How to Keep the Faith in Interfaith Marriage
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 prasad—the 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.
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.
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.
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!