The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples




Many years ago now, in the early ‘70s, the Unitarian Universalist Association published an adult Religious Education curriculum called The Differences that Unite Us. It was an excellent curriculum, examining the history of Unitarians and Universalists in their various controversies with original documents from both sides of each question. It began, I believe, with the abolitionists versus those who repudiated the violence, though I don’t remember its mentioning the founder of Unitarianism in New Orleans who actually preached more than one sermon justifying the practice of slavery. It continued with the debate between the transcendentalists and the rational Christians, the Free Religious Association and the Western Conference, women’s rights, the Universalist argument about immediate or deferred reconciliation, pacifism and support of the First World War…. You get the picture. It was published shortly after one of the worst quarrels we had ever suffered, sparked by the Black Power movement, and in the midst of the differences of opinion within our churches over the Vietnam War. It was a good teaching tool, but I questioned then, and I still question its basic premise: that we are strengthened and united by our conflicts.

It’s not that I think that conflict is always a bad thing. On the contrary, not only do I see it as inevitable in an institution where people are not only free but encouraged to form their own opinions, but it can be an important tool for clarifying issues and deepening understanding. It can also be deeply hurtful, even destructive, to both institutions and individuals. It’s how you deal with it that matters, and I don’t think that over the generations we’ve been very good at it. The losers leave and may or may not come back when the debate itself becomes irrelevant. The Universalist argument over whether or not people needed a period of purgation before their inevitable, final reconciliation with God became irrelevant when most Universalists quit believing in a personal afterlife at all. After the Civil War there were only two Unitarian Churches still in existence in what had been the Confederacy, and only began to be reestablished with the industrialization of the South in the twentieth century.

What usually happens is that, having little institutional memory, and not wanting to talk about unpleasant things, after a while issues simply go away with the people who lost the battle. Back in 1968, before I started attending them, the General Assembly had a terrible debate over our support (or not) of the Black Power movement. Although I wasn’t there I heard the details and have garnered much of what happened from many who were and are still feeling the pain of it. There was shouting, swearing, the grabbing of microphones, even some shoving, and a walkout. It was the beginning of a near-bankruptcy, averted only by the extraordinary generosity of one fabulously wealthy congregation, and a huge decline in membership. This year there seemed to be the possibility of a similar passionate argument over the question of whether or not to hold our 2012 General Assembly, as scheduled, in Phoenix, AZ, in light of Arizona’s criminalization of the civil offense of illegal entry into this country. A compromise was reached and the fight was averted before it reached the floor of the Assembly, but the moderator asked the delegates how many of them knew of the conflict in 1968. Ninety percent had never even heard of it. Well, that’s over. Well, except for the lingering effects on both those who remember and those who have never heard of that conflict that weakened and has still not united us.

There is another disagreement, theological rather than political, that has been going on for some time. I keep thinking that we’ve resolved it, transcended it, at least gotten past it, retaining our sense of identity with free religion and respecting our differences, when suddenly it rears its head again. It’s time, way past time, I think, that we do a better job of understanding and accepting one another, and finishing this great debate. Our inability to put it behind us gets us stuck in conflict avoidance to the degree that we cannot articulate what we actually stand for for fear that we will alienate somebody. It is the great Humanist/Theist debate.

That may seem like a tiny thing to put beside those other issues of such moment, not only within our own faith but in society at large, yet it has created hurt and conflict within our congregations for many years. Sometimes, it seems to me, it’s as good as resolved. No one is criticizing the language that the minister chooses to use in his or her sermons, we’re all treating one another as if we all belong here, we’re even all singing the hymns, and then someone brings it up and it seems that underneath it was still festering. Someone will come in to do some training on conflict resolution and they’ll use it as an example and the argument starts.

There’s a song that someone wrote for a canvass dinner at some congregation — you can probably still find it on YouTube if you like — set to the music of the song from The Sound of Music, “You Are Sixteen Going on Seventeen”, “You Are Theist, I Am Humanist”. The ministerial colleagues started chatting about it saying how clever and witty it was and how much they wanted to use it at their own canvass dinners, so I listened to it, and I was appalled! “Did people really think,” I asked, “that swapping egregious insults between two factions in a congregation (if indeed such factions even existed) would persuade people to open their checkbooks more generously?” I was told that I had no sense of humor and I responded, “Okay, I have no sense of humor.” What bothered me was not so much the explanatory part of the song but what was supposed to be the resolution of the problem. The theist sings, “I will pray for you.” Can you see a determined materialist putting up with that? But worse, far worse, was the humanist singing, “I will think for you.” There’s a recipe for turning a little disagreement into a raging conflagration.

