For many clergy, the typical wedding involves a bride and groom who come from different religious traditions. More and more, it’s not just a matter of Baptist-Methodist or Presbyterian-Disciples; it’s Baptist-Jewish and Presbyterian-Muslim.
Harvey Cox, an American Baptist theologian at Harvard Divinity School and prolific author best known for The Secular City, married a Jewish woman 15 years ago. Such interfaith marriages immediately raise questions. How will both practice their faith while honoring and respecting the other’s tradition?
Three common approaches are: 1) a “live-and-let live” model of tolerance and respect while keeping a safe distance from the other’s faith (a kind of “don’t ask-don’t tell” approach); 2) choosing a “neutral third party” (a Baptist husband and Lutheran wife both become Methodists, for example); and 3) both spouses essentially abandon their faiths to avoid marital problems.
In a second marriage for both, Cox and his wife Nina chose another way. Common Prayers is in some ways a case study of an interfaith marriage in which both spouses are committed to their own tradition while deeply supporting and being involved with one’s spouse in his/her tradition. Because so many Jewish celebrations and rituals are centered in the home, such an approach takes on added importance in a Jewish-Christian marriage.
Cox follows the Jewish year, devoting chapters to both major and lesser-known Jewish holidays as well as life events such as the death of his mother-in-law, his own marriage and his son’s bar mitzvah.
In doing so, Cox does several things very well. Non-Jewish readers, including Baptist clergy, will learn about Jewish faith and tradition, not simply through a dry, academic description, but through personal stories of how the faith is lived out in contemporary life.
Cox reflects on the Jewish celebrations and practices in light of his own Christian faith and experience, as we might expect a theologian to do. Quite often, these reflections focus on Cox’s own Baptist tradition. This helps lead the reader to his/her own theological reflections.
In interfaith marriages, the biggest question is, “What about the children?” Cox argues that given the historic concern of the Jewish people for survival (along with the fact that there are 14 million Jews in the world today, versus 2 billion Christians), that Christians have a responsibility to reassure Jews by both word and action that we are committed to a future for the Jewish people.
He writes, “This commitment carries a special resonance for those of us who marry Jews. It means that taking the faith of the Jewish partner seriously begins with the determination that the children born to such a marriage will not be lost to the Jewish people.” Cox writes movingly of what it means to be the Christian father of a Jewish son.
Cox includes accounts of his own visits to Israel, both before his marriage and some years later, accompanied by his Jewish wife and son. These accounts and Cox’s reflections are very timely given the current conflict. Cox includes some of the recent history of Palestine/Israel in the context of the broader sweep of Jewish history and the history of the Middle East.
Deeply committed to interfaith relationships and dialogue as a Christian theologian, Cox’s marriage (and the child of that marriage) have personalized the issue for him. Increasing numbers of marriages are of the interfaith variety, and this trend seems certain to continue.
Common Prayers offers a personal memoir of one way to navigate what can be a difficult issue in a life-giving way.
Widely known as a liberal theologian, there are no doubt those Baptist readers who will have disagreements with Cox’s theology. They need to read this book anyway.
Dave Russell is pastor of First Baptist Church (ABC/USA) in Ames, Iowa.