Archive for the ‘Interfaith Identity’ category

Breakthrough! Interfaith Families, Interfaith Engagement

February 8, 2013

Dali Museum, Figueres, Spain, photo by Susan Katz Miller

For years now, I have been advocating for interfaith families to be included in interfaith activism and conversation. Since 9/11, an inspiring interfaith movement has been growing, including interfaith activism on campuses. And just in the past couple of years, atheists and agnostics and secular humanists have been welcomed by many of these interfaith organizations, in recognition of the growth of these communities, and the idea that you do not have to have a faith to want to join the interfaith movement. All of this is good—very, very good.

But for those of us from interfaith families, the new focus on interfaith activism has raised two tricky (and intertwined) issues. The first challenge is linguistic. Interfaith families have always used the word “interfaith” to describe who we are. The pioneering intermarriage of my parents occurred in 1960. And since at least the 1980s, some of us have been raising interfaith children with both religions, and some of those children use “interfaith” as an identity label. So the word “interfaith” is being used both at a macro level to describe engagement between people of different faiths, and on a micro level to describe, well, engagement and marriage and identity in interfaith families. I don’t know if we should have or could have had different terminology to distinguish these two phenomena, but we don’t.

The second issue is that official interfaith conversations between representatives of different religious institutions have not always welcomed interfaith families and those with interfaith or dual-faith or multifaith identity. We represent a blurring of boundaries, and that ambiguity can sometimes make people uncomfortable.  And yet, people from interfaith families have skills to contribute to interfaith conversations and programs. We practice the art of communicating across religious divides, day and night, throughout our marriages, or throughout our lifetimes if we are born into interfaith families.

This week, I felt like I witnessed a breakthrough. I was invited by interfaith activist Sana Saeed to co-sponsor a twitter chat, alongside a group of interfaith organizers, leading up to a DC Young Adult Faith Leaders Summit tomorrow, organized by Faith in Action DC.  (Note: You can follow the Summit on twitter at #DCFaith). I started to buzz with excitement when I saw that the Summit will include people who “belong to traditional religious institutions, have multiple affiliations, no affiliations, or are somewhere in-between.” In other words, the summit is inclusive, on a whole new level.

In the twitter chat, I dove in and asked two questions: What can people from interfaith families, or who claim more than one religion, bring to interfaith activism and conversation? And, what are the challenges of including people with dual-faith or multiple-faith identities in interfaith conversation?

It was thrilling to read the responses from people who work full-time on interfaith engagement. Usra Ghazi of the Interfaith Youth Core tweeted that “interfaith families are like religiously diverse communities: great places for interfaith literacy.” Bud Heckman of Religions for Peace USA agreed that people from interfaith families bring their “lived daily experience” to the conversation, “But also assumptions/positions that are threatening to ‘single faith’ others. Benefit & barrier.”

And so, on to those challenges. Ghazi tweeted that interfaith conversations “tend to put people in a box. You can’t do that with ‘seekers’ and multi-faith identities.” InterfaithYouthCore responded that people with dual-faith or multifaith identities challenge “the norm that certain faiths are exclusive of others.” Faith in Action DC confided that, while organizing tomorrow’s Summit, they had the “challenge of placing multifaith participants. Which group are they in? So we created “Multi” category! #simple!” I am not sure everyone will find it that simple. But this chat felt like the beginning of a beautiful, and radically inclusive, conversation.

(Note: Some twitter abbreviations have been expanded in this post, to ensure greater comprehension by those over 30)

Inauguration: Celebrating President Barack Obama and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

January 17, 2013
Inauguration 2009, copyright Susan Katz Miller

Inauguration 2009, copyright Susan Katz Miller

Four years ago this week, we awoke before dawn, bundled our children into layers of clothing, and walked from our house to the Metro station. We wedged our family onto a subway car with throngs of neighbors and tourists, and emerged in downtown Washington DC, just as the sky began to turn pink. As we sleep-walked past the grand Constitution Hall heading towards the Washington Monument, I told my children how the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) prevented opera singer Marian Anderson from performing in that Hall in 1939. They were amazed that their own grandparents had lived through such times.

At the base of the Monument, we found a place to wait, and wait, and wait, for hours in the freezing cold, far from the Inaugural stage, facing a huge video screen. We found ourselves part of a vast, diverse crowd, our collective spirits so high that we were able to endure the long hours standing on the frosted grass, packed in side by side. The point was not to try to glimpse the tiny figure of the distant President, so much as it was to be a part of this sea of humanity–to find ourselves part of the America we had voted for when we elected President Barack Obama.

