We Build Temples in the Heart

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Video: Here We Build Temples in the Heart

Here we build temples in our hearts. Side by side we gather. . . .  

 

Here we build temples in our hearts. Side by side we come. . . .

Here we build temples in our hearts—
a temple for each heart,

a village of temples,
none shading another,
connected by well-worn paths,
built alike on sacred ground.

A meditation from Patrick Murfin: poet, social justice activist, labor historian, Unitarian Universalist (and many other things) living in Woodstock, IL. I’ve been searching this week for words that offer a metaphor for what Unitarian Universalist congregational life is all about, a metaphor for what we do as a spiritual community, a metaphor to remind us of the value this congregation holds in our lives on this weekend when we kick off our annual appeal and ask each of us to make a generous financial pledge for the coming fiscal year. These words work for me. “Here we build temples in our hearts.”

What might this mean? A temple in the literal sense is a physical structure a place set aside for worship; a place where the people gather to lift up, praise and celebrate that which is most holy to them; where they commune with their gods and goddesses however they understand them; where they offer their sacrifices, conduct their sacred rituals, sing their sacred songs, dance their sacred dances; where they celebrate their holy days, keep their festivals, welcome their newly born, honor their elders and bid farewell to their dead. In his meditation Murfin references some ancient wonders: the 12th century Angkor Wat Hindu temple in Cambodia; the 5000 year old Stonehenge in Wiltshire County, England; the 13th century Cathedral of Chartres in France; and the Doric columns of ancient Greek and Roman temples.

But here we build temples in our hearts, says Murfin, meaning here in our congregations. What are we building? At our best—and let us agree: we aren’t always at our best; no human community ever is—but at our best we are building—in our hearts, in our interior lives—sanctuary.

Sanctuary, meaning a place of refuge from the storms that batter us from time to time, from the tempests that rage around us; a place of refuge from the fret and fever of the day, from the tumult and the strife that cycle through our lives; a place of refuge from the pressure and the stress that are part and parcel of our living in these postmodern times of hyper-connection and hyper-alienation; a place of refuge from our personal trials and despair; a place of refuge from the mean-spirited, hateful culture-war discourse of our national life; a place of retreat where we may go in those moments when we need some measure of comfort, when we need some measure of solace, when we long for peace in a war-torn world, when we seek rest for our weary spirits.

Sanctuary, meaning a place where we can fortify ourselves in those moments when we face challenges and crises; a place where we can access our reserves of courage; a place where we can find our resolve, our conviction, our next step; a place where we feel grounded and rooted, held closely to our foundations, where we find sustenance, where we find the strength to endure and persevere through whatever crisis may come our way; a place where we find the humility and grace to receive the help, counsel, caring and love of those around us; a place where we recognize our dependence on those around us; a place where our pride softens and we are able to ask for help; where we are able to trust that the help we truly need shall come to us, though it comes often in ways we do not expect and cannot anticipate.

Sanctuary, meaning a place for honesty and integrity, a place where we may go in those moments when the contradictions of our lives, the inconsistencies of our lives, require us to reckon with ourselves, to speak our truths to ourselves, to push and nudge and challenge ourselves, to hold ourselves accountable; a place wherein we can finally make the decisions we have been putting off for too long; a place wherein we may find the motivation, the nerve, the audacity to rise to new heights, to stretch into new postures, to reach for new holds on the sheer rock face, to grow in new directions, to allow ourselves to be transformed, because staying where we are for too long—remaining on the beaten path—the familiar path, the easy path, the habitual path—we finally see it!—is no longer viable; a place where we let go of old, unworkable ways of being, so that new ways may emerge; a spring-time place for renewal, a spring-time place for rebirth, a spring-time place for resurrection, a place to praise the breaking dawn, to praise the “life that maketh all things new,” to praise “the first dew fall on the first grass.”

Sanctuary, meaning a place where our passions reside; where, without any fear, we name our desires, our sense of calling, our sense of vocation; where our vision of our best selves and our dreams for the future all seem possible—where we can resolve to pursue our visions and dreams and make them real in our lives, express them with our words, manifest them with our deeds; a place where our creativity flourishes, where we compose the song our life sings, where we choreograph the dance our life dances, where we breathe out the poem our life breathes, where we tell the story our life tells; a place where we can pay attention to our hunches, our flashes of insight, our inklings and intuitions, that tingling up and down our spines that tells us, “yes, this is the right path, as strange and unfamiliar as it may seem;” a place where we can pay attention and respond to our passions without fear of being told we are silly, unrealistic or impractical; where we can pay attention and respond without fear of being told we aren’t good enough, that we’ll never make it, that what we desire for ourselves is impossible; a place where the suggestion, the message, the solution, the answer coming back from our own sacred depths is Yes! Try! Live!—a place wherein, even though you know failure is possible—because failure is always possible—the suggestion, the message, the solution, the answer coming back from our own sacred depths is Yes! Try! Live! Do not settle for a life in which you are not living.

