Monday, April 27, 2015

The Most Important Thing to do in Marital Interfaith Dialogue

Daniel and I were married in the Catholic Church, but only I am Catholic. He is a Presbyterian of the PCA variety. Our marriage works, in part, because our churches’ values are the same. Even though their doctrines differ in some very significant ways, practice is nearly indistinguishable in everyday life.

Every few months, we have one of those serious religious conversations in which we each learn a great deal about what the other does (or doesn’t) believe about a given subject. They tend to be mostly about doctrine, rather than practice.

One of my posts from a few weeks ago sparked one of those conversations. I will make a post outlining that discussion and its repercussions, but this is not that post.

I want to emphasize that these are not fights. They are serious conversations. No voices are raised, and we are careful not to hurt one another’s feelings.

Some of these are more productive than others.

This, I am pleased to say, was one of the most productive ones we’ve ever had because one thing didn’t pervade the conversation that usually does. Neither of us was actively trying to prove the other one wrong. Just to state what our own beliefs were, to establish a better understanding.

At least... that was how the conversation ended, by the grace of God. We were each coming to a better understanding of the other’s beliefs, instead of trying to win the debate.

We started out debating, but this changed when I spend probably about five minutes reading directly from the Catechism, and after a few numbered sections had to explain to him that I was not pausing to get his rebuttals, I was pausing to ensure that he was still on the same page with me, and we didn’t have to sort out understanding or pull out the “Catholic decoder ring”. (you have one of those, right?)

There are some important things you need to do during a conversation like this, and the number one thing on my list is to take your spouse seriously.

What do I mean by this?

If you embark on the discussion expecting your husband to take the Catholic Church's "weird" notions seriously, you have to do the same. You can't just assume that the founder of his particular branch of Protestantism was just some nutter who lived in a tree.

(1) Try to understand what they believe, not why what they believe is wrong. (I have made this mistake!)
Start with the assumption that your spouse is not just stubborn or ignorant (though that may well be the case), but assume that they have good reason for dissenting from church teaching, insofar as they do understand it.

Try to really get into their understanding, so that you can (later) help them see what it lacks.
(2) Don’t argue / attack. (I have made this mistake!)
If you argue with someone, you will foster in them a need to argue back and defend their position. As I have long wanted to tell one of Daniel’s church’s elders who keeps trying to “convert” me, “the fastest way to make a donkey dig in its heels is to pull.” (Yes, I realize that I am the donkey in this analogy!)

Rather, approach the subject with humility and meekness (which, admittedly is hard to do). Very few people will be convinced to change their religion by argument. Let the Holy Spirit do the convincing. You just be ready to talk when they want to.
(3) Don’t force the conversation. (I have made this mistake!)
Let the Holy Spirit do this for you, too. Trying to force these conversations does not go well, because you are starting them with an agenda, and your spouse is not stupid - they know you have one, and they will be on the defensive from the get-go as soon as they see the conversation coming.
(4) Answer their questions. (I do try to do this, but I have often failed!)
This will involve some preemptive study and “ready making”, which we should all be doing anyway, because of that biblical injunction to always be ready to give a defense for the hope that is inside you (1 Peter 3:15). This means you have to know what you believe.

Keep an approved translation of the Bible and a copy of the Catechism handy for when you get out of your depth. (By now, these are probably both available for smartphone, but my phone isn't that smart.)
Operate with the expectation that because their objections are well thought-out, you will get out of your depth at some point. Don’t expect to answer all of their questions on the spot, and whatever you do, DON’T GUESS! It is okay to say, “I don’t know; let me find out for you.”
(5) If you don’t know the answer, find it. (I have failed to do this!)
It’s important that you do answer their questions, eventually, even if you don’t answer right away. Be ready to do some a lot of work in researching their questions yourself.

Become friends with one of your local priests or deacons (or just somebody who knows more than you!), so that you have someone you can call or e-mail with questions. Try to ask them to point you to resources, rather than ask them to give you the answer - priests are very busy men. Be ready to do some of the legwork yourself - you’ll learn more that way and be ready to answer similar questions in the future.

Read the resource yourself, then be ready to explain the answer to the question. Also give the resource to your husband for their perusal. Don’t just give them the resource - nobody wants to go to a lot of effort to have their beliefs challenged. The answer should be what you tell them, and the resource is supplemental reading.
I suppose you’ll have noticed by now that I’ve made a lot of mistakes - I hope that you can benefit from the mistakes that I’ve made. What experience do you have to share in the realm of evangelizing to your family and friends?

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