Interfaith Lecture Recaps

Narayanan to speak on celebration, playfulness inherent in Hinduism


As the dominant religion in India and Nepal, Hinduism is a popular practice that exists around the world, complete with sacred and serious traditions. Yet the religion also recognizes the importance of play.

“Yes, there’s suffering, yes, there’s compassion, but one should not think of religion simply as a serious part of life in which you’re always answerable for judgment,” said Vasudha Narayanan, a distinguished professor in the department of religion at the University of Florida. “Play showcases the celebration part of life.”

At 2 p.m. on Wednesday, July 11, in the Hall of Philosophy, Narayanan will address the importance of play within Hinduism during her lecture, “Creation, Re-creation and the Joy of Play,” as part of Week Three’s interfaith theme, “The Spirituality of Play.” Narayanan’s research encompasses Hindu traditions in India, Cambodia and America, and she also studies gender issues.

During her time at Chautauqua, Narayanan will discuss different facets of play, both cultural and religious.

“I’ll be talking about traditional games that originated in India which were used as pedagogical tools for ethics and morality,” she said. “We’re thinking about a global movement of games and cultures without us even knowing about it. That’s the background idea.”

As the author and editor of seven books and the associate editor of Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Narayanan has spent countless hours researching and writing about her faith. Narayanan described the Hindu festival, Holi, as a “springtime festival to show the birthing of leaves and color after winter.” She said the festival encompasses the importance of celebration and showcases the idea of play within Hinduism.

“When I think of play, I think of a springtime festival called Holi in which people in many parts of India flash each other with colors,” she said. “This is the joy of play in which you don’t see rank or distinction; men and women will throw color on each other in the exuberance of play.”

In addition to addressing the games and exuberance emphasized in Hinduism, Narayanan will also discuss how play is a pathway to God and the divine.

“If you have surrendered yourself to God, according to Hindu texts, if one has surrendered to the divine power, you’re waiting in life and serving others in life just like one plays a game,” she said. “You’re doing it as an end in itself, to attain salvation.”

Though the afterlife is an important part of Hinduism, Narayanan said there is also a large focus on enjoyment during life.

“While many Hindu holy texts and practices are intended to provide the devotee with spiritual paths to liberation from the repeated cycle of life and death, many other aspects of Hindu life and ritual do not lead directly to such transformation, but are perceived to enhance one’s quality of life on Earth,” she wrote in her book Hinduism (Understanding Religions).

Therefore, within the Hindu traditions, acts of play and relaxation are emphasized.

“Such activities as tree-planting, singing, dancing, healing, archery … might all be considered part of the religious domain,” Narayanan wrote in her book.

Narayanan’s lecture marks her fifth visit to Chautauqua. The professor and Hindu scholar will also be speaking Friday as part of

Rabbis Stahl, Vilenkin express need for rest in non-stop nation

  • Rabbi Zalman Vilenkin speaks during the Interfaith lecture, Monday, July 9, 2018, in the Hall of Philosophy. BRIAN HAYES/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Although the proverb “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” was coined in 1659, Rabbis Samuel M. Stahl and Zalman Vilenkin believe the current generation of workaholic Americans still need to acquire a great deal of wisdom from the centuries- old phrase.

At 2 p.m. Monday, July 9, in the Hall of Philosophy, Stahl and Vilenkin delivered a joint lecture on the importance of the Sabbath as part of the Week Three interfaith theme, “The Spirituality of Play.” Stahl’s portion of the lecture was titled “Sabbath: A Foretaste of Utopia” and Vilenkin’s was “Sabbath: A Gift of Rest.”

Stahl first came to Chautauqua in 1998, served as theologian-in-residence in 2003 and now spends his summers at the Institution. During the winter months, he advocates for interfaith work as rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth‑El in San Antonio, Texas.

Workaholism is not a new phenomenon in American life, in fact, it has been present for the past five centuries. It began with the Puritans in 1620 when they arrived at Plymouth Rock and established a work ethic they believed to be derived from God.

“They considered those who have been favorably successful to have been blessed by God and that they would be guaranteed salvation,” Stahl said.

However, instead of support from God, Scripture from two books in the Bible provide examples of workaholism. In both the book of Exodus and the book of Deuteronomy, the Ten Commandments are mentioned. These commandments are the moral code of Judaism and mandated the Sabbath, a day of rest that was highly controversial when first introduced.

“Critics of the Sabbath accused ancient Jews of being lazy,” Stahl said. “They scorned the Sabbath, and they failed to realize the dire necessity of refraining from mundane affairs for an entire day.”

The failure to see the need for a day of rest is what has carried over, and worsened, in modern-day America, Stahl said. Americans skip lunch, rush through dinner and cheat themselves out of hours of sleep in an attempt to match the quickening pace of everyday life.

“Today, we are enslaved to work,” he said. “I think workaholism has become a national addiction. We tend to work compulsively and aggressively.”

Stahl said the constant advancement of technology makes it nearly impossible to catch up.

“Many of us are chained to our computers, typing madly, claiming that our keyboards can’t keep up with our thoughts,” Stahl said. “Not long ago, our telephones were confined to our offices and our homes. Now, mobile phones are ubiquitous. We talk on our cellphones at restaurants, in public bathrooms, in our automobiles and even in lecture halls. It seems like our cellphones are appendages to our ears.”

Although workaholism can lead to destructive behavior, Stahl recognizes that the Bible displays another side of this debate in saying that work-based achievements can bring a mixture of personal satisfaction and a feeling of contentment.

“When we have profitably and successfully closed a sale, when we have published an article or a book or when we have performed a life-saving surgery, a warm sense of fulfillment and joy fills our hearts,” he said.

Stahl believes this sense of fulfillment is what causes an addiction to work, as people begin to intertwine their job and their self-image.

“We believe that by working longer hours, completing more projects and making more money, we are going to enhance our selfworth,” he said. “Unfortunately, we will discover that this approach is a terribly misguided one.”

According to Stahl, the sense of fulfillment received from these tasks is temporary and leads to a feeling of emptiness and despair as people consistently want more than what they have. As a result, the approach “distances one from oneself.”

“We are so busy we have no time to reflect, to involve ourselves in deep self-exploration or to engage in the kind of reflection that each of our religions obligates us to perform,” he said. “We have to search our souls, face our shortcomings and correct our errors.”

Without time to self-reflect, workaholism stunts spiritual growth, as people become unable to appreciate all of the blessings God has made available in the world, Stahl said.

Along with workaholism, Stahl said Americans are living in an age of isolation and individualism that leads to a feeling of overwhelming loneliness. The day of the Sabbath can alleviate these feelings by providing a sense of community.

“The Sabbath provides (a) community where we go to a synagogue and we pray next to the people we love, people who love us and care for us, where we dine at each other’s tables and find a strong human connection,” Stahl said.

Whether for the sake of community or personal growth, Stahl believes it is more important than ever for Jewish people to take the purpose of the Sabbath seriously and to use it as an example of what the world could be.

“On the Sabbath, we are obligated to be and not to do,” he said. “We must reflect and not produce. We must contemplate and not create. The Sabbath provides us with a utopian vision and gives us a chance to gain a foretaste of what the perfect world of the futurecould be like.”

In Vilenkin’s half of Monday’s lecture, he discussed what God has provided through the gift of the Sabbath, also known as the “Shabbat.”

Vilenkin is a longtime Chautauquan and executive director and spiritual leader of Chabad Lubavitch of Chautauqua. He teaches Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah at the United Talmudical Seminary in Brooklyn during the off-season.

The purpose of Shabbat is explained by its very definition, which is “to rest” and “to return.”

“It is not just about working, but really an opportunity to return to oneself,” Vilenkin said, “to return to one’s origins and connect to God.”

Vilenkin referred to the same two passages of the Ten Commandments in the Bible, but focused on their differences.

In the book of Exodus, it says to remember the day of the Shabbat.

“For six days, the Lord made heaven and earth, and he rested on the seventh,” he said. “Therefore, the Lord was the Shabbat.”

In the book of Deuteronomy, it says not to remember, but to protect and preserve the Shabbat.

“You should remember that you are a slave of the land of Egypt and that the Lord your God took you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,” he said. “Therefore, Lord your God commanded you to observe the Sabbath.”

Vilenkin said these differing messages are not contradictory, but rather complimentary in the way that both affirm the Shabbat as an example of how God’s efforts are continuous and everlasting.

“God continuously is creating, sustaining and vitalizing the world,” he said. “When we rest on Shabbat, we are confirming our belief in God as a creator, but we are also attesting to the fact that God did not create the world within limitation, but that God is actually continuously involved and invested in our lives, the good and the bad. He is always there.”

Shabbat is not only a testimony of faith, but a test of faith to see if one will rely on God to continue to provide for his people.

“Although the world might appear autonomous and independent, the truth is that every additive, every cell, every weight of energy is constantly dependent on his existence,” Vilenkin said. “On a personal level, it is the acknowledgment that all of the talents we have, all the skill that we have, all of the work that we do is really a gift from God, a continuous gift from God for which we can’t claim credit.”

According to Vilenkin, this continuous effort shows God’s intent in making work a permanent part of life on earth.

“If God wanted to look at work just as means to an end, he could have created and designed the world a little bit better,” he said. “He could have created a world where we don’t have to work, where we can rest and celebrate Shabbat 24/7. Yet, he designed a world that is incomplete without work, that assesses human effort and human involvement because it is a part of the plan. There is a spirituality to work.”

Although Vilenkin stressed the importance of giving credit to God, he is still convinced that the greatest lessons learned through the Sabbath are through self-discovery.

“The journey of life is through our own efforts, our own struggles, our own turbulence and with our own free will, to discover the underlying truth of God within the devices of creation,” he said.

McBride highlights the impacts of Second Great Awakening on modern era


America is going through a tumultuous period in which religion, society and politics interact in ways that leave all three decisively transformed. Many historians refer to these periods as “great awakenings,” but historian and documentary editor Spencer McBride refers to these great awakenings as identity crises.

At 2 p.m. on Wednesday, July 4, in the Hall of Philosophy, McBride gave his lecture, “Religious Awakenings and America’s National Identity Crisis,” as part of Week Two’s interfaith theme, “Religion and American Identity.” McBride’s lecture was moderated by Interfaith Youth Core Founder Eboo Patel. Patel, who is moderating all of the Week Two interfaith lectures, is an advocate for religious tolerance and wrote a set of essays on religious pluralism that will be published in the fall by Princeton University Press.

The reason McBride refers to this moment as a crisis is because he believes any attempt to define what American identity is is exclusionary to some degree.

“Part of what we do when we say what type of country we are, is inherently say what kind of country we are not,” McBride said.

