“Appreciative Knowledge”: Another Model for Interfaith Vocational Exploration

I read Daniel Meyers’ “Interfaith Vocational Exploration: Proceed with Caution” with interest. I appreciate his recognition that the word and concept of vocation, at least as narrowly construed, comes from a particular and, at least in Western societies, privileged position. As he notes, this implies concomitant need to “proceed with caution,” because other faiths are by necessity having to “translate” and respond to Christianity’s terms, ideas, and paradigms. As a Buddhist at a Lutheran college, I have sometimes had concerns about question-and-answer periods when Buddhist speakers were called on to respond to questions about parallels (or lack thereof) to Christian concepts. I often felt that the short answer demanded in such circumstances distorted ideas about my religious tradition, or missed the main points about my faith. Like Meyers, I think the literature on interfaith dialogue can be a helpful resource in thinking and talking about interfaith vocational exploration. However, I would like to propose a different model.

One of the things Meyers’ essay pointed to is the issue of language and context. As Meyers noted, “it was natural for me to ask students, ‘So, what’s your vocation?’” because he had “gone to college at a school with a program for theological education housed in the chaplain’s office.” The chaplain office staff member’s comment usefully prompted him to think about what kind of language he should use in this different multifaith context, but it also led to Meyers’ subsequent question:

Is there an authentic way to create pathways of vocational exploration for people of various faiths and secular identities without simultaneously asking them to accept a Christian construct of vocation?  

Daniel Meyers, “Interfaith Vocational Exploration: Proceed with Caution”

Gustavus faced this problem with language when we named our Center for Vocational Reflection (the CVR), a name we chose over other suggestions like the Center for Faith and Learning. Although we did have some programs aimed at students who wanted to explore religious vocations, we aspired to have everyone ask vocational questions regardless of religious affiliation on our increasingly multifaith campus. We had originally worried that students would limit the idea of vocation to religious careers, but the bigger problem, we discovered, was broadening people’s definition beyond vocation as career, a now more frequent interpretation of the word “vocation.”  We worked hard to make clear that vocational reflection also involved exploring one’s gifts and one’s relation to society, thinking about one’s values and life’s purpose and meaning.

From a short animation of
Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”

Gustavus already emphasized values exploration, community, and social justice, the CVR encouraged students to reflect on those experiences and use them to think about what they wanted to do with their “one wild and precious life.” Our broader definition of vocation was based in Lutheran theology and specifically Luther’s understanding that people had vocations in all aspects of their lives. But wanting to reach a multicultural audience forced Gustavus to think about how to translate theological concepts into everyday language and questions all students could relate to. 

Like Meyers I think the literature of interfaith dialogue can be a helpful resource for us to think about interfaith vocational exploration. His use of Catherine Cornille’s work provides one useful example. I’d like to propose the work of Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, as another. Patel has written extensively about the importance of religious as well as ethnic diversity and building interfaith bridges, emphasizing the need for “appreciative knowledge” of other traditions and relationships with their practitioners as foundational for creating a better world (See for instance, his Interfaith Leadership: A Primer).      

Eboo Patel on the importance of “appreciative knowledge” for interfaith leadership

Patel’s emphasis on appreciative knowledge and interfaith relationships was underlined by a series of works by Christian writers I encountered immediately after reading Meyers’ post. The first was a Westminster Town Hall Forum broadcast of a wonderful talk by Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor based on her newest book Holy Envy:  Finding God in the Faith of Others. In this talk she spoke of taking the best from other faiths instead of characterizing the faith by the worst actions/beliefs of any of its practitioners, a practice that has been used all too often in our day to demonize other faiths.  

Barbara Brown Taylor speaking at the Westminster Town Hall Forum (April 2019)

A week later, I was invited to sit in on a friend’s course; the day’s reading was Ruben L. F. Habito’s article, “Alterity, Friendship and Solidarity:  Buddhists, Christians, and James Fredericks.”  In this article Habito explores the importance of what Catholic theologian James Fredericks has termed his “spiritual friendship” with noted Japanese Buddhist scholar Masao Abe and its influence on the work of both scholars. Fredericks noted this personal connection “motivated [one] to learn about this other religious tradition on its own terms.” However, Harbito notes that Fredericks went beyond that to testify that in doing so,

one comes to see one’s own (Christian) faith tradition in the eyes of the Religious Other, and undergoes a “real deepening in (one’s) own religious vision, a spiritual transformation generated by the encounter between the truths of Christianity and the truths of non-Christian religions.”    

James Fredericks quoted by Ruben L.F. Habits in “Alterity, Friendship and Solidarity…”

And then, when I told my friend about my ideas for this article, he handed me Paul Knitter’s Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, in which Knitter does precisely that.  Knitter’s chapters are arranged by topic (Nirvana and Heaven, Jesus the Christ and Gautama the Buddha, Prayer and Meditation, to name a few) in which he explains the Christian concept as he had been taught as a Catholic practitioner and theologian, including his problems with the concept, followed by his understanding of the parallel concept in Buddhism, with a final section on how thinking about the Buddhist concept helped him re-imagine his Christian concept. His book records his wresting with his religious doubts and shows how his study of Buddhism enriched and reshaped his ideas in ways that ultimately allowed him to reaffirm his identity as a Christian.

Paul Knitter at Baldwin Wallace University in 2014: “Without Buddha I Could Not be a Christian”

All of these approaches call on us to learn about other faiths in their own terms, to see how the concept we are interested in fits in their framework, to appreciate how the similarities and differences can help us broaden and deepen our thinking, perhaps providing more language or even more ideas to our own concept as well as providing us with more knowledge with which to understand where our students from different faith traditions might be coming from, what they value and how they see and have been taught to be in the world. All of these thinkers also emphasize relationships. Relationships prompt us to see others as people but also produce a desire for “appreciative knowledge.”   

Knowing more about other religions keeps students from falling prey to the stereotypes purveyed in popular media and shows their many similarities that can act as an initial point of connection. However, I think the differences can be as instructive if not more so. Difference allows us to see the world in a different way but also makes visible our own unquestioned assumptions and frameworks and can make us re-think and either deepen our commitment to or transform our understanding of our own tradition. It can also help us notice things we had overlooked in our own tradition. A friend once remarked to me that Buddhism’s emphasis on gratitude had helped her to be more grateful, a virtue that was not absent in Christianity, but one which had not been as visible in her conservative religious upbringing. 

It can also help us with our vocation work with students, helping us broaden our definitions and language, making them more inclusive, giving us more ways of talking about finding one’s life’s work, thinking about what gives life meaning or purpose, and dealing with the inevitable difficulties on their vocational paths. All religions have ideas about what makes a good life, about making life choices and dealing with our failures, about human nature, life, and our proper relation to others and the world. We have so much we can learn from each other in these appreciative conversations.

Florence Amamoto retired last spring from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota where she was an Associate Professor in English and held the Sponberg Chair in Ethics.  She was also affiliated with the Japanese Studies, the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies, and the Three Crowns programs, with a long-time involvement with diversity, church-related higher education, and vocation initiatives. Her essay, “Response-ability in Practice: Discerning Vocation through Campus Relationships,” is included in the latest collection of essays published by David Cunningham, Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy (Oxford, 2019).

2 thoughts on ““Appreciative Knowledge”: Another Model for Interfaith Vocational Exploration

  1. This is a great continuations of some thoughts I share as well. Eboo Patel and Paul Knitter are fantastic entrypoints for thinking about how interfaith literature may have something to offer for vocational reflection. Thank you Dr. Amamoto for these connections.

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