Some time ago I preached a sermon entitled, "Life Is Short: Eat Dessert First." So often we postpone living in the interests of preparing to live, and never quite get around to it - a profound truth I thought. Last week two among you who remember that sermon gave me the following anecdote from the pen of a Shirley Mayeda: "It figures! When I travel, I usually buy T-shirts as souvenirs. A friend was visiting me one day and we were looking at my collection. 'Where's the one you got in New Orleans?' she asked. 'You know, the one that says 'Life is short. Eat Dessert first.' 'I had to give that one away,' I admitted. 'It got too tight.'"
Truth often gets too tight - uncomfortable. The 19th century Unitarian author Herman Melville, in a letter to fellow Unitarian Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote, "Truth is the silliest thing under the sun. Try to get a living by the Truth - and go to the Soup Societies. Heavens! Let any clergyman try to preach the Truth from its very stronghold, the pulpit, and they would ride him out of his church on his own pulpit banister."
Nonetheless, truth is the stock and trade of the preacher. I try to speak it and you come to this church hoping to hear it. As another 19th century Unitarian, Henry David Thoreau, said, "It takes two to speak the truth - one to speak and one to hear." Except it is not quite so simple. In the Unitarian Universalist church the preacher is not understood to possess the truth, to dole it out like so much candy to children. We cherish freedom of the pulpit - I am free to speak the truth as I understand it - and freedom of the pew - you are free to agree or disagree. The fact that we have comfortable padded chairs instead of uncomfortable pews does not affect the basic principle.
Our movement began historically as a rejection of the creeds and dogmas of the orthodox Christian Church in both Catholic and Protestant forms. We follow our forbears in being heretics - religious people who must be free to choose our own faith. We found that the trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost did not square with our historical perspective; that Jesus was man, not God-man; that our purpose was to live this life to the full, not to worry about the next one - if there is a next one; that neither church nor state could dictate what we should believe.
In modern times we have developed two formulations that express this attitude toward truth. In the 1936 Universalist Avowal of Faith we find these intriguing words: "We avow our faith in ... the authority of truth known or to be known."
That is, while we pledge ourselves to follow the truth no matter where it leads, we recognize that human understanding of truth changes with time. We know more about the world now than we did then - no matter when then was.
This is called an heuristic conception of truth: we hold a belief tentatively until we can confirm it or until it helps us discover something better. We can act with conviction even without absolute certainty; we can be sure without being cocksure. We are not absolutely positive that we shall be alive tomorrow, but it seems a reasonably good hypothesis to act upon.
This faith in existence is clearly a risk, but one that seems worth taking. We fashion our faith out of the workshop of doubt. We need to act as if there will be a tomorrow. Our current Unitarian Universalist Purposes and Principles state that "We covenant to affirm and promote... a free and responsible search for truth and meaning." It conveys much the same idea - that truth is not really something we possess once and for all, but something for which we struggle over a lifetime.
This understanding of truth is somewhat more nebulous than the creeds and catechisms, duties and dogmas from which many of us have departed. While the comfort of absolute confidence in what is true is appealing, Unitarian Universalists have chosen the discomfort of needing to experience that truth in our own lives. In the choice between truth and repose, we have chosen the former.
Mark Twain once said, "When in doubt tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends." He continued that he had never known a real seeker after truth. Sooner or later everyone engaged in that search found what they were looking for and gave up the quest.
Protestant theologian Paul Tillich put it somewhat more eloquently: "The castle of undoubted certitude is not built on the rock of reality." And later he speaks in a sermon based on Pilate's question to Jesus in the Gospels, "What Is Truth?": "The passion for truth is silenced by answers which have the weight of undisputed authority....Don't give in too quickly to those who want to alleviate your anxiety about truth. Don't be seduced into a truth which is not really your truth, even if the seducer is your church or your party, or your parental tradition."
A "passion for truth." That sums up one of the core convictions of Unitarian Universalism. Our doubt that we have found absolute truth already is not based on our lack of concern with truth. Our passion is to learn the truth of the world in which we live and our means of living it, in the words of Emerson, "converting life into truth." But what is truth, and how do we know if we have found it? Good questions. And let me complicate the matter even further by suggesting, after psychoanalyst Carl Jung, that there are really two kinds of truth - objective and subjective. Objective truth is that which can be proved as scientists can prove that the earth travels about the sun, not vice versa; that two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen inevitably constitute water in one of its forms; that what goes up must come down. This is truth that is universally accepted and verifiable.
Subjective truth, however, is another matter. This is the religious truth which guides and directs our lives. What is true for me is perhaps not true for you. For the Promise Keepers who gathered in Washington, DC, yesterday, it is subjectively true that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. That is a central truth of their lives which cannot be refuted. My belief in Jesus as a man for others can likewise not be refuted. I can deny the miracles surrounding Jesus - the Virgin Birth, walking on water, the resurrection - by appeal to objective truth.
The Promise Keepers would not accept that, of course, but I can still make the case with confidence in the objective truth of what I claim. What I cannot deny is that these men have apparently been grasped by Jesus the Christ. Whether their lives are transformed for good over time is yet to be demonstrated. My life will also have to demonstrate the power of my belief in the one I call the prophet from Nazareth.
