Monday, October 3, 2011

How to Marry Religions?

What happens when two peoples or two individuals from different religious traditions encounter one another in an intimate setting of prayer or ritual? How does one honor both traditions as they are in in themselves and nurture in each a respectful embracing of the other?

This question arises more and more today for several reasons. One, we live in a much more globally aware world, where our neighbor’s differences from us and ours from our neighbors are much more immediate and harder to escape. We also live in the post-Enlightenment age, where people no longer simply assume the religious traditions of their families or cultures, but must make a more intentional choice to follow those traditions or to depart from them. The sociologist Peter Berger calls this “the heretical imperative” (in his book of that title), from the Greek verb at the root of the word “heresy,” which means “to choose.

In this climate of bumping up against the other and everyone making more conscious choices to belong or not to belong to particular religious traditions or paths, how can we think about this relationship among individuals, peoples, and traditions in a liberating way, a way that opens up to a wider and wider community of respect and love?

This past August I attended a wedding that lived out a model of such a relationship. The bride was Nez Perce, the groom Jewish. The wedding took place on the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho, outdoors by a clear, rushing river under an old stand of trees, on a site where Presbyterian missionaries of European descent had built a cabin when they came to evangelize the Nez Perce for Christianity. The very ground we stood on to witness the wedding ceremony was fraught with a history of relationship between these two peoples and religions that was oppressive. This model of oppression and suppression of the other, lower religion is, unfortunately a common model in history. The “true” religion” supersedes the “false’ religion, either swallowing it up and transforming it, including it as an earlier (and lesser) stage on the way to the “true” religion, displacing it, or eradicating it altogether. This was what Christianity did with Judaism for many, many generations. This was what many people who married “outside their faith” had to do: convert to their partner’s faith tradition.

Quite a different model for relating religions has also been common throughout history: syncretism, blending two different practices or beliefs into a third set of practices and beliefs. Certain Brazilian religions (Umbanda and Candomblé) in South America blended ancient African-rooted religious rituals and beliefs with Roman Catholic practices and beliefs. Many Native American tribes in North America did the same with their traditional beliefs and the various forms of Christianity they were forced and urged to take on. Many interfaith couples adopt and adapt this model toward running their households and raising their children.

But back to this remarkable wedding in Idaho and what I saw and learned there. The wedding began with a full Nez Perce ceremony, conducted by an elder, including drumming and songs for food, water, and shelter on the bride and groom’s journey through life, an exchange of feathers, a ritual walk of the bride and groom, and a ritual meeting of the two families who were also to now be joined. When that ceremony ended, there was a brief pause, and the guests shifted to a patch of grass right next to where the Nez Perce ceremony had just taken place. On that neighboring ground, a Jewish chuppah (with a tribal blanket for the covering) was walked into place and under that chuppah the bride and groom participated in a full Jewish ceremony, conducted by a rabbi, including a sanctification over a cup of wine, a ritual walk of the bride and groom, and the seven wedding blessings.

Side by side stood the two traditions, each standing its own ground (literally as well as figuratively). One did not trump the other. One did not stand above the other. One did not displace the other. Nor were the two blended into one ceremony, a third that was neither fully Jewish nor fully Nez Perce. They each stood tall, proud, in their full integrity and beauty, each on its own, yet each side by side. Equals. Beautiful in their equality. Both of them honored in their full individuality and their choice to stand in the world side by side, joined by mutual respect, honor, and love. Beautiful in their equality and mutuality.

The two traditions literally stood back to back, because for the Nez Perce ceremony, the gathered community faced one direction, and for the Jewish ceremony the community faced in the opposite direction. It was if to say, we stand back to back; we each face in a different direction, but we do this not to pull in different directions, but so that we may better look out for and look after each other as we move together through the dangers and joys of life; we join our two limited perspectives into a wider one.

And I thought, this is how we should stand with our neighbors from other traditions and faiths, just like this, two faiths, two traditions, two peoples standing side by side, in all the fullness of who we are confident that we are respected, accepted, and honored, and celebrated in our uniqueness even as we stand in relationship, facing the world together this way and journeying together this way, committed to this journey/adventure we call human existence, needing to rely on one another, support one another, nurture one another, feed and water and shelter and heal one another along the way.

And it occurred to me that this was a model for a liberating marriage of individuals, too. Two human beings standing in their full individuality side by side. Neither one dominant over the other or subsuming the other. Neither one giving up their uniqueness to lose themselves in a third thing, the marriage. Neither converting to the other. Neither becoming the other. Each remaining true to who they were and were called to be. Yet standing side by side, joined by hand, heart, and spirit, on the journey.

It was the most beautiful wedding I have ever witnessed.

1 comment:

  1. I can't think of a more beautiful way to honor two lovely people who shared this ever so special day than reading what you have written. There are days when you just feel proud to be a human being. This is one of them. Thank you for reflecting on such a wonderful event. We are lucky to be witness to such a wonderful union.