From what I see, I am sure it bends toward justice.”

Nearly a century later, Martin Luther King Jr. would paraphrase that quote in a sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood, when he said famously, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And I say to you today, don’t be so sure. … The myth of the inevitability of justice simply isn’t true. We want to believe the only thing keeping us from a more perfect union is time. We want to believe militant ignorance, small-mindedness and evil, will gradually recede and one morning, the sun will rise on a more enlightened, just and noble world, but there is nothing inevitable about justice. No divine hand bending the moral arc one way or another. It is up to us, up to you and me.

So I believe in the possibility of justice. I do not believe in the inevitability of justice.

I am hopeful, but what buoys my hope is the things that trouble us that we seem to be concerned about, issues that we simply weren’t concerned about when I was born 58 years ago. So, I think that there does often seem to be a higher consciousness at work. Where I disagree with them is its inevitability. We know from studying history that societies, which have been good, can turn very quickly in times of economic peril, in times of great fear. Everything we’ve learned that has been passed down to our ancestors can be forgotten in a moment.


Is there anything left of the apocalypticism that was a part of the founding of the Quakers?

There might be amongst some Quakers that belief in the apocalyptic system, but it isn’t something that most Quakers I know dwell on. It certainly is not a driving force among most Quakers. I know if I were to announce from the pulpit this Sunday that I was giving a 10-week series on the return of Jesus, the next Sunday, the meeting house would be empty. There just isn’t this burning inquisitiveness.


Some (Quakers) consider themselves Christians, others don’t. You mentioned agnostics or possibly atheists, too. How does that work in the Quaker faith, or in a Quaker meeting where you have all of those and more represented?

Very precariously. It does seem to help that one quality most Quakers I know possess is this radical commitment to the freedom of conscience and not insisting that someone believe it just because we do. So, there is real liberty in most Quaker meetings to approach ultimate reality through their own lens, letting others approach this through their own lens, through their own life, through their own experience and reason as opposed to saying, “No, this is how God is experienced. This is what truth is.”


That sounds amazingly mature. How did the Quakers get there?

I don’t know, because we didn’t start out that way. For a good part of our history, (there is) what is called “read out of meeting,” those whom we perceived as having a theological difference, those married out of meeting, those who didn’t meet our dress codes, were all read out of meeting, and therefore, we went from being the third-largest religion in America at one time to being kind of a sectarian little number of folks who eventually, thankfully, before we all died off, got over it.


How often, in a Quaker meeting when someone speaks, is it about a theological question, and how do you know that particular sharing is of the spirit?

Most of the talking and sharing that I hear in a Quaker meeting is informed by a theological conviction, though the concern itself most often is about some social matter that we need to address or that we might not have been aware of that we need to consider and reflect upon. So, while it may not seem overtly theological, it is when you begin to parse it apart. You realize it’s informed and inspired by certain theological convictions.


Am I right to say, when someone shares something in a meeting, no one overtly disagrees and, while someone may stand and speak on behalf of themselves, they won’t attempt to correct someone who’s just spoken?

About the closest Quakers ever get to that — to calling into question the leading of another person — happens most often in our meeting for business and most often around nominations of persons to fill certain ministries or tasks within the meeting. Then, someone — for instance — might feel led to stand up and suggest a name for a position. About the only pushback you might see is another friend standing up and saying, ‘That name would not have occurred to me.’ That’s pretty gentle. So, it tends to be kind of a gentle encouragement to reflect a bit further.


So, how does someone get called to be a Quaker pastor? Who discerns if somebody says, “Yeah, I want to be one.” How does that process work?

Persons who stand up and say, “I’m called to ministry,” among friends are generally looked at skeptically by other friends. It is the community that observes the gifts for ministry and then makes it financially possible for that person to study, have time to reflect and then begin tending to the business of ministry. It was a woman who approached me when I was 21, and said, “Philip, we need Quaker pastors. I think you are gifted. You need to consider that.” And so I quit my job. I went to college, and then I went to graduate school and I returned to that same Quaker meeting to give my first sermon, and that woman came up to me afterwards and said, “Philip, perhaps I was mistaken.”


If you go to a neighboring meeting, are you a pastor there too?

I am if they call me there in that role. It is not an automatic thing. The other thing about being a Quaker pastor is that the position itself never carries with it any authority. Even if you go as a pastor, you are still expected over time to show evidence of wisdom or insight. And, as your new community experiences that, then you are gradually given the opportunity to lead.


You may be interested to know that we had a play here called The Christians. It’s about a megachurch pastor who determines that he doesn’t believe in hell anymore, and what happens as a result. And it’s not pretty. You’re not surprised by that?

When word got out that I didn’t believe in hell and that I was in fact a Universalist, an effort began among conservative Quakers to strip me of what friends call a “recording,” or a member equivalent of an ordination. That went on for eight years. For eight summers, I had to sit and listen as people questioned my birth. It was, at times, painful and, at other times, very liberating because I had worked very hard to become a recorded pastor with the education and the time invested, but ultimately when it began, I thought to myself, “Oh, there’s nothing worse that could happen to me than to lose my pastoral standing, my vocation that I love.” And then, in time, I realized that there were many things a lot worse than that. And, it helped that my own local meeting was very supportive of me and stood with me for those eight years.

Rev. Elaine D. Thomas Talks Spiritualism’s Relevance in Modern Society

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Rev. Elaine D. Thomas talks about Spiritualism at the Hall of Philosophy Wednesday July 24, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Between the 1840s and World War I, people struggled across the world. Many died in wars and, due to a lack of sanitation and advanced medical treatment, many were dying of sickness. More specifically, children were dying of diseases that are now typically present only in developing countries.

“There were no antibiotics, there were no emergency rooms or advanced surgeries,” said the Rev. Elaine D. Thomas, spiritual counselor, medium and teacher based in the Lily Dale Assembly in Western New York. “Children shouldn’t be dying before their parents do, and yet they did and they still do. And the gift of mediums and the message that spiritualism has brought, and continues to bring to the world, is the evidence that there is survival after the change that we call death.”

As the first Spiritualist ever to speak on the interfaith platform, Thomas continued Week Five’s interfaith theme, “Chautauqua: Rising from the Ashes of the Burned-Over District,” Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy with her lecture, “Spiritualism’s Role at Its Inception and Its Relevance Today.”

Thomas began with a short story about her grandfather, her mother’s father, who died when she was 5 years old. After his death, Thomas’ mother would talk at the breakfast table about the things she and Thomas’ grandfather would talk about in her dreams.

“I wanted to say, ‘Mom, when are you going to get it? Grandpa’s really there. It’s not just a dream,’ ” Thomas said. “He started appearing to me mostly when I was out with my friends … and he was never judgmental. He always came with love and, whether I heard his voice or not, he’d give me one of those looks where I knew I had a choice to either follow his guidance or not.”

Thomas said she never questioned whether seeing her grandfather was a good or bad thing. Since she was raised Jewish, and the devil played a minor role in Judaism, she never thought it could have been a negative experience.

“I never gave a thought to the fact that it might be something negative because he came in love, and love is the binding force throughout the universe,” Thomas said. “It’s the only thing we can take with us when we leave this planet. We can’t take our investments; we can’t take our accomplishments. We can take the love and leave the residue of love that we’ve shared and other people have shared with us.”

The inception of modern Spiritualism is threaded within the fabric of many changes during the 19th century, and those changes continue to affect the world, Thomas said.

By the end of the Civil War, 750,000 people had died. As a result, the mediums of the 19th century served as a comfort to those mourning and provided them with evidence that those who passed away were still alive and well in another dimension with God, Thomas said.

“There is comfort, there is consolation,” Thomas said. “All religions talk about it. Spiritualism has the unique approach that (mediums) demonstrate and are able to give this evidence and this comfort and consolation.”

Thomas had studied with the late Edith Sandy Wendling. Her mother died before she was 6 years old, and her father spent a lot of time traveling. In England, she was raised by a nanny, a housekeeper and a sister. When Wendling was about 8, Thomas said, her sister told her that she was going to take her to the neighbors’ house to give the nanny and housekeeper a break.

“Their next door neighbors were Sir Arthur and Lady Conan Doyle,” Thomas said. “She was his second wife, and she was a trans-medium.”

When Wendling’s sister took her to the neighbors’ house, she sat Wendling on the couch and told her to behave herself. The sister wanted Wendling to take naps, but Wendling was curious as to what the married couple was doing in the room near where she was sitting. After six months, the couple allowed her to join them in the next room, where they held their meditation group. After many years, they all remained in touch, even when Wendling moved to North America.

“They (visited) her in Lily Dale,” Thomas said. “As they were leaving, Sir Arthur took (Wendling) by the shoulders and said to her, ‘Promise me something, Edith. Promise me you’ll always be a student of life, and a student of your work and your mission.’ ”

Thomas said that Wendling was a vital force in her own life, and it was thanks to the couple who welcomed a child into their meditation group that Thomas had the opportunity to meet her.

“The Bible calls us children of light, and whether we believe in a literal interpretation or we believe that the Old and New Testament were written by inspired people,” Thomas said, “it’s been my experience and it’s my belief that we are children of light and our culture.”

Through her work as a reading specialist for children, Thomas said she found that all of the children she worked with had intuitive mediumistic or psychic experiences. Working with adult students, Thomas said that no one loses that experience, that connection with the divine. It is always within us; it simply recedes with lack of use.

“Somebody once said, ‘Wherever we look, we see what we’re looking for,’ ” Thomas said. “In other words, the world that we give our attention to is what becomes our reality.”