Sanctuary, meaning the place where we come to dedicate and re-dedicate our lives, to commit and recommit our lives, to offer and re-offer our lives; the place where we can dedicate, commit and offer our lives: to the values we treasure, to love in all its forms, to compassion in all its forms, to service in all its forms, to learning in all its forms, to reason in all its forms; the place where we can dedicate, commit and offer our lives: to all our relations, to the promptings and urgings of the spirit, to the pursuit of a more just and fair society, to care and stewardship of the earth, our planet, our parent, our home; a place where we come to discern the sacrifices we must make—and then make them—on the altars of our inner lives, the whisping smoke of our metaphorical burnt offerings filling our nostrils, at once pungent, at once sweet—pleasing, satisfying, life giving: generous sacrifices of our time, our gifts, our wealth; sacrifices for the sake of our community, sacrifices for the sake of our values, sacrifices for the sake of our children, sacrifices for the sake of the future, sacrifices for the sake of some reality larger than ourselves but to which we are intimately connected.

Sanctuary, meaning the most holy place in the temple—the place consecrated for the keeping of sacred things—the place where the God or Goddess resides, where the angels attend—the innermost sanctum, the Holy of Holies—the place where the stars align on holy nights; the place where heaven and earth meet—the axis mundi, as the scholars call it—the place where we may keep and remember and hold close, hold with great tenderness, hold with great intimacy, all that is sacred to us; the place where we may drink deeply from our spiritual wells; the place where spirit moves into us and out of us; the place where we can grasp and know and trust the divinity in ourselves—our likeness to God, as our Unitarian forebears used to teach; our ultimate reunion with God, as our Universalist forebears used to preach; the place where we can apprehend and grasp our connections, our interdependence, our relatedness to the whole of life, to all that has been, to all there is, to all that shall be.

Here we build temples in our hearts—
a temple for each heart,
a village of temples,
none shading another,
connected by well-worn paths,
built alike on sacred ground.

When I use this language of building temples in our hearts, I am mindful that so much of what we do in this congregation seeks to strengthen and fortify us, seeks to make good on that promise that each of our lives tells a story, each of our lives harbors deep and abiding truths, each of our lives is sacred and worthy. But, ultimately we do not build these temple-sanctuaries in our hearts solely for ourselves. The self matters—it matters immensely—and our religion must take our selves seriously. But our religion, in the end, is not here for the benefit of the self. Our religion is here for the benefit of the world. Our religion builds our temple-sanctuaries—gives us access within ourselves to the paths of refuge, solace, rest, strength, fortitude, passion and integrity—so that we may become bearers of love and compassion into the world; so that we may become bearers of comfort and healing into the world; so that we may discern how best to share our passions with the world, all for the sake of a more peaceful world, a more just world, a more sustainable world.

I think this is good theology. This past week I’ve been involved in a number of conversations about the nature of God—one with the Affirmation students and one with the participants in our adult course, “Theology in a Secular Age.” In both conversations we’ve been naming our inability to believe in a God who somehow is able to reach into and control human affairs—the omnipotent, omniscient God we associate with the beliefs of the more traditional, conservative and fundamentalist religions–the old, white-haired, bearded God who sits on a throne and judges us. We’ve been noting our inability to believe in that God.  We’ve been noting instead that regardless of what one believes about God, whether or not one believes God exists at all, if there is to be more love and compassion in the world, human beings need to make it so. If there is to be more comfort and healing in the world, human beings need to make it so. If there is going to be a more just, peaceful and sustainable world, human beings need to make it so. Regardless of what we may believe about God, the universe or the nature of reality, our Unitarian Universalist congregation teaches us that human beings need to make it so. That is why we build temples in the heart: so that we have the power to make it so.