But this confusion is nothing new. To contextualize his argument, McBride began by going back to the beginning of another crisis that started between the years of 1800 to 1850,also known as the Second Great Awakening.

The Second Great Awakening was a period in American history when a wave of religious enthusiasm spread across the country. This led to a rapid rise in church membership and religious participation, which benefited Christian churches of all denominations, but two benefited more than the rest: the Baptists and Methodists, who McBride said gained the largest number of converts.

“This is interesting because now in America, the Baptists and the Methodists seem very much part of mainstream Christianity, but that was not always the case,” he said.

During the time periods before, during, and after the Revolutionary War, there were Baptists and Methodists, but they were Protestant off-shoots and were treated differently than other Americans. Members of these denominations could not participate in things such as holding public office or voting until the ratification of the Constitution in 1788. This caused many debates among members of other branches of Christianity, and some even opposed the Constitution because of it.

During this time, evangelical Christians were on the opposite side of the movement as the most staunch advocates for a complete separation between church and state.

“This seems foreign to our sensibilities in today’s political culture, but back then, the people who were being hurt the most were these evangelical communities,” McBride said. “They were the ones being persecuted and discriminated against by their governments.”

However, this changed in the late 1820s as Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay faced off in a presidential race. Clay ran against Jackson in a rival party called the Whigs. In 1832, knowing Jackson would veto it, Clay proposed the idea of holding a day of fasting and prayer, anticipating that Jackson’s veto would drive the evangelicals to vote for the Whigs. It worked, and this is where McBride said evangelical Christians saw their greatest shift in belief.

“The rise of these younger religious denominations affected how we thought about ourselves as Americans,” he said. “It moved this group that had once been very much opposed to the integration of church and state, to push for state being involved in moral and religious issues.”

The cause of this phase of the Second Great Awakening is a series of “revival meetings” happening across the United States. The goal of these meetings was to either commit, or lead others to commit, to an ardent faith in Jesus Christ, McBride said.

“The preachers would preach in a manner that was designed to elicit a response of sincere faith,” he said. “In their minds, the best reaction that could happen is people would feel the emotional desire to accept Jesus as their savior, they would confess and forsake their sins, and then they would commit to actively participate with one of the many churches competing for their membership.”

Although these meetings were initially successful, McBride said, they failed in the long run.

“The problem with this was that the preachers were less concerned with what denomination you adhered to and more concerned that they convince you to join the Christian Church,” he said. “This caused people to become initially enthralled in their newfound faith, but fade out as time went on.”

McBride believes it is no coincidence that the Second Great Awakening happened when it did.

For one, it was a reaction to the Revolutionary Era because religious skepticism and deism, the belief that God created the world and then ceased to interfere in the affairs of mankind, were on the rise.

“There were Americans who believed the country’s religious culture was lacking a strong emotional component, that there needed to be something that compelled men and women to a deeper Christian conversion,” Mc- Bride said.

In addition to this reactionary element,many saw this great awakening as an outgrowth of the democratization of American society, McBride said.

“In a country where men could seemingly move geographically, socially and economically with greater ease than ever before, these Americans would naturally seek and create religious communities that better met their personal needs,” he said.

This led to a rise in “ordinary men” — men who had never set foot in a seminary or divinity school — to assume positions as ministers or preachers in one faith or a faith of their own creation.

“As Christianity became increasingly important to more Americans, more Americans began to increasingly see Christianity as important to the country,” McBride said. “They began to view their politics and their country’s history through a lens of Christian devotion.”

Ultimately, McBride believes in order to understand why so many Americans were attracted to these religious movements, one has to look into the recurring theme of feeling discontent.

“There were thousands of Americans who were discontent with the status quo, so they chose to do something different,” he said. “That means something.”

This is why participants of this Second Great Awakening took a lead role in many of the reform movements of 19th-century America, including the abolishment of slavery, the temperance movement and women’s suffrage.

However, religion had a role in both the support and the opposition of these movements, a complexity McBride said has stayed with Americans to present day.

“Some Americans celebrated their right to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience and allowed others to do the same,” he said. “But at the same time, there were other Christian Americans who used their religious beliefs to justify discriminating against people who believed something too different than what they were ready to accept. They tried to disguise this as democracy.”

McBride is still unsure about a solution to this problem, but what he does know is that education and dialogue are key to reducing the severity of it.

“If we can talk about it that way and get others to talk about it, I think it will be a huge step toward peace and equality and universal religious liberty in our democratic society,” he said. “The historian in me tells me we can change. If we can all understand how the world came to be the way that it is, we can make it the way it needs to be.”

Woodard breaks down regionalism versus pluralism in America

  • Colin Woodard, author of "American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle between Individual Liberty," talks about the the different cultural identities of different regions in America in The Hall of Philosophy, Tuesday, July 3, 2018. BRIAN HAYES/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The United States is comprised of several different regions, each with its own cultural identity and rich history. Exactly where those regions start and end has been a long-running debate, but according to Colin Woodard, it is simple: the United States can be divided into 11 distinct sub-nations.

At 2 p.m. on Tuesday, July 3, in the Hall of Philosophy, Woodard — award-winning author and journalist — gave his lecture, “American Character: The Struggle between Individual Liberty and the Common Good and the Survival of the Republic,” as part of Week Two’s interfaith theme, “Religion and American Identity.” Woodard’s lecture was moderated by Interfaith Youth Core Founder Eboo Patel. Patel, who is moderating all of the Week Two interfaith lectures, is an advocate for religious tolerance and wrote a set of essays on religious pluralism that will be published in the fall by Princeton University Press.

“You can’t understand American history, American identity, or indeed our current political cleavages, which are geographic even as they are ideological, without knowing that there has never been one America but rather several Americas,” Woodard said. “We are not a nation-state, we’re a federation of several stateless nations.”

These “Americas” are what Woodard calls “regional cultures.” These regional cultures have their own distinct characteristics, most of them tied to past differences between Euro-American colonies that took shape in the 17th and early 18th centuries on the eastern rim of what is now the United States.

These cultures laid down the sub-cultural DNA of their respective regions. Woodard said in modern-day America, there are 11 of these cultures that divide the nation.

“For generations, these discrete Euro-American cultures developed a remarkable isolation from one another,” he said. “They consolidated their own cherished principles and fundamental values.”

Woodard used the region “Yankeedom” as an example. It encompasses the entire Northeast: north of New York and spreading through Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Residents of Yankeedom value education, intellectual achievement, communal empowerment and citizen participation in government as a shield against tyranny. Yankees are comfortable with government regulation, and Woodard noted they have a “Utopian streak.” The area was settled by Puritans who believed it was their God-given purpose to establish it.

“The early Puritans believed that they were in covenant with God, that they were a chosen people tasked with working together to create a more perfect society on Earth, that down the hill there would be a beacon for humanity in troubled times,” he said.

The way Yankeedom was created differs from that of the other parts of the American frontier. A second culture that provides a counterpoint is the Greater Appalachia region. Colonized by settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of northern Ireland, northern England and the Scottish lowlands, Greater Appalachia is stereotyped as the land of “hillbillies and rednecks” and includes parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Indiana, Illinois and Texas. Woodard said Appalachian values include personal sovereignty, individual liberty and being “intensely suspicious of lowland aristocrats and Yankee social engineers alike.”

“Appalachia has shifted alliances based on whomever seemed to be the greatest threat to their freedom,” Woodard said.

The biggest difference between Yankeedom and Greater Appalachia are the differing beliefs of each region’s founders.

Woodard said that during the Second Great Awakening, the people of Greater Appalachia “embraced individual creeds, whereby each person might meet God personally … and be guided without the mediation of institutions, a clerical hierarchy or literal interpretation.

“The emphasis was not on improving this world, but on one’s personal salvation in the next,” Woodard said.

Out of this set of beliefs came many denominations different than those of Yankeedom including: the Disciples of Christ, the Churches of Christ, primitive Baptists and a constellation of evangelical churches, often led by charismatic preachers of the very same origins as the people they served.

“Religion informed and was itself informed by these cultures it was embedded in, right down to the interpretation of what was and was not righteous,” Woodard said.

Woodard believes understanding this regional separation helps Americans understand why the nation is politically deadlocked and divided.

“There are shifting coalitions as you follow the history of these regional cultures,” Woodard said. “These coalitions shifted the prospects and, therefore, the needle between individual liberty and common good persuasions.”

He said the present-day problem is that neither the blue nor the red coalitions consist of enough regions to give a candidate the necessary electoral votes or dominance in Congress, therefore leaving all final decisions up to the “swing regions.”

In order for one coalition to gain majority votes, Woodard said both parties must acknowledge what he calls the “key conflict point.”

“In our political conversation, unlike other nations, the key thing has been a discussion about freedom and conflicts about the competing definitions of it,” he said.

Woodard views freedom as a spectrum; America works best when leaders find middle ground between unfettered individualism and unrealistic communalism.

“If going to far extremes destabilizes a liberal democracy and ends up in tyranny, then logically speaking, somewhere there is this happy equilibrium point where these two essential aspects of freedom counteract and symbolically put you in a balance where you reach that point of being able to enable maximum universal individual liberty,” he said.

According to Woodard, it is easier to find the balance between individualism and communalism in countries like Japan because it is essentially a nation-state with a unified culture, the opposite of the United States.

“It is hard for us because of that balkanization,” he said. “The fact that we are separated cultures, each of which have radically different ideas about where the correct stance is, makes every conversation a difficult negotiation.”

Over time, attempts at individualism control in America have failed, but Woodard said the same guardrails are not succeeding in protecting against the tyranny of a laissez-faire form of government.

“It is this extreme we have been slowly marching toward since 1980 or so,” he said. “Each decade’s policy decisions bring greater inequality, a higher concentration of wealth and power, reduced prospects for generational advancement and less democratic responsiveness from those elected in office.”

Woodard said this resulted in a clear destabilization of America’s civic, economic, and political realms, opening a window to extremists — a window Donald Trump stepped right through in the 2016 election.

Trump earned his Electoral College victory by winning the votes of counties in two specific regions: the rural counties in Yankeedom and the Midlands, which stretches through Iowa into the Midwest. These counties voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and flipped to support Trump in 2016, Woodard said.

Woodard crunched the numbers himself and found that rural counties in Yankeedom went for Obama by six points in 2008 and for Trump by 18 points in 2016. In the Midlands, rural counties went for Sen. John McCain in 2008 by 15 points, but went for Trump by more than 40 in 2016.

“The results of those particular marginal gains, when you overlay them with state boundaries and thus the Electoral College, were devastating to Hillary Clinton, allowing Trump to capture the electoral votes where a Democrat has to win by large margins to counteract staggering victories every year in other regions,” he said.

