“Do You See the Girl with the Telescope?
A Consideration of Ambiguity”
A Sermon by Rev. John E. Gibbons
delivered on Sunday, October 14, 2012
at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts
We have inherited quite a religion.
It is lived. It is not just a set of bromides and pietisms. It is a serious effort to conduct life according to principles and ideals.
It is emotional, heart-swelling.
It is even naive. In spite of uncertainty,
it does not rule out leaps of faith.
It is free, not bound by tradition, inheritance, geography, nor the
It is first-hand, a personal experience.
It is responsible. It does not try to escape the consequences of decision.
It is growing. It never thinks of itself as perfected and final.
It embraces humility, recognizing that faith is not certainty where there is in fact mystery.
It is compassionate. It understands that religions universally wrap their essence in myth. It reaches to grasp and appreciate
the truths bound up in the myths of other believers.
It is tough on its possessors, committing them to sacrifice, but it is tender toward those who disagree.
It is social, struggling to realize its own vision at community, national and world levels.
It is radiant, blessing its possessor with courage, serenity and zest.
This is our history, and also our hope.
“Cherish Your Doubts”
Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the handmaiden of truth.
Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery.
A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error,
for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.
Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false.
Let no man fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it;
for doubt is a testing of belief.
The truth stands boldly and unafraid; it is not shaken by the testing;
For truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure.
He that would silence doubt is filled with fear;
the house of his spirit is built on shifting sands.
But he that fears no doubt, and knows its use, is founded on a rock.
He shall walk in the light of growing knowledge;
the work of his hands shall endure.
Therefore let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help:
It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the handmaiden of truth.
–Robert T. Weston
(To One Who Doubts the Worth of Doing Anything If You Can’t Do Everything)
by Bonaro W. Overstreet
You say the little efforts that I make
will do no good: they never will prevail
to tip the hovering scale
where Justice hangs in balance.
I don’t think
I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.
It’s just as well that Jack is not here this morning because I’m not confident that Jack would approve of my message. I am here today to praise ambiguity but Jack, you see, was unambiguous about nearly everything.
This, by the way, is another thing about Jack: he left a lasting impression on everyone and everything he touched. As a minister, when I face a decision, when I write a sermon, Jack is in my head and over my shoulder and I ask WWJD? What would Jack do?
Often but not always I do proceed in a direction that he approved and Jack’s praise was sweet to me. But should I proceed in a contrary direction, it is also in my head that I had best be girded and prepared for Jack’s athletic rebuttal and ire.
With Jack, I am a humanist, mostly, but should a preacher make too many fond allusions to God, Jack would say, “If you want to hear that kind of stuff why don’t you go down the street to the Congregational Church?” Once when Bill Sinkford, then the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, preached from this pulpit and expressed fresh appreciation for Jesus, Jack approached him after the sermon and was effusive in his praise…for Bill’s posture, Bill’s projection, Jack even admired Bill’s necktie and, by saying not one word about Bill’s sermon, Jack made it crystal clear that, as far as he was concerned, that sort of message was better suited down the street, not her
With Jack, you knew where he stood; he was unambiguous and – like his friend the community organizer Saul Alinsky – Jack took pride in being a polarizer: Which side are you on? If there’s a societal wound, expose it, rub some salt into it, make it hurt so that the injustice may be mobilized into remedial action. To me, this strategy does not come naturally and Jack would sometimes say, “John, you’re a depolarizer, aren’t you?” This was not a compliment.
In a way, the peak and pivotal moment of Jack’s career was when he led the famous and infamous walkout at the 1969 Boston General Assembly. The story is complicated but, amidst very high tensions, when it was voted not to alter the agenda to hear the concerns of African-American delegates, Jack took to the microphone, said that “it was like telling blacks to go to the back of the bus,” and he invited delegates to leave the convention and walk with him to the Arlington Street Church where Jack was then the minister. Several hundred delegates, myself a teenager among them, followed Jack (who was spat upon by another minister who also said that had he a gun, he would have shot Jack). We eventually returned, though many African-Americans were so dismayed and disappointed that they left the denomination.
The walkout and the so-called Black Empowerment Controversy was a drama that still reverberates in our denomination. Only this morning, a friend of mine posted a remembrance of Jack on Facebook and recalled that the walkout was a response to the UUA’s “institutional racism.” Instantly there were angry contrary responses from others who recall the history differently. Forty-three years after it happened!
In the documentary film, “Wilderness Journey,” made by our own Ron Cordes, I reflected on this episode and called it “a cautionary tale,” by which I meant that were the events to be replayed, I’d hope that all of us might do some things a bit differently. Jack, however, was not pleased by my description. “A cautionary tale?” he roared. “I wouldn’t change a thing!”
