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

Religions of Differentiation

At around 18 years old I decided I was no longer a Southern Baptist. There were many reasons for that decision. At the time I would have said that I just could no longer accept the contradictions inherent in accepting the Bible as literal truth, or that the hypocrisy I found in that faith did not match with the words I read in scripture. I could also have said, though I might not have been willing to admit it, that I just was not interested in the commitments of time, talent, and treasure that staying in the church would have meant. I would not have said that I also wanted to live the life of a soldier, and that much of that life was frowned upon by the church of my youth.

All of that would have been true, yet I have come to suspect that my choice to leave the Southern Baptist faith, and my decision two years later (after an encounter with the book “Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine) to declare myself a Deist, actually represented a move to differentiate myself from my parents as I began to claim my own adulthood. While I found (and still find) some theological and philosophical resonance with the ideas Paine espoused, I now believe my energy in engaging that title came not from conviction, but from the need to define who I am in relation (and in my case some opposition) to what was expected of me by my parents.

That move towards differentiation through religion took on added meaning and intention when my father died around the same time as I discovered Deism, about 16 years ago.

From early 2007 through late 2009 I had the privilege to lead the Unitarian Universalist worship services at the Great Lakes Naval Station, Recruit Training Command (Basic Training), along with my friend Seanan Holland and many students of the Meadville Lombard Theological School and members of the Unitarian Church of Evanston, IL. During that time, I led over 100 worship services for the young recruit sailors, young men and women (kids really) from all across the United States, of different racial and cultural backgrounds.

In some ways, the UU worship service at the Great Lakes RTC serves as a “catch-all” for the chapel program… the recruits are told that if none of the other services seem to be appropriate for them (there are over 25 worship services from different faiths each weekend), they should try the UU service. As such, we are privileged to minister not only with UU’s serving in the Navy, but also with Wiccans, Pagans, Asatru, Atheists, Humanists, and even a few faiths where the recruit became my first teacher. I have had literally hundreds of conversations with young women and men who are on the religious margins… and in their experience of their chosen faiths I have seen echoed my own experience at having become a Deist to differentiate myself from my parents.

When I was 20, I found my religion of differentiation from a book… it was actually in a box of musty old philosophy books a Sergeant gave me to read after a training injury that sidelined me for a month or so. I remember being amazed (and slightly disappointed) that there was someone who had thought some of the same thoughts about God and humankinds relationship to God before I did. I was elated to have a name for what I was… and that the name was so different from what my parents wanted me to be.

When I would listen to the recruits at the Great Lakes RTC, the story was similar, with some modern updates. They were far more likely to have gone searching for where their ideas about religion fit on the internet than in a book. Like me, many had never met anyone else willing to call themselves a “Deist” or a “Wiccan” or a “Pagan” until they arrived at the UU worship service at Great Lakes and spoke with the other recruits who had found their way there. Like much on the internet, what they had each discovered about their chosen religions varied depending upon where they had looked. A few (especially the Wiccans) might have had a group back home, but often they were of the same age and facing the same circumstances.

The first time anyone in any kind of authority had stood before them and affirmed their chosen religious faiths was when a Unitarian Universalist seminarian stood in the pulpit of the UU worship at the RTC and welcomed them. In naming their beliefs to that seminarian (myself and others) they claimed publically, often for the first time, the path they were taking in defining who they were in relationship to God.

I remember one particular recruit who invited his Southern Baptist parents to attend the UU worship service they day after his Graduation ceremony, which they had come up for.  For that recruit, it was the first time he had let his parents know that he was no longer the Southern Baptist child they had raised… he was now a Humanist Adult.  For me, it was both uncomfortable and a celebration at the same time.  I’ll never forget his father shaking my hand after the service, and mumbling something about “interesting service” before taking his son out in the hallway for a conversation.  Later, as I was leaving, the recruit came up to me and thanked me for helping him find the courage to tell his parents he was not a Southern Baptist anymore. 

