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

Becoming Better Christians

Rev. Cynthia Cain, in her blog Isten Aldjon, Y’all, has posted the story of evangelical Methodist Revival at the school where the students were fromcollege students coming to the worship services of her UU congregation in Kentucky and accosting members and visitors about why they were attending a UU church. Sadly, I am not surprised by the story. I’m actually surprised we don’t see this kind of thing more often.

When I was at the Army Chaplain school this summer, I ran into a major division among my religiously conservative brethren (most of our women colleagues were fairly liberal). That difference was how confident and comfortable they were in their own beliefs and doctrines.

You see, I had three months at a school with over 120 conservative ministers, pastors, and preachers… all of us becoming military chaplains. There were perhaps 20 religious liberals in our class… and the two Unitarian Universalists were defacto ” standard bearers” not only for the liberals at the school, but for liberalism in general. I knew that I was, for many of my colleagues, absolutely the most liberal person they had ever met. It led to some amazing conversations, especially when it became known that I had grown up Southern Baptist, and had left religious and political conservatism behind.

Actually, George Tyger (the other UU) and I played a game of “Good Liberal, Bad Liberal”. I would rile them up, and then George would calm them down. In Unitarian Universalism, I am often perceived as a bit more moderate or centrist than many of my fellow UU’s… so it was amazingly fun to be the flaming, dyed in the wool, NPR listening, Equal rights protesting, pro-choice liberal at the Army Chaplain school. Amazingly fun.

Half of my class at the Chaplain SchoolComing to debate theology and culture with me was like the moth to the flame for some of my conservative brethren. They would come to me (not the other way around) and begin a conversation something like “So, do you really think you are worshiping Jehovah?” or “How can you possibly believe that evolution is true?” or “In worship this morning, you read from that Thomas Gospel… don’t you know that’s from Satan?”.

The conversation would then ensue, and one of two things would happen. Either they would be respectful or they would not. If they were respectful, we would have a wonderful discussion about not only my faith, but about theirs. Those who were able to go this route I would be happy to call my friends, because they were without an exception wonderful, faith filled religious people and excellent ministers of their Gospel. Several of these Evangelical, Baptist, Full-Gospel and Pentecostal ministers I hope will be my friends for decades to come.

For those who were unable to be respectful, the conversation would quickly devolve. They would begin to try and convert me, and when that failed they would begin to insult me and my faith. “Who is your God, Mammon?!?”, “I can’t believe the Army is willing to make you a Chaplain so you can lead people to hell.” And, my favorite “Well, all of that education you are getting is just because you don’t really know Jesus. If you knew him, you would know you didn’t need all that.”

Even these conversations were wonderful for me in an odd way, because they forced me to go deeper into my own theology, and to quit talking about my faith through Kant, Adams, and Schleiermacher… and begin to learn how to share UU ideals and values through the stories and parables of the Bible.

Over three months of these conversations, I began to understand the difference between those who were respectfully engaged in conversations with me about our respective faiths, and those who sought to convert, and then attack me and my faith. At first, I thought the difference was educational… many of those who were respectful and engaged had Masters of Divinity degrees from established and accredited conservative theological schools like Garrett or Southern. Many of those who were not so respectful had degrees from local Bible colleges or from places like Liberty (the school founded by Jerry Falwell).

Over time, however, I saw that educational difference as a symptom of the real difference between those who were respectfully engaged and those who were not… and it was how comfortable and confident they were in their own faith. I found that those who were able to engage with me were comfortable in their faith, the doubts they had were held lightly, they were able to admit they might not have a full understanding of the gospel, and they were confident of that gospel and of its place in their lives.

Those who sought to convert, and then to attack me were often, when we were able to get Me, Rev. Beth Miller, CH Vernon Chandler, Rev. Lisa Presley, and CH George Tyger... all UU'sdown to real issues, not so confident. I could not engage with them about their faith, because that almost always provoked them to attack mine. When I refused or refuted their attempts at Evangelism, explaining through my faith why I did not accept the precepts of theirs, they often became quite angry and insulting.

I had a conversation with a Southern Baptist minister about this trend, one of those who was comfortable enough in his own faith that he could engage wonderfully with me and mine. When I brought up this difference, it was he who pointed out to me that they were not yet confident enough of the gospel. He said he had gone through a similar phase, and that he came out of it… a phase where you seek to bolster your confidence about the gospel through evangelism (if I can get more people to believe as I do, then it must be true). That unconfident faith is fragile enough that when you meet someone who either rejects it or refutes it, that action is perceived as an attack. The evangelist naturally then counter-attacks.

I remember thinking at the time, “How much of Unitarian Universalist evangelism falls into this category? How many of our efforts (admittedly few) to spread our Gospel have been motivated by this same kind of lack of confidence and comfort? How many of my fellow UU’s out there feel that it would support their beliefs if more people began to accept them?

I don’t know the answers to those questions… but the questions are out there.

I have hope for those young men and women who have been disrupting the services at Rev. Cain’s UU church in Kentucky. I have hope that they are going through the same kind of phase that my friend, the Southern Baptist Pastor, described in his own life. I have hope that, perhaps if they can engage with someone who is comfortable enough in their Unitarian Universalist faith, it might help them get past the discomfort and lack of confidence in their own faith that leads to such confrontational evangelical tactics.

My squad, one Benedictine, one Liberal Baptist, two conservative Baptists, and a UUI have hope, because if they can, perhaps they will come to hold a faith like those conservative brethren at the Chaplain school who were comfortable enough in their own faith to engage openly, honestly, and respectfully with others.

Perhaps our goal as Unitarian Universalists in that situation is to be comfortable enough in our own faiths that we can “evangelize” them… not into becoming UU’s… but into becoming better Christians.

Yours in faith,


2 Thoughts on “Becoming Better Christians

  1. thank you for reading my blog and for this thoughtful reply.. we have many former southern baptists in our congregation, 2 of whom are now UU clergy!

  2. Patrick McLaughlin on Tuesday February 12, 2008 at 17:38 +0000 said:

    Yeah, that sounds familiar (the experience with the faithful and comfortable and the faithful and angry, that is).

    I tend to suspect that part of the aggressive response is because what we offer is in many ways appealing. Attractive.

    I’ve a (UU) friend who once had a (not-UU) friend who was cutting all ties make the comment to a third party that her lifestyle (quite middle class and truly unexotic) was like heroin. It was attractive and addictive and she had to cut off contact, or else….

    In dealing with at least one aggressive evangelical, I commented that he–or anyone else–was welcome among us, and that we would ask of him only what we ask of everyone; be respectful and considerate of others. Treat them as they wish to be treated. Expect to be expected to live up to YOUR religious claims and beliefs, to actively model what you affirm you believe. We believe each of us is as much a child of God as any other person (you can parse that as you please), and that in our congregations we expect you to do your utmost to be THAT child as perfectly as you can. Not someone else. Just as we don’t expect a pecan tree to be an orange tree….

    No, it wasn’t persuasive (at least at that time). But…

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