“Multifaith, not Interfaith: Raising a Family With, not Between, Two Faiths.”
This morning I’m going to talk a bit about this phenomenon of interfaith or interreligious families. In fact, as you’ll see from the title of my talk, I prefer to use the word ‘multifaith,’ because of the different ways in which ‘interfaith’ is used. As you see from our breakfast, and from the UN Week of Interfaith Harmony, ‘interfaith’ is still most often being used to describe the discussion between peoples of different religions or marriages where the couple are from two different religions, even when only one religion is practiced in the house. But my focus today is on families where more than one religion is actively present in the home, and so I prefer to use ‘multifaith,’ so that we can have a sense of two religions overlapping in one place, rather than a home sitting in the gap between two different religions.
So, this morning I’m going to start by wearing my scholar had and offer a broader picture of multifaith families, and then I’m going to switch to my mother hat and talk a bit about my own family and our experiences, and the blessings and challenges of that, and then, finally, because three hats is enough for now, I’m going to put on my clergy hat and offer some of my thoughts about how clergy and religious communities can be welcoming to multifaith families.
The latest data we have in Canada on multifaith families comes from the 2001 Canadian Census. The Census tracks religious identities only every ten years, and the data from the 2011 isn’t public yet, so the numbers are out-of-date, but if they follow historical trends, they will have increased since 2001. In any case, by examining marriage statistics, we see that as of 2001, what they call ‘interreligious unions’ made up 20% of married couples: of the 14.1 million Canadians in couples, nearly 2.7 million has a partner from a different religious group. And I suspect that that number is higher in cities like Calgary and lower in rural areas.
The reason I am quoting from marriage statistics instead of religious identification statistics is because of a flaw in the way the data is collected. If you’ll remember from the 2011 Census, when it came to religious identity, every possible religion was listed, as well as “None.” However, the census allows respondents to choose only one religion. Which means that anybody who identifies with more than one religion will have to make a false choice - either putting down only one of the religions they identify with, or putting down “none.” And in fact, we can see this when we look at the Household Survey of those living on Indian Reservations, where the questions are slightly different. In that case, when asked for religious identification, 77% of Canada’s indigenous people identified as Christian, but when asked about the importance of their traditional spiritual practices, 80% said they were very important. So when we look at spiritual practice as a marker of religious identification, we have a significant group of people who are, in practical terms, multifaith.
But for more accurate data, we have to turn to the United States, and to their wonderful Pew Report, from the Pew Research Center. In the 2009, they came out with a Report on Multiple Faiths, and it says that twenty-four percent of Americans say they regularly or occasionally attend services of a religion other than their own. Of those who attend a weekly religious service, almost 30% have attended services outside of their own faith. Forty percent of marriages today are ‘interfaith,’ (to use the report’s words), and as of 2008, 37% of families identified as such.
And these 37% of families are finding places to meet. The Interfaith Families Project, an organization in Washington, D.C. offers religious services and “school” specifically for interfaith families and registers 300 active members. The Chicago Interfaith Family School registers over 70 families.
So what does it look like in these families? Those children who have been raised those inter-faith programs that support multiple-faith identities,
say things like, “I want to stay both, because it’s original and it represents part of who I am.” Another says, “I feel the coupling of both faiths has given me unique avenues to God.” And another says, “I cannot be severed from either of these religions, nor be limited to [either alone].”
The theme of being both, and not half, resonates with many raised in multi-faith families. And so, when asked if he is half-Jew and half-Christian, for example, one person responded, “No, because I don’t think you can be half a religion.’ I say I’m both. I don’t think I can ever say I was ever confused about what I was, because I always just kind of understood that I was both.” When pushed to identify with only one faith, another responded, “I’m actually interfaith. I was raised Christian and Jewish. So for me to pick one over the other and say I’m just Jewish, it’s kind of like asking me to pick if I’m white or Latino.”
