Monday, August 13, 2012
Sermon - "Truth Continues To Be Revealed"
Truth Continues To Be Revealed
Several years ago the United Church of Christ came out with the advertising campaign that said “Never put a period where God put a comma. God is still speaking.” Based on that campaign, they sometimes use a big red comma as the symbol for their commitment to an evolving religious truth.
It’s a great slogan. “God is still speaking.” For us that understanding gets summed up in the belief that truth continues to be revealed. This is the fifth and final Sunday of the summer series on five core UU beliefs.
Every soul is sacred and worthy.
There is a unity that makes us one.
Salvation is in this life.
Courageous love will transform the world.
Truth continues to be revealed.
When we think of truth being reveled, it’s a pretty grand statement. But it is happening around us all the time. We all come to new personal truths, new understandings of ourselves, and the meaning of our lives. But also in the world of science, completely new understandings of the fabric of the universe continue to be uncovered. Just last month, in July of 2012 a tremendous discovery was made. You probably heard about it, the Higgs boson particle. I knew it was big from the number of headlines it got. I honestly hadn’t understood how significant the discovery was until looking into for this sermon.
Apparently this is the culmination of generations of work. Physicists have believed for fifty years that such a things existed, but they were never able to actually observe it. But they finally did it, they finally got to see this phenomenon that shapes the nature of reality. The theory that had dominated physics for a very, very long time was based on a sort of symmetry of mass between subatomic particles. They balanced each other out perfectly. This new understanding keeps in place those laws of symmetry, but adds the understanding that everything important, like the fact that matter has mass, or the very fact that we exist, all of that key stuff results from flaws, or breaks in the symmetry.
The Higgs boson is the only tangible proof of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles with mass. Particles wading through the force field gain heft. And this unevenness and messiness is actually what breaks the balance and gives matter its mass. Without the Higgs field or something like it, all elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight. There would be neither atoms nor life. There would be nothing but energy and chaos.
That’s pretty unbelievable if you think about it. Scientists just last month were able to observe for the first time what gives matter its mass, and makes life possible. It’s a long awaited answer to one of the greatest questions in physics. What a relief.
But there’s more. There’s always more. With this new discovery comes the possibility that the Higgs boson may be the first of many other similar particles yet to be discovered. That possibility is particularly exciting to physicists, as it could point the way to new, deeper ideas about the nature of reality. What’s remarkable about this new discovery, this new truth, is that it opens the door to a whole new realm of possibilities to discover. It is a launching pad, if you will, for a whole new era or exploration.
Science is amazing stuff. But every time we go down the journey of extoling the virtues of science, I am reminded of the usually amoral and occasional immoral directions that science takes. Some people think of industrial arms complex and the engineering of bombs. But when I think of the challenges of science, I am reminded of a book that I read in seminary. It’s call “Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race and Madness.” The book is a painful history of the way the sciences, particularly medical science, has labeled bodies and minds that were different from those of white heterosexual males. Those labels and “scientific measurements” then, were used to reinforce the prevailing cultural stereotypes of different peoples, and then to justify substandard treatment of them. The amount of science that has been invested in reinforcing sexism, racism, homophobia and mistreatment of the mentally disabled is astounding.
Fortunately for all of us, truth continued to be revealed about all of those groups of people. Fortunately the sciences came full circle, often to be the strongest ally available to marginalized communities. And the truth keeps on revealing, slowly but surely.
I bring all this up, all the shortcomings of science to clarify what it is we celebrate in the search for truth. The power comes not really in knowing the answer, but in engaging in the process. Truth continues to be revealed, means that the truth that we think we hold so firmly in our hands today, might slip through our fingers tomorrow. As brilliant as Mr. Newton was with his apple, the nature of reality that physicists describe today is fundamentally different. Newton had no idea that his apple was made up of atoms, and sub atomic particles. And apparently as we saw for the first time last month, those particles get their meaning from being knocked off balance. He had no idea.
Whether we are talking about the development of physics, or the personal commitment to learn one new thing every day, it’s all about the journey, not the destination. In fact the assumption that we have the truth, the answer, is what all too often leads to giving up. What a sad and dangerous place that is.
One of the many things I have learned from doing ministry with this aging community, is the difference that curiosity can make in our live, especially as we grow older. Frances can tell you, she actually wrote a newsletter article about this. Learning new things, and trying new things actually strengthens your brain and delays the affects of aging. The process of learning new things preserves the brain’s ability to function in old age. It’s not the new information that is important, but the effort and the process of learning that is critical.
I’ve been talking largely this morning about science. But this idea of the unfolding of truth applies to religion as well. I know some in our community might jump on this statement as an opportunity to see religion as outdated and science as having proven those beliefs wrong.