All of the regions where Trump won by the widest margins were communalistic sub-cultures. Woodard said this is because Trump ran as the most communalistic Republican candidate since Richard Nixon.

“He was the only one of the 16 GOP candidates to spread the laissez-faire mantra that less regulation would give you more freedom,” Woodard said. “He was able to do it because people in rural areas took him at his word when they voted in the general election.”

Woodard said the reason voters in rural areas were affected the most is because Trump did not run in the “normal liberal democratic tradition” but rather as a European-style authoritarian providing government protection for the “good Americans” and extra-legal and extraconstitutional punishment for internal problems and undesirable foreigners.

“In office, (Trump) has backed this up with detention camps for migrant toddlers, the embrace of foreign dictators, the burning of our alliances with other liberal democracies and an inability to condemn neo-Nazis marching in the streets of an American city carrying torches and shouting ‘Jew will not replace us,’ ” he said.

With so many of Trump’s campaign promises still unfulfilled, Woodard said he is unsure of how long Trump’s supporters in these communalistic regions will actively endorse his authoritarian means. Woodard believes that as long as they do, these supporters are participating in an unconstitutional way of life.

“In the preamble of the Constitution, which lays out the purpose of our federation, it says to ‘promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our (posterity),’ ” Woodard said. “In other words, ensuring the common good and individual liberty intergenerationally. There is nothing, I would argue, more American than that.”


Colin Woodard, author of American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle between Individual Liberty, talks about the different cultural identities of regions in America Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy.

PRRI’s Robert Jones tracks evolving responses to pluralism


The Statue of Liberty is known to Americans as a symbol of the nation’s immigrant heritage. A gift from the people of France, Lady Liberty has watched over New York Harbor since 1886, and on its base is a tablet added in 1903, inscribed with words penned by Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The response to these words continues to change as the country evolves, and according to Robert P. Jones, the change is going in the wrong direction.

Robert P. Jones speaks in the Hall of Philosophy on Monday, July 2, 2018. HALDAN KIRSCH/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

At 2 p.m. on Monday, July 2, in the Hall of Philosophy, Jones — founder and CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, leading scholar and commentator on religion, culture and politics, and author of The End of White Christian America — gave his lecture titled “The New Challenge of Pluralism after the End of White Christian America” as part of Week Two’s interfaith theme, “Religion and American Identity.” Jones’ lecture was moderated by Interfaith Youth Core Founder Eboo Patel. Patel, who is moderating all of the Week Two interfaith lectures, is an advocate for religious tolerance and wrote a set of essays on religious pluralism that will be published in the fall by Princeton University Press.

To show the response of Lazarus’ words in present day, Jones referenced back to August 2017 when White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller told a CNN reporter that the statue was actually a “symbol of American liberty lighting the world,” and the poem regarding immigration had nothing to do with the statue’s purpose.

Fast forward to February 2018. L. Francis Cissna, the director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, removed from the organization’s mission statement “the declaration that the agency secures America’s promise as a nation of immigrants.” That statement was originally put in place by the Bush administration, and the Trump administration altered it to include “securing the homeland.”

“There is growing evidence that this conception of immigrants as a threat is gaining a foothold among white Americans overall, and in particular among white Christians in (America),” Jones said.

The numbers Jones discovered through PRRI’s opinion data research after the 2016 election supports his claim. More than six- tenths of white Catholics and white Protestants, as well as three-fourths of white evangelical Protestants, agreed with the following two statements: The American way of life needs to be protected from foreign influence, and the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life.

“These (statements) are one of the most powerful predictors in support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, far more powerful than any economic anxiety,” he said.

This public opinion data suggested to Jones that being both white and Christian makes a person significantly more likely to hold anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim views than any other American in the United States today.

According to Jones, throughout history fears of immigration have always been wrapped up with “ethnic and religious bigotry.” In the 20th century, there was fear of Irish and Italian Catholics and eastern European Jews who arrived on American shores in large numbers.

However, now the perceived threat stems from Muslims more than any other religious group.

“This (fear) is a critical metric,” he said, “a threshold test of the integrity of any solution to allow us to move forward, whether that be cultural or legal.”

But this strategy is nothing new. The Founding Fathers used Islam as a way of testing how far religious tolerance extends.

Jones believes these strategies are short-sided and have “run their course.”

“(The leaders of our government) have depended on finessing the issues of race and religion in ways that protected, rather than dismantle, a conception of white Protestant supremacy,” Jones said.

On the topic of race in particular, Americans finessed a solution by broadening the definition of “whiteness” instead of dealing with the issues of racism head-on, Jones said.

“Despite their overwhelming identification with Christianity, African-Americans have consistently been considered second-class citizens for most of the 20th century even as the definition of whiteness was being expanded to include other groups,” he said. “It clearly left them out.”

On the flip side, Irish, Italians and Jewish people were increasingly being accepted as white or Caucasian, even though early cartoons depicted them as dark-skinned people.

“These visual markers in skin tone remain, nonetheless, stubbornly operative as a limit on how far this idea (of whiteness) can be stretched,” Jones said.

The second way Jones said Americans tried to finesse a solution is religion. The most prominent example is the idea of Judeo-Christians: where the Christian covenant with God takes the place of the Jewish one. Christianity, according to this belief, reforms and replaces Judaism.

“It is really an odd amalgam historically,” Jones said. “There were vitriolic differences between Protestants, Catholics and Jews, differences that fueled wars and violence in Europe for over 500 years.”

To move forward from those differences was no small achievement, but Jones believes there is a “catch” to the success of Judeo-Christianity.

“In reality, as Jews and Catholics often felt, whenever this concept was trotted out, it most often felt really like white Protestantism marching under a different name,” he said.

This was the beginning of the decline of Jones’ white Christian America. In 2008, the percentage of white Christians was at 54 percent. However, the latest collection of data from the PRRI shows that number has decreased to 42 percent. This shift from majority to minority is what Jones said has created the negative connotation around pluralism.

“The anxieties and resistance to pluralism that we face today stems less from rapidly increasing levels of religious diversity, and more from a sense of displacement among white Christians as they realize they can no longer claim majority status,” Jones said.

Jones believes this fear of displacement has led to the greatest test of America’s commitment to the free exercise of religion.

“What this has resulted in, at our worst, is a hunkered-down defensiveness rather than open-handed generosity. That is the biggest barrier to surmounting the challenges dealing with our level of diversity today.”

Robert P. Jones, Founder and CEO, Public Religion Research Institute

Ultimately, Jones said, the main issue is that the solutions to these problems were only partial solutions, and in order to evolve, the nation must be willing to let go of the parts of history holding it back.

“In this state of our nation’s history, we need to move past the previous things like ‘the melting pot’ or ‘civil religion,’ this idea of generic theism out there that people can refer to,” Jones said.

To make these changes, Jones said white Protestants must take responsibility in the discussion around the treatment of Muslims in modern-day America and guide other religions to follow their lead.

“When Muslims are used as a ‘generic religious other’ or when a religion practiced peacefully by billions worldwide is conflated with violence, we speak up,” he said. “We speak up at our dinner tables, our barber shops, our country clubs and our churches.”

Eboo Patel leads the Question and Answer segment after the Interfaith Lecture on Monday, July 2, 2018. HALDAN KIRSCH/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Most importantly in the present-day climate is for people of all ethnicities and religions to adopt the mindset that what happens to one group of people happens to all Americans. Jones left this concept for Patel to conclude.

“Such (an idea) is going to sound much less like a harmonized chorus and much more like an extended cultural argument,” Patel said. “To many civic-minded Americans who worry about social cohesion or the many beneficiaries and the comforts of American civil religion, this may sound insufficient, it may sound too thin. But if we stand up for one another and if our arguments are lively and engaged and coherent, it may prove that a return to our founding civic creed is enough, after all, to create one out of many.”

Rehmans focus on Islam’s role at first Interfaith Friday


For the first edition of the brand new series called “Interfaith Fridays,” the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson moderated a series of questions with American Muslims and interfaith activists Khalid and Sabeeha Rehman at 2 p.m. on Friday, June 30, in the Hall of Philosophy. Together, the Rehmans discussed their views of the Islamic faith, as well as how they strive to move the Muslim community in an interfaith direction.

Khalid and Sabeeha Rehman have been speaking at the Institution since 2012 but have been public advocates for their religion for more than 20 years. After retiring from his career as an oncologist, Khalid Rehman became a board member of the Muslim Majlis of Staten Island and founder of the Pakistani Cultural Association of Staten Island. Sabeeha Rehman, a former healthcare executive, is a board member of the Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee and the author of Threading My Prayer Rug: One Woman’s Journey from Pakistani Muslim to American Muslim.

What follows is an abridged version of the Rehmans’ conversation. Their remarks have been condensed for clarity.

From where you sit in your tradition, why should we be moving in an interfaith direction either here in Chautauqua or in the world?

Khalid: “I think there is tremendous need for interfaith dialogue and interfaith conversations. We need it here in America, particularly since the election, since there has been a political divide. There has been talk about Muslim registry, Muslim ban and so forth, so there is tremendous need to share what Islam is. We also need to promote it to Europe because of the current circumstances of asylum seekers and socioeconomic conditions. There is an increase in hatred and bigotry and racism, so we need to get this message out to them. More importantly, I think we need to get this (interfaith) message to all of the Muslim countries. They need this because there is persecution of the minority and I think once we know the other, the fear of the other goes away. I think that by understanding each other and understanding the faiths, we bring our communities together. We become each others’ ambassadors. If you have seen or met a Muslim, your opinion about them changes. It is an antidote, I think, to extremism, an antidote to fear. It strengthens you and me. It strengthens the moderates of every community. We all have moderates in our community. We all have extremists in our community. So, by sharing this information with each other, we strengthen the moderates so that they can then challenge and deal with the extremists.”

Questions two and three are two sides of the same coin (about) when you come to the metaphorical interfaith table: What gifts do you bring as Muslims to that table? And what gifts do you suspect other traditions have that you benefit from?

Khalid: “Islam is a continuation of the Abrahamic religion. We believe in all the prophets and in the same books. So it’s the continuation of the same message, the same God. So, we consider that Islam really brings reinforcement to the values, the values that have been attributed to the prophets (for) so long — the core values, which are all the same, we all share them.”

