What the Universe is Made of
Reverend Amy Zucker
December 7, 2003
Palo Alto, CA

Amy ZuckerThe poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms." Our universe is made of the lives we live and the ways we make sense of them. We live adventure stories, traveling in time from birth to death, playing our part in the saga of our family, our people, our civilization, our planet. We spin experience into stories, giving accounts of what has happened and what it all might mean.

Storytelling may be the most distinctive mark of human thought. The scientist Gregory Bateson loved to tell this parable: A man, engaging in discourse with his computer, once asked: "Do you suppose that you will ever think like a human being?" To which the machine replied (after much delay): "That reminds me of a story. . ."

So often, the best way for us to say what we mean is to tell a story that gives it shape. Stories are one of the chief ways we have of telling our most important truths. And this is paradoxical, because the truth is that stories are lies, or if you want to dignify them with a more aesthetic term, they are metaphors, symbols, images. Like a metaphor that illuminates some connection never before seen in quite that way, stories reveal a truth that can only be told, as Emily Dickinson recommended, “slant.” They are no less true for being constructed of lies. Picasso said that art itself is “lies that tell the truth.”

For example, an ancient story, written as a drama by Sophocles, tells of a man named Oedipus. This story expresses truths so compelling that it has been told and retold for over two thousand years and played upon the stage in countless performances for audiences who never tire of the same old tale. Freud found in it the perfect language for the developmental dilemmas he observed in a growing child. Its central images have been borrowed for countless other stories--or stolen, as the saying goes: "Mediocre artists borrow, great artists steal."

It was prophesied at Oedipus’ birth that he would murder his father and marry his mother. His horrified parents had him taken to a mountain to die. But he was rescued by a shepherd and taken to the king and queen of Corinth and raised as their son. One day he met his real father on the road, quarreled with him, and still not knowing who he was, killed him. He went to Thebes, the kingdom of his birth, and he and Jocasta, neither knowing that they were son and mother, married. A plague fell upon Thebes and only one seer, the blind Teresias, understood the cause: Oedipus’s unintentional sins. Oedipus kept getting glimpses into his origins and probed to learn the entire truth, thinking the worst that he would learn was that he was not of royal birth but only a peasant child. Finally the servant who first abandoned him on the mountain was brought to him and, under threat of torture, told Oedipus the truth. Jocasta killed herself and Oedipus blinded himself and went forth in self-imposed exile.

Some of the truths, the ideas, expressed in this story are: The very things you do to escape your fate may make it come about. To reach maturity and power, we must symbolically destroy our parents. Those who seem to be blind are often those who see most clearly, while those who think they see the truth are often blind. The evil that we do will bring destruction upon us even if we are unaware of it. These are all abstractions; they are invisible. To be seen, they have to be embodied, and that is what Sophocles did: put them into the lives of people who, as we read about them or see them walk on the stage, become real to us. When the curtain goes down and the story is finished, we carry its ideas away, embedded in the experiences we have just lived through the lives of other people. We can reject the ideas but their force will be felt–perhaps more strongly than if the ideas had been spelled out in an essay without an illustrating story to bring them to life.

That is why, if you ask writers of serious novels to tell you what their books mean, many of them will stare and stammer and finally say something along the lines of, "If I could have said it in a couple of sentences, I wouldn’t have written a whole novel to say it." If they do succumb to the pressure and say, "it’s about friendship," or "betrayal," or "growing up in a small southern town," don’t for a moment believe that you have the meaning of the book in the palm of your hand. The meaning is in the story. You can no more absorb it by being told one summary sentence than you can absorb Picasso’s Guernica by being told "It’s about the horrors of war." You have to stand before it and see for yourself what he had to say. The best stories are much too complex, too solid and real, to be reduced to a one-line moral. I summed up Oedipus Rex just now, but don’t be fooled--you have to read the story to really get the experience. You have to read the lies to hear the truth.

