truth in the lower case

Truth with a capital T, unwaveringly true and ultimate—what a comfort it would be in our turbulent and frightening times. Truth that applies to all of us, and to all of us equally. Truth like “God’s in his Heaven and all’s right with the world.” How would that be? Truth like “We are all equal under the law.” Truth grounded in an ultimate, eternal reality, free of the subjectivity of human perspective. Boy, that is really an appealing idea. Now, we can interject here some mathematical principles here, like there are no square circles. Like the angles of a triangle always add up to 180 degrees. But does that sort of truth help us much in navigating our lives?

And what about that other Truth, like the supremacy of God or the blind justice of the law? Does such absolute truth actually exist anywhere outside of an inaccessible ideal realm?

And if it is hard to find a Truth with a capital T, in this day and age, it is challenging, it is difficult to talk about truth in the lower case. We make our daily way in a time rampant with misinformation, with so-called “alternative facts,” with down-right bold-faced lies, with unbelievable yet all-to-common conspiracy theories. I know, I know . . . Those Americans! But you’ve got the problem up here, too, my friends. Tobacco companies told us that smoking was not harmful to our health, when the data those companies gathered told them exactly that smoking is harmful to our health. Oil companies use the same playbook to tell us that the extraction and the burning of fossil fuels is not harmful to our environment and our climate. Their own data shows the opposite.

Some of us want a real, absolute truth, don’t we, capital T truth, in a time when elections are said to have been fixed by the very people who simply don’t like the outcomes. In a time when claims are made that the Holocaust is a lie, despite the mountains of data the Nazis themselves created to demonstrate their work. We really and truly need an absolute truth when raped, exploded, tortured Jewish bodies, documented on cellphone images from Hamas militants, are justified as necessary in a time of rebellion against empire. When human-generated famine is held up by the Israeli government as an ends-justify-the-means tactic during war. When the harms of residential schools and the 60s sweep are ignored, the consequences and the impacts dismissed by Canadian governments as irrelevant.

“It’s not true.” “It’s not harmful.” “It’s not vicious.” “It’s justified.” “It’s not that bad, just move along.” Don’t we long for an absolute Truth in such circumstances. But we live in this time, only this one. We live in a time dominated by too many perspectives that just make no sense. “It’s just my opinion, I can think whatever I want, and act on it, too” and “I did my own research on the internet so I can ignore experts” and “Your suffering is not as bad as my suffering so your suffering doesn’t exist.” Polite people often like to move away from such perspectives. We might privately call them stupid or crazy or brainwashed, but we don’t really want to engage with them. Reading about them in the news is one thing. Hearing about them in the grocery line, closer to home than we would like, is another.

Stated in communities where we want a measure of safety or comfort, that’s the sort of thing that really gets our anxieties going.

We live in a time when it is hard to draw the line between a different understanding of a fact and living in wholly different realities. And in this difficulty, we dehumanize each other. We fear and even hate each other. The vitriol we can level at other fragile imperfect beings would be quite shocking if it were not so commonplace. Still, it feels outrageous.

But it is a truth that we see differently, through different lenses, through different perspectives. A malafa flutters as mama prays, a malafa for beauty, for mystery, for being grown, for old traditions, for belonging. A malafa can be viewed for all those things, and for more than each of those things, for more than all of them. “The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.” Thank you, Charlotte, for showing us today that although Niels Bohr said this often, he did not say it originally. The truth is, someone else did. And yet it remains wisdom. In the words Ysaya Barnwell adapted from an African American spiritual, “I am determined to walk toward freedom through all the trials, tribulations, persecutions,” she unites the pass resistance to enslavement with the necessary current resistance to racialized oppression. Freedom is not yet free, though others from other perspectives might say otherwise.

Here is a metaphor now to help our productive talk. “The Window,” used by a Spanish Roman Catholic priest named Raimon Panikkar (1918-2010) as he advocated for interreligious dialogue. And it is useful for talking about human perspective in many contexts. Here is what he says. We all see the world through our point of view, through a window and not directly. Now the cleaner the window, the less I see the window and more I see outside and I fall in love with the world I see. And I turn to my neighbor, and I say “Look out my window and see this beautiful vision. See what I see.” But I notice, “Oh, you also have a window.” And then we compare notes about the same landscape. But here’s the thing. I can’t help but see what I see and say what I see. I can’t see through the window of my neighbor.

But if I love him, if I respect him, if I trust him, I will have to hear the description of what my neighbor sees. I don’t see it, but I hear and I am told something else.