Four years later, I could complain about whether President Obama has been progressive enough. But it remains true that our image of ourselves as a country changed forever, and for the better, with his election. And his re-election proves that we meant what we said the first time. We want to try to live up to the dream Obama represents, the dream of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

The convergence of this year’s Presidential Inauguration and the remembrance of Dr. King’s birthday heightens the significance of both events. For those of us in interfaith families, some of whom are also in mixed-race families, Dr. King’s dream has special resonance. The vision that “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands” inspires us as we hold hands every day with our partners, spouses, children.

President Obama chose Christianity, and he chose to identify as an African-American. As Americans, we are lucky to live in a country that does not issue ID cards stamped with race or religion: we have the right to choose our own labels. At the same time, I recognize in Barack Obama the child of a global village. I know the stories of his white grandparents, his extended African family, his years in Indonesia, his Catholic school, his love for the diversity of Hawaii. As an interfaith child and an interfaith parent, this week I celebrate Dr. King’s dream, and President Obama’s re-election. Now, we have four more years to come a little bit closer to making that dream a reality.

Top Ten Interfaith Posts on This Blog

December 31, 2012

Interfaith Collage by Robin Allen

Pausing for reflection at the end of the year, I thought I would reveal the most popular posts from this blog on interfaith identity, interfaith parenting, interfaith children, interfaith families, and interfaith life. Below is a list of the top ten most-viewed posts since this blog began in 2009. In the comments, let me know which posts were your personal favorites of all time, and what topics you would like to see covered in the year to come.

  1. Ten Reasons to Teach Interfaith Children Both Religions. It seems fitting that the number-one post on this site is devoted to explaining the benefits of exploring both family religions with dual-faith children.
  2. Advent, Christmas, Hanukkah, Welcome Yule! Interfaith Families Doing the Most. This post includes vignettes from my family celebrating each of these holidays. It was selected by WordPress for their “Freshly Pressed” feature. It also benefited from traffic based on the provocative public letter addressed to me by a blogger for the Jewish Daily Forward who objects to intermarriage.
  3. Welcome Walker Diggs, Interfaith Child. Fans of intermarried Broadway and television stars Idina Menzel (Jewish and white) and Taye Diggs (Christian and black) have kept this post at the top of the hit list. When their baby son Walker was born, I wondered in this post how they would choose to raise him in terms of religion. The last I read, the couple is still figuring out their religious pathway for Walker.
  4. Interfaith Marriage: A Love Story. The post describing the long and happy marriage of my Jewish father to my Christian mother has become a perennial favorite on this blog. When they celebrated their 50th anniversary, I wrote about how their successful interfaith marriage has made it impossible for me to feel that intermarriage is a bad idea. Readers are scouring the internet, looking for signs of happy interfaith couples. The popularity of this post inspired me to start a whole series on successful interfaith marriages.
  5. Muslim and Jewish: Interfaith on “Shahs of Sunset.” Okay, so this post is popular because of a trashy reality TV series, featuring wealthy Jews and Muslims of Persian (Iranian) descent misbehaving in Los Angeles. Fans trying to figure out which character is Muslim, which is Jewish (and which is from an interfaith Muslim/Jewish family) end up on my blog. Intermarriage between Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and Christians represents the next wave of multi-faith families. So I am glad the interfaith world beyond Judaism and Christianity is represented in my top-ten posts.
  6. Roger Williams, My Bat Mitzvah, and the “Lively Experiment.” I adore the fact that this tribute to a 17th-century religious rebel in New England remains a top post on my site. Roger Williams founded what would eventually become Rhode Island as a refuge for Quakers, Jews, Anabaptists, and anyone fleeing the religious oppression of Massachusetts Puritans. Williams himself ended up becoming a very early example of the “religious nones,” without institutional religious affiliation.
  7. Black and Jewish, Interfaith and Interracial, Hilarious and Offensive. A parody music video created by two pop culture stars who are black and Jewish inspired this post. It represents a pushback against the idea that Jews are by definition white, and a reminder of the rise of racial and religious intermarriage in our increasingly multicultural world.
  8. Successful Interfaith Marriages Ignored Once Again. This post critiques a Washington Post opinion piece that described interfaith marriages as doomed to frequent failure. The author is affiliated with a conservative think tank, and was fired this year from a blogging position at the Chronicle for Higher Education over a post described by some as racist. People searching for news of successful interfaith marriages stumble on this post, and I am glad that responding to an anti-intermarriage piece provided me with an opportunity to connect with more readers and bring them news of happy intermarriages.
  9. Celebrating Martin Luther King: Multiracial, Multifaith in the 21st Century. This post in honor of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday refers to his relationship with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside King. I go on to describe how my community of interfaith families, composed of intermarried Jews and Christians, and intermarried blacks and whites, celebrates King’s birthday holiday and the Civil Rights movement.
  10. Interfaith Children: Born This Way. I wrote this post to respond to the blogger who was dismayed by the idea that my family celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah. While making reference to Lady Gaga’s anti-bullying campaign and her hit song “Born This Way,” I describe how children from interfaith families benefit from claiming our interfaithness and discovering all that is positive about bridging two religions and two cultures. I am glad the idea that families can and should instill pride rather than shame in their interfaith children, made it into the top ten posts.

