IN SEARCH OF CERTAINTY
One of my favourite Sufi stories is about a crown prince who has decided that he is a chicken. The prince has taken to living under the table, clucking, flapping his arms, and picking at seeds of grain. As in so many fairytales, all the wise ones of the kingdom are called in and offered a great reward, but none can effect a cure. Finally, the king’s jester asks if he may try. Upon receiving permission, he drops to the floor and crawls under the table. There he proceeds to cluck, flap his arms, and pick at seeds of grain.
The prince watches him out of the corner of his eyes for a bit.
Then he blurts out, “Who do you think you are?”
Replied the fool, “Why, I am a chicken, of course.”
Hotly the prince returned, “You are not a chicken. I am!”
“Well, yes,” replied the fool, “but so am I.”
Whereupon the prince crawled out from under the table, and stalked off to his room, muttering, “He’s crazy!” A short while later, he returned in his princely garb and resumed his former life. (Maurice Friedman, Friedman's Fables. )
What evidence can we trust to show us what is true? Strength of conviction? The prince had no doubt that he was a chicken. Consensual reality? We know history is riddled with times when a group’s consensual reality led to tragic results. The choice to test the truth of a community’s cherished and defended belief system would be a choice of exile or even death in many cultures throughout human history. To be a heretic is to set oneself apart from the consensual, unquestioned meanings of one’s community, be it family, church, tribe or nation. So what happens in a church that encourages everyone to be a heretic? For the word means, literally, to be a “choicemaker.” Heretics are those who dare to disagree with the often unthinking, consensual reality of their religious tribe.
Let’s look a bit more closely at this core conviction. As Unitarians and Universalists, we covenant to affirm and promote “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” This principle predates the Covenant of Principles we have today. At the time of the merger between Unitarians and Universalists in 1961, the first Principle committed the UU Association to “Support the free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of religious fellowship.” Not merely a Principle, but the foundation of our religious fellowship. I wonder if we have lost something in dropping that foundational language? And what about the word “disciplined”? How does it differ from “responsible?”
This principle goes back a long way within our two traditions. Unitarians in Poland wrote eloquent treatises on the subject of freedom of religious conscience and open inquiry over a century before essays on toleration were penned by English and French philosophers, such as John Locke, who also had Unitarian connections. The open search for truth supported by Unitarians and Universalists has remained a central principle through our history, but its emphases and how we understand it have changed.
I think we need to pay close attention to the paired adjectives in our Principle. A productive search for truth must be both “free” and “responsible“ or “disciplined.” Studying and reflecting upon history, personal or collective, provides a discipline that can interact creatively with our freedom to shape our future.
Other important issues central to our commitment to truth also point us to the creative tension between freedom and discipline. Because of our freedom, we are invited to honor our own ways of knowing and to shape our own truth claims. But discipline invites us to balance that acceptance with questioning and challenge, individually and collectively. Because of our freedom to continue searching, our truth claims are often tentative. But because of our responsibility to live our values, we need to find the courage for
commitment in the midst of tentativeness and ambiguity. Because of our freedom, we respect each individual in his or her uniqueness. But the discipline of living together in community challenges and balances that freedom, and makes us more creative and effective in our efforts to embody our truths in the ways we live our lives.
We know we need to honour a wide spectrum of paths through which our individual religious authority is experienced. Yet we are challenged to do this without abandoning our questioning and testing – the discipline that balances our freedom. The community provides a safe place within which to test all of our truths -- gently and respectfully, but persistently. Even more than challenging the truths of our religious kin, we each need to challenge our own truths on-goingly.
We also need to challenge the sacred elephants that even our own tradition has hallowed. While I affirm that a healthy scepticism is foundational to our faith, I also contend that over-reliance upon reason as the primary way of knowing has been one of these sacred elephants. It is one important tool, no doubt about a it. But it is not the holy grail.
Not that we are alone in this tendency, especially over the past several hundred years. In the so-called “Age of Enlightenment,” many came to believe that reason and science were well on the way to taking us to a place of certainty. In their own way, many scientists in the early modern era were just as literal in their understanding of the world as conventionally religious folk. Then, just over a century ago, quantum physics was born. It took many decades for its implications to sink in even among scientists, and longer still for the paradigm shift that has influenced how many disciplines understand their truth claims. In our time, scientists as well as social scientists understand that no purely objective truth is assessable to us.
