Identity, Exploration, and Discernment: A Personal Journey to Religious Pluralism

Author: Thanh Nguyen


Editor’s Note: Thanh Nguyen (Lawrenceville, Georgia) is a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame, where she plans to study Political Science and Peace Studies.

She participated in the Ansari Institute’s 2020 spring break student trip to Oman. The experience, which featured interfaith dialogue and cross-cultural learning, helped spark her interest in religious peacebuilding.

Thanks to connections she made on the trip, Nguyen later began corresponding Rev. David B. Burrell, C.S.C., Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame, who has been widely recognized for his work as a theologian and for his contributions to interfaith understanding.

The following reflection is taken from their correspondence.

Dear Fr. Burrell,

I enjoyed your story and interfaith journey, and while our lives vary in years and experiences, your message of pluralism resonated with me. I found your discussion of liberation theology and your exploration of the issues concerning Islam, Christianity, and Judaism to be particularly insightful.

I grew up in a Vietnamese household, one that also suffered the dire consequences of colonialism, imperialism, and globalization. As a first generation Vietnamese-American, I navigated the landscape of American-ness and my own cultural identity. My earliest memory, in fact, is in my grandfather's homemade cabin in New Orleans, listening to his war stories of killing Viet Cong while the smell of cigarettes and coffee wafted in the background. I grew up witnessing storytelling as a way to cope with historical and personal trauma, and eventually, I took influences of my grandfather's oral storytelling and my grandmother's visual artwork to contribute my own form of storytelling: poetry. In this way, I built on the “American story” while also entering Vietnam's 4,000-year history of poetic traditions.

Storytelling is important in defining my life as a global citizen. Coming from a refugee family means there is an international history that runs deep in my blood and in my story.

I mention this art of story-telling I grew up with because it is important in defining my life as a global citizen. Coming from a refugee family means there is an international history that runs deep in my blood and in my story. Even though I was born in the United States, my identity transcends being American or being Vietnamese. Rather, it is in the ocean between the two, with no discernible promised land except the stories and memories carried by people trying to find home.

Now, no longer the same child in that cabin, I find myself increasingly critical of America's continued role in modern covert imperialism and war. Thus, I've engaged in political thought that is very opposite of my Vietnamese-American elders, whose status as political refugees lend them to a certain nationalistic and conservative view of America.

I spent my childhood in the Midwest, where the Vietnamese population was virtually non-existent at the time. My pluralism journey began when I moved to Lawrenceville, Georgia. There, my best friends were of different religions: Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. Along with my own Vietnamese Catholic community, I also grew close to the Pakistani Muslim community, which had businesses and shops throughout my town. It was in Georgia that I learned of Jamatkhanas and Hindu temples and celebrated religious holidays like Eid and Diwali with friends of all cultures, from Bosnian to Telegu to Chinese.

Looking back at my childhood, I am reminded of a scene from the Life of Pi by Yann Martel. At one point in the novel, Pi gets into trouble for attempting to practice three different faiths. The religious leaders of each faith confront Pi for what they deem as foolishness, in which he exclaims, “Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God.” I like to think Pi is like me, trying to find the trace of the divinity in everything. Simply put in your own words: “My life had become fascinated with difference: different languages and practices, different skin hues and dress, different ways of approaching and understanding reality.”

Reminiscent of Pi's love of zoology, I also find myself drawn to the sciences, namely public health. Here, I am reminded of Pi’s words: “Science can only take you so far, and then you have to leap.” The melting pot of cultures and stories was a regular, mundane part of my childhood, but I laid them to rest when I came to Notre Dame, intending to study medicine and policy only. But the trace of the divinity is in everything; my love for religion soon manifested itself in my studies once again. Through the Holy Crossroads course, I was offered a level of discomfort that I have been challenged with all my life as someone whose identity was not confined to a singular nation or place.

This discomfort bore good fruit and helped bring an end to a long-time discernment. For so long, I thought I was in love with the anatomy of the body, when really, I was in love with the anatomy of society. I began thinking about how my new separate endeavors in religion and interfaith dialogue could be incorporated into understanding the health of society. Thus, the Holy Crossroads experience led me to a new crossroads of my own. That is, how do public health issues intersect with religious communities? What role does faith play in healing? By understanding worship traditions as well as how communities react to public health issues, how could that help us move away from the Eurocentric and American-centric notions of healing (which often ignore problems of stigma in BIPOC communities) to one that is grounded in community-specific needs? 

At the heart of it, pluralism invites us to engage with the new questions of the 21st century and to no longer see our differences as daunting borders.

I am still figuring out these questions every day. The classes I’ve taken and the friendships I've built have contributed much to my calling, like Rev. Jeffrey Bos’ scriptural reasoning courses at the Al Amana Center, Jason Klocek’s Holy Crossroads class, my Vietnamese heritage, and the friends in all my different communities. Lastly, to bring this conversation back to faith, I would like to end with a line in the Quran, in Surah Al-Hujurat (49:13): “O mankind! We have created you […] and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another.” At the heart of it, pluralism invites us to engage with the new questions of the 21st century and to no longer see our differences as daunting borders. Embracing new faith traditions has made me a stronger Christian. By welcoming these traditions into my own religious space, I make more room to understand God as the trinity, as a mystery, and as the presence of all things.