Welcome to the first installment of the Mixed Up Faith series. I’m so honored that the first post is from Joy Bennett. She is an amazing woman in so many ways and I consider myself very lucky to call her my friend. I love this post as the first one because it shows us just how broad the label “interfaith” can be and how we can choose to navigate those relationships well. If you’d like to contribute, check out the details here.
At first glance, you wouldn’t think that ours is an interfaith relationship. We are all Christian after all. But as we have struggled to navigate unexpected tension, unintended word wounds, and the ways all of us have changed in our beliefs and practices, the concept of “interfaith” helps me understand the dynamic. (Please know that in embracing the term, I do not intend in any way to diminish or dismiss the challenges of relationships between people of vastly different faiths.)
Christendom is like a family of dozens of siblings. In the same way that siblings fight over little family issues that outsiders see as petty, Christian denominations (and oftentimes individual churches) argue over points of doctrine or practice whose significance is lost on those outside. They draw lines in the sand that others don’t or won’t acknowledge, bicker, backstab, name-call, or clamor for attention. Some hate each other so much they trying to run them out or declare them illegitimate. Alliances shift constantly, just like in regular families. (It isn’t all bad – some stay out of the fray, still others try to be peacemakers.)
Members of my extended family identify with a variety of denominations within Christianity, some of whom do not get along very well, even though they are more alike than they are different. (Like I said, some of these disagreements are over things outsiders consider to be petty.)
And then there’s me.
I’m the black sheep of the family, the liberal social justice advocate who voted for Obama, reads Emergent church blogs, believes in an old earth, drinks wine, and supports marriage equality. Many of my family members deal with me by ignoring those things. Some don’t read my blog or Facebook posts, others unfriended me altogether, and many avoid bringing up those topics when we’re all together. And that’s fine with me. It’s easier to enjoy each other’s company, celebrate holidays, and get along when we aren’t debating politics and religion. When politics or religions does come up, I usually stay quiet. I’ve had my say online, I don’t enjoy pointless arguments, and you might be surprised to learn that I actually really dislike conflict.
But sometimes avoiding controversial topics makes things more awkward. I’m not the only one with different or changed views on things. At times, the dynamics between people have gotten so difficult that every single conversation feels mined with explosives, leaving us with nothing to talk about. Sometimes we’ve refused to visit each other’s churches when spending a weekend together. These episodes have been very difficult, especially because it’s difficult not to take that personally.
It is personal. That’s the root of this, I believe.
I think we get so passionate about faith (or our approach to the big questions, even if we don’t define it as faith per se) because it’s such an integral part of who we are, how we think, and how we view and interact with the world. I think we get so upset with our families over faith disagreements because our families are so important to us. We want to share this incredibly important thing to us with the people we love the most. We want to be loved and accepted for who we are. When we disagree about those things that are so much a part of who we are, when someone rejects our ideas, it often feels like they also reject us.
I think this can give us a clue about how to handle differences in faith and belief. We need to remember how terrifying it is to think someone important to you rejects you because of your ideas. We need to remind one another over and over that we love each other, even in the midst of a disagreement over God, church practice, or whatever. We need to say it, we need to hear it, and we need to show it.
I also think we need to work hard not to get stuck in the weeds. What is really important? Is it being right or winning an argument? Or is it building healthy relationships in which we love and respect one another? Who is more important – me or us?
I’m preaching to myself here. I struggle to prioritize a group (my family) over individuals (myself). It’s partly the culture in which I swim – Americans are all about rugged individuals conquering the wild and idolizing the self. I have a deep aversion to associating with things that I believe are mishandled, unethical, hypocritical, or controlling. It’s a matter of principle – I don’t want my presence to be misconstrued as condoning that thing I don’t agree with. Sometimes that principle is important.
But not always. Sometimes when I stand apart, it communicates something quite different. It says to my family that I don’t love them, and worse, that I think I’m better/smarter/righter than them. It looks like I think my opinions are more important to me than people. I can’t be impulsive about these things because relationships are on the line.
Sometimes love looks like enduring a few hours of something I find incredibly distasteful. Sometimes love looks like choosing to find common ground and actively participating there. Sometimes love looks like choosing to hear a person’s intention and heart, not their specific words.
I have a long way to go. I have learned most of this the hard way. But ever so slowly, I am learning how to show love to people in the middle of our disagreements.
Joy grew up in a Christian home, and should know the answers to all the usual faith questions, but she doesn’t. She has delivered four babies, handed two over to heart surgeons in the hall outside an operating room, and buried one in a cemetery just a few miles from her home. She has no idea how she managed to marry a man who would love her and their kids through all of the upheaval, but she did. She has been writing since the second grade and blogging since 2005. You can read her blog at Joy in this Journey, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.