Interfaith in the Home
Rev. Douglas Taylor
May 26, 2013


Unitarian Universalism is a wonderful religious home for people and families who have more than one religion.  As Rev. John Buehrens says, “It’s the one to have if you need to have two.”  We honor many sources and celebrate differences.  In an introductory video we show at the New UU workshop, a woman says: “I can bring my atheist mother here, and my Catholic ex-husband, and my modern-trained Jewish orthodox children, and there are, just, all loved!”

This is our annual Auction sermon.  Once a year, people are given an opportunity to bid on a sermon topic at our auction.  Last year we saw some rather heated bidding for this sermon topic and it was finally won by Lauri.  Lauri, who is Unitarian Universalist, will be getting married later this year to Betsy, who is Christian.  Lauri felt the intricacies of interfaith marriage would make a fine topic for this sermon.  How does it work?  Unitarian Universalism is a religious community not based in shared beliefs.  We encourage interfaith relationships in the community at large and here in our own congregation.  Does it also work to be faithfully interfaith in the home?

Usually I come to the conversation about interfaith relations from the perspective of the public sphere – meeting people at a public forum to honor each other’s different paths, gathering together here each week with our different beliefs.  Usually I come to the conversation about interfaith in a public manner – for the sake of community and peaceful civil society!  Today, however, we shall consider interfaith in the private sphere, interfaith in the home. 

I remember doing a child dedication service for a couple who were not members but came to me because they knew this aspect of our religion: that we honor the world’s religions and celebrate diversity.  They asked if I would officiate for their baby’s event.  It was a compromise.  He was Christian and she had been raised Jewish.  The marriage had been exclusively Christian.  The husband admitted that he had not honored his wife’s tradition at the marriage and had instead insisted on getting married in his church.  Now, after a year together, he was learning more and opening up more and wanted to find a way to honor her Jewish roots.  The priest they brought in was a friend of the family.  The Cantor still served the synagogue where she had grown up.  This was all down in the Washington D.C. area.  They came to me to be the lead Officiant and Master of Ceremonies for the event.

And it was an event!  The three of us up there, a priest, a Jewish cantor and a minister, we welcomed that baby, we named him, we baptized him, we dedicated him, and we blessed him good.  After the event I was mingling with the others and the Jewish Cantor leaned over to me with a bemused look on his face and said, “First we make him Jewish, then we make him Catholic!”  (with lilt in voice as if to say ‘I just don’t understand’)

Later he said, “You know in the old firing squad line up to kill a prisoner, there would always be one blank somewhere in the line up so each of the men pulling the trigger could think it was not his gun that had killed the prisoner.”  I grinned because I knew where he was going and quickly asked, “So which of us do you think is shooting blanks today?” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “We’ll see.” 

So what is it like to live faithfully in an interfaith home?  What is the secret to making it work?  I imagined three possible answers. 

The first possibility I imagined is that one member of the interfaith home is ‘shooting blanks.’  One possible answer is that it works because it isn’t really interfaith.  It is possible to be nominally Jewish or Christian in name only.  This would be the case if one member of the couple is not really practicing their religion while the other is observant. It’s like an old cartoon I remember: The first person says to the second, “Marriage is when two live together as one,” and the second person replies, “Yes, but which one?”

A very common reading used in weddings is the passage from Ruth:

And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.  (Ruth 1:16-17)

This is a lovely passage and even a very lovely passage for same-sex weddings I will add.  Ruth is saying this to Naomi.  It is a vow made between two women.  I am delighted and amused that for ages heterosexual couples have used this piece of scripture to sanctify their relationships.  It is, indeed, a lovely passage.  However, it is not very lovely for a marriage that is meant to remain interfaith.  It basically speaks of conversion rather than interfaith.  It claims the only way an interfaith marriage can work is if one member of the couple converts.

Most of the couples I meet in Unitarian Universalist circles have not forsworn their own God for the God of their spouse.  Most Unitarian Universalist interfaith couples will mingle their customs, mix their blessings, and merge their traditions together to create a new family.  For some couples, religion is more important to one person than the other and this path of letting one tradition lead can be done with integrity.  Or this can be a way to step back from the difficult conversation for a time while strengthening the relationship. 

This is like “tolerance” in the public forums of interfaith dialogue where we agree to disagree by talking about a few commonalities and avoiding touchy topics.  Or we can imagine Unitarian Universalist congregations where there is a dominant theology in practice. There are also UU congregations where people don’t talk much about our beliefs together, where beliefs are not a big deal to the people gathered.  That would be one possible way to be interfaith in the world and in the home.                                                  

To use the metaphor from the Cantor and the baby naming event, if neither parent is shooting blanks, if faith and religion really do matter to both members of the couple, how does it work?  If the common center is not the shared faith or religious practice, what are the other options?  Think about your own relationships – marriage or otherwise – that are significant relationship that cross religious lines.  Sometimes agreeing to disagree is a fair way to do it.  Other times, wonderfully, there are other options.

