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Elevating Civil and Interfaith Dialogue in Communities: Finding Common Ground in an Age of Discord

Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill addressed a gathering of Chautauquans on April 17, 2018, at South Franklin Circle in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. His remarks as prepared for delivery, with light edits, are provided below.

I bring you greetings from a Chautauqua Institution community that is preparing to remove its porch wraps and launch the Institution’s 145th season on June 23. As we busily complete a few remaining lecture and entertainment bookings, we are also in the process of inviting our community members to help us frame the next strategic plan for Chautauqua.

In conversations over the past couple months and, indeed, over the past year since I assumed the role as Chautauqua’s 18th president, we have been attempting to understand our distinctive role in society, to develop a much more precise awareness of what the world is calling us to do today.

Our founders — and your fellow Ohioans — Bishop John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller would have told you 144 years ago that Chautauqua was born from a need to create a meaningful use of leisure time. And, within the span of their lifetimes, Chautauqua would evolve again and again — to respond to what its constituents and the world needed.

And answering the question of what the world needs today is as complicated and messy as it’s ever been!

At Chautauqua, we’ve been zeroing in on the need to create a dynamic and purposeful space for civil discourse and for interfaith dialogue — two callings that stand resolutely on their own as critical and yet also complement each other at the same time. And, so, we thought we’d invite you tonight to join with us in probing the roles that civil and interfaith dialogue can play in our world today as we seek to reconcile the dissonance that surrounds us.

I’ve heard pundits and preachers alike suggest that this time in our lives is “shocking,” “singular” and even “unprecedented” as it relates to the tone of public conversation and a growing intolerance of “the other.” While many of us may agree with any one or all of these characterizations, I think we might also agree that there is great hope in this era in which we find ourselves.

As the Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell said so eloquently in her final remarks as Chautauqua’s director of religion, “The Biblical stories point to our human potential for courage and compassion.” In that same sermon, she challenged us to dream impossible dreams. And, so, that’s what we’re doing.

And what I love most about Chautauqua and its history is that it has always been called to tackle the tough issues of the day — sometimes it has done so with great external fervor and at other times with behind-the-scenes quiet confidence. Today calls for the former, and we are excited about the proactive role Chautauqua can and must play in being a part of the solution to a world that, for too many, feels like it’s gone off the rails.

At Chautauqua, we are dreaming of an American citizenry that thirsts for civil dialogue — the kind of engagement that Thomas Aquinas envisioned: Dialogue that demands attentiveness and respect for the other, as well as a commitment to affirm the truth — wherever it may be found.

Now, as you might imagine — achieving this civil dialogue “nirvana” is no simple task. Creating an environment where respect for the other is cherished above all calls us to exercise skills — or muscles, if you will — that aren’t easily practiced in digital spaces nor do they feel practical in a 24-hour news cycle that has made many of us manic. For all the self-help diets and prescriptions advertised for our physical life, this form of a workout is one desperately needed if we are to trim down our bloated echo chambers and oversized political and ideological siloes.

So, that’s why I have said what we do at Chautauqua — and what you do here at South Franklin Circle — is perhaps more relevant, more needed and certainly more necessary than it has ever been. The world needs spaces and places where we can be in genuine community with others, separated from distraction and focused on what we can learn from the here and now.

I happen to think we do this particularly well at Chautauqua, and we’re aiming to widen the circle of citizens who come to our community for a day, a week or longer to exercise their civil dialogue muscles; to learn and relearn those skills and dispositions that advance humanity. And we are beginning to have discussions about how to take what we practice in community out far beyond the gates of Chautauqua itself. More on that in a moment.

Last year, we invited our colleagues from Claremont Lincoln University to share with us what they have framed as the core of their educational experience — the building blocks of civil dialogue.

Their core curriculum centers on mindfulness, dialogue, collaboration and change. And, as we learned about the intentionality of their curriculum, we realized that this relatively new online graduate university (founded with support from a longtime Chautauquan, I might add) is also a sign of our times. Think about that: A new nonprofit university — founded within the past five years — whose trademarked mission is to engage in positive social change, and they are doing this in great part by teaching civil dialogue skills and dispositions.

We will be continuing our work with Claremont Lincoln University and seeking other partners who share this mission and vision to elevate civil dialogue as a core characteristic of what it means to be an American — and emphacize how it can transform communities. We believe the world is calling us — and others — to do this work.

One of the civil dialogue projects that we think will make an immediate impact in our community this summer is our new Poetry Makerspace.

Where else but at Chautauqua would the literary arts lead the way to civil dialogue? The makerspace will be animated in its inaugural year by the Traveling Stanzas interactive exhibit created by Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center. Through this creative use of art and technology, all Chautauquans will be invited to lend their voice to each week’s conversations through the powerful voice of poetry. Please watch (beginning until 1:30):

What’s magical about the expression created in the makerspace is that it is not limited by its physical space. It becomes part of a larger whole that transcends the barriers of our grounds through analog and online tools that allow a poem’s architect to share their creations via social media or even in a printed, mailable postcard.

This 21st-century “message in a bottle” has unlimited potential to be discovered in shores far distanced from our beloved lake. We’re excited to see where the conversation leads!

