An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.
Help, please! I have this wonderful man in my life. I’ve waited a whole lifetime for him to come along — or so I thought. Things have been terrific until it came down to religion. I am a devout Christian, raised non-denominational, but definitely Christian. He is an atheist. He thinks that the light came on because he flipped the switch. He thinks that he got the good job just because he applied for it and was the best suited for it.
He embarrassed me something awful at my parents’ house for dinner one Sunday. He made comments the entire time my father was saying grace and then proceeded into an after-dinner debate about how a “mystical being you can’t see can’t be making magic in your life because only you can make magic in your life.”
There have been other incidents of what I call disrespect of others’ faith and I’m not so sure I can still keep seeing him. The final straw was when we saw the pastor of the church I grew up in while we were out to dinner one Friday night. I introduced him as Pastor XYZ and this man went into a rant about “What kind of Bentley did you fleece out of your flock?” and “I bet you live in a house four times the size of anyone else’s in your congregation.” I was so mad that I stormed off, left him at the restaurant (I drove), and later apologized on the phone to the pastor.
I feel like I cannot remain in a relationship or even dating someone this disrespectful, no matter what his beliefs. Should religion be a deal-breaker or am I missing something?
Spiritually Broken in Northern VA
When I was in college I spent several years romantically entangled with a guy who was an atheist. We grew up in the same faith community so I found this confusing. I remember one day, trying to make sense of where he was coming from, I said to him something along the lines of, “When I go on a long hike and crest the top of a hill so that I can see out for miles, I am struck with the most inescapable sense of wonder and awe. I can’t help but feel the presence of God in that moment. What do you feel in those moments?”
I will never forget the totally flat tone of his voice when he replied, “I think about the geologic processes that created the hills I’m staring at.”
My heart broke in that moment. Not because he didn’t believe in God, but because he was so devoid of awe. I don’t think that you have to believe in God to have a sense of creation, and life, as a great mystery. Plenty of scientists who don’t consider themselves spiritual people still maintain a sense of awe and wonder. They may believe that it is possible to know everything, but they leave the door open to the idea that what seems fantastical today can have truth in it. They do not close the door to intuition or faith.
At the same time, there are folks who are religious, yet who have wrung all the mystery out of life. They are literalists. The sacred words on the page aren’t metaphors, they are prescriptions. They say what they say and they mean what they mean. Or meant, on the surface at the time they were written — no more, no less. There is no nuance, no questions, no mystery, no wonder. To follow God you simply do the literal things the words say, period.
Of course, this sort of literalism also means that no one else’s words about God can be right or true. If the only way for me to follow God is to follow these words, stated in this way, then everyone else’s words and ways must be false. There cannot be multiple paths. There cannot be varied interpretations. There cannot be diversity, or openness, or curiosity.
Both materialism, which is the basis of atheism, and literalism are built on the premise that it is possible to control the unknowable, to render the infinite finite; that controlling mystery and chaos is actually the goal. There’s a weird sort of idolatry to it, worship of human ego and limitation dressed up in different costumes. If submission is required of me in order to experience the world fully, and I believe that it is, then I will submit to something much vaster than human capacity. I will submit to the Great Mystery, with awe and gladness.
Love, as I understand it, is a path of wonder. In the early stages, we are awestruck that we could have found someone so amazing, so perfect. Then we get past those initial rushes of hormones and projection and realize that our love object is an actual, subjective person with their own perspective, flaws, and work to do on themselves, just like us. What has to kick in at that point to sustain a commitment to intimacy over time is a sense of wonder, curiosity, and humility.
I experience myself as a vast field of mystery. I am always learning more about myself, and I am always aware of how much I do not know. My partner also is, therefore, a vast field of mystery, no matter how much I think I know about them. Sometimes that’s the fun part. Sometimes that’s the terrifying part. But it is always the true part.
Love that lasts a lifetime requires someone to accompany me as I unravel my own mystery, while also sharing their mystery journey. You can have that sort of lifetime love with a partner, a family member, or a friend. As long as you are always humble and curious about the other person and yourself then there is space for love to grow and flourish.
When my college atheist offered his dour, literalist view of an experience that, for me, was suffused with wonder it broke my heart because I knew that he brought that same lack of wonder and curiosity to us, to me. He could not, and would never, love me in the way that I wanted to be loved.
I would encourage you to think about how you want to be loved. Not necessarily the details on the surface, but the way that it feels, the space it creates in your life for you to become the person you want to be. Partnership creates a container for our lives. Do you want your container to feel cozy and safe? Do you want it to give you some room to breathe and grow? What do you want your container to feel like from the inside, no matter what it looks like from the outside? Strive to build your life, and your love, from the inside out, not the outside in.
Listening to your description of the behavior of your partner, I don’t think that religion is the issue between the two of you necessarily. What I hear is that he lacks a sense of wonder and humility. He’s sure that he knows, and he feels duty-bound to share the Truth, with a capital “T”, with all the poor, dumb people who refuse to see it. He is as full of righteousness and evangelical zeal as any missionary that has ever walked this Earth, bringing the Good Word to the “savages” and “heathens”. There is the same narrowness of vision, the same smallness of heart.
I’m sorry. I know until you came up against this part of who he is you thought he was wonderful, the one you’d always been waiting for. To encounter such constriction in his heart has got to be breaking yours. But I don’t think you can afford to ignore what I suspect you already know. As wonderful as he may have seemed, he is not right for you. He does not have an openness or a curiosity that will allow him to respect your faith, or offer proper respect to the faithful people that you love. He cannot help build the container to properly hold your life.
Whether or not there is a man out there from a similar religious background to you who can love you the way you want to be loved, only God knows. Certainly coming from the same faith background affords you a similar vocabulary and culture that may make it easier to accompany each other through life, but I would encourage you not to assume that is the only possibility for love to find you.
Instead, I would look for someone with a capacity for wonder, a curiosity about other people and the world. Look for someone who encounters each new person, as writer Valarie Kaur says, with the attitude that “You are a part of me I have yet to know.”
May we all be loved like that. May we all offer love like that. Amen.
Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.
Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.
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