Over the weekend I spent some time reading Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America by Naomi Schaefer Riley. This book is fascinating in its description of modern marriages, 45% of which are interfaith unions, and the religious beliefs of various married couples. Riley discusses everything from the wedding to raising children to divorce rate comparisons, and she writes from a first-person perspective based on her own experience of meshing her Jewish background with that of her husband’s Jehovah’s Witness upbringing. Riley points out what she perceives as both weaknesses and strengths of interfaith marriage, although at times I found it difficult to view the “strengths” as such.
This post is not a review of the book, but as I read, one particular quote in the Conclusion chapter stood out to me:
[...] it is easy to see why interfaith marriage is growing by leaps and bounds. We like diversity; we believe members of other faiths are not only decent, but can get to heaven; we see marriage as a largely individual decision; we will meet our spouse and marry him or her with little forethought about his or her religious beliefs; when we find a potential partner, we believe the relationship between spouses will be an all-consuming one and that our families and communities do not have any kind of competing claims on our loyalties; we think religion is important but it is for kids and parents, not for young, single adults.(p.205)
As I set the book down, I wondered, “So what do we do with this?”
Parents may be raising their children with certain religious convictions or participation (or not), but we read and hear many reports stating that college students are widely prone to leave whatever faith system they were formerly part of. Whether this means a period of religious experimentation, or, as the author purports above, no importance at all placed on religion, we see it increasingly is not a make-or-break factor in many marriages.
The book described spouses from various backgrounds (LDS, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, mainstream, evangelical Christian) in marriages with those from other backgrounds. Many of those interviewed thought of their religion very little until time to make decisions for the wedding or when determining how to raise children. I found the author’s description of how couples celebrate holidays (such as Christmas) fascinating. She writes, “I have heard many interfaith couples use the analogy of a birthday party to explain the celebration of holidays to children: You can help your friend celebrate his birthday by going to his party and singing and eating and giving him a present. It’s not your birthday, but you can still participate. We can help dad celebrate Christmas even if it’s not our holiday.” (p.99)
I confess it’s difficult for me to imagine all of this. I know there are many couples who experience changes after marriage in their religious identity–some deny the faith they formerly claimed, others convert–but the thought of starting out marriage from such different points of view seems to be an enormous challenge.
Of course, the assumption in all of this is mentioned in Riley’s quote above: “We like diversity; we believe members of other faiths are not only decent, but can get to heaven;” This belief opens us up to marry whomever we wish–if he/she is a good person, why not? But then the questions come:
“Should we have mass at the wedding if one spouse is Catholic and the other Protestant?”
“Should we mention the name of Jesus if one spouse is Christian and the other Jewish?”
“Is it possible to raise our children in both faiths? If not, how do we choose which one?”
So how do we respond to this in our own churches and homes?
I can’t speak to other faith traditions, but I can just a bit to evangelical Christianity. So here are a few reasons why I think we’re increasingly seeing interfaith marriage as a possibility in the Church:
First, we don’t know what Christianity is. We don’t know what it means to truly follow Christ. We’ve reduced our “faith” to a common experience–to traditionalism. If this is the case and if all the “take up your cross” and “deny yourself” (Matt. 16:24-26) stuff is merely a suggestion for the truly devout, then Christianity might just be compatible with various religious systems. But if “to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil 1:21), then our lives mean far more than many of us realize.
Second, we don’t know what marriage really is. What does it truly mean? If it’s a social construct, then by all means we should marry whomever we wish. But if, as the Bible states, it was created by God to demonstrate a far greater reality, then our marriages mean far more than many of us realize.
But maybe you’re reading this and feel I’m simply stating the obvious. And here’s where the third observation comes in. IF the Christian life is about more than moralism and tradition, and IF marriage is meant to represent a far greater reality, how do these truths apply to our weddings?
The third truth is this: We don’t know what a wedding is. We don’t realize that not only did God create marriage, He orchestrated the first wedding. Running through the pages of Scripture is the beautiful metaphor of marriage, a picture of an intimate, loving husband and His bride, awaiting their ultimate union. Our weddings should reveal this expectancy and excitement, the tension of the already/not yet of the Kingdom. Marriage is common grace, God’s good gift to the world, but Christians should “get it” in a different way. And if we did, our weddings might reveal this truth to all those in attendance. We might rejoice in the greater reality of what we’re truly doing. And we might see how incompatible this reality is with faith systems that deny the deity of Christ–our true Bridegroom.
So I write all this not to motivate us to despair or try harder, but to encourage us to truly see Christ and point others to Him. We shouldn’t respond in fear of the future of evangelicalism, but maybe with a mix of hope and sadness. Love compels us to see what our friends and children are missing–we’re not fearful for the future of a “system” from which they’re turning away, but rather heartbroken that they haven’t truly seen the love of Christ.
From the outside, we may seem exclusive or intolerant. But the love of Christ compels us to share with others this great truth–Christ is all! A life, marriage, or wedding without Christ misses the point. This realization spurs us on to love and good deeds, powered by the gospel truth and the Holy Spirit to demonstrate through our imperfect lives and marriages that there is a far greater reality to come. So as we await that reality, we invite others to the ultimate wedding celebration to come.