The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples

Nor Good Red Herring

The reading today was one that all of you are too familiar with, the Principles and Sources in the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, but then I added what I think is really the heart of our faith, with which you are probably far less familiar, the escape clause. It is my contention that every time the principles are printed or read that escape clause should be included. Because it seems we have become unclear about our real mission in the world over the last twenty years, we have almost turned our principles into a creed, and our sources into authorities. We have fallen, it seems to me, through a lack of understanding of free religion, into a kind of idolatry of diversity, losing our understanding of and commitment to our own faith and assuming instead a kind of eclectic tolerance of all beliefs, thinking that we have to accept everything and be committed to nothing that can be defined as our own. Too often even some of our ministers will contend that we are not a religion at all but an interfaith association. All faiths are valid, all have truth, so how can we commit ourselves wholly to one? I suspect that too often we do not even know really what our own faith is, and we can never commit to what we don't understand.

This may well be a primary reason for the smallness and weakness of our religion. It is something we clearly bring upon ourselves, and that may be so intrinsic to our identity that we can do little about it. I don't think that is necessarily the case, but it is so widespread that it is hard to say that it is not part of our very nature. We begin by saying that we are not the authority, that we have no ultimate truth in which we can require our members to believe. It is our pride that we exclude no one, which makes it particularly worrisome that we attract so few. However, I would argue that our creedlessness is basic to our religion, not so that we can have a wide appeal and ac-cept anyone under our banner whatever their beliefs, but because individual responsibility in the search for truth is what we are about, as is our acceptance of the reality that absolute truth even if it exists is not obtainable by finite human beings - no, not even by revelation or intuition. Since we haven't got it, and everybody's got at least a little piece of it, (there are certainly truths to be found in the Moslem, Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Taoist, Hindu, Jewish - and whatever - traditions) how can we really be committed, even to the point of self-identification with this one? If it really is one. Such identification surely is tantamount to idolatry.

One of the things I most like to preach against is idolatry - the worship of the golden calf. That is in my list of the seven deadly sins. Nevertheless, I think that to deny the commitment of which I speak is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming idolatrous. Commitment to a chosen faith only becomes idolatry if the faith is seen as being unquestionable, as holding all the truth that is obtainable and being without flaw. Idolatry is, in fact, one of the problems in our movement, but not of the movement itself. Many of our members tend to hare after almost every new psychological, philosophical, scientific or sociological fad that comes along, trying to make them the absolutes that they have rejected in other places. We have riven our con-gregations with commitments to particular social issues; we have made religions out of pop psychology or pop theology, making those who look at them with a critical eye, or to whom they simply do not speak, either feel or indeed really be unwelcome, even though they may be com-mitted to what is in fact the identity of Unitarian Universalism: the authority of the individual in the free and disciplined search for religious truth.

Our creedlessness is more important to our identity than we realize. It is a strong, unshakable principle of our religion. It is not permission to believe whatever one wishes to believe, nor to say that one belief is as good as another. It is rather the requirement that you take responsibility for your own beliefs. It is not permission so much as it is discipline, the discipline of looking for truth rather than for idols, and living by the truth you find with full commitment but without ever feeling that it is complete and beyond the testing.

Sometimes this understanding that truth must always be tentative leads to a commitment to non-commitment, to saying ours is not a religion but an interfaith organization. However, to refuse commitment is to open oneself to the possibility of idolatry. The nature of human beings is to commit themselves to some ideal, whether the particular one they choose be worthwhile or not. It is one of the ways we understand and recognize ourselves and one another. The refusal of commitment itself can become idolatrous. If in one's determined open-mindedness truth goes unrecognized because one insists that one idea is as good as another, we are worshipping another golden calf, the golden calf of non-commitment.

There is an old English proverb which describes a person as being neither flesh nor fish nor good red herring. This is someone who is uncommitted and thus undefined. It is not a compliment, and I have begun to be able to articulate why it is not. To choose a determined non-commitment is to be neither flesh nor fish nor good red herring. To such a person nothing is either good or evil, better or worse. All things have equal value, each course of action is as good as any other. There are no standards. Any choice is based on an arbitrary personal preference.

