(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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Mahatma Gandhi once described himself as a humble but earnest seeker after truth – which, as he said, is another name for god. Gandhi’s sense that truth is an embodiment of god also causes me to capitalize Truth and often use it to indicate my concept of god.
When people ask me, as they often do, what Unitarian Universalists believe, I offer them my basic theology – one which I had before I became a UU.
I believe every person is proverbially climbing one great symbolic mountain in the universe. It’s summit is what everybody spends their lives seeking, but nobody ever makes it. The summit is to know all truth or, in other words, to meet god. We each want to know the mysteries of life and death, as well as a complete awareness of what is good and evil.
But we all seek the summit of Truth, or god, in different ways. Some search for it with the Bible and through the teachings of Jesus. Others do so through Buddhism………or the teachings of Muhammad……..or the study and applications of science. It need not matter how we seek Truth – just that we pursue it.
The essential idea of Unitarian Universalism is that all paths to find Truth are good since they all aspire to the same goal. They’re also all good since each offers unique and valuable insights on how to get to the summit. UU’s don’t proclaim any path toward it is better than another. We look to each path for what is helpful. Our worship, if you want to call it that, is NOT for any specific path or spirituality, but rather to honor and engage in the act of seeking truth. That’s why I’m here and I imagine it is why you are too.
That search for truth leads me to my October message series theme and my topic for today. Along with most of you, I’m disgusted with the negativity, nastiness and brutality of today’s culture. As enlightened as we may think we are, humanity today can be as indifferently mean spirited as its ever been. And I believe that is precisely because people all over the world no longer seek truth. They believe they already know it and then angrily state only they are right and all others are wrong.
So instead of celebrating traditionally scary masks that children and adults like to wear at Halloween, I want to promote positive masks to wear as a way to encourage a less mean spirited and more united culture. As spiritually minded people, we want to avoid things that divide, and instead embrace values that unite. And so I plan to offer, over three Sundays, masks I believe reinforce all that is good in the human spirit.
For today, I want to encourage the wearing of two goddess masks and costumes – those of ancient Roman goddesses Prudentia and Justitia. Justitia is otherwise known to us as Lady Justice but her literal purpose is to represent the search for truth. She is usually depicted blindfolded, carrying a sword, and holding balance scales. All three items are intended to symbolize ways used to determine truth. A blindfold is worn by Justitia to prevent bias and promote an unbiased examination of facts.
She also holds balance scales symbolizing the intent to weigh facts and determine which are most truthful. They also indicate a desire for fairness. Truth does not deny one set of facts in favor of others.
Finally, Justitia carries a sword as a way to say that truth is sharp edged and the line between truth and untruth is razor thin. A sword also indicates that truth is absolute and unsympathetic. Emotions should be avoided when determining what is true.
Ancient Roman philosophers, following the teachings of Aristotle and Plato, understood that while Justitia is a virtuous figure who symbolizes a search for facts, she must crucially be paired with the goddess Prudentia. Prudential, or prudence, is associated with the virtue of wisdom but her primary value is in using common sense to determine the most virtuous actions. She holds in her hands two items – a mirror and a snake. The mirror symbolizes what is real versus what we may hope something to be. It’s purpose is to also foster self-awareness. We may hope that things, or ourselves, appear a certain way, but a mirror depicts reality.
She also holds a snake to represent practical wisdom. Indeed, that is what Prudentia is most known for and why she is always a companion to Justitia. Something may be true alongside something else that is also true. The key is to use common sense to determine what is most virtuous and thus most true.
For instance, Lady Justice stands for the universal proposition that killing another person is wrong. But she also supports the truth that the right of self-defense and fighting against evil are good. Prudentia guides Justitia to understand that seemingly competing truths demand a resolution – in this case the idea that rational self-defense, even if it means killing another, is good and more true than the general ideal of “thou shall not kill.”
I believe these Justitia and Prudentia can tell us a lot about how we and our culture should think and act. We need Lady Justice to search for little ’t’ truth as well as capital ’T’ Truth. But we need Prudentia to insure our fact finding search is virtuous and wise. In that regard, Unitarian Universalists represent, at their very best, the ideal of prudence. Millions of people may shout from their pews and Temples that their vision of god or Truth is absolute. No other versions of Truth, they say, are possible. Their claims, as we know, lead to fundamentalism as well as anger and violence. Global human culture is now divided and filled with hate all because people think only their god or Truth is right – instead of allowing prudence to guide them in the awareness that all religions (or no religion) have elements of truth and that what everybody seeks is the same thing.
