“Being married to a Hindu priest has made me a better Baptist.”
The above statement flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Are not interfaith marriages supposed to water down the faith and cause people to lose focus?
Yet that statement was spoken in full confidence by Rev. J. Dana Trent, an ordained Baptist minister and author of Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk. She gave an engaging talk at the 2014 Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC.
I recommend Saffron Cross for anyone struggling with the promise and peril of relationships between people of different faith traditions—whether it is between Christian denominations or even different religions altogether.
Rev. Trent suggests that interfaith relationships do not just present obstacles to endure, but they actually provide opportunities to grow in sensitivity, faith and understanding.
|"Fred and Dana at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, NC."|
Photo by Franklin Golden http://jdanatrent.com/photos/
She begins her journey with a profile on eHarmony. She was very surefooted and took for granted that her ideal partner would have similar spiritual views. She concluded her book a very transformed person. In her words: “I checked eHarmony boxes in my pajamas, bossing God around about what I would and would not accept in a partner. Now I’m married to a former Hindu monk, so the joke’s on me” (page 143).
Her path was not an easy one, however. There were many ups and downs along the way. It is never easy when “our core beliefs are threatened,” as she pointed out in the talk—or at least, when they seem threatened.
In the beginning, she tried to change her husband-to-be. Despite years of seminary education and a mature spirituality that would have respected differences, fears and old prejudices from somewhere inside of her initially took over. She tried to “save” him, scheming ways to get him baptized—even though that coercive approach was contrary to her own theological views. Some impulse from deep down showed its face.
There were other times when she leaned in the opposite direction and wanted to throw out Scripture—a difficult place to be for a Baptist minister, no doubt. She teetered on the brink of abandoning her faith tradition.
The pendulum swung back and forth until she hit a breakthrough. She referenced in her talk a “Holy Spirit moment” in her life. She reached a point when she realized it was “not my God or his God . . . it was just God. God with a capital “G” . . . God is not containable.” She had come full circle but at a higher plateau and rediscovered the 'Awesome God' she had come to know in her Baptist upbringing—a God that was even more awesome than she had previously imagined but which was still consistent with what her Baptist faith announced.
“I was forcing God (and Fred) into my cozy little Baptist box.” (p. 48). It was through getting to know her eventual husband that she came to discover and appreciate that Hinduism is a “legitimate way to God . . . steeped in sacred scripture, ritual and authenticity.” (48).
Based on her journey, she offers the following three places where interfaith relationships of all kinds—marriages or friendships—can foster growth. In her words, Interfaith relationships . . .
1. help us face our own fears and prejudices
2. help us face our own spiritual doubts
3. are a lens to understand how others view God
She suggests that these are crucial skills not just for interpersonal relationships but for anyone living in the 21st century, as our world is growing closer through the rise of technology.
“Our biggest fear is that when we open ourselves to others’ understanding of God, we will jeopardize our own path. And yet, the opposite is true. The Holy Spirit breaks free from our human-made constraints and moves fluidly among us, crossing our unnecessary lines drawn in the sand” (142).
Other couples in interfaith relationships in the audience at the Wild Goose Festival shared their experiences. One couple pointed out that it is good to be realistic about possibilities—there are some blessings as well as difficulties that come. In their experience, a mixed marriage is not all good or all bad. An interfaith marriage can be a tremendous place to nurture broad perspectives about the world while at the same time sacrificing intensity for a particular mode or tradition. This can be especially true in raising children.
While interfaith marriages may not be in the future for everyone, the living experience of Rev. Trent and her husband Fred—both ordained in their respective traditions and very serious about their faith lives—offers a road map for others who may follow. She paints a portrait of tremendous growth that can come whenever any two people of different faith traditions marry, grow in friendship or even have a single conversation.
In light of Rev. Trent’s account, it is worth pondering whether interactions and relationships between different traditions are not just a curious option for some of us but whether they are absolutely necessary for all of us to grow—to truly live out the Gospel mandate to be not afraid, seek out those who are left out while inherently respecting the innate dignity of every human person in their uniqueness along the way. These relationships may be a natural extension of the need to practice faith in community rather than in isolation. Building a world for ourselves surrounded only by like-minded folks may rob us of the tension needed to wrestle with our doubts and emotional unfinished business.
“I dove, baptism-by-fire style, into an integrated Christian-Hindu life. I visited physical and metaphorical spaces of pain and change… Fred gave me the greatest gift this side of heaven: a Hinduism that brought me back to Jesus” (p. 143). Being married to a “devout Hindu has helped me to be a better Christian," she said. “It has deepened my Christian walk.”
It is clear that Rev. Trent and her husband take their religious life seriously and are very intentional about working out potential issues head on. The next challenge for the young couple may be raising children in an interfaith household.
A closing image is something Rev. Trent offered during her talk at the Wild Goose Festival: When it comes to interfaith relationships, “you have to hold them delicately.”