Decisions about whether particular couples who wish to be married will live their lives as a witness to God’s grace cannot be made by institutional fiat.
On a Saturday evening not long ago I presided over the marriage of a Muslim man and a Christian woman. I could add some nuances, but I think its helpful to take this at face value. It was a marriage between two people of different religious beliefs and communities.
Do note, however, that I presided over the marriage. They married each other. We all understood that this wasn’t a Christian sacrament, even if virtually all of the language in the ceremony was both traditional and distinctly Christian. What I did, the only performative task in the ceremony, was bless the marriage in the traditional words “O eternal God, creator and author of all love, giver of all grace: pour your blessing upon D and R, whom we bless in your name; that they may gladly and eagerly keep the vows and covenant between them made, and may always remain in perfect love and peace together. . . “
And here is the essential question at the root of all non-sacramental Christian marriages: Can a Christian bless the couple in their intentions as stated in the various vows that they make? After they perform the marriage can I as a Christian bless it and ask that God bless it?
Note that this is a slightly different question from the question of whether: a.) the church blesses it and b.) God blesses it. And a. and b. are not the same question because the church isn’t an assured repository of God’s wisdom.
Now the question of whether the church blesses an inter-religious marriage comes up because a pastor represents the church when presiding at a wedding. She or he is implicitly claiming that the church that ordained for this particular ministry also approves of it. With regard to inter-religious marriage the United Methodist church doesn’t offer much official guidance. Pastors have to ask the same questions they would ask of any couple: do these people understand and intend to keep the vows they are going to make?
Which leads to the next question What about God? After all, regardless of what the church teaches, any faithful Christian must ask what God intends for us to bless as stewards of all of God’s good gifts (including the ability to bless others). Are there any general categories of relationships between human beings that God does not want us to bless, that God does not want to be part of our shared society?
To get a line on that we’d need to look at God’s revelation in Jesus Christ as concretely present in the words of scripture. And there is nothing decisive about inter-religious marriage. Marriage pre-dates religion, and when Jesus actually refers to marriage he refers to Adam and Eve’s “marriage” as the prototype.
And they are a really problematic prototype. They didn’t belong to any particular religion, because religion is a social construct and there was no society. Existing before the flood and the rise of human society as the Bible knows it they don’t even really represent any gender we can identify with (unless we reduce gender to sexual organs) because gender, like religion, is a social rather than a biological construct. (One can have real exegetical fun with the phrase “therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife . . .” since in this particular case this means that Adam leaves God.)
The lesson Jesus draws from their story is that God joins them to “become one flesh” and that therefore humans should not institutionally divide what God has joined. (Matthew 19:6) Yet even this proves to have little absolute status in Christian tradition, if only because it was clear at the dawn of human history that mere sexual intercourse doesn’t create “one flesh” and existing social institutions of marriage and divorce don’t always comprehend what God intends to join and to separate in human relationships. If we didn’t recognize a difference between God’s intention and those stated by our human institutions we could not, for example, continence divorce of any kind, or for that matter the re-marriage of divorcees. But we Christians do and always have.
With regard to inter-religious relations it is true that the Jewish scripture tells stories about the danger of marriage of monotheists with idol worshipers. But those old ethnic practices aren’t really relevant to the post-Axial age religions that have grown up since, indeed the modern term “religion” for them might be anachronistic. Nor is this warning absolute. The genealogical line of David that reaches to Jesus contains more than one “inter-religious” marriage, so they can hardly be all bad.
Paul, speaking to the a nascent Christian community in which religiously mixed marriages existed from the beginning offers a wealth of advise to Christians living in a multi-religious environment (See I Corinthians 7.) But he doesn’t nail down the question of religiously mixed marriages because the range of possibilities that exist in our social environment didn’t exist in his. As close is he gets is the statement in II Corinthians 6 that Christians “should not be unequally yoked,” but this doesn’t refer specifically to marriage – even if it offers insights into the problems an inter-religious couple might face.
But if this passage isn’t directly relevant, it does address the issue in another way. Paul’s argument here, and elsewhere, deals with the necessity of a community of Christian witness to be a pure example of God’s reign that is focused on it missional task. Too much engagement with and conformity to the non-Christian world threatens its ability to remain a witness to God’s righteousness. (Here Paul echoes themes in the Old Testament regarding Israel and its kings and the danger of “foreign wives” who bring idol into the royal household.)
Yet too little engagement, too much purity, simply places the gospel out of reach of most of the world’s peoples. It becomes a form of hiding one’s light under a bushel lest it be blown out by the winds of changing society. Jesus himself noted that we have to be “in the world” and in some respects radically challenged the social conventions of his day in order to locate God’s grace firmly in the midst of human need. And in a religiously plural society where men and women have enormous freedom to interact and form intimate relations it is inevitable that some, or even many of these will confound the conventions of earlier societies.
We live in a social setting in the modern West where creating numerous offspring to perpetuate our particular religious clans and secure our access to food and shelter isn’t necessary. Other values of self-discovery and expression, or of mutual commitment to the security of society in other ways (through adopting children with no parents, for example, and giving them a religious upbringing they wouldn’t otherwise have) move to the center of our questions of what God blesses, and what is a visible witness to God’s grace. A couple made up of two people deeply committed to two similar but different religions may be a far greater witness to God’s grace than a couple made up of two nominal Christians as little committed to Christ as to being a blessing to the world.
And perhaps this is the best justification for the institutional church to leave aside any specific prohibition or encouragement of inter-religious marriages. Decisions about how particular couples who wish to be married will live their lives as a witness to God’s grace cannot be made by institutional fiat. There must be room for pastoral insight, for prayers of discernment, and for those closest to both the social setting and the couple to seek God’s wisdom.
I know I have been blessed by participating in this particular inter-religious marriage, and that the home that this couple have created from the blending of two religious commitments will not be a mixed blessing to the world, but a light that shines on us all with God’s love.