It seems to me to be so unnecessary, but I know how it happens. It has happened to me. I was at a ministers’ meeting and one of my colleagues had had an experience similar to mine when I was preaching in Kirkwood, MO, some time ago. Someone came up to me after the service and said, “You know, I really liked the sermon, but why did you choose all those hymns with God in them?” That was easy for me. I said it was because it seemed to me that the hymns were saying exactly what my sermon was saying in different words. I laughed and forgot it, but when it happened to her my colleague was upset. She began ranting against “those blasted rationalist humanists”. Well, that got to me. “Damn it!” I said, pounding my fist, “I’m a rationalist humanist!” And so it began. We were able to resolve it very quickly and are still good friends, but sometimes it’s much more difficult.

It always seems to start with a war over words but it is a much deeper issue than that. On one side it is the fear that the only religious institution with which they have been comfortable is going in a direction that will force them to leave, and on the other it is a sense that those people, fighting for their home hold them in contempt. And sometimes I have a real fear that with some few that is true, but it is based, I believe on a serious misunderstanding. It was really clear in that insulting message in the song on YouTube: I will think for you. It may be that those who are turned off by the religious language and metaphors of others really believe that their fellow congregants are choosing to believe a fairy tale without really thinking about the evidence for their beliefs. There may be a very few like that — after all, we don’t apply any creedal test — but the numbers would be negligible to vanishing.

Here’s an obvious example: You know that God that you atheists don’t believe in? The one that Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have proven to be incredible as well as offensive? Well, the theists in the congregation don’t believe in it either, so if that’s the only correct definition of God, we can all happily be atheists together. Why not? Except for the occasional visitor and the rare exception who likes us anyway we’re already all freethinkers and all humanists.

Our religion began way back in the eighteenth century as a humanist faith, and in that it has never changed. All it takes to be a humanist is to accept the scientific worldview, to see human beings as independent moral agents and to expect no supernatural intervention in our own lives or in the sweep of history. That was the beginning of free religion and it is still true today whatever our individual beliefs. It is humanistic at its very core. The concept of humanism has been narrowed in recent times to mean a kind of materialistic reductionism, like logical positivism in philosophy, but I think it’s important not to let that continue. Humanism is too big and too important to be made impotent in that way. Logical positivism failed as a philosophy because it dismissed all the really interesting questions as undiscussable because unprovable. Let’s not do the same to humanism because words like God make our skin crawl. They only do so because we have sometimes allowed authoritarian sects to limit the meaning to a concept that we find deeply offensive, like that blasphemous idea of God in that series about the rapture that made all the best seller lists. We should remember Humpty Dumpty’s words about words in Alice through the Looking-Glass “It’s a question of who is to be master — that’s all.”

All this has been worrying me for this congregation for a while now since our district executive used some theological language that ruffled some feathers and for which he was called to account, and in response he did a very interesting exercise with us. He divided us (sort of) into humanists and theists, but it was a forced choice. Since I often find the word God a useful metaphor I found myself in the theist camp, though I am a most thoroughgoing nontheist. I not only don’t believe in a personal god, I don’t believe in one who is a being, a power, a force, a creator, or even the glue that holds the universe together. Nevertheless, for me there is a call to purpose and meaning, to the service of values that transcend even our personal or racial survival, and we weren’t allowed to just stand in the middle. After dividing us he gave us the job of finding a few worship materials, hymns, readings, whatever, that would be suitable for the other people. What worried me was that the ones who had chosen the theist side (a minority, I might add) had no trouble doing that. Those who went to the humanist side found it almost impossibly difficult. When asked if they felt that the others understood them, the humanists said yes, and the theists, not surprisingly, said no. And yet we are in covenant with one another, practicing together our shared free religion. I think we may have some work to do in understanding, respect and acceptance of one another.

Part of the problem, of course, is that standing however uncomfortably as I was with the theists, there was undoubtedly a great range of beliefs. There were nontheists like me who nevertheless feel a need for a word to express the ineffable, the mystery, the whatever it may be that puts truth and love, beauty and justice, higher than material satisfaction. We didn’t go into our separate beliefs, but there may have been those who feel that the existence of the universe requires a creator of some sort. There may have been those for whom the beauty and glory of the world reflect something that is holy. There may have been those who find somewhere, somehow, a strength given to them to help them through which seems not of themselves but a transcendent reality. There may have been those (and I’ll admit I’m willing to argue vigorously against this one) who feel that at the metaphysical center of things there is a benevolent will. All of those ideas and perhaps others may have been present. Or may not. As I say, I didn’t ask. However, what I know was present was a commitment to critical thought, to the weighing of evidence, to the personal responsibility of freedom. This is our free faith whatever our beliefs may be about god. This is what we share.