Truth These Days

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, April 7, 2019.

When I was a kid, there was a young assistant minister at our church;  he’d immigrated from Cuba, and he seemed kind of radical, at least for North Carolina in those days. He would begin his sermon with this prayer: “God grant us the courage to seek the truth, come when it may, cost what it will.”

If you found yourself in my mom’s kitchen these days, you’d see a full page ad she’s taped up on the side of her refrigerator. From the New York Times, it’s an ad for truth. It’s just a bunch of short sentences, 19 in all. Here are a few of them:

The truth is hard.
The truth is hidden.
The truth must be pursued.
The truth is rarely simple.
The truth isn’t red or blue.
The truth is worth defending.
The truth is more important now than ever.

Clearly this campaign is a response to our current president; the fact that he says a lot of things that are simply not true. And when something gets reported that our president doesn’t like or agree with, he calls it “fake news.”

This isn’t a sermon about the president or partisan politics. There are plenty of places you can engage in those conversations. Our worship theme for this month is “truth,” and well, all I can say is that I wish our themes were more relevant to what’s going on in the world!

We live in a time when it’s possible to share your opinions and experiences widely, when the line between news and commentary and propaganda has been blurred. When the people creating this content have gotten pretty sophisticated. So it’s good to ask, “What is true?” And is the truth something that each of us gets to decide for ourselves, or is it more complicated than that?

For much of Western history, the truth was centralized, and generally came down from on high. Church leaders and philosophers, learned men, and they were men, they were seen as those with the truth. Or at least they had the power to enforce their version of the truth. People got in trouble with the church for heresy, for having ideas outside the mainstream. Of course, what is called heresy in one generation can later be understood as true.

With the advent of science, and the period called the Enlightenment, a new source of truth came to the fore. Science, with its focus on methods and rational observation, challenged and, to some extent, replaced religion as the source of truth, creating a tension between science and religion that still exists today. 

The modern period placed its trust in science and in reason, and in the capacity for human advancement. The proponents of modernism were often unaware of their own limited view of the truth, of the ways their privilege blinded them to a wider perspective. There’s an example of this in my office: a poster that was common in Unitarian churches early in the 20th century. It’s another batch of short sentences:

Our faith
The Fatherhood of God
The Brotherhood of Man
The Leadership of Jesus
Salvation by Character
The Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever.

Clearly there’s a gender bias here! And an overly optimistic faith in human capacity, and our ability to create our own destiny: onward and upward forever! But then came the trenches of World War I, when millions died, and for what? Then came World War II, and the Holocaust, when millions of Jews and others were murdered in the name of racial and ethnic purity. And the idea of onward and upward forever was shown to be a false hope.

Out of the struggles of the 20th century came a new period, called Postmodernism, which challenged the modern era’s faith in science, reason and human progress. Postmodernism says the truth is not found at the center, but more likely at the margins. It says there are multiple truths, and the truth is conditioned by where you stand, by your perspective and social location. It challenges the dominant culture and the white, male, thinking establishment. 

We live in complicated times. There are so many voices, so many different expressions of, and experiences of, reality. What is true? What is right, and good? These are questions people have been asking since the beginning of time. And they are good questions to be asking now. But we need to accept that these are not simple questions with easy answers. We are meant to struggle with these questions, to keep asking them and trying to answer them. 

Each Sunday, in our unison affirmation, we say “Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer.” We say that seeking after the truth is a holy act, and worthy of our efforts. We don’t say it’s easy!

One of the dangers of these times we are living in is that truth is often defined by each of us as individuals. Many of us trust our feelings and our instincts to tell us what is true. But we can be fooled, by those who know how to manipulate us, and by our own biases. We are prone to believe what conforms with the way we see the world; the same way we are inclined to get our news from particular sources or click more often on those stories that support the views we want to hear. Like in the complicated story of actor Jussie Smollett, who claimed to be attacked because he’s black and gay. And people rightfully upset about the increase of hate crimes in our nation rushed to defend him, until it came out that Smollett staged the attack himself. 

Where does the truth lie? Our feelings and perspectives can help us, and they can hurt us, in the search for the truth. Our memories can be faulty. We each have our own biases. One of the reasons I’m grateful for a community like this one is that it helps me see that my own assumptions are often wrong, in need of updating. Being in conversation and community with others causes you to question your assumptions and gain a wider and clearer view of what is true.

I’m grateful that we have this place to gather, and these companions, and the wider world outside our doors. I’m grateful that we are part of a long tradition of people seeking the truth, all the way back to the psalmists and prophets of the Hebrew tradition that started a new way of being religious and being community almost four thousand years ago. And I’m grateful for colleagues like Rev. Christine Robinson, who interprets these texts in ways that help us hear them today:

How do truly good people live?
They speak the truth from their hearts
  have no hidden agendas, are
  loyal friends. 
They offer respect to their neighbors, but
  avoid the company of the selfish and the foolish,
They honor good people wherever they find them.
They live to do good, keep their word
   make their living with honest work
   and give generously from their abundance.
Their way of life makes them strong in heart.

And I’m grateful for poets and artists and seers who help us to take a wider and deeper view. Like David White, and his encouragement to open our eyes, so that we may see:

That day I saw beneath dark clouds
the passing light over the water
and I heard the voice of the world speak out,
I knew then, as I had before
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.

It is the opening of eyes long closed.
is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air…

Truth these days requires us to be awake and to do our own work. To have open minds and open eyes, open hearts and open hands. The stakes are high, and what we think and what we do matters. The truth matters. So let us vow to live good lives—lives of integrity, purpose, and generosity. And may this be our prayer: “O God of love, grant us the courage to seek the truth, come when it may, cost what it will.”