Thomas said that by training in ancient techniques and mixing them with accelerated learning tools, one can “reclaim what they had as children.” Children pay attention instinctively to what modern adults ignore. By returning to this observant behavior, it can be used practically in life, Thomas said.

This mental training is also how one connects to someone who has died.

“What our intuition and communication with those who have gone on, who don’t have a physical body, have to offer us is a broader view and an insight and the love which they had for us when they were here, which can still reach across what some people call the veil to communicate with us, to be of service in the same way that people are of service here today,” Thomas said.

Thomas said it is taught in Spiritualism that everyone is responsible for their own unhappiness and happiness, and the divine is always available to people. And, by taking the time to focus on how one lives and how one works on their spiritual growth, one will be able to find divinity within themselves, allowing them to connect to the divine.

So, Thomas asked, why is this important in our lives?

“It gives people hope that we will meet those that we know and love here on this Earth when we pass into another dimension and leave this life,” Thomas said. “Knowing that they can reach across what the dimensions are and touch us makes a difference in our lives today.”

Thomas said the concept of spirits is a universal idea. The Bible talks about gifts of the spirit, Thomas said. Thomas believes the world will one day outgrow a religion based on the ideas of Spiritualism.

“Its message for over 150 years has been to bring to the Earth, to bring to people, that not only does life continue, but it continues in a way where we can communicate with one another, where comfort and validation are there for everyone, not just a few,” Thomas said.

Thomas said that some people do misuse the powers of Spiritualism, but that is a small minority. In general, the wisdom of the creator is available to each one of us, Thomas said. And, this opportunity should encourage people to improve their lives on a personal level and reach out to improve the lives of those they touch and, ultimately, try to make the world a better place for everyone.

“It’s not about powers, it’s about service,” Thomas said. “And it’s about healing. … That is the gift of mediumship, the gift of healing, the gift that all the knowledge, that all spiritual religions teach that life is eternal and love can reach across the veil that we seemingly call death. And it’s as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago or a thousand years ago.”

Patrick Mason Explores the History of Mormonism

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Patrick Mason shares the story of the Burned-over District where Mormonism’s rebirth started during his lecture on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

On Tuesday, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor, said many crazy and wonderful things have come out of the Burned-over District.

“You only get to call your own religion crazy,” said Patrick Mason, an author, historian and Leonard J. Arrington Endowed Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University. “So, I’m happy to talk about Mormonism — this particularly crazy and wonderful thing that came out of the Burned-over District.”

Mason continued Week Five’s interfaith theme, “Chautauqua: Rising from the Ashes of the Burned-Over District,” in the Hall of Philosophy with his lecture, “Mormonism: From the Burned-Over District to a New World Religion.”

Mason said Mormonism began in 1820, with a 14-year-old boy named Joseph Smith, who was so confused by the religious fervor exploding across Western New York where he and his family lived, that he couldn’t decide which religion had the “correct” view.

“The religious fervor of the Burned-over District left Joseph Smith deeply concerned about the state of his soul and the spiritual state of the world,” Mason said. “Rather than being exhilarated by the intensity of the revivals around him, he found himself exhausted and confused by the spiritual cacophony.”

Advised by a Methodist preacher who told Smith to pray to God and ask for help in choosing a correct religion, Smith went into the forest near his family’s house to pray in private. While praying, Smith felt a sudden, evil presence overwhelm him, and then he felt himself become liberated from it by a “heavenly visitation,” Mason said.

Mason quoted Smith’s writing: “I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me and no sooner. … I found myself delivered from the enemy, which held me bound. When the light rested upon me, I saw two personages whose brightness and glory defy all descriptions, standing above me in the air. One of them spoke to me, calling me by name, and said, pointing to the other, ‘This is my beloved son. Hear him.’ ”

Smith said he asked the two personages which church he should join, and he said that the personage that looked like Jesus said none of the churches were correct. So, Smith returned home, did not join any of the churches, and wouldn’t receive another vision for three more years, Mason said.

When Smith finally did receive another vision, it was September 1823. Smith was 17 years old, and the vision was a result of him praying for forgiveness for his sins.

“While he was praying, Smith said that he discovered a light appearing in his room, which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noon day,” Mason said. “Then, immediately a personage appeared at (his) bedside. In the air before him hovered a man clothed only in a white robe, his entire being seeming to glow.”

This angel, Mason said, called himself Moroni and informed Smith of gold plates under a stone on a hill near Smith’s home. Moroni described the plates as containing the “fullness of the Everlasting Gospel book as delivered by the Savior Jesus Christ to its ancient inhabitants,” Mason said.

Although it would take Smith four years to retrieve the plates and another two-and-a-half years for him to translate the plates’ engravings into English, all of this work resulted in the 588-page tome, The Book of Mormon.

When The Book of Mormon went to press, Smith had gained a small number of followers who believed him to be a prophet. In April 1830, these followers came together to formally organize a church, which they called the Church of Christ.

“Most converts … were drawn to the more visceral aspect of early Mormonism: the outpouring of spiritual gifts that were visions and dreams and healings and speaking in tongues,” Mason said. “They rejoiced in a new era of open revelation. The heavens were opened once again; God was sending his spirit to the Earth; he had called a new prophet; there were angels coming to the Earth. This was all rather miraculous in these early converts’ eyes.”
Patrick Mason shares the story of the Burned-over District where mormonism’s rebirth started during his lecture on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Smith and his followers believed this religion to be an answer to the religious competition in the Burned-over District, but what they found was that the other religions were intolerant of Mormonism. Smith himself experienced hostility and was told his visions were not from God, but from the devil.

And so, Smith and his followers moved from New York, going first to Ohio and eventually settling in Utah. In 1838, Smith changed the name of the church from the Church of Christ to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Despite the intolerance and migration, Mason said, the Mormons could not be kept from sharing their religion with others. Soon after the church was established in New York, for example, Smith’s brother and father traveled to Canada to tell friends about The Book of Mormon. At the same time, missionaries also traveled beyond the western frontier to preach the Gospel to Native Americans.

“Mormonism transcended national boundaries almost immediately,” Mason said. “During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, missionaries traveled to places as far-flung as the British Isles, Australia, Prussia, Germany and Palestine.”

After Smith’s brutal murder in 1844, Brigham Young led the church and served missions in Canada and England. He also expanded the church, sending missionaries to places like Hawaii, Jamaica, Chile, South Africa and India.

Mormons were most successful in converting people in England and Scandinavia. Once converted, many migrated to the United States to join the church.

“It took the LDS church 117 years from its founding in 1830, to reach the 1 million member mark in 1947,” Mason said. “It gained another million members in only 16 years … and since then, the church has added about a million members worldwide, every three to four years. So now, it stands at over 16 million members.”

Mason attributes this intense growth to missionary work. When 65,000 Mormon missionaries are sent out into the world, Mason said, the chances are great that the religion is going to grow.

This religious growth is so profound that, in the 1980s, non-Mormon sociologist Rodney Stark declared that Mormonism stands on the threshold of becoming a major faith, Mason said.

The question is, though: Is Mormonism the world’s next major faith? Is Mormonism a new world religion?

Mason said most of the growth within the religion is international. Over 70% of Mormon churches that are not in the United States are in Latin America, and about 85% of all current Mormons live in North, Central or South America.

Mason said Mormonism is a religion of the new world: the Western Hemisphere. However, Mason said Mormonism must face a number of obstacles before becoming a new world religion.

“So first, there’s a problem with public image,” Mason said. “In 2011, the Pew Forum (on Religion and Public Life) took a national poll where it asked respondents to give a one-word association with Mormonism … and three of the top four answers were ‘polygamy,’ ‘cult’ and ‘different.’ ”

Patrick Mason shares the story of the Burned-over District where mormonism’s rebirth started during his lecture on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Mason himself has dealt with stereotypes. He said he once offered a fellow graduate student a ride to the grocery store, and the student was surprised because he knew Mason was a Mormon, so he expected Mason to have a horse and buggy. Above all, Mason finds one stereotype to be the most misunderstood: polygamy.

“It remains the number one thing that people, both in this country and around the world, continue to associate with the church,” Mason said. “The mainstream LDS church has not endorsed the practice for more than a century.”

Mason said the church also has a history of racism, having denied black men from ordination in the priesthood and all black men and women access to the church’s sacred temples until 1978.

The church has evolved from its past, but Mason believes Mormonism has a long way to go before it can be seen in a more positive light.

For example, although Mormons have become more open to the LGBTQ community, same-sex marriage remains theologically and practically off the table, Mason said. In trying to keep the integrity and unity of the institution, Mason said, the church also makes little effort to accommodate foreign cultures.

“When Mormonism comes to a country, it comes with a ready-made set of doctrines and programs and hymns and all kinds of stuff translated into the local language,” Mason said, “but not with any real accommodations for local culture.”

So the question remains, does Mormonism belong in the list of world religions, or does it belong in the Christian family tree?

“There were moments in the religion’s past, especially in the late 19th century … when the religion might have … charted this course as a totally new religious tradition,” Mason said. “But I think, in the 20th century, church members and leaders opted for a strategy of accommodation, of respectability, and desperately want to be known as Christians.”

Mason said the main challenge Mormons face is when they go to preach the Gospel, they are asking the same questions Smith and his followers were asking in the 1830s.

“The world is changing,” Mason said. “Mormonism will have to adapt … if it wants to remain relevant and impactful. It’s been proven that you can take Mormonism out of the Burned-over District. The question is, can you take the Burned-over District out of Mormonism?”

Rabbi Deborah Waxman Talks Prayer and Personal God in Reconstructionist Judaism

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Rabbi Deborah Waxman gives a lecture about Reconstructing Judiasm in the Hall of Philosophy Friday July 19, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

 

For Week Four’s Interfaith Friday in the Hall of Philosophy, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor, posed a series of questions to Rabbi Deborah Waxman, who spoke on behalf of reconstructionist Judaism.

