I grew up in an interfaith family, with a Jewish father and Protestant mother, so I have listened with particular interest when my guests have talked about the issue. Living in an interfaith family poses real challenges – changing beliefs, different religious observance, religious education decisions and food preparation, among others. Despite these realities, my guests have described ways their families have navigated them successfully. Three strategies emerged from the interviews: respecting each person’s religious and spiritual beliefs, accommodating differing practices and talking explicitly about boundaries and values.
Respect each other
While respect may seem patently obvious, it’s a bedrock value worth noting nonetheless. For instance, when Yusef, a Sufi Muslim met Maria, a Catholic, they were committed to their respective beliefs yet familiar with the other person’s faith. Being grounded in their own faith yet open towards interfaith engagement, they each recognized that the practice of faith was part and parcel of who the other was, not an additive element. The double wedding ceremonies demonstrated their respect for each other’s traditions, and guests attended both. As Yusef mentioned: The “Catholics came to the Muslim [ceremony] and Muslims came to the Catholic ceremony”.
Neither was afraid of living with difference, and that, combined with knowledge of the other’s faith and depth of their own practice, has supported an interfaith family life that is rich in complexity and individuality. The apparent conflict between commitment to a path and openness to others, can actually strengthen the family.
Accommodate all practices
Diversity of expression is often enriching, but sometimes painful. In contrast to Yusef and Maria, Shane and his wife Wendy have had a more challenging experience. Shane is a life-long member of the Church of Latter-day Saints (colloquially called the Mormons) and has remained engaged in the beliefs and practice of the church. He and Wendy stayed in the church for the first ten years of their marriage, but she then had a ‘faith transition’ when the church felt too rigid. According to Shane: “She left the faith practice and bounced around a couple other religions and landed in a place called Agape Spiritual Healing Center”, a philosophy of thought focused on self-love and mindfulness where she feels happy and at peace. This change caused a painful rift in the marriage. It took several years and much discussion, but they learned to accommodate each other. She attends church if he is speaking or there’s a special holiday celebration, and he joins her in meditation two or three times a week.
Not pressuring the other person to conform to your own path has been critical.
I respect her path and she respects mine. And I think the metaphor that we love the most is: Think of all world religions like a piano keyboard, and each key has keys of truth that are meaningful. The piano keyboard no longer played music for my wife, and it still does for me.
As with showing respect and accommodating differing practices, the need for effective and ongoing communication in a relationship is fundamental. Miriam, who is Jewish, and her husband Kurt, who is not, have remained on separate religious paths. They agreed early on that her ‘Kosher-style’ cooking would be the norm, but not rigidly so. As she noted:
If we have a salad, he really likes blue cheese dressing and if we have a burger with the salad, he's going to have blue cheese dressing on his salad and I'm not about to tell him he can't do that. That feels like a personal decision, and he has always been wonderfully supportive, both of the way I eat and the way we've raised the kids.
Talking through the basic guidelines of the kitchen and child-rearing has allowed them to be a cohesive family while honoring individuality.
Whatever the religions and changes over the years, these qualities – mutual respect, accommodating each other, and talking through the family values and expression – are vitally important. Whatever the challenges, each of these families have found accommodations that work for them, allowing all to thrive within the diversity.
Do you live in an interfaith family, or have you in the past? What was your experience? Leave a comment!
Note: Links to the podcast episodes of these and other families who talked about interfaith families:
Thoughts? Send comments and questions to me at email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you! Méli