How to Keep the Faith in Interfaith Marriage

Fred and Dana in their Hindu and Christian clergy robes. Take in the gardens of Binkley Baptist Church by Franklin Golden.
Fred and Dana dressed in their Hindu and Christian clergy robes. Taken in the gardens of Binkley Baptist Church by Franklin Golden.

Editor’s Note (4/15/13): I’ve added links at the end of this post to other writers who’ve commented on Naomi Schaefer Riley’s work. 

By J. Dana Trent and Fred Eaker

I’ve spent the last two Easters in the company of devout Hindus. On one of Christianity’s holiest days, I worshiped Hindu deities alongside my Gaudiya Vaisnava husband, listened to his guru’s wise words, and enjoyed prasadthe Eastern equivalent of communion.

This may not seem unusual, until you consider that I am an ordained Baptist minister, as devout and steady in my path toward Jesus as my husband is for Sri Caitanya Mahaprabu.

On Friday, the New York Times published the op-ed “Interfaith Unions: A Mixed Blessing”, written by journalist and author Naomi Schaefer Riley. Riley’s most recent book, Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America, was published last week.

Citing research she commissioned, Riley presents troubling data on interfaith marriages. Overall, she found that interfaith marriages are “more likely than same-faith unions to be unhappy and, in some circumstances, to end in divorce.”

So, what’s an interfaith couple to do?

Riley recognizes the difficulty in making an interfaith marriage work—Fred and I do, too. She emphasizes frank conversations that need to happen before the nuptials: What will you practice? Whom will you worship? How will you raise the kids?

In our three years of Christian-Hindu interfaith marriage, we’ve discovered three things that help us keep our faith in interfaith marriage:

Finding Common Values

Respondents in Riley’s research reported that having “the same values” was important to their interfaith marriage. Fred and I have spent a large majority of our marriage exploring our core religious values. We found that in order to deepen our relationship, we had to deepen the understanding of our faith traditions’ basic tenets. Separating cultural baggage and dogmatic language from the essence of our religious teachings was a struggle. But the fruit was the discovery of the universal religious principles present in both traditions and an appreciation of the rich, varied expression of those values. While the details of worship and Scripture may differ, the heart remained the same.

Worshiping Together

Fred and I have a golden rule that is the rock of our Christian-Hindu marriage: we do not worship separately. No matter how complicated the balancing act becomes, we attend one other’s services faithfully. That’s why I sometimes spend Easter with Fred’s Hindu community, Saragrahi, why I fast from grains twice monthly (Ekadasi), and spend time listening to sermons from his guru. Fred offers me the same: he attends Church School and worship at Binkley Baptist Church, celebrates Christmas and Easter, and observes Lent. A simple bookshelf serves as our home altar for daily practices of prayer and Scripture reading, where photos of Hindu deities and an icon of Christ commemorate this blended lifestyle.

Interfaith_Altar_Holy_Week
Interfaith home altar: photos of Hindu deities, an icon of Christ in Glory, garland, and palms from Palm Sunday.

We do not divide our spiritual lives from one another. Instead, our faith journeys have become a beautiful, sometimes messy reverberation of Eastern and Western practices. Neither faith is watered down; each path is strengthened by the presence of the other.

Growing Together

As ordained practitioners in a Christian-Hindu marriage, Fred and I recognize that religious life is not static and routine, but rather a dynamic adventure. The decision to embark on an interfaith life assumes that growth is the by-product. We have always recognized the we cannot remain the same person while learning to love God. As a result, continuous, daily discernment of our own faith values and motivations characterizes our relationship and religious lives.

Keep the Faith 

Despite the conclusion that interfaith marriages are more likely to end in divorce, not all the data is dreary. Riley notes that the “rise in interfaith marriage also has a significant upside.” Referencing Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, her research reinforced their notion that “marrying someone of another faith tended to improve one’s view of that faith.”

Although the interfaith marriage journey is risky, shared growth and joy outweighs the challenge. While Riley’s findings identify our Christian-Hindu marriage—and other successful interfaith families—as outliers, we encourage those seeking a rich experience of faith, religion, spiritual practice, and community to join us on the perimeter. Let’s change the tide.

The Rev. J. Dana Trent is an ordained Baptist minister; Fred Eaker (Gauravani dasa) is a devout Hindu who previously served as an ordained Gaudiya Vaisnava priest and monk. Their forthcoming interfaith marriage memoir, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk, will be published in October 2013 by Upper Room Books.

 Writers who’ve also responded to Naomi Schaefer Riley’s work: 

  • Susan Katz Miller’s book review of ‘Til Faith Do Us Part
  • Magin LaSov Gregg’s guest post, “In Defense of My Interfaith Marriage” on Carl Gregg’s Patheos blog
  • Stanley Fish’s NYT op-ed, “Marrying Out of the Faith”
  • Phillip Weiss’ response to Fish’s NYT piece

Know of others? Please add them in the comments section. Thank you!


