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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, June 3, 2012

A Meditation on Knowing and Not Knowing

Lord God of truth and love, who called Peter Abelard to your service, and endowed him with many excellent gifts: grant that we may seek diligently for the truth in our several callings, and may learn to love the truth more than our own cleverness. When we are wrong, grant that we may accept correction from others gladly and without resentment. When others are wrong and will hear us, grant us the grace to guide them gently, without gloating or patronizing or officiousness. When they are wrong and will not hear us, grant us the most precious gift of silence. Grant us fairness and honesty, justice and respect, in our dealings with all persons, and especially with those whom we love, and those who love us. Preserve us from using them as means rather than respecting them as ends.

Attributed to an Anglican Collect

Tripp York is a Mennonite theologian who blogs under the delightful title “The Amish Jihadist.” In a recent posting he wrote of how he once had applied to teach at an unnamed New England university. During his interview he was asked about his views regarding feminist thought in Christian ethics. He was quite proud of how he felt it inappropriate to make an assertion about his own feminist qualifications but rather that others who have seen him in action should do it. At the same time Professor Tripp acknowledged how deeply he had been influenced by various women such as Dorothy Day, Sojourner Truth and Emma Goldman. No doubt, the presentation was well put together, and perhaps he was even beginning to allow himself to think of what life in New England might be like.

The lead interrogator, I mean interviewer, then leaned in and asked, “Then how can you possibly justify your obvious influence from that sexist pig John Howard Yoder?” Yoder was a Mennonite theologian and one of the principal architects of contemporary Christian pacifism. He also, at the height of his influence, had been exposed for numerous incidents of sexual advances on students over many years. It had been a very big scandal in Protestant circles.

Professor Trip says, “I think I stuttered something like, 'Well, um, you know… I think…” While he attempted to recover, the interview pretty much went south from there. And, indeed, the good professor ended up staying in his native South. As he remarked, “Who wants to live in the land of unsweetened tea, anyway?” I thought this one of the cleverer variations on sour grapes nearly all of us are expert at.

As it happens today in 1140, at least by someone's calculations, the theologian Peter Abelard was found guilty of heresy. Professor Tripp's story of John Yoder, and how he cost Tripp a job, reminds me of Abelard, and the consequences of one's behaviors in a much higher stake struggle.

Peter Abelard is one of the great Medieval European philosophers, born in the last quarter of the eleventh century. He and his spiritual opponent Bernard of Clairvoux, advocate of unconditional submission to authority, and not incidentally of the crusades, occupied the far ends of that era's philosophical spectrum. Abelard is considered one of the principal figures in shifting Scholastic philosophy from Plato toward Aristotle, which many see as a critical step in the evolution of Western thinking toward modern naturalistic, if not materialist perspectives. Abelard also appears to be the author of the Catholic idea that unbaptized children go to a part of limbo where they don't suffer, even though they are denied the full bliss available only to those who have been baptized. Which, frankly, for the sake of grieving Catholic parents, has to be better than the alternative view that such babies were cast into the pit of hell.

At the same time we probably are most familiar with him for his disastrous love affair with Heloise. This was very much in keeping with his character. He was impetuous and arrogant. Apparently he also took delight in torturing those with lesser intellectual abilities. For these flaws in his character as much as for the content of his thought, he suffered accusations of heresy, actually, as we know, convictions for heresy, social isolation, and, probably most famously castration at the hands of Heloise's family.

But what makes him most interesting to me is how his thinking regarding the Christian doctrine of the Atonement is arguably foundational to the development of modern Unitarianism. Abelard advocated a “moral influence” theory for the purpose of Jesus' incarnation into the world, which was teaching by example in both his words and life and how he faced death. It was a rejection of the varieties of doctrine explaining Jesus' death as a vicarious atonement for our sins.

Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King School and a liberal Christian theologian writes, how Abelard challenged the substitutionary doctrine that was largely derived from the thinking of the theologian St Anselm, directly. “Who will forgive God for the sin of killing his own child?” Abelard asked. “How cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should in any way please him that an innocent man should be slain-still less that God should consider the death of his son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world!”

With the removal of the supernatural aspects of this idea, we come to what probably the majority of Unitarian Universalists today think is right, that Jesus was a moral teacher, and his value as a guide to us is in what he said and what he did, and not through some on-the-face-of-it, morally offensive substitutionary sacrifice, where the death of an innocent is demanded as ransom for the souls of the world.

There's a UU blogger who writes under the name Fausto, who, for me really summed up the whole thing about Peter Abelard. Fausto wrote how Abelard is “most often remembered for his scandalous affair with his teenage student Heloise and its extreme consequences, and next most often for being a haughty, arrogant SOB whose hubris made many unnecessary enemies and destroyed his credibility and effectiveness.”

And this is important. There was a point when Abelard's influence was so pervasive that he might have persuaded the Catholic Church as a whole toward this moral example view of the Atonement. But he was such an unpleasant person, and that gave his enemies sufficient ammunition to bring him down, and with him, an idea that could have shifted the entire course of Western Christianity.

So, what to do with this? The obvious thing is a fairly pedestrian moral: Don't be a jerk. And, sure, don't be a jerk. But, I think there are more complex things going on here, and, truthfully, within our human hearts, what it means to be human, and how we must act in this world without any certainty of outcome.

The truth is that Abelard could have been an exemplary human being, never seduced a student, and argued with compassion as well as clarity, and things could have continued just the way they did. Professor Tripp may have clearly articulated John Yoder's peace witness while fully acknowledging his shortcomings as major moral failings, and still find himself stuck in the land of sweet tea.

Peter Abelard's last words were said to be “I don't know.” As you may know, I consider not knowing the universal solvent, the true way of the heart.

Now, as it happens, some time ago I was corresponding with Professor York on the varieties of the spiritual way, when I opined that the real path is one of not knowing. As a good theologian and professional thinker, he replied how much he liked knowing.

I really do believe that knowing is important. We need to look at things. And we need to look at things closely. After all, we live in a world where everything is in motion and every action has consequences. In our human world what we do has consequences. What we say has consequences. And, even, what we think has consequences, even if we try to keep that thought a secret buried somewhere in the depths of our hearts and never spoken to anyone. Everything is in relationship and all actions however subtle have consequences.

But, the truth is human beings need to walk and chew gum at the same time. We need to study and to know, and we need to hold that knowing lightly. Every truth is provisional, subject to correction, and if we clamp down too hard we forget and become rigid. And, such as in the case of Abelard, we can even become cruel, with terrible consequences in our own lives and in the lives of many.

Not knowing is our ability to hold things open, to be open, to allow the possibility of new truths, of new worlds. And as day follows night, when we do this we find ourselves kind, generous, open handed. We also intuit connections we cannot find when we're simply following the thread of argument or even of analysis.

It is critical to have the larger stance. We do this, we look to know, but we also don't know, both, and; then the path becomes a little easier. Possibilities present that may before have been closed doors.

Chew gum and walk. Know and don't know. You can do it.

The possibilities are nearly infinite, that I do know.

Where it leads, well, I don't know.

Just like that.