What’s the Big Deal About Interfaith Marriage?

I attended the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia. I was amazed by the preponderance of sacred fashion statements (the hats!), the number of New Age practitioners from the North American West Coast, and the ubiquity of the phrase “interfaith dialogue.” As former chair of the Union Theological Seminary Interfaith Caucus, a Contributing Scholar for State of Formation, and a member of an interfaith family, I am at times perplexed by the vagueness of this term “interfaith dialogue.” Where and how are these dialogues taking place, and how can they be observed? Are they formal, or are they casual phenomena? What in the world is “interfaith dialogue” anyway?

As an anthropologist, I seek out research contexts I can observe and describe. At the Parliament of the World’s Religions, I went to a workshop for interfaith families and I realized that this is a perfect frame for researching this “interfaith dialogue” thing — because these families interact interreligiously over Saturday and Sunday mornings, rituals, sex, food (namely, pork and booze), language, babies, electricity, work, weddings, foreskins and funerals. So I came to study how religious diversity plays out in the most intimate context of all: personal relationships.

At Boston University I focus my doctoral research particularly on interreligious couples and friendships. I ask questions like: How do theological constructs and beliefs affect religious behavior and everyday expressions of faith? How does a family commitment affect conflict resolution, spiritual practice and religious choices? What are the determinants of interfaith family cohesion? How has America’s history of intolerance toward mixed-race and non-traditional unions contributed to current trends in these relationships? Are there trends in mixed families that can be useful for large-scale contexts of religious and socio-cultural conflict?

Interfaith relationships provide a sandbox for theorizing questions of religious difference. They feature pronounced, conflicting particularities of explicitly different religious traditions. Interrreligious relationships are the perfect container for examining human otherness in concrete terms that are crucial to the lives of both my interlocutors and basically to any human who has ever had human contact.

So, what is an interreligious relationship? In a way, we are all in interreligious relationships, even those of use with similar traditional affiliations, because faith is so differently experienced and articulated from one person to the next. A relationship wherein one person is of any faith, and the other an atheist or secular humanist, is an interreligious relationship. When two people access completely different sets of words and ritual objects to experience and articulate themselves, especially in the times when religion really “comes up,” there is often some tension to face, some learning to do, some decisions to make.

(I tend to call these relationships “interreligious” rather than “interfaith” because I find the former term to be more inclusive, considering that not all religions involve faith. Of course the term “religious” then excludes any atheists and humanists in the mix. But the effort to include everyone quickly becomes unwieldy. So I’ll stick with “interreligious” for now.)

In the summer of 2010, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork at the Indonesian Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. My work focused on how Catholic/Muslim couples make decisions about building life together despite discouragement from many directions against interreligious unions. I talked to couples about their home rituals, their children’s’ educations, Indonesian religious custom, and how Indonesian law affects relationships and the couple’s religious lives.

I also became captivated by the possibility of a multidisciplinary approach to these families. What is the difference between anthropological and theological analyses of interreligious relationships?–especially considering that my theological position is very naturalistic and humanistic? My master’s thesis, entitled Your Neighbor as Yourself: A Comparison of Anthropological and Theological Approaches to “Otherness” Through the Lens of Catholic/Muslim Relationships in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, searched for possible bridging points between the disciplines of Theology and Anthropology to talk about human difference and how these couples managed to transcend it and stay together.

Interreligious marriage, of course, is demonized in certain religious communities as a cause of attrition and a display of disloyalty. Everyone knows of the anxiety of the Jewish community around intermarriage. But on looking closer, I have found that intermarriage is less of a symptom of personal faithlessness or disloyalty, and more of a symptom of the lack of vitality in the community itself–a sign of a lack of depth and nourishment of the relationships people are actually having in that community.

Interreligious marriage is also an inevitable byproduct of increasingly diverse communities, especially those that value multicultural and interreligious pluralism (supposedly a good thing). Also, contrary to the demonizing rhetoric some anti-intermarriage activists posit, studies have shown that religious commitment actually increases for the respective individuals in an interreligious marriage. A recent study in Boston demonstrated that the high rate of Jewish intermarriage has actually created higher levels of Jewish youth involvement, because interreligious couples are more likely to religiously educate their children than couples who are blasé about their religiously similar backgrounds. Interreligious couples are more likely to interrogate their respective faiths and make active choices about staying involved, getting involved, ceding to the other faith, or seeking out a “interfaith” middle ground, like a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

Statistically, interreligious marriages fail more often than religiously homogenous unions, and are therefore regarded as “less successful.” But such statistics often consider “not divorcing” the only sign of marital “success” and fail to look at whether those long-lived couples are happy or healthy, as a couple or as individuals. First marriages (regardless of religious affiliations) fail more often than second marriages do. If the second marriage is an interreligious marriage it is more likely to last than the first in any case. The main predictive variable of a couple staying married is not their religious affiliations, but the communicative capacities of the partners.

All of the advice books for interreligious couples are basically “better communication” manuals. Some broach specific occasions of conflicting rituals and rite-of-passage moments (births, weddings, deaths), but each manual recognizes that these occasions can be navigated meaningfully depending on the quality of communication between the partners.