We rely on Prudence to tell us that the truth we all can agree on is that we each seek, we each SEEK, capital ’T’ Truth – the summit of the mountain I earlier spoke. As UU’s, Prudentia’s mirror of reality, and her serpent of wisdom, inform our common sense that the one value that can and should unite Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Atheists and many others in a spirit of collaboration and respect is Justitia and her search for Truth. In other words, the UU plea for religions, cities and nations is that we live in peace with one another because we are all bound by a common desire. We must therefore embrace Justitia, as she is guided by Prudentia, and come together as we each seek what us true.
Our UU approach to spirituality should therefore be applied to how we approach other aspects of life. Just as we turn to Prudentia to guide Lady Justice in spiritual matters, so too must we use her for secular matters. Common sense must guide us in determining what is true and good in every matter.
I believe it was intentional that ancient Romans assigned the virtues of prudence and justice to female deities. Indeed, of the four ancient primary virtues – Prudence, Justice or Truth Seeking, Fortitude, and finally Temperance – all but Fortitude were female goddesses. Women were seen by the ancients as having the moral purity to behave with decency, care and kindness. Ancient Roman culture was no less male centric than today’s society, but it at least had the awareness to see in women unique qualities that come, perhaps, from women’s biological roles as bearers of new life and essential sustainers of it. Such responsibilities demand not only common sense and an even temperament, they may impart in women a hunger for what is good and true – justice – so that their progeny will be accepted into a world that is often unfair and unequal.
It’s dangerous to stereotype since one can always find an exception to any generalization. But in my mind, a majority of women, along with some men, exhibit the kinds of attributes needed to counteract the sometimes angry, violent and rash attitudes of many men. And so it’s the positive values women hold that I believe are essential in today’s world – particularly the values I discuss today.
We need more common sense SEEKING of truth, a primarily feminine value, instead of claiming to already know it. And that extends, as I’ve said, not just to spirituality but to politics, climate change, wealth and racial inequality, and other important matters. Today’s culture is often defined by a primarily male approach to truth – which is that beliefs are arrogantly stated as fact. Open mindedness and the virtue of withholding opinion until evidence is judiciously determined is not valued today. Nor is the value of prudence used to determine the most virtuous course of action.
The recent suggestion that Brett Kavanaugh assaulted a female student over thirty years ago was met, by many men and even our President, as worthy of derision. Boys will be boys, many said, and that should have no impact on whether Kavanaugh is good enough to sit in judgement over millions of people for the rest of his life. Led mostly by older, white, straight men, many were and are so convinced in their belief that women lie or that they secretly want to be sexually assaulted, that leaders of the Senate refused to order a full and comprehensive FBI investigation and allow a Justitia search for truth.
Such a paternalistic attitude extends back to the male writers of the Adam and Eve story. Reading that mythic story carefully, you’ll note that Satan deceived Eve and it was she who then deceived Adam into eating the apple – an act that many male artists and ministers over the years have attributed to Eve’s use of sex to tempt Adam. That story has been a major reason why women are not trusted since, as many men assert as fact, women are easily deceived and then act as deceivers themselves. Many men refuse to seek the real truth about themselves and their learned misogyny and gender bias.
While it might seem logical that such attitudes would divide the sexes – and in some respects they do – the truth is that our entire society is now defined by predominantly male attitudes. Close-mindedness, a lack of prudence, and an unwillingness to seek truth have been imprinted on our overall culture. Both women and men act with prejudice toward those they disagree with. We are polarized as a nation, and even to some extent as a congregation, along fault lines of assertions of truth instead of a united and prudent seeking of truth. That attitude characterizes both sides in any debate. As the late Senator Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but NOT their own facts.” Truth is truth no matter what one may believe but our culture has forgotten that. People now assert their beliefs are fact and so we have competing interpretations of spirituality, politics, morality and even science such that there is no firm ground of truth on which to stand. As President Trump’s administration said last year, there are even so-called “alternative facts” – which is an implicit way of saying you have your truth, we’ll have ours. This nation, our church community, and most of all each of us need to put on the costumes of Justitia and Prudentia and their desire to search for truth – a truth filtered by virtue and common sense.
We as Unitarian Universalists believe in Justitia – in the search for truth and justice for all. The very definition of truth, however, is that it is NOT belief but instead provable fact. Our minds must be open, therefore, to seek truth and to rely less on what we simply believe. That means we are open minded not only to the influence of our own biases in what we think, but we are also open to learning new insights on any subject. Most of all, I believe we must apply the UU standard for spiritual matters to secular matters. If we each earnestly seek what is true, then we ought to unite in that search, with love for one another, and stop the division, rancor and ill will that can sometimes be held toward those who are taking different paths toward truth.. If we don’t do that, then we will act the same as religious fundamentalists who presume to tell the rest of humanity that that they’re wrong and headed for hell.
I hope you will remind me in the days, weeks and years ahead to wear the masks of Prudentia and Justitia in a spirit of open minded, common sense search for what is true and good. I promise to encourage the same of you.