An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Chapel: Part I

I don’t write too much about marriage because I have only been married for 8 years. How could I offer advice to anyone? So I’m not going to offer advice, even though I am going to write about marriage. I want to talk about my marriage because it is working and that is worth talking about. There are a lot of things, on paper, that would seem to suggest that my husband and I would not be a good match. He is an atheist, a leftist and a Marxist, and an intellectual. He was raised in a working class family just outside of Seattle. I’m a Christian, a liberal and a socialist, and a bohemian. I was raised in a middle class family in a Texas town. When we met I was politically apathetic and he was politically engaged. My parents had both graduated from college; he was a first generation college graduate. He was a party animal, and I could hardly stand parties.

But, outside of all those demographic categories and labels, we had and have quite a bit in common. From the beginning, we liked each other (still do), and we had some of the same values already even if we didn’t call them the same thing. Also, I never wanted to marry someone just like me anyway. I wanted to stay interested. Just yesterday, my husband told me some random thing that I had never heard and never even wondered about. And it was fascinating. And it made my morning because I was just sitting at home in my pajamas, drinking coffee, and chatting with my life partner, and I learned something new. I joked on Facebook the other day that my husband tried to talk to me about Jacques Lacan–a notably difficult psychoanalytical theorist–just 10 minutes after I woke up. But, in all honesty, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I need to be intellectually stimulated. I want to be with someone who keeps me on my toes. Someone who pushes me to keep using my brain. I love to think about and playfully discuss abstract concepts, and my husband can not only hang with me, but he really digs it too. We do not always agree. And that makes it even better. We push each other to really fill out an argument and see more than just the point of view that so easily comes to us. We not only taught critical thinking (he still teaches), but we practice it constantly. We encourage each other to continue developing as individuals; we nurture our marriage by giving each other space to grow. We try to graciously accept change in each other because we know it is inevitable.

Our biggest difference, though, and the one that seems to baffle others the most, is our spiritual difference. Jim, my husband, is a materialist meaning that he believes that everything–including consciousness–is the result of material interactions. He doesn’t believe in God or the soul. I, on the other hand, am a Christian–a pretty damn progressive one–but a Christian, nonetheless. I believe in the divinity of Jesus, and I believe that a singular God created the universe. These ideas are in stark contrast from one another, I know. It is kind of bizarre, I guess, but we try hard to make it work. We were both nonbelievers when we got married, and we both feel seriously committed to our choice to be life-long partners.

You might imagine that we argue a lot due to how permeative this difference seems to be, but we argued far more during the early days of our relationship and marriage–when we were both nonbelievers–than we do now. Last night we had a silly argument about the volume of the music we were listening to, and my daughter said, “Wow! That’s the first time you and Daddy have ever had an argument!” Of course, we argue some, but, truthfully, not often. We are slow to strike and quick to apologize. And we don’t argue about spirituality because neither of us can or wants to prove our position to the other. We are not terribly sarcastic. We do not judge or shame each other ever about anything. We don’t place blame. I don’t believe that families should work that way. We listen, and if we disagree, we ask questions or express our different point of view.

Of course, this could all be that we are just very compatible. So, I have come up with a few things that I think make our spiritually different marriage work outside of just our compatible personalities. Jim and I each put a great deal of effort into our relationship. Here are 4 ways that we try to nurture our relationship despite the spiritual chasm between us. In Part I, I have offered up three keys to our happiness as a couple; in Part II, Jim seconds two of my points, and offers an alternative to the third. I hope you enjoy this collaboration as much as we enjoyed working on it.

