A Chautauqua Interfaith Conference
Mary Lee Talbot | Staff Writer
“We will not be non-denominational; we will be all-denominational.” So declared John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller, the founders of Chautauqua, in 1874.
“It is time to embrace world religions,” said the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, director of Chautauqua’s Department of Religion. “Some say we are late getting at it, but it is an essential journey that Chautauqua needs to be about. It is about peace in the world.”
Campbell’s words were at the heart of the Department of Religion’s interfaith conference, titled “Expanding the Beloved Community through Love and Forgiveness,” held June 11 and 12 at the Athenaeum Hotel. The event was co-sponsored by the Fetzer Institute of Kalamazoo, Mich.
The founders’ statement set the stage for a Chautauqua that was and is open to all. Throughout the years, Chautauqua has first embraced multiple protestant denominations and then Roman Catholics. The ecumenical outreach was not without tension, but today all live side by side. Chautauqua’s Jewish population expanded from an occasional speaker to today’s lived reality, most evident in the Everett Jewish Life Center.
In 1998, Chautauqua embraced the Abrahamic Program, and gradually, Muslims discovered Chautauqua. We have been blessed by more than 40 Muslim speakers on a variety of subjects and our Muslim neighbors are now dreaming of a “House” at Chautauqua. Then, in February 2010, the board of trustees, in setting down a strategic plan for the next eight years, included an affirmation of Chautauqua’s Christian heritage and Chautauqua’s interfaith growth.
Their vision for the future is to create a Chautauqua that welcomes the world’s great religions. It was in this spirit that the Department of Religion, in partnership with the Fetzer Institute, determined that we could best introduce the hope of expanding our beloved community by inviting a combination of religious leaders and Chautauquans to a conference at Chautauqua, where together they might search for the most effective way to realize this vision.
More than 30 faith leaders from Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Baha’i and Sikh communities, and 30 Chautauquans representative of Chautauqua’s diversity, met to discuss how the Institution could serve as a resource for the larger society to foster the idea that through love and forgiveness we can advance respect, cooperation and compassion among people of all faiths.
The conference allowed time for individuals to get to know one another, to share publicly their individual experiences of interfaith dialogue inclusion and exclusion, and to help Chautauqua take the next steps in creating an interfaith community based on love and forgiveness. Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, quoted Dr. Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of now” to emphasize that we cannot postpone our efforts to commit to an ongoing interfaith dialogue.
“Love and forgiveness are not enough; we need justice. We need deep social interaction; we need people of different faiths in our homes.”
The Right Rev. John Chane, retired Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., said: “The world is embroiled in a religious struggle. Chautauqua has the power to convene great leaders. It is the place where leaders can reach out to one another.”
The Rev. Welton Gaddy said: “Chautauqua is one of the few places where personal wholeness in community is on the agenda. It calls people to lofty dreaming and pragmatic action, to talk poetry and engage in politics, to listen to breaking news and read lasting literature.”
The Rev. Paul Raushenbush, senior religion editor of The Huffington Post, asked: “Young people care about interfaith ideas and they need a forum to talk about them. If they can’t come here, how do we take Chautauqua out where they are?”
Daisy Khan, director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, said: “I was born to be a Chautauquan. I am a Muslim, educated in Catholic schools by nuns, and I lived in a town with Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists.”
As participants discussed how an interfaith Chautauqua might appear and what it would contain, the Rev. John Cavadini, chair of the Fetzer Advisory Committee on World Religions and Spirituality, and professor of theology and director of the Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame University, reminded the group that, “no one speaks from nowhere. We always speak from a perspective and from our own commitments. Expanding the Beloved Community does not mean expanding the church; it does not mean proselytizing. But the sponsors of interfaith dialogue come with a whole self, and the sharing comes at a cost. If you want to reap the benefit of the sharing, you have to accept the cost of the sharing: You will be a different self. We have to be prepared for the irreducible otherness of our partners.”
The Rev. Kathryn Lohre, president of the National Council of Churches, presented the world situation in which religious institutions live. She described the lapse of institutional loyalty and the sense that people are spiritual and not religious as two key factors. Other factors included more egalitarian networks, the impact of Sept. 11, the increase of interfaith marriages and the expansion of interfaith dialogue. The changes in the media and the recent economic slowdown have led to a competitive environment for interfaith activities. Her conclusions were that we must be interdisciplinary, multigenerational and help people seek to be better human beings. The unifier is our humanity.
Joan Chittister, OSB, Professor Azim Nanji, Rabbi Samuel Stahl, the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, Dr. Vasudha Narayanan, Mr. Arun Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Jerry Campbell shared experiences of interfaith dialogue and interfaith inclusion and exclusion. Their words of wisdom and advice included: put down your own presumptions and clear your own psyche of false barriers; develop the attitude of hospitality toward people and ideas and make compassion and trust the most important aspects of any dialogue; be aware of flashpoints … acknowledge the conflicts and don’t hide them. Many times custom and practice will trump the text; look for the embodied liturgy of dance, art, music and food. Know that every faith tradition has proponents and antagonists to interfaith dialogue and some people will not care at all.
Through paired conversations and small groups, the participants produced hopes and expectations for Chautauqua. In 2012, Chautauqua is already providing opportunities for interfaith dialogue in a variety of ways. The Department of Religion is sponsoring the Abrahamic Program for Young Adults for the seventh year. It will also sponsor weekly discussion sessions on Friday afternoons to examine the interfaith lectures from a variety of view points. Eckerd College and St. Bonaventure University are sponsoring experience-based courses at Chautauqua. The Everett Jewish Life Center and the Lutheran House are sponsoring a dialogue.
In thinking about the future, conference participants used words like proximity and encounter. Proximity could happen through long- or short-term work projects, camps or other ways to share on a daily basis. The ongoing discussion to establish a Muslim House and a Buddhist House or other faith houses is one way to achieve proximity. Chautauqua could function like Camp David, where world religious leaders can meet discreetly with the potential for confidentiality when needed. Chautauquans, building on their interfaith experience on the grounds, could take both the vision and practical applications of interfaith work home to their local communities. Thus begins a new “Chautauqua Movement.”
Thomas Becker, president of Chautauqua Institution, shared thoughts which concluded the conference and pushed the participants forward.
“There is a genuine sense of conversation at Chautauqua. It is the oxygen which drives the day,” he said. “There is a larger set of possibilities for those who come through the gates and want to drop the artificial win/lose life. They can give up their safety net and take intellectual, emotional and spiritual risks to find a new view of life. In I Kings, Solomon asked God for a listening heart to deal with people in a just way, to discern good and evil. We pray for a listening heart, for the ‘Beloved Community,’ to build a society where the least of us is treated with justice.”
Campbell, in her closing words, challenged all of us that, “We have only noble dreams unless we have love and forgiveness. We can’t do any of this without changing our attitudes, and without love and forgiveness for one another and for one another’s religions. This truth became incandescently clear to me in my work with Dr. Martin Luther King. His signature message was this: ‘Love is the greatest force the world has ever known and without it change will never happen.’”
Following the conference, Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote these challenging words: “Unless we find a new way to relate to the world’s religious pluralism we will have only the two choices of the acceptance of continuing religious violence or of watching benignly as all religious systems as we now know them die. Unity might be found in our common humanity, but that does not appear to be possible unless we can develop a common religious understanding. I think there is another possibility to these two fairly dreadful and certainly stark options. This possibility will, however, require that religious people think differently from the way we have been taught to think before.”