How Do We Know? or Spiritual Discernment in the Information Age

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

[Video Here]

“Light shine in. Luminate our inward view. Help us to see with clarity.”[1] I offer these words as a way to begin exploring our January ministry theme, discernment. When we discern, we attempt to “see with clarity.”

I love this theme for kickin’ off the new year. It can take us beyond the standard new year’s resolutions which—not always, but often—emerge out of guilt, anxiety, self-nagging: I will lose weight. I will be more open-minded. I will exercise more regularly. I will drink less. I will finally write that novel I’ve been aching to write but keep putting off. I will make an effort to connect more with family and friends. I will unplug. These kinds of resolutions are important. They play a role in our efforts at self-improvement. They help us set personal goals. None of them is easy. But so often we make them in an attempt to fix something we imagine is wrong with us. So often they come from a negative-leaning self-appraisal. And so often that negativity comes from outside of us. That is, it reflects societal values—or what we assume are societal values—what can be quite shallow values—and it has very little to do with what we really want for ourselves. Again, there’s a place for such resolutions in our lives, but I think we can and ought to go further and deeper as the year begins. Exploring discernment as a central feature of our spiritual lives moves us away from making resolutions to fix something about ourselves that may or may not need fixing, and moves us towards discovering what is true for us, what really matters in our lives, and what kinds of living will bring meaning and fulfillment. I like how Kathleen McTigue put it in our opening words: “The new year can be new ground for the seeds of our dreams.”[2]

So, what do I mean by discernment? To begin, I commend to you Jerry Lusa’s essay in our January newsletter (which is also at uuse.org[3]). Jerry writes, “Discernment is about finding the essence of things.” Discernment is about “going past the mere perception of something and making detailed judgments about [it]. It is the ability to judge well.”  He includes a quote from Anne Hill, a California-based neo-pagan writer, publisher, teacher, musician and blogger. She says discernment is “the ability to tell truth from fiction, to know when we have lost our center and how to find it again.”[4]

One could argue—and Jerry’s essay hints at this—that we practice discernment all day long in every context imaginable. Much of our discerning is about our daily routines and feels more or less inconsequential. We discern what we shall eat for breakfast. We discern whether we should take an alternate route in heavy traffic. We discern whether we shall read or watch television before we go to bed. Meaningful living and a life of the spirit aren’t necessarily tied to this level of “everyday” discernment, though certainly one could also argue from a Buddhist, or perhaps a Taoist, perspective that the more mindful we are about even the most mundane aspects of our day, the more meaningful our living will be.

So whether we’re seeking clarity about the mundane or the transcendent, the common or the extraordinary, the secular or the sacred, discernment becomes relevant to our spiritual lives—in fact, it becomes an essential and intimate feature of our spiritual lives—when we pursue it as an intentional process—a thought process, a contemplative process, a process of reasoning, reflecting or ruminating; a process of assessing or analyzing; a process of deliberating, of musing, of praying, of feeling, of intuiting—any process that we use intentionally to bring some sense of order and meaning to our lives; to help us distinguish between truth and falsehood; to help us distinguish between what matters most and what matters least; to help us distinguish between what is coming from within and what is coming from without. It’s any process we use intentionally to guide us to our center—or to guide us back to our center if we’ve lost it; to guide us to our own voice—or to guide us back to our own voice if it has grown silent; to guide us to our most authentic self—or back to that self if we’ve somehow grown distant from it; or to guide us to some reality greater than ourselves that we experience as sacred, holy, life-affirming, life-giving, saving, salving, healing, sustaining. In short, spiritual discernment is an intentional process that leads us deeper into ourselves or out beyond ourselves. “Light shine in. Luminate our inward view. Help us to see with clarity.”

And once we arrive there, once we’ve gained clarity, once we have truth, once we have our authentic self or that reality greater than self, then we have the capacity, the grounding, the confidence, the nerve, the will to make good decisions, to judge well, to select wisely, to act with integrity, to move forward on our path, to plant the seeds of our dreams.

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?

It’s not easy. I think what I’m describing as discernment is very difficult. Even with great intentionality, great focus, great discipline, the line between truth and falsehood is not always clear. The line between what matters most and what matters least is not always clear. Our most authentic self is not always clear. And certainly the nature of some life-giving, sustaining reality greater than ourselves is not always clear. Light shines in but doesn’t always luminate.

This week I’ve been imagining our capacity for discernment as a continuum. On one end of the continuum discernment begins, and there are reasons it is difficult to begin. On the other end … it ends. Discernment meets its limit—we can only gain so much clarity. I want to say a few words about each end of the continuum.

