In 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Christians are reminded: "...in accordance with [God's] promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation."
God's patience in this text has to do with a desire to draw all people to repentance and faith.
Just because certain Christians "get it" does not mean God's work is done, and this is not to be lamented, but rather celebrated. So, Christians who yearn for God's final promise to become reality, for the transformation of our lived reality into God's lived reality -- the new heaven and the new earth--must wait.
Yet this is not the twiddle-your-thumbs-and-sit-back-as-God-implements-God's-plan type of waiting.
This is a "striving" type of waiting -- a "struggle" type of waiting. John Wesley terms this as the process of sanctification, striving to develop a second nature that revels in praising God and truly desires God's will.
I have to say that since my experience in Cambridge, England at the University of Cambridge Interfaith Summer School Programme, I actually covet on some small level the benefits of state supported religion. Let us, for our purpose here, refer to the “religious state” as a state in which the religious practices of the religious majority are supported institutionally - for example, through ministries, other political institutions, or houses of worship. Don’t get me wrong, in general religious states make me very uneasy, especially since some religious states are more tolerant and supportive of minority religious practice than others.
The point of my reflection, and the rest of this post, is not to endorse any religious state nor even the concept of a religious state, but rather to try and get a glimpse of what people within religious states value about their particular context. In other words, I appreciate having a chance to see through the eyes of people who value a particular formative experience made possible by institutionalized support of their particular religious practice.
To give you a sense of what I mean, I've asked two friends of mine to share a bit about their experience of this phenomenon. Omar Kassab, fellow State of Formation Contributing Scholar and a Masters student in Comparative and International Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, also participated in the Cambridge Interfaith Programme and made a recent visit to Oman to see our new friends from that program. Deborah Galaski, a PhD candidate from University of Virginia, is studying this year in Israel.
Omar reflects focusing on Salah, the performance of five daily prayers in Islamic faith...
From my personal point of view the religious state provides Muslims with public space to perform the five daily prayers, a central pillar to our religion.
As a Muslim, it is when I am praying that I find myself at peace.
“Verily, man was created impatient, irritable when evil touches him and ungenerous when good touches him. Except for those devoted to prayer those who remain constant in their prayers” (Quran 70:19-23).
From my experience, it is quite hard to remain constant in your prayers when you live as a Muslim in Germany, or, more generally, in an environment that does not necessarily provide you with space for your prayers. When you don’t find a mosque or prayer room around every corner; when you start praying in empty classrooms and between library shelves (hoping that no one passes by); when praying in public requires a lot of confidence, then praying at the right time might easily turn into a challenge.
Religious states, as we conceptualize them here, make your life quite easy when it comes to performing your prayers. My brother and I spent a few days of this year’s Ramadan in Oman, for example, where the muezzin calls to prayer, Muslims gather in mosques, and minarets define the skyline. When we prayed in Oman, we became part of the mainstream. Praying in a Muslim majority country felt like a routine: it was so normal.
Now, if we look at it a different way, regarding the waiting for God’s promise as a “struggle,” then, does a religious state really facilitate the struggle by making it easier to pray? Is it not, the one who struggles to find the space for this prayer struggling more than the one who can just enter the mosque around the corner?
One of Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) Hadiths says “Islam began as something strange, and it shall return to being something strange, so give glad tidings to the strangers.” For me, as a Muslim in a “non-prayer-supporting” state, this Hadith is what supports me, and what strengthens me as a “prayer-stranger” in my daily environment.
Deborah narrates her first experience of Erev Yom Kippur in Israel...
Walking out of my house on Erev Yom Kippur, Jerusalem has been taken over by silence. There is not a car in sight – even the 24-hour convenience store that stays open on Shabbat is closed. I walk down the middle of the road, accompanied by small clusters of people also on their way to shul (synagogue). Many, like myself, are dressed completely in white. I am struck by a great sense of unity. We are all doing the same thing, at the same time, in the same place. We are all going to daven (pray) in Jerusalem on the last of the Days of Awe.
Walking out of shul that evening, the atmosphere has transformed from somber to festive. I find it jarring – this is a fast day, a day of atonement – yet that strange sense of unity remains. I join the crowds, chatting with friends almost as if it were a normal Friday night. As I weave my way home through the throngs, hiloni (secular) teenagers hold bicycle races in the streets. This is my experience of Jerusalem, my first experience living in a majority Jewish culture. Although the population tends to be more religiously observant than much of Israel, it is still a city of contradictions. Yet, for me, these contradictions help to cohere my daily patterns into one that is meaningfully Jewish.
I am not sure that having a state religion is required to create this kind of Jewish environment, and honestly, I am uncomfortable with the idea of state-sponsored religion on the whole. And yet, the holidays here were the first time I have experienced such sense of Jewish community and unity. Whether we did it through prayer services or bicycle races, on Yom Kippur in Jerusalem I had the sense that everyone was marking out the difference and importance of that day.
All of our reflections demonstrate ambivalence about religious states, yet these states do permit a certain type of freedom. A freedom perhaps that those in most monasteries know as well, a freedom from restricted religious practice and a freedom to follow obligated rites without worrying about logistics. I think Omar brings up a good point that relates to my faith as well. The struggle to practice one’s religion as a stranger in “non-prayer-supporting” states is in itself a formative experience. Yet the relief he also expresses when praying in Oman and the vivid images of unity and celebration of identity shared by Deborah, continue to nag at me.
I hope this inter-Abrahamic refection serves to complicate our stance on some very touchy topics... to humanize them just a bit... and to realize that at the base of the most difficult conflicts are real people with real desires to struggle and strive so as to be at peace when we encounter the divine.
Photo courtesy of http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAdventsljusstake_med_tre_b...