Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Fourth Principle

This first appeared in Outwords March 2010.

The fourth principle of the Unitarian-Universalist Association calls us to affirm and promote “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” There are a lot of heavy, ponderous words in that short phrase; truth and meaning, freedom and responsibility. We might spend endless ages debating and discussing what is meant by each, but to my mind the most important word in the fourth principle is one that we might easily overlook in the midst of such philosophical and ethical heavies as 'meaning' and 'responsibility'. It's that little word right in the middle.

Search. This is what makes us UUs. People often become involved in a church or religious community hoping to find something, often truth and meaning. UUs, however, are those people who have joined together in spiritual community not in order to find, but rather to better continue their searching. UUs are unique in that we have turned doubt and the questioning of received wisdom into a spiritual exercise. I would suggest to the Missoula Fellowship that we make our motto “Keep Searching!” if I wasn't afraid prospective members might get the wrong impression.

But while we may not claim to have found the final answers to anything, we do believe that in the process of searching some truths will come to light. Now, in my view, there is Truth and there is truth. Truth, with a big 't,' is reality, being, the cosmos as it actually is. Little 't' truths are approximations or rules-of-thumb that we use to negotiate and deal with this infinite reality. While no one will ever be privy to Truth, the many little 't' truths are nonetheless valuable and valid, though never universal. John Lennon summed up this rather pragmatic outlook when he sang, “whatever gets you through your life is alright.” What gets me through my life and what gets you through yours may be different, may be represented by different truths, but that doesn't mean one is right and the other wrong, only that our different searches have revealed different treasures to each of us. It is in the sharing of these treasures with our fellows that the joy of spiritual community resides.

Like truth, the meaning that we are called to search for is also one that is unique and individual; not universal meaning but personal meaning. To have meaning simply means to point to something beyond the self. We live in a culture of self-aggrandizement and narcissism, conspicuous consumption driven by relentless advertising and a collective weakness for shiny objects. Everywhere we turn we are encouraged to gratify our every whim, exert every fiber to glorify the self. But all this only serves as a constraint on our meaning. If I exert myself only on my own behalf, if with my actions I point to nothing but my own desires, my life has, by definition, no meaning. A perfectly self-centered person is like a sign that reads “sign.” In order for a sign to have a meaning it must point to something beyond itself, and in order for a life to have meaning it must be about something other than that individual life. To the extent, then, that we can focus our energies outward, we fill our lives with greater and greater meaning.

And just a few short words on freedom and responsibility. By freedom, I take it to mean that we are free to come to our own conclusions, that there is no dogma we are expected to accept. By a responsible search we mean to remind ourselves that while we conduct our searches individually we must not become egotists, placing our own fulfillment above all other aims. A responsible search for truth and meaning is one that maintains a respect for and commitment to the beloved community within which our personal searching goes on. We search for truth and meaning not only for our own benefit, but for the sake of all, and each benefits from the searching of others. So, for all of our sakes, keep searching!

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