“Truth is Victorious” by Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – September 17, 2017

Opening Words (responsive) (Upanishads, adapted)

We gather as a community of memory and hope,

On a journey that carries us from untruth to truth

From ignorance to wisdom,

From animosity to love,

From bondage to freedom.

We rededicate ourselves before this community to affirm and practice truth, wisdom, love and freedom today and in the days to come.

Reading from The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout


The other night Andrea and I attended an event at Harvard Divinity School celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau. Many of us revere Thoreau for the inspiration he provided to today’s environmental movement. We love him for being someone who could at once see both the sacredness in nature, and record its scientific changes. We admire him for following the sounds of his own drummer, living without heed for the conventions of society. One of the speakers at the Harvard event quoted Thoreau’s approach to writing: “The one great rule of composition. . . is, to speak the truth, this first, this second, this third: pebbles in your mouth or not.” His eye was on truth not on the ornaments; reveal your own genius, he said. We hear echoes of: Speak your own truth, live your own truth, and don’t give in to the pressures of an acquisitive society or selfish people who would have you be or become someone you are not. But what is truth? I usually feel like the pebbles that are in my mouth get in the way of expressing or living any definitive truth, especially as a Unitarian Universalist for fear of offending someone else’s truth, or believing there are as many truths as there are people on the planet.

This is exactly the problem in our culture today. We are all pretty confused about truth, and where it is and what it means. One writer feels we have reaped what we have sowed, and tells that story in his book Fantasylands. Kurt Andersen says that America over the centuries has “nurtured a promiscuous devotion to the untrue.” He says we act as though fake news, alternative facts or post-truth are something new, but it has been going on all along, and President Trump is the predictable result of this history. Andersen traces the story back to the Pilgrims and Puritans. He says they developed a sense of self that was infused with entitlement and exceptionalism. Reality was theirs to be custom made. He cites Anne Hutchinson who rebelled from the Puritans as a perfect example of self-appointed prophet. She understood truth better than anybody, or so she thought, and there was no room for self-doubt. Fake news Andersen says, started with the myths about George Washington. He was mythologized as a Greek God like hero who could not lie about the cherry tree, and saved all his boys by praying at Valley Forge. History mostly tells us he lost a lot, and was darn lucky.

There are other aspects to this confusion about truth. We have the birth of conspiracy theorists. We often considered this fringe thinking by nut cases, but after the Kennedy assassination, those who employed reason became the oddballs. But it predates Kennedy. There are those who believe that Roosevelt conspired to arrange the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My biggest shock was when I was walking around a UUA General Assembly display area a few years back, and came upon a big presentation with pictures and video of the conspiracy to blow up the World Trade Center. Did you know our government had planned this? This became a permanent feature of our mental landscape. And the problem is we never denounce these crazy kinds of pronouncements because we always say freedom of speech or people have the right to believe what they want to. Yet deeper than that are the national myths we convey about our history. Perhaps it began with Pilgrims purportedly playing nice with Native Americans, and enjoying a fresh turkey dinner, but it became especially pernicious with the reasons we affirmed for the cause of the Civil War. Somehow slavery became secondary to state’s rights, and white Americans begin to venerate the lost cause of the Confederacy leading to many of our problems with racism today, and the adoration of the flag displaying the Stars and Bars as mere history.

Another American tendency to manipulate truth has been seen in the propping up of magical thinking with scientific truth. While all of Europe gave up the idea of heaven and angels decades ago, the majority of Americans still maintain its validity. We also continue to see stretched claims in concerted efforts to prove that vaccines cause autism. These myths have had to be debunked, and more confusion was created when President Trump put his imprint on the validity of this falsified connection. Even some aspects of playing with truth are evident in our own Unitarian Universalist history. While it is generally not true for us today, heaven and angels were once a belief that predominated among UUs. Many Universalists and some Unitarians backed this in the mid-nineteenth century while embracing spiritualism. They attended séances and spoke to deceased spirits through mediums. When this occurred at such a gathering the table rappings and the like that they heard were affirmed as scientific evidence of truth. Unfortunately, (or not) most of the rappings around the table were hoaxes.