Hold that thought. Some of you have already made your financial pledge to UUS:E for the coming year. Thank you. Some of you have already signed up to participate in a stewardship pot luck dinner and will be making your pledge then. The rest of you will soon be hearing from a steward, asking for a face-to-face meeting to talk about the value this congregation holds in your life and to ask for your pledge. Thank you for returning their call or email quickly.

We are this year, as always, proposing increases in our budget. Much of this increase is to give our staff a cost of living allowance and to come as close as we can to paying our staff according to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s fair compensation guidelines. We also hope to expand our adult education and Sunday worship service offerings, continue funding our youth advisor and reduce the amount of money we need to borrow from our savings in order to have a balanced budget. As always, we ask that you pledge as generously as you can. We are hoping for a 5% increase in pledge income over last year. If we get a 7.2 % increase we will balance our budget without drawing from savings at all. I am so grateful to our outgoing Finance Chair, Patricia Wildes, and our Treasurer, Bob Hewey, who have done a masterful job preparing our budget and crunching the numbers again and again and again. I am so grateful to the members of the Policy Board who strive so hard to make the best financial decisions they can on your behalf, and who admit they have a hard time saying “no” to good ideas. We have a lot of good ideas! And I am so grateful to Stan McMillen and the Stewardship Committee who work so hard year round to encourage a spirit of generous giving at UUS:E.

They do it for a reason. And we come here for a reason. And it’s not about budgets and staff and numbers and pledges and increased
pledges—though all of those are important. We come because we build temples in the heart. We build temples in the heart, inner sanctuaries, places of refuge and retreat, comfort and solace, honesty and integrity, passion, dedication, commitment and sacredness. We build temples in the heart so that we may live the lives we feel called to live. But we build temples in the heart, not in the end for ourselves, but for a more just, peaceful and sustainable world, because we know: if there is to be a more just, peaceful and sustainable world, human beings must make it so. We build temples in the heart so that we have the power to make it so.

Amen and blessed be.

 

 

This Sentence is False

Rev. Josh Mason Pawelek

“Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense,” said the science fiction writer Frank Herbert.[1] This is likely not an earth-shattering revelation to any of you. Herbert is not alone in making this observation. A close look at the history of both science and religion reveals at their cores a common, profound human longing to make sense of life, of the world, of the universe, of all existence. I detect this longing at the heart of those words we said earlier from Nicaraguan priest Ernesto Cardinal—his proclamation of a harmonious universe, a unity behind apparent multiplicity.[2]  I detect this longing at the heart of our fourth Unitarian Universalist principle, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I detect this longing at the heart of Religious Humanism which has been a central identity for so many Unitarians and Universalists over the past century. For me, this longing—this pervasive need, as Herbert calls it—is at the heart of what makes us human.

Scientists John Casti and Werner DePauli, in their biography of the twentieth century European logician, Kurt Gödel, write, “Humans have always hungered for a certain knowledge, the kind that transcends millennia.”[3] They, too, are referring to the human longing for a logical universe that makes sense. Gödel’s incompleteness theorem says something about this. But before I offer some muddled Sunday morning musings about this, I want to remind you whose idea it was that I preach on Gödel. For the eighth year in a row, Fred Sawyer purchased a sermon at last year’s goods and services auction. He asked me to preach on the significance of Gödel’s theorem for us. This theorem goes far beyond anything Fred has suggested before in terms of complexity. I certainly appreciate and enjoy the challenge, but I confess the math is utterly beyond me. (I take some comfort knowing it’s beyond most mathematicians.) Hopefully I will convey it well. And as always, I will be offering more sermons at this year’s goods and services auction, Saturday evening, Febraury 11th. Tickets on sale now. Please come, please bid!

What is the path to the knowledge that would enable us to make logical sense of the universe? And how can we be sure such knowledge is true? Casti and DePauli write, “we most assuredly can’t find that kind of knowledge in the natural sciences where theories even as fundamental as Newton’s laws of mechanics can be overthrown by relativity theory, which itself may be cast in doubt by observations yet to come. Thus it is always to mathematics, especially the realm of pure numbers that we turn for the kind of certainty that we can really count on, if you’ll pardon the poor pun. In this domain, the truth-generating mechanism we employ is the process of logical deduction bequeathed to us by Aristotle.”[4]

