This is probably going to be the toughest blog post I’ve ever written, but I feel like it’s necessary. I communicate better in written words than spoken ones, and this is a topic that deserves my very best words.
Let me give you some background first, so you understand where I’m coming from. I was born into a multi-faith family. My mom is Jewish and my dad is Christian. Neither are very religious (actually my dad might be, except some days he says he believes in Steve Jobs, and other days he says that God is a giant woman up in the sky, so it’s hard to peg him down), so I grew up with the opportunity to form my own beliefs. My earliest experiences with religion were visiting my grandma’s Baptist church on Christmas Eve. This wasn’t positive exposure for my perception of the religious.
I remember the cold benches, horrible boredom. Feeling left out when my cousins got up to light candles. Most significantly, I remember the pastor lecturing us about how non-believers were all going to hell. Trying to drive Christianity into my little seven year old brain through fear.
It didn’t work. Instead, that and other experiences led me to view Christianity with something akin to loathing. Who was this man, standing up in front of me, to tell me that my wonderful, brave mother, my sweeter-than-sugar little sister were going to hell? What did he know? If he was evil enough to try to scare us like that, then he should go to hell! (I grew up in New Jersey, and we’re fond of the expression).
The Jewish side of the family, on the other hand, was far more accepting. Jews don’t believe in hell (at least not in the Christian sense), and so instead of veiled threats and intolerance for my beliefs, whenever I stepped into a temple I was welcomed with intellectual thought, with the message that kindness and acceptance is the most important thing. Because Jews don’t believe in hell, there is no pressure to convert others. Jews know how to let other beliefs exist alongside their own (at least, the reformed Jews that I interacted with, I can’t speak for the faith as a whole). So I decided to be Jewish, at least in the sense that I appreciated the culture and would allow it to be passed on through me.
I held on to my anti-Christian sentiments with childish fervor until I was 19 years old, when I met Jordan Youngmann. You know, The Jordan. My Jordan. The Jordan I’m going to marry and spend the rest of my life with. Well, Jordan comes from a very religious family. His dad is a pastor, and his family eats, drinks and breathes Christianity.
At first I was skeptical about this–very early on in our relationship, Jordan called his dad to tell him that he’d met a girl he really liked. The first question his dad asked was whether or not I was Jewish (Jordan’s two prior girlfriends were also Jewish–yeah, he likes brunette spitfires), and when Jordan told him that I was, in fact, a Jew, he said “You know Jordan, you can’t settle down with her.”
I honestly wasn’t surprised by this–after all, it was in line with everything I believed of Christians. But I wasn’t happy. I could see history repeating itself–my dad’s parents hadn’t been accepting of my mom’s religion either.
I understood why his dad was saying it–he didn’t want Jordan to fall in love with someone who wouldn’t end up in heaven with him. Once again, I’d come back to the concept of Hell, and once again, I was witnessing how it bred intolerance.
So I entered Jordan’s family expecting to find animosity and censure for not being one of them. What I found was totally the opposite. From day one they were open and warm and accepting. They laughed a lot and loudly. They ate great food and had intellectual conversations around the dinner table. Even further, I could see really wonderful things about them that came directly from their Christianity–they are generous and selfless. They try very hard not to judge others. They take time to think and meditate on how they live their lives and how they can do better tomorrow. Honestly, I often feel that it would do me good to be more like them.
Stepping into the Youngmann house, even with 11 kids, isn’t the chaotic, overwhelming experience you’d expect it to be. Instead it’s peaceful, beautiful, graceful, in ways that are totally different from anything I’ve ever seen.
So my hatred of Christianity loosened, and rationality began to take over. After all, I had no problem with other religions, many of those which also believed I’d go straight to hell when I died for not partaking in them.
And I didn’t like it when others judged me for my religion (or lack thereof), and I certainly didn’t want to judge them for theirs.
All of this was coupled with conversations with Jordan. He was still slightly religious when we met. He no longer lived a Christian lifestyle–that had ended long before me–but he still referred to himself as a Christian. Over time, though, that started to change. I’m not sure when or why, but the tenor of our conversations altered. Soon, when we talked about religion, he no longer grouped himself with his family.
He explained his loss of religion to me as stemming from his study abroad trip to Australia. There he encountered ancient cultures–which had existed long before Christianity had even conceived of the world existing–and he met wonderful people. It was his host mom, Lozz, who really made him question the validity of Christianity. How could someone so amazing, he wondered, be sent to hell because of her beliefs?
It didn’t make sense to him. Finally, he decided that he didn’t want to believe in a god that would send wonderful people to hell simply on the basis of their faith in him.
I happen to agree. Even if Christianity has it right, I would rather go to hell for eternity than believe in a spirit that would send people there for their beliefs. People like my mom and sister and grandma and grandpa–who have dedicated their lives to making the world a better place. I refuse to give my faith to such a selfish, self-centered being.
Not everyone feels that way, and that’s okay. Even though I may not have the same belief system as Jordan’s family, I do have a lot of respect for how they live and act. I would be sad to see them lose their faith, because I think that so much beauty results from it.
Unfortunately, their religion doesn’t allow them to extend the same courtesy to me and Jordan. And this point is why I’m writing this blog. Now, I want to make it clear that no one in Jordan’s immediate family has ever pressured me to convert, or has even brought it up. They’re far too wonderful to make me uncomfortable like that.
But it’s been made clear that they pray for Jordan and I to “find Jesus.” Not to mention the fact that horrible, deep sadness spread through the family when Jordan told them he was no longer Christian.
Again, I understand it. If you truly believed that someone you loved was going to meet a terrible end, you’d do everything you could to stop that, right? Of course they want me and Jordan to become Christian. How could they not?
On the other side of the coin, it is deeply troubling to me. It means that our relationship is forever colored with sadness. That they are unable to appreciate the fact that our beliefs are equally valid and important–that maybe by the edicts of their religion we will go to Hell, but by the edicts of what Jordan and I believe to be true we’ll all end up in the same place and all their sadness (and the chasm that grief opens between us) will have been for nothing.
Now as far as problems with your partner’s family go, this is about as small as they get. I’m so incredibly lucky that I’m going to have such amazing in laws. I can’t wait to officially be a part of their family (like watery eyes and prickly nose can’t wait cause it makes me all emotional).
But I do wish this was something that we could overcome. Even further, I wish Christians everywhere could give me their thoughts on it–do you feel like your beliefs about hell lead to intolerance of other belief systems? How do you cope with that?