Being Both : Reflections on Interfaith Relationships and the Spiritual Selves of Students

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith FamilyBy Susan Katz Miller, author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (Beacon Press, October 2014.)

Arriving at college, students plunge into interfaith and intercultural engagement, tagging along with new friends to mass or Hillel or a Holi celebration. Sometimes these friendships transcend invisible boundaries to become deeper interfaith relationships. And sometimes, whether or not institutions and family approve, those relationships include dating, and love.

And so it was that last fall, a Muslim student dating a Christian went to a college chaplain for guidance. The chaplain realized that she had no real training in pastoral counseling for interfaith relationships. So she invited me to campus for a Brown Bag on interfaith dating, and an evening conversation on interfaith families. In an extraordinary collaboration, the campus Hillel (Jewish students), Newman Association (Catholic students), Muslim Students Association, religious studies department, and library all co-sponsored the visit.

When I arrived, the chaplain apologized in advance for what she thought could be a meager turnout, explaining that this was a busy moment in the academic calendar, and that students don’t always show up for Brown Bags, even with the lure of pizza. She also told me that the idea of inviting an interfaith child who raised interfaith children with interfaith education had provoked lively debate on the religious student group listservs. By the time she introduced me, the chapel was packed with Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, secular humanist, and interfaith students and faculty. The next hour flew by, as student after student stood up to tell their own interfaith family or interfaith relationship stories.

As I criss-crossed the country this year, speaking about Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, my goal has been to create safe spaces for students to process their interfaith relationships and complex religious identities: to enable them to ask questions they might not feel comfortable asking either in a secular setting, or in a setting dominated by one religion. This generation exemplifies the spiritual flux and flow of the 21st century, and they are more comfortable with religious ambiguity and border-crossing than either their parents or their clergy. Many current students are interfaith children themselves, or part of the “spiritual but not religious,” or they are constructing kaleidoscopic religious identities through their own explorations. They are busting false religious binaries:  atheist-or-religious, Jewish-or-Buddhist, Pagan-or-Monotheist. They discern the parallels between the complexity of religious identity, and the complexity of race, culture, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.

In Being Both, I feature the voices of college students from interfaith families who were raised claiming both family religions. Moving forward, students are going to feel less inclined to check off one identity box, or claim a singular identity label. They will not be reduced, pigeon-holed, easily quantified. Instead, they revel in the ability to traverse and bridge and combine: to construct new identity narratives. And they stand up for the idea that rich and complex interfaith engagement will help to counter intolerance and misunderstanding, and create new paths to peace.

Susan Katz Miller is a former reporter for Newsweek and New Scientist. She lives with her interfaith family outside Washington, D.C.

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