The Pastor came back with the results of our test. We were in his office for pre-marital counseling, and he had just given us some sort of couple’s compatibility test to see how we matched up. When he came back with the results, that’s what he said:
“You are very compatible in almost all areas, but there’s this one…”
He said that we showed up as very compatible for finances, plans for kids, general values, etc., but there was one area where we surprised him: Religion
J had been a member of the Pastor’s church for a few years, and I had been accompanying her to church occasionally since we had started dating about a year before that meeting. I didn’t go every Sunday, but often enough to know people and have a few friends, and I was even playing in the church’s handbell choir. The Pastor might have noticed that I wasn’t taking communion, but that wasn’t so unusual in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, which officially closes communion to anyone who isn’t Lutheran (and even to most other Lutherans). I had probably simply told him that I grew up in an ELCA Lutheran church, which was a true statement, but not an accurate description of my beliefs at the time.
So, the Pastor probably didn’t realize that I was an atheist until I told him on the test.
That set the stage for how we have navigated though a mixed marriage at my wife’s church, through both ordinary Sundays and sacraments.
Fortunately, the Pastor is much more liberal than your typical Missouri Synod pastor, and he rolled with the news. He didn’t throw me out, but he made sure that I knew that the service would happen in the church and that he would talk about Jesus. Of course, I knew that, and I had already accepted that.
I had grown up an ELCA Lutheran, and I had met J’s family in college when I still believed. That was very helpful a few years after college when we started dating; they thought I was a Lutheran (the wrong type, but close enough), and I wasn’t in a hurry to give them a reason to dislike our relationship. Overall, I wasn’t really closeted in my disbelief, but I wasn’t really active in the skeptical or atheist communities, so it was easy to let it slide. Though I had no interest in a church wedding, I knew that I wasn’t going to rock that boat, especially since J’s grandfather was an important pastor in the Missouri Synod, and it was important to J to have him perform her wedding.
So, I went with it.
Fortunately, there’s a lot of flexibility in how church weddings are performed. We were able to choose relatively egalitarian vows instead of vows that defined traditional gender roles. I was able to influence the song choice to minimize (though not eliminate) the religious nature of the music. Basically, I had simply been to enough church services that I knew how to handle myself. Most importantly, if a church wedding was a non-negotiable to be able to marry J, then I was willing to do it.
The baptisms were trickier. Both my family and J’s family love baptisms. J’s family has a baptismal gown that has been in the family since the 1940s, and J and all of her cousins and all of their kids have been baptized in that gown.
There was no way I was getting out of this.
It wasn’t really that much of an imposition on me, though. All I really had to do as the father was stand with my family during some prayers and then go to the baptismal font to watch the actual ceremony. It might seem that the prayers shouldn’t be difficult, because I silently sit through the prayers every time I go to church with J, and the baptism itself should be a cakewalk, because all of the attention is on the infant in the pastor’s arms.
However, on an ordinary Sunday, I’m not standing up in front of the church. I’m not expected to repeat words in which I promise to raise my child in the church. I’m not facing everyone.
I don’t actually remember how I handled the public prayers for D’s baptism, but when his little brother M was baptized, I had a plan. I just held D in my arms in front of me to greatly reduce the number of people who could see that I wasn’t saying the pledges and prayers. And it worked, I think.
Of course, there is the bigger question of whether I should have participated in the ceremony at all if I don’t believe in it. And really, I’m conflicted on the question. The baptism was going to happen for sure, with me or without me, and it’s important to both my family and J’s that the whole family take part. My sister had asked me to be a Godparent for one of my nieces even though she knew I wasn’t a believer, so I had that precedent to consider. In the balance, I think being a silent partner is the compromise that was best for me and my family, given the situation at the time.
If we were to have another child now, the calculus might be different. When D and M were born, I didn’t have a community with rituals and traditions to offer as an alternative. Now, however, I am an active member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, a humanist congregation of about 360 members that promotes “Deed Before Creed.” The Ethical Society offers a non-theistic alternative to baptisms, a Baby Naming Ceremony. Probably, if we were to have another child now, we would have both a baptism at J’s church and a Baby Naming Ceremony at my humanist community, and I would take the lead in one and not the other.
As I mentioned above, I wasn’t taking communion at J’s church. The first time that I went to a Sunday service with her after we started dating, I didn’t know what I wanted to do about communion. From my years in the ELCA church, I certainly knew how to take communion, but it was something that I had been able to avoid with my family since I stopped believing simply because my home church didn’t do communion every Sunday, and I hadn’t been back in my hometown often enough or long enough for it to matter.