24 thoughts on “How to Keep the Faith in Interfaith Marriage”

  • I also have an interfaith marriage while my husband whom is hindu he says hindu are not religious while christains say they are and vice versa. It had never crossed my mind to study other faith until married my now husband there are so many similarities in both faiths. What I find to be astounding about hinduisim is that how can they be so similar and yet christain proclaim the truth and yet hinduisim has been on the earth much longer than any other one would surely have to stem from the other in my view this can not be a co- incidence

  • I am in love with an amazing christian girl but I am hindu. We love each other dearly but we are sceptical on an interfaith marriage and the raising of our kids. I am open minded and I do not want to lose her over religion and vice versa.
    Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeez advise me via email…
    Looking forward to your respose.

    Regards,
    Darren

    P.s Best of luck with your book

    • Darren (I’m also sending you an email):

      Thanks so much for commenting and sharing your story.

      Your circumstance is a very common one, as many would-be interfaith partners are halted by the question of how to raise children.

      Fred and I don’t have children; therefore it’s difficult for us to say how things will unfold. However, we would consider it ideal to raise our children in both faiths. Many interfaith families are embarking on this path. Susan Katz Miller, author of BEING BOTH, describes her successful experience of raising her children in both the Jewish and Christian faiths. You may find her book helpful: http://www.amazon.com/Being-Both-Embracing-Religions-Interfaith/dp/0807013196

      Blessings to you and your partner on your journey!

      Wishing you peace,
      Dana

  • Hello!
    Since hearing part of your story, I felt really encouraged being a Christian woman in an interfaith relationship. I’l definitely be buying your book! (:
    My boyfriend is Hindu/spiritual and I am non-denominational Christian.
    Sometimes he comes across as disrespectful when we talk about our faiths, but I tell him that we should both respect each other’s beliefs and learn/understand them. He turns it into an argument as opposed to a learning experience. Has this ever happened to you? What might you suggest? I don’t want to avoid conversing about faith – it is so important in my life. But, I don’t want to argue either.
    While my other Christian friends are opposing of this relationship, after time in prayer and (in my heart) I feel like I’m meant to be with him. God crosses paths for a reason.
    (:
    Thanks!
    God Bless,
    Arianna

    • Arianna:

      Thanks so much for your comment, and I apologize for my delay in responding.

      Per “arguments,” Fred and I have many of them! 🙂 When this happens, we both find it essential to step back, breathe, and ask: why might the emotions be behind these theological thoughts? Often our faiths are intrinsically tied to deep feelings, because our beliefs have been birthed out of our backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. We are all invested in our faith (or moral) traditions, so naturally, theological discussions can become heated.

      Our advice: it’s essential for you both to continue discussing your faith with one another, even when it’s tough. Communication is always number one. We also suggest a code word (or cool down word) that either of you can use when things get too tense and you need to take a step back. Fred and I do this often!

      Overtime, with use of the code words, we’ve found that our discussions have become less heated. Neither of us is converting to the other person’s tradition, and instead, we know that respect is essential ingredient for successful interfaith conversations. No one has cornered the market on God–and we should all be mindful of that! 🙂

      We will be in prayer for you and your boyfriend!

      Thanks again for sharing and for reading the book. Let me know what you think!

      Best,
      Dana

  • Hi I’m Hindu and my wife is Catholic. We got married in Hindu way and after two years same day we married in church as well because father told her she can get communism otherwise.
    I did not have to convert just say that we will let our kid decide the religion. Though I told her that I want our kids to follow Hindu religion but as we want to marry in church and there is no other way, we will just say it there.

    I goto church with her almost every Sunday and she goes and follows everything in Hindu temple as well.

    Now we planning to have baby and recently we had few heated discussions and all of them went south very quickly and now seems like we are in disagreement on religion of kids. She wants them to be baptized and I want to carry forward Hindu religion as I’m the only son.

    What is your advice and two cents on this; I feel dad side religion is the religion kid should have. I’m also considering to see marriage counselor. It will be really sad to ruin the marriage over God / religion.

    • Dear Hindu Guy: Thanks so much for reading and for commenting on this post–apologies for my delayed response. This is a very tough situation, one Fred and I cannot speak to directly, as neither we do not have children. My best advice is to continue doing what you are doing: keep talking! I realize many of your discussions have become heated–so, perhaps you should indeed consider seeing a marriage counselor who can direct your conversations in a healthy, productive way. Communication is the number one tool in all marriages–but especially for interfaith partners. I applaud your commitment to attending church and her attending temple–and I hope you can both continue in that vein and perhaps now lead your future child/children in both traditions. You are in our prayers. Please keep us posted.

