Our latest “Ask a…” installment generated quite a bit of interest, and today I’m pleased to share Dana and Fred’s responses to your questions about being an interfaith couple.
Dana is an ordained in the Southern Baptist tradition and writes about the joys and challenges of her Christian-Hindu marriage in Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk. She blogs and tweets on interfaith topics; you can also find her on Facebook.
Fred is a devout Hindu in the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition who lived as a monk and priest for five years. He blogs on Hinduism and philosophy and works in IT at NC State University.
Dana and Fred were matched on eHarmony in December 2008. Since then, their Christian-Hindu interfaith adventure has included a sex-free Indian ashram honeymoon, austere religious pilgrimages, dietary compromises, deciding when and where to worship, and fights about prayer.
Dana did an excellent job responding to your questions and I hope you enjoy hearing from her as much as I did. Enjoy!
From Dana and Fred: Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful questions. We are grateful for your interest in this topic and hope the conversations will continue. Our prayer has always been that the Saffron Cross story will foster awareness for interfaith discussion and understanding. And thanks, Lydia, Kylie, Alyson, Veronica, Christina, Amanda, and Kat R. for your questions!
From Lydia: Are there perhaps certain ways in which your relationship and marriage is strengthened by your differences in belief/faith, which other same-faith couples do not enjoy?
Our intrinsically different faith traditions have strengthened both our marriage and personal, individual relationships with God in several ways.
To embark on this interfaith adventure, Fred and I both had to step out of the confines and comforts of our individual religious paths. Most of us tend to operate solely within the isolation of our faith communities (this is totally normal and understandable). But in that isolation we tend not to ask tough questions of ourselves, our beliefs, and our traditions. Getting to know someone for whom faith looks differently helps us take the first step out of the comfort zones of the faith communities and the traditions we know and cherish. It’s along these edges that we can most experience spiritual growth, because we’re doing the hard work of asking ourselves, what do I believe? What does my religion espouse? What does my scripture actually say? When we are surrounded by people who, at least on the surface, believe the same things we believe, there’s often no impetus for wonder—no cause to dig deeper and get to the roots of our tenets.
When we first began dating, we had tough questions for each other. Some examples: “Dana, what do Baptists believe?” “Dana, why are you not integrating Christ’s teachings into your daily life?” “Fred, what’s the purpose of deity worship? Why do Hindus need gurus?”
Our wonderings forced me to ask: What do I believe? How has scripture and my tradition informed me? How has my relationship with Jesus affected my life? Has it changed? Am I doing the same things I’ve always done?
I had to return to my Bible, to my seminary books, to the elders and history of my Baptist tradition, and most of all—to my own heart. I had to dig deep, and this resulted in a reignited fire for Christ again.
Fred’s eastern path and our marriage has encouraged me to apply a more Christ-like approach to my lifestyle: what I eat, buy, how I speak and treat others. Fred’s Hinduism has offered me an eastern approach to God: What can I do for God today? As opposed to what the posture I’d always practiced: God, what will you do for me today?
Same-faith couples may take it for granted (or not) that they believe the same things as their partners. Maybe they don’t even discuss Jesus anymore. Maybe they do?
Because Fred and I are ordained within intrinsically different traditions, our constant questions about the other person’s tradition fueled perpetual interest in God. This new energy pulled me from my Christian complacency. (Alise Wright expresses a similar season of examination during her husband’s deconversion, in their “Ask a Mixed-Faith Couple” response).
Fred and I challenge one another to live fully into what our traditions and sacred scriptures have taught us—and as a result, we’re growing together.
From Kylie: To what degree do each of you integrate the nuances of the other's faith into your own practice (if at all?)
We are actually quite intentional about integrating the nuances of both Christianity and Hinduism into our spiritual practices. This stems from our interfaith marriage mantra: “we always worship together.”
We decided on this rule after lengthy discussions on how we’d handle sabbath-keeping. It started with concern: where would we worship? When would we worship? How would we worship?
Instead of choosing to attend church/temple separately, we opted to attend together. This means we go to Baptist church and the temple/ashram together—without fail. On the rides home from worship, we discuss sermons, scripture, rituals, liturgy—you name it! God is always in the center, and the lines are beautifully messy.
