First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

seek ... nurture ... serve

Doubt

May 19, 2019
Rev. Dr. Sandra Fees

Bob Weston says, “Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the attendant of truth. Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery.” It’s also a good way to stave off foolishness. Let me share a story told by Rumi.

A certain man caught a bird in a trap. The bird says, "Sir, you have eaten many cows and sheep in your life, and you're still hungry. The little bit of meat on my bones won't satisfy you either. If    you let me go, I'll give you three pieces of wisdom. One I'll say standing on your hand. One on your roof. And one I'll speak from the limb of that tree." The man was interested. He freed the bird and let it stand on his hand.

"Number One: Do not believe an absurdity, no matter who says it." The bird flew and lit on the man's roof.

"Number Two: Do not grieve over what is past. It's over. Never regret what has happened." "By the way," the bird continued, "in my body there's a huge pearl weighing as much as ten copper coins. It was meant to be the inheritance of you and your children, but now you've lost it. You could have owned the largest pearl in existence, but evidently it was not meant to be."

The man started wailing loudly. The bird said: "Didn't I just say, Don't grieve for what's in the past? And also: Don't believe an absurdity? My entire body doesn't weight as much as ten copper coins. How could I have a pearl that heavy inside me?"

The man came to his senses. "All right. Tell me Number Three." "Yes. You've made such good use of the first two!" Number Three: Don't give advice to someone who's groggy and falling asleep. Don't throw seeds on the sand. Some torn places cannot be patched. (Soul Food: Stories to Nourish the Spirit and the Heart, Jack Kornfield and Christina Feldman, trans. Coleman Barks)

“Cherish your doubts.” Despite the tremendous human progress achieved through an inquiring spirit, there are still those who cling to certainty and are susceptible to absurdity. We see how this can lead to believing things that defy logic and good sense and to discounting free expression and the diversity of human experience. We see this in society, politics, and in religion. Doubt gets perceived as weakness, chaos, and lack of faith. This suspicion of doubt translates into ideological rigidity, fundamentalism in religion and politics, and religious dogmatism. Certainty also leads to a rejection of growth, creativity, and curiosity. It squashes openness and choice.  

And I use that word “choice” very intentionally this morning. I use that word “choice” in direct reference to the vote of the Alabama Senate and the signing by Alabama’s governor Kay Ivey this week of an extremist anti-choice law, as well as Missouri’s extreme bill just a few days later. The Alabama bill prohibits abortions at every stage of pregnancy. There is only one exception in cases of serious risk for the mother’s health. And if the law is upheld it allows doctors to be prosecuted for performing abortions. It does not allow doctors, women, and families to search their conscience nor to inquire about the scientific and ethical truths of conception, start of life, and the meaning of consciousness. It shuts down the complexities and realities of people’s individual lives, experiences, and beliefs. This decision and those of other states instituting anti-abortion laws seek to determine for others--for women--the ways they can and cannot make decisions about their own bodies.

Such absolutist mindsets are deeply troubling, harmful, and unjust. They demonize doubt. They create and further disparities and perpetuate privilege. They enslave women to archaic laws and to the patriarchal machine of oppression. They seek to diminish the flourishing of the liberal, free spirit. And they hold us hostage to doing things according to a rigid set of beliefs and ideals that are imposed through manipulation and distortion and inflicted on those who are most vulnerable. As we are learning, it’s a struggle to combat such manipulation and misinformation at this time in history. Discerning truth from fiction is harder than ever. And deciding who to trust and who not to trust is harder than ever. In the case of reproductive rights, this is leading to the anti-abortion message penetrating beyond social conservatives. According to recent surveys conducted for progressive groups, more than half of Americans are aware of the “infanticide” claims. The term “infanticide” is being deliberately misused to describe late in pregnancy abortions. The New York Times notes that “Initially, many Democrats and abortion rights groups believed that the notion was so absurd that it was not worth responding to it. But they discovered that was a dangerous assumption to make.”

Remember Rumi’s story of the bird. The man believes an absurdity that defies logic. Even when warned not to. The bird can’t contain a pearl weighing more than itself.