90% of this group stated that belonging to two faiths was complex, but not confusing, and that it was life-giving. For those who are Jewish and Christian, believing in mitzvot and tzedekah as foundational for Jewish ethics contributes to the Christian understanding of Jesus’ call to care for the poor and love your neighbour as yourself. Believing in the second coming of Christ as a time when God’s peace will reign deepens the Jewish understanding of tikkun olam and the healing of the world. Participating in the Passover rite of the Seder, with its actions of reading aloud, eating, dipping, raising a glass, tasting when performed within the Christian Holy Week, as it normally is, works with Holy Communion on Easter Sunday, of eating, tasting, speaking aloud, raising a glass. Both rites deepen within one another and give rise to a fuller thanks-giving, the goal of both Seder and Communion. Lighting the candles every Sunday in Advent works with the act of lighting the Hanukkah candles for eight consecutive nights, deepening the meaning of bringing light into the world in times of great darkness. Those male children who were born into actively Jewish-Christian multifaith families experience the covenant of circumcision for the Jewish people and the covenant of baptism oforf the Christian people in way that do not exclude each other, but help deepen the meaning of the other. Circumcision physically marks the covenant in a way that baptism lacks, while baptism, as it leads to communion, moves the covenant internally, in the taking in of the bread and wine of the Christian Eucharist. While belonging to two faiths may seem paradoxical, it is not a paradox that leads to conflict or the sacrifice of one to the other,
but one where one difference contributes to the other difference, and vice versa, in a mutually constructive way.
That’s the theory. But what about the reality? Well, here’s my story. My husband and I had been together for four years before we got engaged, and had met each other’s families, and his family knew that I was studying to be a Lutheran pastor, and my family knew that he was a Reform Jew, but it wasn’t until we announced our engagement that there were any concerns. And the question that was always asked was, “What about your children? How are you going to raise them?” And when we responded that we intended to raise them in both religions, the question was always, “Won’t they be confused?” We are, of course, always concerned about the next generation, and rightly so.
The questions and reservations about multifaith families come from two concerns. The first is that, in being exposed to two religions, they will inevitably become lost to at least one. They will either eventually pick only one religion, having been swayed to that side, and the other religion will lose a “member.” Or, neither religion will be present, out of deference to the other, and the children will grow up honestly and truly in the “none” category. A legitimate concern for those who value religion. The second concern is that the children, being exposed to two religions, will experience such cognitive dissonance that somehow their religious identity will suffer a breakdown and they will be, as so many pointed out to us, “confused.” (Back then, it never occurred to me to ask why being confused is so bad for children.)
Instead, never having been parents ourselves, and also not having seen any other multifaith families around us, we reasoned that people hold cognitive dissonance in their head all the time without suffering mental breakdown, and that we would immerse the children in both religions but allow them to make their own decisions when they reached the age of confirmation, and that we would make religious belief a fundamental of our dinner-table conversation. For my part, that was easy, but it was also easy because my husband has a minor in religious studies.
But more than just introducing them to the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity, we were committed to the idea of actively participating in two religious communities so that when our children decided to choose one, they would feel that both were comfortable and familiar. I’m sure that many of you have had the experience of traveling to another place, where you don’t know anybody personally, and then attending a worship service there and feeling “at home.” Even though you don’t know anybody in the room with you, knowing the order of the service, knowing the words in the prayers, being able to participate with everyone else in the physicality of the worship, these are the things that make us feel like we belong to the community and are part of a family, even if everyone is a stranger to us. And that’s what we wanted for our children. That sense of familiar belonging, in two religious families, instead of just one.
We also wanted our children to know, and live out, the fundamental values and the histories of both of their religions. And with Judaism and Christianity, the values and the histories intertwine, so it has been easier in that respect for us, although it does require us to be honest about the hostility between the two religions during certain times in history. When it comes to values, for my part, as a Christian, I wanted my children to have the faith of the Jewish Jesus, whom I believe was trying to live out his Jewish identity, not overcome it.
And so that was the plan - raise them in both faiths, immerse them in both communities, and talk, and talk, and talk.
And then our first son was born. And, like all naive parental plans, it all fell apart. No, I’m kidding, it didn’t, actually, which is even more surprising. We planned a circumcision for him, which was ritually done in our house (which may be the only parsonage in all of Canada, if not North America, to have a foreskin buried in the yard). That was followed by a naming ceremony in the synagogue we attended, and then a few months later by a baptism here in Calgary. As we saw it then, and continue to see it, we understand the circumcision as his entrance into a covenant with God through Torah, and his baptism as his entrance into the family of Jesus, and a different way of understanding the same covenant, not a replacement. So that no matter what he chooses in life, he will always know that God has him firmly in hand.
