During the holiday season, interfaith relationships can bridge the gap between religious traditions.
Some people say religion and politics are too controversial to bring up when forming new friendships and starting relationships, but sometimes different religious beliefs can be a defining factor.
Those in interfaith relationships confront controversy, especially during the holiday season, when diverse religious celebrations take place and couples and friends are faced with the weighty decision of where and what to celebrate.
Dr. Leonard Swidler, a religion professor who teaches Catholic thought and interreligious dialogue, said although it depends on how heavily devoted a person is to his or her beliefs, interfaith relationships will be an issue as long as there are different religions.
“[Both people in the relationship] need to deeply respect each other’s religious traditions because it’s a very important part of their beloved’s life,” Swidler said.
Rachel Pearson, a junior tourism and hospitality major, has been dating her boyfriend Karaamat Rashad Abdullah, a senior at the University of the Arts, for four months.
Abdullah is Muslim, and Pearson, previously of Christian belief, is in the process of converting to Islam.
Pearson said Abdullah has helped her understand Islam by giving her materials, such as the Quran, to study from. But Pearson said she would still convert even if Abdullah were not Muslim.
“Islam makes sense. Christianity didn’t. End of story,” Pearson said.
Swidler said that when deciding to convert religions, it is imperative to do so for one’s “own real sake.”
“This has to be very serious. The conversion shouldn’t be just to please the other person,” said Swindler, adding that this only discredits the sincerity of the person’s religious conversion.
Pearson and Abdullah will not celebrate the holidays together this year. While Pearson’s birthday falls on the same day as Christmas, she said Abdullah struggles with the celebration and is “torn” in deciding whether or not “it is to be accepted.”
“It makes me a little upset,” Pearson said. “But at the same time, I’m OK with it. It gives me something to look forward to when we’re both on the same religious game.”
Pearson said Abdullah’s mother believes he should marry a Muslim woman and not date a white woman. Pearson said not being able to be involved with his family has caused arguments.
“Having a partner with different yet similar religious beliefs plays a huge role in our relationship,” Pearson said. “It causes arguments but helps to keep him in tune with his own beliefs, and helps me to establish my own.”
Swidler said interfaith relationships provide an opportunity not “easily available” to everyone that allows couples to learn about and respect other religious traditions.
“You immediately and constantly are reminded that this other religious tradition is something very profound and very important,” Swidler said.
Danielle, a senior marketing major, and Dave, a senior legal studies major who requested their last names be omitted, have been together for more than two years.
Danielle’s family is half-Christian and half-Jewish, while Dave’s is Jewish. Danielle said Dave is more religious than she is, but that this has not caused conflicts.
“We do speak about religion on occasion,” Danielle said. “The only way it has influenced our relationship is by teaching us to be more understanding of each other and of different beliefs in general.”
“The fact that my boyfriend is Jewish hasn’t really influenced my beliefs at all. I have my own beliefs, and that hasn’t changed,” Danielle added.
The two typically spend the majority of the Christian holiday season with Danielle’s mother’s side of the family and split time on Jewish holidays between both families.
“We use the holidays as more as a chance to see each other than to celebrate them for what they actually mean,” Danielle said.
Danielle said she appreciates learning more about Judaism with Dave’s family because she didn’t practice many Jewish traditions growing up.
At their age, Danielle said, she and Dave can practice different religions and avoid conflict as long as they understand each other. She said when couples eventually get married and have children, there is much more to compromise and sacrifice.
Interfaith friendships can also break grounds in religious understanding and bring people of different faiths together during the holidays.
Kathryn Lund, a senior mathematics and Spanish major and the president of the Harvest Christian Fellowship, said she treats her religion as more of a “relationship” with God.
One of Lund’s closest friends is a devout Muslim whose life is “saturated with Islam,” she said. Lund said the two constantly discuss religion but avoid turning discussions into arguments.
“In general, we can avoid arguments because we usually find that our morals are identical as well as our devotion in practicing them,” Lund said.
Lund said she admires her friend’s discipline as well as her musallah, where she practices her prayers. The community at the musallah, Lund said, has “ethnic diversity” and “familial intimacy” – two traits she said she thinks many U.S. churches lack.
In addition to visiting her friend’s musallah several times, Lund has fasted with her and celebrated Iftars, which are meals to break fast during Ramadan.
“I especially admired her discipline during Ramadan, when she would still run cross-country practices while fasting,” Lund said.
Lund said she began to learn Arabic after her friend brought the language’s beauty to light, along with its relationship to Islam and Middle Eastern culture.
“I don’t think I know everything, and I’m willing to accept at any moment that I’m wrong if someone can definitively prove so, or if they live their life in such a compelling way that moves me,” Lund said.
Lund has also formed friendships with Buddhists, Hindus and atheists. These friendships, she said, have allowed her to share her own “spiritual journeys” while remaining devoted to Christianity.
Swidler compared interfaith relationships to bridges. He said interactions between those with different religious beliefs not only build connections between people in relationships but between their religions as a whole.
“If we multiply these serious bridges,” Swidler said, “this will go a long, long way toward eliminating the kind of ignorance, hostility and violence that in fact does tend to break out between religions.”
Cary Carr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.