Earlier this month I reviewed Dale McGowan’s book, In Faith and In Doubt, which talks at a very practical, human level about the benefits and drawbacks of marriage between religious and non-religious partners.
Just this week, I listened to a twenty-minute conversation between conservative Christian radio host Greg Koukl and a guest wondering about whether he was morally permitted to officiate at a wedding between a Christian and a non-believer. Koukl asserts unapologetically that it’s prohibited by the Bible.
Side note: The exchange was on the Stand to Reason apologetics podcast – this episode, from 1:18:10 to 1:38:20. I’m listening to it as part of an effort to expose myself not only to stuff I enjoy or agree with, but also stuff that irks me or that I disagree with. I really want to fight the tendency to isolate myself in a silo of like-minded thinkers. But let’s get back to the topic at hand.
Now, I think Dale is definitely right when he says that religious/non-religious mixed marriages can succeed. He has the statistics and testimonies to show that it’s true, and the rationale to explain how it happens.
I also agree with Greg that his scripture (specifically, the “unequally yoked” passage in 2nd Corinthians chapter 6, verses 14-18) speaks against such marriages. And what abuot those mixed marriages that Dale or I would call successful? I think Greg would probably count them as failed, since they often require bracketing beliefs (not abandoning them, but setting them to the side in marital discussions) and focussing on shared values. That is, these marriages involve compromise on certain principles that are central to Greg’s worldview.
But it’s interesting to me that, in the middle of that passage in the New Testament that is so crucial to Greg’s argument, the writer (almost certainly Paul himself) says “What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” In the context, that is clearly a rhetorical question whose answer is understood to be nothing.
But the actual answer, as a matter of empirical fact demonstrated by the stats that Dale presents, is clearly a whole lot. We share many beliefs (such as most of our beliefs about the physical world), and many values (most of those dealing with interpersonal relationships). Among believers and nonbelievers with a similar European, Canadian, or American background, we also share the bulk of our cultural practices and traditions.
Why do I mention all this?
Well, partly it’s just a musing on two lines of thought that I’ve been exposed to lately. Same topic, completely different conclusions – one from a perspective of dogmatic intransigence, the other from a perspective of openness and bridge-building.
And partly, of course, it is me as a humanist crowing about how much better my side is than the other (my side being liberals interested in tolerance and coexistence; the other side being fundamentalists interested in drawing lines and declaring wars). Nyah nyah! Except, of course, my side is only better from its own perspective. Aside from the easily-shrugged-off empirical niggle, nothing in Dale’s book really undermines the conservative Christian position. The Pauline position is the better answer when viewed from within that silo.
Does that sound like waffling? I suppose it does. I am still comfortable in the friendly humanist camp: the most important thing in this life is human thriving, and by all available measures the couples in these mixed marriages thrive just as well as those in more religiously-homogenous marriages. But I recognize (as does Dale in his book) that if you are starting from different values, you may get different mileage. Meaning that – at least this far – I am a relativist. And why the dickens shouldn’t I be?