One Truth, Many Truths . . . Any Truths?

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

“The star of truth but dimly shines behind the veiling clouds of night, but every searching eye divines some partial glimmer of its light.”[1] These words from twentieth century British Unitarian minister, poet and lyricist Andrew Storey remind me of that ancient South Asian story of the blind men and the elephant. Each man touches a part of the elephant and describes the elephant based on the part he touches. The man who touches the leg says the elephant is like a pillar. The man who touches the tail says the elephant is like a rope. The man who touches the tusk says the elephant is like a tree branch, and so on. This story suggests there is one, ultimate truth for which the elephant is a metaphor.  But the whole elephant is beyond our knowing. The one truth is a mystery—veiled, shrouded, obscured. At best we each have access to only a small piece of it. “The star of truth but dimly shines behind the veiling clouds of night, but every searching eye divines some partial glimmer of its light.”

         “What may appear as truth to one person will often appear as untruth to another person,” said Mohandas Ghandi. “But that need not worry the seeker,” he continued. “Where there is honest effort, it will be realized that what appear to be different truths are like the countless and apparently different leaves of the same tree.”[2] Different parts of the same elephant; different leaves on the same tree; different paths up the same mountain; different windows open to the same light; one truth, many manifestations.

            In a meditation called “The One Truth,” my colleague, the Rev. Robby Walsh, writes: “Everything around you is a manifestation of a reality that is a unity. It is there in the maple tree, in the polished beach stone, in the cumulus cloud…. It is in the child’s laugh, the worker’s sweat, your face in the mirror. It is in the fear of war, the anger at injustice, the longing for love, the commitment to reconciliation. These many truths spring from the one truth, and the beginning of wisdom is to open ourselves to the mystery of the one truth.”[3] I like these words. I have made similar claims in my sermons over the years.[4] But I also feel a nagging, a tugging, a pin prick. I wonder: is this right? Is there really only one elephant, one tree, one mountain, one light? When we speak of the One Truth, are we actually speaking the truth?

         Truth is our theological theme for May. The significance of truth in Unitarian Universalism is most clearly stated in our fourth principle, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Truth—especially truth that springs from the exertions of a reasoning mind—has been a rallying cry for our movement through the centuries. Today we sometimes call ourselves religious or spiritual seekers. What are we seeking? We are seeking truth. That’s what our fourth principle says, and this seeking is a central part of our Unitarian Universalist identity. If someone asks you, “What do you all do over at that meeting house on West Vernon St.?” tell them, “We’re seeking truth.” If they ask, “About what?” tell them “about humanity, history, God, religion, spirituality, nature, the earth, the universe—everything!” If they ask, “What does your pastor say?” tell them, “He doesn’t know. He’s seeking too. He’s struggling too. He’s on a path too.”  If they ask, “What truth does your denomination teach?” tell them “It doesn’t teach a truth as much as it teaches us to seek truth.” If they ask “Why?”—because eventually they will—tell them, “We seek truth so that we may know how best to live.” I’ll come back to this.

I still feel that nagging and tugging. Is there ultimately only One Truth? I suppose most religions make this claim in some form or another. I learned the Unitarian Universalist version of it growing up in the 1970s. Remember, for many of us, “Unitarian” essentially means one truth. The difference between ours and other religions is that no one ever told me what that truth was. No one, as far as I can remember, ever claimed to have it. At best we all had partial glimmers of its light. But now I wonder, were we all looking at the same light? Were we all touching the same elephant? I don’t think so. You see, I have contradicted myself on this question over the years. I have preached, “There is One Truth.” But some of you may remember a sermon I preached at the end of my first year here called “Many Truths in One Room.” In that sermon I said,  “We here know something that liberal modernist philosophers and conservative fundamentalist theologians alike would call folly, something our Unitarian and Universalist forebears would challenge as theologically unsound: there is not one truth. On the contrary: many truths abide. Many truths reside in this one room. Many truths inhabit this world.”[5]

            The immediate context for that sermon was the first year of the United States war in Iraq. Through that year we had been inundated with single, sweeping, reductionist, all-or-nothing, vaguely theological truths from politicians about destroying evil-doers and being with us or against us. In that sermon I attempted to say, “It’s not that simple! There are other possibilities, other paths, other perspectives—not one truth, many truths!” I believe this. As one who ministers to a congregation that includes atheists, theists, agnostics, Buddhists, Jews, Pagans and Christians, how can I say there is only one truth? If there is only one, then some of us—most of us, in fact—are wrong. We can fall back on the notion that each of us have a small piece of the One Truth, but I’m not convinced atheists and theists are looking at light from the same star, or climbing the same mountain. I’m not convinced Buddhists and Christians are touching the same elephant. I do not think all religions, at their core, are ultimately the same.[6] They aren’t. And I think that’s OK. But that is evidence for me that there are many truths, not one.

            And then I remember, there was—we’re pretty sure—this event scientists call the big bang, which gave birth to our universe and, prior to which, everything that became the universe was compressed into an infinitesimally tiny point. All that is, compressed into a unity. One Truth that binds us together. I’ve preached on this. We not only have partial glimmers of its light. We are partial glimmers of its light. And now you see, your pastor really doesn’t know. He is still trying to figure it out. Is it one truth, or many truths? I find compelling evidence for both.

