Similar to the “divine light” that John Muir describes, the morning of Wednesday, February 26 shone through the large windows of this large cabin-like structure. I stepped out into the crisp air only to be met by the power of the mountains. As a person from Brooklyn, New York who then lived in Tampa, Florida, mountains are more than foreign. Powerful in their permanence, I was forced to slow down, to stop in their shadow. These cones of rock and fauna stood firm, literally larger than life, daring me to look up to their peaks. As if they were pointing me to the heavens, I found myself just staring into the crevices between them, unable to comprehend just how small we all were in their wake. They are here when no one else is. They will remain after we all are gone. Realizing my transience, and in turn, the time that was passing by, I hurried into the dining hall to eat breakfast and begin working with my peers to discuss the “Legal and Political Impediment to Religious Engagement.”
Legal term after legal term, my team explored the many intricacies of religious belief and expression as they relate to legislation. Finding the middle ground between religious freedom and political stability proved more difficult than we originally anticipated—as it should, considering that this conflict is one that characterizes almost every major political event until the twentieth century. We quickly realized that on the ground, religion writ large presents us with difficult choices. With a rapidly changing world population, our understanding of the role that religion plays in political, cultural, and social issues is also constantly changing. We discussed the secular laws in France and the “liberty of conscience” clause in US legislation; we found minute details to wrestle with and ever changing shifts in public opinion to take into account. As we delved deeper into our topic, I remembered the immensity of the mountains that lay just outside of our window.
It was the balance between the small and large that still resonates with me. Many religions call us to love and help one another in a myriad of ways each day. At the same time, these religions remind us of our small part in the large world—fortunately, the mountains were a constant reminder of this. Muir muses that they “seemed to kindle to a rapt, religious consciousness.” While we came to our conclusions about various religious issues, we were also made conscious of these majestic landmasses—structures that man neither makes nor completely destroys. As a symbol for the immovable nature of religious conflict, these mountains also present us with an image of the stability that we work towards when we engage in interreligious dialogue and interfaith service. Standing in their shadow, I was able to discover a new aspect of my own religious understanding. In this vein, we should remain open to the possibility that unlike our everyday experiences of making claims on the world, the world—physical and full of grandeur—can and seeks to make a claim on us.