The Ongoing Search For Truth
Our Unitarian Universalist history and tradition includes a commitment to reason, freedom and tolerance.
Our Principles and Purposes speak of “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning”, and if you read the sources from which we draw our inspiration it is all stated in the active sense. This implies that we receive ongoing guidance and inspiration from these sources, that we are engaged in ongoing learning.
Because my theme for today is adult religious education, for me that ongoing learning must include an intellectual approach. I view reason as important element in my spiritual development. It is not by faith alone that I grow.
But to be religious education it must also be about how reason affects and builds my faith.
And for me our faith is to a great degree about tolerance and openness to other traditions.
There are limitations to reason, and one of them is that the starting point for reason determines the conclusions we draw. We each have default starting points. For example, in reading the sacred texts some believe that these are divinely inspired. So when they read the Qur’an, the Christian Bible, or the Torah, or when followers of the Vedanta school within Hinduism read the Vedas and the Upanishads, they assume these are divinely revealed and so there can be no contradictions within them. There is a Muslim saying that if you read the Qur’an and find there apparent contradictions you are not reading it correctly.
People who believe these texts were written by human beings, as I do, may begin with a different assumption.
So, for example, if you read the story of Noah in the Bible, you might become confused. In some places the story says that Noah brought the animals onto the ark two by two; in other places it says he brought them on by groups of seven. Some literal scholars have explained that away by saying that certain animals were brought on by twos, but that others needed to be brought on by sevens. Historical-Critical scholars have looked at the story, have taken the sections referring to two animals and put them to one side and sections referring to seven animals to another side and have found that each provides a complete story. And so they say that it appears someone had two separate stories, felt they were both important, and so wove them together into one.
And so in reading the Book of Genesis, scholars have noted that it begins with two stories of creation. In one story human being were created first, in the other story they were created last.
Years ago some Rabbis said that the first story speaks to spiritual creation and the second speaks to material creation. Historical Critical scholars say that it again looks as though someone had two different stories, felt that they were both important and so strung them together.
A complaint by literal scholars against the Historical Critical approach is that you end up breaking the story by destroying the literal truth of it, but I believe in the mythological truth in the good sense, that the story contains truth even if the story itself is not literally true.
So there are two different approaches and the starting point determines one’s conclusions.
My default position is a rejection of anything supernatural or mystical. I tend to reject anything based solely on faith or on a few personal reports or anecdotes.
So, I tend automatically to reject belief in ghosts, in alien abductions, in angels, in the Loch Ness monster, in reincarnation, in life after death and in most conspiracy theories.
But I owe it to myself and to my belief system to keep an open mind.
Now, an open mind does not mean accepting any and all claims that comes along.
Carl Sagan said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. If you are going to try to convince me of something that does not fit with my sense of the ordinary, then you are going to have to provide me with extraordinary proof.
However, if extraordinary proof is offered, I should pay attention to it.
What am I learning now?
I am four percent of the way through Book II of the Zend Avesta, sacred texts of Zoroastrianism. I do not know yet what learning will come from that. But I do believe that some will. It takes me a while to process what I have read, to think it through and to learn from it.
I am reading Eastern Orthodox comments on the Bible. One of the things I have learned is that within the Orthodox tradition there is a belief that Hell and Hades both exist and are two different places, with Hades being part ofParadise, and that the translations used in the Western churches confuse these two places. How might that “open up” my reading of the Bible, how might that change the way in which I understand what is written?
I am sixty-two percent of the way through The Decline and Fall of theRoman Empire. One bit of learning from that is how quickly those who were oppressed become the oppressor. Christians who had been the victims of Pagan emperors themselves became vicious in their treatment of Pagans, Jews and other Christians who did not hold to their doctrines. Ambrose, the bishop ofMilan, who died in the year 397 CE saw the very existence of these other groups–Pagans, Jews and Arian Christians–as an insult to the true faith, an insult that needed to be expunged.
Let me never become so sure of myself that I become like him.
I am reading the Talmud and I am about five percent of the way through it. The Talmud is a mix of stories, debates and other writings which was collected in the period following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. This was a time when Judaism needed to recreate and redefine itself. All of the practices that had focused on the Temple were gone and so Judaism found itself in new circumstances.
Much of the Talmud focuses on the details of rules. For example, one is not to work on the Sabbath, and so one is not to carry anything out of the house on the Sabbath. But what does that mean? The Talmud opens with a discussion of the details of those rules. For example, if a beggar shows up on your doorstep and you take money and hand it out of the door or the window to the beggar, have you carried money out of the house, thereby breaking the Sabbath rules? The Talmud says, yes. And if the beggar puts his hand into your window and you put money into his hand and he then withdraws his had from the window, he has broken the Sabbath.
At first I recoiled from this. It seemed to me to be so petty, so over controlling, so overly obsessive. I dismissed it as having anything of value in it. But I have come to realize how much of this detail about the rules is due to an underlying reverence for God and a reverence for God’s will and to a desire to live a holy life, a life that is acceptable to God. This is an honorable goal and I have too often dismissed this approach. And that is dishonorable of me.
This underlying reverence reminded me of the sacred texts of the Jain that I read twenty years ago. Jain monks wear masks so that they will not inhale insects, and they will not step on blades of grass so they walk carefully, sticking to dirt paths. And they will eat nothing with life in it; no raw foods. All of this is because they have such a deep reverence for life.
And I was reminded of Albert Schweitzer who in 1915 was traveling on a boat on a river inAfricaand who thinking deeply about his life and about philosophy and beliefs. And suddenly he was struck by the phrase, “Reverence for life”, and that phrase became the guiding principle of his life as the center of his philosophy
I need not agree with the object of reverence to grasp the sense of reverence. I have stood looking up at the night sky in awe and wonder filled with reverence for the vastness of the universe. So I can relate to the sense of bowing before the holy that exists in the Talmud and in the Jain monk and in Albert Schweitzer.
I should not be dismissive of any religious path, but should seek instead to learn from it. If I dismiss or deride the beliefs of others I am not being true to my self or to my understanding of Unitarian Universalism.
If I do dismiss or demean others, I am being what I claim to reject. I become just a bit like Ambrose the Bishop of Milan.
I struggle with that within myself. I have a tendency to dismiss the beliefs of others. I am right, they are wrong; I am enlightened, they are not
One of the claims of Unitarian Universalism that revelation is not sealed, that it is ongoing and that there is more to learn and know, that more will be revealed in the future. So how can I claim that what I know today—whatever that is–is the final word? Perhaps in the stream of human thought my beliefs are a mere eddy of current off to one unimportant side of a great river.
I reject the claims of fundamentalists of all religions that they have the only true religion. Now, I am happy to let them hold to their truth as long as they do not then attempt to stop others from worshipping freely and equally. But I reject the intolerance some fundamentalist show towards others. And so I should also reject that same kind fundamentalism in myself; and I become a fundamentalist of the bad kind if I begin to dismiss or show contempt for the beliefs of others, including fundamentalists.
I want to have the spiritual maturity to be open to possibility. Maybe what others believe is right.
It is presumptuous for me to believe that revelation ends with me and my beliefs.
If revelation is not sealed, if the search for truth is ongoing, may my heart and mind be open to that ongoing revelation that exists all around me.