The first woman rabbi to head a Jewish seminary and congregational union, Waxman is the Aaron and Marjorie Ziegelman Presidential Professor and president of Reconstructing Judaism, a rabbinical college and the central organization of the Jewish reconstructionist movement. Under her leadership, the college has been able to develop a new curriculum.

Waxman has also written for publications such as the The Forward, The Times of Israel, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Huffington Post.

What follows is an abridged version of Waxman’s conversation. Waxman and Robinson’s remarks have been condensed for clarity.


Robinson: You talked about how religion is evolving. I actually happen to agree with that, but what does that do to the notion of eternal truths?

Waxman: When Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan proposed his way of understanding Judaism — and he really wanted it to be vitalizing for all of Judaism and for all progressive religions — the first thing he suggested was to look at the breadth of Jewish life and see that religion was at the center of it. It was an animating impetus to create a whole, rich civilization. … The continuity was not any particular understanding of God or any particular core beliefs, but in fact the ongoing existence of the Jewish people wrestling with God at all times, open to other influences … and also reactive to things that were thrust upon us, like the destruction of the temple or the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the 15th century.

And, it was the persistence of the Jewish people and our connection to the divine that led to Jewish existence. As self-conscious moderns aware of history and how things changed, if we insisted on any one understanding of God or other eternal truths, it’s likely that the Jewish people and the Jewish civilization would have disappeared. Israelite rite was based around animal sacrifice at a central location in Judaism. Had there not been some way to re-imagine another way of approaching and experiencing the divine, the Israelite people and the nascent Jewish religion would have disappeared.

The ancient rabbis didn’t think that they were breaking with what came beyond; they were seeking some kind of continuity. In the Talmud, they were seeking to weave together continuities, but they also were introducing radical change that ended up being continuous rather than disruptive. So, what this means is that we are constantly seeking after the divine and seeking after eternal truths, but we do it with a sense of humility and with a sense of recognition of how much Jewish thought and Jewish life has changed. This ideally should inoculate us against fundamentalism and against too much certainty. We liberal Jews do it with an understanding that (is represented) here at Chautauqua Institution — that we can learn deeply from other traditions. So Kaplan himself read the Christian theologians who were putting forward process theology with great interest and was deeply informed by their insights, even as he Judaized them. What it means, I think, is a lot of work and a lot of wrestling and not a lot of certainty. I think that is an apt religious stance for our time.


When we think of Job and this incredibly manipulative sport between God and the devil — which it just seems unbelievably cruel — what are your thoughts?

Satan’s a conundrum because I believe the Book of Job is the only time that Satan appears in the Hebrew Bible. So, it’s an outlier character, and God responds, so it’s not like you can just put this off. It is a conundrum, though, because here we have this incredible book of not just theology, but the odyssey of divine justice with this character who makes a brief appearance and doesn’t really return again. That’s its own subject of discussion. But, it’s clear that Job emerges from a large philosophical and religious conversation happening among faith traditions in the time. And, we see evidence of that throughout the Hebrew Bible, of other traditions winning their way in. But, you’re right about the cruelty in the Book of Job. I do not turn to Job for comfort myself. I know that there are many rabbis who feel like it is the greatest source of poetry in the Hebrew Bible. I am deeply pained by that.


Do you suppose that Satan … figured more heavily in the millennium before Job, that Job was sort of the tail end of that?

What I feel convinced of is that we humans have been asking these questions about why some evil people are rewarded and some good people suffer so terribly. … It’s an abiding impulse to say all of this is embedded in … a God who is co-equal to the divine or subordinate. … I find that that’s a slippery slope, and it is too easy to turn it into some othering that I think lets us off the hook too much. And I don’t really want to be let off the hook. I want to be called every single day to try to make manifest godliness in the world.


In terms of not positing a personal God that you can snuggle up to and have a chat with, what does that do for prayer? Does prayer then just become a stylized, liturgical act?

One of my teachers, Rabbi Jacob Staub, has a really powerful article titled “Building a Personal Relationship with a Nonpersonal God.” Even as there is rich imagery and tremendous poetry for names of God, a lot of the liturgy really does address a personal God. When I pray, it is something much more than a stylized exercise. One thing I know that I’m doing is I’m joining in the hopes, the aspirations and the pain of thousands of years of my ancestors before me, and putting forward my own expression of those. There is certainly a practice of individual prayer in Judaism, but overwhelmingly, we come together in a group of at least 10 in a quorum, and we’re praying from a set liturgy. At all times, prayer is an act of humility. Prayer is about remembering that the universe and the world is much larger than just myself. And so, I cannot know who the address is. I’m very happy to use sometimes the traditional liturgy, sometimes more contemporary liturgy. But that said, I’ll tell you two quick stories.

Our sister-in-law died of metastatic breast cancer at the age of 36, after a valiant four-year battle, and I was incredibly angry at a God I didn’t believe in. And every day, my brother asked me to say the mourner’s meditation because he was parenting a 4-year-old child. Every single day, I would cry and ask “Why?” and my answer is this: My pain was the pain of why. Eventually, it was the community that held me and supported me and brought me back around. And the pain lessened but didn’t disappear.

I’ll tell you another story. There’s a line from the Psalms that says: “From a narrow place, I crawled out to God, and he answered me and brought me into a wide open space.” And, any number of times where I just feel so constrained and so uptight and so miserable, all I have said is “help” and … just in that action of turning to something that is larger than myself, I can breathe more freely and the space is wider. I do not know who or what the address is, but I know it is something beyond myself.


Richard Rohr said there are some things that we can’t resolve; we just have to hold them. Does this sound right to you?

I think that’s right. I don’t think that my theology needs to be systematic and comprehensive and complete. I have two different images that work really well for me. One is poetry. For me, theology is evocative and what works in the moment. And sometimes, it is very traditional and sometimes it is just the help. Then, I think the way I piece it together is much more like a quilt than it is a blanket. And, I love the seams (because) the seams are part of my own story and help me remember how I went from a place of suffering to a place of greater peace.


Would you describe to us what godliness looks like? How will we know it when we see it?

What is true for one person may not be true for others.  … I’ll tell you another story. I came to visit my brother and sister-in-law. … Right as (my brother) arrived home from work, someone from their synagogue came and delivered the shabbos meal for us, the meal for Friday night. She arrived just as my brother and I were greeting each other — and it was an emotional greeting — and she just handed over the package and left. My brother had a kind of arrested look on his face as she left. He turned to me and said, “I have no idea who that was.” I tell that story as … an example of godliness. … If we exercise and hone ourselves to be attuned to godliness, then we will know it when we see it, and we will be inclined to see it often.

Fr. Richard Rohr Highlights Need to Work Through Resistance to Live Life with Acceptance

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Father Richard Rohr speaks about his realizations regarding religion and his place in the world, as well as how others handle theirs and coping with learning about yourself during his lecture on July 17, 2019. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The ego structure that one develops in the first half of their life is a container; many can never let go of that container because they put so much time and effort into building it, said Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM. However, letting go of that container is key to transitioning from the first half to the second half of life.

One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening,” Rohr said, quoting Carl Jung. “And, what in the morning was true, will at evening have become actually a lie.”

Rohr, a Franciscan priest of the  New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, continued his lecture series in the Hall of Philosophy as part of Week Four’s interfaith theme, “Falling Upward: A Week with Richard Rohr.” The third lecture, presented on Wednesday, was titled “The Resistance.”

He began the lecture by recapping what he had discussed on Monday — the development of an ego structure. Then, he explained that this structure, also termed a “private salvation project” by Thomas Merton, is supposed to be taken away by God in order for one to receive the “real thing.”

Anyone who wants to save his life must lose it,” Rohr said. “Anyone who loses her life, what she thinks is her life, will find it.”

Another term of Merton’s that Rohr used was “necessary suffering.” According to Rohr and Merton, people deal with a lot of unnecessary suffering because they will not accept the legitimate suffering that comes from being a human being. This is where, Rohr said, resistance originates.

More specifically, Rohr said suffering happens when one is not in control, making it difficult for people to let go of what they cannot control. And, when people resist letting go, the ego structure, or “container,” cannot expand and brings 10 times more suffering to people.

Rohr quoted the Gospel of John, saying, “Unless the single grain of wheat dies, loses its shell, loses its cover, it will remain just a single grain. But if it dies, let go. It will bear much fruit.”

Death, Rohr said, is where people struggle most to let go.

What makes people neurotic is the result of refusing legitimate suffering,” Rohr said. “I can’t prove it or disprove it, nor do I need to, but … I’ve certainly seen it in myself. Neurotic behavior is the result of refusing that legitimate dying.”

Rohr said in that order to let go and accept such necessary suffering, one must have a well-developed ego structure. Between his disciplinarian mother and his kind father, Rohr said he was given a good balance to develop a good character. While his father was kind and soft, his mother would spank him and his siblings when necessary. And, she would say to them when she had to spank them, it was hurting her more than it was hurting them.

“You can waste an awful lot of years (thinking), ‘I didn’t deserve, I didn’t deserve,’ ” Rohr said. “Well, who of us deserves anything?”

Such experiences — ones people think they don’t deserve — remind Rohr of Jesus and how Jesus never played the victim or victimized anyone else. But even imperfect humans can learn to be more like Jesus and “let go.”

“Just learn from your wounds,” Rohr said. “That’s why the resurrected Jesus is shown holding his wounds after the Resurrection. That’s no small symbol. … Julian of Norwich says, ‘Your wounds are your glory. Your wounds are your honor.’ ”

Rohr said by not transforming the pain of legitimate suffering, one transmits it. Rohr learned this through the church and, although he never suffered from any tragic event himself, he experienced his own suffering through doubting himself and his preaching, and developing a form of self-hatred.

