The discussion with Hugo about disappointing your parents morphed into a debate over interracial dating. I showed up rather late in the comments thread to talk specifically about interfaith relationships, and I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, read Rilina’s excellent response on the racial side of it.
One interesting thing I learned from my interest in anthropology is just how unstable ethnic identities are. They are constantly being created, blended, separated, and deconstructed. This is true even of “primitive” societies that most Westerners think never change: tribes like the Zulu, the Iroquois and the Sioux only came into existence after white people started chronicling them. “White” and “black” were not meaningful designations until the last 400 years or so. In fact, a lot of Americans don’t realize that we are creating a new ethnic group now among Latin Americans. Back in their home countries, they know themselves as black, white, Indian, mestizo, or mulatto; but when they move to the U.S. they join a strange new race called “hispanic.”
To me, this says two things. One, there’s no point in clinging on endlessly to ethnic identities, much less making idols of them the way people do, because they’re part of the mortal world bound to pass away. But on the other hand, it also says the “Bulworth solution” will really solve nothing. Even as old divisions pass away, new ones are created. In fact, some ethnic divisions are based on markers that may be extremely obscure to outsiders. I remember during the Rwandan genocide, Western reporters struggled to explain exactly what the difference was between a Hutu and a Tutsi.
So I agree with Rilina that interracial dating is morally neutral. It indicates that the participants are not racists, but that signifies an absence of evil more than a positive good.
But moving on to interfaith marriage. Hugo gained no support for thinking that this was a good idea, and in fact drew some ire from Jewish commenters who complained he was trivializing their beliefs. Hugo swore he’s seen it work:
I can’t tell you how many serious inter-faith couples I know who work very, very hard to honor both aspects of their heritage. I know what it is to go to synagogue on a Friday and church on Sunday and to believe both are vital. It makes for long weekends!
For my part, I questioned whether the success of these couples really indicated that anybody could do it, much less should do it. After a while I’m afraid I got a bit testy:
What about community? You still haven’t explained how a real community could be maintained composed mostly of people whose spouses’ primary loyalty lies with a different one. I don’t see how that could avoid becoming like a workplace, where people go to perform a task and return to their entirely separate personal lives. Is that what we want of church?
Jesus told his followers to give themselves entirely to him, and also that husband and wife are one flesh. How can you give yourself wholly to Jesus if you’ve conceded part of your flesh to another god? I must admit I’m mystified.
Lynn said immediately after me:
Interfaith marriage strikes me as a complex question – just what is interfaith, anyway? Some people are nominally of the same faith, but have such vast differences in how they understand it, that their shared faith might be more of a barrier in their marriage than otherwise. And some are nominally of different faiths, but see themselves as of one mind (and, really, people shift around freely as a matter of convenience across certain denominational boundaries anyway). Sometimes people start out in more, or less, agreement than they find themselves with later. And some differences imply significant differences in how you live your daily life, how you view the roles of husband and wife, how you make decisions about childbearing, etc. No one really looks at all religious differences with indifference in choosing partners; the Unitarian who feels fine about forming an interfaith marriage to a Reform Jew may be a lot less receptive to a fundie suitor.
This is true, and I certainly didn’t mean that you should dump your spouse if one or both of you converts. Even St. Paul advised such couples to try to stay together. But there’s a difference between accommodating such vagaries of life, and actually planning it out that way from the beginning as a permanent arrangement. And it’s yet something else to hold it up as a positive social good.
Thinking about this I remembered that a couple years ago, Episcopalian blogger Dave Trowbridge of Redwood Dragon blogged his courtship of, and marriage to, a nonpractising Jew. I realized it had been a long time since I’d checked in on him, and so stopped by to see what he was up to. It was very interesting, given what we’d been talking about, to see that he’s decided to become a Quaker, and cited his marriage as a reason:
In the meantime, my new spiritual home is also more comfortable for my wife Deborah, who, although she is Jewish, has attended Meetings from time to time since she was a teenager, and sometimes described herself as a “Quaker Buddhist Jew.” Not that the people of St. Andrew’s were not welcoming, for they were, warmly. Deborah occasionally even read the Old Testament lesson in the service–and we were married there in a lovely ceremony that combined the Jewish and Christian faiths without erasing or glossing over their separate identities and particularities. But anyone who has read the New Testament is familiar with the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, animus towards Judaism built into it, and while a discerning reader can work through that, the structure of the Liturgy of the Word tends to throw it in one’s face. The Friends Meeting is a spiritual practice we can share without tension, and that’s important, for the two of us are, after all, “one flesh.”
For every couple Hugo knows that seems capable of being permanently bireligious, I wonder how many there are who find they can’t bear the tension and settle into one church — or no church. In fact, the more normal story that I’ve encountered in my life is that when two people of different faiths fall in love, one of them converts before the wedding. This is especially true since one of them is usually more devout than the other. (It was also gratifying to see Dave bring up the “one flesh” line, since I wondered if I was just being overdramatic.)
Another question I brought up earlier in the thread is what happens to the descendants of these couples. They obviously can’t go on keeping the family permanently in two religions, so they must either pick one, leave religion entirely, or develop some syncretic version. Syncretic religions exist, some quite successfully. But they are definitely different religions, not big tents that somehow embrace more than one religion at a time. Since Hugo normally positions himself as the more evangelical Christ-centered believer in his liberal-pluralist congregation, it’s weird that he’s advocating a position that seems destined to turn the world into a Unitarian soup. I can’t help wondering if there’s something else going on here, that I’m not quite perceiving.