Well, of course, love is always a great option.  This is the second great possibility I found for how to be faithfully interfaith in the home.  Set love at the center of your relationship and it can help bridge the differences, help open the way into compassionate understanding.  A Powell Davies, talks about marriage as a joining of two private worlds with love as the guide. “None of our private worlds is big enough for us to live a wholesome life in,” he writes.  All of us must find a way to bridge our individual living into the bigger venture of life.  Davies says,

What are we, any of us, but strangers and sojourners forlornly wandering through the nighttime until we draw together and find the meaning of our lives in one another, dissolving our fears in each other’s courage, making music together and lighting torches to guide us through the dark?  We belong together.  Love is what we need.  To love and to be loved.  (from We Pledge our Hearts, ed by Edward Searl, p 136)

Unfortunately, there is more to it than that. Nietzsche once said, “It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.”  Yes, we are in need of relationships, we are social creatures.  It is true that none of our private worlds are big enough to live a wholesome life in.  But love is something that ebbs and flows in relationship.  We don’t love each other all the time in constancy. Love grows and changes over time. 

There is a comparable public expression of interfaith relationship.  Similar to public ‘tolerance’ as comparable to private avoidance, here the equivalent might be meeting one person from a different faith that you like and seeing that one person as an exception.  Your acceptance of the religion is based on the character of your friend.  This person I love and respect is a Muslim or a Pagan, so I am curious and willing to explore this for the sake of the love I bear my friend or my spouse.  It can be a very good place to be.  It may be enough for some couples and some relationships. 

Yet if an interfaith couple relies only on love, eventually there will be a time of love’s ebb when the pressures of life pull a couple apart and threaten to sunder the bond of love.  At such a time, faith and religious community can serve as a container or a wedge.  And if the couple was relying on love to carry them through their religious differences, then the religious differences will likely become one of the pressures pulling them apart.

The third possibility I uncovered is very similar to the notion of holding love at the center.  A relationship must be founded on a solid base of shared values and a commitment to weather the ebb and flow of love.  The values that lead to strong relationships are values like honesty and mutual respect, open communication and generosity.  But really, the key to it all is mutuality and trust.  If the values are shared values, they can serve as the foundation for the relationship.  This is true for any marriage, but especially so when there is a significant difference such as religion in the relationship. 

Differences are important.  They can serve as barriers or as bridges; it all depends on how you look at it and how you use it.  In our reading this morning from our hymnal, Kahlil Gibran says to ‘stand together yet not too near together. … let there be spaces in your togetherness.”  He uses the imagery of trees to make his point.  He uses the imagery of the moving tides and the winds of heaven to make his point.  I’ve heard others use the metaphor of dancing to make this point. 

When two people come together to create a new family unit, they each bring with them their own form of dance.  Some people dance one form of dance with their family while growing up.  They learned how to salsa dance.  But they fall in love with someone whose people are foxtrot people.  When it comes time to argue or show affection, to buy a car or raise a child, suddenly we discover ourselves stepping on our loved ones toes.  One person is trying to do the dance they learned as a child for such activities while their partner is doing completely different steps.  Ultimately what we need to do is learn a new dance, to create new family traditions and patterns and expectations.  My wife likes to say marriage is like a dance where you need to know the steps but also how to improvise. 

When we approach our differences like a dance, then being faithfully interfaith in the home would allow each person to pursue their practice while honoring their partner’s faith.  Instead of avoiding the topic or seeing an opportunity to convert, we approach each other’s differences with respect and honest curiosity.  With trust and mutuality, we can lovingly open up questions of deep intimacy such as questions about God, enlightenment, salvation, and certainty … because the questions will be rooted in love not fear.

Brad Hirschfield, in the introduction of his book You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right, relates the story of a conversation he had with a cabbie. The cabbie asks him what he does and Hirschfield admits to being a rabbi.  The cab driver leads him into great conversation about faith and bridging differences.  The driver circles around to asking some advice.  He shares with Hirschfield that he is a recovering alcoholic and that his conversion to Christianity and membership with a particular church has been a key piece to staying sober.  His concern is for his wife of 20 years who is not a Christian.  He loved his wife deeply and didn’t want to change her or leave her, but he was feeling pressure from his church to do exactly that. He was torn. “Can I pray for my wife?” the Cabbie asked Hirschfield.

Hirschfield said, “For her to see the light?  To believe what you believe?  I guess so.  You probably wouldn’t be you if you didn’t pray for her.  But if your praying starts to make you appreciate her less, then you are praying too much.  Your wife doesn’t have to be wrong for you to be right.” (p7-8)

That would be the last piece I would suggest.  Don’t hold back for fear that your faith will overpower your partner.  And don’t fear the faith of your partner to think it might over power yours.  Instead, lean into your own faith.  Let it grow.  Let your mutual love and care be the bridge to expand your shared space. To be faithfully interfaith in the home, it helps greatly to allow the conversation to be bigger that ‘right and wrong’ so that truth and love can both have room to explore and grow. 

In a world without end,
may it be so.