From the point of view of society, of course, such a view is not at all healthy, and therefore standards in the form of laws are imposed, whether the members of society are committed to those standards or to the health of society or not. I would suggest that it is also unhealthy for the psyche, or theologically, for the soul. It is necessary for the mature human being to have a sense of the identity of the self to be psychologically healthy. There is also a spiritual need to discover and commit oneself to one's highest values

Individualists would like to believe that it is possible to define oneself in a vacuum, independent of relationship either to people or ideals. It is not unusual for people in a crisis of identity to withdraw from relationships in order to try to understand themselves. I do not deny that it is sometimes necessary to effect such withdrawal if the relationships that have been formed are painful or limiting, but no understanding can come until we have realized that although we must not try to define ourselves only through our relationships, since in that there is no true selfhood, there is no human definition at all that is not in relationship to something - to other human beings, to institutions, to the earth, to ideals, to God. A human being in utter isolation has no need for definition either to him or herself or to others, but neither is that human being living a healthy, fulfilled life. . Intuitively we understand that very well so in our lack of understanding of true free religion we grab onto a list of principles that we insist on using to define us or pick a listed source and say that that is our ground of truth, saying at the same time that free religion itself is uncommitted. But it is those who have freely sought to know for themselves who they are and what they truly value who have taken the first step toward what I would call salvation - a life of fulfillment and dedication to the highest ideals that we can discover.

That is really a better word than commitment: dedication. We have many quests in our lives, for success, for love, for comfort, but the highest quest, it seems to me, is the religious quest, which contains within it the search for truth and the dedication to that search and to the truths that we find along the path. I think a great weakness of our faith of Unitarian Universalism is that in our desire to make clear that all sincere and dedicated religious quests have validity (and in the process trying to make sure we don't scare anyone away) we blur the reality that a religion of radical freedom is not easier or less valid than others, that it requires the same dedication to its ideals that any other religion requires, but without the support of an authoritative framework. It is in fact more difficult than others because for it to work the same commitment and passion are required as in other religions, but there is no one to tell us what is worthy of our dedication except ourselves. All we can do is describe our own discoveries, and hope the description is useful to others as they work for their own.

There is a book by Clinton Lee Scott who was, years ago, minister in Sarasota, Florida. It was called Parish Parables, and one of the stories in it concerned a member of the Great Con-gregation who complained because the minister did not give concrete, authoritative answers to religious questions. The minister replied, "That is because in this congregation we don't give you water wings. We try to teach you how to swim." It's a lot harder to learn how to swim than it is to depend on water wings, but I think it's worth it. Nevertheless, it requires dedication and passion, not a refusal to make choices. to decide what transcendent values are worth your com-mitment.

The decision, however, is only the first step. Dedication to an ideal requires not only the definition that it is of value, but the determination to support it, to nurture it and to confess it. It occurs to me that a glib non-commitment on the basis that there is truth in all, and that therefore we can't really say that ours is a religious faith in itself but simply an exercise in tolerance, is not real acceptance of others at all. We can't really know what the commitment of others means until we have had the experience of dedication ourselves, so we can't therefore really appreciate what others' religion means to them. To refuse to choose or to choose without commitment may produce a kind of toleration, but it cannot produce a real appreciation of others.

A real dedication, though, to anything, even free religion is difficult for those who understand the possibility that the truth we hold today may be found to be untrue tomorrow. The reality is that you can dedicate yourself to an ideal, an institution, an attitude, and later find out you made a mistake. It's safer not to confess or even to really commit. After all, if you don't, you may not be right, but at least you won't be wrong. For full humanness, however, I think you have to. You have to give it all you've got to get anything important out of life. That includes being willing to define yourself in relationship to anything of value, and that is a religious act. To live fully - deeply and completely - to love, to create, to worship, to connect yourself to the holy, you must make a choice, celebrate it and live by it, nurturing it, giving it your loyalty and your passion.

I think it is sometimes true that Unitarian Universalism works against itself and against its members, not by its refusing to give authoritative answers to questions of truth, which it cannot do by its very essence, but by being unable to make clear the difference between principled creedlessness and a refusal to take a stand for anything religious. If it shows itself as neither flesh nor fish nor good red herring, it is no wonder that it finds it difficult to find true dedication in its members. As long as we think that our identity as Unitarian Universalists means that we can believe anything we want to, and there is nothing to indicate that one belief is better than another, we cannot commit ourselves. It is too amorphous - not flesh, nor fish, nor good red herring. How can that support our connection to the holy, our joy in living, our celebration of life? Luckily that's not what Unitarian Universalism is. It is a religion of radical freedom in which the individual is the final authority, but that authority is not arbitrary as revealed authority, even the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association, is. It is based on the truth of the individual life that tells us what is worthy, what is true, what is holy, not because we want to believe it but because our lives give evidence of it and are dedicated to it. That is a religion worth celebrating, worth confessing, worth support and passion because of its connection with what is of worth: the truth that dwells within us and shows itself in lives of dedication and of love.