18 Days: The Christian in the Middle of the Room

elephant-in-the-living-roomThis week, we learned of 23,000 people in England and Wales classified as having “Mixed Religion.” This news comes from the United Kingdom’s Office on National Statistics, which just released new numbers on religious identity from the 2011 government census.

-Susan Katz Miller
“‘Mixed Religion’ as Identity: Who Are These People?”
Blog posted 12/13/2012 1:25 pm

OK, let’s stop right there. I “get” being part of an interfaith family since I’m a Christian and my wife is Jewish. However, I have one religious identity and my wife has a different religious (and cultural) identity. Our children don’t have two religious identities. Of course, our family’s religious identity “split” came rather late in the game. We all started out as atheists, all came to faith as Christians at one point (even though my wife and children are halachically Jewish), and then through a long, drawn out process, I self-identified as Christian while my wife and kids proceeded to move away from Christianity and identified as more traditionally Jewish (to varying degrees of religiosity all the way down to zero).

My wife and daughter seem to have the clearest Jewish identities, one son is halachically Jewish but otherwise secular, and the other self-identifies as Jewish but will at least discuss his views on Christianity with me.

But I don’t think, based on my personal experience, that you can be both Christian and Jewish in a religious sense. Oh sure, you can worship in both a church and a synagogue, but you are very unlikely to feel completely at home in both. You are more likely to primarily identify with one religious identity and form of worship and be “OK” with the other, usually for the sake of your spouse and possibly the kids.

To me “interfaith marriage” means two people who are married, each one with a different religious identity, and those identities co-exist side-by-side with each other. There could be some overlap and usually is (I tend to be more “OK” with the overlap than my wife is), but it’s not like you can have a person who is equal parts Christian and Jewish (or any one religion and the other…and no, I’ve not yet read the book or watched the film Life of Pi).

I know what you’re thinking.

Sid: You’re never gonna impress Ellie like that.
Manfred: I don’t want to impress her.
Sid: Then why are you trying so hard to convince her she’s a mammoth?
Manfred: Because that’s what she is! I don’t care if she thinks she’s a possum. You can’t be two things.
Sid: Au contraire, mon “fered”. Tell that to the bullfrog, the chickenhawk, and the turtledove.

-dialog from the film
Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006)

Well, maybe that’s not what you were thinking. You may be thinking more along the lines of Susan Katz Miller:

The discovery of a cohort of “Mixed Religion” adherents in the U.K. serves as a reminder that the demographic reality of religious double-belonging among adults can no longer be ignored. Most religious institutions continue to urge interfaith couples to pick one religion for children, to beware of confusion, to stop blurring boundaries. The reaction to dual-faith adherence is too often panic and disapproval, and the attempt to close borders. But for the individual, especially an individual like me who was born into a family with more than one religious heritage, crossing borders can be exhilarating and bring great joy. Our celebration of both faiths goes beyond Hanukkah and Christmas, beyond all the history of tragic conflict and religious violence, to a place where love prevails over dogma. In this spirit, and in the season of light in darkness, I send greetings across the Atlantic to those who celebrate Christmas and Yule, Hanukkah and Diwali, all of the above, or none of the above.

All of that sounds wonderful, but I still agree with Manny. You can’t be two things. You can be one thing and participate in other things, but that participation does not necessarily work its way into your permanent, defining identity as a spiritual, religious, and ethnic human being. My wife and daughter have been kindling the Chanukah lights every night this week but while I’ve been present (and after all, it is my home), that doesn’t make me co-Christian/Jewish.

Judaism very strongly discourages intermarriage and does not believe that a person can have dual religious identities the way some individuals have dual national citizenship.

Honestly, I don’t think this can work. On many levels, you cannot have both a christening and a Bris. Because as nice as it would be for intermarried parents to be able to “cover both bases,” not have to make any big decisions just yet, and provide something for all of the grandparents, having a child brought into the Church of Jesus as well made part of the covenant of the Jewish people is not being honest to either tradition.

As “exclusionary” as this sounds, this position is based on common sense, respect for the integrity of both Judaism and Christianity as religions with particular and distinct messages as well as what has been found through years of experience as being in the ultimate best interest of the child.

Religiously speaking, children need to know who they are. They need to have a solid, unambiguous faith identity which gives them a place in the world, a spiritual tradition through which to experience the important times of life and a community of meaning, not just to know about, but to be a part of and to feel at home in. This means that, when it comes to religion, one is better than none and better than two.

“Intermarriage and Dual Religion”
from the “Ask the Rabbi” series

elephant_in_the_room_talkIn any intermarriage that produces children, sooner or later those children are going to have to make a decision as to who they are. In my family’s case, the choices are Christian, Jewish, or non-religious (or other religious). Halachically of course, my children will always be Jewish, regardless of their religious choices. I should say, in their case, they also have the option of self-identifying as Messianic Jewish (and as far as I know, none of them have made this choice) which, from my perspective, would be a completely halachically Jewish religious lifestyle that accepts Jesus (Yeshua) as the Moshiach and which is not the same thing as being a “Jewish Christian” or a Christian of any type (see Rabbi Dr Michael Schiffman’s blog post Messianic Judaism and Christianity: Two Religions With The Same Messiah for details).

