The Rev. Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples



The water is wide, I cannot cross o’er,

And neither have I wings to fly,

But give me a boat that will carry two,

And both shall row....

I saw the Mississippi again this summer, the Father of Waters, when I visited New Orleans, and I’ve been thinking about rivers and what they mean to us. The human race began, they are pretty sure, in Africa, but it spread all over the world long before civilization began.  That began, so far as they can dis­cover, inde­pendently in three places, followed not long after by a fourth.  All of these places were drained by great rivers: the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, and the Yellow River in China, and a little later, in terms of the sweep of human history, in the val­ley of the Indus in the sub-continent of Asia.  It is many thou­sands of years ago now, and only the vaguest records remain, interpretable only by scholars in the field, but some do remain, and we know that our ancestors settled down in these places and began the process which is now cities, technol­ogy, arts and sciences — the highest achievements of the human mind.  There’s no way to know how it hap­pened, but we can guess at the begin­ning, and the river is a vital part of the development of the human race from tribes of savages to the sophisticated denizens of cities.


When your method of survival is hunter-gatherer, you spend your entire time in that job.  Everyone does it all day, every day, and there is little time for anything else.  You must move from place to place as the grain and roots are gone and the game travels further from you.  Then imagine that you come to a place where food is so plentiful that you can stay and learn to renew it each year.  It is so easy and so abundant, that it is no longer necessary for everyone to work at the production of food.  You even have enough to feed domesticated animals rather than having to hunt them. There can be a division of labor where some will build permanent homes, some will learn to travel on the water in boats, learning the trader’s art with other tribes and sharing knowledge.  There will even be leisure to decorate what is built and to think of other things than just survival.  As the complexity of life grows, it will be neces­sary to find some way to save in­formation to pass it along to coming gen­erations, as all parents wish to do to make the lives of their children eas­ier than theirs had been, and in the pride of accomplishment and the desire for it to last, and so they will invent writing and history, since oral tradition, though it can be very accurate over many generations, can only do so much to save the history and culture of a people.  It takes perma­nent records and the ability to share knowl­edge with someone you will never see to build on that knowledge and make it grow.  With leisure and the ability to store knowl­edge, and contact, through the ease of transportation that the river offers, with many others, knowledge ex­pands, specu­lative thought grows, the arts become more complex and more important to the people.  With larger groups and different spheres of action within a single com­mu­nity, systems of morals and ethics must also be put in place, and more complex reli­gions and philosophies are required to establish meaning.  A differ­ent kind of living is necessary, where people must specialize and become more dependent on one an­other and on the community.  Each has his or her own different contribution to make, which is supported by the contri­butions of others.  Both shall row.... Working together we can cross the water where one alone would fail.  All shall row in a civi­lized society, but in different ways, in different tasks.  The human race has risen to civilization.  In the great river valleys that cradled it all these things arose indepen­dently and differently.  Writing, religion, mathematics, art, po­etry, music and archi­tecture, and the be­ginnings of science were alive, different but vital, everywhere that people had the time to create civilization.

Then because they had time and the beginnings of technology and of the fruits of specialized knowledge that works to­gether to create more complexity and more ad­ventures, their cultures began to spread — down the rivers and even across seas, to influence and civilize oth­ers at greater and greater distances.  The riches of civiliza­tion became clear and were either adopted or stolen by what­ever other humans they touched.  It was a practical way of living that became something more: a way of life that was able to nurture the life of the spirit.


It has become somewhat unfashion­able these days to say nice things about civiliza­tion.  Not only are we to honor the natural world on which we live and which is necessary for that life, we seem to think that civilization is merely a spoiler of that natural world.  Cities mar the landscape, and human beings, we seem to think, would probably be natu­rally good if we were not warped by liv­ing in such a way that we are out of touch with the rhythms of the earth.  And we do do terrible things to it and to its other denizens through pollution and the con­sumption of re­sources.  We do con­sume and we do pollute, and it will be necessary to do what we can to improve that situation simply for the sake of our own continued survival, but we dishonor ourselves when we forget that it is the civilized rather than the natural human being who provides most of the gifts of the spirit.  It was not untouched na­ture but civilization that produced the phi­losophy of Plato, the ethical theories of Confucius, the sym­phonies of Beethoven, the sculpture of Michelangelo, the mar­vels of ancient and modern architecture, and of the com­puter and the airplane. .


