the search for truth.

22 May

The Search for Truth, a sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley

Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on May 6, 2012

Listen to the sermon here.  Note: We had a fire drill during church on this day.  I made it all the way through the sermon, with the exception of reading the last poem, so the audio cuts off somewhat suddenly.

Reading #413 from Hymns for the Celebration of Life – Beacon Press

Cherish your Doubts, by Robert T. Weston

Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the handmaiden of truth.
Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery.
A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error,
for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.
Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false.
Let no man fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it;
for doubt is a testing of belief.
The truth stands boldly and unafraid; it is not shaken by the testing;
For truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure.
He that would silence doubt is filled with fear;
the house of his spirit is built on shifting sands.
But he that fears no doubt, and knows its use, is founded on a rock.
He shall walk in the light of growing knowledge;
the work of his hands shall endure.
Therefore let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help:
It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the handmaiden of truth.

Sermon Notes

Down the ages we have trod (the hymn we just sang)…
Reminds me of the book Old Turtle, by Douglass Wood.

Once upon time, the sea, the fish, the mountains, the wind…began to argue about the nature of God.
Took Old Turtle, who never spoke up, who said: God is all this, and much more….

Now, my guess is most of you love this book – or would if you read it. And some of you won’t like this book, because it uses the word God. And others of you would not like it because your view of God does not match the view in the book.

And that is okay. Because as Unitarian Universalists one of our values is to promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning – and it does not say anything about having to agree.

So, what does it mean to search for truth?

And what kind of truth are we talking about? Capital, or lower case?

  • A matter of fact, where truth means conformity with fact or reality. (what the politician claims based in fact)
  • Also about spiritual truths, matters of value (why we can define God, the divine, in different ways or not at all)

Either way, we engage in this search for truth and

we test what we find along the way.

As Weston, former minister of this congregation, reminds us in our reading:

doubt is the attendant of truth. Truth arises from each testing, stronger.

In some ways, this makes us all skeptics: really? We ask. Is that really true, what you are claiming? Show me, demonstrate, prove it.

This is our responsibility: to question. To search. Whether we are testing matters of fact (politican claims) or matters of value (nature of god).

As we search for truth, what we learn, experience, and discover, changes us. It changes how we interact with the world, it changes how we understand our selves in the world.

I was raised Protestant Christian, but when I began to believe a more Universalist theology – when I began to realize that a loving God could not be any less loving than my parents, who would never, ever damn me to hell for ALL ETERNITY –  when I began to believe this as true, it changed how I functioned in the world:

I no longer lived in fear – was I doing the right thing, believing the right thing, or would I be punished?
Instead, I began to act more compassionately.

Rather than serving others because I was afraid that if I don’t then I will be punished, I began to serve others because I cared about their welfare. I was able to stop thinking so much about myself, and to instead focus on others.

As we search for truth, we change, and grow.

So what happens when we search for truth, and we find different truths? Not talking about matters of fact, in this case, but in matters of value, or matters of the spirit.

Well, it depends. If what we each discover to be true is inclusive of different viewpoints, and if I hold it as my own truth, then we can share with each other and encourage each other on our spiritual journeys – another of our values.

For instance, if I experience the God in the natural world, and you choose not to use the word God at all but instead find your ground of being to be with your family, you can still ask me about how my experience informs who I am, how I exist in the world, and how I get my spirit fed. And I can still ask you about your family, and how it feeds you. We can each wonder with the other: what happens when tragedy strikes – do our truths have room for that type of challenge.

So if we each are finding truths that are inclusive, and that we can hold onto as our own, then we can encourage one another.

However, if one of us finds a truth that is

  • exclusive, rather than inclusive,
  • oppressive rather than compassionate
  • And if we hold it so that it is true for everyone,

then it becomes harder to encourage each other.

This is why you can’t believe anything and be a UU…

You will not like it when I try to convince you of the validity of my truth if it is not your own. I can not encourage you in your spiritual journey if I think that I hold the truth and you do not.

It is tenuous, this experience of walking different paths and encouraging one another at the same time.

Tenuous, and one of the beauties of Unitarian Universlaism. James Luther Adams, Unitarian theoligian of the 20th century, made this as one of the 5 smooth stones of religious liberalism: that revelation & truth are continuously revealed.

This is how we search for truth: we doubt, we challenge, and we encourage each other in the search, knowing that we need not think alike to love a like.

We find inclusive, compassionate truths, and hold them lightly, knowing that we may discover them to not be so true after all.

And as Lewis Beals Fisher once said, “Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all; we move.” And so we move, we grow – all the while we continue to search.

As Denise Levertov wrote:

Marvelous Truth, confront us at every turn, in every guise, iron ball, egg, dark horse, shadow, cloud of breath on the air,

Dwell in our crowded hearts, our steaming bathrooms, kitchens full of things to be done, the ordinary streets.

Thrust close your smile that we know you, terrible joy.

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