Aristotelian logic begins with a set of assumptions or axioms we take to be true without proof. From those axioms we infer certain rules; with those rules we deduce further truths. For example, axiom: all German Shepherds are dogs. Axiom: fluffy is a German Shepherd. Rule: If all German Shepherds are dogs, and if Fluffy is a German Shepherd, then Fluffy is also a dog. Sounds straightforward, but there’s a problem. (I love it when there’s a problem.) When one digs down deep into the rules of any mathematical system (arithmetic, geometry, calculus, set theory) one is likely to find contradictions—paradoxes—which suggest that maybe the axioms we first accepted as true aren’t entirely true. Paradoxes defy the system’s rules. They are statements that are both true and false. Somehow, Fluffy is both a dog and not a dog. It shouldn’t be possible. A flaw lurks somewhere in the foundation of our knowledge. Such paradoxes are the mathematical equivalents of the statement, “this sentence is false,” which is known as the Epimenides or Liar’s Paradox. Let your mind ponder this for a few moments. This sentence is false.

If it’s false, then it’s actually true … which means by its own definition it’s false … but wait! Isn’t that what it says? This sentence is false? So it’s true … which means it’s false. And so on. It’s a paradox. It can’t be resolved using the system’s rules. Another example is the Barber Paradox. The village barber shaves all those who do not shave themselves. If that’s true, then who shaves the barber? If the barber shaves himself, then he doesn’t shave himself, because he shaves all those who do not shave themselves. But if he doesn’t shave himself, then he shaves himself, because he shaves all those who do not shave themselves.[5] It cannot be resolved using the system’s rules.

A (hopefully) fun mathematical example comes from the twentieth century British logician and philosopher, Bertrand Russell: “The set of all sets that are not members of themselves.” Consider this question: Is the set of all sets that are not members of themselves a member of itself? The philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein writes, “if the set of all sets that aren’t members of themselves is a member of itself, then it’s not a member of itself, since it contains only sets that aren’t members of themselves. And, if it’s not a member of itself, then it is a member of itself, since it contains all the sets that aren’t members of themselves. So it’s a member of itself if and only if it’s not a member of itself.” To which she reacts with two sharp words: “Not good.” Why not good? “Paradoxes,” she says, “have often been found lurking about in the deepest places of thought. Their presence is often a signal (like the canary dying?) that we have managed, sometimes unwittingly, to stumble on a deep and problematic place, a fissure in the foundations.”[6] Why not good? Because they don’t make sense, and we humans long for a logical universe that makes sense.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries mathematicians and philosophers tried to create mathematical systems completely free from paradox. The holy grail of such efforts was known as a formal system. I won’t get into the details of formal systems, because I’m not sure I can explain them and keep you awake at the same time. Suffice it to say, those seeking this holy grail believed paradoxes existed in mathematical systems because the numbers and words that made up those systems had certain intrinsic meanings. Paradoxes, they argued, arose from those meanings. If you could drain all meaning from the system you could get rid of paradoxes. Formal systems attempt to do just that. To each of the meaningful numbers, words, axioms and theorems in, say arithmetic, they assign a meaningless symbol. Get rid of meaning, get rid of paradox.[7]

Related to this, remember in logical deduction we start out with axioms we accept as true without proof.  If we can’t prove them, then we must admit we’ve arrived at them by some other means: intuition. They are intuitively true. Yet, Goldstein reminds us, intuitions “are a tricky business…. An intuition is supposed to be something that we just know, in and of itself, not on the basis of knowing something else…. But not all … intuitions are genuine… and how is one to tell when one is in possession of the genuine article? Murky motivations … not only abound but also tend to hide themselves…. You might think that in mathematics … murky motives for beliefs are at a minimum. Still, even in mathematics we can get suckered. Accidental features can insinuate themselves into our most pristine mathematical reasoning, presenting us with propositions that seem intuitively obvious when they are not obvious at all—maybe not even true at all.”[8] Intuitions, said the formalists, also lead to paradox. So, a formal mathematical system—which drains all the meaning out of the numbers and words—also, in theory, removes intuition. Without intuition, without meaning, presumably those pesky paradoxes disappear. A formal system would finally give us that logical universe that makes sense, that knowledge transcending millennia, that hidden r half of Lir’s plan for creation,[9] that unity behind apparent multiplicity.

The faith that such a formal system could be established was widespread in early twentieth-century Europe. It seemed as if a logical, sensible universe was within reach. On September 30, 1930, at a symposium in Konigsberg, Germany Kurt Gödel—at 25 years old—announced his incompleteness theorem. From what I’ve read, nobody was paying attention. It was the last day of the symposium; people were tired and ready to leave. Eventually his theorem was published, became widely accepted, and effectively ended the search for math’s holy grail.