For the sake of clarity, I must say that my wife would be the first to disagree that Messianic Judaism is a true Judaism, as would most secular and religious Jews in the world. A recent article written by Jewish Journalist Sarah Posner called Kosher Jesus: Messianic Jews in the Holy Land very thoroughly describes the Jewish perspective on the Messianic Jewish movement.

While I certainly respect Susan Katz Miller as a writer and an interfaith parent, her perspective and mine are different. My family doesn’t choose to celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah. I’m perfectly happy not celebrating Christmas and feel a great sense of freedom in not having to feel bound to the stress, pressure, and expense of either a commercial or religious demonstration of the holiday (Chanukah is much more low-key and even for a goy like me, more spiritually meaningful).

I may be a Christian but I don’t do Easter and I don’t do Lent, and I don’t even think of Shavuot as Pentecost. There is no “mixing” of religious expressions in our home. There are mezuzot on virtually every entry way in my home and the bookshelves in the living room are lined with siddurim, Talmudic commentary, copies of the Chumash, Tanakh, and even The Jewish Book of Why (the “Christian” books including Christian Bibles are either on the bookshelves in the study or in my “book closet”).

Even our “interfaith home” isn’t equally interfaith as you can see. As far as reading material, wall art, decorations, and halachah are concerned, it is primarily Jewish (although the kitchen isn’t kashered in the slightest) with the Christian aspects tucked away here and there. I suppose that’s fair since I’m the only Christian in evidence around the place.

You can’t be two things. Two things can co-exist in an environment but as you see, even the environment isn’t equally supportive of those two things. It’s like on the starship Enterprise in the TV show Star Trek, the Original Series (1966-1969). The ship’s life support settings favored the majority population on board, which were human beings, and the minority species on the ship (Vulcans, for instance) just had to put up with it and could tailor the environmental settings in their personal quarters to more closely fit their requirements.

I hadn’t really given it much thought before this, but I think the “duality” of religious/ethnic/cultural expression in my home is part of why I started the “Days” series. Although no one in my family opposes my pursuing a Christian identity in the slightest, the fact that I am a minority in my own home is abundantly evident. There are conversations we have when I suddenly become very aware that I’m a Christian (alone) and they are Jewish (together). There are times when I realize that I cannot have a detailed conversation about my faith with anyone I live with or any of those people I love the most without potentially crossing some very serious barriers.

If I were a religious none, I’d still be “different” in my home, but I wouldn’t be so “religiously” different from my family (culturally and halachically I would always be different). Given the less-than-comfortable history between Christianity and Judaism, I might even have a somewhat less “problematic” relationship in the home. If I were “nothing in particular,” while I wouldn’t be able to relate to my family on a “Jewish” plane, I at least wouldn’t clash with them religiously and spiritually.

Could I give up my faith for my family? I’ve considered that question carefully and believe me, there’ve been days… But no, I couldn’t do that, even for them. The “best” I could do would be to go “underground,” so to speak, not reading the Bible at home (or at all), not going to church, not calling myself a “Christian” in their presence or in the presence of others (particularly “Jewish” others). My faith would necessarily have to become isolated from the world, locked in a container that holds only God and me.

Running out of timeRight now, my “Days” countdown is focused on whether or not I continue to go to church beyond December 31st but it could easily expand to include ceasing any personal religious expression. But then, that would put me right back at the point of pulling the plug on this blog and I’ve already decided not to do that.

My recent “Days” blog posts have been on topics such as relationship (or lack thereof) and self-identity. An identity that includes faith and spirituality is composed of a life of decisions between options. Those decisions, and I write about them in abundance, are not easy, but they are decisions. There’s no way to fuse “left” and “right” or “up” and “down.” You can’t go in two opposite directions simultaneously.

Like Manny said, you can’t be two things. Ellie had to choose between being a possum and a mammoth. There wasn’t really a contest of course. She was unmistakably designed to be a mammoth and so physically, she made a lousy possum. She just needed another mammoth to show her who she was and how to live like a mammoth, even if they decided not to go with the herd…even if they decided just to be mammoths together.

Would that the choices were so obvious for me.

3 thoughts on “18 Days: The Christian in the Middle of the Room”

  1. I suspect that many who would label themselves as “mixed religion” in fact have no real identifiable religion. Instead they adopt an amalgamation of beliefs, taking ideas they find comforting from a variety of sources and dismissing related beliefs that they find less palatable.

    Most people are happy to identify with a meek and mild Jesus bringing peace on earth and good will to all men – but they are less comfortable dealing with the reason for His death. So they take a lovey-dovey Jesus and add Him to their collection of “nice” spiritual concepts gathered from a variety of religious sources and identify themselves as being “spiritual” rather than religious.

  2. I’d just like to add, they create a religion to conform to their own expectations and desires instead of adopting beliefs to which they must conform.

    I sometimes wonder if that’s what we human beings do when we encounter religion: spin it to fit us personally? I think sometimes that’s what individual worship communities do corporately, which is why we have lots and lots of groups calling themselves “Christians” but that all look and act differently from one another.

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