By Vanessa Gomez Brake
During the ice-breaker at a recent interfaith gathering, we each shared our ‘faith journey’ with the group. We were mostly strangers. The facilitator had created a set of cards, each with a simple line drawing of something from everyday life. She asked us to choose a few of the cards to illustrate our faith journeys. Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Pagans, and more, each chose some cards and told their different stories. Then it was my turn.
The first card I chose reminded me of sitting on the beaches of my beloved island of Guam, soaking in the beauty of the surrounding water, rocks, and wildlife. The next card brought to mind travelling to Southeast Asia, the South Pacific and Middle East, in each case remembering the feeling of being a foreigner in a strange land, and feeling both the struggles and freedom that imposes.
A few cards later, I am talking about punk shows and the delight I find in dancing with a crowd of people who share a love for the song being played. My ‘faith journey’ nears its end with a mention of the Roman Catholic and indigenous traditions I was brought up with.
Self-identifying today as atheist, humanist, none, or secular, I’ve asked myself why I chose to work in the field of interfaith education. Actually, that is a different story; you can read it here. One should mention, though, that Interfaith Secularists are not rare, indeed, were cited as one of the Top 11 Religion Stories of 2011 by Huff Post Religion.
The prospect of sharing my story in this circle made me question my vocation all over again. I have been an interfaith activist for nearly ten years now and should know better than to worry about sharing my worldview amongst religious leaders. The fact is, I am typically welcomed with praise and even excitement in such a gathering. The welcome is usually warm, as was the Christian minister who told me, “You have to be an atheist at least part of the time, if you are going to be a good Christian at all.”
A Buddhist colleague reminds me of their non-theistic approach to spirituality. A returned Mormon missionary speaks to me at length about the theory of evolution and its compatibility with the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints. Interfaith dialogue practitioners are often skilled at creating a safe, welcoming space for all, no matter what your ‘belief.’ Once again, with the cards, hesitation about sharing my faith journey turned to joy at being invited to explain how I get to ‘now.’
As I reflect on that group exercise, the phrase that captures what we were doing is meaning making. The meaning each person drew from the simple cards came up out of their particular knowledge and perspective, their education and personal experience right up to this moment. In that simple deck of cards, each of us found and interpreted the images in relation to our unique experiences.
The card with an image of a person bent over with lines flying overhead depicted struggle, for some. For me it called to mind dancing at a punk show. Both responses to the card were “meaningful.” Interfaith gatherings consistently challenge me to stop being a simple minded person on a psychological default. Instead, I am required to recognize the complexity of the human experience; the richness and diversity that comes with every individual’s world view.
If you ask me, ‘How do I make meaning out of life?’ – I will speak of the natural world, the arts, and the co-creative exercise that comes with community.
I make meaning out of life by living in awe of the natural world. Growing up in the Arizona desert and alongside jungles in Guam and Philippines instilled this in me. I connect with the beauty which surrounds me. I enjoy a sense of wonder about the world and all that is known and unknown about its inhabitants. Reverence for the natural world is then interpreted into action; a mindful use of the earth’s resources, acknowledgment of my environmental impact, and activism for its preservation.
I make meaning out of life through the discovery of new music and sharing in short lived celebrations of its beauty with hundreds of strangers at shows that can never be repeated. (One of my all-time favorite shows was by a band called “The Rapture”!)
I make meaning out of life through Filipino folk dance, as I learn about and give tribute to my cultural heritage; honoring, preserving, and promoting traditional ethnic arts.
I make meaning out of life through creative acts of nonviolence that build up beloved community.
To me, life is an on-going experiment where people act in relation to assumptions they have made or inherited. A person’s actions are likely to align with these assumptions. Each of us continues to experiment, and sometimes we may even think we’ve arrived at an accurate conclusion. Yet we will continue to test our hypotheses. For me, the act of experimentation is itself meaningful, as I observe, learn from, engage with, and shape my world.