Gödel’s theorem says this: “For every consistent formalization of arithmetic, there exist arithmetic truths that are not provable within that formal system.”[10] Casti and DePauli write, “What Gödel discovered is that even though there exist true relationships among pure numbers, the methods of deductive logic are just too weak for us to be able to prove all such facts. In other words, truth is simply bigger than proof.”[11] In every system there are certain truths—we can intuit them—but we cannot prove they are true using the system’s rules. Therefore our mathematical systems are inherently incomplete. Our knowledge—in terms of what we can prove—will forever be incomplete. The mathematical holy grail does not exist. “Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense,” writes Frank Herbert, “but,” he continues, “the real universe is always one step beyond logic.”[12]

What Gödel did is fascinating, innovative, thrilling, a testament to his genius, and even funny. When the theorem was first published

many called it a trick. They called him a conjurer, a magician. But today the incompleteness theorem is regarded as the most important discovery in mathematics since Aristotle. Gödel presented a formal system modeled, I believe, after the system—known as a type system—established by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead in their three volume work Principia Mathematica. He re-coded that system by assigning a special number to each meaningless symbol in the formal system. That’s the part I don’t understand. These are astronomically huge numbers which came to be known as Gödel numbers. Using these numbers he then created a statement similar to “This sentence is false.” He created “This sentence is not provable.” And then he proved it. Hear this: He proved the sentence is not provable. There’s no paradox here. We don’t get caught up in an endless stream of provable, not provable, provable, not provable. He proved it’s not provable. The formal system worked. No paradox. But watch: he proved the sentence is not provable, which means it’s true. Within this system there is a statement that is unprovable, but also true. There are truths we cannot prove. It turns out in any mathematical system (as long as it is consistent) there are unprovable truths. All mathematical systems are incomplete. There are truths that reside beyond proof.

What significance might this hold for us? Part of me that wants to throw up my hands and scream, “I have no idea!” Another part of me needs to remind us Gödel’s theorem is not religion; it’s not theology, spirituality or ethics. It’s cold, hard math and any attempt to draw a spiritual conclusion from it is risky. Gödel once wrote to his mother that “sooner or later my proof will be made useful for religion, since that is doubtless also justified in a certain sense.”[13] While I can find no indication of what he meant by that, he did at one point attempt to prove the existence of God and the afterlife. (I’m not impressed with his theology, which is quite distinct from the incompleteness theorem.) I also wouldn’t be surprised if some more traditional religious thinkers might be tempted to find proof for God in the incompleteness theorem. That thing we can’t prove but we know is true beyond the limits of our mathematical systems, beyond the limits of human knowing? It might look like God to some. But I don’t think the numbers are saying that.

What I take from my brief study of Gödel is this: First, if our mathematical systems and all systems derived from them are incomplete, then we ought to be skeptical of any religious, ideological, political or social claim to completeness. Human motives are often murky. In response to any world-view we ought to remain open to the possibility of truths residing beyond its claims. We ought to accept and embrace the mystery at the edges and perhaps at the heart of any world-view. We ought to align ourselves with the old liberal religious axiom, “revelation is not sealed.” As we sang, “Creative love, our thanks we give that this our world is incomplete.”[14]

Second, Gödel’s theorem does not signal the end of reason and logic. Rather, it was a triumph of reason and logic. It was a triumph of the human mind and a testament to the value and necessity of reason and logic in all areas of our lives including our spiritual lives.

Finally, the incompleteness theorem also confirms that reason and logic, while essential, are not the only path to truth. There are truths they cannot prove. How do we access these truths? It seems to me we do so through intuition, through poetry, art, dance, exertion, prayer, meditation, silence. We access unprovable truths not only through the mind, but through the body, the heart, the spirit. All these ways of searching for truth are necessary if we are to come to the knowledge we long for, if we are to meet that pervasive need. We’ll never fully know a logical universe, but if we learn to trust our intuitions and search for truth in all these ways, maybe—just maybe—we’ll come to know a universe that makes sense nevertheless. Perhaps that is the ultimate paradox, a universe that makes sense, yet its deepest truths lie beyond reason and logic.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] Herbert, Frank, Dune (New York: Berkley Books, 1965) p. 373.

[2]Cardinal, Ernesto, “The Music of the Spheres,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #532.

[3]Casti, John L. and DePauli, Werner, Gödel: A Life of Logic (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2000) p. 3.

