Making Sense: A Free and Responsible Search for Truth and Meaning

A Sermon by Jim Cowan

Jim Cowan is a retired engineer, physician, and businessman, who tries to use evidence of the senses, fact, and reason to do the right thing. Sometimes he fails.

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Unitarian Universalist Principle #4 is: “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

I look to UU principles to help me in my daily life so I can make sense of what’s going on around me, and act as best I can to make the world a better place.

At first, I thought about this fourth principle – search for truth and meaning – as a slow, scholarly process of discovery: ancient white-bearded theologians poring over crumbling manuscripts in dusty libraries searching for the truth, or modern pundits writing op-eds in the New York Times telling me what to think, but later I realized that it was I that had to search, in real time, right now, minute by minute, even second by second, all day and every day, for truth and meaning.

I’m not afraid of this challenge because, as we’ll see, I don’t have a choice. And it’s fun.

To show how important this business of choice is, I’m going to tell a true story about smokejumpers, mix in a bit of theology from the sixteenth century, add a bit more from the twentieth century, and season all this with a dash of physics. Coming from this witch’s brew of ideas is a simple message that I’ve worked out over many years, one that works for me.

Let’s get started. We live our lives at the bright line moving from the past to the future. We live at the incandescent instant – the moment of NOW – where we have to make sense of the situation we find ourselves in, and choose what to do next. We make sense of things over and over again throughout that long series of instants that makes up our lives.

So here’s a story about making sense.

At 4.10 pm on August 5th, 1949 in Missoula, Montana, a hastily-assembled team of fifteen smoke-jumpers that had never worked together before parachuted onto the south slope of Mann Gulch off the Missouri River to fight a small ‘ten o’clock fire’ – meaning that their sense was they were facing a fire they would put out by 10 o’clock the next morning.

They ate their supper while their taciturn leader, “Wag” Dodge, scoped out the fire which was half a mile to their west, moving toward them along the south slope of the gulch.

Following Dodge, they picked up their tools, 80 pounds per man of axes, adzes, shovels and rakes. They crossed to the north slope at 5 pm, intending to get behind and beside the fire to steer it into a low-fuel rocky area where it could be extinguished.

Hold the thought of these action-oriented sense-making firefighters for a moment, and let’s turn to a sixteenth century man who started a different kind of fire, a big one in the world of theology, (theology itself is a different kind of sense-making), and who was a Unitarian before there were Unitarians.

And just what were there before there were Unitarians? Well, there were non-Trinitarians – heretics who questioned belief in the Trinity before moving on to fully fledged Unitarianism.

One of these was Fausto Paolo Sozzini, or Socinus. Born in Sienna, Italy, in 1539, he later moved to Switzerland, on the run from the Inquisition for his challenges to Catholic orthodoxy, got on the wrong side of the Swiss Calvinist, moved to Poland, where he died in 1604.

His heresy – known as Socianism – expressed optimism about the capacities of human nature, emphasis on a moral life rather than beliefs, the claim that human beings have free will enabling them to live such a life, and disbelief in post-mortem punishments such as hell.

Sound familiar?

Theologically, Socinus is a founding father of Unitarianism because his ideas influenced nascent Unitarian movements in England and later in the US.

What interests us this morning about Socinus is his view of God’s knowledge. He agreed that God was omnipresent – everywhere, and omnipotent – all powerful, but heretically he said that God could not be omniscient, could not know everything.

God could not know everything because human beings had free will and their free will makes it impossible to know what a human being will do next.

God cannot know how each of us will choose what to do next, and therefore God cannot know how the future will unfold.

Sounds reasonable to me.

So we’re back to the importance of choosing well in the incandescent moment of now because it’s really important.

If you believe in God, then God is waiting to see what you’ll do next. God knows what the Calvinists will do next because their future is predestined, but us UUs get to choose for ourselves, which is much better in my opinion.

What did Wag Dodge’s team of firefighters choose to do next? Moving along the north side of the gulch, along the side of the fire raging on the south side, they planned to get behind the fire and steer it to rocky ground.

Dodge was in the lead, his team strung out behind him. He came around the edge of a ridge and saw the fire had jumped across the gulch to the north side where he and his men were. The flames were 30 feet high and moving towards him at 600 ft/min. It was a minute away.

His team, still behind the ridge, couldn’t see what he saw.

He turned and ran back to them, yelling, “Drop your tools! Follow me!” and headed up the ridge, angling up and away from the fire towards rocks at the top of the ridge where they would be safe. The top was 800 feet above the gulch. The slope of the ridge was almost 45 degrees.

Remember only Dodge, not Dodge’s team, had seen the fire on their side of the gulch.

“Drop your tools.” Now a firefighter without tools is no longer a firefighter, he’s just a person in the woods with a forest fire coming at him like a train.

Not knowing the fire had jumped to their side of the gulch, they couldn’t understand why Dodge was saying and doing what he did. Without their tools, they no longer knew who they were. They couldn’t make sense of what was happening to them.

In this literally incandescent moment of now, panting up the slope behind Dodge, they had to choose what to do next.

Now let’s turn back to the world of ideas, specifically physics.

Surprisingly, the behavior of the dead world of matter and energy, of things, is not a clockwork mechanism ticking away through time. The future behavior of matter is uncertain, just like the human mind.

400 years after Socinus, physicists formulated the laws of Quantum Mechanics in which the smallest particles of matter and photons of energy move at random, making it impossible to say exactly what will happen next to any individual particle. The foundation of nature is a world of effects without causes, a world where prediction is impossible.

Surprising, but true. This randomness of nature can be confirmed by experiment in even a high school physics class.

Stay with me. We’re now at the pinnacle of obscurity. It gets easier.