“Mixed Religion” on the United Kingdom Census

December 17, 2012

Multicolored Threads

This post ran on my Huffington Post blog.

This 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. Most of the news reports have focused on the finding that from 2001 to 2011, the percentage of Christians in England and Wales fell from 72 percent to 59 percent. Meanwhile, the number claiming no religion almost doubled to 25 percent, paralleling the rise of the “religious nones” in the U.S. The numbers of Muslims grew most quickly, to almost 5 percent, and the percentage of Hindus, Sikhs and Pagans all increased as well.

But as someone who was born into an interfaith family and raised my children with two religions, my eye was drawn to the new evidence of people claiming more than one religion in their lives. Who are these “Mixed Religion” folks? How many of them are born Christians or Jews who find Paganism or Buddhism equally compelling? How many of them are in long-term relationships and find themselves practicing their spouse or partner’s religion as well as their own? And how many of them are adults raised with more than one religion in interfaith families?

Here in the United States, the government’s Bureau of the Census collected information on identity from religious organizations from 1906 to 1936, but then stopped. As a matter of separation of church and state, I understand that we do not want to ask about religious identity on the Census. The question about religion was added to the U.K. Census in 2001. Answering the religion question on the Census is optional, but only about 7 percent declined to answer.

For statistics on religious identity in America, the best source may be the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. In the 2009 report “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths,” Pew researchers found that, even beyond weddings and funerals, almost a quarter of Americans sometimes attend services of a faith other than “their own.” But the Pew researchers did not directly address the idea of “Mixed Religion” as a primary identity.

I chose to raise my children with an education in both Judaism and Christianity, in a community dedicated to supporting interfaith families. Many of the young adult graduates of these interfaith education programs, which exist in several cities now, would claim “interfaith” or “Mixed Religion” or “Jewish/Christian,” as a religious identity in a census, given the chance. And so would some of their parents, who may have spent their entire adulthoods celebrating two religions together, as a couple.

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.

Raising Children With Two Religions: At Hanukkah

November 26, 2012

This time of year, interfaith families scour the internet for advice on celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas. For those who celebrate both December holidays, I thought I would post a roundup of the many pieces I have written on how we celebrate Hanukkah in our “raising them both” family.

My interfaith kids have always loved Hanukkah, even though we also celebrate Christmas. And my mother and husband, both Christian, love harmonizing as we sing around the candles. One of my most popular Hanukkah posts was the five reasons you do not have to fear that Hanukkah will be overshadowed by Christmas.

By the time our kids were teens, we put most of the Hanukkah gift emphasis on the importance of giving to others. Although we also treated them to a Matisyahu concert one year. I later admitted that going to a rock club on a weeknight did contribute to interfaith holiday burnout that year.

Last year, I wrote an overview of celebrating Hanukkah, Advent, Christmas and Yule in our family, along with my photo of a Hanukkah cookie. It may have been the enticing cookie that lured WordPress into selecting the post to be featured on Freshly Pressed. (I am proud to use my own photos on most of my posts).

I also wrote a piece for Huffington Post last year on celebrating both holidays in our family. In response, a blogger for the Forward wrote an outraged post in the form of a letter excoriating me. While her post was filled with misunderstandings (we absolutely do not celebrate Chrismukkah), I hope that our exchange helped to explain to a wider audience why many interfaith families are teaching their children both religions.

