About one in four Americans (27%) is intentionally sharing their married life with someone whose religious belief system is different from their own. If difference within traditions like Protestantism is included, the number jumps to 37%. This emerging trend is consistent with the generally agreed-upon trajectory of our culture. We are moving into a period of intense plurality. Difference—in all its forms—is pushing its way into the lives, churches, schools, and neighborhoods of Americans.
As people face these new experiences they often look for resources to help them navigate their new reality. This has produced what the Huffington Post calls a “mini-boom of guides to interfaith marriage and family.” A case in point is J. Dana Trent’s recently released book, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk.
Trent’s book describes how she—a Baptist minister—met and fell in love with Fred Eaker, a practicing Hindu. The rapid increase in interfaith marriage poses a significant pastoral challenge for the Christian church. It’s important to remember that this is not the first time in which the Christian church has had to engage in pastoral and theological reflection on the nature of marriage and of marriage to those who are outside the household of faith.
The early church developed in the context of a pluralistic culture where, much like today, the cardinal virtue was theistic inclusivity. Greco-Roman culture was willing to welcome new gods as long as they could be incorporated into the already recognized deities. We see from St. Paul’s interaction with the people of Athens that the Greeks were eager to learn of this “foreign deity” and this “new teaching” (Acts 17: 18, 19). Early Christianity was quite comfortable in communicating the message of Christ to those who had yet to experience it.
As Paul addressed problems that arose in the churches under his apostolic care, he found it necessary to give the following counsel to the church at Corinth, “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity?” (2 Co. 6:14ff.).
This verse is often used to warn against the dangers of marrying someone of another faith. And the warning is likely well heeded. Yet, it’s also likely that Paul here is speaking more broadly than simply of matrimony.
As the church navigated life in a highly pluralistic culture—one with a high regard for the worship of traditional deities and of the emperors—Paul had to give them some stern advice.
He instructs them to flee from the worship of deities other than the God of Jesus Christ (1 Co. 10:14). This was especially awkward in the practice of eating meat that had been offered to idols (vv. 15-22). In the end, Paul’s rubric is that all actions ought to be directed to the glory of God (10:31) and to the service of neighbor (10:24).
How then does this relate to marriage? The clearest explication of St. Paul’s views on marriage between Christians and non-Christians is found in 1 Corinthians 7. Speaking to Christian spouses who had presumably come to their Christian faith after marriage and subsequently found themselves married to someone not sharing their Christian faith, Paul says:
…the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his [believing] wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her [believing] husband…. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so (14, 15a).
As Paul responds pastorally to the case of interfaith marriage, he does so with a goal in mind that is largely absent from contemporary reflections. Certainly, Paul wishes that there be peace in marriage. He sees some benefit to the unbelieving partner in being married to a “saint” and thereby mysteriously “made holy.” Yet, part of the reason that Paul wishes these marriages to endure is that he desires for the spouses to come to faith:
For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (16).
Paul could not have conceived of a practicing Christian choosing to marry someone outside of the Christian faith. Saffron Cross, on the other hand, arrives at a starkly different conclusion and motivation from St. Paul.
Trent writes of a moment when she tried to help her husband become a Christian by inviting him to be baptized: “As soon as those words came out of my mouth, I realized that I did not see Hinduism as an equally valid path.” There’s an awkward recognition of the desire to see her husband come to saving faith, followed by a renunciation of that presumably silly and un-modern construct.
Commonly, perhaps not inevitably, when persons of differing faith enter the marriage union there is a reticence to somehow find one or other of the beliefs to be inferior. As a result there is an almost syncretistic incorporation of rival beliefs into a new “family religion.” In Trent’s case, the article outlines their religious practice as follows:
Eaker attends church services and teaches Sunday school with Trent, but refrains from singing the doxology, which ends with “Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” They also worship together at home, at an altar that includes a photo of Eaker’s swami, two Gaura-Nitai deities, and an icon of Christ. Their joint worship includes offering food at the altar three times a day. That’s a duty that Trent takes care of. At first, she was uncomfortable with that. Now she says the altar helps her focus on spending time with Jesus in prayer.”
In essence this practice makes a distinction between form and content that allows the two to practice their religions together.
Yes, Trent worships at an altar with two Hindu deities as well as an icon of Jesus, but she’s really only thinking about Jesus all appearances to the contrary. Likewise, Eaker is happy to chant away as long as he is not required to acknowledge that God is the tri-unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Confused as this practice may seem, it is the perfect incarnation of the spirit of this age—the intensely interior, private, Gnostic sort of spirituality that belongs in what is, for all intents and purposes, a religious universe of one.
Yet, at the same time it appears to fall short of what Paul has in mind when he writes to the Corinthians. As we’ve seen there is clearly a desire in Paul for there to be peace in such marriages, but this is trumped by the desire that the partner come to saving faith and a recognition of the irreconcilable difference that exists between a Christian and one whose faith is in someone other than Christ.
The challenge for the church will be navigating this new world in a way that is faithful to the teachings of Scripture, and that is pastorally able to guide Christians who marry those outside of the faith into a marriage that honors God in it’s peace and redemptive witness. What is not an option, however, is for the church to simply acknowledge the validity of all paths to God. In reality, Saffron Cross depicts the creation of a new and idiosyncratic religion that has blended two historic faiths into a uniquely American hybrid.