I also remember one particular seminarian who visited the RTC with me one Sunday who was deeply disturbed by this trend. She was surprised by the many different traditions that were represented in the service, and challenged by the fact that most of them she had never heard of before. She questioned whether it was “healthy” for people to just find a set of beliefs on the internet and just begin calling themselves that… and questioned my intentions in affirming whatever beliefs those young men and women had chosen. She even argued with one particular recruit on their lack of understanding of the faith they had chosen (Wicca).

I tried to explain that, at the point where they are in their lives, getting a particular faith “right” is less important than having something to build an individual and differentiated identity around. The pastoral role that we were called to play was not to “correct” their understanding or even try to “teach” them their own faith, but rather to affirm the identity they are building for themselves. Our pastoral role is to empower such young women and men to build their own senses of identity and self, to let them teach us not only who they are, but who they are becoming.

This is why I am not disturbed by the trend in our Unitarian Universalist congregations of our teens leaving to practice other faiths, or to join the military, or to declare themselves secular. When you are raised in a faith tradition that allows for the creative exploration and building of a sense of self, differentiation can be difficult to find. Of course they have to step away from Unitarian Universalism for a time. Our role is to be prepared to welcome them back when they are ready to return… and to let them teach us who they have become all over again.

Yours in Faith,

David

3 Thoughts on “Religions of Differentiation

  1. Hi David–

    I think we’ve met at ML. My google alert pointed me to your blog. I love your story and totally agree…but for one small detail. Because so many UU raised young adults do leave or declare themselves secular we have a very hard time hearing that some want to stay, try to stay, walk in the door of a new church and find themselves totally unwelcomed and don’t come back–in most UU churches these voices are unheard because of the dominant myth that ALL UU young adults want to leave. The result is a quiet, but powerful, experience of betrayal for many. My wish is to undermine that myth so there’s space to leave, but also welcome to stay, that we ask those who leave if they really want to leave or if we’ve failed them somehow, rather than assuming they’re leaving because they want to.

  2. Point well made Ellen…. I did not mean to imply that all UU youth and young adults leave the movement.

    But I want to push back on the idea that if they leave we have “failed them somehow”. Now, I was not raised in the movement, so I dont really know… but in some ways I celebrate the freedom to leave (and to come back).

    Simply put, how do we shift the experience so that we still empower our youth to find differentiation while deconstructing the myth that you point out?

    Yours in Faith,

    David

  3. Unfortunately, people like simple explanations. They fall just as easily into the “young people like to sleep late” explanation. I think what is necessary is a making it more complex. Our young people MUST have the freedom to leave and come back. We also must listen to when any from a marginalized group (and I put youth and younger young adults here) leaves to whether they are leaving because they truly want to or because of their marginalized experiences.

    So, as ministers, I think it’s our job to help our folks resist easy answers and remember that youth and young adults are really diverse (actually, more diverse than our adults, not just in race, but also in personality. the adults are kind of self-selected. the folks who grew up UU are not yet self-selected and may continue to want to be UU’s even if they, pick your characteristic, don’t want an intellectual lecture on Sunday morning, or whatever) and there are many different reasons folks leave or don’t leave. Then we can more easily begin to hear what’s really going on for the individuals in our congregations.

    Another facet is illustrated in my younger brother’s story. He’s out west, I won’t reveal where, but in two cities now, he’s sought out UU’s churches. He’s dedicated enough to visit each one where there’s more than one, usually twice. But–no one recognizes that he needs something or provides outreach. they treat him like your average visitor. He’s not (no one who is already UU should be treated like “just” a visitor–they’re coming home). No one notices when he doesn’t come back. Because he’s not where he grew up, no one is paying attention. Yet, I think a 21 year old who arranges his life to check out the local UU church everywhere he moves is still one of us. I don’t think he’s voluntarily leaving, even though most Sundays he’s not in church. He’s not in church because he hasn’t been welcomed, isn’t finding what he needs, and it appears to him that no one cares.

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