At the beginning we have a situation about which we need clarity. We have raw data, information, thoughts, sensations, joys and sorrows, problems to solve, dilemmas to manage, decisions to make, conflicts to resolve. Discernment begins as we pause, as we lean back, as we enter into that intentional process of thinking, contemplating, reflecting, musing or praying in order to gain clarity about the situation. And, keep in mind, we’re not simply thinking about the situation. We’re thinking beneath the situation; we’re looking for our truth in relation to it, our sense of what matters, our voice, our center, and at times we’re looking for our relationship to a life-giving, life-affirming reality beyond ourselves. But note: the act of pausing to think about a situation, let alone beneath a situation, is difficult in its own right. I’m pretty sure it’s not a natural human tendency. It’s a skill we develop. It takes practice. How often do we admonish our children and grandchildren to “think before you act?” How many times as children did we hear that advice? And ignore it? Pausing, leaning back, taking a breath—for the sake of discernment—is not a natural human tendency.

But there’s more to the difficulty in this information age. The world has changed remarkably in the last decade. When we lean back from a situation today, we are more and more likely to find ourselves leaning into a mighty river of information. When we lean back from a situation today, we are less and less able to pause and  reflect on a situation because the space—mental or otherwise—in which we had hoped to do our reflecting is filling up with more and more information. We are firmly ensconced in the information age. Things move and change so quickly that whenever we pause to discern, we risk falling behind—at least that’s how it feels, and the feeling is potent.

And then one of our devices beeps. Our pop-tune ring-tones interrupt. Even with our phones on ‘vibrate,’ it’s still an interruption. We have to see who’s calling, or texting; who’s pushing what new message.

And of course, sometimes we mean to pause for discernment, but instead we check out our Facebook page. Ohh, my friend (who is not an actual friend) posted an article with an interesting headline at Huffington Post. I’ll check it out. Hmm. Not so interesting, but there’s another author I know. They link to her blog. I’ll check it out. Hmm. This is funny. And wise. Might work for a sermon. Think I’ll tweet it. Oh, a colleague just tweeted the link to a sermon video. I’ll check it out. Uh, this is great, but I don’t have time to watch the whole thing. Wait, Colbert said what? I have to check it out. Hilarious. Ooh, a new video from one of my favorite bands. Gotta check it out. Very cool. I have to share this. Quick, back to Facebook. And so it goes.

Within the span of a decade the number of ways for people to communicate, connect, network, conduct business, report, offer opinion, advertise, sell, barter, share ideas, books, music, movies and inventions has exploded—perhaps not beyond measure but certainly beyond our wildest Y2K imaginings. Information now comes at us constantly. Constantly. We live in a message-saturated society with the potential for hundreds, if not thousands of voices to enter our consciousness every day from all corners. I suspect we’ve all developed unconscious filters to help us ignore most of it; but even still, the flow of information is staggering.

Don’t misconstrue my intent. I am not complaining. I’m not lamenting. I’m not pining away for some lost pre-internet golden age where there were three corporate TV networks, rotary phones, and newspapers printed on actual paper. (Remember Newsweek?) I’m not interested in going back. I’m not one of those clergy who talks about how much we’ve lost in this information age—how terrible it is that we interact as much online as we do in person, how we’ve lost some bit of our soul because of it. We have lost something. No question. But I feel strongly that as long as we can manage ourselves rather than the information managing us, then we’ve gained far more than we’ve lost. I like all the new tools. I’m not an early adopter, but I adopt. I feel very much at home working with email, websites, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, I-tunes, and I’m moving towards e-books. I like figuring out how to use the tools to best express and promote our liberal religious message. But I’m also aware that in an information-soaked, data-infused, message-saturated, device-permeated culture, spiritual discernment becomes all the more difficult: discerning the line between truth and fiction, discerning what matters most, discerning one’s voice, discerning one’s authentic self becomes all the more difficult because there is so much information. How do we know which information is accurate? How do we know which information is relevant? How do we know which information will guide us in a healthy, productive, life-giving direction? Where on earth is clarity?

The answer, at least for me this morning, strangely, lies at the other end of the continuum where our capacity for discernment ends. Earlier I read Tracey Smith’s poem “It and Co.” For me this poem as a provocative yet oddly comforting statement about the limits of our capacity to discern. I take “It” to be a reality larger than ourselves—reality in an ultimate sense—God, Goddess, Gaia, the earth, the universe, the cosmos. The “Co.”—the company—is us, humans. We are curious.  We are curious about It. We are trying—we’ve been trying for millennia—to discern the essence of It, but the light we shine never reaches far enough. We never gain clarity. “Is It us,” Smith asks, “or what contains us?” And then: “It is elegant / But coy. It avoids the blunt ends / Of our fingers as we point. We / Have gone looking for It everywhere: / In Bibles and bandwidth, / …. Still It resists the matter of false vs. real …. / It is like some novels: / Vast and unreadable.”[5]

She’s got us out at the far reaches of the universe, the limits of our perception, the end of the continuum. She’s got us at the door to the Holy of Holies, but we can’t peer in. She’s got us at the entrance to the mountaintop cave, but we can’t peer out. In traditional religious language, we can’t gaze upon the face of God. There’s no more clarity to gain no matter how much light we shine in. This ultimate reality is “vast and unreadable.” It “avoids the blunt end of our fingers as we point.” It rests behind an unpiercable veil. It is, in the end, utterly mysterious. And knowing this is important. Because here is a space that will never fill up with information.

