Sermon: “The Small and the Big T”
Most Sundays over the past year, we’ve sung the song that we’ll close this service with –
“Spirit of Truth.”Before this year, even if we didn’t sing it every Sunday, it was sung often enough to be considered our “regular” closing hymn, regular in the range of the last 30 or 40 years.
The tune is to the traditional hymn Finlandia, and I’ve heard that the words were written by the Roy Jones, the minister who served this church for two decades in the 70s and 80s. (The words go like this: Spirit of Truth, beheld upon the mountain. Stay in our hearts, while we reside below. Grant us to feel the rustle of thy garment. Help us to feel thy shadow drawing near. So may we find the strength to stand face forward, courage to walk into the dawning day.)
There’s something powerful about singing these same words over decades of Sundays, something that transcends their literal meaning, and the ways they resonate – or don’t – in our lives today. Something that, fittingly, helps us access a shared sense of deeper truth.
I’ve sung Spirit of Truth at the hospital bedside of a longtime church member in his final hours. And I’ve typed its words into a text message for a young woman who grew up in here so she and her mom could remember exactly how it went and sing it together during a trying time. I wonder how else this song has been a comfort or companion over the years.
Despite these meaningful emotional attachments, however, a good number of you have also come to me puzzled about the meaning of the song: what it means to say about this idea of Truth – truth – as you can see printed in the order of service, with the big T. What does it mean to imagine Truth embodied, wearing garments that rustle and creating shadows that draw near?
And how will this embodied Truth ensure our strength and courage to face the day?
Truth – both the kind with the small and the big T – is today’s sermon topic, and the the first of three big topics I’ll be taking up over the next few Sundays. Next week we’ll explore the God – the whole idea of God; and the week after, the meaning of life and death.
These big questions are ones that many of us come to a religious community wondering about, or struggling with. The summer can be a good chance to step back and assess the bigger picture – the framework of our faith, our over-arching values, and the underlying assumptions and ideals at work in our lives – or those that we wish were at work in our lives.
We should be able to describe what Unitarian Universalism has to say about these big things. Even more, we should be able to draw from these ideas, translate them into actual tools we can use in real life.
After all, truth – the idea of it as we’re exploring today, and the truth as we wrestle with it in relation to any of life’s big questions only matters inasmuch as it bears relevance on our real lives, and when it addresses our day-to-day struggles and questions – all the big struggles and heartaches we carry this week, and too often – which is one of the things I think our closing song is trying to say – that is, when Truth has real presence – when it is embodied, in our every day, then, and only then, might it strengthen us to walk through life with courage, and clarity.
So…what is truth? Most of us, when we think about “truth” tend to equate it with Facts.
This understanding of truth can be traced to Aristotle, in what philosophers call the “correspondence theory.” This theory was later picked up by many of the leading thinkers of the 20th century, many of whom were Unitarian Universalists. Basically, it goes like this:
Facts correspond to truth. If it’s fact, then it’s true; if it isn’t a fact, then it isn’t true.
Individual facts point directly to truth, both in the big and small sense.
The correspondence theory of truth is what drives websites like Poltifact.com, as well as a good deal of arguments on the internet – the assurance that if you can just show someone the “facts” then they’ll come to agree with you about what is true.
If you haven’t spent time on Politifact lately, I encourage you to take a look – unless you have high blood pressure, in which case you might want to avoid it.
The number of things that people in positions of power and authority are saying that are not factual – it’s appalling. Or at least, it is appalling – and terribly frustrating- to those of us who passionately believe that truth should – that it must – correspond to facts. Which, especially when we’re in our most literalist modes, describes many of us Unitarian Universalists.
Recently, I found myself confronting quite intimately this sort of frustration – by way of a heated conversation with someone I cherish, and who has shown up for me and my family with love and generosity again and again.
This beloved person also happens to hold conservative political beliefs, and the conversation was, you guessed it, about the presidential election.
He and I mostly avoid talking politics, but it’s been building up, and we couldn’t stay away any longer. Maybe you know the feeling.
So we started exchanging ideas – each of us coming at the conversation from our underlying notions of truth – with a capitol t – although we didn’t talk about it like that.
