The theme today, as you’ve no doubt noticed from our readings and from the story, is truth.
Truth is something we hear quite often in religion – including ours.
As part of its seven principals, the American Unitarian Universalist association’s congregations pledge to affirm and promote “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning”
The truth is that we mention truth a lot. I went looking through our hymnbooks. 88 of our hymns mention truth. Another 48 use the word “true” in a similar way.
This morning we sang three of them:
We sing the joy of living,
We sing the mystery,
Of knowledge, lore and science,
Of truth that is to be;
George Herbert, 17th Century welsh poet and Anglican clergyman:
Come, my way, my truth, my life:
Such a way as gives us breath,
Such a truth as ends all strife,
Such a life as killeth death.
The Rev. John Andrew Storey is a British Unitarian minister who authored thirty-two hymns for the 1985 British Unitarian collection Hymns for Living
The star of truth but dimly shines
Behind the veiling clouds of night,
But every searching eye divines
Some partial glimmer of its light.
And, of course, there’s my favorite hymn in the green book, ‘How can I keep from singing’ - the author is unknown – which includes this line:
“What though the tempest round me roar, I know the truth, it liveth.”
So, throwing caution to the wind and showing a complete absence of good sense, I thought today would be a good day to take on “The Truth.”
What is it?
The Truth. We can be pretty sure we’re not referring to Ron “The Truth” Killings – a big bad professional wrestler – most of these words predate him - although when a tempest round you roars, he might be a good guy to have on your side…
Some truths are not so helpful really… The answer to “do I look fat in this outfit” is always “no”! I don’t care what else is going on – the answer is “no.”
But of course, the kind of truth we are talking about today is not simply the one that is the opposite of the falsehood. This truth speaks to the true, more essential nature of things – the deeper reality behind what is apparent.
Our culture is steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and whether we recognize it or not and whatever we may believe, much of what just seems like part of the secular culture originates in that tradition.
In the Gospel according to John we find this passage:
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
That phrase – “the truth will make you free” is shot throughout our culture. And that Christian truth – for Christians, the truth, is the truth of Jesus’ identity with God the father and his role in bringing salvation to believers. So, believing the Christian truth brings freedom from sin and freedom from death.
I rather like Gloria Steinem’s turn on this oft-quoted Christian phrase. Her version: “The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.” Isn’t that the truth?
The Christian Truth is the Christian path to salvation, accomplished by belief. If you believe this truth – the one and only truth, then you will be saved.
I think you will immediately recognize that this approach is not exactly a great fit with Unitarianism. If we accept a diversity of beliefs, we can’t very well do that with the attitude “well, we accept your belief even though you are just dead wrong and headed for hell!”
As Kahlil Gibran writes in The Prophet: “Say not, 'I have found the truth,' but rather, 'I have found a truth.'”
A few billion people in the world follow religions that offer up different essential, cosmic truths. At Buddhism’s core are the “Four Noble Truths”, which acknowledge life’s suffering, explain its cause, and offer a way in which to eliminate that misery.
In Judaism and Islam, truth centres on the word of God as revealed in the bible or the Quran, but rather more like Buddhism than Christianity, the path has more to do with how to live than specifically what to believe.
True or false: Today is Sunday
True or false: We are London
True or false: It is the afternoon
True or false: The seats here are comfortable
True or false: The purpose of life is to love
True or false: There is a single absolute truth to be found
I wonder how that last question would have been answered here 50 or 100 years ago. I suspect that more people would have said ‘true.’
We have changed tremendously – as a congregation, of course, but also as a society. We have moved from the modernistic impression that there is a truth to be found and – if only we can find it – life will make sense. With that truth in our hearts, we will be united, heaven with come to earth and all will be well.
The post-modern view says… well, I suppose it says ‘it depends.’ Post-modernism acknowledges the existence of many truths. Truth is no longer a simple matter of matching understanding to a single kind of reality and having it right or wrong… Truth is complicated.
As Unitarians – as people committed to worrying less about what we believe than how we live our lives – we have a real challenge before us when confronting the issue of truth.
We must accept that there are different truths, even though those truths are in conflict with one another. If you have found your truth or your truths, what does it mean if mine are different? Does that mean that at least one of us is wrong? How do we manage that?
Perhaps some light is shed on the question by Andre Gide’s comment: “Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it.”
Philosophers have wrestled with the question of truth for millennia now. And ultimately – each of us needs to do a bit of wrestling on our own as well.
For some, truth is simply an accurate correspondence between what we understand and what is actual. There is a real truth and other notions are simply false. It is sunny or it is not. There is only one answer.
Others see truth not as an absolute, but as a property determined by some larger system. The truth may simply be determined by what most of us believe. Is this England – well, yes. It’s England because that’s what we’ve all agreed to call it. If we changed the name tomorrow, the answer would instantly be different.
And the final approach is the philosophical school called Pragmatism. This is perhaps the most radical view of truth – maybe it’s no coincidence then that this is the one I find myself most attracted to. Pragmatism’s view of truth is revealed in these words written just over 100 years ago by William James:
“Pragmatism asks its usual question. ‘Grant an idea or belief to be true,’ it says, "what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false?’”
Pragmatism judges the truth of a belief or idea by its effect.
The notion that there is no absolute truth does not mean that we should not search. I tend to stand with Clarence Darrow – the famous American civil rights lawyer who said:
“Chase after the truth like all hell and you'll free yourself, even though you never touch its coattails.”
I don’t necessarily recommend pragmatism as a guide to truth suitable for a University exam, but in our religious and spiritual lives, I submit that it is the only guide we need.
Any belief that makes us more loving, more kind, more compassionate, more ready to go out and help others and help to make a better world – that belief is true. Beliefs that turn us inward, close us to love, close our hearts – those beliefs are false.
Ours must be a religion that accepts and honours all truth – even those truths that are in conflict, one with the other. This is our great challenge: to embrace the contradictions, to live in the ambiguity, to accept our differences, to teach and learn from one another, as we find the truths that lead us toward wholeness.
Let’s close with the words of one of my Unitarian heroes - the 19th century’s Rev. Theodore Parker – he who wrote his sermons with a pistol in his desk and a sword by his side in case he should need to defend the fugitive slaves he sheltered in his own home. His wish and mine:
Be ours a religion which like sunshine goes everywhere,
its temple all space,
its shrine the good heart,
its creed all truth,
its ritual works of love.