A review by Jim Burklo of “Saffron Cross” by J. Dana Trent (Fresh Air Books, 2013)
As a Christian pastor, I’ve officiated at hundreds of weddings – many between people of different faiths. Many of them started out their relationships without concerning themselves too much about their religious differences. It’s only as marriage becomes imminent that one or the other of the pair wakes up to the fact that this difference might matter. The groom marrying a Christian suddenly feels the urge to practice actively the Judaism that had been little more than a cultural artifact in his life. The bride marrying a Buddhist wakes up to decide that she ought to go to mass every week, when she used to go only at Christmas and Easter. How will religion factor in their wedding ceremony? The couple begins to wrestle with the question of the religious education of their future children.
Impending marriage often leads couples to learn more about their traditions of origin. And that study can lead to confrontation with the question of religious pluralism. Is my partner going to hell unless she accepts Jesus as her personal Lord and Savior – really? Is my partner’s Hinduism possibly as good a path to Ultimate Reality as my Islamic faith is for me?
Dana Trent’s early spiritual formation happened at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Binkley Baptist was “disfellowshipped” by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1992 because of its full inclusion of gay and lesbian people. After college, Dana was ordained as a Southern Baptist pastor, and then she earned her Masters of Divinity degree from Duke Divinity School. She identified as a progressive Christian.
But that self-conception was challenged when she fell in love with Fred Eaker, a former Gaudiya Vaishnava Hindu monk who maintained devotion to Krishna. In “Saffron Cross”, Dana tells the story of their romance and marriage, and of the spiritual awakenings that followed for both of them.
Dana deeply admired the seriousness of her new boyfriend’s spiritual practice. She went with him to Hindu retreats and temples and participated in the rituals. She felt embarrassed that her faith was less pervasive in her life than his was for him. But as much as she respected his path, she found herself fretting that he would be a lost soul without converting to Christianity. “I was forcing God (and Fred) into my cozy little Baptist box… I pondered baptizing Fred in his sleep….” Constant cognitive dissonance led her to embrace religious pluralism, bringing her closer to Fred and also, to her surprise, to Jesus. “I experienced a powerful shift: the more I exposed myself to beliefs outside of my own, the more my Christianity strengthened.”
Dana Trent experienced what so many Christians discover when they drop the assumption that their way is the only way to God. She came closer to Christ by embracing the idea that other faiths can be as good for others as hers was for her. “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.”
The contrasts she discovered in her partner’s Hinduism led her to notice things about Christianity that she’d never considered before. “Fred gave me the greatest gift this side of heaven: a Hinduism that brought me back to Jesus.”
The marriage of Dana and Fred is a microcosm of a world in which more and more people live in close proximity to people who follow faiths other than their own. If we want to do more than just live in peace with each other – if we want to commune at the level of the soul – we must go beyond mere tolerance and embrace religious pluralism.
That’s what churches around the world are doing on May 4 (or other Sundays during the year), when they celebrate Pluralism Sunday. It’s a day to celebrate elements of other world faiths in sermons, litanies, and music; many feature speakers and singers from other faith traditions. Some congregations have exchanges with other faith communities, going to each other’s houses of worship. Pluralism Sunday manifests Christians’ gratitude to God for the world’s religious diversity.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, in a letter to a Jewish leader in Georgia in 1820, that “…the maxim of civil government being reversed in that of religion, where its true form is, ‘divided we stand, united we fall’.” The same could be said of religion in Dana and Fred’s marriage. Their embrace of religious pluralism enabled their faith differences to enhance their relationship in profound and powerful ways. So may it be for us all!