The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples




I understand that the world is ending again. It always seems to be for one reason or another: the first Millennium, the second Millennium, the Hale-Bopp comet, IBM’s forgetting that the year 2000 followed 1999, various carefully calculated dates based on religious writings (always recalculated when the time goes by), etc. This time it’s because the Mayan calendar, the most accurate one devised by ancient peoples, runs out in the year 2012. In fact, of course, we have no way of knowing whether they attached some apocalyptic vision to that date since all of their limited records ceased at the collapse of their civilization, caused, they believe, simply because of the Mayans’ inability to maintain a sustainable lifestyle, but we’ll find one. We have lots of choices.


One of the more difficult to remember theological terms is eschatology. Essentially it is simply the ideas of how things finally work out. They are not all the same. There are many es­chatologies. Some are pes­simistic, some optimistic, some the in­evitable result of in­exorable history, evolution, and natural process, some de­sired ends to be achieved. Whether it be an inevitable end or an achieved one, however, from the religious point of view one’s eschatology is the outcome which gives meaning to life’s strug­gle, the final reconciliation with transcendent value. 


Some while ago I was enjoying one of my usual arguments with a colleague about the topic which obsesses many of us at the mo­ment, which is whether or not the people in the churches which are members of the Unitarian Universalist Association actually share a religion — whether we can be said to practice the same religion — a religion which many of us have been calling Unitarian Universalism. Although the ques­tion of Unitarian Universalist identity has been at the forefront of dis­cussions on both sides of the merged or­ganization since before the association existed, it has not until recently seemed to have become so urgent. There was an attempt to find a statement that would include everyone twenty-five or so years ago, but it was given up, probably because it would seem rather like establishing a creed, and because the con­centration of those concerned with the question passed to the effort to write a set of principles to which we could nearly all more or less agree. They were so successful that they nearly created a creed themselves. That our association did have an iden­tity was pretty much taken for granted until recently. Now there are many who will argue that we are simply an associa­tion of independent churches who join for mutual support, and agree merely to be in dialogue with one another. Even if that is true — and I hope it is not entirely so — I think that you still have to have some kind of shared identity which al­lows you to be in dialogue. You have to have something in common which makes you desire to live in support of one an­other. We are not, for example, in asso­ciation with Roman Catholics, Muslims or even Jews, unless those self-identified religionists are members of some of our congregations. That question of what we have in common, therefore, is the center of most of the conversations I have with colleagues, and this particular colleague had, he thought, an answer. The bond that keeps a religious movement together, he said, is a shared eschatology, and he had identified ours. If I understood him correctly, he said that the one thing that we agree on is that the truth is too big to belong to a sin­gle way of thinking, which would probably also be unacceptably monotonous, so whatever else an ac­ceptable outcome might include, it would have to include diver­sity of cul­ture, of mores and of beliefs. I think that we both assumed without check­ing that this description included a human race living in peace and plenty.


It was an interesting idea, but I’m not sure that either half of my friend’s asser­tion was necessarily the case. First there is the issue of whether a religious move­ment must find its bond in a shared es­chatology, or even whether such shared eschatology is binding. When we were still approach­ing the second millennium, various media com­mentators and social ob­servers expected a meteoric rise in sects pro­claiming the apocalypse. This occurred, we are told at the end of the first millennium. Although some such sects did appear, that happens whether the millennium is about to arrive or not. We always have apoca­lyptic sects about. Perhaps, as seems reasonable, sane peo­ple suggest to themselves that if nothing spectacular happened in the year 1001 it is even less likely to occur in 2001. Nev­ertheless, as I say, there are always apocalyptic sects around which may or may not be associated with any particular date (except their own calculation), who have little to say to one another, and not just within Christianity.  It is hard to tell the difference in escha­tology among apocalyptic Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Of course, they all got their ideas of it originally from Zoroastrianism. It is the idea of Judgment Day, when God comes in glory to raise the dead and judge them, sending some to eternal de­struction and others to eter­nal bliss. In that day God takes complete rule and all evil and suffering are ban­ished from human experience, justice is done, and all human beings are either reconciled to God or utterly destroyed (or eternally punished, whichever, even the sects themselves don’t seem always to distinguish those ends). This shared es­chatology does not bind Apocalyptic Christians to their counterparts in Islam or Judaism or vice versa, nor does it expel them from the communion of their own faith, even though others in that faith may have a different vision. Therefore, al­though it may be the glue that holds dif­ferent identifiable sects together within the confines of a larger movement, it is not necessarily the defining charac­teristic of the movement.


For example, within Christianity you will find many eschatologies. Besides those who look forward to the “rapture” as many apocalyptic sects call Judgment Day, there are those who look to a more gentle second coming of Christ, not for judg­ment but for redemption, and even those who feel that it is they themselves who must create the Kingdom of God on earth, that they create the second com­ing. There are also those, I believe, who don’t think about the end of the world at all — I use end there to mean both or either goal and finality — but rather a personal eschatology, their own salvation or rec­onciliation at their death. Nevertheless, they are all Chris­tians and would admit that the others with different eschatologies are Christians, too.


It is true, though, that a clearly de­fined shared eschatology does often act as the glue that holds certain sects within a larger religion together and in some ways separates them from the parent body and gives them a somewhat sepa­rate identity. We might look at the idea, then, since Christianity is certainly our historical origin, of whether we are sim­ply a sect within it with our own separate shared eschatology — the es­chatology that my friend described of a time of mutually agreeable diversity. Upon re­flection it has seemed to me either that our religion, too, can harbor more than one es­chatology or that he and I do not be­long to the same one, because his escha­tology is not necessarily mine.


