Marlena Thompson was part of an interfaith marriage that lasted almost 25 years before her husband died in 2003. She is a writer and singer/storyteller living in the Washington DC suburbs and visits Ireland whenever possible. Her mystery novel, A Rare & Deadly Issue (2004), has an interfaith heroine and can be ordered at www.pearlstreetpublishing.com.
Should Discussions about God Be Part of Premarital Counseling for Intermarrying Couples?
When two people born into different religions marry, they are almost always called an "interfaith couple." This expression is sometimes more a semantic convenience than a true representation of the situation. For if a man, born Catholic but without a belief in God, marries a woman who was born Jewish but is an atheist, their union may be cross-cultural but their faith--or rather, lack of it--is one and the same.
In these cases, conflicts may arise over such culturally shaped issues as communication styles, role expectations, holiday celebrations, family traditions, and the like. But important as these topics may be, they are mundane, "of the world." Disharmony over such an "other worldly" concept as God would be unlikely in a marriage between two people for whom God is basically a non-issue.
The situation becomes more complicated when couples are truly "interfaith," that is, when both partners are believers but have distinctly different conceptions of God. Sometimes each decides to worship God in his or her own way. The children of such matches are typically brought up in one or the other of their parents' respective faiths, as adherents of a particular doctrine. These parents usually find the "laissez-faire" approach to religious training in children (allowing them to choose their own religion--or not) too unreliable.
Other interfaith couples, for example those comprised of believing Christians and Jews, might try to create a "theological middle road," that is, a deity stripped of those characteristics deemed either too peculiarly Jewish or too specifically Christian. In this kind of scenario, God becomes less a deity associated with particular Bible stories and personages, and more a benign, relatively nondescript "Supreme Being" credited with having created the world, but lacking moral imperatives--and any hint of a "dark side."
Traditional Christianity adheres to a belief in Satan, and although many liberal-thinking Christians discount the existence of the Devil, at the heart of Christian belief is the figure of an innocent being who was tortured to death in a very cruel manner. Thus, evil is acknowledged as a part of the human condition.
And although Satan plays a very minor role in traditional Judaism, he does make a "guest appearance," in the Book of Job, when he "dares" God to test the faith of Job, a particularly pious individual, by taking away everything the man possesses. God rises to Satan's "bait" and, in very short order, destroys Job's wealth, kills his children, and afflicts the poor soul with excruciatingly painful boils. Job's wife implores her husband to curse God, whereupon God might get angry enough to kill Job and put him out of his misery. But Job refuses to do so and responds, "Should we accept only good from God and not accept evil?" (Job 2:10)
Both traditional Christianity and Judaism come to terms theologically with the existence of evil in the world. Therefore, the God figure in both religions is much more psychologically complete than the bland, historically disconnected, New-Age style "Higher Power" sometimes preferred by intermarried couples, for whom such a being's very vagueness is thought less likely to be a source of contention.
But this undefined deity to whom one doesn't pray--and against whom one doesn't rant when confronted with the suffering of innocents (and Jews have been arguing with God on this point ever since Abraham tried to talk God out of destroying the blameless along with the guilty in Sodom), does little to help people face the darker aspects of life with fortitude.
The following story not only illustrates the way in which traditional Jews acknowledge God's complexity--as a dispenser of mercy as well as of a sometimes harsh brand of justice--but also the way in which their understanding of God allows Him to be approached on intimate terms:
A tailor rocked back and forth in the synagogue as he prayed, moaning and shouting. Afterwards, the rabbi asked him what he had been doing. "I've been arguing with God," he said. "I'm not the best of men. I sometimes charge customers for shoddy work. But I'm not so bad either. My door is always open to the hungry, and I give whatever I can to the poor. But just look at how God behaves! Sometimes He makes life very hard for good people! So, I bargained with God just now and told Him I would forgive all His sins if He would forgive mine. Was that wrong?" "Not at all," replied the rabbi. "But why did you let Him get off so lightly?"
A God disassociated completely from tradition lacks the weightiness of a deity with whom one can argue. And for believers, a steady regimen of "God-lite" could lead to a deficiency in spiritual nourishment.
The question arises as to whether or not organized religions, and in particular mainstream Jewish denominations, can (or should) do something to encourage partners in interfaith relationships not to discard traditional concepts of God in an effort to keep the peace at home.
Perhaps the most positive thing spiritual leaders can do is to prioritize this issue during pre-marital counseling. Often, it is the pragmatic topics that take precedence. Couples are often asked to decide upon the religion of yet unborn children, but are not asked to seriously explore their own personal attitudes and feelings about God. If partners spend more time examining their beliefs and spiritual needs, they would likely be less inclined to devalue them later on.