This year, I feel lucky because Hanukkah comes relatively early (December 8th to 16th), minimizing any awkward overlap for those of us who like to keep the holidays separate.

And we do keep them separate. For our family, part of the point of celebrating both is giving each religion (and each holiday) proper space and respect and meaning. So, no Hanukkah bush or star-of-David treetoppers for us. A Christmas tree is a Christmas tree. And a menorah is a menorah (or a chanukiah, as some folks prefer to call them these days), even when it is made of plexiglass and holds glow sticks instead of candles, like the menorah I am sending today to our daughter, who now lives far away in a college dorm where she cannot light candles because of the fire laws. Sigh. I know I will see my daughter at Christmas, but it is hard to realize that she will only be nearby for Hanukkah on the years of crazy holiday overlap.

Which reminds me, whichever holidays you celebrate in your family, treasure each Hanukkah, each Christmas, each Eid, each Diwali, each Solstice with your children. Too soon, they will be out and away in the great world, and you can only hope that they will be warmed by the nostalgic glow of family holiday memories. At our house, we try not to miss an opportunity to create those memories.

Life of Pi: Hindu, Christian and Muslim

November 16, 2012

At a recent preview screening of the new film Life of Pi by director Ang Lee, based on the novel by Yann Martel, I was relieved to discover that the film preserves  a key theme of the book: multiple religious belonging. The filmmakers have transformed a rather dense and philosophical read into a rollicking 3D adventure tale, focused on the survival of a young man and a tiger in a lifeboat on the high seas. But the film very clearly depicts the protagonist Piscine (“Pi”) Patel as claiming not one, not two, but three religions: Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam.

The venerable Interfaith Alliance sponsored the screening, which gives me hope that advocates for interfaith dialogue are beginning to feel more comfortable engaging with the idea that people can and do claim more than one religion. Some of us who who feel connected to more than one faith come from interfaith families. I envision a day when interfaith activists will actively include the perspectives of interfaith families in the interfaith conversation. And with Life of Pi in theaters, I look forward to a lively conversation about how claiming more than one religion fits into the push for respectful religious pluralism.

In the book, the clergy of all three religions challenge Pi’s right to multiple religious belonging:

The pandit spoke first. “Mr. Patel, Piscine’s piety is admirable. In these troubled times it’s good to see a boy so keen on God. We all agree on that.” The imam and the priest nodded. “But he can’t be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. It’s impossible. He must choose.”

In the film version, it is Pi’s father who insists that his son must choose one religion, while his mother points out that he is still young, and has time to choose a path. And yet, at the end of his adventures, despite wisdom and experience, a middle-aged Pi still defines himself as Hindu, Catholic and Muslim.

The example of Pi challenges the assertion that dual-faith or multiple-faith adherence is simply immature, or a temporary state. For those of us in interfaith families celebrating both family religions, this debate is all too familiar. Often, we are told that interfaith children “must” choose one religion eventually. And yet, some interfaith children insist in adulthood on maintaining connections to both religions, having grown accustomed to the benefits of claiming both.

While many religious institutions find the blurring of boundaries threatening, academic theologians have been discussing both the challenges and opportunities of multiple religious belonging for some time. They acknowledge that religious double-belonging has been the norm through much of history in many parts of the world, whether in Asia, Africa or Latin America. In Europe and America–areas dominated by the more exclusivist Abrahamic religions–claiming more than one religion has been less common. But as religious flux and fluidity (and intermarriage) rise with globalization, dual-faith adherence inevitably rises as well.

In the introduction to the book Many Mansions?: Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity theologian Catherine Cornille writes, “…widespread consciousness of religious pluralism has presently left the religious person with the choice not only of which religion, but of how many religions she or he might belong to.”

But interfaith families claiming two religions are not simply inspired by a consciousness of religious pluralism: they are living this pluralism on an intimate daily basis. Rather than choosing religions as in a cafeteria, interfaith children raised with both religions are are growing up celebrating the dual faiths already present around the family dinner table.