Well, it seems that I have allowed Jack to rebut a sermon I have not yet preached! I am here to praise ambiguity and I’ll tell you why.
In fact, my inspiration for this sermon was not Jack but Joe who recently preached on the need for greater theological clarity. And so, I’d like for us to get clearer about…ambiguity! Ambiguity – the realization that something has more than one meaning – is, I suggest, a Unitarian Universalist value. Joe says that in the literature classes he teaches in Syracuse, one of his educational goals is for students to better appreciate ambiguity and multiple meanings. I suggest that one of our religious goals is to strengthen our ability to live with, endure, appreciate and even promote ambiguity.
We’ll start with simple linguistic examples of ambiguity:
Do you see the girl with the telescope?
Comic Rowan Atkinson says, “As I was leaving this morning, I said to myself, ‘The last thing you must do is forget your speech.’ And, sure enough, as I left the house this morning, the last thing I did was to forget my speech.”
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed meeting your husband.
We saw her duck.
Roy Rogers: More hay, Trigger? Trigger: No thanks, Roy, I’m stuffed!
A newspaper headline: Pentagon Plans Swell Deficit.
A book review: I can’t recommend this book too highly.
Ours is an ambiguous world, capable of many meanings, and yet, fearful of ambiguity, there is pressure – societal, cultural, political, spiritual – to extract and wring single unambiguous meanings.
Do you remember Billy Collins’ description of his poetry class? He encouraged his students to see the subtle, nuanced, ambiguous multiple meanings of a poem,
“But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
We lust for certainty when reality is ambiguous. Ambiguous does not mean unclear; ambiguous does not mean vague; ambiguity means capable of multiple meanings.
I think about this in the context of what we’re trying to accomplish in this church.
A while ago, I heard someone describe the secret formula of many evangelical American mega-churches – the Willow Creeks, the Saddlebacks, the Grace Chapels. I think this person’s brother-in-law worked in one such church and was privy to the secret recipe: Get the people in the door, provide a welcoming non-threatening environment, introduce some personal or social problem or dilemma, illustrate how pervasive, destructive or soul-killing are its effects. And then, now that people are feeling pretty low and woeful and sinful, now lift them up a bit by gently announcing that there is a balm in Gilead, there is relief for your pain, and then…at last!…ta-da!…introduce the one, the only, the Jesus Christ and proclaim that by your acceptance of Him as your personal savior, you shall find salvation for your sins and eternal life!
OK, so if you take the preamble to that recipe, I’d like to know how you – as a Unitarian Universalist – would complete it: get people in the door, provide a welcoming non-threatening environment, introduce some personal or social problem, illustrate how bad it really is, announce that this need not be the end of you, there is a balm in Gilead…and then what is it? As a Unitarian Universalist, what’s your big conclusion, who or what do you introduce in your final ta-da moment?
As I recall, when I heard this formula described, the speaker was implying that this is a dilemma for Unitarian Universalists because, well, we don’t have a unique savior or a snake oil to sell.
What I want to suggest this morning is that Unitarian Universalists are selling and should be selling the notion that there are multiple meanings to our experience and that reality is ambiguous.
I realize that this can be over-simplified into a kind of meaningless it-doesn’t matter what you believe because who knows anything anyway, really. And after a while of cherishing our doubts, as in our responsive reading, pretty soon you can be telling really bad jokes like the one about the Unitarian Universalists not being the ones who burn crosses on people’s lawns. We’re the ones who burn question marks on lawns! Or, what do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian? Someone who knocks on your door and has nothing to say.
I’m sorry to say that were Jack to be here this morning, he would now be walking out. He intensely disliked demeaning UU jokes, and, because Garrison Keillor told them, Jack disliked Garrison Keillor as well.
I want to take us deeper than the superficial, but I do believe that there are multiple meanings to our experience and that reality is ambiguous.
Obviously, my goal in this sermon is to raise more questions than I answer, so just as I asked you to revise the mega-church formula, I’ll pose the same question in a different way. Recently I read a book about how to grow churches, also written from an evangelical perspective, and this book advised thinking about all that a church does as a baseball game. The goal in a baseball game is to score runs and the point is to do everything that helps you score runs and to do nothing that does not contribute to that one goal. In baseball, there are no points for style or niceness or fashion or creativity; crossing the plate is the only thing in baseball. If an evangelical church is to be played like a baseball game, the only thing that matters, so this book argued, is crossing the plate and bringing people to a decision to accept Christ. The book went on to use this baseball metaphor as a means to making decisions about what should and should not constitute a church’s program: Does having a church school contribute to the goal of bringing people to Christ? Does a service project or a discussion group or a music program or anything else increase the odds of that one desired outcome? If so, do it; if not, don’t.
