When I tell people that my boyfriend lives 3,000 miles away in Scotland, they usually gasp, smile bewilderedly, and say, “That must be so hard!” And they’re right: it is hard. However, for quite some time, the distance was not the primary challenge in our relationship. Instead, it was religion. Or, rather, lack of religion.
I’m an evangelical Christian dating an atheist physicist. Despite my attempts to evade it, I fell in love with someone whose worldview appeared opposite to my own. Our relationship has taught me more about unconditional love than any sermon ever did. Here are three lessons that have guided me in my interfaith relationship.
1. It’s not enough to just say you have an open mind. You have to practice it.
Usually, we aren’t even aware of our resistance until it falls away. My partner and I have moments of experimenting with belief systems to better relate to each other. For the sake of a conversation, I would adopt his atheist hat and mindfully allow my walls to drop. We would “reverse roles” in another conversation all for the sake of understanding one another more.
When we reached a standoff in understanding, we shared articles written by other people from our viewpoints. For example, I would send my partner a magazine article from Christianity Today about prayer or he would send me a link to String Theory for Dummies. Sometimes, hearing a message in a different voice can break down walls and bridge gaps in understanding.
2. Humans are more alike than different.
One night, I fiercely tried to convince my partner that he had spiritual needs even if he wasn’t identifying them as such. “Everyone does,” I said. “It’s the feeling you get when you’re standing in the ocean at sunset, staring at the horizon, and feel both small and big at the same time.”
“I get that feeling,” he said. “I feel in awe of the world that we live in.”
“When I feel that, I feel God,” I said. We debated back and forth on what the “feeling” was, and where it came from, but no matter how much we circled the topic, what remained was the fact that we both understood the feeling and could relate to one another on a deeply human level.
My boyfriend and I have moments like these daily, when discussing death, or politics, or dog breeds. We realized that what bonded us was not the details, but the big picture. We may disagree on what the “feelings” are called, but the important thing is that we both feel them and can express them safely and comfortable to each other.
3. There's a difference between changing for someone and changing because of them.
Our culture enforces a strict code of not changing for a romantic partner. Any sign of significant foundational shifting is supposed to give family and friends reason to protest the relationship. “You never felt that way before,” I heard more than once. “Is it because of your boyfriend?”
I wasn't changing for my partner — that is, to please him or hang onto him. Rather, I had changed because of him — our conversations and connection had gently led me down a path of questions and gave me a soft landing ground in which to test my burgeoning ideas.
For example, years of evangelical Christianity had left me a staunch critic of Darwinian evolution. My partner labored for months to help me realize that evolution was compatible with Christianity. It was mind-stretching, mildly painful, and caused a lot of fights, mostly because I was defensive upon realizing that I had been wrong for years. Still, after long months of researching and reflecting, I reached a point of inner spiritual and intellectual freedom upon embracing an evolved belief. If my partner had not pointed me towards the right books and YouTube clips, I would never have taken the first steps to learn more. My belief systems evolved because of my partner — but notfor him.
Similarly, my partner was skeptical of my green juices, chia puddings, and zucchini noodles. He tried these things because I told him about them, but he didn't enjoy them for me. It was a gradual independent process that happened because I opened a door for him, but he stepped through the door himself.
Interfaith relationships can be highly rewarding and transformative. If you can open your mind, focus on what you have in common, and value the transformative process, you may just experience what I have: the closer I get to someone different than me, the more I learn about myself.
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