Through his preschool years, he attended both synagogue and a Christian preschool, and two memories during stick out in particular for me. One was hearing him sing one day, “This little light of mine,” and I asked him where he learned that song, and he said, “At Hannukah Tot Shabbot,” which made me laugh, because that’s actually a Christian song, and it was nice to see Judaism taking a turn at appropriating things. And the other memory I have is that one year in preschool he was given the role of Joseph in the school’s nativity musical. Now I knew it was because he could memorize and sing all the lines in the role, but when I asked him why he got the role, he said, “Because Joseph was Jewish and I am, too!”
And we were able, with only some minor hiccups, to do the same thing for our second son, as well.
And so our children are now ten and seven years into our experiment of raising children in two faiths. They go to synagogue and to church. They say the Shema every night when they go to bed, and they know the words of the Lord’s Prayer. We celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas as separate holidays - no Chrismukkah or Hanukkah bush. (Although they only get presents on Christmas, and not on Hannukah. Instead we try to do one miztvot each of the eight nights.) After Christmas Day service, we go see a movie and have Chinese food for supper, which, since I always work the night before and all morning, I really appreciate not having to cook. We celebrate Passover and Easter, and we’re adamant about telling our churches that Christian Seders are as inappropriate as Jewish Holy Communions. We’ve given up the traditional Hot Cross buns on Easter because they’re usually during Passover when there’s no leavened bread. We tell them, over and over, that they are both Jewish and Christian, and that they are very lucky to be both, and that most people are not. I will be up front with you that we do not keep a kosher house - mostly because we are lazy about that, and we often forget to light Shabbat candles. But they know the story of Exodus better than any Christian child their age, and are probably the only kids in their Sunday school at church who can read Hebrew. They know that when I go to visit sick people as part of my job that it’s a mitzvot. We have a tzedakah (charity) container on our counter, and they are constantly worrying about people who are homeless. They have a very keen sense of justice, and they know quite a bit about the history of Second-Temple Judaism and the early Christian church. In fact, when they were little, I remember once when one of them said said, “Hey, Jesus is Jewish - we should call him Jewsus!”
I did ask them, when I was preparing this talk, what was the worst thing about being raised in two faiths, and they said, “We don’t get the weekends off.” There’s no question that being part of two faith communities requires double the time. But on the other hand, we make decisions about which events we think are truly part of the religion, and which are just social.
As parents, the most challenging part is worshipping as a family. I feel uncomfortable when my husband brings the kids to church on Easter, because I know how the story has been told in ways that blame Jews for what happened. The hymns we sing on Easter are often laden with this accusatory theology, and even though I’m the pastor of the church they’re in, I can’t always do anything about it. I also miss having us praying and taking communion all together. But that is not a challenge that has anything to do with raising a family in two faiths - many nominally Christian families have one person in the family who doesn’t go to church.
Another challenge comes from clergy who don’t understand where we’re coming from. When we went to have our second son circumcised, the rabbi welcomed us at first and was happy to be at the bris, but as soon as he heard that we were planning a baptism after, he told us he couldn’t possibly be there, but maybe the incoming intern could be there, we just wouldn’t tell him about the baptism later. And we were welcome to have a lunch after in the synagogue, but he wouldn’t attend. It didn’t matter that I was working on my dissertation on overcoming supersessionism, or Christian replacement of the Jews, or that I was committed to having my children in synagogue, or that my understanding of baptism was different than most Christians. Religiously speaking, he told us he was bound by the dictates of his rabbinic organization. As a member of the clergy, I can certainly understand the need to be in step with your professional colleagues, but as a pregnant mother, I was devastated by a rejection that felt incredibly personal. (Although I have to say that we persisted in attending the synagogue, and a few years later when my husband and children were invited onto the bimah to open the Ark, I was invited, too.)
So there are challenges, as you’ve heard, that come primarily from the religious institutions. It wasn’t until moving to Calgary that we found a Reform synagogue that did not demand exclusive Judaism as a prerequisite for our children attending Hebrew school. But the blessings of having a multifaith family are abundant, not just for our children, but for ourselves as adults. My husband is more active in his synagogue than his parents were, and he knows more about what Torah actually says and about Jewish history than he did before, mostly because, as he says, “When your wife has to learn Hebrew in seminary and can read it better than you can, and knows more about your own religious stories and history than you do, you have to step up!” For my part, although I knew in my head that Jesus was Jewish, the implications of that for my faith have deepened tremendously and led me to doing my PhD. In fact, I would say that for my husband, being Jewish has become easier, while for me, being Christian the way I used to be has become more challenging, and I think that’s fair, given our religious histories, and I consider it a blessing.
