Today’s topic is “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” It’s the fourth principle in the seven principles we covenant to affirm and promote as congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This principle is what primarily sets us apart from other religions, certainly Christian churches that are largely defined by what they believe. It is often what draws people to us from other churches, especially when they have felt stifled theologically in other settings.
It is also what makes it so hard to tell others about our faith. Without a central story, a common practice, a common theology or a founding leader, it is really difficult to tell people what we’re all about as Unitarian Universalists.
Like many of us here, I drifted away from the religion of my childhood. I was raised Methodist and Presbyterian, and though I remember being active during high school in the youth group and the choir, I also remember that by the end of high school I no longer considered myself a Christian, if I ever did. I wanted to think and talk about religious matters, but I wanted to come up with my own words and metaphors to describe my religious experience, not use those handed down through tradition.
Religious versus Spiritual
But in those days, I wouldn’t have used the word “religious” because to me it was associated with organized religion, which to me was Christianity. I used the word “spiritual” and was calling myself “spiritual but not religious” before it became widespread. I pursued a spiritual path in many ways, including getting a master’s degree in philosophy. I went to church only a few times—and it would usually be on Easter or Christmas Eve. I came to a point, however, when I decided I wanted to go back to church. I wanted greater spiritual nourishment than I was finding in the secular world, and was willing to join a Christian church to find it, if that’s what it took. I went to the local Presbyterian Church, but it didn’t feel right. Meanwhile, a friend at work told me about the Unitarian church in town, and when I went there, it felt like I had come home. Many UU s express this feeling of coming home when they find us. For me, it was comforting to find the service format so much like the liberal Protestant churches I grew up in, yet freeing to be able to develop my own theological beliefs in my own terms! It felt like a perfect fit!
It’s a fact that only 10% of Unitarian Universalists are born and raised in the faith. The rest of us come to it from elsewhere. It is usually the theological freedom that attracts us. Those who are uncomfortable with it don’t stay.
The freedom comes from our placing religious authority primarily in the individual conscience. Individual conscience has always had a role in religion, but not the primary role. Traditionally, religious authority was primarily in the church, backed up by the bible which nobody but the monks and priests could read. The invention of the printing press made bibles widely available, which led to the Protestant Reformation. Protestants found they didn’t need the church to interpret the bible for them, since they now could read it themselves. They placed religious authority primarily in the book—sola scriptura, which posits the Bible as the sole infallible source of authority for Christian faith and practice.
Then, starting around the 1770s, the authority of the bible as an inspired document began to be discredited with the rise of biblical criticism. People started studying the bible as a work of literature and found that it was written and compiled by different groups of people writing for different reasons in different time periods.
The New England Christians who accepted this, as well as an accompanying view of human nature as innocent at birth and no different in kind from Jesus, were what came to be known as Unitarians and they eventually formed their own denominational structure. From the start, we have had no creed, no statement of belief to be read aloud each Sunday, seen as a test of membership. Our fourth principle, our affirmation of the authority of conscience, has been with us from the start.
Our Fourth Principal
The fourth principle affirms the value of doubt. We can’t believe everything we’re told. Belief “has to be passed through the fires of skepticism, And boiled in the crucible of doubt.” We don’t take the word of Chicken Little when she tells us the sky is falling. We run that information past our better judgement. We test it against our reasoning faculty, and our individual conscience. “When we doubt, we acknowledge that our understanding of truth is imperfect. When we doubt, we strengthen our faith.”
And as our post-modern outlook informs us, truth is never perfect. There is no one, absolute, objective Truth with a capital “T”, there are only approximations.
This is partly because we all see from our particular perspectives, that differ depending on many factors, including age, sex, race, culture, time in history, etc.
But it’s also because reality itself is ambiguous. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle tells us that the more precisely one knows a particle’s position, the less one can know about its momentum, and vice versa. There are some things we just can’t know for certain. And this is science. Reality is especially hard to be objective about and know with any certainty when we are asking about things that can’t be measured, can’t be understood by scientific methods.
In an article in the UU World magazine, Rev. Forrest Church talks of religious truth being like truth in poetry. I think that’s a good way to look at it. So often we think that religious truth has to submit to the same tests as scientific truth, and we end up dismissing a whole realm of experience when we do that. Certainly the use of reason in religion is important to Unitarian Universalists and we can’t believe something that doesn’t make sense. But in our effort to rule out irrationality, we don’t want to miss out on what could be seen as transrational – the realm of poetry, myth and paradox. The fact that there can be many different interpretations, all equally valid, doesn’t make truth completely relative. As Church says, “That doesn’t mean that the search for truth or knowledge is in vain. . . . It simply underscores the natural limits of every human truth.” (p. 24)
In that same article, Forrest Church develops the metaphor of cathedral windows. He imagines the world as a vast cathedral, with many windows. “The windows of the cathedral are where the light shines through.” “Because the cathedral is so vast, our life so short, and our vision so dim, we are able to contemplate only a tiny part of the whole creation.” Because we affirm the freedom of the search, because individual conscience is the primary religious authority for us, we must also recognize that other paths are equally valid. As Church says, “the same light shines through all our windows, but . . . each window is different. The windows modify the Light, refracting it in various patterns that suggest discrete meanings.”
Ultimate reality, Truth, God, or whatever you want to call it is not something we can know absolutely, in its entirety, or objectively. We are always viewing it from a perspective. Our perspective includes our historical and geographical context. “Truth emerges only indirectly, as refracted through the windows of tradition and experience,” says Church.
