The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples


Many years ago now a colleague asked me, as if she thought I would know, what we should be preaching on. Realizing the inadequacy of my answer, I answered her as I would answer now, that we should be preaching about how to live unambiguously in an increasingly ambiguous universe. It is what I was preaching on then, what I am preaching on now, and what I will preach about until I can no longer fill a pulpit. It is what I am preaching about when I talk of despair, of meaninglessness, of grief and loss and of joy and hope and the celebration of human achievement. It is what I am preaching about when I speak of justice and those oppressions that deny it. It is what I am preaching about when I speculate about the nature of the holy, the significance of truth, honor, loyalty, courage and integrity, human limitations and the creation of beauty. It is what I preach about when I ask you to raise your pledge in the support of free religion. I preached about it in my first sermon to you when I told you absolutely everything I know (admitting that it was a paltry sum) and will preach about it next Sunday in my last sermon in response to the topics that you gave me. Today’s is a new sermon, but you have heard it before, again and again, directly, as you will hear it today, or as the unacknowledged base of every sermon that I preach.

We are living in a time of fundamental change — the kind of change that takes in every aspect of our lives, from our daily tasks to the ordering of society, to our understanding of the nature of the universe. It is a change that has happened only twice before in human history, though I suspect that there was a time before the beginning of our record-keeping that there was a first occurrence. These times are driven by a world-shaking discovery coupled with a new way to store and share data. The first one that we know of has been called the axial age, that time spanning several thousand years when the great religious thinkers arose, and what was essentially a random universe found order. Moses, the Buddha, Lao-tse, Confucius, Socrates, the thinkers of the Advaita Vedanta, Jesus, on up to Mohammed and many others unnamed, brought order to the chaos. The discovery was that the seasons were predictable through the study of the stars, and the invention of writing codified the new understandings. Not many gods but one; one underlying principle that could be trusted, and by inference one creator, one creation. It took thousands of years and much unrest. The Old Testament is the story of the conflict of that era in one small part of the world.

Hardly had just about everyone managed to internalize this new way of being when Copernicus discovered that contrary to popular opinion the earth was not only not the center of the universe, it wasn’t even the center of the solar system. The sun had not been created merely to give us light and life; the moon and stars had their own being rather than simply decorations of the night sky and directions for planting times. And Gutenberg invented the printing press. People learned to read, first to read the Bible, but then just to increase learning. It was another world-changing, world-shattering, event. When this happens it is never wholly realized at first. A little change here, a small change there, a larger one, and then people begin to see the safe and solid ground slipping from under their feet. Technology booms, and Luddite riots try to keep it from happening. There are new ideas about religion, and repression, oppression, and then religious wars begin. The scientific method — experimentation rather than mere classification — became the order of the day. The understandable, unchangeable laws of the universe made the idea of a God who had the reins always in his all-powerful, always interested hands less tenable. The Enlightenment was born and with it the concept of a universe not a matter of authority but of cause and effect. Free religion came with it and the ideals of freedom and equality for human beings. They were no longer inevitably by divine law in their proper sphere, but could change their status through education and hard work. Changes in effects were possible if causes were identified and changed.

The next change came too soon. Rather than the thousands of years that human beings had to get used to the huge changes of the axial age, there were only a few hundreds to begin to understand the scientific method, the cause and effect universe, the rights and responsibilities of freedom and equality, and the overwhelming power of the Industrial revolution.

It started with the telegraph, shrinking the world a little, then the telephone that brought people closer together. Then there were the radio and television bringing into our living rooms events from around the world, cultures with entirely different values from our own, ideas that would never have crossed our minds. Our certainties began to totter, but we might have been able to retain our complacency if it hadn’t been a little experiment by Heisenberg that told us something we didn’t need to know about the fact that with subatomic particles the more you know about the speed, the less you can know about the position and vice versa. It was called the uncertainty principle, and for those who noticed it, there was the revolutionary concept that there were things we never could know, no matter how hard we studied or experimented or reflected. Relativity and then quantum theory set the seal on it, the internet drove it, and the world turned upside down again. We are just at the beginning of it, only a few recognizing it, but all of us beginning to feel the effects of the ground slipping away again. We clutch at the few solid verities left us and find them melting away in our hands. 

We can see it all around us — a longing for old days and old ways that seemed simpler, and indeed were simpler when choices were limited. There’s a country song that talks about sitting on the front porch sipping ice-cold cherry coke when everything was black and white… It is, of course, wrapped in roseate colors. We forget that in those days round pegs were forced into square holes, gender roles were rigid, and Malvina Reynolds wrote the song “Little Boxes” about the lock-step lives people were living. We see it in the retreat to rigid authoritarian religion, which is far more about cultural values than about theology. The radical Islamists are far more concerned about keeping the polluting music and attire of the west from corrupting their culture than they are about following the precepts of Mohammed or doing the will of Allah. When an acquaintance of mine went through the ritual of baptism after being born again he was shocked to find that the good church members immediately assumed that on entering their fellowship he was declaring that he was racist, homophobic and anti-abortion. He had assumed that he was merely declaring that he had accepted Jesus as his savior.