That creates a different kind of darkness … that you wonder if it will ever end,” Rohr said. “Before the truth sets you free, it tends to make you miserable.”

Rohr developed what he called initiation rights — five universally communicated truths — in the ’90s. He said these were what people struggle to accept and follow. One of them is “everyone is going to die.” God has been alive forever, and has seen billions die, so there is no need to have a large ego when the truth is, everyone will die someday, Rohr said.

Another message is “no one is truly in control.” But Rohr said the most important message is “the way up is the way down.”

“The last will be first and the first will be last,” Rohr said. “If you seek too much to climb, to achieve, to perform, to succeed, you don’t know what most of the world has to suffer or feel like. In other words, you have no access to compassion. You have no access to love.”

Rohr said he had once lived behind a Catholic church, and that was where the Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous would smoke before or after meetings. So, he began to get to know them, and they invited him to their meetings. At these meetings, Rohr said he had never seen people more open about their shame.

I’d be willing to bet most of us in this room have areas of shame that we can’t talk about,” Rohr said. “It’s just, it’s too hidden. It’s too painful. It’s too dark. It’s a territory that we haven’t walked in yet. We don’t have the words for it. It isn’t really bad will or malice. We have to be led there usually by someone else telling their story, and we see their courage and learn their vocabulary, and we do the same.”

Annie Dillard once wrote: “In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us that, if you ride these monsters down, the young would call it wrestling with your shadow.”

The shadow is not bad, Rohr said. The shadows are those depths, the shame that one tries to avoid. And, in order to address it, one needs “truth speakers” who will not guilt or shame them for trying to confront the actions that have caused such internal damage.

Accepting the natural occurrences in the cycle of life make for an easier death, Rohr said, but that acceptance — though necessary — is difficult.

“Nothing lives unless something else dies,” Rohr said. “And the whole natural world seems to surrender to this cycle except one species — you and me. And, I think to receive the God of grace with freedom, is to find your way through the resistance.”

The key to getting through the resistance is being able to properly work through the stages of growing up, waking up and showing up, he said. Then, one needs to learn to let go.

Fr. Richard Rohr Uses ‘Odyssey’ to Explain Transition From First to Second Half of Life

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Father Richard Rohr, says “A vast amount of the human race has to hit the bottom before it goes up,” during his series “Falling Upward” on Tuesday, July 16, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy.
MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, said that, in the least, one can find the answer to what “The Transition” is through the epigraphs in his book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.

What is the normal goal to a young person becomes a neurotic hindrance in old age,” Rohr quoted from his book.

Rohr said many older people find themselves stuck in the culture of the first half of life, where they continue to live by the values of fame and wealth. However, there comes a point when one must look inward to contemplate life and “discover your soul.”

Rohr, Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, continued his lecture series Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy as part of Week Four’s interfaith theme, “Falling Upward: A Week with Richard Rohr.” His lecture was titled “The Transition.”

Rohr said that when one thinks of falling upward in religious terms, one normally associates such a journey with Jesus and the Resurrection, and this is what is celebrated on Easter: the Resurrection of Christ in which he is worshiped, not imitated, Rohr said.

“Human beings have a strange quality,” Rohr said. “If a spiritual message does not somehow include you and me, you’re not interested in it. And that’s unfortunate. We’ve told the story of Jesus in such a really unspiritual way, … and that’s why it doesn’t work for transformation, because it’s always looking outside yourself and you’re supposed to worship someone else who did it right.”

Rohr said this worshiping doesn’t work for transformation. Rather, Rohr prefers to use the Greek epic poem, The Odyssey, because it is a text that cannot be taken as literally as Biblical scriptures.

Symbolism is 10 levels of meaning, and it fascinates the soul and the mind and the heart,” Rohr said. “As you look for that, that deeper meaning, sure, you can make mistakes, but haven’t we made enough mistakes with our literalism? I think so. So we’ve still got a lot of growing up to do.”

The Odyssey is the tale of Odysseus, who after fighting and winning the Trojan War, returns home to his family, only to be called to a second journey — or what Rohr quotes David Brooks as terming, “the second mountain.”

Odysseus’ first journey is like one’s first half of life, which Rohr also called the “survival dance.” The second half of life is the second journey, which he termed the “sacred dance.” As he said Monday, many people struggle to move from the survival dance to the sacred dance because the survival dance involves making money, and no one wants to stop making money once they’ve started. So, they never move on.

Chautauquans gather under the roof of the Hall of Philosophy as Father Richard Rohr speaks during his series “Falling Upward” on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“You do more and more of the same thing even though it isn’t working anymore and you don’t need it anymore,” Rohr said. “I hope this is giving loads of permission all over the place to take second journeys.”

Rohr then shard a scene from The Odyssey, in which the ghost of Tiresias, with a golden scepter in his hand, told Odysseus of his next trip; how he must go to the mainland with a well-made oar to a people who have never heard of the sea, ships or salting their food. The ghost of Tiresias also said the oar Odysseus made would be a winnowing shovel.

The very same metaphor Jesus uses — which is used to discriminate between the essentials and the nonessentials, between the wheat and the chaff, between what matters and what doesn’t matter,” Rohr said. “That’s how you move into the second half of life. What are the essentials and what are the nonessentials?”

This prophecy that Odysseus is receiving from Tiresias is important in terms of location, too, Rohr said. Odysseus receives this prophecy while he is in Hades, the place of the dead. Just like most of the human race has to hit rock bottom before going up — what Rohr refers to as “falling upward” — Odysseus is at the bottom when he learns of this prophecy.

So, when Odysseus returned home and then was told to leave again as the prophecy had foretold, Rohr said he had to be pushed, as no one can go on a second journey without being pushed.

“Loss of a job, loss of reputation, loss of a marriage, loss of faith — it’s always got to be a loss of something that you thought was you, that you thought was essentially you, and you could not live without it, and you have to find out that that’s not true,” Rohr said.

This is what makes the entire journey religious, Rohr said. He said the Latin term religiō means to reconnect. Therefore, the process of reconnecting is religious.

“The more you can include, the more you can connect, I would say the more religious you are. … It is, in a word,  universal; God allows you universal compassion,” Rohr said. “Odysseus is also reconnecting his outer journey to the mainland, or his interior world. At least that’s the way I would see it, which is much of the task of the second half of life.”

In the same way an extrovert becomes an introvert with age and an introvert becomes more of an introvert with age, one writes the script of their life in the first half of life, Rohr said. Then, the second half of life is about writing the commentary on that life.

The first world, the first half of life — of occupation and productivity — must now find its full purpose,” Rohr said. “The second half of life is not about productivity alone. The amazing thing is you still are (productive), but it’s about generativity, inner generativity.”

Rohr believes the whole Gospel to be about forgiveness, which he said is a religious term for letting go of what is being dragged around. The ego or persona that one develops in the first half of life is something that needs to be let go of, he said.

Before returning home, Odysseus’ last task is to plant his oar in the ground of the mainland and then leave. Rohr compared this to how Jesus told his disciples to leave their families and occupations behind. Just as they did, Odysseus planted his oar, and this is the end of Odysseus’ second journey.

“Odysseus has to return home to Ithaca to prepare a solemn sacrifice to all the gods who rule the broad heavens in human language,” Rohr said. “He’s finally living inside the big and true picture in Christian language. He is finally connected to what Jesus called the reign of God.”

Rohr closed his lecture with a personal commentary on life.

Death is largely a threat to those who have not yet lived,” he said. “Once you know you’ve touched upon this mystery of life and this mystery of death, you tend not to be so afraid of death.”

Fr. Richard Rohr Opens Lecture Series on ‘Falling Upward’ Through Stages of Life

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Throughout the first half of people’s lives, they are confronted with problems that they realize — in the second half of their lives — are unsolvable, according to Carl Jung, one of Fr. Richard Rohr’s top five favorite teachers.

“Your heart just drops because we Americans are problem solvers,” Rohr said. “But that’s one of the things you go and … learn by the second half of life. A lot of the so-called ‘problems’ you thought were yours to solve are yours to hold.”

This week, Rohr, Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, began his lecture series in the Hall of Philosophy as part of Week Four’s interfaith theme, “Falling Upward: A Week with Richard Rohr.” His first lecture, presented on Monday, was titled “The First Half of Life.”

During his lecture, Rohr discussed the stages within the first half of life and the growth one experiences during that time.

Rohr began by quoting Julian of Norwich: “First, there is the fall. Then, there is the recovery from the fall, and both are the mercy of God.”

Despite his education, in which Rohr was taught to behave as flawlessly as possible, he said the trials one faces are what help transform them; what help  them grow. Rohr even went as far as to question the worth of the New Testament if it is not “transformational.”

“If the stories of the New Testament are not transformational — I’m going to say it — what good are they?” Rohr said. “Jesus came to make us aware, teach us how to love, teach us how a new form of consciousness that I call ‘nondual’ or ‘contemplative consciousness.’ But, we just made the Gospel largely a set of things to believe; (it) became more a matter of willpower.”

But willpower will not allow someone to transform, according to Rohr. He said willpower “represses most of your feeling world — most of your spiritual intelligence.”

Rohr said the first stage of the first half of life is developing an ego. One must be able to create an identity, or a sense of self, to continue in life. While creating that identity, Rohr also said that one cannot look to another and compare in a way that demeans the other, or puts them in the wrong.

