Growing up in a Buddhist family in Vietnam, I never personally identified as a Buddhist, but rather as agnostic. I didn’t even know much about formal Buddhist philosophy until I took a class on Buddhist Ethics in my sophomore year of college in the United States. When I took the class, there were many familiar concepts that I had often heard people discuss at home. I just didn’t know that some of what I had assumed were cultural norms, actually stem from Buddhist philosophy.
The word ‘faith’ feels a bit problematic for me in a changing and pluralistic world, especially between religious and atheistic individuals. I tend to think of my faith more as a matter of meaning. I love to connect the dots and make meaning out of my experiences, surrounded by the objects and events that happen in my life. Thus, perhaps, the word ‘faith’ should not be taken solely as a matter of religion and spirituality. Faith, to me, is where all the dots connect.
Despite this, I still gain great benefits from religious literacy. Religious literacy, in my meaning-making process, helps me find the home and community to which I belong. What decides the place that I call home depends on all of the aspects of myself as a Vietnamese person, a woman, an international student, an agnostic, a Human Development and Social Relations major, etc., which all shape my experiences.
I was able to affirm this wonderful aspect of religious literacy thanks to the Alternative Break Trip in March that I coordinated with Ithaca College. We went to different faith communities: including the Sikh community, the Ethical Society of Philadelphia, the Quaker community, the Baha’i community, the Episcopal Church, and more. It was amazing to see the students’ different reactions to the places we went. Was one person’s experience more valid than another’s? Not at all. They were all valid, because we are all multidimensional people. I take that to be a crucial element of Interfaith Philadelphia’s mission, Dare to Understand.
We often struggle to understand people because we do not understand the reason why they behave, act, or think in certain way. When I realized how many different factors make up the multi-dimensional person I am, it helped me learn to pause and find out more about other people’s stories before making judgements about them.
In the Alternative Break Trip I coordinated, we found a common theme among many of the faith communities we visited, which was service. Whichever way one likes to think, service is unquestionably an essential part of faith. Even when people do not believe that God exists, the idea of serving others and being good to our fellow people was common ground that connected all religions, including many agnostic and atheist individuals.
My journey has not finished, of course. As I start to understand the various aspects that shape the person I am, I am able to stand tall in my own beliefs. That will continue to take effort, and require me to be curious, to venture out, and to reflect and make meaning from what I see. The discourse that is the most challenging for me - faith, is, indeed, the one that helped me gain a better understanding of myself and others.