At bedtime, my son and I were reading a book given to us by one of my church members. The book told the story of a little boy visiting his grandmother’s house, each page decorated with soft pastels and script-fonted prayers. At lunch, the boy and his grandmother said grace before their peanut butter sandwiches and lemonade.
“Hey, we do that at daycare!” my son exclaimed. His afterschool program has “Christian” in the title, although I don’t know what difference it makes apart from the table blessings over afternoon cheese crackers and the availability of bible books in the classroom. He cheerfully folded his hands and repeated for me the rote blessing they share.
Then I posed a key question: “Would you like to do that at home? You and I could take turns saying grace at dinnertime.” He was intrigued. “And Daddy, too!” he added with enthusiasm. “No, not Daddy. When we say grace, we are giving thanks to God for our food. Daddy doesn’t believe in God, so he would not want to pray. But if we want to, we can.”
We’ve been married for 15 years– a pastor in the United Church of Christ and an atheist philosophy professor. If we had a dollar for every time someone said, “Wow! You guys must have great conversations,” we would have paid back all our student loans by now. We share our values, our vision for our lives, a marriage with ups and downs like any other—but we don’t share our faith. Yes, it is hard sometimes, for both of us. But it is also rich and wonderful, as we hold this tension with one another. We have a non-conversion pact that predates our marriage: I won’t try to convert you, you don’t try to convert me.
Since our son was born, we have extended that non-conversion pact to our child. We teach him both the ways of faith and no faith. I take him to church, read him bible stories, teach him Christian songs, pray when I put him to bed. We light Advent candles and give things up for Lent. My husband reminds him that not everybody believes in God, teaches him about other faith traditions, encourages him to question what he hears, and talks about taking responsibility for his actions. We carefully avoid disparaging one another, or making him feel like he must choose one way or the other. At six, he is still holding both sides. He seems more perplexed than troubled by the tension.
The nature of our interfaith relationship makes it challenging even to consider how to engage spiritual practices at home. There are many typical practices—like table blessings—that will not work for us. We say grace on special occasions like Thanksgiving, or when the grandparents visit, but we don’t share it regularly because it only highlights my husband’s non-participation. I don’t want my son to feel disloyal to his father by engaging in prayer with me. I don’t want to model exclusion every night at the dinner table.
I know we are not alone, but sometimes it feels that way. I imagine that other families rooted in strong commitments to faith and no faith (or even two different faiths) feel the same isolation, and struggle with the same questions about faith practices. We don’t have all the answers—we are figuring it out just like everyone else—but I hope to open up a space here on Practicing Families for other families that might look like ours. How can you practice faith openly when you do not share it as a family?
My son settled the question of table blessings all on his own. He decided that, on nights that it is just the two of us, we would pray. On nights that it is all three of us, we won’t, so that Daddy won’t feel left out. I told him that seemed like a good place to start, and it does.