“You have to know who you are and know who you aren’t,” Rohr said. “Now, if you stay right there in the first half of life, just defining who you are against who you aren’t, you have the politics we have today; defining precisely why the other group is wrong. … They’ll define identity and boundary, but not oppositional boundary, not oppositional identity. And that, we call growing up.”

Rohr, referring to Ken Wilber, said the second stage of the first half of life is “growing up.” In this stage, one learns about relationships, Rohr said. One learns how relationships work and how they don’t; how to communicate and how not to; and about power differentials.

“It’s brought a great deal of — in my opinion — smarts to our time, but as we know, a great deal of conflict and confusion,” Rohr said. “We all don’t agree on the power differentials, the communication styles or whatever else it might be.”

When it comes to  conflict, Rohr said that one must also be careful of people who say, “That’s just psychology.” Rohr said that people who say things like this aren’t to be trusted, because there is no wisdom in that type of thinking. Those who say that “it’s only Scripture” cannot offer reliable information because this way of thinking does not align with what is truly wise.

“That gets back to my basic principle; if it’s true (in one place), it’s true everywhere,” Rohr said. “Wisdom is when different sciences and arts validate, confirm, regulate and challenge one another. And when you see them all challenge or affirm one another, that’s what I mean by the perennial tradition. Truths that just keep recurring religion after religion, century after century. That has to come from the collective unconscious, or (what) we who are Christian would call the Holy Spirit.”

Rohr again quoted Wilber, referring to the third stage, which is called “waking up.” Waking up is “radically overcoming your sense of separation.” People separate themselves from God, their neighbors, their enemies — this is something that must be acknowledged and overcome.

One must not see themselves as separate from these other beings. Everyone is connected.

Without understanding this, Rohr said people are stuck in the second stage of growing up.

Rohr said that the last two stages, “waking up” and “showing up,” are about deconstructing the first two stages because those stages, though important, “do not lead one to love.”

“God just led you to love yourself and be judgmental of everybody else, but those are only painful bits of self knowledge that you can’t bear before your 50s,” Rohr said.

Rohr said this is where the final stage of “showing up” plays a major role. To deconstruct what one has worked on in the first two stages, one must also give back. He said that there are many who simply show up without genuinely, generously giving back to others.

The problem, Rohr said, is that many struggle with these last two steps because people do not want to let go of the identity they have worked to create.

“We were trained to attend (and) we all turn it into various forms of transaction so we don’t have to transform our consciousness, our heart, our mind; all the things that matter,” Rohr said.

Rohr said that a profession and a persona are things that must be let go of at this stage to completely give back, like the disciples whom Jesus challenged to leave their “fathers and their nets.” This isn’t a bad thing, Rohr said, but it is difficult.

“The two things that most keep you back from, what I call in Falling Upward, ‘the further journey,’ is you’ve spent so much time investing in the first journey, you’re not about to let go of it — our occupation, our persona, our self-image,” Rohr said. “The better it is (and) the more admired it is, the harder it is to let go of.”

Rohr said that in the first two stages, one learns how to be so successful; that life becomes a game of win-lose where one wins at the cost of another’s loss.

This has almost developed into a culture of the first half of life, according to Rohr. After age 30, though, Rohr claimed that one doesn’t learn to succeed without failure.

This success can make an ego grow so big that it solidifies itself, unwilling to be deconstructed for one to “wake up” and “show up.” Rohr said that the ego can grow so large that the Gospel becomes something that it is not.

“The Gospel itself became the Gospel of being right,” Rohr said. “Jesus did not say, ‘thou shall be right,’ ” Rohr said. “He praised faith, which is the balancing of knowing with not knowing, and not needing to know. When you can be happy, even being wrong, that’s when you’re free. Because then frankly, you can be honest.”

All of this work from constructing to deconstructing, Rohr said, is called “building your tower, and then climbing your tower and planting your flag on the top.” This does not save the world, though, Rohr said.

“This cannot be sustained, this success for very few as we defined success,” Rohr said. “But I was lucky enough for many years to give retreats in so many developing countries, where I see success defined in such different, almost shocking ways that weren’t our way, but they worked,” Rohr said. “In fact, it appeared to create even happier people.”

Rohr said he would continue with these themes during Tuesday’s lecture, “The Transition.”

Roy Speckhardt Discusses Concepts, Beliefs, Understandings of Humanism

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To continue the Interfaith Friday Series in the Hall of Philosophy, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor, posed a series of questions to Roy Speckhardt, who spoke on behalf of humanism.

Speckhardt is an author and executive director of the AHA. He has appeared on “Good Morning America,” CNN and Fox News as a commentator and regularly writes for The Huffington Post. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Mary Washington College and his master’s degree from George Mason University.

As an executive director of the American Humanist Association, Speckhardt promotes progressive political issues through the lens of humanist beliefs. He has also written a book called Creating Change Through Humanism.

What follows is an abridged version of Speckhardt’s conversation with Robinson. Speckhardt and Robinson’s remarks have been condensed for clarity.

Robinson: Are we wrong to say that we have nine faith traditions speaking on our interfaith program, or do we have eight, plus something else?

No, that’s a fair point. When I see a lot of my colleagues and other humanists embrace words like faith, they say, “We have faith in humanity, we have faith in science conclusions,” and so forth. But, I’m a little more of a stickler on that personally because I don’t want to be unclear in what I’m saying. I don’t want people to think I mean something other than what I say. So, I try to use language that speaks directly to the heart of where I get my thinking. And so, I do avoid that type of religious language, but certainly other humanists do use such religious language and it’s not necessarily a problem. They just define them a little differently.

So, is a humanist a friendlier kind of atheist?

I think that is not a bad statement. Most humanists do identify as atheist or, if they don’t use that word, they use the definition. They don’t happen to have a belief system that includes gods, but humanists really do have a grounding, not just in reason and science as our epistemology for where we get our answers — the best place of modern knowledge — but also this grounding in compassion and egalitarianism that I think are both drawn from empathy. And, those are critical parts of what makes humanism, humanism. You know, the compassion, egalitarianism and reason together make the humanism.

So when you say, “Some humanists might say they have faith in humanity,” isn’t there an awful lot of evidence to suggest that humanity’s not doing a good job, and therefore that’s not a very hopeful thing to put your faith in?

It’s true. I wonder whether my optimistic “faith,” if you want to use that word, came first or some of the evidence that I found came first in my thinking, but there is actually a lot of evidence about (Steven) Pinker’s work. Cognitive scientist; Harvard professor; 2006 humanist of the year, Steven Pinker explains how we’re progressing to a better, less violent world community. He highlights cosmopolitanism as a key force in this shift; a cosmopolitanism that he defines as something that can prompt people to take the perspectives of people unlike themselves, and expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them — essentially an expression of empathy. But, others have done this work as well. If you look at the arc of history — not just the last 10 years, not just the last 50 years, but the last hundreds of years — you can see the progress that’s happening, and it’s not a direct line, and we have a lot of setbacks and backlashes, but we are moving ahead.

You mentioned that something has to be provable or replicable or verifiable to exist. I just wrote down two or three things here that I’m not sure are provable, but I believe they exist. One is love; one is a dignity or human dignity; and you mentioned human nature. I don’t think any of those things are provable, and yet most of us believe in those concepts, right?

I think concepts can certainly exist outside of the realm of material activity, but those are concepts, not a being that presumably has the ability to act. That’s where I think the change happens. But, we do believe in love; we do believe in human dignity to some degree. When it comes to philosophers having looked at what makes us happy in this world, when you go back and look at ancient philosophy, a lot of them point to the ability to help others — that brings true happiness, the deep lasting happiness that we feel. And, that helping others helps with empathy, helps with love, helps all these things together. I think that’s perfectly consistent with humanism.

We know that Unitarians and Humanists are unbelievably good at supporting justice movements, putting their bodies out in the street to agitate for good and right actions. Why are Unitarians and Humanists known for this good social action work, and the mainline denominations aren’t?

Well, I think it might have a little to do with the updating process. So as I talked about, science updates itself. When new evidence comes along, so does humanism. When we realize that we have white supremacy within us, we try to find ways to overcome it right away. Whenever we see these failings, we try to find ways to overcome them. I think that’s one thing that helps us move a little faster. We’re not tied to ancient texts or divine revelations from our ancestors. We simply say, “OK, the best of information says that this no longer makes sense; there’s no reason to treat people who are gay and lesbian any different, because the science shows us that they could be happy, loving people just like everyone else.” There’s nothing in science to say otherwise. And you almost have to have a grounding in some kind of older … faith or ideology that would suggest that there’s a problem with that in order to have that prejudice.

It’s also something that I try to communicate back to my members and my atheist colleagues and others, because I think one thing that atheists tend to have a little bit of a prejudice about is, we think all religious people are monolithic. Sometimes, we make that mistake, and we don’t realize that there are a lot of religious groups, especially well represented here at Chautauqua, who have faiths that do evolve very steadily and rapidly, even in modern times. And I think that’s something that’s hard for some folks to wrap their heads around, but it’s part of the world we live in.

I have argued with some atheists, and it seems to me that they are arguing against a church that was maybe more common in the 1950s, right? Or at some former time. It seems to me that to look at the most conservative examples of Christianity is an easy target and maybe those that are going about their religion in a more thoughtful, humanity oriented way might be a tougher target, right?

That’s very true. I think that, too often, it’s the way things are looked at. However, there are definitely a lot of Americans who do follow a much more conservative faith these days … and I think the progressive religious folks aren’t what we see in the news when we see religion, right? The reporters, I think, try to polarize us and say, “OK, here’s this far-right religious person talking to this liberal person that we’re going to put next to them on some talk show,” and it gives the American public, I think, the wrong sense of what religion is in this country. So, it’s not just atheists, but I think it’s our whole country that disregards too much progressive religion.