Sabeeha: “In terms of what gifts other faith traditions bring, in the Christian faith, I like the practice of saying grace before dinner. I think that’s just beautiful to hold hands and sit around the table and thank God for his blessings. And I love Christmas. The festivities, the lights, the spirit of joy is just a beautiful time of the year. In the Jewish faith, I think it is such a sensible idea to stop one day and just rest on the day of Sabbath. I also think that the practice of reading the Torah once a year from beginning to end is really great. From the Hindu faith, I love the music of the temples, the colors, the lights — and then there is yoga. In the Buddhist tradition, meditation is just such a good practice to decompress, clear your head and make a connection to your creator.”

Do you have any sacred texts or holy teachings that are telling you that yours is the one true religion?

Khalid: “When speaking to Muslims or Muslim countries, the concept that Islam is the only truth is not prevalent except in the very conservative groups who think they are “holier than thou.” Other than that, I think that, generally speaking, we have to believe in all we proceeded from. To us, we are not unique, and we are not different, and we are not any better, we’re just a continuation. So, no, I don’t consider Islam as (the) one true religion.”

Do you have extremist practitioners of Islam? And if so, what does that do to your heart as a moderate practitioner of Islam, and what effect has it had on you in the world that these extremists are exaggerating, or perhaps even violating things that are salient to you?

Sabeeha: “There are extremists. We all know who they are, whether that’s ISIS, the Taliban, al-Qaida, and from the perspective of mainstream Muslims, they don’t speak for other Muslims. They don’t uphold the values of Islam, and their tactics of violence and extortion and kidnapping is entirely a violation of our principles.”

Khalid: “Every time something like this happens in the name of Islam, we — the moderates — cringe. We feel that we are set back. After 9/11, we were in fear. Muslims went into hiding. Women stopped using head covers, people changed their names. They didn’t want to be recognized as Muslim because of the fear. There was “boo-ing” in the schools. Children in the schools are bullied because they are painted with the same brush as the extremists. It is a dangerous thing for us every time it happens. It also energizes those “Islamophobes.” Every time something happens they are in media, once again, painting the whole Muslim community with the same brush. It’s really unfortunate.”

Sabeeha: “It has also led to many misconceptions. For example, the term “jihad.” People have presented that word as a “holy war.” There is nothing holy about war. The term jihad means “the inner struggle, the struggle of overcoming temptations and making a better person out of you.” It is about establishing social justice. The message of jihad is to respond and fight back in self-defense. You can fight back if you have been attacked. But God said in the Quran that he does not like the aggressive. If you have been driven out of your home, then yes, fight back. But, if you have been offered a peace offering, always take that.”

‘Live fully, love wastefully’: Spong delivers final lecture

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Introducing John Shelby Spong the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson was able to publicly thank the man he said “are the shoulders on which (Robinson) stands.”

Robinson, who is the first openly gay priest to be elected bishop in Christendom, attributes the opportunity he had to serve as a leader in the church to Spong, who he said supported LGBT rights before it was popular.

“It is because of that early work that he did and all of the work that built on it that lets me wear a purple shirt today,” said Robinson, who currently serves as Chautauqua’s vice president of religion and senior pastor. “There is no one who has been braver and ready to take whatever came his way for saving the truth.”

At 2 p.m. on Thursday, June 28, in the Hall of Philosophy, Spong, retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, discussed Matthew, his mantra and his legacy during his last lecture of the week and his career, titled “Universalism: The Future of Christianity and Why I Remain a Christian,” for Week One’s interfaith theme, “Producing a Living Faith Today?”

“Today’s the day,” Spong said. “The final address of this week, the final address in Chautauqua, the final address of my life. It has been a wonderful trip, and I am sad it is coming to an end.”

But before he talked too much about the end, he went back to the Jewish roots of Matthew’s Gospel.

According to Spong, when Matthew said to “go and make disciples of all nations,” he placed words in the mouth of the risen Jesus.

“Matthew was sounding the call to a universal humanity,” Spong said. “It meant to go beyond the boundaries of your religion, to go beyond your security system, to go beyond your fears. It meant go beyond the boundaries that you directed in your biologically driven search for survival.”

Matthew was not alone in his understanding of Jesus’ message. When the Gospel of Luke was being written, the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples of Jesus and all the world. The author made sure that it was understood as a universal happening, Spong said.

Then there was Paul. Paul tried to explain to the Galatians what it meant to “put on Christ” in the verse that reads, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

Spong said this means human division must disappear.

“Christ must be served in every person,” he said. “There is no longer Jew nor Greek. There is no longer male nor female. That is what Jesus meant and that’s what the original Christ experience was, before we became Scripture defenders, and before the creeds became the essence of our faith.”

While Paul left off there, Spong believes there is a lot more to modernizing Christianity than erasing those dividing lines.

“When charting a new reformation, we must engage in a task of getting even deeper into the vision of universalism,” he said. “It has not only to do with erasing human divisions, but about revitalizing our most cherished beliefs.”

For the reformation to work, Spong said creeds can no longer be used to bring Christians together.

“The Christianity of the future cannot live inside the doctrines of the past,” Spong said. “Doctrines are never a description or definition of our God experience. My experience is my ability to perceive God, but the nature of God is beyond my ability to describe.”

The same thing is true of Christianity’s fundamental doctrine, known as “the Incarnation.”

“That doctrine makes Jesus not unlike the comic strip character Clark Kent who turned out to be Superman in the skies,” he said. “We must move beyond the now irrelevant dualistic patterns and discover the holy at the heart of the human. Incarnation will never give us that.”

With the need for constant evolution in mind, Spong created his personal mantra.

“My mantra is intended only to be my statement at this time, of where I am today (and) the place of which I have arrived on what might be the last days of my journey,” he said. “I want to say something positively, something about the conclusion that I presently hold and bear witness to why I continue to be a member of this community.”

He began by admitting he still has no way of knowing “who” or “what” God is.

“No one can do that,” Spong said. “Why don’t we understand that? That is not within the capacity of the human mind to embrace the nature of God.”

Next, was his belief that God is a source of life.

“As far as we know, a creature who can: define life, contemplates its beginning, anticipates its termination and raise the question of its meaning, is a rare thing,” he said. “So if God is a source of life, then the only way I can appropriately worship God is by living fully.”

God is also a source of love, Spong said.

“If God is a source of love, then the only way I can worship God is by loving, loving wastefully,” he said. “I mean the kind of love that never stops to calculate, never stops to wonder whether the object of its love is worthy to its recipient. It is love that loves not because it has been earned. That’s where I think God is made visible.”

After love, he shared his beliefs about experiencing God.

“If God is the ground of being, then the only way I can worship God is by having the courage to be all that I can be,” Spong said. “The more deeply I can be all that I can be, the more I can make God visible.”

However, there was one last thing he wanted to add.

Although he has been a Christian his entire life, he does not believe it makes him superior to anyone. It is simply a fact of his upbringing, along with a personal desire to continue being a disciple of Jesus.

In the way Jesus, whether being praised with flattery or diminished by the threat of death, remained unchanged, Spong was moved to affirm his faith. In the way that God brought “oneness out of diversity, wholeness out of brokenness and eternity out of time,” Spong realized the version of faith he wanted to spread.

Spong said the only way his mission can be successful is if his mantra is carried out without any set of boundaries.

“Even in the widest variety of our humanity, in our deepest set of beliefs, there is no outcast in this community,” he said. “There can be no one regarded as unclean, no prejudice allowed to operate inside this vision of Christianity.”

Since then, he has answered the call to try to transform the world so that every person living in it will have a better opportunity to “live fully, love wastefully and be all each of them was created to be.”

Now, that job belongs to everyone in the Christian faith who wishes to carry out his vision to fruition.

And to that, Spong said, “Good luck.”

Spong: Dialogue between Darwinism, Christianity critical


What do Charles Darwin and sex have in common?

John Shelby Spong’s answer is simple: nothing. Nothing other than the vast amount of time the Christian Church spends engrossed in these two subjects.

On Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy, Spong explained how Darwinian and Christian values came to divide the Christian faith in his lecture titled, “The Assault of Charles Darwin and Why the Christian Church Retreated before Darwin.” Spong continued Week One’s interfaith theme, “Producing a Living Faith Today?”

To contextualize his argument, Spong began with a look back at topics that have seized space in newspapers for the past 1,500 years. Those included abortion, birth control, marriage, divorce and homosexuality, all concepts Spong said have a track record of “turning the church on.”

“The church has fought about these lock, stock and barrel, to the point where individual churches have broken apart, denominations have broken apart and whole movements have been expressed,” Spong said. “The church was so sure they were right, and yet on almost every issue in the sexual debate, the church has lost.”

Spong spent a lot of time in the beginning of his career arguing that women can be priests. The opposition he heard shocked him. He was told women were not capable of being priests, were not created to be priests and could not represent the image of God.

Spong put forth a hypothetical experiment: Place a man and a woman in front of the podium and take away every biological similarity. There’s only one thing left, Spong said.

“You get down to that single organ that is supposed to distinguish men from women, and you say, ‘There’s where the image of God is?’ ” Spong said. “Truth does not lie at the end of majority expression. Truth challenges it.”

Truth challenged the differing stances on homosexuality, too. The church believed it to be an act of evil, using a verse from Leviticus that reads, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination,” to support the claim that the act was unnatural.

Spong believes an argument can be made only if homosexuality is in fact a personal choice, but science has already disproven that.

“There is not a scientist in the world who thinks that people choose their sexual orientation,” he said. “We cannot blindly follow tradition when everything we know … tells us that it is not so.”

One of the scientists who pushed the status quo was Charles Darwin, who Spong called the second “obsession of the church.”

Darwin began his work in 1831 when he got a job as a naturalist on a five-year survey voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle. It took him 25 years after the trip, but Darwin claimed his place in history when he released the Origin of Species.

The book sold out immediately and raised questions that had previously been debated, but were never analyzed from a perspective like Darwin’s. Christians did not welcome these findings with open arms, Spong said.

“The war was on,” Spong said. “Darwin was now an enemy to the Bible, as the Bible was interpreted literally, and he was an enemy to the church in the way (Darwinism was) interpreted theologically.”

In an attempt to set the record straight, a debate took place in 1860 between Thomas Huxley, a biologist and an avid defender of Darwin’s, and Samuel Wilberforce, the bishop of Oxford and an advocate of biblical literalism. Wilberforce resorted to ridicule and at one point asked Huxley which side of his family was descended from apes. Wilberforce won the debate, but Spong said it was not enough to earn him a lasting legacy.

“Sam Wilberforce was hailed as a hero, but what’s interesting is that heroes don’t last forever,” he said. “He was very popular in his lifetime, but his reputation has faded.”

After the debate, Darwin’s theories made their way into the bloodstream of western civilization. At first, evolution was taught in small, private settings, but as it began to gain momentum in 1910, the Christian Church decided to tackle the issue head on.