Let’s recap our thinking so far:

  • 1604 – Socinus: Theology. Because of our free will, precise knowledge of choices we will make, and thus our future, is unknowable.
  • 1925 – Physics: Because of quantum mechanics – the most tested theory in the history of science – the precise future of the material world is unknowable.

Searching for truth and meaning is going to be hard with all this uncertainty around.

Let’s go back to Wag Dodge and his smoke-jumping forest firefighters.

They’re running through long grass up the side of the gulch and the fire is coming up the hill behind them, faster than they can run. Now they can see it coming at them. They’ve dropped their tools. They don’t know why when there’s a fire to fight.

Dodge suddenly pulls his cigarette lighter out of his pocket, bends down, and sets fire to the grass and shouts, “Up here!” to the team.

Dodge was burning an escape fire – the first one he’d ever set – to create a pre-burnt space where his men could shelter. The main fire would burn around them.

The Indians of the Montana high plains knew all about escape fires, but the Forest Service, who trained in eastern forest not grasslands at that time, did not. The taciturn Dodge had heard about the Indians but he didn’t tell his team.

Confused, and with little confidence in their leader, the young men ran past Dodge, around the edge of his escape fire, and continued panting up the steep side of the gulch.

The time was 5.54 pm, a little under two hours since they’d landed to put out the presumed “ten o’clock fire”. Now they found themselves trying to make sense of a situation that had changed completely within the last few minutes, searching for the truth of what was happening around them and what it meant for them.

Back to the world of the mind.

In 1930’s Germany, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of a minority of churchmen who refused to pledge loyalty to Hitler. His brother in law was an Intelligence official who knew and told Bonhoeffer about the hate-driven violence of the Nazis.

Bonhoeffer became an active member of the German Resistance, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942, imprisoned, interrogated, sent to a concentration camp, and executed, out of spite, on the personal order of Hitler, two weeks before the camp was liberated by US troops, and three weeks before Hitler committed suicide in April 1945.

When Bonhoeffer speaks, I listen.

He wrote, “The will of God is not a system of rules established from the outset. It is something new and different in each different situation in life. And for this reason a man must forever re-examine what the will of God may be. The will of God may lie deeply concealed beneath a great number of possibilities.”

To put this into my own words, the voice in my head that tells me what I should do next must be re-examined every day, every hour, every minute, every second, because the real facts and the true meaning of the situation I find myself in lie deeply concealed beneath a great number of possibilities.

Back to the smokejumpers: The Mann Gulch fire swept around the charred ground left by Wag Dodge’s escape fire and continued up the slope.

The fire exploded in a what’s called a ‘blow up’ and burnt 3,000 acres that afternoon. It took 450 men five days to extinguish this “ten o’clock fire”.

Wag Dodge was saved by his escape fire, and two firefighters who reached the rocks at the top of the slope survived.

The other thirteen smokejumpers died on the north slope of Mann Gulch that afternoon.

They’d parachuted 106 minutes before into a situation they thought they understood, then the world had changed around them with the fire jumping across the gulf and trapping them on the slope.

In real time, in the seconds between Dodge shouting “Drop your tools” and then setting his escape fire, they failed to make sense of things.

What’s the lesson here? The lesson is that what is true can change into something new and different at any time, and facts must be re-examined over and again to determine their meaning, which is hidden beneath a great number of possibilities.

Truth: Dodge set fire to the grass to create a fire-free zone before the main fire came.

Meaning: This escape fire would save their lives.

The first tragedy of Mann Gulch is that the taciturn Dodge didn’t tell his team about the facts and meaning of the escape fire, and the second is that they didn’t ask. Their lives were lost because they didn’t search for truth and meaning and couldn’t make sense of a situation in which they were running from a fire while their leader was setting a fire.

This was a big mistake, but learning facts and understanding meaning is critical in the seemingly small things in daily life too. I’ve come to realize that paying close attention to the smallest facts and trying to understand their meaning, and doing this over and over again, is the only way I can make sense of things and do the right thing.

If I can learn to do this right, I think I will, sometimes, be able to behave in the way that JFK was talking about when he said, “Good manners is grace under pressure.” Grace being a certain serenity in the face of the unexpected which I’d like to demonstrate, but usually fall far short of.

JFK also said in another context, “We choose to do this and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Searching for truth and meaning in real time is hard. I make no apology for how hard it is, particularly when facts and meaning are concealed beneath a great number of possibilities. I fail in this search again and again.

And it’s easy to avoid the search. Just rely on authority, or fall back on what’s been said and done before, fall back habit, on doctrine, on dogma, on tribalism and all the other -isms. But remember, Steve Jobs said, “Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking…Have the courage to follow your heart and your intuition.”

The responsibility to search for truth and meaning (and to act accordingly) is not a burden for me. It’s a gift.

It’s a gift that keeps on giving because, second by second, I’m given another situation, another chance to get things right, to learn the truth and understand its meaning of what’s going on around me.The French heroine Joan of Arc was declared a heretic by the English for maintaining her right to think for herself or, in Bonhoeffer’s words, “to forever re-examine what the will of God may be.”

When captured she was threatened by English inquisitors that her heretical inquiring thinking might lead to her death. She said, “I am not afraid. I was born to do this.” She was born to think for herself and to act on her conclusions.

We are all born to do this… to search for truth and meaning. We and the world we live in are constructed in such a way that we have to make sense of things again and again so we can live with as much grace as we can under the daily pressure of our lives.

So, although this work is never finished, I’m going to go out of here into this beautiful summer day and relish the fact that I have the opportunity, and the obligation, second by second, to search as best I can for truth and meaning.

It’s hard, but every now and then perhaps I manage to demonstrate a bit of grace under pressure, and if I don’t, well, right away I get another chance.

And so do you.

Thank you.