We spoke as if it was a debate about depersonalized, neutral facts. He had his, I had mine.
I tried to listen, I swear, tried to use all the advice I speak about, preach about, that I believe in: I tried to ask more questions, listen to understand, remain open to connection and curious about his underlying story as it was being revealed in his arguments. I tried.
But the reality is, I failed at all of it, and quite miserably.
At one point, I actually said, “I’ll pray for you.” Who says that?
I remember as I said it, feeling at a total a loss, heartbroken. How could he believe all the things he was saying? How could his sense of truth be so different than mine? I felt betrayed, and scared.
In her 2011 TED Talk called, “On Being Wrong,” Kathryn Schulz spoke about the process our brains go through when someone comes to a different conclusion about truth than we do – a process she calls a “series of unfortunate assumptions.”
The first assumption she calls the “ignorance assumption.” This is what leads to what I was describing earlier – where you assume that the other person just needs to be informed of the facts, and then they’ll see the light.
When that doesn’t work, we move to the “idiocy assumption,” where we decide that the person must be too stupid to see the “truth” that is so obvious to us based on the facts.
And finally, if we concede the person isn’t stupid, then we move to the final assumption: “they must be evil.” This is the “evil assumption.”
I am embarrassed to admit that my “pray for you” comment, came from my lizard brain’s “evil assumption.” You know the lizard brain- the one that responds with a flight or fight response even when one isn’t called for? It’s the part of the brain that’s really good at survival, not so good at more nuanced, complex thinking – particularly the sort that is the basis of our deeper connections with other people. In that moment, my lizard brain made sense of our different conclusions about the truth by deciding he must be evil. This beloved, kind, generous man- the facts led me to believe he was totally evil.
And this basically sums up the problem with the correspondence theory of truth. Which is – to start, there’s a lot more to truth than a series of facts, and – presenting the facts in a heated conversation might get you no closer to the truth than if you had refrained from facts entirely. “Truth” is often extra-factual – that is, determined by information that no one would consider “facts.”
On the back of your order of service today, for example – you’ll find what we call the six sources of Unitarian Universalism – by which we mean, our claimed sources for truth.
Read through them really quickly – and as you do, see if you can identify which tells us to find truth by sorting through facts. The fifth one, I’m guessing you’ll agree – it’s the one about humanist teachings that counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science – yes, seems to be about facts. But all the others – not so much. Instead, we are invited to consider the Truth to be found in feelings, tradition, personal experiences, examples from others, natural ecology, and/or the squishy and complex concepts of compassion, justice, and love.
In my heated conversation, underneath the facts we were exchanging, it was this extra-factual source of truth that was tripping us up, and I knew it the whole time. I realized that more than from some set of provable facts, my sense of truth was shaped almost entirely by what I felt was at risk for my children, and my attachment to their dignity and safety,
and my fear that these could be at risk. Any idea or belief that appeared to compromise this personal attachment – this love – based in fact or not – could not have been – cannot still be capital T true.
This gets at the second and perhaps bigger problem with the fact-based definition of truth. Which is that far too often what our brains consider irrefutable truths are actually not.
Returning to the TED Talk, Schulz invites everyone to consider the question – what does it feel like to be wrong?
Predictably, people say it feels embarrassing, uncomfortable, not good.
But then she says – that isn’t what it feels like to be wrong – it’s what it feels like to realize you’re wrong. Because actually, what it feels like to be wrong – and not realize it – is exactly the same feeling as when we are right.
Which is how we can build up whole stories, whole lives, whole ways of thinking based on ideas we believe – we know – are true. And then to make matters worse, we confirm this truth by seeking out and finding proof of this truth – everywhere, in a phenomenon called the “confirmation bias.” This tendency leads us to find infinite proof of our already established beliefs, and ignore or disregard things that contradict these beliefs.
This tendency is exacerbated today by cable news channels that cater to particular political biases, and by Facebook feeds where you can “unfollow” or “unfriend” anyone who doesn’t agree with you, and by entire websites devoted to smugness and derision of anything considered the “other side.”
