A while back I ventured a few thoughts on some of the challenges inherent in interfaith marriages. In response an atheist friend of mine wrote and invited me to share with you the following letter:
I’m a bona fide marriage expert. Not because I have some fancy Ivy League degree hanging on my wall, nor because I’m a published marriage counselor—no, I’m a marriage expert because I’ve been married twice. I’m a big believer in the school of you-don’t-know-it-until-you’ve-done-it. Having done it twice, I now know it twice as well. Hence, marriage expert.
My first marriage was to a lovely woman of like-spirituality. We were both humanists (which is a fancy term for do-gooder atheists) of Jewish descent. That marriage failed when she realized that she didn’t love me. ME! How could she not love me? You probably don’t know me, but I am very lovable. I know this, because my second wife, an even more lovely Christian woman named Rachel, told me so. Rachel also told me that our marriage is a resounding success, and I believe her. We both have no doubt that we will be together until we die, at which point we will be separated. According to her, I will go to hell and she will go to heaven; in my version, we will both simply be dead. Either way, we won’t be together anymore, and that’s sad.
Rachel is a Christian and I am a heretical Jewish humanist. How can this marriage of ours really be a success? How can we fully be together when we don’t share the same spirituality? How can we unleash the full potential of our marriage if we have a spiritual chasm between us? How can we possibly understand each other when we approach life so differently? What will we teach the children? For Pete’s sake, think of the children! (If anyone knows Pete, or why he cares about the children, please let me know in the comments—oh, and tell him I want back my copy of ABBA Gold.)
As tempting as it was to ignore the problem of our differences and hope it went away, Rachel and I talked about it, and decided that since we valued our marriage too much to leave it to chance, we would be proactive about addressing our differences: we’d do it the hard way. (What is it about Jews and Christians that they need to suffer to feel alive? Wait a minute, maybe we aren’t so different after all! No, that’s not it. We’re different. Might as well face it. We’re really, really different.)
Women and men are different. Christians and people of other faiths are different. Christians of different denominations are different. Republicans and Democrats are different. Bostonians and San Diegans are different. Mice and men are different. Even Milli and Vanilli are different—in fact, they aren’t even themselves.
I am not, as my wife is, a woman who was born in San Jose, CA, grew up on a farm in upstate New York, matured in Washington, has six siblings, and is passionate about her family and her faith. I never will be that woman, and while I can understand her, empathize with her, feel pretty in her clothes, and love her deeply, I will never really know the depths of her experiences or the convictions of her beliefs. No one will, except God (if you’re into that sort of thing). I don’t want to be her Savior, I want to be her husband. I want to spend every day getting closer to her and knowing her more, faith and all.
Everyone has faith of some kind, even atheists (we can’t prove there is no God, we simply believe there is no God). By recognizing your own faith, even if it’s belief in mammon—or as Washington Irving called it: “The Almighty Dollar”—you can understand how essential faith is to the core of our being. Everyone has the ability to relate to the fervent wholeness of faith, and to understand how it can permeate every aspect of one’s life. You don’t have to share the same faith to know how your spouse feels about his or her spiritual connection. It’s the universal feelings that come from faith, even if the faiths are different, that are the foundation from which you can connect, share, learn, and grow.
Your marriage won’t fail over differences; there will always be differences. It will fail if you are not honest with each other, and lack respect for one another—spiritually or otherwise.
Marriage is a partnership. Each partner brings the best and the worst parts of themselves to their marriage, and the success or failure of their union depends on how they embrace the good and the bad of it. In a successful marriage, two people, who are different by virtue of being people, find the common ground on which they relate to each other, and use that as a foundation. They grow toward each other by learning about and respecting their differences, and then stay together by willingly meeting each other’s needs, whether they fully understand them or not. That last part, that really hard part—that’s love.
That love is what my interfaith marriage is all about. Rachel would call that the manifestation of God’s love and grace in our marriage. I call it my profound privilege to be able to spend every day of the rest of my life growing a little bit closer to my wife.
John Shore, advice columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times (the major daily newspaper of Asheville, North Carolina) is the founder of Unfundamentalist.