I have two children and two grandchildren, and sometimes I let them find out for themselves the negative consequences of their actions when I could probably save them from it. So, you were saying that if God could stop it, why doesn’t God? It seems to me, as a parent, one of the ways that I love my kids is to let them learn on their own.

Sure. We definitely learn from our mistakes. Some tragedies that befall us give us an opportunity to learn if we’re not crushed by them. I asked my priest back when I was 10 years old, “Why is it that God is allowing these horrible things to happen?” and he said something similar about the need for choice; that this is a great gift that humanity has and that allows us to live lives where we can choose our own options. But I thought to myself then, and I still think today, “OK, instead of having it be a choice between good and evil, why not a choice between good and really good? Why do we have to have these horrible choices as part of the options?” I think, if truly we have an all-powerful, all-loving God, why not just eliminate those bottom-rung negative options? I would think that would be at least a good starting place.

Eric Meyers Makes Case for Strong Jewish Presence in Galilee

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Archaeologist Eric M. Meyers gives a lecture on his findings about Jesus in biblical times at the Hall of Philosophy July 11, 2019. Meyers mentions that Jesus was rejected from his home town of Nazareth and encouraged the audience to ask why. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In the first century, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai asked, “Oh Galilee, oh Galilee, why do you hate the Torah?”

But Galilee didn’t hate the Torah, even though as recently as 20 years ago, scholars believed the region to be a place of religious ignorance. Eric Meyers, archaeologist and Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor Emeritus of Judaic Studies at Duke University, spent his interfaith lecture explaining why this wasn’t the case.

In studies of Galilee, a common impression of Jesus’ life was that he came from a “backwater” area. Due to findings from 15 to 20 years ago, however, this impression of Galilee and Jesus’ early life has changed for the better.

Meyers presented his talk, “Jesus in Galilee, A Jewish Perspective,” on Thursday as part of Week Three’s interfaith theme, “What Archaeology Tells Us About Biblical Times.”

Meyers said that before any true research had been done, Galilee had a bad reputation and many scholars had written about Galilee inaccurately. John Dominic Crossan, for example, had written about Jesus 20 years ago, and described him as a Mediterranean peasant who spoke Greek, Meyers said. Another scholar, the late Sean Freyne, a popular Irish theologian, had written a book about Galilee solely based on texts he read — never based on expeditions to Galilee.

Despite the inaccuracies published in the past, the truth of Galilee’s history, as well as Jesus’, is now known and Meyers said his goal was to explain the depth of Jesus’ involvement in Jewish life in Galilee.

Starting with Nazareth, Jesus’ home village, Meyers referred to Mark 6 in the Bible, where Jesus is rejected by the people of Nazareth when he preached in the synagogue there.

“ ‘Where did this man get these things that he’s saying? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands?’ ” Meyers said, quoting the Bible. “ ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon?’ And they took offense at him and Jesus said to them, ‘a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his relatives and his own household.’ ”

Why is Jesus rejected in Nazareth? Meyers said the royal family in nearby Sephorris was negatively influencing the village.

“Who’s living in Sephorris at this time is Herod Antipas,” Meyers said. “The royal family is not known for its modesty. … Jesus was not happy, in my opinion, that the residents of Nazareth, in the time of his ministry, were so enthusiastic about what was going on down the street, as it were: castles being built, the royal family partying and drinking, all sorts of things to excess.”

Jesus, Meyers said, was focused on the humble and poor in the villages of Galilee, where his words were heard and taken to heart. These two very different approaches clashed, and that is why, according to Meyers, Sepphoris isn’t mentioned in the New Testament — Jesus didn’t feel welcome there at all.

Meyers said the life of a Jewish person was quite simple. Meyers first discussed ritual purity, which involved preparing food in a pure way.

“We know from Josephus, the historian of the first era, even (using) olive oil … had to be done by Jews who were ritually fit and ritually pure,” Meyers said.

To be “ritually pure,” Jews had to bathe in mikvah after intercourse, nocturnal emission, getting close to a human body at a funeral and, for women, a menstrual cycle. A woman who did not go to a mikvah after her period was seen as “unacceptable” for intimacy with her spouse, or for cooking food.

Over 1,000 mikvahs have been discovered, which indicate that there were “Torah-observant people” in Galilee at the time, according to Meyers.

In addition to mikvahs, the Bible states that there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each capable of holding 20 to 30 gallons.

Archaeologist Eric M. Meyers gives a lecture on his findings about Jesus in biblical times at the Hall of Philosophy July 11, 2019. Meyers describes the Sea of Galilee and it’s relation to Jesus. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“These stone vessels are associated with the purity practices of Jewish people in the first century,” Meyers said. “They’re called chalk stone vessels and are impermeable to impurity. So I also associate them with table fellowship or the Jewish practice of washing your hands ritually before partaking in a meal.”

Most Jewish people also ritually wash their hands at Passover — the idea is to eat food in a pure fashion.

Meyers then addressed what he called “one of the most important elements running through all of the land of Israel in the first century”: quietism. In the year 67 C.E., Sepphoris was at war with the support of Josephus, who then gave up his generalship of the northern forces in 68 C.E. and chose to make a deal for peace.

“Somehow the wicked Roman emperor thought it was so good, he allowed the Jews to mint their coins and name the city, ‘City of Peace,’ ” Meyers said. “How beautiful is that? This quietest extreme in first century Judaism and the followers of Jesus’ movement … did not want to fight the greatest power on Earth: Rome.”

The last part of Jewish daily life that Meyers discussed was the synagogue. Meyers has been fighting a belief of some scholars that the synagogue “was not a purpose-built physical structure until after Constantine the Great in the fourth century of the common era.”

In fact, these scholars believed it was unlikely that a synagogue could be found before the fourth century that was erected in response to imperial Christianity, because Constantine was the one to make Christianity the official religion.

“But, the mission was codified at Sepphoris in 200 (C.E.),” Meyers said. “The Jerusalem Talmud, the Talmud of the land of Israel, is finished in 400.”

A liturgy and an enormous amount of Jewish literature was written, too. All of this, Meyers said, occurred between 100 and 400 C.E. There was even an inscription found in the Jerusalem theotokos detailing roles of the synagogue: “to read scripture and study its commandments and to provide a place of lodging and hospitality for those who visited it.”

The idea that there were no synagogues, no places for public gatherings, Meyers said, “is a very dangerous hypothesis.”

In all, there were half a dozen synagogues in the Galilee, including Magdala, Capernaum and Cane of Galilee. Not only were there synagogues, but it is clear that people were reading and studying the Torah. The Bible was also emerging as a major authoritative text. These findings prove Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai wrong in having believed that the people of Galilee hated the Torah, according to Meyers.

Additionally, church ruins prove Christians were there as well. The earliest remains come from the third century, like the Grotto of Annunciation in Nazareth and the churches that are part of the Domus Ecclesiae in Capernaum on the Northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Meyers said that, despite the truth in these findings, there are some discoveries people should approach with caution, such as the James Ossuary controversy over the lost tomb of Jesus.

National Geographic, on the other hand, has done phenomenal work restoring the tomb of Christ at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Meyers said.

“So let me conclude my points to all of these commonalities, commonalities of everyday life,” Meyers said. “In Matthew 21:37-39, it says ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul.’ That is the basis of Jewish and Christian faith. The second half says, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ … That’s the only thing that matters, that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves.”

Carol Meyers Explores Evidence Proving Multiple Cultures in Sepphoris

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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.
MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

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.
MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“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.”

John Dominic Crossan Cross-Examines Eastern and Western Depictions of Resurrection

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Historian John Dominic Crossan returns to Chautauqua to give a lecture about his studies of Jesus as major part of the Bible in the Hall of Philosophy July 9, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Despite the importance of the Resurrection, it is one of the least described events in the Bible, according to John Dominic Crossan, and this lack of detail has caused many artists to interpret the event in many different ways.

Crossan, co-author of Resurrecting Easter: How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision, spoke Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy for the Week Three Interfaith Lecture Series, “What Archaeology Tells Us About Biblical Times.” His talk was titled, “Jesus: From Archaeology to Text.”

I’m convinced that the Eastern, not surprisingly, is in closer continuity and conformity to what is in the New Testament vision and in pre-Christian Judaism,” Crossan said.

The first example of “visual theology” that Crossan described was in the city of Arelate, now known as Arles, located in the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis around 350 C.E. In the city was what would soon be the largest Christian acropolis in the world. Of course, those who wanted to be buried in the acropolis wanted to be buried in sarcophagi and also wanted, on the center front panel of their sarcophagus, a depiction of the Resurrection.

Crossan said  the “poor artist” assigned the job of carving the depiction was in a bind because the Resurrection was not very well described in the New Testament.

“So, I have to imagine one of those moments of absolute sparks of creativity,” Crossan said. “They’re like the dark matter of the human imagination. We don’t know how it was done, but we know the results. So something like this must have happened.”

The artist must have worked with what was in the New Testament, specifically the story of the two guards put on watch at Jesus’ tomb. They then combined that story with an image on the back of Constantinian coins, depicting two soldiers standing guard, but at rest, as their spears are upside down. In the center is Constantine’s battle standard, also known as the labarum in Greek.

Crossan said that while it is an exciting first attempt at trying to artistically depict the Resurrection, there is no physical body for Jesus; he is replaced by a symbol, the labarum.

It’ll take 500 years before you ever get the Resurrection moment with the physical body, and there’s two of them,” Crossan said.

