Rev. Furrer preaching on the Fourth UU Principle.
“A Free and Responsible Search for Truth and Meaning”
Today I continue my seven-part series on our Unitarian Universalist principles, focusing on the fourth principle of our faith: “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
I have made the claim a couple of times in the course of this series that the deep taproot of our tradition is to be found in the Bible. It’s true. However, there’s a second deep source, almost as important and almost as nurturative to our tradition: the classics of antiquity, by which I mean, primarily, the Greeks. We claim, rightly, a special relationship with the Greek philosophical tradition and especially with the high value the Greeks placed on reason. This morning I want to consider the Classical Greek tradition and Unitarian Universalism’s connection to it. What does it mean that we honor reason? How does that make us different from other religions? And how can we individually and collectively, and honorably, live out our tradition today?
There’s a quip about Unitarian churches: “Here all your answers are questioned.” Like most witticisms, there is an element of truth to it. In the words of the late George Marshall, “Don’t come to a Unitarian Universalist church to be given a religion; come to develop your own religion…. Unitarian Universalists are people who are expected to use their own minds and to arrive at their own rational conclusions. Here are people going to a church where everyone does not think alike but all alike think.” [Challenge of a Liberal Faith, p. 106-107]
Here you will never hear the minister say, as some of you, perhaps, heard when you were growing up, “Stop asking so many questions and just believe.” Not here. As Robert Weston so eloquently affirmed in this morning’s Responsive Reading, we UUs cherish our doubts. Or as Reverend Angus MacLean used to say to me and the rest of his Sunday School students back in my youth: “Keep your thinking caps on, children, whenever you come to church.”
Over the centuries, there have been three main views regarding the relationship between reason with religion. The majority view, essentially, is that they are in conflict. It has well summed up, I think, in Soren Kierkegaard’s expression “a leap of faith.” The idea being that reason will take you only so far—and then at a certain point you have to make this leap of faith in order to appreciate religious truth. That religious truth is of a different order than run-of-the-mill every day truth; thus, reason will take you only so far, and then you have to make a leap. [The late Stephen J. Gould: two “magisteriums.”]
Others say that reason and revelation are not exactly in conflict; that religious truth transcends reason without flat-out contradicting it. Many mystically inclined Unitarian Universalists adopt, essentially, this view: that religious experience, while not contradicting reason, is transrational. It is not irrational, but it is transrational. Its apparent contradictions are resolved on a higher—transcendent—level.
The third view, and that most common among Unitarian Universalists over the centuries, is that reason is in complete harmony with religion, that their content is identical and that reason sets forth cogently what religion feels and practices. Justin Martyr, John Scotus Eringena, and the German idealist Hegel all defend this position from different points of view—that reason and religion are ultimately harmonious. And so did the Greek philosopher Plato. It was Plato who asked all the key questions.
Like a lot of other things in life, the answers to fundamental questions are subject to fashion; answers to philosophical questions come into fashion, fall out of fashion, and then come back into fashion decades or even centuries later. But while the various answers do change over the centuries, it was Plato, twenty-six hundred years ago in Ancient Greece, who first asked all the critical questions. And, Plato wrote it all down. He took what had been the oral tradition of his teachers and turned it into literature. Before Plato, philosophy was something that happened in the marketplace. Plato’s Dialogues all take place in the marketplace too, but
there’s a critical difference: Plato wrote down what his forebears had been doing. We can study it in a book sitting in our living room or at the library. And those books subsequently became the foundation upon which subsequent Western philosophy has been built.
People search Plato’s Dialogues in vain for consistency. It’s not there. There is a consistency but it’s mostly in the process that he encourages. Plato shows us the method of truth seeking, and that method is dialectic: talking back and forth in a leisurely, question and answer format. It’s a way to get at underlying—and often unexamined—assumptions. But here’s the thing: any time you’re in real communication, with someone you are—in fact—engaged in dialectic. Most of the time we’re not really communicating. Most of the time we’re engaged in what Plato refers to as eristics.