But what to do at J’s church, where they take communion every week?
I looked to her and asked what she wanted. And she wanted me not to take communion. For her, communion was a sign of accepting the creed and accepting the faith community. Since I didn’t do either, she didn’t want me to show disrespect to the faith by taking communion on false pretenses.
So I didn’t. As I mentioned, there are enough others at her church who don’t participate in Missouri Synod’s closed communion that it didn’t attract too much notice that I was discretely standing aside to let others pass back into the pew. And that has been my practice for about 14 years on the occasions that I go to church with J.
Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t go as smoothly with some members of my family as it does with J’s family. When my oldest son was a baby, my uncle died. We celebrated his life at a funeral at a mountain-side Christian camp that he loved. Before the Sunday afternoon funeral service, they had open-air church for those working at the camp and for those of us there for my uncle’s service. As at J’s church, I was fine humming along with songs I knew and staying mum during prayers, but communion was coming up. This wasn’t a closed communion, and this was a small crowd; it was going to be conspicuous if I didn’t participate.
I thought of a solution. I would excuse myself from the main seating area at the beginning of the communion to change D’s diaper. He didn’t really need it, but it was close enough that I thought it was going to be a perfect cover.
Unfortunately, though, someone in my family did not want me to be able to avoid communion discretely. She knew that I didn’t believe and that I didn’t want to take communion, but she came over after partaking in her wine and bread to ask me to take communion. I said I was busy with the diaper. She said she would finish it for me. I said that I didn’t want to take communion. She tearfully begged me to. I looked over at J, said that it wouldn’t be appropriate, and held my ground amidst the diapers and flowers.
She finally relented, but not until the officiant put the wine and bread away. I’m grateful to J that she takes a more understanding approach.
Speaking of funerals, I unfortunately have been present for quite a few funerals in J’s family since we got married, including the memorial for her grandfather who performed our wedding. Of course, grandpa’s funeral was a very religious ceremony, with many hymns, many Bible verses, and a message that seemed more like a sermon than like a real remembrance of the man.
These events are probably the easiest sacraments for me to handle as a godless heathen – just dress well, stand when everyone else stands, sit when everyone else sits, and be respectful. Unlike my wedding and the baptisms of my children, these funerals were not about me in any way whatsoever. I can easily put my ego aside for an hour and support my wife and her family (of course, this wouldn’t be as easy at some funerals, where non-believers are called out; respect should be a two-way street).
But what about the time when it is about me? J and I have an ongoing “discussion” about what my funeral should be like.
In my opinion, I don’t want a church funeral because I’ve seen so many funerals be turned into evangelism opportunities by the officiant. I want the celebration and remembrance of my life to be about my life, my passions, and those who I loved. I don’t want it to be used as an opportunity to try to sell my friends and family on something that I explicitly rejected in my life. I was willing to accept that my wedding and my kids’ baptisms would be at a church because those weren’t just about me, but my funeral should be the ritual that reflects me. I now am an member of a humanist congregation that performs funerals and memorials in a non-theistic environment, so that should be an acceptable location.
J has a different perspective. First, she thinks that funerals are for the survivors, and not for the deceased. So, if she survives me, she should get to have the remembrance ceremony in the way that she wishes (and how she think both of our families would find more comforting). Her further point is that, unlike her, I’m a philosophical materialist. She points out that I believe that my death means the end of my caring about anything. I’ve said in other contexts that I don’t care what happens to my body when I’m dead, so why should I care about this?
I have to admit that she has a point, but I hope that we can come to an agreement. Maybe it will just be that there will be two services, one at her church with the religious focus she wants, and one at the Ethical Society with the humanist focus I want.
Of course, I will never know for sure what actually happens.
J and I have generally figured out a good way to work together through our mixed marriage. I do things with her and her church (holidays, parties, certain Sundays, camping with the associate pastor and his family, etc.), and she does things with me and my Ethical Society (holidays, parties, Navigators inclusive scouting, hosting dinner parties, etc.). Though we disagree on how we hope our children come to answer the big questions of life, we both agree that they should be able to ask those questions, hear from both our perspectives, and decide for themselves.
We’ve found compromises that work for us, and it takes flexibility from both of us. There are of course variants of theism with which I would not be able to find comfortable accommodation, but it goes the other way, too; some atheists would make a mixed marriage unbearable.
We don’t have everything figured out, as the debate on my funeral plans demonstrates (of course, I hope that I have another few decades before that is anything but an academic discussion), but we compromise.
And it works for us.
Featured Image credit: The author, all rights reserved