We are interpreters of the poetry of the universe. Looking at it this way, sometimes “meaning” feels like a more appropriate word to use to describe the goal of religious seeking. As trite as it sounds, we are indeed seeking some meaning to our lives, to life itself. But we don’t just find meaning, we create it. It is an ongoing process, one that never ends. The search is the important thing, not the finding. Seeking ways to live in the world with integrity – this is what is required of us by our 4th principle.
The journey toward our truth
The metaphor of a journey is often used in literature to characterize the search for truth and meaning. Joseph Campbell wrote a famous work called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he studies the classic hero’s journey. The hero goes through many dangers, toils, and snares and ultimately finds the treasure, which they bring home to benefit the whole community.
One theme that comes up again and again is that the search ultimately leads home. A pared-down example of this is a story by Anthony de Mello:
“A young man became obsessed with a passion for Truth so he took leave of his family and friends and set out in search of it. He traveled over many lands, sailed across many oceans, climbed many mountains, and all in all, went through a great deal of hardship and suffering.
“One day he awoke to find he was seventy-five years old and had still not found the Truth he had been searching for. So he decided, sadly, to give up the search and go back home.
“It took him months to return to his hometown for he was an old man now. Once home, he opened the door of his house—and there he found that Truth had been patiently waiting for him all those years.” (quoted in With Purpose and Principle, ed. Edward Frost, p. 66)
Another example of a story with this theme is the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy sets out to find her heart’s desire, and in the end says that if it isn’t in her own backyard, she never really lost it in the first place. But she had to go to Oz and have all those adventures to find that out.
The journey leads home because the divine is within us. We can search and search and in the end find it was there all along. But we can’t find it easily. We have to engage in the search, we have to embark upon the journey to find the treasure waiting for us at home. In the words of T. S. Eliot, “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
The fourth principle tells us we are free to search for truth and meaning according to our own conscience, but it also says we affirm a responsible search. This means we are responsible for how we conduct that search. But we also have a responsibility to conduct that search. Because this is a free church, we are not given a theology, a way of structuring, or describing reality. We must each develop our own theology. We must each determine for ourselves what, if any, order there is to the universe. We must find truth through our own path, through our own experience and reflection on that experience; we must create our own meaning. On a website called Belief.com, in their description of Unitarian Universalism, someone is quoted as saying, “Because UUism gives you freedom, people who don’t know what they believe feel lost. If you feel like you need to be told what you should believe, there’s nothing wrong with that, but UUism is not for you.” (It was attributed to someone called “chalicechick”)
This is born out in our Coming of Age program. We don’t give our young people a catechism to memorize, a summary of the principles of our religion in the form of questions and answers. No! Because of our 4th principle and our affirmation of individual conscience in determining what to believe, our youth are required to start thinking for themselves what it is they believe, and to present their Credo statements to the congregation.
Freedom can go too far
Some may take the freedom too far. I occasionally hear people say about Unitarian Universalism that “you can believe whatever you want.” But that’s not it. It is not a choice. Our belief systems are not based on what we need or desire. We believe what we must believe; we believe what our conscience dictates we must believe.
People make jokes about our refusal to define for others what to believe. You may have heard them:
Question: “What is Unitarian Universalism?”
Answer: “A weigh station between Methodism and the golf course.”
Question: “What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian Universalist?”
Answer: “Someone who knocks at your door…for no particular reason.”
My colleague Scott Alexander says he has stopped laughing at these jokes because “I realize how terribly important it is for me to take my religious life seriously. As I reach mid-life I find myself increasingly compelled by life’s vast spiritual questions and pressing ethical demands. I’ve stopped laughing because I believe with all my heart and soul this troubled world desperately needs the compassionate and saving vision of Unitarian Universalism. I believe people—millions of people of many different cultures and backgrounds—need this transforming faith. I’ve stopped laughing because we can no longer allow ourselves to be marginalized, ridiculed, or dismissed. Unitarian Universalism will never realize its great potential and mission unless we are (in both reputation and reality) serious religious people.” (Worship Web)
Is UU really Religion Light?
It’s not just other people who see us as “religion light.” For too long we have not taken ourselves seriously.
Quoting Rev. Alexander again, “I have been a Unitarian Universalist minister for nearly twenty-five years. In every congregation I have served there have been people for whom Unitarian Universalism seemed little more than a casual convenience, an occasional hobby, a peripheral part of their lives. This reality was driven home for me when a parishioner in New Jersey told me that he liked the church because “it is an interesting and entertaining place to be on the Sunday mornings when I’m not away skiing.” Other ministers (and denominational statistics) have painted the same, sad picture: far too often we have been a low-participation, low-expectation, low-commitment religion.”
We place so much emphasis on the value and authority of the individual. This needs to be balanced by the recognition that we are not alone—we are on this search together. We have another responsibility—to share our journey and to hear from others what their experience has been and what learnings they have gleaned from it. We are each on our own search, but we are not alone. In particular, this faith community gives us fellow travelers on the path. It binds us to them through our common tradition— even though it is most often an adopted tradition—and through our covenantal community.
The reading by Barbara Rohde expressed well the difficulties and the rewards of sharing our journeys—what we have seen and how we have come to understand it. We have a wonderful opportunity in Unitarian Universalism to be in dialogue with others who interpret the world differently right within our own congregation. It is an opportunity and at the same time, a challenge. It is not easy being UU. It’s not easy, but great challenges make possible great rewards. May your search bring you challenges and companions along the way, and may your ideas of truth and meaning constantly evolve.
Rev. Jane Thickstun