Welcome to the opening of the 2012 Chautauqua Season. Welcome to this aspirational gathering, steeped in hope and propelled by intention to make the very best use of this sacred space, these creative resources and the accumulative character of this summertime community dedicated to the exploration of the best of human values and the enrichment of life.
The listing in your program of Chautauquans who have passed away since we last gathered here is at once a statement of loving memory for their contributions to the life and history of this community and a dirge acknowledging our frailty, our finitude, our evanescence.
This gathering is evidence of the radical vision of the founders some 138 years ago. We are here this morning as a faithful community. We are part of a community in which faith traditions are profoundly diverse. That diversity describes us; it does not divide us. Our differences, our diversity, and our pluralism animate our understanding of the complex, mysterious wonder of the human condition. The gospels intoned from this pulpit challenge us to embrace that diversity as the prophetic expression of love. Albert Einstein said, "The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science."
The contest for President is at a full gallop. Much of what we see and hear in ads and sound bites are declarative certitudes of the unconditional wisdom of one candidate or set of policies and the demonic folly of the opposition. There are precious few honest brokers of a more nuanced understanding of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the candidates, their positions, and their capacities to confront the challenges before us. We are provided breathless updates of the horse race, exaggerated analysis of the consequence of the slightest missteps, and convoluted constructs of motives and alliances.
I am reminded of an essay by David Brooks wherein he quotes Isaiah Berlin defining political judgment as "a capacity for integrating a vast amalgam of constantly changing, multicolored, perpetually overlapping data." Brooks goes on to talk about how often leaders experience crushing setbacks resulting in an awareness of personal frailty and knowledge of their dependence on others. He says, "They are both modest, because they have felt weakness, and aggressive, because they know how hard it is to change anything."
All of this sounds like a call for emotional intelligence in our leaders. So naturally, like many of you, I thought of the first Book of Kings in which Solomon on his ascension to the throne is given the privilege of a direct request of God. While many of our modern politicians talk as if they have an ongoing conversation with God, the Bible documents this particular exchange. So, what do you suppose he asks for?
The destruction of his enemies, great economic success, affordable health care, the elimination of unions? None of these. Solomon asks God for a listening heart so that he might govern all of his people justly; so that he might discern between good and evil. This passage made me think of Joan Brown Campbell's familiar reference to Martin Luther King's call for the Beloved Community where justice prevails for all, including the least fortunate among us; an objective of Biblical proportions.
We carry both the privilege and the obligations of living in the oldest democracy on the planet. We have the legacy of a government of the people, for the people and by the people. This system is participative, messy, open, and broadly expressed. We do not assign the sole responsibility for building the Beloved Community to our elected leadership. We retain personal accountability for justice in our communities beginning with our internal sense of right and wrong and our individual behavior resulting from that sense in every aspect of our lives.
This Institution exists in service to these noble obligations. We believe that in order for us to fully realize the propositions of this free society we need a community of people dedicated to a learning-centered life. We embrace hope and optimism while developing our critical thinking and our capacity to integrate Berlin's challenge of a vast combination of ever-changing, overlapping data. Across generations, we impart, nurture, and reawaken curiosity, an energizing agent in a learning-centered life.
We are constructed on a scale to ensure the opportunity for human connection; for genuine exchange of ideas, experiences, and befuddlements. We have a rich tradition of commitment to the written word that includes the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, a young readers program, a writers' center, a literary journal, creative writing programs, our own newspaper, our opening theme week beginning tomorrow on writers and writing, a commissioned new play, and for the first time this summer, a Chautauqua Literary prize.
The winner of the first Chautauqua Prize is Andrew Krivak, a young man who has written his first novel, The Sojourn. The story begins in American coal country and moves on to Eastern Europe before and during the First World War. It is a work of ambitious scope, illuminating historical detail, dramatic pace and relentless calamities rivaling the Book of Job. The main character's capacity to endure and to remain open to the needs of others, even in threatening conditions, evokes Solomon's gift of a listening heart. In Kayak Morning, Roger Rosenblatt invites you in to a remarkably honest exploration of the ongoing pain, anger and confusion associated with the death of a loved one, in this case his daughter, Amy, a young mother and physician. This is a wise and generous book crafted by a writer of great talent and skill. But its greatest gift is the acknowledgement that we live in connection to one another and to the dead. He invokes with attribution to Philo the advice, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden."
Music, poetry and the visual arts point to the rest, the blank space, the interruption of the action reminding us that we have, here in this place, an opportunity for an internal dialogue rarely invoked in our frantic modern age. Yet, access to that internal space, to those private narratives, is a precursor to enabling the listening heart.
We invest in the development and nurture of artists across art forms in the belief that they contribute to the civility and creative capacities of our society. We ask that you actively engage in the artistic programming and with the artists themselves; that you open your mind and heart to the possibilities for growth that lay within this engagement.
We offer a deep and vigorous immersion in the important issues of our time and ask that, in examining those issues, you consider the balance of your self-interest with those of the common good.
We offer an environment for children and young people on these grounds to experience a near-mythic level of freedom of movement and expression and programming designed both to teach important lessons and to encourage the bonding of friendships. These young people also see you at every age still learning. And in addition to watching you absorb the political, economic and global issues of the day they also witness your active engagement with the values of love, forgiveness, compassion, justice, mercy, peace and joy.
This is why we are here today. This is why we do the work we do. And so we offer our prayer for the gift of a listening heart so that we might be better citizens, better people, and so that through our strivings we might help create a more just world.
I tap the gavel three times Chautauqua 2012 is begun.
This is a transcript of the speech given by Chautauqua Institution President Thomas M. Becker during the annual Three Taps of the Gavel ceremony Sunday, June 24, to open the 2012 Chautauqua Season.