Dr. Leana Wen, the president of Planned Parenthood, says that “Sometimes there is a temptation to let the absurdity stand on its own, but we have to recognize that this is a different time.” Abortion is being labeled as an effort to “execute” babies, and “infanticide”  is being deliberately conflated “with abortion late in pregnancy.” Dr. Wen says, “it’s important that we as doctors and health care providers explain the extremely rare and devastating circumstances of abortion later in pregnancy.” Dr. Wen cautions that addressing questions based on “implausible and often outright false premises” can be a mistake. Instead she says, “A more persuasive way to talk about the issue is to explain that abortions that occur far into pregnancy are not done on healthy mothers but because of serious medical complications discovered late in the pregnancy.” (“Republicans Messaging on Abortion Puts Democrats on the Defensive,” www.nytimes.com/2019/05/16/us/politics/abortion-republicans-democrats.html, Jeremy W. Peters, May 16, 2019)

One of the challenges in the efforts to have more nuanced dialogue is that when certain ideas and positions get repeated over and over again, a pernicious “truthiness” begins to emerge. “Truthiness” is a term Stephen Colbert uses to describe talking  points that are false but get repeated so often that people come to believe them and accept them as truth. UU Minister Carl Gregg says,

This tactic is not new: ancient Athenian democracy gives us the word demagoguery for politicians who “appeal to emotions, fears, prejudices, and ignorance … to gain power and promote political motives.”

To relate ideology, demagoguery, and truthiness back to our [Unitarian Universalist] commitment to be an Evolutionary Religion that embraces all that we have learned since the Scientific Revolution, it has been said that the Liberal Turn in Religion is an attempt to create meaningful lives and build beloved communities in a world that is diverse and in which the traditional center has fallen out.

Note that the word “Liberal” comes from the Latin root liber, meaning “free,” so a Liberal Turn in Religion is a move toward freedom in religion. It is a shift from authority grounded in community, hierarchy, and tradition to authority grounded in reason (what is logical) and experience (what one knows firsthand for one’s self or what can be proven through the scientific method). (“The Spirituality of Doubt,” Patheos, www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/author/jcarlgregg/, Feb. 11, 2016, Carl Gregg.)

As Unitarian Universalists, we embrace reason and experience. This doesn’t mean that we don’t sometimes get caught up in our own version of absolutes and truthiness. And it doesn’t mean we don’t have our own institutional dismantling work to do. We do. But we aspire to the search for truth as the key to the door of knowledge and as a servant of discovery. Our principles and sources call us to the exercise of conscience, a free and responsible search for truth, and the scientific method of inquiry.

Bernard Baruch, an American financier and philanthropist,  wisely observes that “Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked why.” If no one had asked why, we wouldn’t have discovered gravity, built rockets or gone to the moon. We wouldn’t have computers or smartphones. We wouldn’t have electricity or heart transplants or vaccines. We wouldn’t have democracy or art or wheels--or Unitarian Universalism. We wouldn’t have the capacity to offer reproductive health--including medical wellness examinations, pregnancy tests, birth control, STD testing and treatment, cancer screening and prevention, abortions, hormone therapy, and infertility services.

Rumi offered us the three counsels of a bird. Leonardo da Vinci offers us his own three counsels. Da Vinci was arguably one of the most curious people who ever lived. These three counsels are attributed to his exuberant level of questioning.

The First Counsel is: observe without predefined distinctions. Observe. Look. Pay attention. Use the powers of observation to bring together and intermingle different people and perspectives and ideas.

The Second Counsel is: question the obvious. In our everyday lives, it’s easy to take things for granted and accept things as they are. However, we see how limiting and damaging this can be. There is a need for us to be more questioning and to cultivate our collective ability to live with nuance rather than soundbytes, to live with uncertainty rather than ideology. As a religious community we are learning to ask questions of some of the ways things have always been done around here. We are trying to learn and grow in new ways that help to dismantle outmoded approaches to how we function as an institution, how we make decisions, and how and whether those systems perpetuate white supremacy. We need to learn these skills so we can practice and teach them broadly.

This leads to the Third Counsel: experimentation. Da Vinci experimented. This is at the heart of the scientific method. Rather than treating a work or achievement or a way of doing church as final or static, experimentation accepts that what we produce and do is a work in progress. (“Leonardo da Vinci: How to See the World Like Nobody Else,” Zat Rana, Feb. 27, 2018, Medium, https://designluck.com/da-vinci-curiosity/)

The self, Unitarian Universalism, and the world are forever evolving. Progress isn’t linear. But efforts to curtail that progress defy the human spirit and the evolutionary nature of existence. And regressive measures while dangerous are also temporary. Things do not stay the same. This may be helpful for us to remember as we live and breathe and take action to combat unethical and ideologically driven decisions. It helps to remember that very few decisions are final in the way that we so often think of them. It matters that we continue our work to keep alive the liberal religious spirit and the liberal religious message and the liberal religious witness.

A wise faith observes, questions, and experiments. A wise faith defends human freedom and agency. May we cherish our doubts that sustain such freedoms. May we let our doubts be in service to our faith, to our search for truth, and to our actions for justice. The world needs our liberal religious message.

Amen. Blessed be.