Some interfaith children raised with two religions choose a single faith identity in adulthood. And some, like Pi Patel, will insist on claiming dual or multiple religions, even in maturity. I am glad that the movie version of Life of Pi is bringing this theological discussion to the big screen. I hope that it will bring together interfaith activists doing the important work of trying to calm the seas of religious misunderstanding, with those of us who insist on riding the waves of more than one religion.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

Atheist, Plays Well With Others…

November 6, 2012

Most of us are consumed with the election today. It also happens to be the publication date of a boundary-defying and yet somehow sweetly patriotic memoir from my publisher, Beacon Press, entitled Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. While still in his 20s, Chris Stedman has written a brave and moving account of how he became an evangelical Christian, realized he was gay, left Christianity for atheism, and now devotes himself to interfaith dialogue with religious people.

Faithiest will appeal to many interfaith families, as an intimate chronicle of an “atypical” religious (and non-religious) formation, illuminating the intertwining influences of family and society on religious identity. Stedman quotes my favorite Buddhist thinker, Thic Nhat Han: “If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors.” For those of us who are heirs to two or more family religions, this statement has deep resonance.

Stedman seems to have written one of the very first memoirs by anyone in his generation. So I was fascinated to note that the idea of being raised with both religions appears early on, and in a positive light. Stedman writes of his childhood friendship with a neighborhood girl who “…celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas, Passover and Easter, and maintained practices from both traditions…” He goes on to describe his own brief infatuation with Judaism as a result of this encounter.

A longing for community drives Stedman, as a tween, to a Christian youth group. The tension between evangelical Christianity and being gay eventually drives him away. But after he becomes an atheist, that same longing for community alienates him from the strident, anti-religious “New Atheism,” and eventually sends him into the arms of the kinder and gentler community of secular humanists.

Secular humanism has long provided a safe haven for interfaith families who agree to put aside the question of God. So Stedman’s description of his discovery of the benefits of humanism will interest many secular interfaith families.

More broadly, those of us in the movement to educate our children in both family religions find ourselves arrayed across the entire religious and non-religious spectrum: religious, spiritual but not religious, skeptics, agnostics, atheists.

Whether we identify with no religion, two religions, or many religions, those of us in interfaith families who do not belong to a synagogue or church find ourselves grouped with Stedman by demographers as part of the fast-growing “religious nones,” the statistical category for those without religious affiliation. As “religious nones,” we are a complex, rich, and varied group on the rise, just beginning to discover each other, and I am very pleased to share this space with a mensch like Chris Stedman.

By the end of his memoir, Stedman finds twin interwoven missions–convincing interfaith activists to welcome atheists, and convincing atheists to engage in interfaith activism, and join college campus groups (such as Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core) in performing community service together.

Stedman and others have achieved notable success in making a place for secularists, alongside Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others, at the interfaith roundtable. But is there a place at that table for intermarried people or interfaith children claiming our ties to more than one religion? Or is our presence so disturbing, our blurred boundaries so threatening, that we are left off the guest list?

The dogma of interfaith dialogue has long been that you cannot engage with the “other” unless and until you have a strong and singular religious identity. Stedman successfully makes the case that the non-religious should be exempt from this requirement. I am making the case that those who marry into or are born into a state of interfaithness should also be exempt, and welcomed as people with unique qualifications for interfaith dialogue.

Stedman writes, “Interfaith dialogue strives to usher in religious pluralism, and it is realized primarily through the personal stories of its practitioners.” Members of interfaith families in general, and adult interfaith children in particular, want to tell their stories, whether they currently identify with one, two, many or no religions. As people who engage deeply with the “other” on a daily basis, whether that “other” is a spouse or partner or sibling or parent or a part of our own being, we bring unique skills and perspectives to more formal interfaith encounters. We want to be part of the quest for greater interfaith understanding and an end to religious violence, through interfaith education. As members of interfaith families, we are already on that quest, whether or not our role is recognized by those from monofaith backgrounds. I am hoping that those of us from interfaith families can be as convincing as Chris Stedman in articulating our desire to be included in the movement for interfaith cooperation.

Interfaith Marriage and the Rise of the Religious “Nones”

October 10, 2012

Clouds, sun, ocean

The proportion of religiously-unaffiliated Americans has grown rapidly to almost 20 percent of the population, according to a report entitled “Nones” on the Rise,” released this week by the Pew Research Center. And yet, a follow-up survey by Pew and the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly found that the majority of the country’s 46 million religiously-unaffiliated adults believe in God or a universal spirit, and many are religious or spiritual in some way. Those of us who are in interfaith families did not find this seemingly-paradoxical portrait the least bit surprising.

