This week I’m finishing my answer to Wife of Pagan from Slate.com regarding how to deal with conversion inside a marriage or other close relationship. Read on for Part 3, or check out last week for Part 2, or two weeks ago for Part 1. I’m jumping right in with no introduction, so if you’re not already familiar with this story, you might want to catch up first.
On to the elephant…the belief that converts go to hell.
I think sometimes as Pagans it’s hard for us to understand why someone converting is such an issue. Not that I think this will ever happen, but if TheScott came to me and explained he had decided to convert to Buddhism, it wouldn’t upset my household. If he was happy and fulfilled, it would be easy for me to try to help him incorporate his new faith into our life. Pagans don’t believe there is an eternal reward or consequence based on a person’s choice of faith, but on our actions towards others. If Buddhism was the faith path that most helped my husband have a fulfilling life, then that’s the best thing for him, and I would have no moral issues supporting it.
I did some research around the ‘net, and from what I can find, seventeen out of the twenty-two most popular world religions/spiritual traditions do not view religious affiliation as a moral obligation and have no moral problems with people joining a different faith. Christianity, Islam, and to a certain extent Scientology and Judaism are the four exceptions.* (I couldn’t figure out modern Zoroastrianism’s stance, hence the math not working there.) Because Wife of Pagan’s letter and my personal experience both involve a Pagan/Christian relationship, I’m going to focus on that, but I would imagine couples from any of these faiths would have similar challenges.
This creates a conundrum because in traditional Christianity our eternal fate is entirely reliant on our choice of faith. If a traditional Christian loves you, he or she will necessarily want you to be a Christian for your own good. Not all Christians believe this, but it is prevalent enough that almost every conversion difficulty I’ve encountered stems from this belief.
Despite it being a core issue, I haven’t written about it yet (in this article series or on this site) because, honestly, I have no answer for it. We, as the non-Christians in the relationships, have no control over this belief or how it affects the relationship. But I do have some thoughts and hard truths I’ve learned over the years since I came out of the broom closet.
Here in The Realm I’ve danced around what caused me to question Christianity for a year and half, but I’ll finally break my rule of silence (yes, the rule I reiterated last week as important; inconsistency thy name is Jax). As you might be able to guess, it is the traditional understanding of salvation dictated primarily by affiliation. This isn’t why I became a Pagan, but it was the beginning of my faith quest. I confess this only because I know a lot of other converts for whom it was the starting place for their journeys as well. It’s a common enough breaking point that it bears talking about, and it’s a necessary issue to work through for a close relationship like mine and TheScott’s or Wife of Pagan and her husband’s to continue successfully.
Every time somebody asks if I’m afraid of Hell or, worse, reminds me that I, as an apostate, will be the first person on the boat there, it reminds me why I started this journey. Every time somebody says something like, “Believe whatever you want, but be a Christian; there’s a lot of room for diversity in the faith,” what I hear is, “I don’t care what you believe, as long as you have the Heaven Label. That’s what counts.” To put it bluntly, statements like this invariably reinforce my decision to seek out a faith where actions and beliefs are more important than labels. Don’t get me wrong, there are many Christians who are more concerned with deeds than titles, and a person can be a Christian without believing salvation relies on religious affiliation. But the reverse is prevalent enough that if I got a dollar every time somebody made some form of “carry the label” argument to me, I’d be endangered by the Buffet Rule.
When you’re trying to work through conversion in a relationship, this “carry the label” argument and the way it typically reinforces a convert’s resolve furthers the antagonism. It’s ironic because people seem to think they’re making an argument for Christianity when they explain the moral imperatives leading to Heaven and Hell, when the reality is, in the mind of the listener, they’re often making the strongest possible argument against it.
Fortunately for me, TheScott never went there. Neither did my best friend or Father Snort (who, also ironically, was the first friend I came out to and he was in seminary at the time). I had one friend give me a, “You know, I’ve always been taught that you should be damned now…” with a sort of hesitant squint. I’ve been told by others that I present an uncomfortable and very direct challenge to their traditional Christian theology because they like me, I’m nice, and they have a hard time believing a loving God (which they were raised to believe in) would send me to hell when I’m not a bad person. I don’t normally like making people uncomfortable, but I take pride in that compliment.
As converts, it is important for us to remember that whether we mean to or not, we are often challenging somebody’s faith, and we need to be patient. I don’t think it’s fair for anyone to expect us to deny the beliefs in our heart and continue down a path that isn’t right for us, but I also don’t think it’s fair for us to expect other people, like Wife of Pagan, to “just get over it.”
There are other issues in a mixed religious household, but this one of salvation through religion is by far the biggest make-or-break-it issue, and it’s why conversion – when one person is Christian (or other form of “one-right-way-religion”) – takes so much time to work through. If somebody has been taught their entire life that non-Christians go to hell – but they love you – they are required to challenge that belief or challenge their love, because they can’t have both. Fortunately for me, TheScott found a way to stay true to his Catholic beliefs and not worry about my eternal soul, as did my good friends of various Christian denominations. I didn’t lose anybody over this, and for that I am so grateful to them.
I know people who weren’t so lucky. When it comes down to it, if the Christian can’t change his or her belief that any other affiliation is a one way ticket to hell, I don’t know how the relationship can work in the long term, at least not as a close one. When we convert, we don’t ask the people close to us to convert with us, but we do ask for this vital change in their hearts and minds. I think, however, it’s a good change to ask for. The world will become a more peaceful place as more people embrace a philosophy that is concerned with how we treat each other and not what we call ourselves or how we envision (or don’t envision) the divine.
A few last words to Wife of Pagan and anyone else in a similar boat…. Working through a conversion with family and friends is tricky, heartrending, and powerful. It can tear people apart, or it can help them find new ways to appreciate each other. But it requires a lot of love and a lot of thoughtful consideration on the part of everyone involved.There is a new Christianity on the rise that is accepting of other faiths. I see it with my friends and I see it in the Methodist church down the street that runs a joint charity with the Unitarian Universalists and The Covenant of the Goddess. We can get along in harmony. We can accept each others differences – and we can accept each other’s changes. It isn’t easy. There is no pat answer. But it can be done.
* It’s interesting to note the majority of religions do not concern themselves with other people’s religious choices. However, as Christianity + Islam = over half the population of the world, most people belong to a religion that (typically) believes affiliation is of primary importance. It makes sense that the religions most concerned with proselytizing are the largest religions on the planet, but it does cause quite a bit of frustration to the rest of us who are trying to live our own religious lives as we best see fit without interference.
+ Featured Image: Wedding Rings by Jeff Belmonte from Cuiabá, Brazil