We see it in the furor over illegal immigration, most of which is not really immigration at all but people who are coming here to work and then return. The fear is much less an economic than a cultural one, different languages and backgrounds that many fear will overwhelm our traditional values. Our governor’s voter purge is clearly politically motivated, but it receives its support from those who fear that our domestic culture is not strong enough to survive contact with another. They may be right, too, since we seem to be throwing it away with both hands, ignoring history, constitutional protections for minorities, and with no knowledge of literature or, even, these days, writing and spelling.

We see it, too, in the widespread rejection of the findings of science. While accepting the technology that drives the changes that are so frightening, people are not just ignoring science and the scientific method but actively denying and denigrating them. Fewer and fewer people accept the clear evidence supporting the theory of evolution or the findings of environmental scientists. More and more are believing anything that will allow them to think that they can get their lives under control again, or at least enables them to put the blame on somebody, anybody — teachers, scientists, politicians, whoever — who let things get so out of hand.

Perhaps even more frightening than the people who are trying to hold back the tide are those who are eagerly drowning themselves in it without understanding, or, I imagine, even realizing that it is happening. Perhaps the rejection of science belongs to this end of the spectrum as well. Since science has told them that there is no absolute truth, then why should they believe anything they hear from scientists? Since cultural mores differ, why should they try to judge between right and wrong? Or, often, that since it is clear that the reality we perceive is both shaped and limited by our perceptions that we in fact create or can create our own reality.

The oppressions of the past were often crippling, but the license of the present is often dangerous, sexualizing small children and not affording them the security of a stable family, or allowing them to limit their development to a single area, the rise in drug use, in sexually transmitted diseases and in personal isolation in which communication is almost constant but true relationship becomes harder and harder to find.

We cannot stem the tide, but neither should we allow ourselves to drown in it. The change in human consciousness that is presently occurring will continue until it becomes common wisdom and, although we will have a record of our struggles in its adoption, our posterity will no longer understand the kind of thinking that led to them, as we find it hard to understand why learning to read the Bible and drawing conclusions from it ourselves was considered a heresy worth fighting wars over. In the meantime, though, we are in the midst of the struggle. The cause and effect universe has become a statistical/probable one. Truth is no longer available to us, and cultural values are under attack from rival systems or from their own inability to justify themselves. Things are no longer black and white, but, I would suggest, neither is their grayness uniform. The world has become an ambiguous reality, but we must not live that way. It is harder to discern our path; we are beset by doubts; but that very doubt may be our best tool toward the comparatively placid place on the other side of this age of uncertainty.

Ken Patton said, “ To doubt is a valorous and necessary faith.” It is the crucible in which the gold of truth is refined, the essential tool of science. It will keep us from both the denial of inevitable change and the surrender to nihilism. We can never be absolutely sure that our choices are the best ones but we can use the discipline of doubt to lead us on our way. Reason alone can no longer be enough, but it must never be discarded as useless.

I read an interesting statement not long ago in support of which I have no information beyond the fact that the person who wrote it said that the research was available. It was that just as there is a window of opportunity within which children must learn to speak or they will never do so, so is there a window of opportunity for learning both critical thinking and metaphor that closes at the end of adolescence. It is interesting that those two things that seem so different are paired in that window. Whether or not it is true that the window closes, I think critical thinking and metaphor are related as the approaches by which we can most readily find our path in the murkiness of this lap of our journey. Doubt will anchor us to reality, but metaphor will lead us to a clarity of understanding in which our choices can be made. We cannot count and measure and weigh every aspect of every choice, but we can choose, holding doubt as a precious possession to correct us in misinterpretation.

In a statistical/probable universe the answers to our questions are probabilities, not certainties, but we can remember that some things are so probable that we can treat them as certain. Though the molecules in this pulpit could line up in such a way that it would become insubstantial and my text would fall to the floor, it is highly improbable — so improbable that I don’t have to give it a passing thought. That is true of most things in this universe that impinge upon us. The earth will not stop turning in the foreseeable future, nor are we very likely to be hit by a meteor. There are, too, concepts that transcend reason, critical thinking, even the scientific method, ideals of truth, of love, of justice, loyalty, honor and many more. In this finite world our experience of these things cannot be absolute, nor our understanding of them reject the ambiguity of this finitude. Even so, we must follow justice without ambiguity, knowing that as a present phenomenon, we can never be absolutely certain where it lies. We must choose truth, knowing that absolute truth is unknowable to us, yet trying always to get as close as we can. We must love, not ever being sure of the most loving action, and behave with honor, knowing that we may not be right about just where honor lies. We must never cease to doubt that we are right and never cease to live faithfully in our unequivocal embrace of what is right, however ambiguous our discernment.