The Rev. Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples



It seems these days as if every sermon I preach brings us another quality of free religion, another issue, that I find I have to investigate with you. The homepage of our website — have you checked our new one out yet? It’s marvelous! — has a list of those qualities, and two of them, integrity and respect seemed to jump out at me when I looked at it, reminding me of things I had barely touched on in my previous sermons.


Integrity is a fascinating word.  Many words whose meanings are based almost pun­ningly on another concept often lose the sense that made the pun appropriate.  In­tegrity, however, retains its original sense while also keeping its second punning meaning.  Integers are whole numbers.  They can be either posi­tive or negative, but they are not fractions or decimals.  If someone asks you to name an in­teger, just pick a number — 5, 39, your age, whatever.  Or minus any of these, as long as it’s a whole number.  The word thence came to mean wholeness, seamlessness, flawlessness, and somehow by association, the quality of sound moral principle, honesty, sincer­ity.  You could almost say that the word integrity has managed to maintain its own integrity throughout the exigencies of language evolu­tion, since the notion of wholeness has not been replaced but merely supplemented by the word’s new meaning.


Look, for example, in talking about wors­ening words, at the word nice.  Although for those of us who are addicted to words, it can still be used in its original meaning of minute accuracy and discrimination, which is still its first meaning in the dictio­nary, very few people use or understand it as anything but a mild and generalized word of approval.  When Miss Tilney in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey calls her brother more nice than wise, the signifi­cance of her re­proof would be lost on most modern readers, were it not that most of those who have loved Austen enough to read that comparatively minor work have usually al­ready succumbed to word addic­tion themselves.


This has not happened to the word in­tegrity in spite of the expansion of its mean­ing, perhaps because there is a general be­lief that uprightness and honesty are neces­sary qualities of wholeness in human na­ture.  It is a belief that I share.  It is my belief that the most important hu­man quality, with the possible exceptions of re­spect for others and courage, is integrity of the mind and spirit. That is a phrase that introduced a little ad that the New Orleans church published in the telephone company yellow pages. It is a quality so difficult to achieve that even for those of us who recognize its necessity, it is a constant struggle to maintain it.  It is, I think, what the religion of Unitarian Universalism was created by and for.  It was their minds’ integrity that required our predecessors to break from the religions in which they had been raised, and the effort to maintain that in­tegrity which urged them to found a community that would help them to do so.  So it also is today when people break from the religion of their parents to join our community.  Of course, it seldom happens that quickly.  We hardly ever attract peo­ple who are already attending another church into ours.  Rather they find that to re­tain their moral honesty they need to break away from their childhood religion, and only later do they discover the ex­istence of a community whose primary pur­pose is to help practice the integrity that they require.


However, the integrity of the mind and spirit which is at least one of the first of all virtues is hard to maintain alone.  It is perhaps harder to main­tain when everyone around you is intentionally avoiding it in the area of re­ligion. Be­cause people wish to believe something, they sometimes man­age to divide their minds into a logical, rational, scientific side, and a side that re­fuses to accept logical conclusions to obvi­ous statements.  This was made clearest to me at divinity school where I heard more than one person say, “I know that the scholarship that tells us that the Bible was written by human be­ings in a particular historical period and for a particular set of people, that Jesus was not born of a virgin nor resurrected three days after the cruci­fixion, is true.  Nevertheless it is my faith that the Bible is the revealed word of God and Jesus is my risen Lord.”  Well, all I could say to that was, “Um… ok.”  But it has wor­ried me ever since.  These were by no means all those who thought of themselves as Christian, many of whom were quite able to incorporate their scholarship into a mature understanding of their faith, but those who did it were still intelligent people used to rigorous scholarship.  It seemed to me that they not only re­jected moral honesty, they did it in­tentionally and with pride.  They chose to be­lieve what they wanted to believe against any evidence to the contrary, while being ut­terly convinced that their belief wasn’t actually true, and just as certain that they were morally and religiously right to take that “leap of faith.”  The whole practice of theology was in trying to jus­tify the leap, by making words mean something differ­ent from their commonly accepted meaning, by deny­ing obvious contradictions or by saying that the facts weren’t important any­way, but only the power of the ritual and of the story, however factually untrue it might be.


Although it would never have occurred to me to argue, since it seemed likely to me that so much effort expended to believe the obvi­ously false must be based on a need that had to be gratified for the sake of the believer’s survival, it was clear that they had chosen the path away from integrity.  They had to have di­vided themselves into at least two separate parts to hold the views that they did, if not more. Even if they had been entirely ignorant of the intellectual quest or of scholarly discover­ies, or any other explanations for what they ac­cepted, it seemed to me that most of them would still be divided into the part that ac­cepted the evidence of their own experi­ence, and the part that rejected it.  The evidence, af­ter all, is all around us, and most clearly in the evidence against the generally accepted re­ligious belief that the world was created by an absolutely powerful and equally loving and compassionate God.


I don’t think this is confined to Christian believers. All theology that is done within the framework of monotheism must begin with theodicy, even when you don’t know the word for it.  If there is a single God, you have to de­cide whether that God is completely good or completely powerful.  Al­though it is defined as both, our experience tells us that this cannot be the case.  There can be no objective way to justify unmerited suffering, except with mental and/or verbal acrobatics inimical to moral honesty, that can leave God omnipotent if God is good.  So you pays your money and you takes your choice, and no longer accept the tradi­tional teachings of God’s benevolence cou­pled with infinite power, or you prac­tice the acrobatics and compromise your integrity, or perhaps you just refuse to think about it at all.  


Members of our free faith could neither prac­tice the acrobatics nor quit thinking about it, having a healthy respect for the adequacy of the human mind to tell con­tradiction from paradox, and founded communities in which neither acrobatics nor mind shut-down was necessary.  However, even with its traditional purpose being that of  moral hon­esty, it is not much easier for the community to retain that in­tegrity of the mind and spirit than it is for the individual.  It’s just as easy to get dis­tracted into other worthwhile goals and forget where we came from and why, as it is for the in­dividual to accept what others generally ac­cept as true or, worse, to ac­cept whatever he or she wishes to be true.


That doesn’t mean that other worthwhile goals cannot properly be pursued as a church community.  Such goals are usually direct con­sequences of the commitment to moral hon­esty, and therefore are firmly based in our tradi­tion and our purpose.  Sometimes, how­ever, they can get disconnected from that purpose with a resulting loss of integrity or wholeness.  The example which has taken up so much of my emotional energy over the past few years is the way in which our creedlessness, which is the necessary result of our commitment to moral honesty, sometimes is seen as an invi­tation to intellectual license rather than the discipline that it must be.  Our creedlessness, if it remains a part, as it must, of our founding pur­pose as a reli­gion of the strictest honesty, is not permission to believe what you wish, but the re­quirement that you believe what you have, after real effort and reflection, come to con­sider true, and that you are willing to continue to have those beliefs tested, or else that you suspend judgment.  When we lose sight of that connection, we can launch an advertising campaign that tells the nation that Unitarian Universalists can believe whatever they want to believe.


One of the problems that we find, and something that we are quite rightly accused of, is that we are readily able to say what we don’t believe, but less likely to be ready to articulate what we do.  This is true, but not something to be ashamed of.  Moral honesty makes it in­evitable.  We can believe something to which all the available evidence points, but we have to be willing to give up that belief when we find per­suasive evidence that it is not true.  What we believe must be ultimately tentative.  It is quite possible, however, utterly to reject something, however widely it is be­lieved by others or how­ever attractive a belief it may be, on discover­ing merely one piece of compelling evidence that it is not true.  That’s what the mind’s in­tegrity is all about.


There is a pervasive notion that ours is a strictly intellectual faith, even that you almost have to have a graduate degree to either un­derstand or appreciate it.  In­tegrity of the mind, however, does not depend on scholarship or even intellectual brilliance.  There are even those such as I met in divinity school who have both those things and yet lack moral honesty.  All it really takes is a refusal to blink facts, to un­derstand the evidence of your experience un­deterred by the contrary opinions of others, and to draw the inevitable conclusions from the facts that you see.


Although this suspension of blind belief is the essence of critical thinking, which is itself the essence of the process that we use in our faith to maintain our moral hon­esty, there is plenty that we can and must believe, and not only be­lieve but act upon, if we are to live up to our founding purpose.  Integrity is not just upright­ness and honesty, but wholeness, and we are called to have our lives one seamless whole, not a religious life and a secular life, but one life, in which the values we cherish are the same in all its aspects.  Ours is a faith of the mind, but it is also one of the soul, the heart and the body, They cannot be separated one from another. The consequences of that wholeness are many, not just in thought but in feeling and action.


For example, we know that respect for others on the basis of their goodness rather than their wealth or power or color or sex or sexual orientation is a religious value that moral honesty requires us to hold, and that we must act upon it in every aspect of our lives.  We know the same about service to others rather than selfish greed.  We know it about justice rather than injustice.  We know it about love and humil­ity rather than in­difference and arrogance.  We know the value of probity and kind­ness, of hope for a better world for which we are willing to work, in which there is no alienation or want or suffering, but rather community, generosity, and ease.  We know it in our love of what is good and our ha­tred of evil.  We know it in all the re­ligious values that we hold. We are called to wholeness — to in­tegrity — and our reli­gion and our lives must not be separate.


Earlier I read to you excerpts from “The Hollow Men” by T. S. Eliot. It seems to me that he is describing the consequences, first to ourselves and ultimately to the world, of the lack of this great virtue of integrity. Without it our lives can have no mean­ing, our actions are vain and our faith idolatry, and the world ends at last in a whimper, having lost all the power of the commitment and caring that come from wholeness.


Our free faith, rather than being, as has been sometimes suggested, the quintessen­tial religion for the church shop­pers who are looking for a religion that serves their needs without making too many demands upon them, is one of the most difficult of reli­gions — perhaps the most difficult — in its require­ment of true integrity.  That integrity is not only moral honesty, but the wholeness of a life in which there is no gap or seam or weak­ness in the connection between the religious life and the one that we live out­side of church in our homes and at work and play.  It is an in­tegrity which must in­form the quest for truth that we celebrate in church and the truth that we must prac­tice in our lives.