  How­ever, much of what we read and hear these days celebrates the uncivilized and dishonors the graces of civility, of the intellectual life, of cooperation and of trust among human beings — all of which are re­quired if civilization is to continue, all of which can be gone if we continue to de­value it.  I have heard some people say that a new dark age is coming. If so, it will be a strange one. In the last dark ages in the west much of our culture was only preserved in monasteries, and, oddly enough, by the Arabs who were influenced by the Byzantine Empire, and through whom it was returned to us in what may have been the only positive consequence of the Crusades. This time nothing will be lost. Everything is saved, everything is accessible through the new technology of the internet, and yet there is more ignorance, more indifference to history, more willingness to believe without evidence or proof. They call medieval times not only the dark ages but sometimes the age of faith. Although we have more facilities than ever before to discern the true from the false, it seems to me that this is as much an age of faith in its popular sense of blind belief. People seem to be willing to believe almost anything they read or hear, and dismiss with indifference anything that may contradict what they wish to believe or that even might teach them to think.


Who will save our ancient wisdom this time, if the doomsayers are right and the barbarian is even now within the gates? Sometimes I think they may be right when I look at our increasing illiter­acy, the breakdown of institutions, which keep stability in society, and the rising use of violence rather than the various tools of civilized negotiations to settle disputes.  If it is true, I suspect that it is people like us, the most highly civilized of citizens, who have assisted in opening the gate and welcoming them in.


If we have, it has been completely unintentional and for the most idealistic reasons, but will have been done by our ceasing to honor civilization enough, seeking out its flaws, and in our attempts to address them, doing damage to its virtues. We have re­jected much of our heritage, the basis for any continuing civilization, naming it racist and sexist. Much of it is, and yet we lose too much understanding of who we are when we will not learn what we have been, and when we reject all of an individual’s thinking because one concept or one attitude is offensive, we lose far more than we gain. We have, in the name of compassion and freedom, encouraged women and girls to bear children alone without the means or abil­ity to rear them prop­erly, endangering the stability of society. In the name of a dis­torted notion of equal­ity and equal access we have de­graded our educational sys­tems; in the name of ecol­ogy we have sometimes almost given up the effort to keep our cities habitable for the poor; and in the name of hon­oring different value systems, we have thrown away the standards which keep us from the vio­lence and ignorance of the barbarian. The unintended consequences of applying our highest values without wisdom can sometimes be problematic, even devastating.


An incident that seemed to me to show how we, ourselves, might bear some re­sponsibility for the dishonoring of civilization happened few years ago when a visiting Unitarian Universalist told me that although his children no longer attend church they are living out their Unitarian Universalist principles by going into a place where nature is unspoiled and living in harmony with the earth by doing or­ganic garden­ing and respecting all living things — except, from what I could gather, people.  I realize that people will say and think al­most anything to rational­ize their disap­pointment with their chil­dren’s lifestyle choices, but what he said seemed to me to be somewhat relevant to the re­cent focuses of the wider movement’s religious education.  If that is living out their Unitarian Universalist principles, our church schools have omit­ted something.  We’re doing well by nature, which is, I agree, a good thing, but we seem to have left out honoring our heritage of civilization.  If this is true in the wider society, and the values that are taught are actually those opposed to civilization, then those who predict a com­ing dark age may be right.


Mere masses of people, of course, do not make a civilization.  There is nothing civi­lized, for example, about what is happen­ing in Somalia or the Sudan or even Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it takes people living together, working together, playing to­gether, creating together, thinking to­gether and wor­shiping together to make one.  A particular civilization will have particular values, a particular heritage, a particular sense of itself as a community with a past and a fu­ture, but all of them have a few things in common.  One is that they honor and pre­serve their past.  Another is that they live together with some civility, with, if noth­ing else, good manners.  A third is that they must have peace both internally and ex­ternally in order to make a place for the life of the mind and spirit, the arts and sci­ences and lore.  Last is that they create and build for the future.  We laugh at the no­tion of progress these days, the progress in which we so deeply believed before the holocaust, before the atom bomb, before the tribal wars in the Balkans and in Africa, seeing the many ways in which human being have regressed to barbarism, but we must not accept de­spair.  We don’t have to call it progress, but we must continue to try to work for a future in which all of us will be able to enjoy the fruits of civilization, in which art will not stagnate or become nihilistic but will rise to new heights of creativity, in which we will not only preserve but study and cherish our past, in which we will rise to new understandings of the spirit which will include the mind and heart as well as the soul, in which we will learn to live together in peace and free­dom.  It is up to us who know what civi­lization is to preserve it as best we can for the future of our children and of all hu­mankind.  The struggle for civiliza­tion began many thousands of years ago in the river valleys of the world but it is yet unfinished and perhaps en­dangered.   It is only within civilization that we can truly nourish the aspi­rations of the spirit.  Its preserva­tion and growth is our continuing task.