The first of the two depictions is on a Carolingian Psalter. Jesus is shown sitting up in the tomb with large eyes. The second depiction, the more interesting one, according to Crossan, shows the two guards sitting on the slab of the tomb. Below them, within the tomb, the viewer can see “the Holy Spirit’s dove” breathing life into Jesus’ body.

So, Crossan concludes that the first depiction had a symbol that represented Jesus. Five hundred years later, Jesus’ body was physically shown. It would take another 500 years, around 1350, for the “Individual Resurrection,” as Crossan called it, to appear, in which Jesus is positioned hovering above the tomb while the guards are either looking up at him in fear and surprise, or fast asleep against the tomb.

“By ‘individual,’ I mean it shows Jesus rising alone,” Crossan said. “There’s nobody else with him. He’s glorious; he’s triumphant; he’s magnificent. He is also very much alone. I call this the Individual Resurrection, and as we know, it becomes eventually the dominant, normative, official image in Western Christianity for Easter.”

Crossan then transitioned to a new site, the Roman Forum between 550 and 750 C.E. This was a time in which the Byzantine Empire held control over Rome and Roman Catholicism, including the papacy. The emperor in Constantinople controlled the election, the life and, if necessary, the martyrdom of the pope in Rome. In other words, during this time period, it was a Byzantine Rome.

Not only was the area under Byzantine control but the pope, Pope John VII, was a pure Byzantine as well. He, as a part of Christianizing the Forum, wanted to turn the Roman edifices into Christian edifices, replacing Roman heroes with Christian heroes. The pope saw an opportunity to reinvent such images throughout the Forum, but also on the ramp that Emperor Domitian used to go from the Forum, up the Palatine hills to his palace. So, beginning with the Forum, the pope made a small shrine to 40 martyrs within the Santa Maria Antiqua, a Roman Catholic Marian church.

When creating the images for the Forum and the churches within, Pope John VII wanted something special for the depiction of the Resurrection.

He wanted it at a certain site — when he’s going into the church or out of the church, and going onto the ramp or off the ramp,” Crossan said. “It’s like a portal image, … the great entrance and exit, the Resurrection itself. When he entered and exited, he would be reminded of this all the time.”
Historian John Dominic Crossan returns to Chautauqua to give a lecture about his studies of Jesus as major part of the Bible in the Hall of Philosophy July 9, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The depiction of the Resurrection developed based on information from the New Testament and coinage, as was done on the sarcophagi at the Christian acropolis. The artist would have a few specific ideas in mind from both sources. From the New Testament, they would be thinking of the line from the Gospel of Matthew in which it is stated that other people rose with Jesus.

Two images of victory are also found on the back of coins in the 500s and 600s, and both are accurate. The first image is extremely brutal.

“You have the emperor with his right foot on the poor captive’s head, which is bowed to the ground; his neck is down, and his boot is on his neck,” Crossan said.

The second image shows the emperor not trampling on the captive, but bending over him and raising him up. What is even more fascinating, Crossan said, is that the emperor is not just raising this captive, but the captive symbolizes a people or a city — it represents more than one individual. The same can be said for the image of the Resurrection commissioned by Pope John VII.

The depiction is on a wall that lines the ramp, and it shows Jesus dressed magnificently. In his left hand, Jesus holds a scroll, which Crossan said symbolized thinking and philosophy. In the other hand, Jesus holds the limp wrist of Adam. Next to Adam, Eve stands “ambiguously.” In addition to these two, Hades is below the feet of Jesus.

“Now let me be very clear,” Crossan said. “Adam and Eve are the human race. They’re not two people, they are in the Biblical tradition, the progenitors, the personification of the human race. Hades’ place is not hell; he is the gatekeeper of death. He’s not an evil figure. He just has a job.

Despite the two archaeological sites Crossan mentioned — one being the “Individual Resurrection” and the other being the “Universal Resurrection” —   it would take yet another 500 years of development before Jesus reaches for both Adam and Eve. Eventually, Crossan said, the most glorious Resurrection depiction of all would be created in the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora, now the Chora Museum in Istanbul.

“Jesus, equal hands out there, one for Adam, one for Eve, is taking the whole human race with him,” Crossan said.

With detailed examples of both the “Individual Resurrection” and the “Universal Resurrection,” Crossan said that, in the first millennium, the former or the latter could have become the official image of the Resurrection for all of Christianity.

With the split in Christianity in 1054, the East chose to use the “Universal Resurrection” depiction, while the West stuck with the “Individual Resurrection.”

“Paul says, ‘Jesus is the first fruit of those who have slept,’ and Matthew uses the same Greek words for those who have slept, who rise with Jesus,” Crossan said. “Where are they in any Western image? The only sleepers I see there are the guards, so I think (the ‘Universal Resurrection’) is in greater continuity.”

Crossan then questioned the meaning of resurrection. He said that it has the same roots as “insurrection.” The Greek word is anastasis, which consists of two words: “ana” and “stasis.”

“Stasis is revolution,” Crossan said. “Now it can be either violent or nonviolent revolution. … Only nonviolent revolution can save the human species from escalatory violence that will destroy it. That’s the message. That’s the challenge I get from the ‘Universal Resurrection’ image. It has to do with our species.”

Journalist Kristin Romey Details Archaeological Evidence Found of Jesus’ Tomb

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Kristin Romey, archaeology editor and writer at National Geographic, talks Monday, July 8, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy, about her quest as a journalist into the origins of Christianity, opening the third week of Interfaith Lecture Series, designed around the theme of ‘What Archaeology Tells Us ABout Biblical Times’. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Growing up in the 1980s, Kristin Romey, an archaeology editor and writer for National Geographic, left the church with no thought of looking back. After she began her career in archaeology writing, though, Romey was forced to “dust off” her Bible.

I tended to see the Bible as a tool that was wielded for political purposes,” Romey said. “It was not a source of inspiration for me, much less a source of information.”

Romey, who spoke on the Amphitheater stage last summer, returned to the Institution Monday in the Hall of Philosophy, for the Week Three Interfaith Lecture Series, “What Archaeology Tells Us About Biblical Times.” Her talk was titled, “In the Footsteps of Jesus: A journalist’s quest into the origins of Christianity.”

Romey first became familiar with the historical Jesus after National Geographic assigned her to write about the restoration of the tomb of Jesus Christ, which was at first difficult since she had left the church many years prior. But Romey began to use the Bible as a tool to ask specific questions.

“What can archaeology possibly tell us about Jesus Christ?” Romey asked. “What’s even the value of archaeology to people who have faith in the man declared to be the son of God? How will building foundations or a couple inscribed stones make a difference to those who already believe?”

Romey said Biblical archaeology began in the 1800s. Archaeology was in its early development because people were in need of the context that helped them piece together what history looked like. The men who began this type of archaeology were American and European, who were eager to find some of the most intriguing places in the Bible. Christian pilgrims and curious people were just as interested, many wanting to see the Holy Land.

The words of the Archbishop of York, who was a huge supporter of Biblical archaeology, early on … still ring true 160 years later,” Romey said. “He wrote, ‘If you really want to understand the Bible, you must also understand the country in which the Bible was first written.’ ”

With the archbishop’s words in mind, Romey began her “eye-opening” work on the tomb of Jesus Christ. When she first saw the tomb, though, Romey was not impressed nor touched by it.

“It felt like a circus,” Romey said. “It didn’t feel like reverence.”

Within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, there is a little house, called aedicula in Latin, that holds the tomb. The house was built in 1500, and had been restored in 1800. However, the house fell apart again by 2016. The condition of the house was so bad that the Israeli government threatened to shut down access to the tomb, Romey said. All of the churches that “laid claim to the Holy Sepulchre” came together and began planning the restoration of the house.

“I spent nearly a year traveling back and forth to Jerusalem to document the restoration,” Romey said. “And as I dove deeper into this project, I realized that I had to get a better handle on the archaeology of the site. The obvious question was: Can we prove Jesus was buried here? Step back and ask an even bigger question: Do archaeologists even believe that Jesus existed as a historical figure?”

Despite the many people who dismiss the existence of Jesus as an authentic historical figure, Romey knew that it made sense for Jesus to have existed.

I have asked every archaeologist that I know who works in the Middle East, whether he or she is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, agnostic, atheist, what have you, and they … don’t doubt it one bit,” Romey said. “(Jesus) fits too neatly into the narrative of the New Testament, but outside of that, what archaeologists understand about first century Roman Palestine.”

Romey said archaeologists tend to agree on the legitimacy of the tomb of Christ.

The trick was finding the evidence to support what is already known or suspected about history. Most people in history had not left a stamp behind for archaeologists to find. And, within archaeology, everything that has been discovered is accompanied by physical evidence in archaeological records.

With that assurance of other archaeologists that Jesus did exist, though, Romey’s goal evolved — she wanted to figure out why the tomb is likely located at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Kristin Romey, archaeology editor and writer at National Geographic, talks Monday, July 8, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy, about her quest as a journalist into the origins of Christianity, opening the third week of Interfaith Lecture Series, designed around the theme of ‘What Archaeology Tells Us ABout Biblical Times’. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Romey said, was outside the walls of Jerusalem, on a main road that led to the port. The Romans liked to crucify criminals outside the walls of Jerusalem because that was where the most heavily trafficked roads were, and these crucifixions, by being placed on main roads, served as warnings. 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built on an “ancient limestone quarry.” At that time in Jerusalem, during what is known as the Second Temple period, rich people could be buried in a natural cave or one carved out by hand, which would come with “niches and maybe a little bench or a rock bed.”

When someone passed away, their body was laid on the stone bed in this cave, or tomb. After a year, family members would return to clean up the bones from the table, place them in a box and store them in one of the niches in the wall of the tomb.