A group of Presbyterian divines proposed a series of pamphlets on the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Once the project received funding, more than 500,000 were sent out each week. As time went on, the pamphlets became more popular, and by the 1920s, every church in the world was divided over being classified as fundamental or modernist.

“You can’t force truth into popularity,” Spong said. “Darwin seemed to have the truth, and after a while, these fundamentals of the Christian faith did not seem fundamentalistic after all.”

The Presbyterian leaders published five fundamentals all Christians were required to believe in order to identify as Christian. Among them were the ideas that the Scriptures are the infallible word of God and human beings are created perfect but fell into sin. Spong said those fundamentals were too similar to the myths of the religion to survive.

“They were so absurd, no one in the academic world would give them credibility,” he said.

The problem facing modernists, on the other hand, was that they knew too much to be fundamentalists, but did not know how to be Christian, Spong said.

“That is reflected in the world today,” he said. “The major mainline Christian churches are all in a frantic of political decline. The fundamentalistic churches are strong, but they are also declining. The world is catching up, and fundamentalism is not a viable option any longer.”

The fall of these ideals caused a rise in Darwin’s ideals. At that time in history, there was no longer a medical school in the western world without a foundation built upon Darwinian principles, and hardly a science department in the United States that was not embracing evolution. That was until the public school system implemented “creation science,” Spong said, designed to be a fair alternative to Darwinism. Although creation science is not taught in public schools anymore, Spong reminded the audience it was not that long ago that former President George W. Bush endorsed it.

“Bush wanted people to be fair, to have a chance to voice an opinion,” Spong said. “He thought you could decide by majority vote what truth is. It doesn’t work that way.”

After Bush’s endorsement, the U.S. Supreme Court declared creation science unconstitutional.

“By virtue of its own strength and integrity, Darwin became stronger and stronger,” Spong said. “There is hardly an educated person in the western world who does not accept Darwin’s point of view as truth.”

Spong asked why Christians fought so hard when they knew they were wrong. The answer, once again, was Darwin.

“There was something about Darwin that challenged not just the Christian story, but the way in which we told that story,” he said. “Darwin said there was ‘no perfect creation,’ but the church said we were ‘created perfect and then all fell into sin.’ You can’t fall into sin if you are not perfect to start with.”

Spong acknowledged how difficult it can be to accept the similarities humans have with the apes, but in a time where millennials check “none” for their chosen denomination more than the rest of the other options combined, he believes the dialogue has to continue between Darwinism and Christianity in order for the faith to survive.

“I think we have a wonderful faith,” he said. “Not the only faith, but a wonderful faith. And we have to work hard to make it live in our generation, and I think we can.”

Spong urges new understanding of faith informed by science


In the span of eight trips, John Shelby Spong has lectured over 30 times on the grounds of the Institution alone. However, the next time he makes an appearance in Chautauqua, it will only be as a visitor. Spong will deliver the final four lectures of his career this week, and on Monday, he said he could not think of a better place for his final act before retirement.

“I wanted to wind up my speaking career in the place I love the best,” he said. “On Thursday, when I give that (final) lecture, I want to go out on the top, mainly in Chautauqua.”

Spong, who is a retired bishop of Newark, a liberal Christian theologian and author, gave his first of four speeches on “Producing a Living Faith Today?” on Monday in the Hall of Philosophy. Spong used his latest book, Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today, to guide the discussion titled “The Context of our Unbelieving.”

“It is a book with its own history,” he said. “I wanted to make it a culminating book, a book that represented my point of view, my teaching. I wanted to put it all together in one place and make it a book that called people into a new understanding of Christianity.”

The idea for the book originated when his daughter approached him with an unsettling observation: The questions the church continues to debate are no longer relevant in today’s world. In his Monday lecture, Spong applied that question specifically in the realm of scientific advancements he said the Christian faith is choosing to ignore.

“We live in a world on the other side of great scientific achievements,” he said. “Those achievements, we’ve got to take seriously. It is no good to pretend that they are not so, that they did not happen.”

To expand on this idea, Spong touched on a series of scientific leaders whose work further complicated the teachings of the Christian faith.

First came Copernicus, Johannes Kepler and Galileo, whose studies of the universe destroyed forever God’s dwelling place above the sky, Spong said.

Spong used the message exemplified in the book Above Us Only Sky by Don Cupitt, an English philosopher of religion and scholar of Christian theology, to make his point.

“Do we not know that the sky is full of planets and suns and galaxies and deep holes and all kinds of various matter that people don’t quite understand?” Spong said. “Where is God? If God is not anywhere to be observed, God ceases to be anywhere to be seen.”

Next came the scientific revelations of Isaac Newton, whose work caused the structure of Christianity to unravel even more when he demolished the possibility of any external source possessing the power to invade the universe.

“One wonders what God did then,” Spong said. “A legend said, ‘God has become unemployed. He no longer can work miracles.’ ”

Charles Darwin followed Newton, and Spong said Darwin’s discoveries in particular were destined to change the world. Most influential was Darwin’s theory of evolution, which altered the way humans viewed their place in the hierarchy of species. The similarities between apes and humans was a notion not well-received by the people of England, who attempted to distance themselves from the theory as much as possible.

“The two most animal-like functions we have are eating and procreation, or sex,” he said. “The English people refined the first and denied the second. They thought that could make them less animal-like.”

Darwin’s findings also changed the way people thought about the Bible, something Spong referred to as a signal change in mentality.

“Darwin believed that life was continuous, but the Christian church had taught that life was unique,” Spong said. “It is hard to reconcile those two. We have had a battle going on for almost 200 years between those two things.”

With Sigmund Freud came the knowledge of the unconscious and the idea that a person’s belief system derives from their parents, regardless of intention. According to Spong, uncertainty reigned as people further delved into ideas they had never thought of before.

Spong concluded this sequence with his idea inspired by Albert Einstein’s work.

“There is no such thing as objective external and eternal truth,” Spong said. “We are all relative creatures, grappling to understand ourselves in the world that we live in.”

As Spong looked back on the lessons from those seven intellectuals, he said there is one common thread that connects faith and fact.

“There is enough here for us to know that we are way behind in thinking about the Christian faith in the light of the knowledge of our world,” he said. “Impede the conflict that these changes in conflict created. I want to bring the two together, but a great deal will have to be sacrificed for that to take place, things that most of us think are essential to Christian religion.”

Spong had planned to spend his last year in the public eye with his wife, traveling around the world, to further examine how science and religion can come together. That last year was to be June 2016 to 2017.

It started on schedule with his 2016 visit to Chautauqua, a week he refers to as the highlight of his career. He lectured that week on biblical literalism and the difference between his understanding of the Bible and the way it is taught in the church.

“I considered (those teachings) inadequate,” he said. “I looked for something more. I am sure we have to give up something about the way we treat the Bible.”

After Chautauqua, the Spongs arrived at their favorite vacation spot: the mountains of western North Carolina. There they mountain climbed by day and delivered lectures by night.

The third destination, Marquette, Michigan, is where things came to a startling halt for Spong. He had a stroke that left him temporarily unable to walk or use his arms.

At the time of the stroke, he still had two chapters of Unbelievable to write, chapters he considered crucial. With a lasting injury to his right hand, he was unable to write legibly, so his wife took over the role of editor, assisting him in finishing the book in time for its original publishing date.

In Unbelievable, Spong wrote a total of 12 chapters about topics he wants to make sure people think about, chapters he refers to as “theses.”

The 12 topics are as follows: God, Jesus the Christ, original sin, the virgin, birth, miracles, theology, Easter, the Ascension, ethics, prayer, life after death and universalism.

Spong will be further expanding on these chapters in this week’s 2 p.m. interfaith lectures as he strives to answer one last pressing question: Can Christianity for the living world of today “be developed out of these 12 theses, or are we in the position where we are looking at the death of the Christian faith?” he said.

Spong continues lectures with look at Darwin, Christianity


Despite the modern applicability of English biologist Charles Darwin’s work, much of the Christian Scripture and teaching contradicts his scientific principles, notably his theory of evolution.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, June 26 in the Hall of Philosophy, former Episcopal bishop of Newark John Shelby Spong will address this problem in his lecture “The Assault of Charles Darwin and Why the Christian Church Retreated before Darwin” as he continues the Week One Interfaith Lecture Series exploration of “Producing a Living Faith Today?”

“We failed to recognize that every medical school in the Western world is based on Darwinian principles,” Spong said. “We live in the Darwinian world whether we like it or not.”

Spong has discussed this issue before, speaking against a literal interpretation of the Bible. His 2005 book The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love explains why he believes a literal interpretation of the Bible can be dangerous, for both spiritual and scientific reasons. Spong said the Bible has been used to justify irrational thinking as well as, in extreme cases, violence and hatred.

Though Spong has spent much of his career advocating for an interpretation of Christianity that is compatible with the modern world, he said it is difficult.

“Can the Christian faith be made compatible with Darwin?” he said. “It can’t, not without changing things rather dramatically.”

Bonnefoux: ‘Inspiration and passion’ transform life, art



Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, artistic director of Chautauqua Dance, delivers Wednesday’s Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

It’s hard to imagine a 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux green in the face and shaking from nerves, but that’s what the Hall of Philosophy audience visualized when Bonnefoux transported them to his dance jury examination at the Paris Opera Ballet.

At age 21, Bonnefoux held the title reserved for the most distinguished of dancers in France. Bonnefoux has served as artistic director of Chautauqua Dance since 1983. He is also the artistic director and president of the North Carolina Dance Theatre. He has choreographed more than 60 ballets.

His lecture, “Inspiration and Passion,” was the third installment in the Week Four afternoon lecture series, “Art and Soul.”

Bonnefoux cited the book Spirituality of the Body, which addresses inspiration and passion.

“We experience transcendence every time we are moved by great passion or stilled by great experience. In both cases, the spirit becomes so charged that it overflows the boundaries of the self,” he quoted. “Two factors are needed to produce this transcendence: inspiration and passion. The inspiration for an artistic work always has some touch of the divine.”

He explained in his own words: “In the spirit, there is no more ego, so no more separation, no more ‘me’ as opposed to ‘them,’ ‘mine’ instead of ‘yours.’ … Where we can find inspiration is a state where we can share, listen, appreciate others, find the best of (ourselves), being in the heart instead of the head.”

Sacred texts, for example, inspire choreographers to express their spiritual beliefs and to demonstrate the scope of their talents, he said. He identified three important works that integrate strong examples of spiritual imagery performed today.

