In the days following the shooting at the Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin, numerous interviews were aired on radio about the basic tenets of the Sikh religion. Questions seemed to focus mostly on turbans and beards--both visible markers of observant Sikh men. The reason for that focus seems to be the confusion/identification between Sikhs and Muslims in the years after 9/11. I was reminded of another problem associated with the tenets of the Sikh faith--especially in post-9/11 America: the wearing of the kirpan, or ceremonial dagger. To many in law enforcement, it was seen as a weapon, and not to be allowed on airplanes or in schools or prisons. To be forced not to wear the kirpan became very problematic to faithful Sikh men.
Listening to those interviews gave me occasion to reflect on the external "pieces" of our religious traditions. The question that has kept nagging at me is: "What features of a religious tradition are so central, that to lose--or be forced to forego--(some of) them would cause a crisis of faith?" For many traditions over the centuries, this has been a reality, but for most of us, we've not been forced to make a choice.
The Jewish people, for example, have experienced the loss of their cultic center, the Jerusalem Temple, as well as their homeland, more than once. A crisis of faith, to be sure! Psalm 137 reflects the anguish of exile: "How can we sing the Lord's song in an alien land?" Yet, most were able to understand their faithfulness to Torah in a way that was not so site-specific. In other situations, however, given a choice between being forced to violate Torah or die, many chose death. What is central?
The earliest Christians were Jewish. Yet, as the movement expanded beyond its Middle Eastern roots and began including non-Jews, the question arose as to how much of the Jewish legal code had to be observed by non-Jewish converts. Again, the question of centrality forced soul-searching and choices. And the process wasn't nice and neat.
Irish Roman Catholics (as well as non-Anglican Protestants), in the 16th and 17th centuries, had their religious practices severely curtailed by the British. They could not hold public office. They could not worship publicly -- or give public evidence of their faith. For many, who found praying the Rosary a central part of their practice, this was very problematic. The clever among them designed, what came to be known as, the "Irish Penal Rosary", which could be worn hidden and prayed without worry of detection. An "external" practice had become so central that rather than forsake it, they chose to remake it.
Around the world today there are still plenty of places where such choices are being forced upon the faithful of many traditions. The impetus for conformity in societies is strong (including our own). Not really being subject to such coercion, however, I still have to wonder what I could forego without losing the core of my faith. What part of worship, or music, or (as an Anglican) the Book of Common Prayer, is so central? Language, for many, is critical. I wonder, if I were Muslim, what would be the impact of the loss of the Kaaba in Mecca. There are many other similar features in almost all religions.
So, central, or peripheral? The questions remain to be answered by us all.