And in our tradition no one stretched the truth more than the circus impresario P. T. Barnum, who was a devout Universalist, who simply loved to fool people, and likewise knew that people seemingly loved to be fooled. This was verified by many of his exhibits at the Barnum museum, none more outrageous than that of the 161-year old nursing “mammy” of the infant George Washington. Joice Heth, was an elderly former slave who told stories about “little George” and sang a hymn, and apparently earned Barnun $1,500 a week, an incredible amount in 1835. His career as a showman took off after this, despite the fact that some doubts were raised about a person purportedly born in 1674. Many outrageous claims and stories followed, including that of a real mermaid. While Barnum probably never said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” he more than likely said, “People love to be humbugged.”

You would not think that UUs like to be hoodwinked. Truth has always been claimed as a central declaration of ours. When I served the church in Milton, we recited a late nineteenth century covenant that once was the most commonly used affirmation in the entire association. It said: In devotion to truth, and in the spirit of Jesus, we unite for the worship of God, and the service of all. A variation of this begins: In the love of truth. Our own affirmation says that we will seek the truth in love. Unitarians and seekers once wandered into the Second Unitarian Church in Brooklyn to find, that while no creed was posted on the walls, a verse from the book of John, chapter 8 was: “The Truth Shall Make You Free.” Even our principles and purposes have “the free and responsible search for truth.”   But what do we mean by truth? The truth in the Bible is that Jesus Christ will make you free. Universalists are sometimes reputed to have followed a truth that you can find on the outdoor chapel at Ferry Beach: God is love. Is that the truth we seek? Is it God or Jesus?

One of the first sermons I ever gave was called “The Blinding Search for the Whole Elephant.” It was based on the Indian story about the blind men who are asked to touch part of an elephant, but then are asked to describe the whole elephant based on the part that they come to know and feel. Of course each is only able to explain their response to that particular part. The one who touches the leg says that elephants are like pillars, and the one who touches the tusk says that elephants are like tree branches. They had experiences of the snake like trunk, and the rope like tail, and the huge leathery body. The idea is that knowing the whole is a mystery, and we can only know part of the larger truth about life. This is a typical response that Unitarian Universalists make to the question about truth. Each blind man represents one religious tradition, and we respect each of their perspectives because none can know the whole truth, and each develops answers dependent upon time and place and culture. There are many truths.

Yet many of these truths found in different faiths are presented as THE one and only truth by others, but Unitarian Universalists refuse to accept any claim to absolutism. We question dogmas because while we believe that you can never know the whole truth, and there are many perspectives on truth, we also know that we are always learning new truths. We typically say in this context, that revelation is not sealed, or as our founder Francis David in Transylvania said, “The reformation continues.” So as life evolves, so too does our understanding of God or the divine and moral truths or understanding. I may believe differently tomorrow from where I stand today. And that is exactly what happened to me. As a young minister I strongly identified as a Unitarian Universalist Christian, but later found in my own searching that I adopted this identification because it was based on the comfortable and comforting traditions of my childhood, but did not correspond with my more humanistic and pluralistic understanding of the world now. So if truth and our understanding of it grows, then it is never static. We might change again. We might say that there are many truths within this room, and even more in the world that are constantly changing. How do we even begin to find some basis for agreement when we espouse so many truths?

I think some of the general anxiety we find in the world is based on the loss of the sense of an agreed upon truth about life. Some years ago Stephen Colbert spoke about “truthiness.” At the time he said, “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist.” Our current political culture has given us a highly emotional and personal quality to truth. Something is true if I want it to be true, or feel it is true. Think of how we characterize President Trump. He invents the truth that satisfies his own sense of what he feels is the truth. He had the largest crowds of all time at his inaugural. Rational facts said that is not true. But his emotional fact to satisfy the needs of his large ego, and to prove himself right, is that he did have the largest crowd. He doubts scientific truths like global warming, but not the self. He also invents fake news, whether it is literally true or not to further his own goal, which is to prove the truth and worthiness of himself, and destroy someone else. Hilary Clinton is deathly ill. Obama was not born in the USA. Of course the ultimate danger in perpetrating fake news is that it will incite others to believe it and then act in response to the hoax. Wild claims of illegal voting lead to investigations that cost the taxpayers even if there is no evidence of wrong doing. So we may accept the irrational claims of someone who manipulates the truth, and we become totally confused as to where the truth lies. Where has truth gone?

