Religious switching is happening more frequently in America according to a survey by the Pew Forum. Pew reports that the choice to change religions may be as high as 42 percent. Another Pew survey indicates that interfaith marriages are becoming more common, and that new marriages are more likely to bring together spouses from different religious traditions. All of this takes place against a backdrop where mainline Protestant Christianity is declining, and non-Christian religions in the U.S have grown. Although they are a small part of the religious landscape, their adherents are increasingly exercising their rights for expression in the public square.
In light of this context, how do we navigate the interpersonal challenges of multi-faith relationships? Faith identities are an important part of how we see our families and ourselves. Imagine the heartbreak of a parent who discovers that their adult child has decided to leave the religious faith of their upbringing and family history in exchange for another. This is the backdrop for Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace. The format for the book is a back-and-forth series of exchanges between Patricia and Alana, a mother and daughter. Alana was raised in a Christian home, but after going to college she grappled with her dissatisfaction with Christianity and eventually converted to Islam. When Alana shared her newfound faith with her parents her decision was not well received, particularly by Patricia, Alana’s mother and an award-winning Christian writer. The exchanges between Patricia and Alana present a journey of family members struggling with the heartache, tensions, and challenges of navigating religious switching and multi-faith family relationships.
Not surprisingly, Alana’s conversion to Islam brought conflict to daughter and mother. “We shouted, yelled, and debated for hours” (p. 6), Alana recalls. Early on their discussions largely took the form of theological and apologetic debates. Patricia shares how she began collecting books on Christian theology, apologetics and doctrine, and various threads of argument from these sources were shared in conversations and make their way into this recounting of religious conflict. Their theological battles covered familiar territory between Christians and Muslims: the reliability and authority of sacred texts, the nature of God, the identity of Christ, and concerns over seemingly religiously inspired violence. The topics and arguments that Patricia and Alana used with each other seemed so compelling to the one presenting them, but they ultimately failed to persuade the other. As important as these disciplines and approaches are to informing and bolstering faith commitments, they ended up becoming little more than tools to perpetuate the battle. As Patricia writes:
“So this shouldn’t even be a fight. And we shouldn’t be warriors. Facing off across a divide. Rattling our spears and sabers. Attacking each other with scriptures and verses from our sacred books, determined to trump one another with what we view as our superior personal faith” (p. 30).
In essence, Patricia and Alana clashed from two very different perspectives. Patricia struggles with feelings of failure and rejection. As a Christian mother, she feels that she failed to raise her daughter in such a way that she would want to retain her faith as an adult. She also wrestles with strong feelings of rejection by Alana: of Christ, the gospel, and family religious identity (p. 107).
Alana wrestles with family fatigue and a desire to be heard. She’s tired of being the black sheep (pp. 84-85) and “of being disapproved of and shunned as the poster child for what, in her [mother’s] eyes, was a failed attempt to raise me as a Christian” (p. 42). As a result Alana wants desperately to be heard sympathetically, and doesn’t feel that her mother is able to do this. She asks Patricia, “Why don’t you ever ask me about what I believe?” (p. 37). Sadly she says, “I don’t think she really wants to hear about my journey” (p. 68). Patricia says she’s not interested in Islam but will try to ask questions. Alana says she was hurt by this response, and wants her mom to appreciate her relationship with God despite their differences in belief (p. 38). She “[w] ants to be heard and respected” even with her different beliefs (p 86).
As the story of their journey continues, Patricia takes important steps and moves outside her comfort zone. This includes eating a Sunday dinner with strangers in a Lebanese restaurant. This shift from “theological theory” to hospitality in encounter with “the other” results in personal change. She eventually resolves to engage in a new way of interaction: “I intend to recommit to living rightly in interfaith peace with my daughter” (p. 116). Alana too comes to a place where she wants to relate differently. She calls on Patricia to “meet me at a place of mutual respect” that includes empathy. Together they recognize ”the need to be diplomatic in their approach” (p. 152).
The shift in the way in which Patricia and Alana pursue their multi-faith conflict is significant. Disagreement and conflict were unavoidable given their commitments to irreconcilably different truth claims. But they were able to choose better ways in which to engage in their conflict. They moved from unhealthy to healthy forms of conflict negotiation in relationship. Tensions and discomfort are still clearly visible in the concluding portions of the book’s exchanges, but as a result of a shift to religious diplomacy they have rebuilt trust and are able to navigate their differences and the resulting challenges in more helpful ways. Their example is a prescription and a model to follow for our time, not only in regards to religious switching in families, but also where religious conflict is an ongoing facet of the culture wars and international fears over terrorist violence.