“What is our Eternal Truth?”
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
Full disclosure: I am not a theologian nor a historian nor a philosopher nor a scholar of religious belief systems. I know that we have some very accomplished and knowledgeable individuals among us, and I admire them that. I just got here because I ask a lot of questions, more often to myself than out loud. And I came to be giving this talk entitled, “What is our Eternal Truth?” – see, a question – because I got to thinking about a few lines that I heard right here at church. Those services provided me with what any good UU service should offer: They spurred me to thoughtful consideration, research and reflection. My talk this morning will cover some of what I learned and am learning.
First of all, each week, we recite together our church covenant. As you all likely know, Unitarian Universalism is not a creedal organization but a covenantal organization. This means that instead of espousing a creed or set of beliefs, we affirm a covenant or promise. One of the things that we promise to one another in this congregation is to “seek the truth in love.” This line of our covenant, of course, mirrors the statement in our 7 Principles asserting that we promote “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” I noticed in our congregation’s covenant, though, that we’re talking not just about some imprecise concept of truth but the truth. The addition of the article “the” changes the meaning and implies a singular truth. So here I go thinking: What is this truth? We believe in the pursuit of truth, but how do we know if we’ve obtained this truth? And how do we discriminate one person’s or group’s truth from another?
Some of these questions were already floating around in the back of mind when I heard something else about truth here one morning. On Easter Sunday, Rev. Julie spoke about the work and teachings of Jesus, whose radical acts of love and hospitality inspire us today. Rev. Julie observed that Christians view Jesus as a savior who died to bring eternal life to all who believe in him and accept him as their Messiah. Unitarian Universalists, meanwhile, regard Jesus as a great inspiration and model for an authentic life. Rev. Julie closed her Easter talk with meditation words from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nat Hanh reminding us that we are a part of a larger cycle of birth, life and death and of the world around us. This life cycle was called an “everlasting truth.” This phrase – everlasting truth – influenced the title of my talk this morning.
Further piquing my interest in the truth about … the truth was a talk given by Rev. Julie one Sunday in which she told a story about The Mystery. She related that, about the great questions of life, “The Mystery was silent about these things.” Instead of speaking to these age-old questions, “The Mystery kept quiet, hoping they would figure it out themselves.” The Mystery advised, “Don’t’ listen with your ears; listen with your heart.” She concluded, “When we act on our feelings of thankfulness and joy, The Mystery will play with us and through us.”
Remember, we have a promise to one another in this church that we will “seek the truth in love.” Then we hear about one “everlasting truth,” which is that we humans are a part of an ongoing and interdependent cycle of life. This cycle can be summed up with the old joke: There are only two things you can be sure of in life: Death and taxes.
But then, on the other hand, we are told that there is a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty and doubt that we have to work our way through in our lives without much guidance. As they say, kids don’t come with insruction manuals. Well, there aren’t instruction manuals for heartbreaks or frustrations or overwhelming joys either. It would seem that there are some Knowns or commonly accepted realities and a lot of Unknowns that we might be making up as we go along.
There are a series of conferences called TED conferences featuring world-renowned speakers and thinkers in the sciences, technology, art and humanities. Talks from these conferences are called TED Talks and can be found online at ted.com. As an aside, I highly recommend TED talks as enthralling resources in your own pursuit of knowledge. Brene Brown – a doctor of clinical social work who studies shame, vulnerability and resiliency – remarked in her TED talk that “religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. ‘I’m right; you’re wrong. Shut up.’” We UUs can relate to what Brene Brown means by that; many of us are probably here because we have rejected the certainty and stepped out into the uncertain. We are seeking truth, but we still recognize that not all things can be proven. We value scientific knowledge, but we retain some of the mystery and wonder that makes life exciting.
Brene Brown’s remark is a humorous reminder that the pendulum has been swinging from absolute faith in religious doctrine to rejection of all things supernatural for a long time.
Michael Werner recounts in “Humanism and Beyond the Truth” how humanism emerged in the 19th Century in response to both the Enlightenment and the Romantic Movement. Werner writes: “A basic tension arose when the Enlightenment replaced religion with critical reason and science as the bridge to a better life. The Romantic Movement countered with the view that our emotional, intuitional, prescientific awareness was more important. These dialectical polar views seemed to be synthesizing at the beginning of this century when many humanists seemed to integrate heart and mind, reason and compassion.”
Werner argues that humanism today places too great an emphasis on truth reached through the use of science and reason. Werner writes, “There are limits to reason and science in all areas, but much more so in the area that talks about how to live our lives.” Werner observes that “much of the universe is chaotic, unexplainable, or without clear-cut choice.” He advocates a pluralistic approach to avoiding deep and hurtful conflicts when faced with these complex situations. He offers a successful marriage or long-term relationship as an example of how, as people, we learn to allow some overlap or blurring of the lines of truth in order to get along, live with and enjoy the company of others. As an alternative to rigid adherence to science and reason, Werner proposes a mix of those methods coupled with environmental and biological considerations and our own intrinsic motivation and inspiration that spurs us to decision making.
Werner cites research such as that published in the books Descartes’ Error and Emotional Intelligence to support his argument that it is our emotionality more than our rationality that govern many of our choices and actions. This is especially true of ethical choices. There may be a very strong rational argument for why something is the right thing to do, but we won’t act unless something about the situation moves us. The driving emotional forces of fear, love, hate, envy, grief, empathy, and happiness are very powerful.
