THE BLOG
01/21/2016 04:18 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2017

Relationship or Religion? The New Issue of Tolerance

Take a generic evening in a college dorm: students come and go from the last class of the day, clubs, labs, pre-arranged meetings for dinner. Some are talking, textbooks and laptops open (but untouched); some play games or nap; and in a "nerd" school like Case Western Reserve, plenty are studying - agonizing over pages and pages of calculus or chemistry. Zoom in on one suite on the fourth floor of a battered dorm built in 1968: a cluster of tiny rooms, an ample (albeit slightly worn) common room, and a bathroom shared by six girls in the antics of morning. The common room is neat, although one corner is cluttered by boxes and suitcases waiting for end-of-term. A multi-colored floor lamp, two few dish chairs, and a plush area rug add to the hard, unloved furniture of the room. Chalk doodles adorn the special "write-on" walls. It is, in ever respect, a typical suite, lived-in and comfortable.

In this particular suite, the occupants are rarely all present - whether together or in rooms - until late at night. However, it is not unlikely to find two or three friends in the common room as the hour begins pushing 8 or 9 o'clock at night. One frequent (if not constant) presence here are two additional, unofficial members - boys, always associated with a certain two of the occupants (although well known by all). While not unusual on a college campus, there is something a bit different about the nature of these two relationships: not dating, nor dating-hopefuls. Both boy and girl are attracted to one another, yet refrain from manifesting that attraction in relationship. Remaining friends, they have grown incredibly close - emotionally intimate - and act as frequent "partners-in-crime." Why? It's not compatibility, or one-sided-ness, or the disappointing "I only think of you as a friend." It is one word: religion.

We live in an increasingly globalized and globalizing world. The world has developed societies based on principals of tolerance: societies that believe all are welcome (regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, ability, or sexual orientation), societies that believe everyone deserves fair treatment and equal opportunity. It is, of course, far from a perfect system. Yet within this system, the increased tolerance does mean there are others. More and more people different from you... More religions.

Although all religions are united by love, almost every religion also asks for purity of faith - a concept that extends to one's choice in partners. While many people do date and marry outside of their religion (this is the consequence of tolerance), unique pressures apply to the particularly religious. In addition to this, the universalities of said religions are not always enough to fully share faith with a partner. Faith is a tradition that is as much cultural and liturgical as it is spiritual; unless those experiences and beliefs of faith are literally shared - owned - by both partners, sharing faith can often only be approximated. Can this be overcome by love? (Should it?)

The short answer is yes, there is plenty of statistical evidence that couples again and again choose love: In a documentary I recently watched, a couple describes their two weddings - one Christian and one Sikh, the bride finding the walk down the aisle in white as odd as the groom found riding in on horseback with sword and turban. But the larger story reveals a more complicated answer. For many, it is not only a question of "How important is my religion to me?" or "Is my religion important enough to me to date only in my religion?" It is not a matter of 'just waiting' for the right person with the right religion.

Religion is made up of many intertwining factors that can affect all aspects of life - from beliefs and values, to habits or lifestyle. All of these factors combine to create a personal faith derived from experiences, independent beliefs, and one's own interpretation of the religion. Faith and religion, both, are more than the sum of their parts; it has driven people, and nations, to war and great hatred, and also to great love. Many people believe in some form of greater Presence, whether they call it "God" or the Universe or have no name for it at all. For most, this Presence directs life, or is life (in its most universal sense), and is often the inspiration for understanding, good, righteousness, and love. Falling in love can be one of the most beautiful experiences of these. Romantic love has been historically (and still is, in many places) rather ignominious, yet it is placed on an marble pedestal by modern standards. Movies, songs, and other media in pop cultures worldwide are fixated on this one idea; a quick Google search reveals 4.18 billion results in less than a second [20 Jan 2016]. Yet when religious differences become involved, it is no longer as simple as "love conquers all."

Back in the suite on the fourth floor of that old dorm building, one of the two pairs are in the girl's room. Laughter, conversation, and other sounds come through the sad, thin door into the hallway of the suite. They have known each other for eight years, dating off and on in various attempts to reconcile love and faith. They always hit upon the same shoal: She's Jewish; he's Christian; and it's very important to both of them. The other pair in the suite are also behind a closed door, working (and then later talking) so late that a suite-mate's sleep is disturbed through the whitewashed, cement walls. They just met this year, but find themselves in a similar state: a religious Christian and a relatively uncaring (though educated and firm) Agnostic. In both cases, nearly everyone concerned had decided not to date anyone outside of their religion prior to meeting the other. Love, that greatest power and greatest gift we all possess, stumbles.