That argument, frankly is outdated and misleading. Hopefully you will indulge me for a minute, because I’m about to vent about something that really bothers me. It’s the debate that people have in the form of plastic glued to the back of their cars. It all started with the little sliver fish that is meant as a symbol for Christianity. It’s a harmless expression of a person’s faith. Then, some atheists came up with the little fish that has legs and the word Darwin in the middle of the fish. The obvious implication is that Christianity is incompatible with evolution or science. Then came the little space ship that is made in the same materials and same size. I have no clue what this is supposed to indicate. And finally, the real magnificent cherry on top, is the fish that simply says “truth” in it.
This particular fish is so telling. The owners of these vehicles use the word “truth” as if it is self-evident which side of the debate they are weighing in on. All I know from this word, “truth” is that they are fully convinced that either their science, or their religion is the source of knowledge. And they think the other, either science or religion, detracts from their truth. Still, I don’t know if these people with the “truth” fish on their cars are pro-science or pro-religion. Maybe someone can tell me after church.
My point is, that the continuing revelation of truth is not about science disproving religion. To the contrary, in both realms of thought, our ability to understand the world is an ever-unfolding process. And we must, we must remember that the truth that we hold today will likely be deepened, enriched, or fundamentally change by the lessons of tomorrow. We must hold in our minds and in our hearts the possibility for something different and new, because truth continues to be revealed.
Our religious predecessors, especially the Unitarian branch of our lineage knew this well. On the back wall of our sanctuary is a poster of a painting called “Simple gifts, too.” The painting was commissioned by All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, to help explain Unitarian Universalist history and key concepts to visitors who came into their lobby. I encourage you to take a look when you have time. Just yesterday I printed out more sheets that explain the symbolism in the painting. On occasion I bring the picture out and invite people to describe what they see in it and, what those symbols might mean.
Some of the objects are a little difficult to decipher, but the books are pretty obvious. Those three books encapsulate what we are talking about today. In the painting, on the table rest three books. On the bottom is the Christian Bible. The next book on top of that has the name of Emerson on its spine. Then, resting there on top of the other two is a book with no name at all, except for a small emblem of our Unitarian Universalist flaming chalice.
The Bible represents our historical and theological foundation. As a religious tradition we are rooted in Christian theology and doctrine. We often forget it, but the initial arguments for Unitarianism, and Universalism, that is to say the unity of the sacred, and the inherent worth of every person, those two beliefs were first defended by a careful examination of the Bible. The Bible was our truth for a very long time, and it contains many truths that are still relevant to us today.
The second book, the book by 19th Century Unitarian Minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson represents the expansion of our theology. In his theological celebration of nature and the fundamental web that connects all of life, Emerson explained that no book could contain all God’s wisdom and revelation for all time. More than any other person, Emerson was responsible for opening Unitarianism to a wider vision.
And the untitled book, the one on top represents the ongoing development of our theology and ever-broadening faith tradition. This is the book that we have a part in writing together. This is the recognition that our journey in truth seeking is an ongoing one, one that will never be complete.
One of the most striking things about the history of Unitarianism is the pervasive sense of curiosity. The intellectual life of our early leaders was incredible. I’m reminded most of Joseph Priestley, the prominent scientist and Unitarian minister. He began his intellectual life in England, but spent the last decade of his life in America. He left his mark on every corner of intellectual life of the 18th Century and published over 150 works in his lifetime.
Priestley is most widely known for his scientific work. In his home experiments, he discovered oxygen and was able to isolate several other gasses. He also invented soda water, and wrote extensively on electricity. The breadth of his exploration and success in science is astounding, however that was only the beginning.
Priestley’s scientific background influenced his theology. As a radical for his time, Priestley aimed to fuse Enlightenment rationalism and his Christian theism. He insisted that his religious belief would not be severed from what science told him about the world. He uncompromisingly interwove theology and science in a brave project to understand the world.
As a radical, it’s no surprise that Priestley always supported the free and open exchange of ideas. He advocated toleration and equal rights for religiously diverse people. And that lead him to help found Unitarianism in England.
Joseph Priestley, and his companions were open to radically different ways of thinking. They knew that our grasp of the world is limited. They knew that the universe holds endless potential for learning. They knew that the status quo was not enough to satisfy. And so they explored.
Truth continues to be revealed. No single book can hold it. No single age can lay claim to it. No single scientific theory can fully own it. It is a journey that we are all on together, and a journey that hopefully never ends.
One of our members is fond of the saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” When the student is ready, the teacher appears. With that in mind, let us be ever-ready students. Let us open our minds and hearts and prepare ourselves for learning, so that the earth, the heavens, and our brothers and sisters, our teachers, might lead us toward ever-deeper truth.