Because Christmas is both a religious holy-day and a cultural holiday, Christians and non-Christians are often thrown together at celebrations of the birth of Jesus. One spouse may be Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or atheist, for example, while the other spouse comes from a family full of Baptists or Catholics. On 12/25 they may all get together for meals, parties, and religious services.
Many people avoid debating religion (or politics) on such occasions, but such disagreements may surface in spite of our best efforts. There may be subtle frictions about who offers a blessing at Christmas dinner or what is said during this prayer. Non-Christians may be uncomfortable at a Christmas Eve service, or upset about part of the sermon. If some family members don’t attend services, others may resent their absence.
You may want to use these difficulties as an opportunity to deal openly with religious differences. In many cases this would be counterproductive, of course. But when disagreements are not extreme and both parties are relatively open-minded, such a discussion may be desirable. If you think it could be helpful to address this topic, check out my earlier blog, God-Talk: Ways to Break the Ice, July 28, 2011.
Nevertheless, Christmas is often an awkward time to talk about God. Holiday get-togethers tend to be busy and full of hustle-bustle, making it hard to have an in-depth conversation. If discussing spiritual matters seems either untimely or undesirable, you might try an approach I call the positive dodge.
A positive dodge is a way of ducking out of a difficult discussion, while saying or doing something positive for your relationship. Here are five examples:
1. Acknowledge that this is a big, complicated issue. “I guess it’s obvious that you and I are sometimes uncomfortable because of religious differences. This is such a big subject; I think it would literally take hours to deal with it. If you ever want to have some long talks about God, Jesus, and so on, I’d be open to that. But for now, I want to just enjoy your company and be grateful for having this family time together.”
2. Express warm feelings. “Joe, I doubt that we’ll ever agree completely about Christianity. But I just put that aside when we get together because I like you a lot, I know you’re a good person, and if your [religious faith / your non-religious philosophy of life] helps you be the way you are then it must have some good in it.”
3. Express regret. “It makes me sad when religion comes between us. Our relationship is important to me, and I don’t want theology to get in the way. I’m sorry for anything I’ve said about spirituality that may have hurt you, and I hope we can love each other even when we don’t understand each other.”
4. Transition to another important topic. “Helen, I know we see religion differently. But I just want to tell you how much I appreciate the way you have been helping Dad deal with his illness. I am so moved by what Sis told me you did at the hospital.”
5. Suggest humility about matters of faith. “When you and I disagree about religion, I just try to remember that all of these big questions about God and life and the universe are hard for any of us to understand. You’re doing your best to comprehend these mysteries and so am I. My beliefs may or may not turn out to be correct, and none of us have all the answers. But we love each other and we want the best for each other. So for today, let’s just enjoy Christmas together.” This approach may backfire if the other person is dogmatically certain of being right, but many people are more humble and open-minded than that.
All five of these examples dodge the issue at hand, but in a way that can move the relationship forward. Rather than just tensely looking for an exit, we can candidly state that this doesn’t seem like a good time to talk theology, and then say something that helps create closeness instead of distance.
If any of you want to share stories about religious disagreements at Christmas, please free to post them in a Comment. Merry Christmas to my Christian readers, and Happy Holidays to those of all faiths and philosophies.
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