This summer, when I was preaching my round robin sermon, I found myself thoroughly dissatisfied with it. It got rave reviews in Baton Rouge, so I fiddled with it, changed it a little, and tried it in First Church, New Orleans. The response there was better than I expected, so I fiddled with it some more and traveled to the North Shore. It was during the enthusiastic sermon response time there that I thought I had finally figured out what made me so uncomfortable with it. I have a tendency to want my sermons to be wrapped up in a nice little package, preferably topped with a neat, ornamental bow - no dangling strings, nothing messy about them. It was the last paragraph I kept fiddling with. It said in its last sentence:
The story (the one we need to explain our new way of looking at ourselves and the universe) must somehow tell us ways to live unambiguously in an ambiguous world, ways to hold on to truth in a statistical/probable universe, and ways to define ourselves still through the purpose of our service to what we cannot define, but which calls us to goodness and beauty beyond the confines of our knowledge.
That's all very well, but it doesn't give a clue how to go about doing that. On my way to lunch with a friend who had been a long-time member of this church before moving to the north shore, I mentioned that feeling, and she responded, "But that's what all your other sermons are about." On reflection, I decided that she was right, but it is nearly always on a case by case basis, dealing with this question or that issue. Seldom do I try to say, "This is how you live unambiguously in the midst of ambiguity; this is how you dedicate yourself to truth when truth is not wholly available to us; This is how you make moral and ethical judgments when such values differ from culture to culture - even within neighborhoods; this is how you serve the highest and the best; this is how you live faithfully.
It's partly the nature of the problem. When your essential message is that we are unable to ascertain absolute truth, that none of a finite creature's answers can be final, that no individual, no religion, no science, no world-view can legitimately claim the last word, that the quest for truth must by its (and our) very nature be unending, it is inevitable that one must come at the answers that we can discover in finite bits and pieces - they being all that we can see - fitting them as best we can into a coherent understanding. Nevertheless, I couldn't leave it alone. By the time you heard that sermon, it was still unfinished, inadequate, unsatisfying to me. Under those conditions, of course, the only thing to do is preach another one.
We must begin, of course, in humility, understanding that we can know very little, if anything, for certain, that our answers must always be tentative, that our actions may have consequences that we cannot predict. Humility is, I think, one of the greatest virtues that we can have. Like anything else, though, however great a virtue it is, it has its shadow side. We must not be swept away by our understanding of how little we can know, how limited we are by our culture and our perceptions. It is fascinating to speculate about dimensions that we cannot experience. We know the three spatial dimensions; we know about time. But what if there are others? Others that we cannot perceive, but that perhaps impinge upon us in some way that we cannot recognize? What if there are whole worlds whose very existence we can't even imagine because they are farther away than the farthest suns, but nearer than the person next to us? What if there are? What if our whole universe is just a molecule in a greater universe? What if it was created out of some unimaginable - to us infinite - child's lego set? There is nothing in our abilities to tell us the answers to such questions. Very simply, we know that matter, solid matter, is made up of energy which is constantly in motion. Yet our limitations perceive it simply as static, solid - we can lean against walls, bruise our shins on coffee tables. That, dear friends, is the truth - just a little one, but nevertheless, the truth. Whatever matter may be, simply where lines of energy cross, I am told, if you walk into a wall it will stop you, and it you trip over a footstool in the dark, you are likely to find a bruise the next morning. There may be ways to get around those realities - I'm always hearing that there are - but until such ways are learnable, testable, and always valid, I'm going to avoid walking into walls, and turn the light on when I enter a dark room. It is well to remember that we can know nothing for certain, but it is necessary to be aware that this world that we can see and hear and touch and taste and smell is our world, the one in which we must live. And in such awareness we can choose to live as faithfully as we can.
In some ways even more dangerous, I think, is the humility that tells us that we cannot make judgments - judgments of good and evil - for anyone but ourselves. We know, and rightly, that one person's meat is another's poison. We know, and rightly, that what I think is right, someone else, with another background, another upbringing, another culture, will think is wrong. We should always be mindful of that truth. Nevertheless, we must not be swept away by that knowledge to condone evil simply because it wears a different face. But how can we tell? How can we, limited as we inevitably are, make those judgments? Yet we must make those judgments because without some shared moral and ethical understanding we cannot live together. I would go even farther than that. I would say that there are things that are intolerable, however culture-bound they are, however far away they are, however little they affect me, personally, except insofar as I understand that we are all, whatever the color of our skin, the shape of our eyes, or the names of our gods, brothers and sisters. The holocaust was intolerable (and did happen - the evidence is irrefutable, whatever our reality-challenged conspiracy theorists may say) but so is today's horrifying oppression of women by the Taliban in Afghanistan. So is tribal warfare in the Balkans and in Africa. So is the fact that respectable black men can't get a taxi in New York City. So is.... But people are different, good actions can have evil consequences, truth is unavailable. I can be wrong.
