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“Meaning” Brings Everyone to the Table

By Paul Chaffee

Human beings, gifted with consciousness, have no choice but to explain, at least to ourselves, what life means. Even “meaninglessness” qualifies as a definition of meaning, as when Shakespeare’s King Macbeth cries out that life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Easy for the King to say. Prey to his own worst instincts and reduced to violent tyranny, Macbeth’s “nothing” comes between hearing that his partner in crime, Lady Macbeth, has committed suicide, and his own beheading.

Happily for most of us, wrestling with the mysteries of life, making sense out of it, discerning what it means at the deepest personal level, turns out to be much more a weave of light and dark. Philosophy, theology, and spiritual practice all have been used as frameworks to understand and embrace the good, the significant – the meaningful. Busy bodies that we are, many of our wisest, most discerning forebears over the ages have pursued the meaning of life with vast systems full of definitions, assumptions, premises, dogma, and appropriate behavior in pursuing what life means.

But the categories and languages we’ve created for exploring meaning – categories like theology and spirituality – tend to reflect how the Abrahamic traditions understand life. They don’t relate as well to religions, like Buddhism, which use different assumptions in the quest for meaning. Neither do these words welcome humanists and other nontheists, people as concerned about meaning as anyone, often people who want to get involved if and when religions start working together more seriously on healing the Earth and its people.

The January 2012 issue of TIO was first envisioned as a forum exploring interfaith theology and spirituality. Along the way we decided that meaning making would be a much better framework for a robust discussion of how we experience life, faith, practice, and the meaning of it all from different backgrounds and traditions. Making meaning invites to the table all who care deeply about good will, friendship, social justice, and peace.

Collaborating with State of Formation

Coincidentally or synchronistically, members of TIO recently have been in conversation with leaders at State of Formation (SoF). Introduced in this issue, SoF is a collective of young scholars and teachers from diverse backgrounds, sponsored by the Journal for Interreligious Dialogue, who publish a weekly newsletter addressing various aspects of spiritual formation and religion.

The notion of simultaneously publishing a group of 1000-word articles answering the question, “How do I make meaning out of life?” seemed like a wonderful venture. Together TIO and SoF have gathered 15 responses, all of which can be found in our respective January 15 issues. Both TIO and SoF are committed to taking down the silos and structures that keep strangers from becoming friends, so we are all delighted at the chance to take on the issue of meaning together and share the results with the readers of both publications.