Here we can pause, lean back, breathe. And while we can’t name what we’re leaning on, here we also aren’t caught in a river of constant data. Here we aren’t drowning in a sea of new facts and opinions. Here we can discern. We can’t discern It with a capital I. But we can move beyond the beginning of the continuum where information is flowing relentlessly. We can look closely at the situations of our lives. We can gain clarity. We can’t discern ultimate reality, but in the space it provides we can certainly discern our truth, our own voice, our most authentic self, and the things that matter beyond ourselves.

And we don’t have to go to the far reaches of the universe to enter this space.  There are hints of this everywhere: in the dark of winter; in the cry of a newborn baby; at the mountain peak; in the lover’s embrace; in the watery depths; in the nonviolent resistor’s courage; in crashing waves and tidal pools; in the wild abandon of children in summer (acting before they think); in those old stone fences running through New England woods; in the farmer rising before dawn; in crocuses breaking through the still frozen March ground; in elders sharing their stories and their wisdom by the light of a blazing fire. In all of it some mystery abides just below the surface constantly calling to us, constantly beckoning—some vast and unreadable essence, some beautiful and compelling but obscure essence, some take-your-breath-away, put-goose-bumps-on-your-fore-arms, send-chills-up-and-down-your-spine essence, some holy hallelujah cry just below the surface. And yes, the second we try to name it, the second we point our blunt fingers at it, the second we shine too bright a light, it slips away. But it keeps calling.

Some will find this confounding. I don’t. I find it comforting. There is something deeply comforting for me in the constant presence of a mystery constantly calling out to us, constantly presenting itself to us, constantly inviting us to seek, to search, to discern, even if it remains elusive. Its presence makes us curious. Mystery makes us curious. One of the most central and endearing human qualities is curiosity. If the presence of a vast and unreadable mystery inspires curiosity in us, then it invites us to be human. It invites us to discern. It invites us to plant the seeds of our dreams. Consider this: the absence of mystery doesn’t offer such invitations. Curiosity is a lot more challenging in the absence of mystery. I prefer the mystery. I know it may never be revealed, but there’s a lot we can clarify along the way. Thus, may we continue to seek. May we continue to discern.

Amen and blessed be. And Happy New Year!



[1] Kimball, Richard S., “Winds Be Still,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) # 83.

[2] McTigue, Kathleen, “New Year’s Day,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #544.

[3] Navigate to http://uuse.org/topics/monthly-ministry-theme/ and scroll down to “January Ministry Theme: Discernment” (posted 12/31/2012).

[4] Anne Hill, The Baby and the Bathwater (Bodega Bay, CA: Serpentine Music, 2012).

[5] Smith, Tracy K., “It  & Co.”  Life on Mars (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2011) p. 17.

July Minister’s Column

Hallelujah
Dear Ones:

We have come once again to the end of the congregational year.  While the pace of congregational life tends to slow a bit during the summer months, it doesn’t mean that our spiritual lives take a vacation. Nor does it mean that UUS:E ceases to function. UUS:E is a twelve-month-per-year congregation. Even now, the Sun-day Services Committee is preparing some awesome worship experiences for July and August. Sunday chil-dren’s programming continues at the 11:00 service. Committees meet. Small group ministries meet. The office is open during business hours as usual. Congregational life continues.

I will be on vacation during most of July and August. I don’t have any big plans this summer.  I hope to catch up on some cleaning and fixing around the house, visit friends I haven’t seen in a while, read, run, spend time with my boys and possibly spend a few weekends camping. As I seem to say every year at this time, sum-mer’s spiritual task for us is exploration. Where winter invites us to turn our gaze inward, summer invites us to look out. Even though I won’t be travelling to some other part of the country or the world, I do expect to turn my gaze outward, to encounter life in new ways, to search, to explore or, as our July ministry theme suggests, to bear witness to life. Sometimes our greatest insights and discoveries lie just outside our back doors.

As is always the case during the summer months, I will not be keeping regular office hours. I will be available in the event of a pastoral emergency—especially in the event of a death—but I do not expect to re-spond to non-emergencies until later in August.

For now, I wish you a wonderful summer. My prayer for all the members and friends of our congrega-tion—and all who read these words—is that you shall each find the time and the resolve to turn your spiritual gaze outward, to search, to explore, to bear witness to what life holds, to bear witness to what life offers. May you encounter life in new ways. May you stretch and grow with summer.

With love,

Rev. Josh

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.