This I know to be true, both empirically and intuitively. As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Addictions Professional, I help people who are incarcerated or who have been involved in the criminal justice system overcome a pervasive pattern of drug and alcohol use, criminal activity and self-destructive behavior that threatens to destroy their lives and the lives of those close to them. I am talking about people who have stolen from their own parents or grandparents to get money for drugs; people who have plowed their vehicles into guardrails or telephone poles while driving drunk not just once or twice but three, four, or five times, incurring extensive injuries and expense to themselves and others; people who detest where their lives are going but who continue to do the same things again and again that keep them in a bad place.
I assure you that reasoning with someone in this sort of state is virtually useless. There is an idea that criminals or addicts or alcoholics make rational choices and weigh out their options before acting: “But if I get caught carrying these drugs or selling this stolen property, I’ll get a five-year prison term.” That idea has been disproven. Instead, research shows that people with these sorts of behaviors tend to discount the negative consequences that might happen to them and overvalue the payoffs they get from their behavior.
Change begins with the establishment of a relationship, a feeling of trust and acceptance. It’s the idea of “You’ve done some bad things, but you’re not a bad person.” There has to be hope that things can get better. Sometimes this hope or inspiration comes in the form of religious faith. At times, religion provides an inroad or a starting point. There is a sense of community right off the bat and a network of supportive people to lean on. We have seen this in our prisons and jails, where faith- and character-based rehab programs are very popular with inmates and show promising results for future success. The way I look at it, religion provides a foundational set of moral or ethical standards to anchor people and provide structure in our society.
I was not raised in a church. My family by history is Catholic, but my dad was agnostic, and we didn’t practice or attend Mass when I was growing up. As a teenager, I started attending a Lutheran church with a friend and became something of a zealot. I really admired Martin Luther and appreciated that he opposed the Catholic hierarchy and worked to bring the scriptures to the common people. I was, by choice, baptized and confirmed at the age of 15. Then I entered a four-year relationship with a Jehovah’s Witness and studied that religion for a while.
Trying to figure out my own belief system, I used to think that religion would be so much simpler if each person just read the Bible and came to their own understanding of what God wanted them to know. I used to say that there should be a rule that no one could talk about or debate religion or try to convert or proselytize to others. Doing so, I saw, only led to arguments and wars, splintering and the creation of so many separate religions and denominations that it makes your head spin.
I must have been a budding UU even then because, as it turns out, the UU Rev. John Brigham, whose Closing Words we’ll hear in a bit, espoused roughly the same philosophy. Brigham reported that UUs don’t talk much about God because our knowledge of God and the universe is limited. As a result, we don’t want to make any claims that are untrue. “It’s fine to make guesses and spin metaphors about God,” Brigham said, “but we certainly shouldn’t make claims that these are infallible truths! It’s wise just to speculate tentatively or stay thoughtfully silent.”
The flaw in this line of reasoning, however, is in the fact that many people are like me. Our minds get going, and, as we ponder God and faith and eternity and tragedy and on and on and on and – All of that uncertainty starts to get a little uncomfortable. We have to check our ideas against the ideas of others and get some reassurance about what we fear. As the Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran wrote, “You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts.” When we are not at peace, we may look for resolution of our inner turmoil with a faith community.
Gibran was born into a Maronite Catholic family but evolved into a mystic Christian influenced by Christianity, Islam, Sufism, Hinduism and theosophy. Theosophy, which literally means “divine wisdom,” is a philosophy concerned with direct knowledge of the divine, mysteries of humanity and nature. These influences are reflected in Gibran’s writings, notably his famous book The Prophet. In that book, Gibran writes about how the wisest teachers allow their students to come into their own knowledge rather than force feeding them facts. “If [a teacher] is indeed wise, he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of you own mind.”
The concept of a teacher leading a student “to the threshold of [her] own mind” brings us back to what Rev. Julie told us about The Mystery. The Mystery encourages us to figure things out ourselves and “listen with our hearts.” We listen with our hearts when we put our faith into action, when we demonstrate our compassion and our reverence for the divine within us all.
In the liberal Christian magazine Sojourners, a review of a new book caught my eye. The book, Faitheism by atheist and humanist Chris Stedman, illustrates the sort of faith in action I’m talking about. Stedman writes about the growing chasm and animosity between believers and non-believers. Stedman’s tagline seems to be, “I don’t hate God. I love people.” He argues that hate is not just wasteful, it’s toxic. Stedman promotes a vision of a world where all people can be proud of who they are and work together to promote the common good.
The common good was a cause also championed by the well-known black sociologist and scholar W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois was raised as a Congregationalist but disavowed organized religion as an adult. However, he recognized the important role of the church, especially in African-American social and moral life, and some of his writings reflected a spirituality that he didn’t express publicly. In his 1904 poem Credo, DuBois wrote: “I believe in the training of children, black even as white; they leading out of little souls into the green pastures and beside the still waters, not for self, or peace, but for Life lit by some large vision of beauty and goodness and truth.”
DuBois alludes to “some large vision of … truth.” There is no article “the” like in our covenant and no “a” either. Recall that DuBois was an early civil rights activist at a time when many whites used threats and terrorism to maintain their version of truth in the form of white supremacy. Surely, DuBois would have been skeptical of the assertion that there could be a singular truth. As Rev. Brigham said, we must remain cautious of advocating infallible truths. Truth is an ever-unfolding ideal, and the process of discovery is as important, if not more important, than what we ultimately discover.
So what is our Eternal Truth? You really want to know? Well, based on what I have learned so far … it’s still an enigma. Life is a journey, not a destination. But while you’re out there looking for that truth, remain open to the world and the beauty it offers, and don’t forget to love each other.
Our Closing Words today come from the UU minister John Brigham:
“Go your ways
Knowing not the answers to all things
Yet seeking always the answer
To one more thing than you know.”