[4]Casti and DePauli, Gödel, pp. 3-4.

[5]Casti and DePauli, Gödel, p. 24.

[6]Goldstein, Rebecca, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005) p. 91.

[7] Math meets philosophy here. What makes a symbol meaningful? What makes a symbol meaningless? I’m not sure.

[8] Goldstein, Incompleteness, pp. 122-123.

[9] This is a reference to the Composer Henry Cowell’s  “Voice of Lir.” Lir of the half tongue was the father of the gods, and of the universe.  When he gave the orders for creation, the gods who executed his commands understood but half of what he said, owing to his having only half a tongue; with the result that for everything that has been created there is an unexpressed and concealed counterpart, which is the other half of Lir’s plan of creation. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlJRf6jmbMc

[10]Casti and DePauli, Gödel, p. 50.

[11]Casti and DePauli, Gödel, pp. 4-5.

[12] Herbert, Dune, p. 373.

[13]Goldstein, Incompleteness, p. 192.

[14] Hyde, William DeWitt, “Creative Love, Our Thanks We Give,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #289.

Fragments of Your Ancient Name

Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

Video here.

The early 20th century German language poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, writes: “A fracture broke across the rings you’d ripened. / A screaming shattered the voices / that had just come together to speak you, to make of you a bridge / over the chasm of everything. / And what they have stammered ever since / are fragments / of your ancient name.[1] This is certainly not a holiday poem. It’s not particularly seasonal or even Decemberish. It speaks to me about brokenness in the human family, brokenness in the collective human spirit, and even brokenness in God. I offer this poem to you this morning because the midwinter season—this season of the solstice, of the returning sun, of festivals of light, of Advent, of stories of miracles and messiahs, angels and the births of kings; this season of hope and expectation, of promises of peace on earth and good will to all, of shopping and gift-giving, Yule logs, sleigh rides, Santa and mistletoe—the midwinter season, at its best, calls us to encounter ourselves differently, to live differently, to heal the brokenness in the human family, to heal the brokenness in the human spirit, to heal even the brokenness in God. The midwinter season, at its best, calls us away from the fractured rings, away from the chasm of everything, away from fragmentation; it beckons us on towards a deeper meaning for our lives; it beckons us on toward wholeness. We can’t—or don’t—always follow, but it beckons nevertheless.

I want to share some reflections on my childhood to illustrate what I mean by brokenness in the human family, the collective human spirit, and even in God. This sharing may sound familiar to some. I’m revisiting pieces of a sermon I wrote in seminary and then preached several times in the early years of my ministry, including on March 16th, 2003, the very first time I preached for this congregation.

I remember a conversation in a Sunday School class at the Unitarian Society of New Haven in the late 1970s. I was probably ten years old. I think it was our class on the theory of evolution. I can’t remember who the teacher was or who else was in the class.  What I remember vividly is an insight I had in the midst of that conversation that not all natural resources are renewable, that supplies of many natural resources we rely on (like oil) are finite, that our way of life is unsustainable and would inevitably change—perhaps not in my lifetime or that of my children and grandchildren, but certainly within the next few centuries. I offered this observation. The teacher agreed, and then counseled me and my classmates not to worry: science has always found solutions to these kinds of problems; science will find new ways for us to continue living as we are living. Looking back I’m reminded that in that church in the 1970s we still proclaimed a version of the late 19th-century progressive spirituality immortalized in the words of the Rev. James Freeman Clark, “We believe … in human progress onward and upward forever.”

So I didn’t worry. I trusted science. I still do. Growing up with a father who was and is a driven and passionate scientist who has spent his career unraveling the mystery of metastasis, I have learned to trust in science. Being the father of a child who underwent three successful open heart surgeries before the age of three and now lives a normal life and ran a mile in under ten minutes in the middle of October, I am one who trusts in human beings and human progress. This trust is central to what I mean when I call myself a person of faith.

