The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples



In view of the immediacy of the horror of world events, both human created as in Libya and natural, I thought seriously about changing my topic for this morning’s sermon. Shouldn’t I, I asked myself, deal with human evil and our inhumanity to one another, or perhaps what to many is the essential theological puzzle of why the innocent suffer, and of the innocent, why the poorest and least privileged suffer most when nature asserts its often violent preeminence? Yet what can I say that I haven’t said time and again: human evil, the drive for unlimited power and unlimited possession is based ultimately in fear; the suffering of the innocent occurring in nature is simply the reality of the universe in which the concept of justice exists only in human ideals. Railing against human evil and natural disasters that cause untold suffering may be intensely satisfying, but it changes nothing.

We can try to make immediate palliative responses. We can support the efforts of the United Nations and NATO to end the violence in Libya. We can send aid to relief efforts in Japan. I have been asked whether our Unitarian Universalist Service Committee has set up a relief team as they did after the disasters in Haiti, but intelligently, I think, they realized that although their small resources could make a huge difference in Haiti, they could use them better in support of other larger organizations at such a time as this. Their recommendations are on their website for those of you who would like to do something in support of the relief efforts in Japan in concert with other Unitarian Universalists.

It really is a good thing to rush in with bandages and food and shelter for those suffering from disasters either human or natural, but what can we do to keep monsters like Khadafy from coming to power in the first place and retaining it by violence against his people or to enhance the safety of individuals even when they are poor and not of the privileged few? How can we create justice in an unjust world? I think this is a religious question, and it is my conviction, as I have told you over and over again, that it is through a free faith, the faith that we advocate, that this can best be answered. In order to make a difference, though, we have to thoroughly understand and practice that faith so that we are not reduced merely to bandages but can perhaps prevent the wounds. So it seemed to me that the sermon I had planned on the better practice of free religion was as appropriate now as it would be if nature were for the moment acting benign and Khadafy had stopped killing his people.

When people ask us to explain Unitarian Universalism most of us realize that the answer is not “We can believe anything we want to.” Ministers preach against that all the time. I certainly do. But really, why not? If it really is free religion, can’t we believe anything we want to? Who’s going to stop us, after all? For one thing, we stop ourselves. Unless we are perfect masters of denial, never allowing any hint of reality to obtrude, we simply can’t believe anything we know for a fact to be untrue, no matter how hard we try. I think I’ve told you about the young woman I was talking to who said that she had a great respect for Unitarian Universalism but wasn’t one herself, and when I asked her why she replied that she wasn’t sure that what she believed was true and that if she were a Unitarian Universalist she would have to look at it in light of the supporting evidence. I was amazed at her understanding of our faith and of the difference between freedom and license. It seemed to me perhaps deeper than most of our own.

The freedom that our religion celebrates isn’t only about belief, just as the practice of religion is far more than theological conviction. Our freedom extends to all of our understanding of the meaning of our lives and our place and purpose in the world. We need then, I think, to look at what freedom means and why it is different from thinking, believing and doing just what you want to.

I think that the difference between freedom and license is accountability. At bottom, when the rubber is actually hitting the road, you make your own choices, hold the truth as you see it, answer to your own conscience, but you are accountable for those choices to something outside your own needs, wishes and desires. Years ago Victor Frankl wrote a book on what he called humanist psychology called Man’s Search for Meaning. If you have not read it, I commend it to you strongly. It is again in print. He began by explaining on the basis for his psychology, which was his experience surviving one of Hitler’s death camps. He said that what enabled some to survive while others perished was that instead of asking what they deserved from life, they responded to what life asked of them. Instead of dwelling on the unfairness of their suffering — and heaven knows we have seen little so unfair in the history of humankind — they responded to the demands of the time and place in which they found themselves as best they could, and they survived. They were not free physically, but they were free in their souls. They could choose to be accountable to life.

One of my more conservative, much beloved colleagues, Carl Scovel, gave a presentation at a ministers’ meeting once on obedience. As you can imagine I bristled at the very thought. Obedient to what or whom, I grumbled. Am I not free? And yet as I listened to him I realized that he was right. We do not have to be obedient and yet for true freedom, accountable freedom, we are obedient to the reality to which we must respond. We can kick against the pricks as much as we wish, but ultimately we are accountable to the reality of our experiences and our surroundings.

We are accountable to the truth. The more we know the more difficult that becomes because we realize that not only is it not always easy to ascertain what truth is, sometimes it is impossible, and absolute truth is never attainable. Nevertheless if we are to be free we are accountable to it. We must do our best to discern it, compare it to our experience, gather the evidence, and when it is found embrace it with our whole souls. Then we have to be ready to leave it behind if we find out we were mistaken. That may be the hardest part of all, but we are always, at all times accountable to the truth. Another colleague, Nick Cardell, said, “Unitarian Universalists don’t believe what we want to. We believe what we must.” That probably says it as succinctly as it can be said.

We are also accountable to the promises we have made. There are people who avoid relationships or joining organizations because they fear to lose their freedom. They are right that when they have made promises to others or even to themselves there are things they can no longer do and other things that they must do in accordance with those promises. Even if the promise is only tacit, to enter into an undertaking with others, be it marriage, parenthood, membership in any body of people is a matter of promising to maintain and nourish the relationship. It isn’t really losing your freedom to do that; it’s losing your license. It is your choice to make the promises, but once made you are accountable to them, and without them our lives are arid and meaningless.

We are, essentially, accountable to the highest values that we hold, and we hold them, even when, as sometimes happens, perhaps often, they are dismissed in favor of license. We know in our minds and in our consciences that they are the things for which we should strive. It sounds fairly easy when you put it like that, but it never is. Though you may have the general idea of what you mean by them, what actually constitutes them can be very fuzzy; they may differ widely from their generally accepted meaning; and their relative value can be even more problematic than that. Pontius Pilate washed his hands as he asked the question, “What is truth?” We know that faithfulness is required of us, and yet what do we do when those things to which we must be faithful conflict? And that’s just two of them. What about justice? In a universe in which justice is an irrelevant concept outside of human consciousness we long for justice as one who is starving longs for food. Even children greet perceived injustice with shock and indignation, and at the same time it is often so hard to discern where justice lies. Yet that is the responsibility and the price of freedom. We are accountable to justice, but we ourselves must decide what justice is — or at least, in this imperfect world, what is more just than the other possibilities.

Compassion is another one that sounds really easy, and often it really is, but look at the issue of abortion, which is about as cut and dried an example of the difficulty of it that I can imagine. Both sides of that explosive issue often base their arguments on the value of compassion. One side insists that the other is murdering innocent babies, while the other says that their concern is the unbearable torture of the woman carrying an unwanted fetus and the misery likely to ensue if an unwanted child is born. Both are full of compassion, but to whom or what are we accountable when we say that our opinions and our actions are correct? In freedom we have the choice and we know that the choice must be given to others as well, but we are accountable to the value of compassion wherever we discern that it lies.

The list goes on: truth, faithfulness, compassion, integrity, fortitude, all those things to which in our freedom we are accountable. Being accountable, then, we have to discern what they are as best we can. Before the last revision of the Purposes and Principles in the Unitarian Universalist Association’s bylaws, in which they were separated and now everyone knows what the principles are but the purposes have disappeared from human memory, one of them said that we affirmed the disciplined search for truth and meaning. The revision changed the word disciplined to responsible. It was done in a time when every word that implied authority was seen as patriarchal, and so discipline, perceived as rigid and controlling, gave way to responsibility. Although I have always said that responsibility was simply another way to say the word freedom, I have always regretted it without being entirely sure why. In thinking about this issue, of the difference between freedom and license, I think this change is applicable. If we are free we are responsible for our choices — no exceptions. We may not take responsibility for them and they may not be particularly admirable — they may even show a lack of responsibility — but nevertheless we are responsible for them. They’re ours. Only a slave can say, “The Devil made me do it.” That gives a responsible search a pretty wide latitude. A disciplined search on the other hand makes demands on us. It is how we are held accountable.

As more and more data becomes accessible to us through the internet it has seemed to me that there has been a sharp rise in ignorance. We can have more facts and even more opinions on any subject that we are interested in than ever before, but there doesn’t seem to be a good process of sorting and making judgments about what those facts indicate and how they actually relate or do not relate to one another. We consume byte after byte, but we seem to have lost the ability to make meaning of them. There were also some frightening statistics the other evening from our Wednesday lecturer on an equivalent decline in the emotion of empathy among the young. I believe those two things are related. People can have hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, and yet there are very few of us who will say that we have more than one friend to whom we can open our whole heart and on whom we can always rely. Too many have not even one. I am not saying that discipline in the search for truth and meaning will get us out of our self-imposed isolation in which we are too busy texting to hear or see the person next to us, but perhaps at least it can help us separate the false from the true, opinion from fact, and give us the basis for pattern-making.

And remind us always of our accountability as free individuals in a freely gathered community to the truth, to faithfulness, to love and mercy, to life, to one another and to this world on which we live in all its beauty as well as its horror and to which also we are accountable.