My question to you, therefore, is this: What, in a Unitarian Universalist church, is our equivalent to scoring runs, crossing home base, getting folks to accept Jesus? What’s our bottom line? Who do we want people to be or to do? How do we decide what to do and what not to do?
My answer, for this morning, is that we strengthen our ability to live with, endure, appreciate and even promote ambiguity.
Julian Huxley once told the story of the argument between the philosopher and the theologian. The theologian accused the philosopher of being like a blind man, in a dark room, looking for a black cat—which wasn’t there. “That may be,” said the philosopher; “but a theologian would have found it.”
Actually, I don’t think our goal here is to make us into philosophers or theologians but rather to nourish and enlarge our capacity to think, to imagine and to wonder.
When we lust for certainty, we choke thinking, imagining, wondering. An essayist named Tim Kreider has written “In Praise of Not Knowing.” A fan of celebrated but hard-to-find films, when Kreider learned that some of his most favorite but rarest films can now be found on the Internet, he said, “I was almost disappointed. It was fun not being able to see them, not having every last thing a click away. Because what we cannot find inflames the imagination.”
That, I believe, is what we want most to accomplish in this church: to inflame the imagination.
Kreider recalls that Kurt Cobain once said that “long before he’d heard any punk rock music, he studied magazine photos of punk musicians and imagined what the music sounded like.”
In a vastly different context, Kreider makes the same point: “Not long ago the Hubble telescope observed that Pluto’s surface is changing rapidly, and noticeably reddening. It’s not a bland white ball of ice, but the color of rust and soot. We’re not likely to learn anything more until the New Horizons spacecraft get there in 2015. In the meantime (it’s ambiguous) and we just get to wonder.”
Kreider, however, is not praising ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake. He concludes, “I hope kids are still finding some way, despite Google and Wikipedia, of not knowing things. Learning how to transform mere ignorance into mystery, simple not knowing into wonder, is a useful skill. Because it turns out that the most important things in this life – why the universe is here instead of not, what happens to us when we die, how the people we love really feel about us – are things we’re never going to know.”
This is as far as I got with this sermon by Friday afternoon, but I slept fitfully because I still haven’t quite said why we should appreciate or promote ambiguity. Something is missing in this sermon, thus far, and I tossed and turned trying to figure out what it was. And so sometime in the middle of the night I had an aha! moment and, I’ll be darned, it was Jack Mendelsohn who helped me figure this out!
Yes, Jack was unambiguous about nearly everything but that’s where he ends up; that’s not where he starts. The absolute essence of Jack’s ministry and genius is that, despite the lust for certitude, reality is capable of multiple meanings and we ought not succumb to the dominant narratives of our times, social or personal.
The dominant narratives of our times are narratives of greed, exploitation, venality, destruction, fear, death and the smothering of the human spirit. The dominant narratives of our times say, as Anne Lamott put it in something I read to you a couple of weeks ago, that each of our lives is in some way “uniquely ruined.” And thus the dominant narratives of our time says that safety and salvation are only to be found by conformity and blind acceptance of some savior external to ourselves, be that savior Jesus or the gods of militarism, consumerism, pietism, comformism, sciencism, entertainmentism or there’s-nothing-you-can-do-about-it-therefore-do-nothingism.
Jack was convinced that there are alternative ways and meanings that bring us back from the precipice, ways of hope and health and love and life. There are alternatives to the dominant narratives!
Jack Mendelsohn was convinced that reality is not at all rigged in any one direction but reality instead is ambiguous and capable of many meanings and the first and most critical thing is to say that our lives are not fated by some harsh, cruel and unfeeling determinism but that, instead, we may choose which side will feel the stubborn ounces of our weight.
The arc of the universe is long and some say it bends toward justice but Jack knew that if it is to bend it will be our hands that do the bending. But, yes, it can be bent.
And be not conformed to this world: but be you transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
The heart of Jack’s liberal credo, he said, was this: Nothing is settled. Balance is beatitude.”
In a complex and rapidly changing world, meaning cannot be distilled into a simple playbook with universal rules applicable to all. The scientific method doesn’t always fit, although modern people yearn for it. The human heart, with all its unpredictability and wonder, must be a vital part of the equation.
And, with his friend William Sloane Coffin, Jack would point out that the heart is a little bit to the left.
Too often we are deceived by claims of monolithic meaning and dominant narratives that make false claims of invincibility. The truth is that nothing is settled, balance is beatitude.
Our liberal and liberating truth is that reality is ambiguous, rich with multiple meanings. We must first expose this reality, believe that this reality indeed is true and then it is our sacred opportunity and duty to unambiguously choose which side we are on, which side shall feel the stubborn ounces of our weight.
I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed preaching to you today.
Nothing is settled. Balance is beatitude.