I never thought I would be 34, sharing a cheese soufflé and a bottle of Chablis over dinner with a cherub-like guy who occasionally quotes Jesus. I really thought by now I’d be married to my childhood fantasy (Mr. Tall Dark Handsome), and my only stress would be dealing with the woes of getting my nearly-perfect children into the right schools.
I grew up in a household where religion was non-existent. Dad is a staunch atheist, mom a wayward Hindu (she eats Big Macs and never prays). There was a short period when I was around eight or nine when I was convinced I would “be doomed to hell” if I did anything bad, like, for example, putting Jell-O in my brother’s bed (even if he did deserve it). I don’t even know when I first came across the notion of a god or hell, probably from evangelicals on daytime television. I eventually outgrew that fear since I felt that putting solidified fructose in my brother’s blanket was too good to pass up, and it didn’t have any immediate repercussions. When I was in high school — a moderate episcopalian school which I ended up in by chance — I skipped the weekly chapel most Wednesdays without paying penance. I spent those mornings happily hanging out at the local doughnut shop instead of listening to an hour of sermons before algebra.
My past boyfriends have been atheists or, like me, vaguely spiritual, but without subscribing to any organized religion. I like to believe there’s something out there, some mysterious universal power, but it’s not anything I try to define or pretend to understand. In fact, I embrace the enigma of it all and, as my best friend — a self-described Buddhist — likes to say, “all we know is that we just don’t know.” Can’t we just embrace the mystery of life, simply be good and hope for the best?
For some, though, that’s not enough. My Christian boyfriend jokingly calls me an imp — and I call him a fruitcake. I know that’s not very nice, but it’s my way of venting my frustration. He thinks marriage is the union between a man and a woman and God and I think it’s an archaic institution that conveniently provides a legal framework should the unfortunate circumstances of divorce occur and there’s children and teakwood furniture to fight over. (It’s also a great excuse to throw a fancy party with all the people you love.) He thinks pre-marital sex is unholy, and I don’t think I can marry someone without having a trial run. He has conversations with God every day, all day long (so he says), and I scroll through my Twitter feed and re-tweet tweets from “Shit Girls Say” and Mindy Kaling.
When I first told my friends I was dating an actual Christian, they were all uppity about it: “Well, you have to respect someone’s religious views.” But when I mentioned he was abstaining from bedroom business for devout reasons, all of a sudden he was a total weirdo in their eyes (I’m patting myself on the back right now for being so open-minded). At first, it was a refreshing — almost romantic! — change from the norm, which usually involves the guy trying to seal that deal as soon as possible. But slowly, a feeling of insecurity started creeping over me:
Do I have a double chin?
Is he gay?
Am I really dating a 40-year-old virgin?
I know this all sounds rather hopeless, but the thing is, I love him. We can talk for hours about anything. He is funny and kind. He speaks better French than I do and lets me win at Scrabble. He is a great kisser, a great conversationalist — he even writes me poems. He watched Twilight with me sans complaint and gets what I see in Edward. He is communicative and sensitive (ladies, isn’t this what we want?) and treats me like I’m something sacred. He would be a loving, patient father and says he will work hard for the rest of his life so that I can live like a princess.
Some days, when we ignore the elephant in the room, I think, wow, this is it. But then, somehow, his Christianity will snake back into our relationship, resulting in heated, teary discussions about how we’d raise children. He wants to take them to church every Sunday to “help them understand the love of God.” I tell him I don’t want our children to be brainwashed and if he takes them to church one Sunday, he has to take them to a mosque the next weekend, and then to a temple, etc. — to expose them to all the world’s religions so they can decide for themselves what they believe in, if anything at all.
Sometimes it just feels like we’re on different plains of existence.
Here’s a sliver of the type of conversation we’ve had more than once:
“Jesus used to say…” (boyfriend says)
“Please don’t quote Jesus. You know it makes me uncomfortable.” (me, all squirmy)
“I wish you would open your mind a bit more. You would be such a powerful Christian woman…” (him, being sincere)
“You’ll never convert me! I wish you would read Dawkins!” (me, in near tears)
“Jesus’s love for me is real.” (him, unwavering)
“I wish you would read Hitchens!” (me, in near tears)
“Jesus sacrificed for us. All of us.” (him, unwavering)
“You love him more than me.” (me, in tears)
“I do. I can’t help it.” (him, pious)
I do feel, in general, we are — and are entitled to be — harsher on our partner’s views than with someone who isn’t going to raise children with us, i.e. the checkout guy at CVS. My boyfriend says I have a visceral reaction to anything Christian, but it’s because deep down, I know he wants to proselytize me. He’s even admitted he hopes I’ll “come around.” I get so defensive and angry, I start throwing out obtuse generalizations like “religion has oppressed women for centuries!” to which he replies: “If you look at the way Jesus was portrayed in the Bible, he was the most radical empowerer of women of all time.” He may be right (it’s been a while since I perused the Good Book), but I’d still like to let out a long sigh here.
Yet we all know rule #1: You can’t change a person. You have to love a person for who they are and not who you want them to be. To be honest, five years ago, I would have said: “This guy is too religious for me. I’ve waited this long for love, I can wait a little longer.” But as the years fly by, I realize how hard it is to come across a good guy, one that checks all the boxes. And as Dr. Phil says, we should all be willing to settle for our 80 percent man, because, let’s face it, nobody’s going to be perfect. He does say, however, that we are entitled to some deal-breakers — we just have to know what they are. For me, provided the guy is nice, employed, and not an addict of some sort, the deal-breakers have always been mainly physical: I don’t like shorties, thin lips, or hairy ears.
But I never thought about religion as being a deal-breaker. A voice inside me says a similar worldview is important, but it’s not like my guy doesn’t also wish for a humane world. And he’s not a weirdo — he engages in normal male activities like beer-drinking and obsessing about football scores. He doesn’t file his nails or anything. But he wants to go to church, with me, on Sundays, just like he used to with his father (a pastor) and his siblings when he was a child. I tell him to go on his own, because I’d rather practice my crow pose at yoga class (that’s spiritual), but he gets upset. One day, he went to church (by himself) and said he screamed at God for all the pain and complexity in our relationship, and asked him why it was so difficult, why he had to fall for someone who did not share his beliefs.
Well, what did He say? I asked.
Look I’m not saying that proves anything, but what I do realize is that it is a lonely, frustrating experience — for both of us. I don’t understand how he could be the way he is (what do he and God talk about all day long anyway?), and he doesn’t understand how I can be so nebulous when it comes to spirituality. I think it’s a deeply personal thing; he believes it’s a shared, communal experience that should be discussed regularly at church and at the dinner table.
Maybe Alain de Botton is right: Instead of ignoring religion, perhaps I should steal from it. I do enjoy watching religious ceremonies and ancient tribal rituals on the Discovery Channel, though I’m not sure how I would go about incorporating any of them into my workweek. And I did love watching Kate and William get hitched in Westminster Abbey last year, though I really only remember the dress and the kiss, not the talking bits.
But nonetheless, here I am, wondering, should I just be a little less picky and let this one slide? Or is religion going to be a deal-breaker for me? The older I get, the fewer deal-breakers I want to have, because it’s not like it gets any easier.
But if I decide not to be a part of this holy threesome, I could risk ending up on my own.
That doesn’t sound like a very good deal to make. In fact, that sounds rather like a deal with the Devil.