I have never before actually tried to articulate what my personal eschatology is, I think because it is a little problematic to separate desired ends from expected ones. In the light of eternity, it has always seemed to me that we don’t have too many op­tions on the physical plane. Ul­timately, of course, there seems no doubt that the earth itself will die, either by falling into the sun or by burning or freezing when the sun either goes nova or burns itself out. We can go with the science fiction writers who expect us to look to space as the next frontier. If scientists can ever get over the barrier of faster-than-light travel, that will be fine with me, but only if we can find planets which will support life and upon which we would be the only sentient species or welcome to the ones already there, but even should that work, and I have some doubts about our ability to survive as a species long enough to manage it, the universe itself seems to be finite. Al­though no one has ever been able en­tirely to sat­isfy me that the continuing or­ganization of the universe is compatible with the idea of entropy, I am willing to accept the implied consensus that the physical universe will not last forever. What is more, given the directions in which the human race is going, with its pollution of air and water, its consump­tion of non-renewable re­sources, and its tendency toward tribalism and a belliger­ent nationalism at the same time its technical ability to destroy grows ever greater, it has seemed quite possible to me that it will turn out that the human animal is perhaps not quite such a suc­cess­ful product of evolution as we may presently feel and may follow other species into extinction before any of the other physical endings are imminent. Given such likely or inevitable material outcomes, it has occasionally seemed to me to render spiritual ones irrelevant, since for the human race to achieve them it might have to survive for longer than the probabilities would allow. In the book, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him, one of the appendices is what the author, Sheldon Kopp, calls an eschatological laundry list, a list of vari­ous attitudes regarding ultimate out­comes. The one that always seemed to fit me best was, “Nothing lasts forever,” a concept both comforting and discomfort­ing, given the pleasantness or unpleasantness of one’s particular situation, but still true. Nevertheless, to reflect upon and articulate my own vision of reconciliation seems an appropriate ex­ercise of faith, however separate it may be from hope, giving shape to the living of a life not merely material but with a commitment to the spiritual and the creation of meaning.


Besides, I realized that given an ideal outcome, I didn’t care if it was di­verse or not, and that realization made it important to think about it in relation to the idea of the identity of the religion which this friend and colleague and I think we share. It’s not, mind you, that I have anything against diversity, indeed, I approve of it. I just don’t include it as a necessary aspect of my eschatological vision. What is necessary to it is a world of peace, plenty, beauty and safety with human beings living lives of ful­fillment, love, creativity and joy, which they have achieved freely without coercion or even undue influence. “Fear will fall from our dwellings, and the night will be safe, with open doors.” (Rollo Russell) Should, therefore, some transcendent truth be­come apparent to the whole human race which would convince them freely to choose the same culture, mores, opin­ions, lifestyle, etc., it would be okay with me. It seems highly unlikely that such a transformation would occur, but if it did, I wouldn’t argue with it on the grounds that you can’t achieve perfection without di­versity. The point is, however, that this transcendent truth must be universally per­suasive so that people choose perfec­tion freely. The result and even the pro­cess that reaches the desired outcome, the eschatological vision, might be ex­actly the same. His perfect world and mine might or might not look identical, as the transcendent values referred to in order to achieve it are significantly differ­ent: his is diversity, mine is freedom — a freedom to seek and act upon the truth, which implies, as true freedom always does, the responsibility to seek and rec­ognize and test such truths as we can find. I’m willing to let him have diversity, if that’s what freedom in the search for truth and self-determination produce. My question is, will he let me have unity, if that’s what the human race freely chooses?


This may, in fact, be a deeper rift than either of us would wish to admit, and that is the real topic when we, again and again, discuss what the identity, if any, of Unitar­ian Universalism is. Are these two eschatologies able to be within the same religion, as apocalyptic Chris­tianity and social gospel Christianity can both be Christian, or is it the kind of deep divide that separates Christian from Jew­ish social gospel, and apocalyptic Ju­daism from apocalyptic Islam? What gives religions their identity, whatever the different eschatologies they include, is their source of authority for the under­standing of truth, whether it be a book, tradition, the sayings of a prophet or something else. It has been my con­tention that the source of authority for the faith which I have called Unitarian Uni­versalism is personal experience, refined through the reason and the free church tradition and tested in the gathered community. That implies the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, which may well, indeed probably will, mean diversity in belief and culture. The requirement of di­versity in ultimate outcome, however, seems to me to limit the freedom of the search as any require­ment of any particu­lar outcome would do. That is, I suspect, the real reason that I have not bothered to articulate my personal eschatology before — because it is my own, rather than be­ing one necessitated by our free faith which cannot require any uniformity of outcome, even the uniformity of man­dated diversity.


So what is the way the world ends? I don’t know. I have my own eschatology and my own preference that it end with the bang of the sun going nova or the collapse of the universe, rather than the whimper of human futility, but I don’t think that vi­sion or that preference is necessarily the shared one of a shared free faith. Our common vision is one of process rather than outcome, the process of freedom in the search for truth and the integrity of the mind and spirit that such a search requires of us. The ultimate values that we affirm together are the inevitable outcome of that search, including the value of respect for the freedom of others to search and find as they may.