A generation ago, interfaith relationships were rather simple: avoid the other guy, and never discuss religion, except to make highly civilized small talk from time to time. Such boundaries, like old fieldstone walls, are crumbling in our day. For those with ears to hear and eyes to see, the landscape of interfaith relationhips is going through major tectonic shifts. And one area where this is so is in interfaith marriages.
The Changing Terrain of Interfaith Marriages
As but one example, consider the recent volume The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ by Daniel Boyarin, Hermann P. and Sophia Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture, Departments of Near Eastern Studies and Rhetoric, University of California, Berkeley. Jewish New Testament scholar Pamela Marie Eisenbaum reviewed the book for the Jewish community journal, Moment magazine, showing how in view of findings such as those by Boyarin, people of good will will need to reconsider their former certitudes about the terrain of Jewish Christian relations:
The concept of the divine Messiah was not a deviation or even an innovation [in the first century, Boyarin] says. It was a prominent and long-standing Jewish idea that preceded the crucifixion of Jesus. He writes, “While by now almost everyone, Christian and non-Christian, is happy enough to refer to Jesus, the human, as a Jew, I want to go a step beyond that. I wish us to see that Christ too—the divine Messiah—is a Jew. Christology, or the early ideas about Christ, is also a Jewish discourse, and not—until much later—an anti-Jewish discourse at all.”
. . . Boyarin makes a compelling case, that long before Jesus lived, Jews sometimes imagined God as a double Godhead; the rabbis would later declare this view a heresy which they called “two powers in heaven, one divine and the other a divine-human mixture.”
If Boyarin is right, the consequences go beyond making a few adjustments to our understanding of the past. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jack Miles writes in his foreword to The Jewish Gospels, Jews and Christians will have to radically rethink their identities and relationship to each other.
An analogy by Boyarin suggests that perhaps Jews and Christians can think of the relationship between their respective religions more like the relationship between Protestantism and Catholicism and less like, well, Judaism and Christianity as traditionally conceived. Who knows if that is possible, or even if it is a good idea, but in this increasingly complex religious world, the opportunity to acknowledge overlap and resonance with another faith once conceived in diametrical opposition would not be a bad thing.1
From an informed Messianic Jewish viewpoint, such as we hold at Interfaithfulness, this comes as no surprise. We are what is known as “early adopters” who long ago made the paradigm shift of seeing the pervasive compatibilities between who Yeshua claimed to be and the norms of the Judaism of his time, and more than we had guessed, our own time as well.
While history records a long and sorry history of some Christians seeing Judaism as a failed divine experiment, and Christianity as the heir to God’s love and affections, and while, at least in some circles, Jews have seen Christianity as at best a pathetic gentile fantasy, and at worst a recipe for genocide, scholars even of the stature of Daniel Boyarin are beginning to discover that the lines of separation and vilification cannot be traced to the earliest centuries of the faith, but are the consequences of later intercommunal warfare.
But think of the implications of all of this! The landscape of many an intermarriage could change dramatically if Jesus and the faith that developed around him was in reality certain brand of Jewish faith. Examining in some depth how this is so could lead to a transformation of relationship between Jewish and Christians spouses and their families, that is, if this new paradigm really took hold for them. Seeing Jesus in this way creates new possibilities for how Jews might practice their Judaism and Christians their Christianity. Such discoveries, when worked out in some depth, could change the very tenor and practice of an intermarriage.
It is worth investigating, and we at Interfaithfulness are a safe place to investigate. This is because we are committed to allowing people to make their own spiritual decisions apart from pressure or censure. Do we have preferences? Surely! But one of those preferences is protecting people’s right to live as they see fit.
Intermarriage presents enough problems without outsiders adding guilt and pressure to the parties involved.
Some Challenges Facing the Intermarried Couple
Sooner or later, people in interfaith relationships, especially spouses and parents, are going to face challenges. At Interfaithfulness, we compare being intermarried to a husband and wife building a lovely home on a southern California hillside. Such homes face three dangers: earthquakes, brush fires, and mudslides. Let’s look at these.
Intermarriages will sooner or later face tremors and even earthquakes because such marriages are built on the fault lines of centuries of unstable relationship between the Christian and Jewish worlds. Similarly, they will face the brush fires of interfaith and intercultural issues that flare up, often unexpectedly. Watch what happens when a Roman Catholic husband’s parents hear that their grandson is going to be circumcised but not baptized, when Jewish husbands hear that their mothers in law are teaching their sons and daughters to sing “Yes, Jesus loves me,” when spouses raised a ritualized home life in their families of origin begin to miss what they had without knowing they had it.
Robert Wuthnow, perhaps America’s premier sociologist of religion puts it this way:
Effective religious socialization comes about through embedded practices that is, through specific, deliberate religious activities that are firmly intertwined with the daily habits of family routines, of eating and sleeping, of having conversations, of adorning the spaces in which people live, of celebrating the holidays, and of being part of a community. Compared with these practices, the formal teachings of religious leaders often pale in significance. Yet when such practices are present, formal teachings also become more important.
But what if one or the other parent is missing those rituals big and small from their family of origin? And what if a parent sees his or her child being raised as a cultural stranger to his/her parent? With issues like these, and so many more, prepare for a brush fire!
Finally, interfaith marriages face mudslides, with one or both partner feeling him/her-self feeling “pushed” by familial pressures from one side or the other, or even from his or her spouse, or by something in his or her past or psyche that is hard to identify. Such experiences are not rare; in fact, they are the norm. And how does one set boundaries when push comes to shove? When and how should one push back? It is indeed rare to find an intermarriage where partners will not have to struggle against such mudslides.
At Interfaithfulness we help you to identify the fault lines that create instability, we help you to clear away the issues, the “brush” that can burst into flame, and we help you identify and build walls of protection against the mudslides of pressure that are sure to come from time to tim.
Perhaps you have seen yourself and your situation in this brief essay. Perhaps you now more clearly see issues that need addressing. Perhaps we may be of service to you. If so, then contact us and let’s have a talk.
1Pamela Eisenbaum review of The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, by Daniel Boyarin, Moment, March 5, 2012, pageNr., accessed August 18, 2013, http://www.momentmag.com/book-review-they-dont-make-jews-like-jesus-anymore/.