The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples



There was a period in the religious history of the United States when Universalism was spreading like wildfire and making the adherents of tradi­tional religion very nervous.  The Second Great Awakening, a religious re­vival, began in the 1840s and brought droves of people into Presbyterianism, Methodism and Baptism with its hellfire and damnation preaching.  It began in upper New York State and spread across the nation, but so did its opposite, Universalism.

I’ve seen a T-shirt slogan that says, “I know I’m okay, because God doesn’t make junk.” That’s what the Universalists taught.  It seemed to them the height of absurdity that God would go to all the trouble of making human beings only to consign them to eternal damnation, and therefore they preached universal salvation.  Everyone, no matter how evil he or she has been, will go to heaven.  god’s grace and redemption were not only for the few but for all.  Universalism was a haven for those to whom the revival preaching of hell was anathema.

It was obvious to the leaders of the Second Great Awakening that to preach universal salvation was the same as condoning — even encouraging — im­morality.  It the fear of hell isn’t in you, then it doesn’t matter what you do.  You can steal and murder and commit adultery and all those other things with impunity.  In the autobiography of Charles G. Finney, a Presbyterian evangelist, the most famous and probably the most energetic of the leaders of the Second Great Awakening, the Universalists are mentioned with fear and loathing as the epitome of the immoral. The only problem with that, as Finney reluctantly admitted, was that the Universalists that he had actually met were more than usually well-behaved.

That feeling hasn’t entirely died away.  A while ago I received in the mail a copy of an essay, “The Unitarian Universalist Church,” by Homer Duncan, from the Missionary Crusader in Lubbock, TX, in which almost in passing, the conclusion is drawn that we don’t believe in damnation and that there­fore we preach immorality.  He says:

In rejecting the authority of the Word of God, UUs also reject what the Bible teaches about sin and judgment on sin.  When a person does not believe that he will be judged for his sins, there is a tendency for him to become lax in his conduct.  When UUs cast aside the authority of the Word of God in their quest for freedom, and in seeking for a sense of fulfillment, they also cast aside the moral standards that are established in the Word of God.  They, therefore, do not frown on adultery, multiple marriages, homosexuality, and other moral deviations.

It is, perhaps, true that as a religious movement we do have a less simplistic idea of right and wrong than do other movements.  We simply don’t accept the final authority of the Bible in ethics any more than in theology.  In Unitarian Universalism, it has been said, the ten commandments become the ten suggestions.

It’s interesting that Duncan’s argument focuses exclusively on sexual morality as did, in some degree, the hatred of Universalists in the 1800s.  Probably the only reason for that focus is that those kinds of things are the ones the tradi­tional moralists are tempted to do.  They don’t feel much motivation to kill or steal or bear false witness, or dishonor their parents, etc., but they do feel some temptation to kick over the traces of authoritarian sexual morality, so it is upon these things that they focus. It’s probably true, too, that those things are less determined culturally than other moral issues, and that many of us do, indeed, have nontraditional values in those areas.  Our association and many of its individual congregations including this one have taken a public stand condemning discrimination against homosexuals, bisexuals and transgenders.  However, those are moral judgments, rather than the preaching of immorality.  When we preach the acceptance of homosexuals or we agree to perform marriages between people who were previously divorced, it is our contention that we are behaving in a highly moral manner, and we still condemn immorality just as much as do tradi­tional religions, though perhaps we base the condemnation on different au­thority.

During the 1800s even some Universalists began to fear that immorality ought to be punished by God, as punishment didn’t seem to be happening on earth, and they, too, thought it might be a deterrent.  “The wicked flourish like the green bay tree.”  This was the basis for a Universalist controversy which was never completely resolved until the question became academic.  Some Universalists quoted Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross beside him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” while others argued that a period in purgatory was necessary for those who had been wicked before the bliss of heaven could be realized.  The controversy became irrelevant when the whole issue of eternal life became more abstract — when the descriptions of heaven and hell gave way to questions of personal or nonpersonal immortal­ity or the existence of immortality at all.

Nevertheless, the question raised then is the question that continues to arise: Why be good?  In those days, the evangelists of the Awakening said, “Be good, or you will be punished by eternal damnation.”  The Universalists said, “Be good because God is love, and it is our religious duty to be perfect even as our Father in heaven is perfect.”  That’s the religious imperative in Christian language, but it just says that we must.  It doesn’t really say why we should.

Well, why should we?  The wicked do seem to flourish indeed.  Anyone who really believes that crime doesn’t pay hasn’t been paying attention.  It pays very well indeed, and if you are clever you probably won’t get caught.  There was a man who died a few years ago who was recognized as being the head of organized crime, in which city I don’t recall, whose funeral was at­tended by the entire neighborhood including law enforcement officers and priests.  The attendance at his funeral was for the good things which he had done, charitable actions and personal kindness, but the rewards that he gained during his lifetime, very tangible ones such as riches and power, and even in­tangibles such as respect, he gained through behavior which we would proba­bly characterize as immoral.  He died in bed at an advanced age, and had never been punished in any way for his criminal activities.  He was, as I’m sure you are all aware, not the only one. I doubt, too, that he spent a great deal of time agonizing over his own morality or lack thereof, so he was not even internally punished for his behavior.