In 2009 my mother’s mother died at age 102 in Hanover, PA. The modern life we are accustomed to, especially here in the United States, was not her life. My faith in science and human progress was not her faith. She and my grandfather were born on farms in rural Pennsylvania Dutch country. She remembered traveling into town by horse and buggy. She remembered walking three-and-a-half miles to St. Bartholomew’s on Sunday mornings where they practiced a modest, agrarian, pietistic Christian faith. I see them now as People of the Earth. They knew the Earth. They knew how to bring forth a yearly bounty from the Earth and its creatures. They knew and respected Nature’s power. They knew hardship and struggle, especially with the advent of the Great Depression. They knew how to adapt to changing circumstances, how to transform hardship into opportunity. They knew something of human limitations, frailties and death. In my view the Earth imparted this knowledge to them, though I’m almost certain they would not name the Earth as their teacher in quite this way. They would be more likely to proclaim that their faith in Jesus Christ carried them through hardship, helped them overcome limitations, and actually saved them from the Earth’s whims and fury.

As a child growing up in a science-oriented, suburban New England household, practicing a rational, Humanistic and often anti-Theistic Unitarian Universalist faith, it was sometimes spiritually disconcerting to visit Hanover. It was in Hanover that I first became aware of people who believed my family and I were destined for eternal punishment because of our rational religion and our rejection of the miracles and the divinity of Jesus. (No one in my mother’s family ever said this, but I heard it at St. Bartholomew’s from time to time.) It was in Hanover that I first recognized my own capacity to judge others harshly when their faith seemed old-fashioned, unexamined and even childlike. And yet God was alive and palpable in Hanover. I listened intently as my grandmother spoke of God’s love. I longed for that love in my life. She spoke of God’s anger too, and hell. I worried about that. I said my prayers at bedtime just in case: Now I lay me down to sleep….  Hanover could be so spiritually disconcerting. I longed for God’s love even as my modern Unitarian Universalist self was intentionally growing distant from God, from the old, unquestioning faith and the old, irrational church that espoused it.

Hanover was disconcerting for other reasons. Even in the 1970s, one could encounter echoes of older life-ways in Hanover: the cool basement rooms with dirt floors and shelves filled with jarred vegetables and fruit for winter sustenance; the antique tractors rusting on back lots; the bleached yellow barns that were there first, before the land was developed for housing and the roads expanded for cars; the beautiful brass bands playing Christmas carols, slightly out of tune, on dark December evenings, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”; the elders’ subtle German accents; the butcher shop down the way; and the fertile land still stretching into the distance, still yielding a rich bounty year after year. For me, a visit to Hanover offered wave after wave of mystical experiences, of heart-beats skipped, of breath-taking beauty, of apprehensions of a simpler, more sustainable life, of pausing, still and quiet, for a few incredible moments in the graveyard where my grandparents had already bought their plots, or sitting in the kitchen in the old house on Frederick Street where my mother and her siblings had grown up; wave after wave of insight into the gifts and blessings of my ancestors, insight into a way of living in harmony with the Earth, respecting the Earth, learning from the Earth; wave after wave of insight into what it means to love and trust a Holy power larger than yourself, to rest in its comforting arms, to praise it for its existence, to thank it for its abundant gifts. But this look—this glorious, deeply spiritual look at what life could be—was a backwards look, a look into a receding world, or so I assumed. It was not human progress onward and upward forever. It was not the future. It looked to my untrained eye like a form of death. Hanover could be so disconcerting.

I didn’t recognize it then, but looking back I see, emerging in me, spiritual fragmentation, mirroring a larger fragmentation in the human family. Without any adult having to say it, without any adult even intending it to happen, somehow I felt compelled to choose between my liberal, Humanist faith, and my grandmother’s traditional, Theistic faith; between my modern, suburban post-industrial lifestyle and my grandmother’s rural, earth-based, old world living. Was the choice really necessary?

We might say, “Fine! So what?!? That’s what growing up is all about, isn’t it? Figuring these things out, making choices, following a path. And you turned out OK Rev.” This is true, but I also can’t ignore the poet’s truth: “A fracture broke across the rings you’d ripened. / A screaming shattered the voices / that had just come together to speak you, to make of you a bridge / over the chasm of everything. / And what they have stammered ever since / are fragments / of your ancient name.”[1] Yes, perhaps growing up requires that we make spiritual choices and box ourselves into certain life ways; but every time we do this we risk growing spiritually fragmented. And for many of us—for many Unitarian Universalists and liberal religious people—the whole idea of God ceases to have any meaning, because the God we typically encounter—often when some well-meaning person tries to convince of God’s reality (sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently)—is a broken God—a judgmental, angry, damning God. They are only stammering a fragment of the ancient name.

What utter fools we humans have been, ripping the Holy apart like this, creating a culture that compels us to choose one piece. What utter fools we’ve been, tearing God into shreds, and then wrapping ourselves in only one shred, or none, growing self-righteous, judging, not recognizing the paucity of our spiritual garment, not recognizing our own shivering in the gathering cold.