We spend a great deal of time and expend a great deal of energy on these disputes over truth. While my differences with the Promise Keepers are stark, there is a much more subtle distinction between objective and subjective truth.
Last Wednesday I saw the GeVa Theater production of comedian Steve Martin's play, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" - the nimble rabbit - set in a 1904 Parisian cafe when both were young men. It was an intellectually lively and often amusing romp through an imaginary conversation between Pablo Picasso, the painter, and Albert Einstein, the scientist, with a few friends thrown in for good measure.
At one point they debated the relative merits of their respective fields of endeavor. For Picasso art was the way to truth, while, of course, Einstein believed truth was to be discovered through science. Not surprisingly, the perceived dilemma was never resolved, but they had a good time debating it, and so did we who observed.
Subjective truth is akin to Picasso's view, as he once put it, "We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth. At least the truth that is given us to understand." He discovered the elemental truth about human beings and events and portrayed it on canvass. In his depiction of the mass bombing of the Spanish village of Guernica, for example, he points to the truth that war is hell, but hope rises out of the ashes - an arm with a lamp stands out in the midst of destruction.
Einstein, on the other hand, find truth in his formula E equals MC squared - energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. This equation points to the truth of physics inherent in the cosmos. "Truth," he said, "is what stands the test of experience." Presumably this formulation is still useful for scientists.Who is to say which is really truth? In religion subjective truth might be the feeling that God comforts one when in trouble. There is no way to prove this, but for the believer it is true. It is true in Picasso's sense of truth, but not in Einstein's, for one cannot prove the existence of God by scientific means. Jesus Christ is not Lord and Savior for me, but that is a truth for a friend or neighbor. I can neither prove nor disprove that he or she is "saved," but they cannot prove that I am not "saved" even if I wanted to be.
Where does this excursion into truth leave us? As a minister I am not really of much help in discerning objective truth. That is primarily the role of science, although the truly religious person, in my opinion, does well to study both science and the scientific method and use that as one basis for subjective truth. When it comes to subjective truth, however, the truths about the difficult business of living a life meaningfully, I presume to be of some help.
Its not that I am authoritative even here. There is no way I can demonstrate the validity of the subjective truth of what I say beyond trying to live by it and letting my life speak for me. This kind of religious truth has been called, "the eternal conversation about things that matter." That conversation is symbolized by the Chinese ideogram for truth - which is two people talking. In this intriguing understanding, truth is not something handed down from on high, but something created in the constant dialogue thoughtful people have always had over matters of ultimate importance.
For example take suffering. For me the truth is that there is no answer to why we suffer, only how we endure it, grows in me through the biblical Book of Job, through Archibald MacLeish's play J.B., Victor Frankl's concentration camp experience and our personal experiences of loss - creating a kind of dialogue across the centuries.
Honoring the "Days of Awe", the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I illustrate that conversation with the old Jewish adage that when two Jews get together, there are at least three opinions. More formally, there is an ancient Jewish tradition of shylah and tshuvah, question and response, among those who are trying to learn together. The ancient rabbis said, "Who are wise? Those who learn from every other human being." I trust the same is true of Unitarian Universalists, for no one of us knows enough truth to live the religious life. Exploring together, we can hope to find enough to serve our needs.
There is the familiar picture of Unitarian Universalists who have come to a fork in the road. One sign points right and says, "To Truth." The sign pointing left reads, "To a discussion about Truth." Clearly that is the one we take, for we wouldn't think of missing a discussion - an "eternal conversation about things that matter." Its not that truth is unimportant. It is that we care what we reach and how we reach it.
How desperately we need such a "conversation about things that matter" is illustrated by a parable about four frogs told by Kahlil Gibran, the Syrian-American poet. They were sitting peaceably on a log when it became caught by a current and was carried into a swiftly flowing river.
One frog credited the log with having life; a second said the river, walking to the sea, carried the log on its back; the third frog said that neither the log nor the river was moving, but the moving was in the frog's thinking, for without thought nothing moves.
The fourth frog said "Each of you is right and none of you is wrong. The moving is in the log and the water, and in our thinking also." None of the first three frogs was willing to admit that his was not the whole truth and the other two were partly right. So, they got together and pushed the fourth frog into the river.
I am convinced that fourth frog was a Unitarian Universalist who believed that the discovery of truth is not a solitary affair, but the work of religious community. The fourth frog understood the importance of conversations that matter - of dialogue on questions of ultimate concern. Each of the frogs had a valuable insight; no one of them had the whole truth.
Each of us is responsible for finding truth - each of us contributing our small truths to the larger truth. We share openly and honestly the truth as we experience it in our living. I learn from you and you learn from me. None of us have a monopoly.
In this community of conversation and dialogue no one is pushed into the river by those ultra-confident about their monopoly of the truth. From this kind of religious hope and humility it is possible to learn something.
I sum up the truth I have found in these words: In the love of beauty and the spirit of truth we unite for the celebration of life and the service of humanity. That is what I have found. What is your religious truth? I want to know. We all need to know.
In the words of the ancient prayer: "From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth, from the laziness that is content with half truths, from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth, O God of Truth, deliver us."