Here are some specifics on how this “always worship together rule” has now infiltrated our lives: Fred occasionally teaches Sunday School at my Baptist Church; I fully participation in his faith community’s services and rituals during Hindu festival weekends. I’ve adopted vegetarianism and food offering rituals; Fred’s adopted participation in Baptist’s extemporaneous prayer tradition. We have an altar in our home (an eastern practice) that holds an icon of Christ Pantocrator, photos of Gaura-Nitai deities, Fred’s guru, as well as Christian and Hindu volumes of Scripture and commentaries.
Spectators may observe that one tradition has blurred into the other—and that is purposeful. We still call ourselves Christian and Hindu, but we’ve taken each tradition’s rich, valuable practices, and adopted them for our mutual spiritual path.
From Alyson: Dana, how do you reconcile your church's teachings on heaven, hell, and the afterlife with your husband's very different beliefs? Do you hope/pray for his conversion to Christianity? (Hope this doesn't sound judgmental - I'm honestly curious about his).
My honest disclosure is that I am unabashedly Christian. I fully believe in the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I have accepted Jesus as my personal savior and Christianity as my individual spiritual path. But I have also learned—in the most humble of ways—through mistakes, seminary, program ministries, chaplain and nonprofit work—that Jesus is not everyone’s chosen savior.
I think it’s essential that we all approach spirituality and religion with humility. We must admit that we are not God and we do not fully know God’s heart. We must recognize that Christianity is a teenager when compared with our ancient brothers and sisters of (e.g., Hinduism and Buddhism, among others). It’s imperative that we are respectful of all the world’s traditions and seek first to understand.
(OK, confession time!) All that said, I bristled early in our courtship when I imagined that Fred was not going to Heaven. In Chapter Three of Saffron Cross, I recount a crisis by which I wanted to baptize Fred (gasp!). So yes, at one point in time I did wish for his conversion—but not for his sake. It was because I was uncomfortable.
We can all treat our chosen scripture, doctrine, and dogma with thoughtfulness. We must exegete carefully—with open hearts, open minds, and compassion. I think we should admit what we do know—and that is that God is infinitely merciful—perhaps so merciful that God comes to us in many forms over many cultures and time periods. And, that is something to celebrate! Praise God that we are the beneficiaries of such grace!
From Veronica: Dana, how do you deal with the idea of being "unequally yoked" and the criticism you must get for that?
This is a frequent question! Thanks for asking, Veronica.
Interfaith and interdenominational courtships are sprinkled with “unequally yoked” arguments from the skeptics. 2 Corinthians 6:14 is used to dissuade would-be interfaith/interdenominational couples. Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness? (NRSV)
But what does this verse actually mean?
If we approach this verse (and all scripture passages) with careful exegesis we should consider the cultural context and language. As the commenter named “Anand,” described, the context of “yoked” is about work (i.e., two oxen “yoked” together to complete a task). Marriage is not actually addressed in this passage.
Perhaps a more thoughtful translation would be for us to understand that Paul did not want believers of the first century partnering with unbelievers who would impair the work of spreading the “good news” to build the early church.
Here’s another question to consider: who is a believer? If we call ourselves Christian “believers,” but do not intend for “belief” to be a verb, are we truly followers of Christ? Have we been so moved by Jesus’ teachings (and our “belief” in him) that we have been propelled to change our lives, what we buy, how we talk to others, and to serve the poor? Or, are we doing the same things we’ve always done? In a recent Ethics Daily post, Dennis Atwood wrote that the “ongoing process of ‘knowing’ God should make a real difference in the way we live, make decisions, and treat other people.”
In this context, it’s easy to see what Paul didn’t want us working with “unbelievers” for whom God had not impacted their lives. His sense was that this would impede our “work” of sharing Jesus.
Does his devout Hinduism and his monastic service impede my sharing of the Gospel?
Let’s examine the evidence: I am more focused on serving Jesus now that I have ever been in my life. I am conscious of what I do and say and how it is a reflection of the Body of Christ. This is all thanks to Fred, whose encouragement has motivated me to draw closer to Jesus.
Last week, Fred gifted me an icon of Christ Pantocrator for our altar. These “windows to Heaven” can open our hearts to love in Christ. Through this gesture, was Fred impeding my ability to share the Gospel? Absolutely not.
