It’s hard to be religious when you are as cynical as I am. I was raised in the Catholic Church, but grew away from it many years ago and have never, as an adult, regularly attended any church. There are a variety of reasons for this, which may lead to more writing in the future. But one of my key struggles in life is that I tend to question everything. I was apparently born a skeptic. As a result, faith often eludes me.
Then, a couple of years ago my youngest daughter asked me to go to church with her at Chautauqua Institution on Sunday mornings. So I have gone with her on beautiful summer Sundays, and it is has been an inspiring seasonal journey.
Chautauqua, which started as a summer camp for Methodist Sunday school teachers, has become a world renowned cultural center for the arts, education, and religion. What’s most interesting to me about religion at Chautauqua is that it has grown substantially over 140 years from a focus on Methodist teachings, to become a richly diverse center for all religions with houses on the grounds for a variety of Christian denominations as well as a Jewish Center. There is also an Abrahamic Program for Young Adults, designed to teach about the shared heritage of the Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All of this happens just twenty minutes from my home.
The Sunday morning service is very much in the ecumenical Christian tradition, and most Christians who are regular church-goers would find spectacular music from the giant Massey Organ, some inspiring words, and very little that would offend them. At the same time, it also speaks to me – not a regular church goer – sometimes loudly.
One of my greatest struggles with organized religion in our current and extremely polarized society is that too often people are considered to be either good or bad, with too little allowance for the gray area into which most of us fall. Often, we are too busy judging one another’s differences to find our commonalities. Some of the loudest voices may or may not be right, but my usual question is, “Who are we to judge?”
The voices I hear at Chautauqua come from all over the globe, from all different backgrounds, and address topics that are keenly important to me: diversity, inclusion, justice, and compassion. This Sunday’s speaker was particularly effective. Reverend Allan Aubrey Boesak is a native of South Africa, an anti-apartheid activist, former leader of the World Alliance of Churches, and the first incumbent Desmond Tutu Chair for Peace, Global Justice, and Reconciliation Studies, Christian Theological Seminary and Butler University.
Speaking about the parable of the Good Samaritan, Boesak noted that the Samaritan did not question the victim’s ethnicity or beliefs before helping the beaten man, he simply helped. But Boesak took it a step further and asked, “What if the Samaritan had come upon the attack as it was happening?”
“It’s easy,” he noted, “to lend a hand when the danger is over. But aren’t we called by God to step into the fray? What if…we respond with courage and compassion and open our eyes to injustice and violence?”
What if we saw injustice or war or damage being inflicted? Don’t we have a moral obligation to help, regardless of race or class or language barriers or beliefs? Courage is often one of the hardest virtues to summon, and violence and war are pervasive.
Boesak is just one of the many inspiring speakers I have heard in the past few summers at Chautauqua. Almost every one of them has forcefully proclaimed the importance of seeking peace, inclusion, and justice – not just tolerating diversity, but truly embracing it: religiously, sexually, and ethnically.
Yes, faith often eludes me. That does not mean I don’t think about it. I freely admit that I am an unfinished person, and for me my spiritual nature is very deeply linked to a longing for justice. Why can’t we open our eyes and ears to the violence and injustice all over the world? Why do simple acts of humanity sometimes fall beyond our reach?
Throughout their lives my daughters have (mostly unbeknownst to them) encouraged me to be a better person. Sincere thanks to my youngest for sharing her faith with me. Blessed are the peacemakers.