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New Beimfohr Lecture gift will bring speakers on faith and society to campus

Chesterton House, the Christian studies center affiliated with Cornell United Religious Work, has announced its first named lectureship, which will bring an intellectual to campus each semester to address issues related to faith in a pluralistic society.

University of Florida historian C. John Sommerville will give the inaugural Alan T. and Linda M. Beimfohr Lecture, "Secularization, Religion and the University's Critics," Oct. 12 at 5 p.m. in Kaufmann Auditorium, Goldwin Smith Hall. The lecture is free and open to the public.

Chesterton House helps "students bridge what sometimes feels like a gap between academic and religious life," said Chesterton House Director Karl Johnson '90, M.S. '00, Ph.D. '11. "Our public lecture series brings in world-class scholars who often address the 'big questions of life' that don't tend to get a lot of airtime in the classroom of research universities."

Sommerville is an emeritus professor of English history "who has turned his attention to the nature and purpose of secular universities," Johnson said.

Pursuant to former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's contention that "governments ignore religion at their peril," in 2006 Sommerville published "The Decline of the Secular University" (Oxford University Press) -- "a fascinating book ... that argued the same is true for universities," Johnson said. "The marginalization of religious discourse, he argues, has constituted a great loss for our universities. What we need, he believes, is greater engagement with the world's traditions of inquiry, including secularism as one among those traditions."

Sommerville is a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University and a senior fellow at Harvard University's Center for the Study of World Religions. Among his other books is "Religious Ideas for Secular Universities" (2009).

The lecture was established with a gift from Carl '76 and Elaine Neuss of Laguna Hills, Calif., to honor the Beimfohrs' longtime commitment to Cornell. Neuss was a guest scholar-in-residence teaching on campus when he met Johnson and learned of Chesterton House in spring 2010.

"The Chesterton House mission both excites and impresses us," Neuss said. "It's often forgotten that the institution of 'the university' is a product of Christian tradition and intellectual thought. In addition to ministering to students at Cornell, Chesterton House has a unique and bold purpose to engage the university and to clearly convey the intellectual and philosophical depth of the Christian faith. We feel this is a most worthy and needed objective at Cornell."

Alan Beimfohr '66 is a College of Engineering graduate, a member of the Cornell Financial Engineering Manhattan MFE program's advisory council, and former president of the Cornell Alumni Association of Southern California.

"Cornell is a very special place for Linda and me," he said. "We are most pleased and proud to have our names associated with the efforts of Chesterton House on campus."

Neuss added that "Al and Linda Beimfohr are dear friends," and naming the lecture series after them "recognizes the faith, commitment to Cornell and friendship shared by the Beimfohr and Neuss families."

Chesterton House, named for the British writer G.K. Chesterton and founded in 2000, is a living and learning residence at 115 The Knoll, designed to help students think "critically and Christianly" on life, learning and culture.

"Our understanding of the role of religion in society is too often hampered by the anti-intellectualism of religious communities and the anti-religious sentiment found elsewhere," Johnson said. "For Christian students, we want to communicate that thinking well is nothing less than a form of worship ... to others, we want to communicate that a proper study and understanding of religion helps facilitate human flourishing in all areas of life, whether in the arts, public policy, or the modern research university."


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