The first, “St. Matthew Passion” by John Neumeier, narrates the last days of Jesus Christ. The second, “Revelations” by Alvin Ailey, explores themes of African-American spirituality. Bonnefoux called the third piece, “Symphony of Psalms” by Jiří Kylián, “one of (his) favorite choreographies in the world.”

Faith also influenced one of Bonnefoux’s mentors, George Balanchine.

For Bonnefoux, inspiration can be a teacher, an artist, his students, the theater, a museum, a gallery or a concert hall.

From the age of 7, Bonnefoux knew he wanted to dance. He entered the Paris Opera Ballet when he was 10 years old. It was a taxing environment, he said, with a sense of competition among the young dancers. He recalled another dancer attempted to trip him moments before a performance.

Bonnefoux conjured the scene of a yearly dance exam at the Paris Opera Ballet in front of a jury and an audience of approximately 2,000 people. Each dancer performed two solos. Their performances determined their futures.

The time right before the performance was the hardest, he said, because it gave the dancers the opportunity to dwell on their doubts and insecurities. For Bonnefoux and many other dancers, these fears disappeared as soon as they reached the stage. After weeks of preparation, performing was joyous.

“It was like being a racing car, changing gears to accelerate,” he said. “I felt nothing could stop me.”

Out of 60 to 80 male dancers at the Paris Opera Ballet, Bonnefoux was discovered.

“When somebody else recognizes your talent, even if you have doubts, you can always go back to feeling that person could be right,” he said, marveling at his opportunity.

Throughout his life, Bonnefoux said, the good teachers respected tradition but weren’t afraid of progress or to make necessary changes. The bad teachers stuck to tradition out of a sense of duty.

One of his favorite teachers told him, “Tradition has to move to stay alive.”

He traveled to Spain with the Paris Opera Ballet and performed outside in the Generalife gardens.

“For a second, I forgot that it was not a theater,” Bonnefoux said. “So at one point … I look up, and there was the sky. It was not really the same (as) when you see the curtain or the drops that were going to be ready for the next scene. That moment was a beautiful moment for me, because I felt the power of nature and also the power of what was behind that nature.”

Like Tuesday’s lecturers, Chautauqua Theater artistic directors Ethan McSweeny and Vivienne Benesch, Bonnefoux said he believes there is a positive psychological reinforcement that comes with being the best. But overcoming the restrictions of ego is challenging.

“When you perform, you have a choice,” he said. “You can trust your thoughts, often negative, or you can trust your spirit. As you know, the spirit is … much kinder.”

Once he made the decision to leave France, Bonnefoux telephoned his old mentor Balanchine to ask for a season guest position. Balanchine gently refused his request, explaining it wouldn’t be fair to his regular dancers. The next day, Bonnefoux called again and asked to be taken on for two seasons. Balanchine recognized Bonnefoux’s dedication; Bonnefoux moved to New York City.

He had a difficult time adjusting to the new environment and thought he might eventually return to Paris. But he found inspiration in his new town, like the sculptures of Rodin. He found inspiration in people, too — dancers who genuinely loved to dance, who knew how to look at things and really see and who had presence.

Recently, an 11-year-old dancer at Chautauqua inspired Bonnefoux. The young dancers were given a questionnaire about their program and asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. Whereas the majority of the boys qualified their answers — such as, “I want to be a dancer, but also a lawyer…” — this boy said, “I want to dance. I want to be a dancer. That’s it.”

“He knew already what was his role in life,” Bonnefoux said.

He described the rich history of support for the arts at the Institution.

“Why do you think magic happens in Chautauqua?” he said. “It’s because there is a special bond between artist and audience, a bond formed by trust, expectation of pleasure … of being surprised, amazed, inspired and the knowledge that it will enrich artist and audience.”

Bonnefoux considers Daniel Albright another “Chautauqua success.” Now one of the best ballet dancers in the United States, Albright spent several years at Chautauqua. In August, he will return to teach.

“He’s really here to inspire our dancers,” Bonnefoux said. “And so, at the beginning, we inspired him, and now he is inspiring us.”

Another source of inspiration for Bonnefoux is love.

“Falling in love can be an inspiration, like the first time I met (my wife, Patricia McBride),” Bonnefoux said. “In a second, I knew we were supposed to be together.

“I feel often that my life was preordained.”

He mentioned many of his co-workers and friends in Chautauqua Dance who inspire and sustain him.

“One of the joys of my life has been discovering talented students and teachers,” he said.

Among those he mentioned were choreographers Mark Diamond and Sasha Janes, the two pianists of 19 years, the costume designers, his administrator and “rock,” Janice, and his wife, McBride.

“(McBride) said one day, “When I danced, I use to receive. Now, I want to give back,’” Bonnefoux said. “That’s the way I feel.”

McSweeny, Benesch: Humanity is revealed through theater

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Vivienne Benesch and Ethan McSweeny speak at the Hall of Philosophy during Tuesday’s Interfaith Lecture.
Vivienne Benesch and Ethan McSweeny speak at the Hall of Philosophy during Tuesday’s Interfaith Lecture. Photo by Eve Edelheit.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

The playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote plays to share his message with a large number of people, an idea that seems old-fashioned in the age of new media.

But what if Shaw still chose to write plays in the midst of the 21st century?

“Is there something about the experience of live theater that actually is capable of creating more effective and profound change than sitting in front of a television or watching a movie? And I think the answer is probably yes,” Ethan McSweeny said.

“Yes,” Vivienne Benesch agreed, nodding.

Benesch and McSweeny, artistic directors of Chautauqua Theater Company since 2005, presented “Soul and Story: Choosing a Life in the Theater” together at 2 p.m. Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy. Their presentation was the second installment in Week Four’s afternoon Interfaith Lecture Series, “Art and Soul.”

Rather than lecture, McSweeny, a self-identified cynic, and Benesch, who errs on the side of mysticism, asked each other’s opinions about art and spirituality, demonstrating a camaraderie borne of a 16-year friendship.

“Did you choose this life?” McSweeny asked Benesch, referring to a life of theater.

She replied, “I don’t believe it was a choice for me.”

Her family is extremely artistic, she said, and she was exposed to theater at an early age. In times of turmoil, Benesch turned to theater as an alternate, controllable reality.

“To play make-believe … that was my refuge,” she said. “Was it a choice? No. It was a pull — a calling, if you will.”

“That’s a kind of loaded word — a calling,” McSweeny said.

He mused later that religion and theater share a common larger vocabulary.

“Quite a bit of that vocabulary is in the context of how we became practioners of this ancient and constantly dying art form, whose end is constantly heralded at least twice a decade, only to resurface, yet again,” he said.

He, too, was exposed to theater as a child, but considered it a hobby, something he would eventually outgrow.

“I guess I feel like I did everything I could to not choose theater,” he said.

He attended a university without a theater program in pursuit of a degree in Russian studies.

His epiphany came in college, when he realized he was failing to learn Russian because he skipped language lab to attend student production rehearsals.

“My interest in theater overwhelmed my better judgment,” he said. “It is a little mystical to characterize it as a calling, but I suppose maybe it is.”

But both emphasized that theater is a craft, not only a calling.

McSweeny asked Benesch, “When did you decide to be an artist?”

Benesch was interested in criminal law, an interest she now recognizes as an early manifestation of her passion for theater.

“It was some idea of getting to represent the disenfranchised, and to stand … publicly (to) do so,” she said. “That was very appealing to me.”

Two childhood moments in particular shaped her path, Benesch said.

One was the first time she made her father laugh.

“That moment where the child realizes they have the capacity to bring joy to someone,” she said. “I always go back to that moment. I affected someone there, and that is an addiction.”

The second was a monologue she performed in fourth grade. Others noticed her talent, and she reflected on the human desire to be the best.

She wondered aloud if McSweeny had any performing experiences of his own before he began directing.

He did.

He convinced a substitute teacher that his regular teacher, out sick, had left him in charge of the school’s theater production.

“(I) proceeded to edit and direct a production of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ starring myself as Scrooge. So I think it was mostly about the acquisition of power, for me,” he joked.

He cited the role of Captain von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” as another formative role, “but that kind of peaked my career as a performer,” he said.

The two transitioned into a consideration of the spiritual aspect to the theater. Benesch explained the process of inviting a character’s spirit to reside within oneself.

“As an actor, you want the spirit of a person to enter you … you want to invite that character’s spirit into you,” she said. “You spend a rehearsal process having a conversation with the character you’re playing.”

“You’re describing the act of acting as a little bit like channeling … that has a spiritual dimension,” McSweeny said.

Benesch agreed and asked him about his own spirituality in regard to directing.

“I think on some level, the difference between a director and an actor is an actor goes very … deep into a single psyche, a single person, and the director’s responsibility is actually to stay a bit outside that and tell a wider story,” McSweeny said, explaining that he did not experience the same prospect of channeling that Benesch and other actors adopt. “I think I got interested in directing because I was a frustrated actor — because I wasn’t actually satisfied with just focusing on a single character.”

Directors are deliberately excluded, in part because they are the representation of the audience, he said. But McSweeny said his personal failures have a religious dimension.

“There is the quality of a demanding sacrifice of the practitioner. … It does ask of you to give up a lot of things, not just remuneration,” he said.

Despite personal disappointment with his Broadway debut, Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man,” he moved on, he said. He found another play and used it to tell a story and affect people.

“On a spiritual level, (theater) asks you to give up things, and I think it keeps challenging you and testing you to renew your commitment,” he said.

Benesch referenced the Monday afternoon lecture presented by Don Kimes, artistic director of Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution, on the importance of getting lost in order to find one’s way.

“There’s something about, as I get older, the balance of what it means to be a dedicated, fully consumed artist and what it means to live my life as a human being, and that, actually, to be a better artist I need to keep living my real life,” Benesch said.

Many young artists fixate on their failures, believing they signify the impossibility of a successful career, instead of understanding that artists need pitfalls to become better.

“A faith journey is that: At what point do you trust?” she said.

“Have you ever thought about doing something else, recently?” McSweeny asked her.

“Momentarily,” Benesch said. “I think I experience a lot of those moments where (I say), ‘Oh, I should be doing something ‘more important.’ I think every artist goes through that,” she said.

Benesch said celebrity holds little appeal for her, but she wants to have the ability to “effect change where change is needed,” to have the opportunity to travel and to use her influence to make a positive impact.

She paraphrased advice McSweeny’s sister shared with her earlier that morning.

“She said … you don’t have to be able to do six things at once,” Benesch said. “You can create a palette or a community which can effect all that change so you are a part of all those things.”

McSweeny said he worries about reaching out to his audience, but concluded, “If you really want to sort of change the hearts and minds of people, the theater is a pretty good place to do it — at least, I hope so.