Part I: Laura Grace

Focusing on shared values
My husband and I talk plenty about spirituality and Christianity. It is a big part of my life, and I could not be happy if I felt forced to hide it. Likewise, we also talk about materialism and atheism. We talk about our lives and our beliefs all the time. We listen, we play devil’s advocate, but we don’t judge each other based on our differences. We look at what we have in common and use those things as the foundation for our relationship. Love is a wonderful example. Unconditional love is an incredibly important, Christ-like value for me. I believe that we are most like Jesus when we show love. My husband, who does not believe in Christ’s divinity and even questions his historical existence but appreciates him as a social thinker, also supremely values this kind of socially directed love. We both believe that love is a terribly important political tool. It drives our commitment to political equality for all people and cements our desire to actively fight for more inclusivity in our nation and world. We choose love over fear every time. For Jim, this, along with everything else, is political. For me it is both political and spiritual because Jesus was a radical–both politically and spiritually. Jim and I believe in showing the world the same kind of love, and we prioritize it the same way, we just have different reasons for why we believe in it. Rather than arguing over whether this drive is material or transcendent, we brainstorm over ways to show this love in our daily lives. We share political, social, and cultural values. We just disagree on why we believe in them. Sometimes it takes creative thinking to see beyond ideology, but it’s also challenging and stimulating. We are always encouraging the other to think deeper. We sharpen each other’s rough edges through critical probing and with honest questions. We focus on the positive–look at what we have–and don’t get caught up in labels.

Compromising with compassion
Part of any happy and equal marriage is compromise by both partners. Period. It is the way two people work together healthily for a long time. Since our differences are spiritual in this case, compromise does not mean that we compromise what we believe, but rather that we compromise on what we do. I am allowed to think, believe, and say anything I want in my marriage. My husband has the same privilege. However, I cannot just demand that he allow me to raise our child as a Christian. We have to think about how the other feels about raising our daughter in or out of organized religion. Hell, we initially had to compromise on whether or not to even mention that some people believe in a thing called God, but we compromised, nonetheless. I do things like listen to sermons or Christian music on headphones if my husband is home. I am not hiding it from him, but I know that he does not like it, so I’m not going to make him listen to is. Likewise, he knows that I like to talk about the sermons I have listened to, so he will listen to me talk and even engage me in conversation about it. We compromise with compassion. We think about the other’s needs as well as our own. Sometimes, when my husband wants to rail against conservative evangelicals, I will compassionately listen, but he will also compassionately listen to me play devil’s advocate as a former conservative evangelical who still loves many conservative evangelicals. Compassion and humility can go a long way in a marriage. I am certain that I do not know everything and that I am not always right. I choose to try and compassionately listen to those around me, especially my husband, always leaving open the possibility that I could learn something from any conversation. I make compromise a priority because I believe that it contributes to equality and harmony in marriage.

Giving it to God
If you are in a spiritually diverse marriage, know that there are no easy answers to some questions. I won’t even go into the afterlife! But there is one thing that you can do about those issues–give them to God and stop worrying. Prayerfully bring your issues to God, study relevant scripture, and evaluate your marriage outside of your spiritual differences. When I reconverted to Christianity, I was living apart from my husband because of my poor health. I had a choice to make: did I stay in the town where I was raised, near my home church and Christian parents, or did I return to my life in the Pacific Northwest with my intellectual, atheist husband who I still loved dearly? I prayed hard about the issue. I needed to know what God wanted me to do, and I told Him that, no matter what, I would do as He directed. I ended up finding 1 Corinthians 7:13, in which Paul wrote to new believers: “And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.” My husband and I were still very much in love, so this passage seemed to answer my question clearly. While clear, it certainly wasn’t simple. How was I to face eternity without my husband? Shouldn’t I put all my effort into converting my husband so that we could spend the afterlife together? Again, I began praying fervently. I asked God to show me how to do it. How was I to live with the fear of spending eternity without my love? It was too big a burden to bear. I prayed that God would rid me of my fear and anxiety. I prayed that he would give me the strength to allow my husband to be the man he is with the same right to free will that I had. And God did what I asked. He simply took it. It is unbelievable, I know. But it happened, and I have a happy healthy marriage, as well as a thriving spiritual life, to prove it.

I cannot and will not promise you that what happened to me will happen to you, but I will tell you that God is capable of it. I found that the best way to “evangelize” to my husband was to be a good partner and a good person. I found that if I lived by my values, tried to be Christ-like without being dogmatic, my husband was far more receptive to discussing Christianity in general. I found that if I stuck to my guns but was willing to admit that it was logically indefensible to believe in God, we could actually dig into theological discussion. I’m not trying to backhandedly convert my husband; I’m figuring out how to express myself and my beliefs with a nonbeliever in a way that opens rather than shuts down discussion.

If you are the nonbeliever in a spiritually different marriage, this last point may not be of much use to you, but in Part II, Jim offers an alternative point to Giving it to God. You can find his thoughts, and the conclusion to “An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Chapel” here.


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