Three Taps of the Gavel: Ours is a never-ending quest

BRIA GRANVILLE | Staff Photographer
Chautauqua Institution President Thomas M. Becker is greeted with extended applause and a standing ovation from the audience and board of trustees.

Editor’s Note: These are the prepared remarks for Chautauqua Institution President Thomas M. Becker’s annual Three Taps of the Gavel address, delivered at Sunday’s morning worship service in the Amphitheater.

Welcome to the opening ceremony of the 2015 Chautauqua season. We take this time every season to reflect on the purpose of our gathering; to express our gratitude to the Chautauquans who have gone before us over these 141 years; and to dedicate our minds to the increasingly unusual practice of exploring complexity and nuance in the world around us without relying on the certainties of our ideologies.

We come to Chautauqua as a practice, as a way of checking in with ourselves and each other, to mark the year gone by and to anticipate and prepare for the year ahead. This is a time to pause and look: Our children and grandchildren are the visible manifestation of time’s movement — usually in vertical inches. There is an unfortunate tendency toward horizontal growth for those of us advanced in age.

We come here to recharge our spirits, to invest our energies with friends and strangers; to build an atmosphere of respect, share serious ideas and opinions, ruminate and meditate, and indeed practice kindness with each other. Each year, we further our spiritual development, undertaken in this sacred space with limitless grace and with the accountability and moral urgency to which we are held by our various faiths.

Ours is an aspirational endeavor. We understand that knowledge is a journey. We recognize that the muscles of critical thinking need exercise and training throughout our lives. We also understand how the intellectual anchors of our lives can be dragged loose by a new wave of discovery or become unmoored by the passage of time, and we must recalibrate our course.

By focusing on the issues and forces of our time, we feel more alive, more engaged, more empowered. But we also gather here in humility, knowing that the quest we undertake is perpetual and endemic to the human condition.

BRIA GRANVILLE | Staff Photographer
President Thomas M. Becker delivers the annual Three Taps of the Gavel address to open the 142nd assembly.

We do not see science and religion as mutually exclusive forces in a contest for the truth. Rather we see these disciplines as cooperative resources in the appreciation of who we are and what constitutes the very essence of the life we live. We also delve deeply into the arts here, knowing their power to say something that can’t be said any other way, to paraphrase the novelist Flannery O’Connor.

Of course, we now live in a time characterized by access to unprecedented information, a blizzard of words, images, and computational capacity, accelerating at phenomenal rates. We blog, tweet, Skype, Snapchat — and yet these tools have somehow failed to improve our ability to live together or understand each other across our differences.

This past year, a web pioneer who has been blogging for 15 years declared he would stop blogging. In explaining his decision, Andrew Sullivan said, “I want to read again, slowly, carefully.” He went on to say, “I want to absorb a difficult book and walk around in my own thoughts with it for a while. I want to have an idea and let it slowly take shape, rather than be instantly blogged.”

It sounds like Chautauqua, doesn’t it? We are here to read and take the time required to absorb difficult ideas and challenging art forms. In the coming weeks, we will have conversations that serve to develop our ideas without the need to dominate another idea. We openly nurture creativity and curiosity across all ages. We know that ours is not a triumphal activity but one more season laid into the layers of effort over these 141 years — a canvas with its annual application of earnestness and hope.

Some of you may be familiar with a work of philosophical fiction written in 1974 by Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Subtitled, “An Inquiry Into Values,” the book describes a motorcycle trip involving an unnamed narrator, his son, and for a segment of the trip, two friends. Within the robust dialogue is a reference to Chautauqua. Listen to this passage for its wisdom and its timelessness:

“What I would like to do is use the time that is coming now to talk about some things that have come to mind. We’re in such a hurry most of the time that we never get much of a chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s gone. Now that we do have some time, and know it, I would like to use the time to talk in some depth about things that seem important.

“What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua, that’s the only name I can think for it … like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster paced radio, movies, and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. ‘What’s new?’ is an interesting and broadening eternal question but one which if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question ‘What is best?’ ”

What is new? What is best? We know this inquiry at Chautauqua.

We will open this season’s lecture series with an exploration of 21st-century literacies. As we were developing this program I kept thinking about the explosive impact of invention on the age of our founders. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century improvements were made to communication, transportation and commerce at a dizzying pace. And into that atmosphere these radicals pioneered a habit of mind and practice that stepped back for reflection, stepped into the needs and obligations to continue to learn, offered the experience of community and promoted its repetition in communities outside Chautauqua.

Thought of in that way, Chautauqua is a kind of literacy for what it is to be human.

Born in 1871, just prior to the creation of Chautauqua, the poet and philosopher, Paul Valéry, said, “The folly of mistaking a paradox for a discovery, a metaphor for a proof, a torrent of verbiage for a spring of capital truths, and oneself for an oracle, is inborn in us.” The human condition is more than mapping the sequence of our genome; it involves understanding our imperfections and the balance between that which offers a deeper understanding and that which obfuscates and deceives.

We are a community of readers wherein we invest in the development of writers because we believe in the power of words and in the capacity of literature to illuminate truth. I was struck by this reality recently when I unintentionally found myself viewing one of those videos so coldly produced by the group known as ISIS. This horrific violence exercised as intimidation. And I found myself thinking about the first word of the world’s oldest, greatest and most disturbing poem, The Iliad. Scholars believe this work was created about 760 B.C. The translation I was introduced to in school began the poem with the word, “rage.” And I thought about being here in this time, some 2,800 years later and what has actually changed about the human condition. I also remember the Jesuit of advanced years who discussed this work insisting we concentrate on one of Homer’s messages, that the victors and the victims in the tale are both visited by harm; a lesson conveyed throughout the Bible and other great spiritual texts.

Ours is an old model — this gathering in physical form in a place requiring effort to find, effort to navigate — a community of people actually present to one another — a symphonic weave of programming moving from matters spiritual to pragmatic, scholarly to entertaining, creative to instructional.

As we begin this Chautauqua season, I assure you our model remains vitally important. As it is here that the reflective character is nurtured in an atmosphere of respect for complexity and nuance. Here the quest for what is new is leavened by the follow-up exploration of what is best. Here we confront the contradictions of our complicated modern lives and the ancient character of our species; what, I think, David Brooks meant when he referred to our lives containing the anxious contradictions between disillusionment and hope.

Our mission is the exploration of the best in human values and the enrichment of life. There is something endlessly hopeful about that. Ours is a never-ending quest. The Chautauqua season is laid out before you, good people of Chautauqua. It is with a sense of joyful anticipation that I tap the gavel three times … Chautauqua 2015 has begun.