  • Hello-

    My boyfriend is a Catholic & I am a Hindu & we have been dating for years. Recently however, I feel that I haven’t taken our religious differences seriously until our relationship got serious. My boyfriend has compromised that we don’t have to baptize the child or send them to classes but just attend church services. He is also open to keeping both our holidays & attending the temple with me. However, I am having trouble grasping how I can attend church with him without feeling uncomfortable. My main concern is that I won’t feel welcome or opened. It’s hard for me to sit there while I cannot connect with the message preached. Any advise on how I can feel more comfortable as this is our last chance @ making our relationship work.

    Thanks,
    Stressed

    • Dear Stressed:

      Apologies for my delay–I’ve been on vacation and am just now plugging back in.

      First, I’m sorry to hear of your stressful situation, but congrats on making your interfaith relationship work thus far. I certainly hear your concern regarding Catholic service and worrying about hospitality as well as connecting with the message. I’m wondering if some reading that connects both the Hindu and Catholic traditions might help? I don’t know what branch of Hinduism you practice, but here are two good articles on the similarities, as well as the differences between the two traditions:

      From Chris Fici, PhD (Scholar, Hindu): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-fici/why-being-a-hindu-has-mad_b_1425982.html
      From Peter Kreeft, PhD (Scholar, Catholic): http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/religion-and-philosophy/apologetics/comparing-christianity-amp-hinduism.html

      My additional suggestion is to try to continue to be as open as possible, and to discuss any challenges you are having with your boyfriend. Keeping the lines of communication open in an interfaith relationship is essential. You can also seek the help of an outside mediator to help you open the space for conversation.

      Please keep me posted on how it goes.

      Lifting you in prayer and light,
      Dana

  • Hi Dana! I’m a Evangelical Christian who believes strongly in the Word. I am considering marrying a man who believes God is only Love and is not almighty. He also doesn’t believe in Heaven. This burdens me occasionally. Also several of my Christian colleagues will refer me to the verse where God says it is unequally yoked to marry a “nonChristian”. I also know of a few other words in the Bible that should direct me away from this, but my partner and I are very committed people and can surely work through this, but I am having spiritual warfare on my heart about this subject. We love each other. Please provide your point of view on these quotes.

  • Hi Dana, I’m an evangelical Christian woman dating a self-proclaimed “Hindu-on-paper/spiritual” man. He is honestly the nicest guy I’ve ever dated. We are thinking about marriage. Obviously, you see the issue. He goes to church with me every other Sunday (that’s the frequency we agreed on), and has agreed that we would raise any children Christian. However, he has indicated that his quest for spirituality is more likely to lead him toward Hinduism than Christianity since he was born into it. At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this given that for him, Hinduism had always been cultural and not religious. However, I understand that everyone has their own journey and I can respect his. I think my only issue is that I am uncomfortable – strongly uncomfortable – with a Hindu altar in my home, simply because the presence and worship of other deities is strongly forbidden in Christianity. Do you think there’s a workaround here? I really appreciate your blog and thank you for any suggestions.

    • Natalie:

      First, thanks so much for reading and commenting!

      Second, congrats on your interfaith relationship. I’m always delighted to hear about other couples from different backgrounds who’ve met and are cultivating the best of what a dual-faith connection has to offer.

      Per your question on altars. I was VERY uncomfortable with an altar in my home, too, at first. Because of my Baptist background, I was also taught that icons/deities were forbidden in Christianity. That said, the workaround that Fred and I discovered included the three things that eased my mind:
      1. Fred purchased an icon of Christ from an Orthodox Christian monastery that is now on our altar.
      2. Our “altar” is actually a book case that also contains sacred scripture from both traditions, including various translations of Bibles.
      3. I found that that the altar’s presence, along with Christ’s photo (icon) made me more mindful of my spirituality each day. I cannot pass the altar in our living room and not be reminded to sit down for prayer, study scripture, or simply offer a word of thanks/praise to God.

      Overall, I think home altars help us remember to take religion and spirituality out beyond the church/temple doors. I know that my faith has deepened since having a home altar. Also, I’ve learned that devotional objects (icons, prayer beads, candles) are very much a part of Christian spiritual practices (both Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox). The more I read about the usefulness of objects in cultivating cues to practice, the more I’m convinced that this is a good thing!

      I hope this helps, Natalie.

      Thanks again for reading and writing,
      Dana

  • Hi Dana,am Mak coming from Hindu society and am in a love with a christian girl.she broke up with me because we both belong to different religion but she still loves me.is there any chance that we could marry and stay happy together and please suggest me something how make her parents believe that i will keep her daughter happy more than them…

    • Mak:

      You have my abundant prayers that this works out!

      First, I think it’s essential to keep the lines of communication open: what do her parents fear (her unhappiness–but what else)? Perhaps you all can talk about the worries on both sides.

      Second, you can emphasize to her parents (and everyone) that you will continue to encourage and support one another’s spiritual practices. My husband and I have a household mantra we live by: we will always worship together. This means we attend one another’s services.

      I hope this helps!

      Thanks for reading and keep me posted,
      Dana

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