Eristic has the same root, linguistically, as error. You can recognize eristics in yourself. I do, whenever I catch myself in conversation—instead of actively listening—fashioning my answer in preparation for when the person I’m talking to is done. Say I am in a conversation with Aimee here (sitting in the front row) and while she’s answering, I find myself already framing my answer to what she is saying. People engage in this kind of conversation frequently. It has a lot to do with me trying to prove (to Aimee, for instance) that I’m right. Meanwhile, of course, she may well be trying to prove to me that she’s right. We are trying to change each other’s minds. A lot of what passes as conversation is of this type. In too many conversations I have with my brother, for instance, I am trying to change his mind and he is trying to change mine. And it’s all eristic.
Dialectic is entirely different. In dialectic I am not trying to convert Aimee or my brother or anyone else; nor are they trying to convert me. Rather, we go searching together for what answers we may find. That’s the design, the ideal, behind all dialectical conversation. It’s the free and responsible way to converse.
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Reason, to the Greeks, was understood to be logos: the creative principle, i.e., the organizing principle throughout life and all reality. Why is that the math we do in our head, works to take us all the way to the moon and back? It’s because this cosmic ordering principle—Reason—runs through everything; it’s why everything hangs together as one whole. Another way to conceptualize it: the Chinese symbol of the Tao or yin-yang. Tao is pattern, primal pattern. Within that pattern, yang is logos and yin is the receptive “profound, and eternal female.” The masculine yang [or logos] inseminates the feminine yin and out of that cosmic primal insemination all reality, everything, is born. And it’s the same for Plato, for whom the logos—reason—is far more than just ratiocination; it’s sort of the ubiquitous unseen seminal energy infusing all of nature. It runs through everything, including us and our central nervous systems. We partake of this logos to the degree that we disenthrall ourselves of ego and egoistic ideas and humbly engage in dialectic—the truth-finding method that I’ve been roughly describing, that was practiced by Socrates, and that has many parallels with the non-violent practices Pam Orbach has been teaching us here at church these last two years.
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Now let me get back to the Seven UU Principles. Understanding Reason in this way, as logos (an ordering principle running throughout nature) makes it similar to justice and compassion in that they too are ubiquitous; they’re inextricably entwined into the nature of reality, too. As I said in the second sermon in this series, the Prophets Micah, Amos, Isaiah and the rest declare in their Old Testament prophecies that justice is somehow part of the very essence of nature. The law of love and reciprocity is clear, maintain the Prophets: treat people with generosity and it will come back to you; behave selfishly and that is how others will treat you back.
Compassion can be understood to operate in much the same way. Compassion is imbedded in and through the nature of reality. By allowing oneself to feel the
sufferings of others (be they one’s children, one’s neighbors’ children, or children halfway around the world) we wake up to our connection, our identity, really, with them.
Now here come the Greeks telling us that reason works the same way, too; that the order, consistency and unity of nature are all aspects of the divine logos. Recognizing this (i.e., re-cognizing the reasonableness, order, and unity of nature) does not weaken faith; it builds it. Reason and rational apprehension are themselves among the most beautiful, wonderful aspects of life on earth—and they tell us something about the forces that have brought the world into being. That’s why we bring them with us to church!
If there is a problem in practicing our fourth Unitarian Universalist principle, it is this: a free and disciplined search for truth does not necessarily mean finding it. Perhaps this is the biggest difference between Unitarian Universalism and more orthodox faith traditions. We do not claim to have answers. We encourage you, instead, to do your best to live the questions: to welcome the questions, and to follow the questions with an inquiring heart and mind.
So it is that we encourage our members to practice a “letting go” faith as opposed to a “clinging faith.” A clinging faith isn’t really faith at all, it’s belief; it’s where you’re holding on to some tenets or propositions—sometimes with white knuckles—in the face of struggle, anxiety and worry. Whereas a letting-go faith is a faith in which, despite not knowing, one’s open mind and open heart are enough to carry them along. Ours is a letting-go faith—but a faith confident in the wholesomeness and centrality of reason in all of our lives.
I close now with a quotation about how to live that letting-go faith, a quotation by the German idealist poet, Rainer Maria Rilke:
“I would like to beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were
locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into an answer.”
And so may it be. For all of us. Amen.