All of us are susceptible to “confirmation bias,” and being wrong without realizing it.
Liberal, conservative, young, old – all education levels, professions, religions, incomes, ethnicities, and races. We all have the potential to live out of a system of truth that rests on a false foundation, and no facts will talk us out of it.
It is only when life goes on being life-like – that is, messy and complicated and contradictory – like when a person you love and who loves you concurrently holds all the opinions that to you would characterize someone who most despises you….at these moments, many of these core beliefs will collapse, and as the foundation falls, so goes everything else.
In religious terms, we call these moments a crisis of faith, or even, a dark night of the soul.
And before some of you go thinking you are exempt from such experiences, let me assure you that even the most skeptical atheist among you can experience a crisis of faith – a time when your foundational belief will come into question – whatever that belief might be. I’ve seen it, and surely experienced my own versions in my life. When it happens, it is at once devastating, terrifying, and also exhilarating.
So after all this, perhaps you’re wondering if Truth means anything at all. Maybe post-modernity has swallowed Truth entirely, and everything is relative, and subjective,
and nothing can ever be called definitively “True.” A whole school of philosophy actually came to this same conclusion, asserting that “truth” is a thoroughly useless concept.
The problem with this however, is that it is not very practical. We have an innate desire to search for truth, to understand, to make meaning in big and small ways out of all that we experience in this life – and so it remains important that we have an idea about what it is we are after, and a way to know if and when we’ve actually arrived.
Which brings me to the story of the farmer that Mary Louise told. I chose this story because I believe it calls us back into a helpful and meaningful way that our Unitarian Universalist faith frames the idea of Truth, and one that works even in the context of post-modernity. To put it in the terms of theologian James Luther Adams, our faith says that “revelation” – his word for Truth with a big T – is continuous.
Rather than relative or non-existent, as the farmer repeatedly observes, our understanding of Truth is that what we know if it is partial, and always evolving, and might even be wrong. New information is always becoming available, and new realities are being created, and offered to us, at each intake and release of breath.
These realities may be gifts, or griefs – we always do not fully know, cannot know, and it is always possible that what breaks our hearts today will tomorrow be our greatest source of joy.
All of this I find immensely comforting, especially in light of the many heartbreaking events across our country from Orlando to Baton Rouge, Minneapolis to Dallas, and all those places and lives where the stories of suffering not being told so widely. I find it comforting in its confession that no matter how many facts we might cling to, we don’t know everything, can’t know everything, and as the Hebrew scriptures put it, God is still doing a new thing, still making a way where there seems to be no way. For there is so much at work that is far beyond our control, and none of us ever have the whole story,
and maybe most importantly – Truth is never going to be settled once and for all –
which means, everything remains always possible, and we get a say in how it all turns out,
and what meaning we’re going to make of it. A partial say, at least.
This way of thinking about Truth says that we can still be better – still be the people we long to be – it’s not too late. It’s never too late.
More than just comforting, I find all this truly helpful, as it puts into perspective how we might respond to the massive amount of Truth coming at us today. It can feel sometimes like we should spend our whole lives being outraged, angry, despairing. This framework reminds us that we can greet the unfolding ways of truth instead with steadiness, that this could even be a faithful way to respond – that is, to stand in the faith that even in the midst of great suffering, there remains the seeds of beauty, goodness, and joy.
This orientation of faith does not – of course- relieve us from the response-ability to experience of Truth as it is, now -its body – we are called to be also the neighbors lamenting or rejoicing – even as we testify with the farmer, “we’ll see.”
This understanding of Truth makes no assurances that once we know Truth, every pain will be healed, or every injustice made right – Though it certainly puts to rest the idea that we’ll all be made whole if we can just present the facts more convincingly. Instead, the hope found in this way of Truth is simply an acknowledgment that we get to keep being a part of it all – that we, as Universalist Olympia Brown said it, “are strong enough to work for a great true principle without counting the cost.” That we are held in this great web of life, called to keep doing our part, to remain awake to this living, breathing, and changing Truth, to keep learning, and growing as it and all of Life is growing, and transforming.
In this spirit, we move bravely forward, into this still bright, and dawning day.