The hardest part has been finding religious communities that fully accept what we are trying to do in our family. And from that perspective, I thought it might be helpful for you, as leaders in your own religious communities, to have some concrete suggestions on how you might make multifaith families feel welcome. I know that we’re all interested in interfaith dialogue, but intentionally welcoming a multifaith family is a bit different. Of course, the same rules around interfaith dialogue also exist in multifaith families: Talk about what is the same and then about what is different. Don’t try to convert anybody. Talk about what is essential and what is not.
In addition, I would say, trust their intentions. That is, trust that the people who come to you are really, truly seeking to honour their religions. They are not ambivalent or uncommitted. If they were, they wouldn’t be coming at all. They are not trying to have it all - religious commitment these days is not something people take lightly - there are all kinds of other things they could be doing with their time. They’re coming and wanting to get involved because it’s really important to them.
Don’t be surprised if they challenge religious tradition. Aside from the obvious challenge of being multifaith, they will want probably to know *why* things are the done the way they are, as a way to figure out what is essential. When we were married, we had a long discussion about whether or not we wanted a chuppah - the canopy held over the wedding party in a Jewish wedding. After a lot of research, we concluded that since the chuppah represents the sky, and we were being married outside, it was redundant. We may have been right or wrong, but we certainly did our research, and we talked a lot about the intention and meaning of *everything.*
The flip side of that is that once the multifaith family understands why, they are likely to be fully on board. In fact, your multifaith families may even be more dedicated than your regular ones (as they say, converts are always more committed). Multifaith families are very intentional about their practice and their faith, and they are a great strength, rather than a weakness, in a religious community.
Another thing that I would say is that if you are committed to welcoming them, educate your staff. In fact, before I even get to that, I emphasize that welcoming them will keep them coming back. A report by United Israel Appeal Federations Canada (UIA) says that, “Having a Rabbi officiate at an interfaith ceremony is extremely important to the likelihood of future participation in Jewish life. In fact, 50% of interfaith couples married by a Rabbi indicated that it is important to them that their eventual grandchildren are raised Jewish as opposed to 18% when no Rabbi officiated at their wedding ceremony.” When it comes to multifaith families, if you want to keep them, you need to outdo the other religion in welcome and hospitality.
Getting back to educating staff, educate those who will educate the children. One of the ongoing challenges we have, in both our synagogue and our church, is that those who are teaching our children aren’t aware that these kinds of conversations are happening. The number of times my children have come home from their church with really questionable material is more than the number of fingers I have to count them. Especially during Christmas. And as clergy, I understand the difficulties of what I’m asking, but it is really important to make sure that your childhood educators have a clear understanding of what it means that they have multifaith children in their classrooms, and of what the material they are using to teach might be saying. Not so they can water down what they’re teaching, but so they can be sensitive about not putting down other religions, which is something we should all be working on anyway.
And finally, I would say, don’t be surprised if your people are ahead of your policies. We have felt more welcome by people in the congregations, even after they found out about our “status,” then we have by official policies. In fact, in several synagogues we have been in, when people found out what the official policies were, they were quite surprised. The people are almost always ahead when it comes to showing hospitality and welcome.
My family is only in the middle of this religious experiment. I have no idea what they would tell you in ten years about how they experienced a multifaith life. For all I know, they may turn their backs completely on Judaism and on Christianity and become Buddhist, or Hindu, or worse, atheists. But they will, at a minimum, have learned religious tolerance and that religions are, at their heart, about treating one another well and trying to make the world a better place for everyone, and if we succeed at that, we will be as content as any parents could be. Thank you for listening.
- “Many American Mix Multiple Faiths,” Pew Research Center, December 9, 2009. http://www.pewforum.org/2009/12/09/many-americans-mix-multiple-faiths/ Last Accessed Feb 7, 2016
- Stephanie Haynes, “Interfaith America: ‘Being both’ is a rising trend in the US,” The Christian Science Monitor, November 23, 2014, http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Family/2014/1123/Interfaith-America-Being-both-is-a-rising-trend-in-the-US Last Accessed Feb 7, 2016.
- “The Family School,” The Interfaith Family School, Chicago IL. http://the-family-school.org/ Last Accessed Feb 7, 2016.
- Susan Katz Miller, On Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, Boston: Beacon Press, 2013, 179. The quotes below are also in this book.
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