For the UU Church of Palo Alto
July 10, 2016
©Rev. Mary McKinnon Ganz
I’d like to begin by reading a poem by Kabir. Kabir was a 15th-century Indian mystic who was critical of both Hinduism and Islam and by the time of his death was claimed by people he inspired in both religions. You’ll hear Kabir mention his own name, a convention in this type of poetry. These are his lines, as interpreted by Robert Bly:
[ KABIR: WATER IN THE HOLY POOLS by Robert Bly]
So our subject on this Sunday after this very sad week, is truth. What is true, and how do we know it? It’s a huge topic, one you obviously can’t do full justice in a 20-minute sermon. I’m grateful to Olivia for starting us out with a look at the difference between “happening truth” and “story truth.” Certainly the sorrows of this past week, with all the racism and the fractures in our country made visible, had me wishing for a story different from the truth that was happening before us all. The needless deaths of Black men in Baton Rouge and St. Paul, and then, in Dallas, the incomprehensible loss of five officers who died protecting demonstrators – this is something we are living through, all of us, together. The truth, from which we must not look away.
I wanted to talk about Truth today, my first Sunday as your sabbatical minister, because it’s a way I can tell you a little about myself, charting a bit of my own journey as I have swum in the holy pools, cried out to the gods and glanced sideways at the sacred books. As you may know, I came back to San Francisco two years ago to work with the Faithful Fools on the streets of San Francisco. The streets have been a place I return to, to find Truth. In fact, if you stand in Civic Center Plaza and turn your back to City Hall, and look across United Nations Plaza – TRUTH is there, on the side of a building across Market Street — in huge, black capital letters on a gray-and-white background.
Have you ever seen this mural? The first time I saw it, probably 12 or 13 years ago, I was astonished! Because, see, I’d actually been searching for Truth on the streets of San Francisco since 1975, when I arrived there as a reporter for the Associated Press. Back then, I believed that I could find it, that I would tell it, and that it would set me free – and maybe the rest of the world, too. Such, I believed, was the Power of Truth.
But by the time I had arrived at this view of truth — all caps, on a wall – I was many years older, and truth was not the same.
That was when I had begun my first stint with the Faithful Fools, who have their own way of seeking truth on the streets. Our search takes us down the steep grade from the Unitarian Universalist church on Cathedral Hill – a place of privilege and power – into the Tenderloin, the neighborhood where poverty and misery are concentrated. Now, I find truth every day in the lives of people who sleep in doorways. They have taught me so much, especially about how to search for truth.
I believe we are born wanting to know what’s true. How do you search for Truth? In our Unitarian Universalist principles, we affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Our sources tell us it can be found in one’s own experience, in scripture, in the world’s religions and in humanist traditions, in poetry and prophetic words, in the Earth.
But in our times, the search for Truth has fallen out of favor. There’s a cartoon that shows a philosopher walking resolutely in the direction of a sign pointing toward Truth – but he’s on a treadmill, so he’s going nowhere. One of our political candidates is a master now not of the Big Lie, as Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker, but of a social media blizzard of lies that come so fast and thick that truth doesn’t seem to stand a chance.
What counts as truth is changing in these times we are living through. But actually, it’s been changing for as long as humans have been thinking about it.
In seminary I loved studying the Renaissance Humanists, whom we UUs claim as spiritual forbears. Giordano Bruno was one who changed how we look at the world, and the Italian Inquisition thanked him by burning him at the stake in 1600. Bruno started his career as an obedient priest, passing exams on topics like, “Why Thomas Aquinas was correct in every respect.” But the Renaissance thinkers began to test church teachings against new scientific truths and ideas coming in from other cultures. Mathematics from Arab lands, for example.
Bruno began to argue that church orthodoxy was a creation of time and place rather than eternal truth handed down by God. Even more dangerous: informed by the Copernican revolution, he argued that the center of the universe is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere. The implications terrified the church. If the center is everywhere, if God is everywhere, if each person’s truth is central for him or her, then what authority does the church have?
This conflict is still playing out today in our political life – different players, same issues. What is true? More importantly, who gets to say what is true? Does might make right? Does Empire get to say what’s so?
About the time Giordano Bruno was coming to the attention of the Italian Inquisition, René Descartes was born in France, where he grew up to become known as the Father of Modern Philosophy. He is best known for saying Cogito ergo sum – “I think, therefore I am,” and also for splitting the observer from the observed and the mind from the body in a system of thought now known as Cartesian dualism.
Dualism is powerful. It’s how we perceive ourselves as distinct from the world around us. It’s built into the very structure of language. It’s how we make judgments. And, it supports our human tendency to label people and ideas as right or wrong, good or bad, worthy or un. It’s how we think; we can’t help it.
But for a while now, this worldview has been dissolving. As the world shrinks, as information expands, as we learn to seek out other viewpoints, Cartesian dualism is being overtaken by a sense that we are all interrelated, that our very existence is upheld by this interrelatedness. That we don’t stand separate from all we observe. We understand, now, that we can’t divide the world into right and wrong, true and false – that the opposite of a deep truth is not a falsehood but another deep truth, in the words of MIT physicist Frank Wilczek.