It is my sense that Paul was warning the early church not to be “yoked” with folks who didn’t allow God to make a real difference in their lives—inside and out. Fred and I have determined that the equally yoked question should not be about us having the same faith, but rather, deep faith.
From Christina: I've heard it said that people should not enter into interfaith marriages because then their spouse wouldn't be able to understand and share one of the deepest and most important parts of their life: their faith. That is to say, for a Christian who finds their identity in Christ, their spouse would never really "get" that about them in the way that someone who shares the same faith would. What is your response to this way of thinking?
It’s important to note that Fred has a keen sense of Jesus’ divinity; his tradition of Hinduism (Gaudiya Vaishnavaism) is monotheistic and inclusive of Christianity. Fred had early exposure to Christianity—through which he accepted an altar call, but was never baptized. He eventually left the church because he was frustrated by what he perceived to be Christianity’s hypocrisy (e.g., Christians accepting Jesus, but their lives are not changed in such a way that reflects Jesus’ teachings).
The prejudice many of us bring to the table is that getting to know someone who has not accepted Christ as their personal savior will somehow erode or derail our spiritual paths. Our partners or friends wouldn’t “get” our Christianity, and therefore, being close with them would be impossible.
Fred and I have worked hard to discover and bridge universal principles between Christianity and Hinduism that help us share the deepest parts of us: our faith. Fred is a Hindu who gets Jesus—this means it’s difficult for me to imagine not being able to share Christ with him, because I do each day.
Perhaps we should trust the Holy Spirit and lose ourselves in the process of cultivating love for God—and not necessarily expect someone to “get” it.
This is an important part to cultivating interfaith friendships: trusting the Spirit and taking a leap. Just because we assume someone wouldn’t understand our love of Jesus doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to build a friendship and understand their point of view. Imagine what a peaceful world we’d have we truly sought to truly understand one another?
From Amanda: Deciding how to raise one's children is a very personal decision...how do you both decide what to teach your children regarding your very different belief systems?
Indeed! Parenting is the toughest job this side of heaven, and because we are not parents, we won’t pretend to be experts! No one wants parenting advice from people who do not have children.
But we do know interfaith families whose practices we would hope to emanate. Susan Katz Miller, whose book Being Both carefully outlines the successful practices of interfaith families, has raised her own children in both Jewish and Christian practices and understanding. For Susan and many other families, it’s a “both/and” life, not an “either/or.” They’ve found that their experiences as a family are enriched when they practice both religions.
We can only image children’s lives being better for knowing there is a God who loves them so very much that God comes to us in many ways and circumstances.
From Kat R: This is not so much about interfaith marriage, but how does a woman become ordained in the Southern Baptist tradition? I thought they were pretty ix-nay on the whole women talking thing.
Great question! Some of you have already offered your responses, and I’ll offer my personal experience.
I was ordained by First Baptist Church in Reidsville, NC, the parish of my youth. At the time (2002), First Baptist Church had both affiliations with the Southern Baptist Convention and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
I attended First Baptist Reidsville for ten years before I was ordained; I was loved and formed by this community in ways I could have never imagined (see Chapter Four of Saffron Cross). The First Baptist community saw budding spiritual gifts far before I realized my call.
Baptists are an autonomous people. In our tradition, authority remains at the local church level. Unlike our connectional brothers and sisters, Baptists can make decisions without having to answer to a larger body or authority—a district, diocese, or Bishop. There is both beauty and challenge in a system like this.
For Baptists, ordination is a “setting apart” for the ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that recognizes the ordained’s gifts for this ministry. In my case, it accepted that those gifts would never translate into my serving as a full-time senior pastor of an SBC church (those are not my gifts and it’s likely the Southern Baptist Convention wouldn’t fully accept/recognize my ordination at this time).
Instead, I’ve taken the route of ministry/service through chaplaincy, nonprofit organizations, and teaching. My ordination has served me well—particularly in the hospital setting where I was able to provide sacraments (or ordinances, as Baptists would prefer) for patients.
I’m grateful for the tradition of my youth and my ordination. I am currently a member of a progressive Baptist church whose affiliations include: American Baptist Churches USA, Alliance of Baptist, Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, as well as the North Carolina Council of Churches. Come see worship with us anytime. All are welcome!
Be sure to check out Dana's book, Saffron Cross.
And you can browse other installments of our "Ask a..." series here.
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