We could attack the President all day as an easy target for the manipulation of truth, but the deeper issue is that we need a government we can trust, and not one that creates its own truth. I see a dangerous parallel here to what we sometimes promote as the Unitarian Universalist approach to truth. We usually see ourselves as the ultimate authorities when it comes to verifying what is truth for us. We doubt dogma but not the self, and embrace the truth that satisfies us. No authority but the self sounds like Trump. We often say that we want to be true to ourselves. Ministers who define their calling to this profession often feel they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. My truth is in serving others, or perhaps your meaning in life may be found in traditional success in business, as was true of my oldest son, who opted for burritos and tacos instead. The reading today from Elizabeth Strout’s novel The Burgess Boys is an excerpt about the character Pam, who is the ex-wife of Bob Burgess. Pam thinks about her feeling that she is living the wrong life, having given up the scientific research she enjoyed doing. She has remarried, has kids, and lives in Manhattan, not rural Maine. We hear her ask,” Am I living the wrong life?” Some of us are afraid to ask the question, and others of us reconcile ourselves to the choices we make, or best of all may affirm that we have made happy choices with the truth of profession or relationships we have.

Yet there is a danger of self-satisfaction in what we perceive as the truth we are living by. We may check off the boxes that say I am not making too many excess purchases and thus contributing to wastefulness, and causing environmental harm to the planet, I am volunteering to serve others, I live within my means, and I am trying to be a kinder person to others. I am living a good life, and that truth has set me free. Yet who is making that judgment? You cannot see the world as it is as an objective observer, you can only see the world as you are. For example, I have white skin. When I have interactions with people I do not have to think about the color of my skin. You don’t see the world as it is, you see it as you are, a white person of education and privilege, who lives in a predominately white upper middle class suburb. Your truth is your truth, but it is not the truth.

The truth that will set you free is going to be one that begins to deeply explore others truths in the context of community and relationship. If truth is a product of perceptions and experiences then you need more interactions with others to even begin to catch a glimpse of a broader understanding of truth. But the truth we construct is usually out of our experiences of events. There is a Zen Buddhist story about a wandering monk who passed by the courtyard of a monastery where he heard two groups of monks arguing about the temple flag fluttering in the breeze. “It is the flag that moves,” one group argued. “No, it is the wind that moves,” argued the other group. Back and forth they argued, responding to the logic of the other side, coming up with a new rationale for their respective positions. But it just came down to, “It is the wind that moves, it is the flag that moves.” After listening for a while, the itinerant monk interrupted them and said, “If you look more closely you will see that it is neither the flag nor the wind that moves — what moves is your mind.” One of the keys of Buddhism is to detach ourselves from our truth, so that the way to discover a larger truth is step back from how right you are.

Because our attachment to rightness damages so many of our relationships, we cast blame on others, refuse to accept our own responsibility, and generally end up not being very kind or understanding towards others. The poet David Herbert Lawrence writes:

Search for nothing any more, nothing
except truth.
Be very still, and try and get at the truth.
And the first question to ask yourself is:
How great a liar am I? 

As Unitarian Universalists we teach a faith that does not teach a truth, but rather teaches us to seek truth, to let go of our assuredness not only about dogma, but about other life truths we espouse. We speak freely of using reason, but all heart felt truths are based in emotion, and we humans express deep seated truths in how we cling to family, home and community. These are important loyalties, but they also inhibit us from fully encountering the truths of others. Our task is to see that our minds and hearts are moving, and to be more open to greater loving kindness we must do all we can to keep them moving. A true life is not about our feelings, it is about gathering the feelings of many and building a humane society and a more integrated self. Jan Hus, the Czech priest, who was martyred by the Catholic church in the 15th century for preaching that the cup of salvation should be offered to all, has a memorial in Prague. On it, it says, “Love one another. Always tell the truth.”

Closing Words – from Alice Blair Wesley

Be gathered into communities of love. Find, together, whoat is more meaningful, more loving, more worthy of your attention, and be empowered in devotion to these things. “Seek and ye shall find. Knock and it shall be opened to you. The truth will make you free.”