There are several reasons usually given for moral behavior besides the reli­gious one:, that it is one’s religious duty.  Generally it boils down to some kind of reward and punishment — if not heaven or hell, something more secular.  There are societal rewards and punishments and emotional ones.  If you do the right you’ll feel happy with yourself, and if you do wrong you’ll feel guilty.

One of the issues which I used to be able to argue wither side of with equal cleverness and passion was the question of whether altruism really exists.  I can’t do it any more because in one of the arguments I finally convinced my­self that one side was clearly correct.  I am sure that occasionally people do good with no thought of reward — not even the warm feeling inside that comes when you are approving of your own behavior. Those people are just good for nothing.

It’s probably true that most righteous behavior does occur for the sake of some reward, or at least in the hope of avoiding punishment, and it is true even up to the point where the rewards and punishments become very abstract as in the feelings of virtue or of guilt.  There is no better feeling than one of con­scious virtue; no worse one than the gnawing sense of guilt.  Every moral ac­tion therefore contains within itself its own reward, and the opposite its own punishment in our own psyches, and altruism falls by the wayside. Except that it really does seem to exist.  It took me years to recognize the one completely altruistic act of my life as being just that.  I had never really thought about it much because it made no sense to me and still doesn’t in many ways.  I don’t think altruism makes sense on any rational level.

What happened was this: I was taking archery in college, and we were in four-person teams.  One day three of us were at the target retrieving arrows, when I looked back and saw the fourth member nocking his arrow and draw­ing back his bow.  I yelled at him and immediately got in front of the two oth­ers, so that if he did let the arrow go, I would be the one to get hit.  I didn’t even particularly care for the two people I was shielding.  If I had had a chance to think about it, I would probably have hidden behind them.  At least from my own point of view my loss to the world would have been greater than theirs.  What I was doing was utterly unthinkingly offering my life for the sake of others with absolutely no thought of reward.  I didn’t get any, either.  It happened too fast and we were all too excited for anyone but me to notice what I had done, and I didn’t even have the reward of feeling especially good about it.  It was completely without intention.  How could I feel virtuous?

There is an old saying, “Virtue is its own reward.”  Generally speaking, when that is said, the implication is that you are rewarded for virtuous conduct by that feeling of conscious virtue I was talking about, and certainly that is a re­ward well worth achieving. Very few people, even very few religious thinkers have gone beyond that level of reward for virtue and punishment for the lack of it.  Most world reli­gions, with the exception of Confucianism, which some doubt is a religion at all, and perhaps Judaism, have tied moral action to a final judgment of sorts.  Judaism avoided it at first by trying to believe that suffering in this life was God’s punishment for some disobedience, but they had some problems with that — witness Job — and finally gave up in despair until Christianity pointed them to the possibility of an afterlife.  To them, previously, obedience to God’s commands was simply required.  There was no reward or punish­ment except in this life.

Others, however, who see the unfairness of life where the logical thing to do often seems to be the immoral or unethical one, decided that rewards and punishments must be left to another life, either in heaven or hell, or in the religions that believe in transmigration of souls, in a future life in which the good or evil of past lives is worked out.  Eventually in those, one is finally re­leased from the wheel of life and achieves the bliss of Nirvana — the final reward.

It is interesting that the Universalists, not believing in hell, were a highly moral group — in many ways much more so than the average — and that even today when most of us are not even mildly concerned with punishment or reward in an afterlife, we remain a highly moral group.  We are moral not, perhaps, in the traditional sense of following all the rules laid down for us by secular or religious authorities, but moral in the sense that we are deeply concerned about right and wrong, about doing good and avoiding evil, and living according to our moral choices.  We do it not only in our personal lives and relationships, but translate that moral action into the wider com­munity, committing ourselves to political and social causes such as the peace movement or seeking justice for the oppressed.

I’m pretty sure that we don’t behave morally and do things for the good of others either in hope of heaven or fear of hell.  It may be that we like the feel­ing of virtue and we gain from it, but I think, further, that there is something beyond that: That we do good simply because it is good.  We react altruisti­cally to a situation, and virtue becomes indeed its own reward.  That is the religious imperative.  There is no authority that we can accept that says we must do the right except our own, and we can expect no reward.  There are some words that many of our churches have used as an affirmation: Love is the doctrine of our church; the quest of truth is its sacrament and service is its prayer.  In Unitarian Universalism we celebrate that human nature which, though al­ways flawed and frequently self-serving, in an emergency often acts altruisti­cally, and at all times has the need — not just the desire — to practice virtue without thought of reward.  To be, in fact, good for nothing.