The Truth about Truth

We often refer to truth as it if is some kind of clear and absolute value or quality.  That’s a very logical, modernist perspective.  But as postmodernism has made confusingly clear (yes, that was – kind of – a joke), the truth about truth is that it exists in the space between us: contextual, relative, contingent, personal.  Our service this morning will explore what the relativistic nature of truth means for faith, for our faith in particular, that puts so much emphasis on our search for meaning, on defining questions and seeking answers.  When an old UU covenant declares that we “seek the truth in love,” what does that mean for us all these days?

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When my father was serving his time in the army in the 1950’s, he was stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, “Home of the Airborne” – so-called because all the active airborne units were stationed there.  While he was there, he served under a colonel who was a bit of an idiot.  My father has a lot of stories he tells about foolish things the colonel said and did.  But his favorite story was about the time the CO decided to redecorate his office.  He had my father oversee the project.  And while they were finishing up the details, he said he wanted a wall of books behind his desk; he thought that would hit the right note.  My father said okay, and asked what books he wanted my father to get for the space.  He told my father: “Green books.  That’ll look good.  Put a lot of green books there.”

My dad couldn’t believe it.  Green books.  His colonel had literally picked a color as the basis for the books.  This was taking superficiality – if not outright stupidity – to a whole new level.  But my father agreed.  Green books it was.  And that’s what he put there, mentally curling his lip the whole time.

Over 50 years later, I had a lunch meeting with someone who is a passionate amateur scholar of martial and military history the world over.  Having got there early, he was reading a book when I arrived.   As I took off my coat, I asked him what the book was. He said it was part of the US Army Center of Military History’s US Army in World War II series, published by them, their official history of World War II in 75 volumes.  But because that was such a mouthful, a lot of military folks just call them the “Green Books” because they are all bound in Army green and it’s a lot easier to say.

My father, the first generation raised in this country, the first generation to serve in the military, a devout lover of all books – there was no way he would have known this shorthand term for this military history series.  Plus, this commanding officer had done so much to develop my father’s low opinion of him – it’s so easy for me to see how my father went straight where he did with his interpretation of “green books.” I would have done the same.

When I learned about this Army history series, I told my dad, and he and I were both horrified.  Because think about it, imagine how that played out.  My dad did get a bunch of green books – who knows what they were or were about – but they were all shades of green – and put them up on the shelves. Imagine the first time his CO came in and found them all standing there in their miscellany on the shelves behind his desk.  Maybe he thought it was a joke?  Hopefully he thought it was a joke, because otherwise he would have thought my dad was the dummy in the room.  My father doesn’t remember the CO ever making a comment to him about the books;  he definitely didn’t explain anything about a different kind of “green books” he was expecting.  So nothing ever changed my father’s understanding of what green books were until I talked with him about it so many decades years later.

Fast forward to the movie “Green Book” which came out last year.  It’s about a road trip through the American South in 1962, a very few years after my father finished his stint at Fort Bragg.  And here is yet another “green book”: The Negro Motorist Green Book, which was a travel guide for African Americans.  Published annually from 1936 to 1967, it offered information about places black people could eat and stay while on the road, euphemistically promising “vacation without aggravation.”  This book was published during my lifetime, was widely read and consulted in this country; plenty of copies and facsimile editions are still available – and until last year I had never heard of it.  But why would I?  By the time I was born, Jews were at least provisionally considered white people, so my family didn’t worry much about vacationing without aggravation when we traveled in the States.

So here’s one phrase – very simple, very clear, “green book” – with utterly different understandings attached to it, depending on what framework, what culture, what heritage we inhabit.  It reminds me of when Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of the Obamas’ large UCC church in Chicago, came to talk to UU ministers (of course, a very white crowd) at GA a few years before he rose to national prominence as part of President Obama’s first presidential campaign.  Pastor Wright was talking about this kind of disconnect – we hear a word or idea, we think we know what it is – and we have no idea, even about something very tangible because sometimes that’s how basic the gaps are.  Even when we think we know about the spaces in between us, sometimes we have no clue.  As evidence, he spoke this word “kitchen.”  He said “kitchen” – how many people in this audience (of many hundreds) think they know what “kitchen” means.  Most of us raised our hands, thought we knew we were in for it.  Then he said “I’m not talking about that place in your home or a restaurant or an institution where you prepare food.  I see there are some black faces in this room.  I’d like someone to tell me the other kind of kitchen.”  A black minister sitting near the front raised her hand and spoke – inaudibly for those of us seated far away but Pastor Wright’s response explained it all.  “That’s the kitchen I’m talking about – this place at the back of your head, just above the back of your neck, where the neck meets the head – that’s the kitchen.  I have no idea why, but there it is.”

This kind of thing happens all the time – and we miss it a lot of the time because if we don’t know, we don’t know.

Truth is our theme this month, and it’s a deceptively small one-syllable word, kind of like “love.” Just as there are many forms of love – something humanity has long recognized – there are also many kinds of legitimate truth – but this is something we are really just beginning to realize.  One person’s truth may not be another’s, and yet they are both true, both real, each just as real as the other.  Today is May 5th.  For some people, especially Mexican Americans, today is Cinco de Mayo. Originally this was a day to celebrate the victory of the Mexican Army over the French Empire’s bigger – twice the size – and better-equipped army, at the Battle of Puebla in 1862.  Nowadays, Cinco de Mayo is a bigger deal here in North America than it is in Mexico, full of dressing up as soldiers, re-enacting the Battle of Puebla, feasts of Mexican food, dancing, and if you are Mexican Canadian – apparently skydiving.  Here in Providence a lot of restaurants have been offering Mexican food and drink specials all weekend.