The new study did not address the role intermarriage may play in the rise of those who are religiously unaffiliated, or how the rise of the religiously unaffiliated may play into the growth of the “raising children with both” movement. But for me, as someone in a three-generation interfaith family, several connections seem worthy of exploration:

  1. Those who intermarry face barriers to religious affiliation. Interfaith families who want to educate their children in two religions often cannot affiliate with religious institutions. Many religious institutions discourage or even forbid families from belonging to more than one religious community, or enrolling their children in more than one religious education program. These families may turn for support and religious education to independent interfaith communities such as the ones in New York, Chicago, and Washington DC. Or they end up religiously homeschooling their children in both religions. Either way, they may become part of the “religious but not religiously affiliated” demographic documented in the study.
  2. Those who are not religiously affiliated may face fewer obstacles in intermarrying. Without a religious institution or clergy member to tell them they cannot or should not do so, they are free to marry for love. As the Pew study points out, these religiously-unaffiliated people may still see themselves as spiritual, or religious, or both.  And they may feel culturally and historically connected to one or more religions.  They may want to continue to practice a religion, experience spirituality, celebrate cultural connections. And they may even want to pass all of this religious heritage on to their children. But they do not necessarily need, or want, affiliation with religious institutions.
  3. The new study points out that “none” is not a very accurate or objective term for people who may have rich religious and spiritual lives but who do not happen to belong to a church or synagogue. The Pew report authors state that they prefer the term “religiously unaffiliated,” but that the term “none” has been so widely used now, both in the press and in research, that they chose to use the term in the title of the report. I am both the child of interfaith parents and the partner in an interfaith marriage. Like many interfaith children, and many intermarried people, I am religiously unaffiliated, yet resent the term “none.” I belong to neither church nor temple, yet spend hours each week in religious and spiritual engagement with two religions, in the context of an independent interfaith families community. I am deeply, not minimally, engaged with theology, religious practice, and spirituality. I am not a “none.”
  4. I am grateful to Pew for drilling down into data on the “nones” and discovering some of the rich complexity of religiously-unaffiliated spiritual life. In an interesting parallel, many of the early studies on interfaith families conflated “doing nothing” with “doing both.” Just because a family does not affiliate with a church or a temple does not mean they are doing nothing. On the other hand, families may claim to be doing both, or attempt to do both, but cannot always follow through successfully without the support of clergy, family, or like-minded interfaith families. It will be important in future studies to examine the full range of practices, beliefs and experiences of unaffiliated interfaith families.
  5. The Pew study attempts to tease out some of the reasons for the growth in the religiously-unaffiliated. Some of the people in this category doubt the existence of God, some believe that religious institutions are too concerned with rules, money, power and politics. On the other hand, the study found that the majority of the religiously-unaffiliated do appreciate how religious institutions strengthen community bonds and provide community service to the poor. For those who want community without dogma, Unitarian-Universalist (UU) congregations provide one option (an option that has provided a home to many interfaith families). In light of the rise of the religously-affiliated, I was not surprised to read this week of the recent concomitant growth in UU communities. Another option, of course, both for Jewish and Christian interfaith families and for anyone interested in religious education and spiritual practice without institution or creed, is the growing interfaith families community network represented by this blog.

I hope that this new study inspires further research on all of us outside of official religious institutions, and on the relationship between the increasing religious fluidity and hybridity of our world, the rise of interfaith families, and the role of religious institutions.

Interfaith Children, College Applications, Religious Identities

October 5, 2012

For families with high school seniors, autumn means navigating the turbulent waters of the college application process. A year ago, our daughter was in the midst of this process, and along with many other formative lessons, it forced her to rehearse how she would present her religious identity to the world. It turns out that the “Common Application” used by most colleges asks for the applicant’s “religious preference” (though some colleges make a point of insisting that they screen out and do not consider that religion information). My daughter wrote, “Interfaith: Jewish and Christian.” Goodness only knows what college admissions officers made of this bold declaration. Presumably, the colleges that do look at this information are seeking some kind of religious diversity on campus. To paraphrase Martin Buber, I hope they embrace the “other.”