            So let’s get real. It’s nice to contemplate the One Truth. For many of us, such contemplation is spiritually nourishing. It’s nice to open ourselves up to the mystery, to reach, if we can, beyond the veil. And I will certainly continue to preach about that primordial unity that binds us together, that binds all to all. But we live in an immensely diverse nation, in an overwhelmingly diverse world. There are people touching different elephants, walking up different mountains, raking leaves from different trees, staring at the light of different stars all living on the same block all around the world. Whatever the one ultimate truth may be, many truths abide in our concrete, daily lives. These truth collide. And when they do, we are all too familiar with examples of people killing each other, of communities being torn apart, of nations going to war. One of the most critical challenges facing human beings today is learning to live humbly and gracefully in the midst of our many truths; learning—though it can be immensely difficult and painful—to encounter the truths of others not as threats, but as opportunities for growing in our understanding of truth, as well as opportunities for the strengthening and healing of our communities, of the nations, of the world. 

            But this doesn’t just happen. Many of us don’t have the skills to live humbly and gracefully in the midst of many truths, and I include myself in this. When I refer to living humbly and gracefully in the midst of many truths, I’m talking about a capacity to encounter a truth that is different from one’s own, to stay open to that truth long enough to discern its value to the person who holds it and its potential value to you; and then, if there is value to you, to integrate that truth into your own world-view. Living humbly and gracefully in the midst of many truths means living in such a way that you may be transformed by your encounter with another human being or culture—that your truth might change today.

            Not easy, and here’s why. We live in a culture that has convinced itself that the most reliable truth claims arise out of out of rational analysis, impartial observation, reasoned debate and the scientific method. However, there is an increasing body of scientific literature demonstrating that this assumption is wrong, or at best only half right. One of the primary sources of our truth claims, even our scientific truth claims, one of the primary drivers of our decision-making, turns out to be emotion. It’s not that the reasoning mind cannot discern truth—it can. But our emotions respond to stimuli first. And for whatever reasons we come to believe the truth of certain claims, our emotions drive us to cling fiercely to them, even when the evidence suggests otherwise. This makes it difficult to live humbly and gracefully in the midst of many truths.

We heard the story of the Seekers in our first reading from Chris Mooney’s article, “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science.”[7] The Seekers believed something highly improbable: that the world was about to be destroyed and an alien spaceship would save them. When earth’s destruction did not happen and the spaceship did not appear—that is, when confronted with incontrovertible evidence that their truth was wrong—did they change their views? No. They did precisely the opposite. They strengthened their views. This is admittedly an extreme example, but for Mooney’s it helps explain “why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, “death panels,” the birthplace and religion of the president, and much else.”[8]

                Mooney[9] uses the term “motivated reasoning” to describe the way emotion drives reasoning and how we arrive at our understanding of truth. He says, “Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion…. Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it. That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a basic human survival skill…. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself. We’re not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn’t take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.”[10]

            I agree. It is very difficult to hear another’s truth when we are clinging fiercely to our own. Many of you know I have been quite staunch in my support for the Sustinet law and have fought very hard to see it fully implemented. This is very emotional for me. My conviction that health care is a fundamental human right is emotionally rooted in me and it drives my work. It’s very hard for me to hear what the opposition says about Sustinet. I find I don’t want to hear it. Even if it might have some value, even if it might have some rational basis it makes me angry because it appears to go against my values which are, again, rooted in strong emotions.

I’m a pretty articulate person and I am a good writer. I can write an excellent letter to the editor or sermon or a rallying cry for Sustinet and any number of progressive social and political causes! And I can make them sound very reasonable, very well thought out. But listen to this: In an article called “Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative theory,” published in 2011 in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber tell us that “Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.” They contend not only that “reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions.”[11] I do that.

            One truth; many truths…. or are there any truths? Could it be that what passes for truth is simply our deep-seeded emotional loyalties rooted in family, religion, culture and politics and sustained by reasoning designed only to win arguments? I don’t believe so, but even that is an emotional response. Maybe we never know for sure. Given the role of emotions, given the flaws in our reasoning, maybe we can never say for sure what is absolutely true. But it seems to me that to live in this world we must at some point anchor ourselves somewhere. We must at some point know who we are, where we stand and where our loyalties lie. We must at some point be able to say the words, “this I believe.” We must at some point make difficult decisions. And therefore we must be able to express what we think and feel is true. But perhaps knowing that we cannot be sure is the beginning of humble and graceful living in the midst of many truths. Perhaps knowing that we cannot be sure is what enables us to fully encounter the truths of others, to really hear them, to discern their value in our lives, and, in some cases, to be transformed. Perhaps knowing that we cannot be sure is the beginning of peace, is the beginning of justice, is the beginning of love.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] Storey, John Andrew, “The Star to Truth,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993) #297.


[3] Walsh, Robert R., “The One Truth,” Noisy Stones (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1992) p. 50.

[4] Pawelek, Joshua M., “The Words Before Words,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, January 28, 2007.

 [5] Pawelek, Joshua M., “Many Truths in One Room: Reflections on One Year in Ministry,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, May 23, 2004.

[6] The notion that all religions are ultimately the same is known as the “perennial philosophy.” It is popular among religious liberals. Proponents include Huston Smith, Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, Bill Moyers and Karen Armstrong. Opponents contend that the perennial philosophy examines religions only in their best light, not their worst. For an accessible critique of the perennial philosophy, see Prothero, Stephen, God is Not One (New York: HarperOne, 2010) pp. 5-7.

[7] see:

[8] see:

[9] For more info on Chris Mooney see:

[10] See:

[11] See John Brockman’s blog on this article at: See the abstract for the article at: