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The Search (for Meaning) Continues

Written by Mike Thee
January 24, 2011

The School of Theology and Ministry’s annual book festival—formally known as the Search for Meaning Pacific Northwest Spirituality Book Festival—is set to take place Saturday, Feb. 5 (9 a.m.-5 p.m.). Now in its third year, the festival already has become an important fixture on the school’s, and indeed the university’s, landscape. Mark Markuly, dean of STM, recently spoke about what’s in store for this year’s event and why the festival matters to the school and the wider community. Here are some excerpts. 

The Commons:  Why is the book festival important? 

Mark Markuly: I think what happened in Arizona this month brings into broad relief the intent of this event. Our whole nation seems to be entrenched in polarization.  Angry talking heads are becoming a national icon. What we’re really trying to do with the book festival is to create a space once a year for people in the Pactific Northwest to explore the things they hold deepest in their heart, to explore those precious values and attitudes that give  meaning to  their life, and to do so with people who may hold very different values and attitudes.  This event is about creating a bridging place where important values and conversations can happen among people who don’t see things eye-to-eye.  In the process, we can all re-discover our civility, learn from each other, and even things about ourselves. 

The Commons:  What sorts of people have attended the festival in years past? 

MM:  Some of the attendees have been formed in a traditional, historic religion, others would probably fall into the category of a “seeker,” and still others are just beginning to wonder about the meaning of their lives. However,  I think everyone attracted to the event is actively trying to deepen their understanding of what this is all about—this human experiment, which none of us were asked to participate in before we got  here. Based on the people I’ve talked to, most of the people who attend the book festival take their role as a moral agent in the world seriously. They want to do good, they want their life to count, and they want to make a difference in some way. Consequently, I think they’re motivated to learn from authors who have wrestled with issues of spirituality, faith, the meaning of religion and how religion plays out in a person’s life, ethics and justice, and interfaith conversation and dialogue. So we’re really trying to find a platform for both modeling these kinds of conversations and also to provide a rich smorgasbord of encounters with people who have thought seriously about these issues. 

The Commons: What can you tell us about this year’s keynote speakers? 

MM: One of the keynoters is Anne Lamott who’s known for her writing about writing—I think every writer knows her work, Bird by Bird. But Anne is someone who’s also trying to find a more secular language for the mystery of spirituality and faith. She’s found a way to talk to the general public about these issues that is not so ecclesial-focused or church-focused. This is important work given the declining numbers of people attending churches.   

The second presenter is Tariq Ramadan, who quite a few people would consider the primary reformist Islamic theologian and philosopher in the world. Professor Ramadan was offered a job at Notre Dame’s Kroc Peace Institute and was a few days from moving his family to South Bend, Ind., when he was notified by the Bush Administration that he was banned from United States, apparently because a family member of a much older generation gave some money to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and some in the State Department feared he might be tied to terrorism. (The ban has since been lifted, along with an apology.) So Professor Ramadan has been treated very poorly and it’s really gracious of him to want to come to the U.S. to speak with us about his ideas.  

Curiously, when Professor Ramadan talks about what Islam is going through as it attempts to find a way to operate authentically but also relevantly and effectively in modern Western culture, he sounds amazingly like what the Catholic Church went through in the 1930s, 40s and 50s leading up to the Second Vatican Council. Islamic theologians and philosophers like him are talking, for instance, about whether using the vernacular rather than Arabic is more appropriate in the West. They’re talking about all of the issues in which the religious tradition bumps up against the practices and procedures of a democratic, free society and how a person of Muslim faith negotiates these practices and procedures and remains faithful to the religious tradition and its demands. I think people will be deeply challenged by what Islam is and what it is not when Ramadan talks. He’s very good at dispelling a lot of the myths and misinformation about Islam. 

The Commons:  How about some of the other authors who will be participating? 

MM: We’ll be welcoming a wide assortment of other authors—about 50 in all—including a woman known as “The Iron Nun.” She’s an 80-year-old, Catholic religious woman who lives in Spokane and has recently written a book about her experiences as a triathelete.  This sister has broken all kinds of records and is fairly well-known within the triathlon and marathon communities.   Some of our STM and SU faculty will also be participating. We partner with Elliott Bay Book Company and the SU Bookstore so there will be a wide assortment of spiritual, religious, ethical, social justice materials that will be out for sale beyond the broad assortment of works represented by the authors giving workshops or keynotes. 

