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

Why We Should Engage With Conservative Christians

Recently, I have had a wonderful conversation through blog postings with an old friend of mine who is a conservative Christian minister. Now, if you read that conversation, it might not seem so wonderful to you, but it has been to me. Over the last three years as a military chaplain candidate, I have had similar conversations many times, and in every case it has pushed me toward a deeper understanding of my faith, of my theology, and of my relationship with God, albeit not in the way my fellow conversation participants might have intended.

When I look back on the three months I spent at the U.S. Army Chaplain School during the summer of 2007, what is most striking for me is that it became a time of systemization and clarification of my own beliefs. I came out of the experience with a much fuller and deeper understanding of liberal, post-modern faith than I began with. The Chaplain School taught me more than every class in liberal theology, and certainly more than my many conversations with fellow post-modern religionists.

There are three ways in which my time at the Chaplain School was formative for my systemic theology. First, I was required to explain both Unitarian Universalism and post-modern liberal Christianity about seven times a day for three months. One of the best ways I have found to deeply learn something is to have to teach it over and over. With those conservative Christians who were truly engaged and comfortable enough in their own faith to learn about another faith without feeling threatened by it, I was able to go back to the well of my faith as a teacher. I was not trying to make them into Unitarian Universalists… I was simply seeking to fully and respectfully represent this dynamic, changing faith while also representing my own little corner within it.

It also required me to do the same for others… to deeply and respectfully listen to the faith of some of my conservative Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist colleagues, and to allow them that same role as teacher. Now, many of them did try to “convert” me to their faith, and that’s okay. I am firm and comfortable enough in my faith to be able to find wisdom even in the intent of an evangelist. One of the greatest compliments of my life was when a Catholic Chaplain took me aside to let me know it was possible for me to become a Catholic priest if I felt called that way. I don’t, but it was a wonderful compliment.

In listening deeply to the faiths of others, I discovered new levels and depths within my own. I will admit that I was most profoundly impacted by my Catholic colleagues, but there were several protestant and even conservative Christian ministers who deeply affected me as well. In particular, I came to a deeper understanding of my own faith when others discussed why they believed theirs as strongly as they did, and what would happen to their faith if they ever came not to believe in a part of it. It taught me how much I would rather be on the “shifting sands” than the “rock” when the earthquake comes.

Most importantly, however, was the experience of seeking right relationship and beloved community with those conservative Christian ministers who not only could not find a way to be in Christian community with me, but who reacted negatively, emotionally, and in one case physically to me, my religious faith, and to the fact that the Army would “allow” me to be a Chaplain. By far, the most profound realizations about faith, about community, and about God came from my relationships with these conservative colleagues.

I will not say they were pleasant, because they were not. But they were deeply formative, and learning to be in right relationship, to “turn the other cheek” with these individuals, taught me more about how to follow in the footsteps of Jesus than any lessons, preaching, or enraged words of theirs ever could. It became very clear to me that their deep emotional reactions to my faith and to me personally came from deep places of fear and doubt in their own faiths… and did not really have anything to do with me at all. The difference between those conservative ministers who were secure in their faith and those who were not was clear and striking.

To the ones who were not deeply secure in their faith, I was a threat. So they became belligerent and attacked… Through those experiences, I found myself wondering if this was what Jesus experienced when he was attacked by the scribes and Pharisees… and I’m sure there were a couple of my conservative Christian colleagues who would have loved to “securely fasten” me to a tree for my audacity.

But for my own faith, it was a trial by fire… and I came through it not purified, but rather as charcoal. Much of the detritus had been burned away, and I learned to carry my faith with me as a long burning ember. I’m sure it was not their intent to deepen and clarify my liberal, post-modern religious faith, but that is certainly what occurred… and I can never thank them enough for the gift.

In our conversations among those who believe as we do, or who are close enough not to deeply challenge us, we are tempted into easy understandings of our faith, of our relationship to God, and of what sources we have found meaning in. While those conversations are important, they are only the initial pour of steel. It is only through heating, hammering, and quenching that steel acquires layer and temper.

So it is not for others that we should seek out conversation and relationship with conservative Christians, but rather for ourselves. It should not be for the purposes of evangelizing, but rather for the purpose of providing strength and temper to our own faith. Unitarians are notoriously hard for Evangelical Christians to evangelize, so it might even do them some good to try. But unless we jump into the fire from time to time, we are in danger of losing our temper.

Yours in Faith,


4 Thoughts on “Why We Should Engage With Conservative Christians

  1. My childhood faith was independent fundamental Baptist so I can usually talk the lingo of the conservative Christians. I actually live with two conservative Christians, my sister and her husband who are in their sixties. I am in my fifties and think a little spillover from conservative Christians is probably good for the UUA. It forces us to be more inclusive. We can also use the tempering of the fire, as you mentioned.

  2. DairyStateDad on Tuesday August 4, 2009 at 7:47 +0000 said:

    A friend of mine in our conversation years ago told me that he would invite door-to-door evangelists (usually Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons) in when they came knocking, and engage them in respectful conversation about their beliefs. I’ve always admired that but never had the combination of time and centeredness required to emulate him…

  3. Yours is one of the wisest blogs I know and I am grateful to you for writing it.

    I did have a moment of sadness when you wrote that a Catholic priest took you aside to say that there was no obstacle in your being a priest. I totally understand your gratitude for the moment. We can only imagine imagine the gratitude at such an offer, if it were made to the nuns I know who have devoted their lives to the religion that excludes them from what you were freely offered.

  4. Eloquently written, David! I enjoy reading your writings, even if I don’t agree with their theological conclusions. I’m glad like me you found our discussion beneficial and not as an affront, which it wasn’t. It sounds like we’re equally rooted in our faiths and do not speak out of fear or have any doubt about what we believe.

    A system of belief may work for someone for awhile, but if it is not true at some point it will ultimately fail them. At some point in time soon, one of us will be proven correct.

Leave a Reply

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: