The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples



The essay from which I read an excerpt was published in the Unitarian Universalist World magazine. It is a much shorter version of one that David Bumbaugh wrote a couple of years ago just before his retirement from Meadville/Lombard Theological School. I had the opportunity to discuss it with him a little at that time, and although there are things in the longer version that I took issue with, in the main I agree with him completely. The marketing approach to spreading our faith in which our first care is to offend no one has been a pretty total failure. People seem little interested in a faith whose only selling point seems to be that there are no standards, no obligations, and no boundaries. Mark Twain said that he wouldn’t join a club that would include him, and that seems to be a pretty common reaction to the idea that universal inclusiveness is not only the first but the only stated purpose of a religious faith. And it doesn’t work. Not only doesn’t it attract people, we manage to be almost permanently offended by one thing or another — religious language, Christian language, not mentioning God, mentioning God, doing a particular ritual, not doing a particular ritual, advocating united social action, not advocating it, you name it; it will offend somebody. One of my colleagues said that our covenant was not that we would not offend anyone, but that we would not be easily offended. Would that it were honored as often in the practice as in the breach.  

Some years ago I did a workshop at a conference on growth that was a total failure. I made a list of various kinds of people: college professors, blue collar workers, political conservatives, people of color, evangelical Christians, engineers, librarians — you get the drill — and asked people to put an I or an E beside each of them to indicate whether our congregations tended to include or exclude them from our communities. They couldn’t put an E by any of them. In fact, they were irate at the idea that I would think that we exclude anybody. “They exclude themselves,” they insisted. Well, of course we welcome anyone who visits us, but I couldn’t get the point across that people don’t exclude themselves arbitrarily, that there is something we do, or, heaven forbid, something we actually stand for, that keeps certain people away. What I was trying to convey, with no success at all, is that we do things by some of the cultural assumptions we make that drive some people away whom we would love to have among us, and that there are other things that are so much a part of our identity that people who don’t share those values are not and even should not be comfortable here. I couldn’t even get to that conversation because the indignation was so great that I could even imply that we might actually be actively excluding anybody. Our inclusiveness has become so accepted a mantra that we can’t even talk about the questions that David was saying are the necessary questions that we must address in order to be the faith that really is the promise of the future.

Peter Morales, our association president, talks about growth all the time. It’s what he based his campaign on, and most of his rhetoric really does sound a bit like a marketing campaign with attention to the changing demographics of the country and matters such as that. In his column in the last World, though, he said that the first thing we have to do in order to grow is to get religion. When he describes what he means by that, though, it doesn’t include the theological quest that David is sending us on, nor am I even sure that he has considered how we can help people understand our message as something other than the radical inclusion that mutes our voices for fear of excluding.

The first question David asks is, “What do we believe?” That’s the first question people ask us when they’re trying to find out who we are and what we stand for, and yet it is one we find almost impossible to answer. We have, we say, a great range of beliefs, and on one level, we do. We are free to believe whatever our experience, our minds and our consciences tell us is true, and that differs from one person to another. We don’t, after all, all think and feel alike and so our beliefs will differ. As soon as anyone starts talking about what Unitarian Universalists believe the hair rises on the back of my neck, just like it does on some of yours when somebody says god, or faith, or grace…. I may personally believe everything on their list of beliefs, but to say that all of us believe those things and that they are what describe us, even if it’s true, seems to me to go against everything we stand for as a free faith. So, what do we stand for?

Forrest Church said that religion is what you do when you realize that you were born and that you are going to die. The natural question, once that has been realized, is what for? Why am I here? Is there a purpose, and if so, what is it? Our answer to that may be yes or no, but even if it is no, our lives become valuable and meaningful through our religious answers. We like to believe that all religions at their cores teach the same message. They don’t. They are very different in many ways, but they do have the same purpose, and that is to make that gap between birth and death more than just filling in the time. Each of us has one life. What are we going to do with it? The religious answer is that we discover that which is of ultimate value, what is true, good and beautiful, and serve it. And that’s where religions part company. That’s when doctrine and dogma set in. Somewhere in the misty past someone in each faith has figured out what the characteristics of ultimacy are. They assign to it various personality traits and behaviors and teach them until they become ultimate themselves to their adherents. The God of the Christians is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. Allah, the compassionate, the merciful. Vishnu/Shiva, creator/destroyer. These are what are meant by beliefs.

We do it very differently, but it is nevertheless the foundation of our faith, the burning coal at its center. We, too, ask what will be done with this one precious life, and we, too, say that to give it value it must seek the good, the true and the beautiful and serve them. But then we say, “It is your own responsibility to discern what the good, the true and the beautiful are and how you will go about serving them.” It is this essential difference between our free faith and the traditional ones that is so significant, and yet we neither articulate it nor even think of trying to when we are asked what we stand for and what we believe. Instead we say such things as that we accept all beliefs or non-beliefs, that we have a history of social justice work, that well, we can’t exactly explain it, but anyway everybody’s welcome.

When we are led away from the core of our faith by focusing on its necessary consequence of a diversity of phenomenological beliefs, that we are, as our advertising campaign of a few years ago, a faith that fits you, rather than one that you have to fit into, we lose the ability to communicate what we really stand for, or for that matter, that we stand for anything. We become a salad bar, as George Will called us, laying out a variety of beliefs that people hold in various times and places and suggest that you take your pick. Let’s see, I’ll start with a base of Buddhism, add a little Taoism and a garnish of Islam, maybe a bit of that Judaism over there, some more atheism since it’s gotten so popular (no, I don’t want any of that Christianity — I overate on it once) sprinkle a little Hinduism and Shinto over the top and voila! There’s a religion for you. Or more probably we say that what anybody believes is just fine and there’s no need to discuss it — besides we might disagree with one another and then where’s our inclusiveness? So we keep our message as vague as possible in the vain hope that somehow that will enable us to attract the people who also hold at their heart’s core a commitment to freedom of belief, thought and conscience in the conviction that if any religion will make the world more just, more peaceful, more compassionate, and even more sustainable it is ours. Except that we never actually say that. Or at least, though we may say that it’s the religion for the future, we don’t want to alienate anyone by saying why that might be so.

I have never been in favor of growth simply for the sake of growth. Admittedly it’s a lot more fun to preach to a full house than an empty one, and from the institutional point of view, growth is necessary to maintain it. However, if you don’t have a reason for your existence, maintaining an institution is a futile exercise. It’s like a corporation whose only concern is making money for its shareholders rather than doing a good job of producing what it was originally incorporated to produce. However, I do believe from my soul that the message of free religion is a gift that the world needs more than any other at this time. It is the message that freedom means that you are responsible for your beliefs, because no authority is beyond question, and beliefs must be consonant with reason and with the way you experience the world. It must examine all knowledge and work carefully to discern what is true and good. It’s not easy and it’s not always pretty, but it’s the only way that seems to me to make sense of the world. That being the case, and only because that is the case, it’s necessary to think about how we can get the message out to as many people as possible, and I suppose that means marketing. That should not have to mean, however, making the message so bland that it can alienate no one, and eventually retains no content at all.

I remember an argument I had with a colleague once about abortion. We were both strongly pro-choice, but she felt that to make her position clear would keep people from coming to her to talk about it if they were not in entire agreement with her. I felt that it was better to make one’s own position perfectly clear, while respecting those of others who disagreed, that people were more likely to trust you with their problems if they knew precisely where you stood. The argument was never resolved, but I still think that I was right, that the clearer you are about where you stand and what you believe, the more likely it is that others will be encouraged and able to discern their own feelings about something. That works for religion, too. If you’re going to do marketing, you have to let people know what it is that you are selling.

I think David is right in his analysis. And Peter is right when he tells us that first we have to get religion. We have to keep in mind that we are first of all a religious enterprise, not a social club or an academy or even a social justice organization. In fact, I agree with David so strongly that on reflection I realized that throughout my ministry I have been addressing exactly the questions he poses. What do we believe? Whom or what do we serve? To what are we responsible? Except I would go even farther and say that we are more than responsible — we are accountable. We believe that it is the right and responsibility of every individual to discern what is true and what is good and, having discerned them, that is what we serve. We are accountable to the truth. Since it is not easy to discern and not absolute in this finite universe we are obligated to use every appropriate tool in its discernment, our own experience, our reason, our garnering all the facts and outside opinions that we can before we name it truth. Even then we have to have the humility to accept the possibility that our discernment was mistaken. We are accountable to what we know as goodness: to justice, to compassion, to honor, to fortitude, to integrity, to all of the ideals that make up the ultimate values that we serve. We serve them in many ways, in an upright life, in creative expression, in social activism, in anything where self gives way to our commitment to what is greater than ourselves. Thus we covenant with one another and with all human souls.