On Saturday, February 24, Seattle University hosted the 10th annual Search for Meaning Festival, an innovative literary, artistic and cultural event that the School of Theology and Ministry began in 2008 in the depths of the economic recession that almost led to another Great Depression. Every year the festival invites more than 50 authors to campus on one single day. The only thing that they all have in common is that each of them has explored in their books the human search for meaning, purpose, goodness, truth, and beauty. The energy of the authors and the attendees is different every year, but the Festival regularly invites authors writing from many different religious orientations – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Indigenous, Mormon, and even secular humanist. A curated art show focused on the human search to make sense of life was added several years ago, and a theater production two years ago. There is nothing like this event in the United States, although people in more than seven other cities have attempted to do so, including Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles and Indianapolis.
Growing out of the ecumenical character of the School of Theology and Ministry, and its growing national reputation for interreligious dialogue, the primary motivation for beginning the Festival was to create a safe space for people with very different worldviews and religious and secular meaning systems to model the possibilities of civil conversation about the deepest held human beliefs and values. It has always been the quintessential event for swimming against the tide of our polarized world.
The Search for Meaning doubled and tripled in size in the early years and in 2014 because it grew to take over the entire campus, the Festival became a signature Seattle University event. The School of Theology and Ministry has continued to invite and host the authors, sifting through 600-700 nominations most years. This year the festival brought a record-breaking 62 authors, including two Pulitzer prize winners, and had a dynamic discussion of race and politics between Taylor Branch, the nation’s premier authority on the history of the Civil Rights movement, and Rev. William Barber, the leader of the Repairers of the Breach movement, a national effort to place the poor and marginalized more centrally in the nation’s public policy decisions. Rev. Barber has introduced a strong, measured faith-based voice into partisan politics that is reminiscent for many of the role Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. played in the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s-1960s.
Over the past ten years, approximately 15,000 people have attended the Festival, as well as nearly 500 authors. In the era of deep cultural reflection on the role and experiences of women in the United States, reflected most prominently in the #metomovement and #timeisup, 70% of the 62 authors attending this year were women.