“If I hadn’t had experiences in the theater where that had happened to me, I wouldn’t be here today talking to you about why I make theater. … It only happens every once in a while, but we’re believers because we go in hope of that moment occurring again. You go in hope that that transaction that you can only really get in the live theater will occur and lift you out of yourself and return you back to yourself, a different and changed person. I think we all go questing after that moment.”

Benesch cited Anton Chekhov, playwright of Chautauqua Theater Company’s most recent production, “Three Sisters.”

Chekhov said, “If you want to change people, first you have to show them who they are.”

“That’s the charge I feel that we have, today,” Benesch said.

Kimes: Getting lost a catalyst for creative possibility



Don Kimes, artistic director of Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution and professor of fine arts at American University, speaks in the Hall of Philosophy Monday afternoon. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

In 2003, a flood destroyed Don Kimes’ Washington, D.C., studio. Among his lost possessions were letters from friends, family photographs, his computer files and many of his personal artistic creations.

Kimes’ presentation, “Interruption, Transformation and the Creative Act,” initiated the Week Four afternoon Interfaith Lecture Series, “Art and Soul.”

He discussed what moves him artistically, his creative process and the discovery provoked by “unwanted, life-changing interruptions.”

Kimes has served as the artistic director of the Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution for 26 years, where he helped to establish the Logan Galleries (which recently was relocated to the renovated Fowler-Kellogg Art Center) and merge the formerly independent Chautauqua Art Association Gallery with the School of Art and Visual Arts Lecture Series to form VACI, which now includes Strohl Art Center and the Melvin Johnson Sculpture Garden.

He also is senior professor of Fine Arts at American University in Washington, D.C., where he launched American University Visual Arts programs in Rome, Umbria and Florence, Italy.

After the flood, the artistic effect of interruption was no longer a theory. It was Kimes’ life.

“This was my interruption,” Kimes said. “I was lost. It was devastating.”

For three months, Kimes attempted to salvage four pulpy bags full of personal papers and pictures.

Someone asked him, “Have you ever painted through pain?”

Kimes realized his damaged photographs reflected a beauty akin to the ruins he had seen on his travels in places like the Villa of the Mysteries near Pompeii, Italy.

He sank into a chronic depression for three and a half years, but he created small studies of his destroyed artistic career in the meantime.

“I think painting saved my life,” Kimes said.

He considers the complete metaphoric pieces created out of pain to be his strongest work to date.

“Creativity isn’t about what we don’t have. Instead it’s about making music with what we do have,” Kimes said.

To illustrate his point, Kimes shared an anecdote about Master Violinist Itzhak Perlman, whom he saw perform in Italy. While onstage, the violinist’s string broke. He paused for a moment and signaled the orchestra to begin again — retuning and recomposing the concerto on the spot for three strings instead of four.

“The music he made that night with three strings was more beautiful, more sacred, more memorable than any he had ever made when he had four strings,” Kimes said. “What if that string hadn’t broken?”

He answered his own question: “The broken string allowed him to reach a level that otherwise would have been impossible. … That interruption, which might’ve caused a lesser musician to start over with a new violin, instead allowed Perlman to ascend in a manner not even he had considered when he walked out onto that stage.”

This, Kimes explained, is the essence of art.

“The notion of a foundation and experience, combined with the ability to recognize daylight when it happens, are at the core of what it means to make a discovery, to put things together in a way they’ve never been assembled before, while also giving us a sense of meaning,” he said.

Something is not art solely because it is raw nor because it is technically correct.

Art is “discoveries that are meaningfully original,” Kimes said.

Much of the art esteemed by the mainstream today was mocked, shunned or discarded at the time of its creation. It may have no relevance to popular culture and may take years to be appreciated. Kimes offered the examples of Vincent van Gogh, who sold only one painting in his lifetime; he and others created on what Kimes calls “the edge of culture.”

“Understanding art is not automatic,” he said. “It does not come ready-made, like some visual fast-food available in 30 seconds. It requires effort.”

As such, the cliché “Those who can, do and those who can’t, teach” does not apply to art, Kimes said.

The interaction between teacher and student is a historic one; it fuels creative and intellectual development, which is why Kimes believes institutions like the Chautauqua School of Art are so important for instructor and pupil alike.

Kimes was a student of art himself in the 1970s and 1980s, working and living in the New York Studio School in Greenwich Village. For four days a week, he left the city to get back in touch with nature. He discovered a rock where he thought he might sketch the stream flowing past and ended up painting in that same spot for six years.

“At the time, I thought I was painting landscapes, but looking back, I realized that it was the relationship to the human engagement with nature in that cycle (of time, change, permanence … birth, growth, death and rebirth) that held my fascination,” Kimes said.

His work became more and more abstract but still reflected motifs of life, death and rebirth.

In 1994, he and his family decided to move to Italy, a radical change. But being uncomfortable is a part of the artistic process, Kimes said.

“How can you know when work is hollow? When it’s comfortable,” he said.

He reflected on making art and experiencing interruptions in the age of information. Simultaneous experiences, like reading a newspaper, flying on an airplane and listening to Beethoven aren’t interruptions, but are bits of noise, Kimes said. Time and space are now simultaneous, not sequential.

“In this age of information, making art requires a greater act of faith than it did for Piero and Giotto and Masaccio,” he said. “They had the church. We have mass media.”

But Kimes said he has no doubt that new technologies will change art, not destroy it.

“I don’t believe for one second that if Leonardo (da Vinci) were alive today, he wouldn’t be pushing the envelope to the maximum. … He’d have a brush in one hand, a computer in the other, and, being Leonardo, he’d probably have an iPhone in the third hand,” Kimes said.

Painting has been relevant for the past 35,000 years, Kimes said, and the interruption of the digital world will not alter its value. The invention of canvas or the camera or the motion picture changed painting, but painting also affected those mediums in turn.

Kimes referenced the frescoes in the Villa of Mysteries near Pompeii, which continue to affect their viewers.

“At its deepest level, art exists outside of time and mortality,” he said.

Though his own work is autobiographical, Kimes believes the search demonstrated in his pieces represents an experience common to all of humanity. He concluded with a quote from T.S. Eliot:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

A twist on tradition: Staggs brings Bonhoeffer to life



Al Staggs performs “A View From the Underside: The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” for the Hall of Philosophy audience Friday. Photo by Megan Tan.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent his final hour before his execution in the Hall of Philosophy.

Clad in a makeshift striped prison uniform, the Rev. Al Staggs portrayed Bonhoeffer at the Interfaith Lecture at 2 p.m. Friday in his presentation, “A View from the Underside: The Legacy of One of the Spies for God, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”

Staggs has a master’s degree in religious education from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a master’s degree in theology from Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate in ministry from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He studied applied theology under Harvey Cox and is the author of What Would Bonhoeffer Say?, published in January.

Staggs portrays approximately 30 comedic, historical and religious figures, including Archbishop Óscar Romero, Robin Williams, Thomas Merton and Willie Nelson, in addition to Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer preached against the general inaction of the German Protestant Church in Germany during the Nazi regime and plotted with other resistors to assassinate Hitler. He served as a double agent, ostensibly working toward Nazi goals but spreading rebellion and encouraging dissension instead. For his efforts, he was executed in a concentration camp in Flossenbürg, Germany.

The audience hung on to Staggs’ every word; patrons leaned forward in their seats and chuckled at occasional moments of wry humor, peppering Staggs with questions once his performance ended.

Staggs strode back and forth, taking long pauses, lapsing into hymn-singing, quoting letters Bonhoeffer had written to his friends and even holding a brief conversation with an imaginary cockroach.

Excerpts from Staggs’ performance:

  • “For the church is really only the church as she exists for others, and it is for that reason I will tell you with great deal of sincerity and conviction: I think the church should sell all of her property and give it to the poor. I am almost disgusted with worship services and liturgies and grand choirs and great music and splendid sermons in the face of the injustice which prevails in our land, for to conduct liturgies and to do worship in the face of this structural evil is blasphemy. And then there are most of the ministers who seem more concerned for their own security, their own station in life, than they do about the plight of the oppressed in our land.”
  • “There was another person that year who was to have an even greater impact upon me, and it was the person of Frank Fischer. … I came to the most radical and profound revelation, I do my believe, of my entire life. … For the first time in my privileged existence … I began to look at life and history and the interpretation of Scripture … from the perspective of the outcast … of all those who suffer.”
  • “Hitler promised to us security, and oh, how we worshiped at the god of security, while we allowed the systemic and structural evil of genocide to eat away at our souls like a cancer. And do you think that God is going to hold us guiltless? You see Christians in Germany face a terrible, terrible alternative. … We either work for the victory of our nation and thereby destroy civilization, or we work for the defeat of our very own nation and hopefully preserve civilization.”
  • “I have learned the secret of being able to transcend whatever size cell they put me (in). And what is the secret, hmm? It’s remembering — just remembering the experience God has allowed me in my life.”

Dorrien: Lesser-known racial justice activists should be recognized



Gary Dorrien gives the Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy Tuesday. His lecture considered the life of Benjamin E. Mays, a minister and early critic of segregation. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

Benjamin Elijah Mays’ earliest memory was his father pleading for his life before a lynch mob.

His formative experience with race relations would affect the path of the rest of his life.

Gary Dorrien returned to the lecture platform at 2 p.m. Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy to continue his study of lesser-known figures in the fight for racial justice. Dorrien is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, professor of religion at Columbia University and a renowned theologian, historian, lecturer and author.

Monday’s lecture subject was Black Social Gospel activist Reverdy Ransom. Thursday’s subject was Mays, former president of Morehouse College and one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s spiritual mentors.

Dorrien’s lecture, “Defying White Supremacy: Benjamin Elijah Mays, The Negro’s God, and the Black Social Gospel,” traced Mays’ academic achievement and national influence.

Mays was born in 1894 in North Carolina to a family of cotton farmers. Though Mays could not attend school year-round due to his farming duties, his father had learned to read illegally as a slave and passed his knowledge on to his children.

His father disapproved, but eventually, Mays rejected the family farm work and committed to attending school year-round.

“The experience of being taught by African-American graduates … was life-changing for Mays,” Dorrien said. “It gave him models of educational achievement and advancement.”

Growing up in the rural south, Mays and other African-Americans lived in constant fear of lynching and avoided white people at all costs. When he had the opportunity to attend Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, Mays was amazed to discover white classmates who supported him and stood up for him against local bigots.

In 1921, Mays set out for the University of Chicago Divinity School, considered the most prestigious Baptist school in the country. There, he was dismayed to rediscover racist southern whites. Some professors were reluctant to acknowledge their black students outside of the classroom. Jim Crow laws pervaded, especially in the wake of the 1919 race riots.

