In September 2020, Bearings Online editor Stina Kielsmeier-Cook’s spiritual memoir Blessed Are the Nones: Mixed Faith Marriage and My Search for Spiritual Community was published. Stina, who identifies as Christian, is married to Josh, who identifies as a “none.” But that wasn’t always the case. In this interview with J. Dana Trent, Stina gives a bit of background on their journey, including navigating the joys and challenges of mixed-faith marriages, her decision to write a memoir, and monasticism.
It’s an inelegant term, isn’t it? “Nones” refers to people who check the “none” box when answering a question about religious affiliation, most notably on the Pew Research religion survey. It is a self-selecting term in that regard, but it has a lot of nuance. A none might still believe in God, but not ascribe to any faith tradition. A none might also be an atheist or agnostic who attends religious services. There is no one way a none looks or believes. It’s a very broad term for people who don’t see their religious identity as falling into traditional categories.
Your book title is a clever play on the Beatitudes. Why do you believe Jesus would indeed say, “Blessed are the Nones”?
As a Christian I believe that all humans are created in God’s image and are beloved, whether they choose to participate in a religion or not. Even though I was always taught that God loved the world and all God’s children, I also internalized this notion that following Jesus made you particularly precious in the eyes of God. I titled the book Blessed Are the Nones because I wanted to challenge that false understanding. God loves all humans, including the beloved agnostics, atheists, and otherwise “nones” in our midst. And, if God truly loves all people, I think Christians should strive to have a similar lens of love when relating to those who think, worship, or believe differently than we do. That doesn’t mean we agree on what is true about God, or that our theological differences don’t matter, but it does mean we approach each individual with respect and care.
“Nuns,” not to be confused with the “nones,” play a prominent role in your narrative. Why was it integral for you to include their wisdom?
The evangelical institutions that shaped my faith taught me, whether implicitly or explicitly, that marriages are only successful if both partners are rooted in Christ and share a common faith. When my husband deconverted several years into our marriage, I felt stranded. Was my marriage doomed? Could I practice my faith alone? I was desperate for other examples of faithful Christians who successfully navigated these dynamics, or whose lives did not reflect the traditional nuclear family. That search for a spiritual community where I didn’t feel alone brought me to the nuns, the Visitation Monastery of Catholic Sisters I stumbled upon in my neighborhood.
I felt stranded. Was my marriage doomed? Could I practice my faith alone?
At first, I was interested in the nuns because, I assumed, we shared a “spiritual singleness.” That phrase was helpful to me because it named my experience of being married yet not sharing a faith with my husband. The nuns, too, I thought, were “spiritually single,” since they took vows of celibacy and committed to a monastic order rather than a spouse. I was attracted to how they owned their spirituality and I spent a year in formation at the monastery where I learned about their order’s founders St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal. I don’t think it’s spoiling things too much to say that the nuns actually hated the term “spiritually single.” They taught me that it’s only in our relationship with one another that we can live out the gospel and no one can be a Christian alone.
Books on personal relationships are so tender. What was the process of determining how and why Blessed are the Nones would become a story for public consumption? When did you know you needed to document this story for others—and why?
I first wrote about my husband’s deconversion in my journal just to process the experience for myself. Writing has always helped me clarify my thoughts and feelings, and it connects me to God because it helps me to be honest.
It was actually at a Collegeville Institute writing workshop led by Lauren Winner in 2014 when I first shared my writing on this topic with a small group of readers. After I received feedback from that workshop, I put the essay in a drawer for about a year. With the encouragement of my writing group, I revised it and submitted it to Image, where it was later published.
Josh and I talked about it before I submitted it to the workshop and Image, and to his credit he has always been supportive of my writing on this subject. He knows how hard his deconversion was on our marriage and believes my story can help others in similar situations. That said, there are parts of our life that Josh and I have chosen not to share.
Toni Morrison wrote: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I knew I needed to write this book because I wanted to read a true and hopeful story about deconversion and marriage seven years ago. My prayer is that it serves others.
What has been the biggest surprise of a mixed-faith marriage? What’s been the biggest challenge?
The biggest surprise has been discovering how many other people are navigating faith differences in their marriages! Every married person changes over the course of their lives and there is no guarantee we will always be in the same place spiritually as our spouse, even in marriages where a couple shares a faith tradition. We all need to extend grace to our loved ones and take ownership of our own relationship with God.
The biggest challenge for us has been finding a common community where Josh and I both belong. At the end of my book, I write about the interfaith supper club we started at my American Baptist Church, which is made up of other agnostic/atheist – Christian couples. Even so, it’s a challenge negotiating Sunday mornings, holidays, and rituals when you don’t share a common faith tradition.
We all need to extend grace to our loved ones and take ownership of our own relationship with God.
As the author of a mixed-faith marriage book, I know that much can change during the “gestation” of a writing project: from the seed of an idea to the book’s “birth.” How has your relationship with Josh changed since you began writing this book?
I write a lot about the initial grief I felt after Josh left the church. But now, nearly seven years after his deconversion, I am no longer grieving in the same way. I am less interested in talking about the pain of my experience and more interested in talking about what Josh and I are building together as an interfaith couple. I think that reflects a shift in our relationship, or maybe a new phase we are entering. We are choosing to stay married and create a life together that reflects our shared values, and that story is no longer one that centers on the pain of his deconversion.
Why do readers need this book amid the current American religious landscape?
There is no denying that young people are walking away from Christianity. As a millennial, most of my peers are no longer attending church or engaged in spiritual practices, and I know that it causes relational damage for their loved ones who are still religious. In the decades ahead, Christians are going to need to get a lot better about engaging with “nones” and extending love beyond religious conditions. The Catholic Sisters I am lucky to know have modeled for me how to have a gracious, loving relationship with those who believe differently while still maintaining a robust religious identity. I think we could all stand to learn from them.
Christians are going to need to get a lot better about engaging with “nones” and extending love beyond religious conditions.