Some interreligious couples have a better chance of staying together than similarly-affiliated pairings because they have had to discuss their “predicament” with honesty and depth, learning how to be both open and convicted with each other. They love each other, but they have faced this issue of difference and thus have deeply considered their own loyalties and devotions more than the average couple. From the beginning they learned how to talk better, and more rigorously, than similarly-affiliated couples ever needed to. Successful communication and conflict resolution is the greatest predictor for “marital success.”

Far more important than the factor of religious affiliation in determining marital satisfaction and solidarity is the factor of experience: the age of the partners and whether they have been seriously partnered or married before. This kind of experience carries an implicit assumption that the individuals have learned something about selecting a partner they communicate with better, or learned how to be less selfish, and developed their identities and social priorities.

If a couple is willing to marry interreligiously, it probably follows that they are less anxious about the religious difference to begin with. The difficulty often enters with the extended family–the parents of the couple who worry about the souls of their grandchildren. These moments require respectful conviction and good communications as well. Again, an artillery of communication skills and constructive priorities are what will help a couple stay together–conflict resolution style, self-disclosure, ability to talk about the meanings behind the symbols (i.e., not just getting stuck on the showdown of Christmas tree vs Menorah), successful adult individuation from parents, and unselfishness about what’s best for the partner and the children. One could reasonably say the same thing is true for couples of the same religious affiliation. These skills are not merely determinants of a more successful interreligious marriage. They are determinants of a more successful marriage in general.

I love studying this topic. I get to talk to people about what matters most to them: their faith and their family. Interreligious relationships are fascinating and ubiquitous and there are so many ways to approach and discuss them. I can consider them as an anthropologist, and as a theologian; I can be philosophically and ethically constructive; I can write with pure, thick description; it keeps me out of the library carrell and in the field, talking with real live human people.

The topic is relevant for our world, and sometimes even urgent. The most vibrantly alive movement of hatred in America, the “Defense of Marriage” movement, is based on an incredible surge of anxiety about why relationships are failing, and why religion seems powerless to help. I have the same question, but I hope to apply my findings toward a more liberative end, that is, to develop some panoramic observations of what “successful” interreligious relationships look like, and how they navigate through the most treacherous boundarylands of their differences.

Interfaith marriage is a gigantic, convoluted, incredibly important issue. There are many limitations to studying it. It can be very difficult to gain trust and access to the lives of my interlocuters. In the stage of theorizing what is happening in the space between two very different selves, I have to navigate anthropological, sociopolitical, philosophical, and theological theories of selfhood and interpersonality, wherein every theorist proffers a different locus for the self, or none at all, and extrapolates from that locus the implications for interacting with other selves or non-selves. It gets really thorny, and really abstract, and sometimes really boring. I refer to post-modernism, deconstructionism, relativism, contextualism.

When I am tired, this is boring because all the theories together create this fragmented pile of directionless phenomenologist theory. When I am energetic, the panorama of theories on the nature of the self and its relation to other selves seems delightfully kaleidoscopic. The truth about selfhood is inside a Chinese box, a secret that eludes us even–and especially–when the box itself is smashed open. I try to keep track of what Buber and Butler and Hahn and Farley and Levinas and Weil and Taussig and Hick and Eck and Knitter and Casanova and Berger and Ammerman and Giddens and Foucault (etc.) have to say about what is the self and what it means around other people. Sometimes this incurs in me a rather morbid ennui. I want to hang up my hat and summarize things thusly: “Everyone’s right! Everyone’s wrong! Good that they wrote something! Moving on!”

My questions, like any academic pursuit, stem directly from my own obsessions about how relationships of any kind can actually work, so I can get very emotionally involved and unobjective about what I am observing and how I am theorizing it. But perhaps I shouldn’t be overly concerned about working on issues that speak to my own pathologies; psychologically, a pathology is never just a pathology. It’s the bottom half — the root structure, practically — of personal strengths. I hope I am being sensitive to the resonances between my experiences and the experiences of many other people. What I see, again and again, in Australia and Italy and Indonesia and the United States, is that people are actually employing observable tactics to overcome interpersonal difference when the differences are surfacing in conspicuous ways.

It’s really difficult–perhaps impossible–to understand the magic of why relationships can work, or the tragedy of their collapse. But I’m going to do my best to identify some constants so that we all have a better chance at the magic, no matter what religion we’re bringing into the mix.

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3 thoughts on “What’s the Big Deal About Interfaith Marriage?

  1. I am so, so thankful that this new generation of academics is studying interfaith families, and looking for both the benefits and the challenges, instead of just the challenges. I write as a journalist, as an “adult interfaith child,” and as an interfaith spouse and parent. But we need sociologists, anthropologists, religious historians and others to weigh in. Thank you, Jenn!

    Susan Katz Miller
    Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (Beacon Press, October 2013)

  2. Interfaith marriage makes the whole process of marriage and union even one more of challenge. If 2 people want to be married and want to be close to their family its makes things even more of a challenge. Too many mixed opinions and point of views on life and generalities make it too hard for marriages to last. Simplifying those differences will all for stronger support.

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