Which is striking and perhaps handy because today is also when the Muslim holiday of Ramadan begins, this evening at sundown.  Ramadan moves all over the Western year as the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, a period of daytime abstinence from food, drink, smoking, and sex.  It’s a time for putting the bodily pleasures and sustenance on hold to honor the first revelation of the Qu’ran to the prophet Muhammed.  It’s also a time for spiritual intentionality – abstaining from insults, gossip, lying, cursing, and all fighting except self-defense.  Instead of those petty satisfactions, Muslims aim to be their very best selves, praying more, studying more, being more charitable and generous, doing more good deeds.  Some scholars liken Ramadan to Lent, even suggesting that it evolved out of Lenten observance in the Syrian orthodox church.  But Ramadan is not meant to be a time of suffering, simply a time of mindfulness, though there are unquestionably some challenges that come with observance, which is perhaps why its name, Ramadan, comes from the Arabic word ramida, for scorching or arid.

Two truths about this date this year – more really, because for others today is their birthday or a painful anniversary or the beginning of something exciting.  There are countless truths, really about what today is.  It’s all very suited to that postmodern philosophical insight that evolved in the mid-20th century that all truth is relative.  And while the philosophy evolved then, it’s arguably only much more recently that we’ve begun as a society to really encounter and acknowledge that truth.  Why is that?  Why is this truth so elusive?  Maybe because it’s a hard reality, complicated and even painful at times.  It takes a lot of attention and intention to deal with it, because we all have our own truths that are, let’s be honest, most real to us.  Our own experience determines so much of how we see the world and each other, how we understand the world and each other.

And we know there’s more to life and reality than our own experience – but living into that truth is hard.  Not only because it requires so much attention and intention but simply because we don’t know what we don’t know and sometimes even what we definitely know perfectly well isn’t all there is to know.

This is why it matters that we are in faithful community with each other.  This is why it matters that we have a covenant of understanding and commitment with each other, because when we are together we learn from each other, from our different journeys and heritages and beliefs and experiences.  When we make it safe enough, and honored enough, to learn from each other, we grow in just the ways we need to grow to make us wiser, stronger, more compassionate, more grounded, more caring.  As the UU minister Victoria Safford writes,

“In a tradition so deeply steeped in individualism, it becomes a spiritual practice for each of us to ask, not once and for all, but again and again, even over ninety years of life: How do I decide which beautiful, clumsy, and imperfect institutions will carry and hold … my “name, hand, and heart”? The life of the spirit is solitary, but our answers to these questions call us to speak, call us to live, in the plural.”

When I was a student minister, the First Religious Society in Carlisle, Mass, where I trained, recited a covenant together every week in worship.  It was arranged by a Universalist minister named L. Griswold Williams, who based his version on an original unison affirmation written by the Unitarian minister James Vila Blake for his church in Evanston, IL, back in 1894:

“Love is the doctrine of this church

The quest for truth is its sacrament

And service is its prayer.

This is our great covenant.

To dwell together in peace,

To seek the truth in love

And to help one another

To the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine.

Thus do we covenant with each other.”

Rev. Safford’s church in Minnesota uses this covenant every week.  She wrote about it:

Each week, quietly, aloud, I promise that I will “dwell in peace,” and then I don’t live peacefully at all: by Monday afternoon or Tuesday at the latest, I’m living fearfully again, or acting meanly or self-servingly. I say that I will “seek the truth in love,” and then proceed to act quite otherwise, closing my ears and shutting down my open mind and heart, seeking instead the validation of my own narrow, safe opinion. I say, “Our great covenant is to help one another,” and then I forget to do it.”  (UU World, Summer 2013)

It’s a beautiful covenant, but like that famous passage from Corinthians chapter 13 about love being patient and kind, never envious, enduring all things and so forth, the truth is this covenant isn’t easy to live out in real life, not even for ministers, as Victoria Safford admits.  But that covenant is not just aspirational; it has to be more than that.   It has to be what we work towards, and sometimes achieve, in order to be the real, caring, capable church we seek to be, that we can be, that we are, when we manage to live what we believe as individuals committed to the plural.

That covenant is grounded in a passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 4, verse 15, only instead seeking the truth in love, Paul writes about “speaking the truth in love” being the path to growing in every way towards what is sacred – in that case Jesus.  But Christianity aside, I think Paul was onto something, that he was right to teach that congregations have to speak the truth in love.  Truth is too hard, too often, for any other way of speaking it, especially when our truths are not the same and yet very real.  If we share especially hard truths gently and with care to each other, these difficult things have the best chance of being heard and honored as we hope they may be, as we need them to be.  Because we don’t need, as Rev. Traci Blackmon puts it, to be uniform to be unified.  Or as I put it, we don’t need unity (sometimes known as monotony), we need harmony – our differences blended, accepted, relating to each other, in a whole so much stronger, so much richer, so glorious because of its different parts.

This church is absolutely a place for truth, for truths, all the truths you carry, all the truths we need to share, all the truths we need to learn.  And there is room for all of it, as long as we speak the truth with love.  Kindness and respect are all that are required for all truths, from those who speak them and those who hear them.  And then, and then, the truth, the truths will set us free.