And I discover two things: my neighbor does not see the same world that I see and I don’t see the whole world. Unless my neighbor is a fool and I am a fanatic, I have to hear my neighbor telling me something about the world that I can’t see. “Well,” I think, “the world is much different than I thought. I wasn’t seeing it all its complexity.” And this is the challenge. Here is all we can do: you say what you see, you say what you believe, you say what you experience. And, and this is crucial: you are also ready to hear other narratives, beliefs, and experiences. And then we talk—we share, we exchange, we honor the truths of each other, even when they are not our own.

Panikkar’s Window helps us understand that our truths are both real as well as partial. Our truths are only as good as the windows through which we glimpse reality. No one person can fully see it all, and we are called to acknowledge that we see the real in glimpses, in others’ story, in epiphanies. Because of our limited perspectives in our seeking to understand, truth is ever changing. We grow into a deeper sense of the meaning of all things when we take our journeys seriously, with full heart and mind. When we take our journeys with humility, with our ears open to new learning, settling into the discomfort of a profound truth—we all see reality and also we never see more than a portion of it.

But, do not fear agitation, do not fear the movements that decenter what you always thought permanent. Do not fear that no one of us can get it all. Carry with you the love that will hold you, the vision that will guide you, the relationships to all beings and the world that will ground you. Go in peace and in gentle agitation to stir this world to the side of love. Stir this world to the side of love as you pursue the 4 th Principle: The free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Go humbly and faithfully with your partial truths, yearning to expand them and create new and more and perhaps deeper meaning.

Go freely, unencumbered by one dogma or one path or one holy text. We are a pluralistic faith. We seek wisdom wherever and whenever it presents itself.

Go, responsibly, bringing a full range of wisdom to bear, including the expertise of others, reliable texts, direct experience. Go searchingly, with curiosity and open-heartedness and open-mindedness. “The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.” The Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Noble Eight-Fold Path of Buddhism can both lead to spiritual enlightenment. All those things about the malafa are true, and fortunately the child lives within a community, where its greatest truth about the malafa is that it symbolizes faith. It is in community that larger truths, more profound truths can develop. They may still not be ultimate, they may not be absolute truths, but they follow from belonging to a community of shared values.

In our Unitarian Universalist faith, we have our covenants to hold us together, so that we are not alone in our search, as we work through our perspectives, as we confront different ways of seeing, as we become increasingly “more” and different from what we were before. A covenant is not a definition of a relationship; it is the framework for our relating. A covenant claims: I will abide with you in this common endeavor, be present as best as I can in our becoming. Covenant thus calls for a level of trust, courage, and sacrifice that needs to be nurtured, renewed and affirmed on a regular basis. And like the truth we seek responsibly, the meaning that emerges from our loving and curious efforts, a covenant in not a static truth, but a dance of co-creation, keeping us in step with one another in the flow of our lives, seeking not uniformity and a unison voice but harmony and a shared voice, demonstrating not authority in the truth of a statement but authority in shared intention, affirming not an “us” and “them” but an invitation to relationship, calling us not a to prescription but to the treasures of shared truths emerging from our lived experience and our respect for each other’s different lives. The task of covenant is to take responsibility for the freedom we espouse. We know that we are interconnected and that what we do creates ripples of hope or despair, of affirmation or negation. What we do with and for one another is powerful and beyond our imagining. Covenant calls us to compassionate and accountable relationship with each other. What affects one of us, impacts us all.

May we wake our senses, hearing earth calling out to us. Wake our reason to reach out to the new. Wake our compassion to heed all suffering. Wake our conscience, guided by justice. Wake to our shared responsibilities and the duty we owe to each other as Unitarians, as human beings. We have come to this place, this community, to be awakened, guided by the values of Unitarian Universalism, guided to search for truth and meaning freely and responsibly, our hearts and minds open to the future, setting aside our fear to name freely every oppression, knowing that no lives are insignificant, uniting our voices in the somber and the beautiful melodies of life. May we awaken.

We shall be known by the company we keep—by those who tend the fires of our faith, by those making change for the good.

We go to this well that refreshes us for the work that needs to be done. We go to this well of our eight principles and six sources. We go to this well of our mission and our own covenant of right relations. We go together, confident that we seek truth and meaning, wise in knowing that no one of us will never see the whole. We go together in faith that might do the worthy work of change and transformation. It is time now and what a time to be alive. Hearts open, shocked awake. Much to learn from our mistakes. Draw us close in our heartache. Show us how to love. May we seek love as much as truth, for the light of love can sustain us through anything, can sustain us through everything. May it ever be so.

“The Window”


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