I can be wrong.
Yet there are ideal concepts to whose service we are called - the service to which creates meaning for our lives, not just in the eyes of others but in our own. They are by definition what we value. We must love them and hate their opposites. We will seek justice, and know that it is right to oppose oppression. We strive to be compassionate, and reject cruelty. We yearn for truth and despise falsehood. The problem is that we can be wrong. We don't know for certain in every situation where justice lies, what is truly compassionate action, what is really the truth. How can we live unambiguously in an ambiguous world? How can we dedicate ourselves to truth when we're not sure what truth is? How can we answer a call to serve the holy, when we aren't sure we have interpreted it correctly?
A few weeks ago a colleague sent out a general question to all of he could find on email. Is there, he asked, any spiritual practice that is specific to Unitarian Universalists, since we have separated ourselves into Christians and humanists and Buddhists and Jews and pagans, with each group having its own separate and particular practices? His concern, and it is one I share, is that we have become so eclectic that we have lost our identity as a religious movement. I do, however, feel that such an identity still exists, and it does include a particular, association-wide spiritual practice. One that all of us - yes, you, too - practice. What I said was:
I would argue that that (our practice) is the testing of our understandings about ourselves, the world and the transcendent against tradition, evidence and our consciences. We may each do other things like prayer or meditation or whatever, but this is our distinctive practice as members of a free faith, and I would definitely call it spiritual, as it strengthens and clarifies our relationship to that which calls us to be greater than we are.
Another colleague, agreeing, (and, by the way, he is one of the most traditionally Christian of my colleagues) added something that I don't know how I forgot: participation in congregational life and worship, though I would have said testing our understandings within the community. That, it seems to me, is not only our spiritual practice, but the process we must use in discovering how to get beyond the tentativeness and ambiguity of a statistical/probable universe - not just Unitarian Universalists, but humanity as a whole. The old authoritarian answers do not work for us any more, unless we are escaping from the future. Refusing to seek answers at all, knowing that the ones we find may be faulty or just plain wrong because of our own limitations, can lead only to alienation and chaos.
None of this is easy. It would be much simpler to seek a messiah with all the answers, if we could believe them. It would be simpler to go back to the old answers, or put our faith in science or pop psychology. It would be far easier to say that since we can't know anything for certain we'll just live our own lives the best way we can and let others go their own way. Almost anything would be easier than this quest we are on in which none of the answers can be relied on but to which we must dedicate our lives. Nevertheless there is a call, a call which nearly all of us understand, to go beyond the littleness of our daily lives, the finitude of our beings, the limitations of our physical and mental abilities, to seek justice, to embrace truth, to love one another beyond liking or even understanding. We must answer that call if our lives are to have purpose and meaning, and we must answer it without knowing the answers.
Most people, when they use the word faith mean unquestioned, untested belief. I don't believe in that kind of faith, yet I do believe that the faith which is make up of loyalty and courage is what we need in this new world of ours. Nothing can be followed blindly, unquestioningly, but we must give our faith to justice. When we do so, we don't ask whether justice exists or can exist, but we dedicate ourselves to the establishment of justice. Then we are faced with the question of what, in a particular time and place and community would be meant by justice. We test our answers against experience, against history, against our own moral understanding, and against the understanding of the community in which we live. We are willing to be shown to be wrong; we do not insist on our rightness; but until we are shown something better, we serve the justice that we see. So it is in our search for truth. We test our findings; we are ready to be proven wrong, and to change if such proof exists. We do not assume truth without evidence, without testing, but we follow the truth we discover in faith. We serve the ideal of compassion, first testing it to see that it be true compassion, that what we do in its service is for the well-being of those we wish to help, but until we are shown that our conclusions are mistaken, we follow the path with courage, with loyalty and with passion. So it is with any of our ideals.
It seems to me that the greatest danger of our age of uncertainty is that, no longer being certain of the true and right, we turn inward, having only our instincts for survival and for pleasure to guide us. Although we still hear the call to transcend our littleness, we are no longer sure how to answer it, so we don't answer it at all, or we answer it foolishly, sporadically, even spasmodically. To live faithfully, with purpose and meaning, we must be willing to do the hard work that it entails. We are freed from authoritarian answers, but we are not freed from the work of freedom. We must find ways to live unambiguously in an ambiguous world, ways to hold on to truth in a statistical/probable universe, and ways to define ourselves still through the purpose of our service to what we cannot define, but which calls us to goodness and beauty beyond the confines of our knowledge.