Your God, My God, and Our God:
Mark Sibley Jones
It is often the religious symbolism and overtones
that give marriage its meaning. But, what happens in a marriage when
those symbols and meanings come from more than one religious tradition?
Actually, I want to
talk here about two types of inter-religious marriages. First
is the literal inter-religious marriage in which two persons
from different religions are married. An inter-religious marriage,
for example, might involve persons from Buddhism and Christianity.
Second, though often referred to as “inter-religious,” is
the inter-denominational marriage—two persons from two
different traditions of the same religion. Catholics and Methodists
are both Christians, but come from vastly different traditions
within Christianity. Nonetheless, the commonality of basic doctrine
is usually much more similar in inter-denominational relationships.
From my ministry as
a hospital chaplain and pastoral counselor, I’ve had many experiences of working with couples entering
into both inter-religious and inter-denominational marriages.
Here are some of the highlights of what I’ve learned from
those experiences—as well as from my own marriage.
A good marriage has
more to do with commitment than compatibility. The question
for engaged couples is not necessarily, “How
much alike are we?” Rather, it is often, “How much
energy are we willing to give to making this relationship work?” For
me, the most important spiritual issue in religion has to do
with how one’s spirituality serves as a support and strength
for relationships. Religious faith offers us a belief in something
greater than ourselves—a divine object of commitment that
goes far beyond marriage itself. Such spiritual foundations transcend
the hard times and enrich the good times. In planning a wedding
it might be good to consider how the ceremony expresses this
There is no way to
measure difference. Some of the most difficult adjustments
I’ve seen persons struggle with have arisen
from what appeared to be the most minute of differences. Conversely,
persons coming from the greatest differences may have the easiest
time coping with those differences. It seems that any sense of
difference can be amplified during a wedding. Wedding ceremonies
don’t have to be just about the ways two people are alike;
differences are important, too.
People change over
time. The level of religiosity of a person on their wedding
day may not predict where they will be years from now. Significant
events in life have a way of activating latent feelings and
values. A person for whom religious devotion is a low priority
may regain a sense of its importance when a child is born.
The religious affiliation of children can stir long forgotten
loyalties and convictions. Other life passages—such as the
death of a loved one—may trigger similar deepenings
Diversity can be a strength; and a taxing stress. Incorporating
the variety of religious traditions and values in family life
can bring a richness to significant occasions as well as everyday
circumstances. Children who grow up in a home that is religiously
diverse, and respectful, may learn much of tolerance and find
that their own spiritual lives are enhanced by this diversity
of God images.
Families, as we all know, are seldom ideal. Differences in religious
faith, like any other difference of opinion, can result in tension
and conflict. Rather than an enriching of spiritual growth, such
conflict may dampen it, as things religious are associated with
painful tensions. Furthermore, children are seldom able to sort
out the complexities of religious issues, and may conclude that
religion is a negative influence rather than a positive aspect
In the final analysis, relationships are less about who is right
or wrong, and more about how we serve one another with our own
uniqueness and gifts. The beginnings of a truly healthy religious
faith is born in the context of this kind of loving relationship.
For what aspects of your relationship
do you desire God’s blessing the most?
In what ways is your own life enriched
by the faith of your partner?
The differences you feel most keenly
. . . in what ways are they possible areas of growth for you?
At which times do you feel most critical
of your partner’s beliefs? Can you say, then, that the
issue is really a religious one—or is it an aspect of
the relationship that has yet to mature?
As a couple, who are some individuals
that you feel most comfortable with when the topic is spirituality?