While surfing around trying to figure out why colleges ask for religious identity, I came across an interesting post from a college applicant from an interfaith family on College Confidential, the online site populated by stressed-out college applicants and their parents. This applicant wrote, I have a Jewish name, but I’m Christian. If I put Christian & the admissions people know my name is Jewish, will it look like I’m lying?Her conundrum resonates with me: many interfaith children face the fact that society assigns them a different religious identity from the one they chose (or the one their parents chose for them). And please note that these identity challenges occur whether our parents choose one religion, two religions, or no religions for us.

Meanwhile, my husband took on the task of filling out the financial aid forms, and was surprised to learn that those forms also ask for the student’s religion. I can only imagine that this information helps colleges match students with scholarships reserved for students of a particular faith. That idea set me off on an extended reverie in which I somehow become a wealthy philanthropist, and dedicate myself to funding projects to help interfaith families. Perhaps I would set up college scholarships for students who claim the interfaith religious label, and ask the applicants to write an essay on one of these topics:

1. What do you see as the benefits of being an interfaith child?

2. How has your education in more than one religion contributed to your ideas about religion, faith and spirituality?

3. How do you plan to use your interfaith knowledge and background to make the world a better place?

Come to think of it, I have no scholarships to offer at this time, but if any interfaith high school or college student wants to answer one of these questions in an essay, submit it to me at susan@onbeingboth.com and I will consider running it as a guest blogpost. And who knows, it might come in handy on college or graduate school applications.

An Interfaith Child in the World: Rise Up Joyful

August 24, 2012

My children have grown up in an interfaith utopia: a shimmering bubble of Judaism, Catholicism, Unitarianism, Protestantism and Buddhism swirling around them, creating gorgeous patterns. As interfaith couples raising children with more than one family religion, we created a community for our children, to show that interfaith families can be successful and happy while celebrating their full heritage.

Now comes the moment when my daughter, my first-born, must emerge from the beauty of this bubble, or so they say. In a few days, she leaves for a college that is thousands of miles away. She will encounter religious institutions still attempting to assign binary religious labels: Jewish or Christian, Muslim or Hindu, never both. She will hear that interfaith families must choose, interfaith children must fit into one religious box.

And yet, I expect my daughter to change the world as much as the world will change her. I have spent the past year interviewing grown children raised in interfaith family communities for my forthcoming book (Beacon Press, 2013). Based on the experiences of this new generation, I have great optimism that the gifts we have given our children in intentional interfaith communities will serve them well as interfaith activists and as ambassadors for religious peace.

My daughter is literate in two religions, and hungry to learn about others. She stands ready to defend both Judaism and Christianity, and to explain their interconnections. She can ponder the mystery of the universe in two languages. She is primed for deep empathy, building bridges, resisting intolerance.

For my daughter, interfaithness has never been incidental. Her confidence is bolstered by the presence and support of a beloved pastor, and a beloved rabbi. Since graduating from the interfaith Coming of Age program in eighth grade, she has taught in Sunday School classes for four years, getting up on Sunday mornings all through high school to teach interfaith kindergarteners.

At the final gathering of our interfaith community before the summer break, Our daughter stood at the front of the room, so that we could sing a parting blessing for her: an adaptation of a verse from the poem “Prayers and Sayings of a Mad Farmer” by our favorite farmer and poet Wendell Berry:

When I rise up let me rise up joyful, like a bird.
When I fall let me fall without regret, like a leaf.

We also said our weekly interfaith responsive reading, including a Benediction and Charge written by Cantor Oscar Rosenbloom, from the interfaith families community in Palo Alto, California. On the eve of my daughter’s departure, these words took on new resonance:

May we go out into the world carrying with each of us the love and blessing of this Interfaith Community.
May we continue to hold on to what is good
and to stand as beacons of light and understanding for all people.

Demographics are on my daughter’s side. There is no stopping the formation of families across the lines of race, culture, religion and tribe. Some of us will choose one religion, one tribe. Some of us will not. I send my daughter out as a messenger bringing the good news that interfaith children raised with both religions can, not just survive, but truly thrive.
In my mind, my daughter does not exit, vulnerable, from our bubble into some harsh climate. Instead, I imagine that she is breaking off into a smaller bubble, rising on an updraft, taking the beauty of religious fluidity with her, floating out into the world for all to admire. Rather than leaving behind the idea of interfaith community, she will take it with her, gathering the interfaith children of her generation–Buddhist and Jewish, Wiccan and Quaker, Sikh and Catholic—and inviting them into this new reality.


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