Most post-modern scientists have moved away from determinism, and not only for sub-atomic particles that can be in two places and “no” place at the same time. Complex life forms and storm systems are examples of “open systems,” where unpredictable change can happen, often with a small precipitating event as in the popularly named “butterfly effect.”
Do you remember the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring Jimmy Stewart? The scene where an angel shows him what his town would be like if he had never lived? We never know when a small action of ours may have large ripples. I just heard from a friend from childhood who wrote about moving to our town in grade seven. She was terrified on her first day of school. I was sitting in front of her, and turned around to smile at her, and giggled about something, Then, she wrote, I stopped by her house after school. That was almost 50 years ago. Yet she remembers it in great detail, and wrote to say what a huge difference that smile made in her life. Who would have thought?
In philosophy, Pragmatists like Unitarian Henry Nelson Wieman acknowledged that certainty was impossible in any arena that truly mattered – like love and purpose. We construct our convictions as best we might, test them in community, and then must take a leap of faith and commitment. Covenants, such as marriage, are needed precisely because the future is “fuzzy” – and making a commitment gives it shape and a degree of stability. A belief, says Brian Austin in his book The End of Certainty and the Beginning of Faith, is always about the future, and if it is authentic, it shapes our actions as we move
into that future. Existentialists, too, wrestled with their sense that life only became meaningful as a result of their commitments. It takes an act of faith to make any commitment, precisely because the future is “fuzzy.”
The Process Theology model has given a new twist to the old Unitarian pride in “living in the questions.” There are consequences to living with a commitment to searching for ever-unfolding truth in one’s life. If we live our lives as seekers, we must be open to having the foundations of our old truths shaken up at regular intervals. We have the freedom to change --- but we also have the responsibility to change. And we cannot avoid that responsibility by never building foundations. We need to be willing to commit
ourselves to the best understanding presently available to us, using all of our paths of knowing. But we also need to be willing to be challenged and changed. The ultimate test of our personal truths comes from experience -- so we must go out and live them! This is the only way our understanding can continue to grow creatively.
The process of embodying ever fuller truth is interactive, not strictly interior. Core to this on-going process is our commitment to one another. We are covenanted to accept one another and to encourage each other to spiritual growth. Both acceptance and challenge.
Our tradition is deeply rooted in Western soil. So we do lean into the future. We are people who are motivated by possibility. At the same time, we are learning from the East. Buddhism encourages “don’t know” mind. It also affirms the value of being fully in the present moment – rather than leaning into the future. . In the vast stillness of “don’t know mind” in the present moment, we can see the grooves of habit that shape our lives, and perceive our freedom to choose otherwise. This is another of those both/and realities – another dancing polarity that gives our lives richness and depth.
“Insecurity and uncertainty are everywhere,” says Taoist teacher Chungliang. “If you don’t let them become part of your flow, you will always be resisting and fighting. If the ground here suddenly shakes and trembles, can you give with it and still maintain your center? . . .in surfing . . . If you stiffen up and fight the wave, then you will never learn; you have to give in to the waves in order to ride them. If you can become fluid and open even when you are standing still, then this fluidness and openness makes you able to respond to changes. You will be able to play with the changes and enjoy them.”
Remember Alice in Wonderland? Now there’s a wonderful example of opening to a reality that challenges all one’s accepted assumptions!
“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.
Alice replied, rather shyly, “I –I hardly know, Sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” (Alice in Wonderland, SOURCE?)
We are challenged to be open to our experience. We also need to be willing to construct a flexible foundation for our lives out of our thoughtful and critical reflections on that experience. As one colleague put it, “Practical faith without theology is like the grin of the Cheshire cat!” And the grin, however upbeat, is not enough. We must stay at it until we perceive a cat behind the grin – even if it is a somewhat fuzzy cat!
May we re-commit ourselves to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning in our corporate and individual lives – to making visible the cat behind the Cheshire grin. Let us recommit, knowing that we must do our best to live our truths in the face of uncertainty ---knowing that we must be willing to let go when a fuller truth opens itself to us. Knowing as well the consequences of devoting our energies and minds and hearts to defending an untenable reality because we are frightened of the unknown.
May we choose, this day and every day, the truth that expands our world, opens our hearts and teaches us to honour one another in the midst of our differences. May we choose, in the words of Francis David, “not to think alike, but to love alike” -- and in the strength of that love may we find to courage to continue upon our brave quest for ever greater truth -- alone and together.