The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples




Given my firm disbelief in the supernatural, since it is my conviction that what is called supernatural is simply something natural that we do not entirely understand, it is always a little embarrassing for me to admit that I find tarot cards fascinating. They are usually beautiful — especially the Ryder deck — and their origins are lost in the mist of ancient history.  I used, for fun, to tell fortunes with them, since the meaning of the cards sometimes gives a fortune-teller, however skeptical, some interesting insights. I gave it up when I told one man’s fortune, and three times running it said that he would suffer a downfall because of the influence of bad companions. A week later he was arrested for grand larceny into which he was led by some of his less savory associates. I didn’t understand it, and I still don’t, but I’ve decided that it’s too dangerous a pastime. 


Nevertheless, I am still fascinated by the cards themselves. One of my favorites is the first one of the major arcana, the fool. All the cards are numbered, since numerology is part of their system, and the number of the fool is zero. That is a number without value in numerology as well as in mathematics. It is neither bad nor good. That is probably because the consequences of the fool in a reading are wholly unpredictable. He is a young man on a journey on a mountain path, carrying a knapsack, his face full of delight, and stepping merrily forward off the edge of a cliff. He is on the adventure of life, full of courage and ideals, ready to take whatever risk is offered to him for the sake of his dreams. Sometimes it works out the way he hopes that it will, and sometimes it doesn’t, and therefore he is “The Fool.”


One of the interesting aspects of the cards is that when they appear in a reading they may be either right-side up or up-side down, and they have different meanings. In spite of the dangers he may be facing, I would rather see the fool right-side up than reversed. Reversed, he is conventional, unimaginative, materialistic, and unwilling to take the smallest risk for dreams he refuses to share. He neither sees visions nor dreams dreams, and though he is perfectly safe, his future can be no different from his present. He is stuck in safety. He can never be laughed at for his mistakes because he makes none since he never does anything that isn’t perfectly conventional, tried and true, safe. He can never suffer ridicule for unrealized visions because he has none. If all of us were fools reversed things would always stay the same until they began to decay from their own stagnation. Better to risk error, better to endure the laughter and “I told you sos” of others than to refuse to follow visions of change, of beauty, and of growth.


I am sometimes asked why I think liberal religion or, more widely, liberal politics, doesn’t seem to inspire the same committed passion as fundamentalist religion or the kind of politics that such religion generates — particularly when, such a question usually implies — it’s the liberal side that is worthy of it. Well, I think liberal religion is worthy of all the commitment, all the passion, all the risk-taking that we can offer it. I think it is, ultimately, the hope of the world. It may be, though, that we fear, as Prufrock did, as Paul did not, being the fool.   


Once I was chatting with someone about my job — ergo, my religion — and she asked a question which first puzzled, then shocked me.  She said, “Do you fall?”  I said just what you’re thinking: “Do we what?   “You know, fall.”  Well, I didn’t know, but she explained that she had been to church with a friend in which the main activity seemed to be that someone would touch someone else who would then fall to the floor in some sort of religious ecstasy.  I hastened to explain that that would be the last conceivable activity for my church.  Speaking in tongues would come sooner, and I’d expect the Day of Judgment to come before that.  And I don’t believe in the Day of Judgment.  I was utterly appalled at the very notion that anything I had said would have led her to believe that we would do anything so ludicrous —so undignified — so laughable.  I don’t think I had said anything really.  It was simply that we are a group of which she had not previously heard, and she assumed that any obscure sect would have peculiar religious practices.  It is depressing that a religion with our tradition, history and membership, both past and present, would be an obscure sect, but so it seems to be.


I was reminded of the time that a group of gospel singers came to the church that I was serving in New London, CT.  After the group had spent some little effort trying to get us involved in what they were doing, the leader said that she hadn’t realized they were going to be coming to a group of God’s frozen people.  I don’t know if that was de novo or if she was quoting.  I had heard us described that way before — and not entirely without reason.  We do tend to be controlled, critical (and I don’t mean that in a negative, but in a completely value-free sense), and dispassionate.  We do not lose ourselves in our religion.  We do not make fools of ourselves.


We never seem to get passionate about religion, or at least only negatively.  We can get quite upset if someone tries to impose religious ideas upon us, but the strongest emotion we seem to feel about commitment to our own religion is embarrassment.  In fact, the very idea of such a commitment seems to be a cause of embarrassment to some.  To identify oneself with a religion so far even to name oneself by it is for some to admit somehow to being a fool.  In my experience with Unitarian Universalists, I have known quite a few who would deny religious identity but admit to attending, even belonging, to a church.  If asked their religion they would say, “Well, I belong to (go to) the Unitarian Universalist Church.”  Not to be able to say, “I am a Unitarian Universalist clearly precludes passionate commitment.