The Commons:  How does the festival fit into the overall mission of the School of Theology and Ministry? 

MM: The event itself mirrors what we try to do with the school. We have a partnership with 12 different denominations at STM.  Students come to the school from many different religious frameworks, and yet they meet in many of their classes as a common group to share and explore what it means to be a human person, what it means to be a person of faith, what it means to be anchored in an historic religious tradition and to drink from the ancient wisdom of that tradition, and also to wrestle with making that wisdom relevant and practical for the here and now. We’ve been doing theological education in an intra-religious way within the Christian tradition and the Unitarian tradition for more than 13 years now, longer if you reach back into the school’s headwaters when it was an institute for ministry education. [The book festival] is actually a step into a somewhat broader world because we’re intentionally inviting people of other religious traditions to come and to wrestle with these very human spiritual issues so we can both learn from them and also come to greater clarity about what we ourselves think. 

The Commons: Is there anything about the book festival that has surprised you compared to what you might have been envisioning as the first event was being planned for three years ago? 

MM:  The actual quality of the conversations people are having with each other both within the workshops the authors are giving and informally when they’re out on the floor cruising the book tables is actually much richer and deeper than I had hoped for. Most of the people who come to this are thinking seriously about their roles as human beings, about God and about good and evil, and they have some distinct ideas about what that means, and they feel free to share and disagree with each other in appropriate ways.  In our polarized culture, such respectful, sincere, and authentic conversation is something that, to me, is central to the Catholic intellectual tradition—allowing people who are serious about life’s most important issues to talk to each other in a safe fashion that resists the simplistic tendency to drop the person’s opinions into handy buckets of polarization. This kind of uncritical thinking has shaped our culture for the past 15 or 20 years and has left the entire nation improverished. I’m proud of the school to be doing it, particularly in light of what’s happening in Arizona. One of the questions to come up in the aftermath is whether we’ve lost our sense of civility. It has also left many of us incapable of having frank and honest conversation with anyone other than those who agree with us.  You can’t run a democracy like that. 

The Commons:  Which leads me to ask about the types of conversations that take place at the book festival. Do they ever get, shall we say, heated? 

MM: People are passionate, but I have heard of no examples of the kinds of angry, belittling and antagonistic comments that have become part of our steady diet on the cable channels, the talking heads yelling at each other—yelling past each other, really. The good thing that happens at these book festivals is people not only talk and share their ideas, but they listen very carefully to others and they end up having an opportunity to share their assumptions about the religious other. 

When I first moved here three and a half years ago, it didn’t take long very long to notice that when it comes to talking about our deepest values, it’s not easy to find a place for such conversations; actually, I don’t think such conversations are easy in most places of the U.S. I think it is particularly difficult in this region, which is rather indifferent to religion, to find a place where a wide assortment of religious voices have the freedom to share the best of their tradition, to teach each other, to learn from each other, and to embrace and challenge the religious other. 

The Commons: So it seems that the book festival is a pretty entrenched annual event for STM. 

MM:  Yes. The first year we did this, as we were leading up to the event, the staff was planning to pull me into a room at the end of the day and suggest that we do the book festival every other year or every third year because it was such a huge undertaking. But after the event, when we had that meeting, they essentially said that while they were planning to tell me we couldn’t do the festival every year, after going through the experience, it was clear to them that we had to do this every year. I think for all of us it was such a profound opportunity for the school to live out its mission in the broader community and to engage people who ordinarily wouldn’t come to Seattle University, and especially an event provided by a School of Theology and Ministry. 

The Commons: I know in years past the festival has been free. Is that the case this year? 

MM:  Yes, we are struggling to keep this a free event.  We like to think of this as the school and the university’s gift to the Pacific Northwest—a chance for people serious about their life to look at meaning and meaning making, and in the process to make us all wiser. Last year we had a few authors come from outside the region who flew here on their own dime to participate, and we’re finding other creative ways to keep the costs sustainable. 

For more information about the book festival, visit the School of Theology and Ministry.