Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology


Just What is Unitarian Universalism, Anyway?

One of the great benefits of spending several weeks (or even months) taking a course with my military chaplain and chaplain candidate colleagues (and now chaplain assistant colleagues too) is that I get asked “THE QUESTION” over and over. When I was at the Chaplain School two summers ago, I think I answered THE QUESTION at least three times a day for three months. This time, the course I was taking was only for two weeks and it took a few days for some of them to know me well enough to ask.

THE QUESTION has several different forms, depending upon the faith commitments, the attitudes, and the motivations of the person asking. It ranges from the inquisitive, “Can I ask you about your faith?” to “Just why is it you think you are not going to Hell?!?” How THE QUESTION is asked says a lot about the person who is asking it, and I have learned to listen closely to THE QUESTION itself. I have found that how I answer THE QUESTION greatly changes the way my relationship with the individual goes from then on.

But it is not just my relationship with the individual that is at stake… for that person is forming, in those moments, what will probably become a life long opinion of Unitarian Universalism. Those of us fortunate enough to be in the position to be asked THE QUESTION on a regular basis hold the additional responsibility of representing this liberal faith into communities that either do not know us at all, or have some very serious misconceptions about who we are, what we do, and what we believe. I capitalize THE QUESTION both in my writing and in my mind to remind myself of the importance of the moment it is asked.

Let me tell a story to illustrate what I mean. On about the third day of what was to be three months at the Chaplain Center and School at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, I was sitting in a line to have the photos made for our ID Cards. A young man was sitting next to me. He was a Baptist Seminarian, working on his Master’s of Divinity degree online from Liberty University. We spoke a little about the Baptist Church, and I mentioned that I grew up Pentecostal and Southern Baptist. He then asked what denomination I was now, and I said “I’m a Unitarian Universalist”.

I do not think he had ever heard of us before, and so did not have any of the pre-conceived prejudices that we “are a cult” or that sumatriptan online apotheke UU’s “can believe anything”. I don’t think at that point he even knew how theologically and often politically liberal we tend to be. So, he asked THE QUESTION in a fairly innocuous way, something like, “So, what is Unitarian Universalism?”

I then launched into an intellectual tour-de-force of theology, of theologians, of early Christian history, of Protestantism, of Liberal Faith. I ran names past him like Emerson, Parker, Origin, Arias, Socinus. I brought up the Universalism I see in the teachings of Jesus, but then I really confused him and quoted the Buddha and Ghandi, and Dr. King.

There was hardly room for me to breathe, much less for him to ask any questions or share any of his faith. Two years of seminary and a decade of liberal faith study flowed from me in a thirty minute lecture in which I am all but certain his eyes wanted to fall out of his skull and roll around on the floor.

I only quit talking when it was my hapless captive audience had to go get his picture taken. A few weeks later he came up to me and said I had inspired him to learn more about the history of the Christian church, so perhaps something good came out of it…

But the good that came out of it for me came from a young Catholic Priest who was sitting a few seats down from us listening. We had already met, and were on a first name basis. He turned to me and said “David, can I share something with you?”

“Sure John, what?”

“You are highly intelligent, and you know Christian history very well. You are going to a seminary that teaches more than scripture, and it shows and does you credit. What you just did, however, was pick up the largest 2×4 you could find and smacked that poor young man over the head with it.”

The intentions and attitudes we bring to the moment when we are asked THE QUESTION is often even more important than what we say. Over the next several articles, I’m going to discuss some ways I have learned to answer THE QUESTION, and some observations I have made about how those answers have been received.

It is not about evangelism, or expecting someone else to validate our own beliefs with their conversion… but rather about respecting the faith of the one who asks THE QUESTION, respecting the amazing tradition upon which our faith movement sits, and respecting all of those who make up this dynamic, changing liberal faith tradition.

Yours in Faith,


Go to Part 2

One Thought on “THE QUESTION (Part 1)

  1. David,

    Please keep the faith and hang in there.
    The military has plenty of evangelicals who can espouse their faith in just a few words, -theological soundbites- but those of us of a more liberal bent really struggle in an institution that values brevity and “just the facts, ma’am” literalism.
    I often start out the dialogue with “It’s not as simple as it sometimes seems…” and can quickly tell by the look in their eyes if the conversation will go anywhere or not…
    With the recent influx of more and more conservative voices in chaplaincy, it is all the more important to include voices of moderation and liberalism. So, hang in there! You are needed here.

    Blessings, Bob (an old, tired, liberal, United Methodist – closet U.U.)

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