Beyond Interfaith Marriages to Multifaith Marriages
“Multifaith” is to interfaith as self-definition is to a throw rug. Self-definition is essential to personal maturity; a throw rug is not. Self-definition means you remain a Christian even if married to a Jew, or vice versa. Self-definition is that glorious arrangement of you being you. Socrates understood it as self-knowledge; Erikson understood identity as a certain consistency over time. You don’t blend so much as mature. You become more yourself by engaging more in articulated difference. You are not tossed about; you toss your identity freely and unapologetically into the room. A throw rug is an intentionally snarky contrast: it is lightweight. It can be moved anywhere. In the throw rug design of a room, you move things about according to the whim of the room’s use. You move it out or keep it in. You shake it out easily. In a tossed-about identity, you give permission to someone else to tell you who you are and to put you there or somewhere.
In self-definition you risk becoming yourself over time. Most people say they want to “be themselves” after they are married as though that were neither obvious nor normal. There is defensiveness to the “Be Myself” talk. Sometimes it shows up religiously and spiritually as well. We don’t have to blend or lose to marry beyond our cradle faith. Instead, we may be who we were and are and will be—while enjoying intimacy with a truly different person. Interfaith tends toward blend; multifaith turns toward self-definition, without the defensiveness. By the way, blend can be lovely too, especially if you and your partner choose so to do from the heart of themselves. Interfaith is as much a possibly chosen identity as multifaith.
Let me tell you a story. The couple involved a Palestinian refugee and a Jewish Princess. These are their words for themselves. They self-define in these ways. Her parents were divorced twice so she has a biological mother and father as well as two stepmothers and two stepfathers. His father is a non-observant Muslim, a secularized Palestinian dentist living in Detroit for thirty years. Nevertheless, this father is requiring that the bride convert to Islam so as not to embarrass the family at the wedding service. She has agreed. (We all bow all the time to all sorts of things, so please keep your holier-than-thou hat off.)
As we have struggled with the difficulty and hypocrisy of this requirement, we have had to ask the question of the First Commandment. The First Commandment for Jews and Christians is to love God above all. To what do we bow down if we are unbelievers or sort of believers or Jews whose fathers have the biggest Christmas tree in Westchester? We bow down to the God beyond God or the center that is deeper than the well. The groom in this situation tells his family that he will convert to Judaism if his father maintains the requirement that she convert to Islam. My two friends could have stopped their search for a spiritual home or something the far side of religious hypocrisy at any point. They could have said no to both of their homes because both of their homes had said no to them. Instead they said yes to both and showed me a way beyond the word “interfaith” to a better one, which is “multifaith.” Neither tossed their identity on the floor: instead, they found a good joke, that of mutual conversion, to begin the process they have now maintained in their marriage, of her being her kind of Jew and he being his kind of Palestinian.
Many people talk about interfaith marriage today as though it was the new normal. It’s not nor will it be until we change the language of faith. “Interfaith” is not something a marriage or a person can be. We are still in the twenty-first century and we have parochial homes. A cradle Christian doesn’t stop being a Christian because she marries a Jew nor vice versa. Self-definition is normal, possible, obvious—and intimately necessary.
You can’t really stop being Irish or Mexican. It is hard to leave the Lutheran or Muslim in you behind. Plus, why would you? Multifaith marriages mean that both partners stay the same and become more, not that they blend into a mush. Interfaith describes the mush that marks the typical “Ecumenical Thanksgiving” service the night before the turkey. Everybody says a little something, and nobody says much that is memorable. People stay lavender to avoid the purple. Multifaith is to interfaith as paisley is to white. Multifaith means that we do more than blanch, that Jews do more than “tolerate” Muslims, and women do more than assume “that’s just the way men are.” We deepen into ourselves and our own identity as a way to deepen into others. We become not just open but also affirming about our religious identities. Multifaith means intimacy within great diversity, not just great diversity and not just great intimacy. People add more than they give up when it comes to the world of multifaith marriages.
Ah, what about the children? There is no worse curse for a child than a faded parent. The children will be fine if and only as the parents are religiously honest. The parents have more of a chance of reconciling with their own parents if they respect their multiple origins. The words “elder” and “ancestor” come to mind. Moreover, it is the “children” who will pioneer the new way, not the parents. They will go to colleges where “Spiritual Life Centers” have replaced chapels and they will know when to take their shoes off and when to put their crosses on. Things will change religiously and our multifaith offspring will make the changes. Never forget how important people thought it was that John Kennedy was a Catholic president or that Colin Powell wanted to know “So what if he is?” when people asked about Barack Obama being of Muslim heritage. Things do change.
Multifaith marriages will bring us to the place where some of our best friends are indeed Muslim, where we befriend our own sources, and become something our ancestors couldn’t recognize. Religions, cultures, and identities are always changing and marriages are frequently the front line of these changes.
Just look back at the enormous conversation around Catholic-Protestant marriages that people knew in the middle of this century. Many people reported telling their Protestant parents that they were marrying a Catholic and watching the parents faint. The same was true the other way around. Yes, my Jewish husband’s mother took to her bed for three days when he announced he was marrying me, a cradle Lutheran. She sat Shiva. But she also got up out of her bed and blessed us. Many Catholics report having to give up their parents for years to go forward with their love. Many Protestants report that the new Catholic in their family was not “accepted” for dozens of years. Remarkably, today we still notice a Catholic-Protestant union but don’t anticipate awful suffering for those joining together. There is a success to the multifaith marriage that we have observed in our own lives: people can worship separately and live separate spiritual lives and still be married. Simultaneously, it should be noted that many people who do the “multifaith” family pattern miss each other on Sunday mornings or Friday nights or during the High Holy Days or at the Christmas mass. Couples need to know how much diversity they want as well as how much self-definition.
While multifaith might be our destination culturally and spiritually, there are steps along the way. Some couples will suffer rejection. Others will fight for family blessings. Still others will decide to blend because they don’t like being apart religiously. Many Episcopalians will tell you they are there for the blend of Protestant and Catholic, as will many Unitarians and Buddhists talk about what happened when a Christian and a Jew came together in love. There is no right way to be a multifaith couple! Missing the mass for a lifetime is not a great objective for a “mixed” marriage. Nor is “nothing” the answer when couples clash about where to baptize the children. What matters is the intimacy of the self-definition – and the freedom to say who you are to someone else.