The Rev. Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples




Though I have spoken on this particular topic quite recently, I am doing it again from some other angles, since we never seem to get quite clear on it, and a series on the primary influences on our faith is a good introduction to the course on Unitarian Universalism and the story of this congregation that I am giving in March The relationship between the religion of Unitarian Universalism and Chris­tianity is at best an uneasy one.  This is not surprising since it is always family quarrels that are the most difficult to resolve.  Compounding the problem is that the uneasiness comes from more than one di­rection and is continually fed by ongoing dif­ferences and new participants in the battle.  We are asked if Unitarian Universalism is a Chris­tian religion, and we can’t even answer a sim­ple yes or no, although the National Council of Churches could easily de­cide that we are not and deny us membership, while giving us ob­server status along with national Jewish organi­zations.  To some of us that was a reason­able decision, and some even rejoice in it, but to others it is a continuing source of pain and in­dignation.  It is not merely that Christianity can­not come to terms with us, but also that we cannot come to terms with our own inter­nal connection to it.

Both Unitarianism and Universalism began as early heresies in the Catholic Church — here­sies which existed long before those of Martin Luther that founded Protestantism.  Actually, they were originally rather respectable strains of Christianity, firmly based in the gospels, until they were found heretical by various church councils and popes.  Universalism, in its origin, seems almost, to the modern point of view, fundamentalist in its way of looking at the ques­tion of salvation.  They argued that if Paul’s interpretation of the consequences of Jesus’ sacrifice were correct, and all Christians, of course, agreed that it was, since Paul was far more the founder of Christianity than was Jesus, then it logically followed that all human beings were saved by it, not just certain ones.  After all, the sacrifice of God himself must be of universal efficacy.  The fear, of course, was that such a belief would lead to immoral behavior since there was no fear of eternal punishment, and it was rigorously suppressed, although it had a tendency to arise anew whenever it was given the opportunity.  Even Luther’s notion of salva­tion by grace came from the same root, al­though he limited it to believers.  Oddly enough, a be­lief in universal salvation seemed to increase the likelihood of moral behav­ior rather than to decrease it, but given its origin, it was even stranger still that the latest resurrec­tion of the belief in Universalism became tinged with Unitarianism in the early 19th cen­tury, when many Universalist ministers, most no­tably Hosea Ballou, began preaching the doc­trines of Unitarian Chris­tianity.

That’s what it was called then: Unitarian Christianity.  It, too, harked back to the early days of the Christian church for the authority for its beliefs.  Al­though the two heresies to which it clung were named for their most famous advo­cates who lived a few hundred years after the gospels were written, evi­dence for the truth of their interpretations was also found in the New Testa­ment.  Arias said that although Jesus was the perfect man and offered the true divine revelation, he was not, in fact, God, however much his message came from God, and Arian­ism was born.  God is one, it argued, not three.  That was certainly a heresy with a lot of intellec­tual support.  After all, you can find plenty of texts in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) in which Jesus ex­plicitly denies his divinity, and the history of the doctrine of the trinity shows it as a compara­tively late arrival.  However, the Catholic Church considered Arianism a dire heresy, and Protestantism did not differ from them on this.  Merely to call a belief Arian (or Unitarian) was to offer the deepest criticism of it.  Michael Servetus was burned at the stake for it by John Calvin, al­though if you read what he said on the subject, it is hard for a mod­ern Unitarian to call him one of us.  Although he argued that Jesus’ sub­stance differed from that of God, it seemed also thoroughly to differ from that of a human being.  Sort of a demi-god I suppose.  Anyway, Calvin burned him as a Unitarian, so we claim him as one of us.

But Arias was only one of the heretics whom we were (quite truthfully) ac­cused of following.  The other was Pelagius, and perhaps this is the portion of Unitarian heresy, which at­tracted the Universalists to it.  Pelagius refused to believe that human beings were con­demned to choose the wrong unless God him­self controlled our evil impulses.  The church doctrine was, and in some places and cases still is, that human beings are irremediably evil, worthless and steeped in sin, that only through attaching themselves to God and fol­lowing the holy will can we escape from utter iniquity.  Pelagius said, no, on the contrary, human be­ings can know good and evil and can choose the good.  He went so far as to argue that the mere fact that they chose to follow the Chris­tian religion when they could have chosen oth­erwise is evidence of his position.  Pelagius was called to Rome and subsequently disap­peared from history, but his arguments, though named for him were not new and did not dis­appear with him.  Perhaps even more impor­tant than their insistence on the use of reason in religion and the unity of God was the Unitarians’ rejec­tion of the notion of total human deprav­ity. 

Thomas Starr King, the minister after whom the Starr King School for the Ministry, in Berkeley, CA is named, credited with almost single-handedly keeping the state in the union during the Civil War, and considering himself both a Unitarian and Universalist, was asked the difference be­tween Unitari­ans and Universalists. He said that Universalists believed that God was too good to damn humankind, and that Unitarians believed that human be­ings were too good to be damned.  The direc­tion of approach was different, but the journey ended in the same place.  However, despite that, and despite the Uni­tarianism of much of its leader­ship, and despite the fact that it was probably more heartily feared and hated than any other, no one ever questioned that Univer­salism was by itself, how­ever heretical, a Chris­tian sect.  This was en­tirely true until well into the 1940s when some of our thinkers began to re­de­fine Universalism as world re­ligion, accepting truths from all of the world faiths, preaching that the differences were only on the surface and that all of them taught essentially the same thing.  One of the main reasons that some Universalist churches — the ones that had not joined the move to re­define their religion — refused to be involved in the merger of the two reli­gions in 1961 was their perception of Unitari­anism as a non-Christian reli­gion.  That being the case, without even trying to deal with the naïve and simplistic nature of the idea of the identity of world religions, which was merely the first step of the Universalists to ul­timate merger with the Unitari­ans, I will concentrate for the rest of the ser­mon primarily on the Unitarians, since they seemed always to be the ones whose re­lationship with Christianity seemed most prob­lematic.  The Univer­salist heresy, though terrible, was clearly a Christian heresy.  The Unitarian one, it seemed, might take them completely outside the pale of the Christian faith.

The Unitarians of 200 years, and even 100 years ago did not believe that.  They felt that theirs was the true, pure Christianity from which both the Catholic and Protestant churches had fallen away.  The Bible, though to be interpreted in the light of the times and circumstances within which it was written, and with the use of reason, was the source of religious authority.  The story of Je­sus, his moral teachings and even his crucifixion and resurrection, was the center of their faith, though they considered him the perfect teacher and model rather than the divine son of God.  Today there are many Christian Uni­tarians whose re­ligion is much the same as that of the original Unitarians in the United States, al­though there is probably more skepticism among them as to the pre­cise facts of the mir­acles and the physical resurrection of Jesus.   There is even something of a rise in the numbers of professing Christians in our move­ment, par­ticularly among the younger clergy, probably because their educa­tion is usually in liberal Christian theological schools, or closely con­nected to them, and their teachings are so close to those of Channing and the early Uni­tarians, so easily kept within the bounds of rea­son, that it is still (or per­haps again) possible to be that kind of Christian and be a Unitarian.

There are many, of course, who would say that this is not true Christianity, that if you do not believe in the divinity of Jesus as one of the three parts of the single triune God, you are not a Christian.  Nevertheless, there are also many in the main-line Christian churches, who never question that they themselves are Christians, who believe precisely as do those who call them­selves Christian Unitarians.  Some of them are even ministers.  Some of them are even Je­suit priests.  I’ve met several of those myself.  The difference isn’t even one of degree, but merely between those who are willing to spend their time making liberal interpretations of statements of belief, and those who are not, those who can say a creed with an easy conscience, and those who cannot.

Unitarian Universalism is the natural and inevitable consequence of the rev­olution that Martin Luther started at Worms when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the cathedral.  (I read recently that he probably didn’t actually do that, though he did have 95 theses, and I say pooh on revisionist history.  I much prefer to think that he really sneaked out on All Hallows’ Eve with his hammer and nails and sheaf of paper and tacked them right up there for all to see.  It doesn’t change the point of the story at all.)  Probably the most impor­tant point that Luther made, in light of later consequences, was that there need be no mediator between a human being and God, that on the contrary it was both the right and duty of individuals to be in direct relationship to God.  That meant that they had to be able to read the Bible, which meant that it had to be translated into the lan­guage of the people and that they had to learn to read.  Education, and the idea of uni­versal individual responsibility for knowledge gave birth to the Enlightenment. It was the inconvenient marriage, disapproved by almost all its relatives, of the Enlightenment and radical Protestantism that gave birth to free and rational religion — the religion of which we are adherents.  From Luther through Calvin to the Puritans, to early Unitarian Christianity, to what we have today.  It is a straight line, and it could not be clearer.  Even our church services are quite obviously in the Protestant tradi­tion with preaching as the cen­tral activity, but surrounded with hymns and readings, also many straight from our Protes­tant past.

It is the inconvenience of this marriage that bars us from the Na­tional Council of Churches, and allows some of us to feel that it is appropriate that we not be a part of an organiza­tion that is made up of Chris­tian churches.  Despite the large numbers of Chris­tians still among our membership, the Na­tional Council of Churches is correct.  Though our modern beginnings were in Protestantism, we are now something so different, that it can no longer be called the same religion.  Just as Ju­daism gave birth, however reluctantly, to Chris­tianity (and however reluctant Christians are to remember that), so did liberal Christianity give birth to the new religion of Unitarian Universal­ism.  We do not share the same source of au­thority.  However much many of our members may revere the Bible, in knotty questions, the authority must re­main in the experience and reason of the questioner, not in ancient revela­tion. 

There are those who not only will say that we are no longer Christian, but that we should utterly reject such a religion.  This is mostly sim­ple rebellion, a common response of children to their parent.  Many of our members have had unhappy experiences in the religion in which they were reared, and they don’t want to be reminded of it or consider themselves to be any part of it.  It is too bad that when we feel this way we tend to throw the baby out with the bath water.  Just as Christianity brought forward into its new religion much from that of its parent, (witness the Old Testament) so, it seems to me, we too, should remember and celebrate our heritage.  Not just in the shape of the service and some of our loveliest hymns, not even just in some of our cele­brations, like Christmas and Easter, but in some of the teachings as well.  The ideal that divine love and justice can be incarnate in this world even in the frailty of human souls is the best gift of Christianity. It is worth cele­brating. It is worth celebrating too that it was the man whose story is the basis for the faith from which we sprang who taught that there was only one great commandment: “You shall love the Holy, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thy­self.  And this is the law and the prophets.”