Sure enough, Holy Sepulchre is built on a limestone quarry that got turned into a high-end, Jewish cemetery that was active in the time of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ,” Romey said. “And you have in the New Testament, Joseph of Arimathea (saying), ‘Hey, he could use my tomb. He’s got to get down before sundown.’”

Romey looked to an event after Jesus’ crucifixion: a revolt in Jerusalem in which the city was deserted in 70 A.D. It was not inhabited until 65 years later, when the Romans returned and established a colony. Romey said the people in this colony became irritated with the “pesky men” hanging around the burial grounds of “the weird, Jewish magician who was crucified.” So, the people decide to build a temple to the goddess of love over the tomb.

“Later, in the 330s, Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor and his mom, Helena, start locating all of the sites associated with the life of Jesus Christ in the Holy Land, so that they could be consecrated and honored,” Romey said.

In Jerusalem, Helena tore down the Roman temple, removed the top portion of the cave and created a shrine around the tomb. These were the stories Romey knew going into one night in October 2016, when it was time to lift the marble inside of the tomb where Jesus was allegedly buried.

“Underneath this little couch, they lift off the marble and there is another stone slab,” Romey said. “It’s a big slab of rock, it’s got a big cross carved in it, and it’s been shattered straight down the middle. Underneath that is a limestone burial bench of a Second Temple period Jewish tomb.”

Admittedly, archaeologists cannot determine who the cave belonged to, but it was determined that the tomb they lifted the marble from was the same tomb that Helena built a shrine around.

We can say for certain that this site has been continuously venerated as the burial site of Jesus Christ for nearly 1,700 years,” Romey said.

With such an exciting discovery, Romey’s mind filled with other places in the Bible to explore: Via Dolorosa, Bethlehem, Nazareth and Zephyrus. One place that stood out the most to Romey, though, was northern Galilee, where Jesus met with his first apostles. Romey talked of a brutalist, modern church that was built there on ruins by the Franciscans in the 1960s.

Through a hole in the church, there are a series of basalt houses visible. In one of those houses, after Jesus died, Christians turned it into a place of worship. Additionally, a boat, found in the 1980s, rests on the bank. It was a Roman fishing vessel from the first century that gives insight into the economic situation of a Jewish fisherman at the time.

Romey returned to Jerusalem just two weeks ago because she had heard that restoration work was being done on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There, she visited with some friends and spoke with some Franciscans and Armenians who had done the initial restoration of the tomb in which they used ground penetrating radar.

Using the radar, it was determined that the church is in danger of collapsing, so the next project is to pull up the church floor and restore it. While doing that, Romey said Roman ruins underneath the church will be exposed, presenting an opportunity archaeologists have never had before.

So, here we go,” Romey said. “We are just at the tip of exploring sites that are going to give us more information about understanding the first century Roman Palestine.”

Chuck Yarborough and MSMS Alumni Bring History Alive in Research Scenes

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  • Right, student Erin Williams, presents her dramatic history performance while her professor Chuck Yarborough, center, watches on at the Hall of Philosophy July 3, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The word “history” holds more meaning than just being a record of events.

“I don’t want to just talk about our history; I want us to talk about our story, and it is our story,” said Chuck Yarborough, who in April was named the Organization of American Historians Tachau Teacher of the Year. “Black history, white history, Jewish history, Christian, rich, poor male, female — all of it is our story.”

As a continuation of the Week Two interfaith theme, “Common Good Change Agents,” Yarborough, a history teacher at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, and two of his students addressed the role of history in their lecture, titled “Burial Ground is Common Ground,” in conversation with The Atlantic’s James Fallows.

Yarborough incorporated two projects into his curriculum for students to help them connect with the history and community of Columbus, Mississippi.

“The reason the projects that we’ll talk about today resonate is because so many of us understand that we’ve not been allowed to understand and engage that complete, complex story,” Yarborough said. “We’ve been tackling tough issues together by exploring our communities, our states and our nation’s story on the common ground of the burial ground, our cemeteries.”

Yarborough literally means exploring cemeteries. Every year, he presents a list of people to his students: people who died before 1930, lived in Columbus, Mississippi, and contributed to the history of the town. Some of the names on the list are from Yarborough wandering around the local cemetery. His students then pick an individual to research in Columbus’ local library archives and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson, Mississippi. This research is a part of the first project titled “Tales from the Crypt,” that students work on in Yarborough’s class.

I challenge them to think about looking through the life of somebody and thinking of that as a window,” Yarborough said.

After conducting primary research from August to November, the students write research papers and create a performance, based on the person they researched, to present to the community — staged in the local cemetery.

“Between 40 and 50 students audition. … The final performance, by candlelight in costume, is in the cemetery before about 2,000 guests,” Yarborough said. “At that moment you see an example of the power of performance, students finding meaning in historical research, conveying it to the public and challenging that public to think.”

Through the performances and by connecting the history of Columbus with the community, Yarborough said that students are creating a space where the community is free to think, creating that common ground.

Erin Williams, one of Yarborough’s students and a recent graduate of MSMS, was invited to the Hall of Philosophy podium to perform. She was dressed in a late-19th-century costume and told the story of Susan Casement Maer, the editress of the Columbus Commercial, a local newspaper.

“In 1881, I heard that the Columbus Commercial was for sale, so I went out on a limb and decided to buy it, Williams said, as Maer. “I even told a couple of my friends, because I was so excited about buying the business. But they all said things like, ‘Women do the chores,’ and ‘Jobs like those are for men,’ and ‘Women take care of the children, not business.’ I took their opinions with a grain of salt. I love to write and I knew I commanded that newspaper.”

Yarborough said performances like Williams’ were beneficial for the community because they took people from history and connected them with important issues that continue to be addressed today, including gender roles, race, war, loss and even slavery.

This is not a kinder, gentler, happier kind of thing all the time,” Yarborough said. “You know, sometimes there’s great humor in the performances but they are also honest. And I do expect that, as we walk into that burial ground, people are open to receive what the students have drawn from their research.”

The second project Yarborough has assigned to his students is the Eighth of May Emancipation Celebration performance, a project which allows students to portray some of Columbus’ late-19th- and early-20th-century African American leaders.

Union troops arrived in Columbus on May 8, 1865, and although it didn’t end slavery, Yarborough said that the troops’ arrival brought hope that an end to slavery and white supremacy was indeed in sight. The project itself is completed in small groups of students within Yarborough’s African American history classes.

“Groups of students do research on individuals that are associated in some way, and they also write scripts, and then they ask students that are dramatic performers to perform them rather than perform them themselves,” Yarborough said. “We do that performance … on a stage that the city has put in the cemetery forests. It happens in the historic Sandfield Cemetery, a historic African American burial ground established in the 1840s.”

On this stage, students perform passionately; there is even a student-directed, student-led gospel choir that performs music between the scenes.

(The show) culminates after the final dramatic performance with the students inviting the audience to sing together,” Yarborough said. “And there’s not a more powerful moment for me on an annual basis than that moment.

Dairian Bowles, Yarborough’s student and another recent graduate of MSMS, was then invited to the stage to perform his skit on Senator Robert Gleed, the only African American to represent all of Lowndes County in the state legislature. Bowles was also dressed in a costume that reflected the style of the late 19th century.

“At the age of 17, I was living in the grips of slavery in Virginia … and I escaped, but unfortunately, I was captured outside of Columbus,” Bowles said, as Gleed. “Once I was free, I immediately set to work on starting my own businesses and helping throughout my community. In 1867, the military governor appointed me to the Columbus city council. … In 1870, I was elected to the Mississippi State Senate.”

Yarborough said the true importance of the performances was that the research students conduct gives the public a more complete, well-rounded history of Columbus, and stimulates conversation.

“Again, most importantly, (these projects) spur conversation,” Yarborough said. “I invite people, and I see people beginning to look at each other differently. You know, we can’t be in relationship with one another unless we know something about each other’s story. And this is where these projects begin to get at that.”

After Yarborough’s close, Fallows posed a few questions to the MSMS group. The first question was directed to Williams and Bowles, about how they transitioned to MSMS from their prior school districts.

MSMS is a public school district that students must apply to in order to be considered for enrollment. Both Williams and Bowles said there was some difficulty adjusting to the school’s expectations but found the experience overwhelmingly positive.

I went to not the greatest high school,” Bowles said. “While I was there, I was like the smart kid, but when I got to MSMS, it was just nothing but smart kids. So … it made me develop as a person because I couldn’t just depend on, ‘Oh, I’m that smart guy,’ because nobody cared.

Fallows then asked about Columbus’ — and all of Mississippi’s — reception to the students’ projects and performances.

“Well, you know, I think Mississippians — and by the way, I think this applies everywhere — all know that the history we learned, whatever age you are, is incomplete,” Yarborough said. “And, I have found audiences to be receptive to anything new and more expansive in Columbus. … And in the past three years, we’ve averaged about 250 people in attendance … and we do have, in that audience, new people with exposure in our local paper and television that are coming. And again, that conversation is beginning afterwards as people turn to one another and say, ‘I didn’t know that.’ ”

The last question Fallows posed was to Bowles and Williams. He asked them what they had learned from being a part of such impactful projects for the community and for Mississippi as a whole.

“It’s not all black and white,” Bowles said. “There’s always a portrayal of heroes and villains, but I think that the biggest thing I learned is that, when I look at a history book or I look into these things, (I realize that) they were people. They were people in the community … that had their own lives, their own beliefs and they were influenced by what they saw.”

Williams said people do not always hear all sides to a story, and understanding the story as a whole is something important to work toward.

I just think, when I’m seeing something like history, I need to try to see it from everybody’s perspective or try to research to see if I could see it from everybody’s perspective,” Williams said.
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