Some people worry about those of us who spend a lot of time reading these lies. A few years ago, the Quest--the publication of our Unitarian Universalist "church without walls,” the Church of the Larger Fellowship--published a sermon by Ken Sawyer about J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Naturally Reverend Sawyer was writing about the life lessons he thought we could take from the books. But one reader was concerned. He responded that he preferred to read books that were about reality, and worried about the effect on children and adults who read these fantasies about wizardry and magic. How would they know how to tell fantasy from reality?

Now, I’ve been known to spend quite a lot of my leisure time inside the castle walls of Harry’s extraordinary school, where poltergeists and disappearing staircases are par for the course, one of the professors is a ghost (he’s very dull), and the lessons range from Divination to broomstick-flying. Far from taking us out of reality, these stories can take us deeper into it. Through their fantasies of impossible places and nonexistent people, they show our own world at an odd angle that brings new visibility to very real aspects of our lives: some fairly trivial, like the interior dramas of a boarding school, and some very important, like love, sacrifice, and justice.

That’s a big reason why I read them, and being a pretty serious sort, that’s why I read most of the things I do. Because as much as I enjoy wild rides of imagination, clever use of language, and humor in literature, I am also a realist at heart. I enjoy books that tell the truth. The real-life probability of the events is unimportant (as long as the plot holds together), but either the characters have to be solid and real, the emotions have to be genuine, or the symbolism has to resonate with what I know about the world.

Another British writer of fantasies for young people, Philip Pullman, declines to describe himself as a fantasy writer. He says, "I have said that [my trilogy] His Dark Materials is not fantasy but stark realism, and my reason for this is to emphasize what I think is an important aspect of the story, namely the fact that it is realistic, in psychological terms. I deal with matters that might normally be encountered in works of realism . . . and they are the main subject matter of the story--the fantasy . . . is there to support and embody them, not for its own sake. . . . I'm trying to write a book about what it means to be human, to grow up, to suffer and learn. . . . Why shouldn't a work of fantasy be as truthful and profound about becoming an adult human being as the work of George Eliot or Jane Austen?"

The truth is that the works of George Eliot and Jane Austen are also fantasy, not in the sense of the genre but in the sense of being inventions, or again, lies. They might be set in a time and place we recognize--19th-century England--but they are sheer invention just the same as the genres that are frequently considered inferior, such as fantasy, science fiction, children’s books, and myths. Their truths are told through elaborate lies about the lives of nonexistent people.

There are stories that are untrue through and through. Their lies are told not in the service of truth but in the service of untruth. They lie not because they take place in the land of Mordor or in the year 2010, nor because people in them can fly without machines, nor because the animals in them can speak. They don’t fail because they are too imaginative; they fail because they aren’t imaginative enough. I’m thinking of stories that are utterly flat, predictable, and cliched, like those television dramas that seem to be written by people who have learned about life not from real people but from the characters in television dramas.

Of course, one person’s cliche might be another person’s honored legend. We each have to decide. The point is that it is the meaning of the story rather than any of the trappings of plot, setting, or genre that makes it true or false. And so a story that tells of a journey from Hobbiton to Mordor to destroy a magical ring in the three thousand and nineteenth year of the Third Age can be true, while a story that tells of two people on a cruise from New York to Nassau in the year 1998 can be false. Pulp romance writers churn out the latter all the time. They are pure fantasy, wishful thinking, lies that really are just lies because they don’t reveal any truth about human nature, just cliches. Not that all romances are false--romances can be as true as any other form of fiction--but in order for them to be true, the emotions have to be true, the lives of the characters have to be lives we can truly imagine as our own. Then we can live inside them for awhile, and through them, understand our own lives and what they may mean.

Or, in the case of myths and legends, the characters might be one-dimensional, but the symbols are rich and many-layered. There aren’t any well-rounded characters in Cinderella, but the tale is deeply true; it is a tale about noble identity hidden under dust and misfortune, about proving oneself, about rising from the ashes.

