What happens when an agnostic falls in love with a Christian?
We sat outside on a concrete partition, sharing a club soda and looking at the big brick church across the street from us.
"How long has it been since you've been inside one of those?" TD asked me. I had to pause for a moment.
"More than a decade," I finally answered. "Probably more like a decade and a half."
We were quiet for a long time, listening to the kids in the park behind us. As the sun started to set, he nudged me with his elbow. "The service has already started. We should go in if you want to catch the sermon."
I let out a big sigh. "I'm nervous," I finally admitted. "It's worse than meeting your parents. It's meeting your God."
He laughed a little and took my hand. "Don't worry. I'm sure 'my God' will like you just fine."
When we first met I wanted not to like him.
I had recently entered the New York dating scene for the first time after the failure of a five-year relationship. Romance in New York seemed frightening and exhausting, and I wanted nothing to do with it. I secretly hoped he would do something—anything—to justify my fear of dating and let me get back to my quiet life. So, for the first hour of our first date, I sat reed-like on the comfy couch, using only the six inches at its end to support my weight, while he lounged next to me chatting easily.
Over wine and Chimays, we talked about our undergraduate degrees, learning that we both majored in anthropology after dropping out of pre-med programs. We discovered that each of us had entertained vocational flirtations with both ethnomusicology and horse dentistry (he was—and still remains—the only other person I've met outside a barn who knows that horses even have dentists). As the night wore on, my up-rightness began to wilt, my spine beginning to curve into the cushions behind me. My smile became something unforced. I was having fun. On my way to the subway after the date, I sent an excited text to my friend. "If I were tall, male and half-Korean, I would be TD!"
Never, in the history of all the men I have ever dated, had I ever walked away from a date feeling so hopeful.
For our second date, we opted for a movie followed by dinner. It was just after the entrees arrived that TD mentioned casually that he was a Christian and attended a church near my neighborhood in Brooklyn. "Oh," I said stupidly, munching on a French fry, not sure what the correct response was. "So you mean you're a Christian as in 'practicing' or like 'my parents took me to church every Sunday when I was young'?"
"No," he said in his characteristically calm, confident manner. "As in practicing. As in, I go every Sunday." 11 Reasons To Date A Church-Going Guy
"Oh!" I said again, trying to sound cheery instead of surprised. "That's… that's great."
I had known exactly two other Christians during the course of my life. In my own upbringing, spirituality meant time in a community basement learning Transcendental Meditation or practicing sun salutations with my father. I grew up thinking Christianity was something for "the other people"—red staters, conservatives, people who owned guns. If you did grow up in the Church, it was something you cast off as you became educated and matured. But here, sitting at the table across from me, was someone who was both of these things and still avowed his faith.
A month later we found ourselves at my apartment, late on a work night, having the kind of conversation that can only be fueled by early-relationship electricity. As he lay next to me on the couch, sleepy from too much wine, I fired off questions:
Question: Do you want to get married?
Question: Do you want kids?
Question: Do you want to stay in New York?
Question: How do you feel about raising kids in the city?
On all the big stuff, we agreed. And then, seduced by the hour and the darkness and the invincible feeling of compatibility, I blurted out the one thing that had been on my mind since that second date.
Question: Is the fact that I'm not a Christian going to be a problem?
The energy was suddenly sucked out of the room. I let go of his hand, sat up and shut my eyes tight, willing myself to handle this like the adult I was trying so hard to be.
"Well," I started, trying to sound completely unaffected by this news, "then I need you to really think about it. Because if it is going to be a problem, I need to end this now. It seems stupid to continue only to get to a place six months or a year down the road where we find ourselves at fundamental odds over something we both knew was an issue from the start." You, Me And God: Interfaith Relationships
TD paused. "That is very pragmatic of you. I'll take that into consideration." Then he kissed me, and I knew he wasn't going anywhere.
When I called my best friend the next day to tell her what happened, she was shocked. I thought at first it was because of the details of the conversation (who asks a guy if he wants to have kids within the first month of dating?), but it wasn't. What shocked her was his faith. She wasn't the only one to have that reaction.
As I found myself excitedly listing TD's exceptional boyfriend qualifications (smart, funny, kind, articulate, Ivy-educated) to friends and family, I simultaneously found myself explaining that he was "also Christian." I tacked this last part on as quickly and sheepishly as I would have had he accidentally killed his parents while playing with matches as a child. More often than not, I had to defend or explain away his Christianity to the people who knew and loved me best. "Has he tried to 'turn' you yet?" asked a friend from college (whose father, interestingly enough, was a preacher) during a long drive to my hometown. "No!" I said, exasperated. "He hasn't tried to 'turn' me. He's a Christian, not a vampire!"
After months of dating, he hadn't tried to "turn" me and I was getting to a point where that felt weirder than if he had. We spent our weekends together until about 5 p.m. on Sunday night, when we would part ways and I would be left to eat alone in my apartment. When we met up again later that night, it was as though I had missed out on a huge part of his day in those few hours—and missed out on a huge part of him as a result.
Finally, one night, he asked me to go to church with him. Trying not to betray my nervousness, I agreed. What would I find out? What would happen? What would I wear?
We held hands as we entered the church. He handed me a program and we settled into the back pew. I looked around. Everyone looked just like us—like me.
When TD introduced me afterwards to his fellow parishioners, I met more people like him than not—educated, artistic, interested and engaged in the world (both secular and sacred) around them and, surprisingly, supportive of TD and me. Looking back on it now, I don't know what I was expecting. Maybe, like my friends, I had been scared off by too many sound bites on the television or documentaries like Jesus Camp.
I've accompanied him every Sunday since and now, nearly a year later, I can muddle through the liturgy without the aid of the program. Still, there are often things TD has to elucidate for me (What is Calvinism? What's an elder? Why is it called "The Lord's Prayer"?). These serve as reminders that I am still a participant-observer in all of this and may always be. Recently, I asked TD if it was annoying, this constant explaining he has to do with me. Would it be easier if he was dating someone who knew this stuff already? Someone who truly shared his belief system? Soul Mates: 10 Steps To A Spiritual Relationship
"No. Not at all," he said. "It's good for me."
"Good for you?" I asked.
"It helps me articulate my faith in a way I've never had to do before. It makes me accountable to it."
So what I've learned is this: I don't necessarily have to share his faith to share in his faith. It's not important that we agree on everything all the time, but rather that we challenge each other, and that out of that challenge we both grow.
Has he tried to "turn me" as my friend put it? The honest truth is still no, he hasn't. What I do with my thoughts on theology is my decision, my path, my journey, just as it was his. He's made that abundantly clear. And while I don't know what I think about Jesus or the Bible just yet, what I do know is that I am in love with a man who is smart, full of courage, funny and, yes, faithful. Despite our different upbringings, I think we can make it. I think this can work. And in that, at least, I have faith.