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,