I don’t pretend to speak with authority on what a whole God is, but I am convinced human beings have only been able to visit atrocities and injustices, terrorism and wars upon other human beings because we first ripped God apart. I am convinced human beings now confront unprecedented and catastrophic environmental change because we first ripped God apart. I am convinced that our capacity to judge and condemn, alienate and isolate, bomb and torture, exploit and enslave, pollute and plunder, is rooted in our tearing God asunder. When we look out at the world and bear witness to brokenness in the human family and brokenness in the human spirit it is because, after millennia of human existence, we still only stammer fragments of God’s ancient name.

Hanover never should have been a disconcerting experience for a child. Hanover should have been (and I’m thankful it is now) a moment to recognize that the spirit and energy present in humanity, in human innovation, in science, in reason, in our aspirations towards progress—curing disease, advancing technology, eliminating poverty, expanding freedom—is connected to the God who has journeyed as a comforting presence with countless human beings into slavery, into concentration camps, into genocides, into trails of tears, into occupation, into war, into violence; which itself is connected to the God who carried my grandparents through all their times of hardship and struggle, to whom they prayed whether the land was barren or fertile and in whom they placed their trust;  which is itself connected to the Holy Spirit who rode on lush harmonies of brass band Christmas carols, slightly out of tune, on dark, December evenings; which is itself connected to the energy and sustenance stored in jars of vegetables and fruits on cool basement shelves, ready for the long winter months; which is itself connected to ghosts haunting old yellow barns and rusting tractors and to the voices of the ancestors speaking of a more simple and sustainable life; which is connected to Nature, the Earth, the land, the soil that, if respected and treated well by all of us—as the ancients knew—will continue to yield abundance, will continue to sustain life, will continue to enable survival even through the harshest of times; which is itself connected to the Goddess, the Great Mother, the Creative power of the universe; which is itself, in the words of Nancy Shaffer in our second reading this morning, “Peace … / One My Mother knew … / Ancestor … / Wind. / Rain. / Breath …. / Refuge.  / That Which Holds All. / … Water. / … Kuan Yin. / … Womb. / Witness. / Great Kindness. / Great Eagle. / Eternal Stillness;[2] which is itself connected to the God who cries out for atonement for human atrocities; which is itself connected to the God who is clearly powerless to stop human beings from killing each other, yet who offers to us, over and over, through the prophetic urgings of seers and sages and holy people throughout the ages the path of love thy neighbor as thyself; which is itself connected to all the powers and experiences and love that saves us in this life, in a multitude of ways, again and again, if we would only wake up, if we would only notice, if we would only weave back together the tattered shreds, if we would only let God be whole. God’s ancient name must be some version of the word whole.

The midwinter season beckons us toward this wholeness. It’s there in the mixing of the sacred and secular—the nativity scene in the middle of the shopping mall. It’s there in the mixing of the pagan and Christian symbols: the evergreen, that ancient symbol of life prevailing through the winter, decorated with the angels and stars of Luke’s gospel. It’s there in the story of a miraculous birth—the common story of so many gods and goddesses and heroes throughout human history. And it’s there in the message which we associate with Christmas but which resides at the core of so many faith traditions: peace on Earth, goodwill to all. So many fragments come together in this season, pointing us towards a deeper meaning for our lives, calling us to the work of healing the human family and healing the collective human spirit, calling out God’s ancient name, not a fragment; and beckoning us toward wholeness.

Amen and Blessed Be.

_______________________________________________________________________________

[1] Rilke, Rainer Maria, “I Read it Hear in Your Very Word,” in Barrows, Anita and Macy, Joanna, translators, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 55.

[2] Rilke, Rainer Maria, “I Read it Hear in Your Very Word,” in Barrows, Anita and Macy, Joanna, translators, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 55.

[3] Shaffer, Nancy, “That Which Holds All,” Instructions in Joy (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2002) p. 23.

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.

[2] http://www.gandhifoundation.net/Truth/article3.htm

[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: http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney.

[8] see: http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney?page=1

[9] For more info on Chris Mooney see: http://scienceblogs.com/intersection/about.php.

[10] See: http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney?page=1.

[11] See John Brockman’s blog on this article at: http://edge.org/conversation/the-argumentative-theory. See the abstract for the article at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1698090.