Even for those willing to say, “I am a Unitarian Universalist,” there is usually a lack of the enthusiasm that other religions seem able to inspire.  It is an intellectual assent, not an emotional one.  It is hard to imagine anyone’s being willing to be a fool for Unitarian Universalist ideals.  Not only do we not fall, not only do we not jump and praise and ejaculate, but outside of our church and sometimes inside we do not own our own religious identity.  There are many reasons given for that.  I suspect that it is mostly the fact that we are not willing to be fools.  To completely accept a stance, an identity, is to open oneself up to criticism and even to ridicule.  Since we tend to put a lot of emphasis on rationality and intelligence, it is particularly unpleasant to be accused of foolishness.


Often members of the radical religious right take positions that have most of the people in the United States laughing at them.  Their ideas are so foolish as to be almost hilarious, but it doesn’t bother them one iota.  They are not unaware of the laughter, but since they are not only absolutely convinced that they are right, but they know that they are enduring the laughter for the sake of something that is of ultimate importance:  their God, they glory in it.   And they sometimes, quite often, prevail.  There is real power in the loss of self-consciousness in identification with a cause, a movement, a faith.  We often know that they are wrong on such issues, for example, as school prayer, censorship, creation science, but do we know that we are right?  Or at least do we know it enough to put the kind of commitment into it that they do?  If we get emotional will people think we’re not liberal?  Or perhaps our fear is that we will actually stop being liberal — that to make an emotional commitment is in real opposition to the faith that we profess.


Some years ago I was talking to a colleague at General Assembly, and since he was rather an acquaintance than a friend, our topic was religious theory and the source of our call.  (That’s what Unitarian Universalist ministers find that they have common ground to discuss when they don’t know one another very well.)  I said that a major part of my call was the promotion and growth, both in depth and size of the Unitarian Universalist movement as a religion, and his response was that I had fallen into idolatry.  With one of my own Unitarian Universalist colleagues I was an object of ridicule for my identification with and commitment to our shared religious movement.  There was no disagreement on our commitment to the ideals of the movement, only to the movement itself.


Well, I do not think that I am an idolater.  In fact, idolatry is probably the one thing that I fight the most, and not even in myself, since I honestly don’t feel that I have much tendency toward it.  Worship of the golden calf is some­thing I am seldom tempted to, whether it be called liberal politics, psychology, science, or any of the other calves we educated religious liberals tend to set up to adore.  I am committed to the Unitarian Universalist movement, however, though not in a way that ob­scures to me its flaws, or the fact that should the church I serve ever leave its ideals I should have to leave its ministry.  But I am committed emotionally as well as intellectually.  It is the religion with which I identify, and I am willing to be identified with it by others — not only willing, but proud.  That is, I am once I’ve explained that it is neither the Unification Church nor the Unity Church, and that we do not fall or speak in tongues nor follow a charismatic leader nor accept all the ideas of all religions, or whatever other misunderstandings our reli­gion seems to attract, and even some that we seem to disseminate ourselves.


And that may be one of the reasons that we sometimes seem to have trouble wanting to identify as members of this movement to those who are not familiar with it.  These newer organizations have names that are very similar, and their PR is so much better that we first have to disassociate ourselves from them.  Partly for un­derstanding, but also partly because we feel that to be thought part of those move­ments is to seem not quite as dignified and as snicker-free as we would like to appear.


However, one of the reasons that their PR is so much better than ours is that their members have no hesitation in identifying themselves as such.  On the contrary, they shout it from the rooftops.  There is an old saw — probably used in other cases as well as the one in which I have heard it — if you could be arrested for being a Uni­tarian Universalist would there be enough evidence to convict you?  Through­out our movement I suspect that there are very many for whom the evidence would be mini­mal, and for most purely circumstantial.  They might be able to get some confessions using the third degree, but I think there would be comparatively few voluntary ones, though it is surprising how many people who are not members of one of our churches and really know little about it are willing to make such a self-identification.  There wouldn’t be enough evidence to convict them, either, except for their voluntary confession.


I think one of the major reasons for our ten­tativeness of commitment to this religion is our dislike of feeling a fool, and the faith we profess almost brings that tentativeness on itself.  We are, we must be, to be Unitarian Universalists, scientifically minded.  That does not mean that we must be scientists, but we must be aware of the tenta­tiveness of knowledge, that ultimate truth is not found by finite minds, and that the truths we do discover are vulnerable to alteration and sometimes even rejection when found not to be true after all.  For those to whom truth is given by a higher authority than the human, laughter and ridicule from others is ridicule of God.  They know themselves unassailable.  Our fear is that we may be vulnerable to ridicule even from ourselves if we should be proven wrong.  It is one thing to be a fool for God — quite another just to be a fool. 


And yet if there is anything in the world that we should be able to risk for, to risk being wrong for, to work for and dream for, it is this free faith. The ideals and the heritage and tradition of the Unitarian Universalist movement are more than worthy.  Free, responsible, reflective religion deserves our passion.  It deserves our confession of it as well as our profession of it.  It deserves our sup­port.  It even deserves that we might be fools for it. It is, I believe, the real hope of a world mired in ambiguity and retreat. Anything that we can do for its health and wellbeing, even if it means stepping off a cliff like the tarot’s fool is an investment not just in our own future but in that of the world.