I grew up steeped in the subject-object worldview, and probably most of you did, too; it’s a way of knowing that is under our skin as philosopher Esther Meek says, our “subcutaneous epistemic layer.” As a culture we are not yet at peace with new ways of seeing Truth that are being born among us. I am not arguing for some kind of relativism that asserts that each person’s truth is as good as another’s. That’s not going to cut it with most of us, but we have trouble articulating just what the shift in our way of knowing actually is.
Here’s a stab at it. I find myself now knowing what’s true not by information as much as by participation. My work with people living in poverty has taught me that truth comes far less by examination than by compassion and love. It has something to do with trust, too: that even in the midst of uncertainty, though we don’t know the full story, we know enough to move forward together, trusting in our relatedness.
Well, at least in San Francisco, TRUTH is painted on a wall, right there in black and white and gray, above the plaza built to commemorate the founding of the United Nations. In the center of that plaza is an obelisk to the International Declaration of Human Rights, asserting a right to work and food and housing for every citizen of the world. Crossing the plaza, at any hour of the day or night, are many of San Francisco’s displaced persons – people without homes, without jobs, without enough to eat. The paradox that shows up under the capital-letter TRUTH mural is a challenge to my heart, to grow big enough to hold all of what I see.
For years, that was the meaning I made out of that mural. I graduated from seminary; I went off to serve congregations in the East; and every time I came home to San Francisco, I would look for the mural. But it wasn’t until recently that I began wondering how it got there.
“TRUTH,” I discovered, was painted in 2003 by a Portugese artist and social activist named Rigo 23 – that’s his name — after a man named Robert H. King was released from Louisiana’s Angola Prison. King had spent 31 years in prison, 29 of them in solitary confinement. First incarcerated on a robbery conviction, he and two other men became activist members of the Prison Arm of the Black Panther Party at Angola. Targeted for their activism, they were framed for the murder of a prison guard. // I don’t know if this is true. I do know that the murder convictions of all three men eventually were overturned or the charges reduced, after years in solitary confinement. I do know that the FBI and law enforcement agencies all over the country have persecuted members of the Black Panther Party. And I know something about Angola; I visited there in 1974 for a news story on prison conditions.
You may remember reading about Herman Wallace, the second of the Angola Three to be released. Three and a half years ago, at the age of 71, after 42 years in solitary, suffering from advanced liver cancer, he was allowed to go home. He lived only three days after his release, but he died a free man.
The last remaining member of the Angola 3, Albert Woodfox, was released just this year, after he was allowed to plead no contest to a lesser charge. He had been in solitary 44 years.
The TRUTH mural commemorates a coming to light of the story of three men who stood up to prison authorities about the conditions in which people – Black people particularly – are incarcerated. Robert King’s words ring in my heart: “The deeper they bury me, the louder my voice becomes.” It blows my mind to think of the people walking past TRUTH every day in San Francisco, cherishing their own stories as I did, never imagining the layers of truth, layers of stories, represented there.
Why am I telling you about this? Because you and I are living in a time when our participation in stories like these is a necessary corrective to years of social blindness. Smartphone cameras are recording deaths that should not have happened, and we have to believe they had been happening every bit as regularly before the cameras became available to show us. The injustice, the racism, the fractures are now so very visible – we are living through them. There is action we can take, and we must. Insisting on laws to reverse the arming of our citizenry and the militarization of our police – there’s a start. Better training, more connectedness between police and community – these are some of the moves we are called to make.
But an invitation has been issued as well, to those of us who are white. Black thinkers like Ta-Nehisi Coates are illuminating new layers of the struggle it is to be born Black in this country. Young, mostly queer women of color have crafted a movement of their lives, and have called it “Black Lives Matter.” I hear their call as an invitation to compassion, to participation, to new knowledge. This compassion and participation invite us to move forward, even when we can’t see the next step on a dark staircase. Compassion, Participation, yes even and especially Love – these are the new ways of knowing we are being called to in this time.
The old ways — subject-object analysis, might-makes-right separateness — locked us into systems that decreed that some of us matter more. It fixed us in our places and sapped the lifeblood of community. Participation draws us toward freedom. Compassion makes it possible for us to move resiliently into relationship with new stories, new people, new ways of seeing. And Love? It is my faith that Love makes everything possible.
“If you have not lived through something, it is not truth,” says Kabir. You can read that line two ways. Your experience, what you’ve lived through, is what you know to be true. The events of the past week are part of what we know is true; we lived through them. But also, maybe Kabir is saying that what gives you life – that’s where truth is.
I commit to knowing by participation, by compassion, and by love. These give me life; these are my truth. My friends, in these sorrowful days, we are greatly in need of new life in our world. May our love be our truth — real, solid, active, vivid. May we live that truth into being in the world.
Sermon Sources and Inspirations
- “Angola Three,” Wikipedia
- The Black Lives Matter Movement
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
- Juan De Anda, “Tourism for Locals: The TRUTH-ful Art of Rigo 23,” SF Weekly, Aug. 1, 2014
- Adam Gopnik, “The Dangerous Acceptance of Donald Trump,” The New Yorker, May 20, 2016
- Esther Lightcap Meek, Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology
- Ingrid D. Rowland, Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic
- “Frank Wilczek: Why Is the World So Beautiful?” Interview on “On Being,” April 28, 2016