We can hardly have a conversation about civil dialogue in the modern context without also discussing interfaith dialogue. Of course, this has been a centerpiece of the Chautauqua experience for a couple decades. And, its relevance and importance are being elevated in ways that might surprise our founders, but certainly would also delight them.

While Chautauqua was founded as a Methodist retreat to support the education of Sunday School teachers, it quickly became a place that welcomed people from all Christian denominations and eventually a place that celebrates people of all faiths and none.

And, as the population of “nones” grows — as a cradle Catholic, I have to be specific here: that’s nones, N-O-N-E-S, which refers to those who claim no religious affiliation — as this population grows, we also see signs that emerging generations are seeking interfaith understanding. Another partner, Interfaith Youth Core, and its founder Eboo Patel, has shown us that many of America’s youth place themselves in the “nones” category because they don’t want to put themselves in a box. Millennials and Generation Z have a growing interest in spirituality — and in understanding the motivations of religion and spirituality in others.

Perhaps one of the most powerful millennial interfaith voices in our world today is that of Valerie Kaur, a Sikh who will join us at Chautauqua this summer during Week Five on July 25. Here’s a snapshot of her interfaith vision, as presented on the TED stage (watch from 5:49 to 8:28):

And this is what we’re trying to do at Chautauqua. It’s not about being the driving force that solves all issues. Quite the opposite, it’s about using the great convening and healing power that Chautauqua possesses to help communities heal themselves. And, here’s the secret: The power of Chautauqua is not only in our convening. The power of Chautauqua is in Chautauquans returning to their home communities, ready to bring all they’ve learned and practiced to the world in “life-giving ways.”

We believe that the heyday of interfaith dialogue has arrived — looking for platforms and communities — and emerging on platforms and in communities where we might least expect it. Let me pause for a moment to say that I’m not naïve that this work comes at a cost. We know that whenever people try to break down barriers, to tear down walls, that it scares those who use those walls to reinforce a sense of safety and security, as artificial as it may be.

And we also know that this effort is not in the category of the “easy fix.” It takes time and perseverance.

Rabbi David Rosen, international director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), said in July: “And of course, there’s going to be fear, resentment, hostility, and trepidation within our own particular communities. Yes, I face it all the time, but I look at it in terms of the glass being half full. Regardless of the challenges, there is far more understanding of the importance of interfaith engagement today than there was 20 years ago. That is an achievement.”

I had the good fortune of meeting Rabbi Rosen on a recent interfaith delegation trip to Israel. He’s a remarkable man of faith and a deep pragmatist. My journeys in Israel and the Palestinian territory, and the Muslims, Christians and Jews with whom I had an opportunity to break bread, also taught me something about this interfaith effort.

While so much of the media today would have us believe that these divisions are high walls that cannot be eclipsed, the quest of most citizens around the world is one for peace: a peace that includes at minimum a tolerance of the other if not outright acceptance.

Our own media echo chambers would have us believe something very different, but I believe, and Chautauqua will test, a different premise: it’s not that people refuse to get along, it’s that they have forgotten, perhaps been trained, to close off their ears and hearts to compassionate listening that leads to an understanding of the other. If we can untangle that, imagine the possibilities!

Given Chautauqua’s history of commitment to interfaith understanding, we think it can be among leaders and leading communities who contribute to further growth of interfaith dialogue.

While we continue to feature interfaith conversations on our 2 p.m. lecture platform each weekday during Chautauqua’s summer season, increasingly the themes in which our community is most interested are those that naturally intersect with interfaith conversations. What you will see more and more are themes that not only accommodate an interfaith perspective but depend upon them.

And, when you consider that our themes each year evolve through and are informed by the interests and priorities of our community, you can see yet another sign of hope: Indeed, what began at Chautauqua as something tailored toward a segment of our community has emerged as mainstream.

And, yes, you could reasonably argue that Chautauqua is not necessarily a representative community in the true sense of the word. But, Chautauqua’s priorities and dispositions and many of our challenges and weaknesses are not unlike those of other U.S. communities.

As we make Chautauqua more diverse and representative of the U.S. population as a whole, I believe we will see a growing thirst for interfaith programming and interfaith dialogue opportunities. It’s inevitable.

And, we will become more diverse through intentional outreach and investments, through programming, and through online engagement. I know this has been our aspiration for some time, but now we are putting resources and a plan to it. It is generational work, but it is underway today.

I think this recognition is instructive — potentially evidence of the adage “The best place from which to start is where you are.”

As communities seek to achieve a greater sense and experience of civil dialogue, as they seek to achieve a more diverse sense of religiosity and faith, they must begin these important journeys from where they are.

In the end, we at Chautauqua will do all of this because we must. It is our mission and our ultimate calling. An impossible dream? Perhaps.

But, we also believe in our potential, and in the potential of other intentional communities to foster the kind of civil and interfaith dialogue “that demands attentiveness and respect for the other, as well as a commitment to affirm the truth — wherever it may be found.”

Hopefully what you will see in in our 2018 season, in the speakers we’ve invited, and in the conversations we aim to host, is that we are indeed elevating both civil and interfaith dialogue in at Chautauqua.

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