“Mays aspired to an academic career, but for the next 14 years, he kept getting sidetracked by what he later called ‘distracting temptations,’” Dorrien said.

Among these temptations was Mays’ teaching position at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Mays also took a pastor position at a local church, where he was plunged back into racist Southern society. In the midst of his three years there, his wife died.

Mays returned to Chicago, although the racial tensions in the city had not improved. He worked toward his Ph.D., a dissertation on pagan influences in Christianity.

“It made sense to him that all doctrines have a story, that religious thinking is rightly concerned with understanding the story behind the canonical narratives of Scripture, and that religious meanings are always going to be layered with relative, culturally conditioned historical forms,” Dorrien said.

He took a job at South Carolina State College and remarried. In 1926, he took a position as executive secretary with the Tampa Urban League.

Dorrien described Mays’ role as the “semi-official liaison between black and white communities of Tampa.”

But Mays never forgot the paradox of his work, simultaneously hating segregation and working to reform it.

He returned to Atlanta to be the national student secretary for the Young Men’s Christian Association/Young Women’s Christian Association with some trepidation. The YMCA/YWCA advocated rigid segregation laws, but it also had an impressive history of supporting black Christian leaders.

In 1930, Mays discovered his calling as a public theologian. In collaboration with the Rockefeller Institute of Social and Religious Research, he embarked upon a thorough survey of black churches in the United States. The Negro’s Church was published in 1933. It portrayed a grim national landscape but ended on an optimistic note: The church was culturally indispensible, owned and operated by blacks and a source of validation and recognition. The black church was truly democratic; it was open to all races, including whites.

“For his entire life, Mays approached his intellectual work with the same moral and intellectual conviction that he resisted race prejudice,” Dorrien said.

The Negro’s Church filled a sociological void. It launched the study of the sociology of black religion and furthered Mays’ academic career.

In 1932, Mays returned to Chicago and wrote his dissertation, “The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature.” Mays established two dichotomies: contemporary literature versus mass literature and compensatory religion versus constructive religion. His thesis was that all ideas of God are the constructs of particular social circumstances. Mays used the example of the African-American conception of God changing over time. Mays’ own experience pervaded his dissertation.

He traveled to India to meet Gandhi. The two discussed the philosophy of nonviolence and agreed that oppressed people around the world should network with each other.

Mays worried that African-American intellectuals were giving up on God. This was a new phenomenon in black culture — no matter how hard the situation, blacks relied on their strong sense of spirituality, Dorrien said.

“This phenomenon was a distinctive form of disillusionment,” Dorrien said, partly the result of mistreatment of blacks at the hands of the United States after World War I. This disillusionment set Mays’ professional agenda.

Mays was the dean of the School of Religion at Howard University for six years. During this time, he achieved renown as an ecumenical leader.

In 1940, he accepted the presidency of Morehouse College, where he served for 27 years, greatly improving the quality of education. Four years later, he was elected vice president of the Federal Council of Churches.

One of the students at Morehouse who listened to Mays’ sermons on morality and character was Martin Luther King Jr. King called Mays his “spiritual mentor … one of the great spiritual influences of my life.” After King was assassinated in 1968, Mays gave the eulogy at his funeral.

“Mays taught King not to shy away from saying that racism was the original sin of America and that it remained America’s greatest evil,” Dorrien said. “Persistently, Mays contended that race should not matter and that complete integration is the only morally worthy goal for a Christian to pursue.”

Mays took special pride in the American ecumenical movement, but he felt that Christianity had been destroyed by the burden of racism. He liked that Christian activism fueled much of the civil rights activism. Nevertheless, for the rest of his life, he lamented that it was the courts who effected permanent change, not the church.

He warned young African-Americans to study seriously and constantly improve upon their behavior; he believed they were subject to constant scrutiny by whites. He had a specific vision for the future of the American church, one where whites could attend traditionally black churches and blacks could attend traditionally white churches without suspicion or persecution.

The reason such historical figures as Ransom and Mays were ignored or overlooked, Dorrien said, is because American Christianity suffered from the same racism as American society at large.

Dorrien defined white supremacy as “a structure of power based on privilege that presumes to define what is normal.”

Under this definition, white supremacy or privilege is still alive today.

“To become more inclusive, we have to privilege the issues of people of color,” he said.

Dorrien concluded with methods to increase healthy dialogue among races and religions.

“We need new forms of community that arise out of and transcend the structures that we have inherited,” he said.

Chikane reflects on opponent of apartheid, future of peace



The Rev. Frank Chikane, president of Apostolic Faith Mission International, speaks at the Hall of Philosophy Wednesday afternoon. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

The Rev. Frank Chikane pays the salaries of his former torturers because of the influence of anti-apartheid leaders like Beyers Naudé.

Chikane is the president of the Apostolic Faith Mission International and a member of the African National Congress. His 2 p.m. lecture, “Daring Death to Save a Nation,” was the third in the Week Three Interfaith Lecture Series “Spies for God.”

Throughout his lecture and Q-and-A session, Chikane reiterated the philosophy of peace and the revolutionary history of anti-apartheid activist Beyers.

Beyers was of white Afrikaan descent. White Afrikaans speakers descended from Dutch, German and French colonists of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Beyers’s story is unique because of his race.

“He comes from the heart of Afrikanerdom,” Chikane said. In this way, Beyers’s story is comparable to that of Tuesday’s subject, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

“We understood the type of racism in South Africa as the same as Nazi Germany’s experiences,” Chikane said. “It had to do with what blood you have, as if blood is different. And it had to do with you being classified because of your color or the shade of your color.”

Chikane shared Beyers’ history in brief. Beyers, born in 1915, grew up in an affluent white Afrikaan family. Jozua François Naudé, Beyers’s father, was a dominant force in the Dutch Reformed Church and believed in a theological justification for apartheid. He and others like him believed that the Afrikaan people were the “new Israel,” a chosen nation. The Afrikaans believed they were called by God to rule South Africa, and Beyers accepted this and other racist ideologies and structures.

“It was quite an experience for us who were on the receiving side, that the people who brutalize you are the ones who want to spread the Word (of God) to you,” Chikane said.

He explained that the Afrikaans believed in the stereotype of a savage, “dark” African continent, where they would be the light.

“It was the worst type of brutality we experienced from people who claimed to be civilized,” Chikane said. “They were civilized for themselves but brutalized those who were not part of themselves.”

Beyers’ father refused to accept the British victory in the South African War and devoted himself to promoting Afrikaan nationalism. He also created a secret society, the Broederbond, devoted to infiltrating all realms of South African life to expand Afrikaan influence.

“Unfortunately, it was done at our expense,” Chikane said, referring to non-white South Africans.

Beyers studied at the Stellenbosch University. The Broederbond accepted him for membership when he was 25 years old, and he became a key leader in the Dutch Reformed Church.

The Dutch Reformed Church emphasized a close reading of biblical passages. In reading the Bible and interacting with Christians of other churches and races, Beyers realized that the truth might lie outside of his upbringing.

“The point where he took a stand, he used Acts 5:29, ‘We must obey God, rather than men,’” Chikane said.

Beyers’ original support for anti-apartheid measures was not out of any affection for Africans; rather, he thought apartheid would destroy the progress of the Afrikaana.

Chikane emphasized that Beyers’ change of heart was neither immediate nor easy.

“He struggled with this development (apartheid) in his church; his environment made him a child of his time,” Chikane said.

After 1948, apartheid was made law. Chikane explained the system of passbooks akin to those used in times of slavery. Certain prescribed areas of Johannesburg were prohibited from non-Afrikaaners unless otherwise authorized; a lack of a signature meant arrest and jail. Apartheid outlawed racially mixed marriages and segregated the military and public spaces. Any resistance to apartheid was declared communism.

As he was being tortured, Chikane once asked, “How do you do that?”

The man replied, “You are a communist, and I am doing my job.”

The man would go to church the next day, Chikane said, before returning to continue with his “job.”

Beyers led Bible studies to try to change the minds of his congregation. It didn’t work. Whites and blacks could not worship in the same spaces.

It took a massacre to change his mind. The Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 killed 69 people who were protesting pro-apartheid legislation. Afterwards, all liberation movements were banned. The Dutch Reformed Church supported the government’s decision to crush the uprising and kill the 69 protesters.

At the age of 45, Beyers’ perspective was transformed.

“His change was a miracle, in my view,” Chikane said, comparing Beyers’ “Damascus experience” to the biblical story of St. Paul, who stopped persecuting Jews after a miraculous occurrence on the road to Damascus.

Beyers was considered a traitor to his race for his support for the end of apartheid.

“(He) shook the foundations … of Afrikaana nationalism by challenging racist policies of his own people, which were brutally enforced against millions of our people in the country,” Chakine said.

Because of his position, he lost his leadership position in the Dutch Reformed Church.

“At that point, he decided to obey God, rather than men,” Chikane said.

His worried congregation questioned his decision.

In a sermon, Beyers said God loved diversity and that none could be excluded from the church.

“All laws which hinder love and justice between people are against the will of God,” Chikane said, quoting Beyers.

After Beyers made this announcement, a committee was established to decide upon his discipline. As the words of his final sermon left his lips, a member of the congregation stood and handed him a letter of dismissal. Beyers surrendered peacefully but did not stop his activism.

For his treason, he was imprisoned within the Johannesburg magisterial district for seven years. Authorities attempted to erase Beyers’ presence from public life; quoting his words and publishing his works were prohibited.

His children were harassed by their Afrikaan classmates; Beyers himself could not be close to his mother’s body at her funeral.

As a result of his rejection from the church, Beyers became more ecumenical. He interacted with members of independent churches and studied black consciousness and theology. He helped young white conscientious objectors who did not want to have to kill blacks in the army. He refused to bow to the whims of the government.

Beyers became a pastor to the restricted and oppressed, even in the midst of house arrest.

“He identified with the people, and he even went underground with them,” Chikane said. “For those of us who are black, it was difficult to see any good out of white people, with the experience we had. … It also humanized us, because to have somebody from the Broederbond to come and take sides with you told you this struggle is not about whites and blacks. This struggle is about sin.”

Beyers lived to see the fruits of his labor. Once apartheid was reversed, Beyers’ oppressors came to him and apologized.

Though remnants of apartheid remain in South Africa today, “We have peace,” Chikane said.

Chikane concluded with a warning.

“This is history,” he said. “But what worries me about this history is that all of us are always children of our time, and children tend to repeat the mistakes of their own parents,” Chikane said. “The world will never have peace as long as we strive to protect our sectarian interest … Your security will not be guaranteed by brutalizing other people. The only way you can guarantee your security is to free other people.”

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