The antidote to false stories isn’t to stop listening to stories. It’s to tell, and listen to, and read, more stories, stories whose elaborate lies do tell us the truth.

Here are some true stories, some lies that I believe tell the truth. They bear telling and retelling because the truths that they tell are many and important.

Once upon a time there was a man named Lear. He had three daughters, one of whom loved him very, very much. But because that daughter was truthful and the other two told him flattering lies, he gave them all his property and disowned the loving daughter, Cordelia. His older daughters’ greed for money and his greed for flattery led them all into disaster, madness, and death. You can read this story, which has been told in various forms for many hundreds of years, because William Shakespeare wrote a version of it in his King Lear 400 years ago.

Once upon a time there was an unhappy, spoiled, lonely little girl named Mary Lennox. Her heart was closed and she didn’t even know it. One thing that still stirred in her heart was curiosity, and when she moved to her uncle’s manor house and heard a rumor of a garden there that had been walled up for ten years, she was intrigued. She found the key and the hidden door and began to make the garden come alive, and as it came back to life, so did she. You can read this story, which is called The Secret Garden and was written by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Once upon a time a child was born near Jerusalem. His parents were poor and undistinguished, and they had little understanding that there would be anything special about him. And yet he was very special indeed, so special that when he was born, angels sang, a miraculous star shone over his birthplace, and wise magicians traveled from miles away to pay homage to him. You can read this story, in two different versions, in the Gospel according to Matthew or the Gospel according to Luke. Or you could come to the Christmas Eve service two and a half weeks from now and listen to it, which is often the nicest way to encounter a story. Like the other two stories, it is one I recommend highly.

Like the other two stories, its accuracy is doubtful at best. Some people are very concerned to know whether it actually happened, and they will either believe it or disbelieve it based on whether it actually happened to an actual person at a real time in a real place. Curiously enough, these people are sometimes found in the pews of fundamentalist Christian churches, and sometimes in the pews of humanist Unitarian Universalist churches. I respect their desire to know what really happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. But I am not personally interested in it, any more than I am interested in whether there was ever a real King Lear or a real Mary Lennox. That question seems rather beside the point. These people are real and Jesus is real insofar as their stories, the lies that were told about them, tell us some very important truths. The truth the story of Jesus tells, like the truths in all of these stories, is born of its lies, its beautifully, skillfully told lies.

As many writers have said, there are really only a handful of stories. The story of the person who goes on a journey and returns home transformed. The story of the hero or heroine who overcomes his or her own flaws and doubts and conquers some powerful foe. The story of the temptation that must be resisted and the test that must be passed. And yes, the story of the seemingly ordinary child whose birth heralds a new age, and all the trappings that often go with that story: the miraculous conception, the supernatural events like new stars and singing angels. Buddhism tells similar legends about the birth of the Buddha, and Islam tells about the miraculous events surrounding the birth of Muhammad. The fact that this story shows up in other religions doesn’t mean that the Gospels are false. Quite the opposite. It shows that the story told by Matthew and Luke contains truths so simple and profound that it is told in many forms in many cultures. It is an archetype. It attempts to show what cannot be seen, to convey with words what cannot be put into words.

I gave an earlier version of this sermon once before, and someone who had seen the title, but not the description, expressed surprise when he heard the whole thing–he had thought it was going to be about physics. Of course, the universe is made of atoms and all the things built of atoms. But all of those things can be seen by the eyes, given a powerful enough microscope. The universe is also made of many things that are invisible. No matter how carefully we dissect the human heart and no matter how strong a microscope we train on it, we cannot see love or courage or apprehension or revelation there. To illuminate those things, to make the invisible visible, we need ways of telling that go beyond descriptions and factual accounts. We need strange, indirect, and beautiful structures. We need–we love, we crave--stories. May we always have the imagination to tell them, and the ears to hear.

What is your reaction to this sermon? Please send comments to Reverend Amy Zucker


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