Service Times

10:00 AM


Church Calendar

A Welcoming Congregation


Standing on the Side of Love


Password Protected Directory


Volunteer Involvement Form

In Defense of Uncertainty – January 9, 2011

There is a story told in the Taoist tradition of a farmer living many centuries ago in rural China. His household was small, and had only one child – a teenage son – and his farm was also rather little: he had only a narrow plot of land, and one horse to till the fields with. One day, the farmer rose in the morning to find that his only horse had bolted from the stable in the night, and was nowhere to be found. Hearing of this, the neighbor on the nearest property came by later that day to commiserate, saying, “What a terrible loss has befallen you!”

The farmer responded – well, the farmer in this story responded by saying something in Chinese, presumably. And just what form of Chinese he would have made his response in isn’t clear – Chinese is a collection of at least seven languages that all share the same writing system, but are very different when spoken aloud. I’ve read ten or so English versions of this story[i], and they all have slightly different variations on the farmer’s response when the neighbor expresses sympathy for the loss of his horse. In some, the farmer answers with a question like, “How do you know?” or, “What makes you so sure this is bad?” In others, he seems more patient saying, “It is too early to tell.” For today’s version of the story, we will use the shortest of the possible responses by the farmer. His neighbor said, “What a terrible loss has befallen you!”

“Maybe,” said the famer.

The next day, the farmer woke up in the morning and found the horse back again. Not only had it returned on its own, but three more wild horses had followed it back from the countryside. Word spread quickly of this unusual turn of events and soon the farmer’s neighbor was back to congratulate him. “What a wonderful good fortune this is for you!”

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

Days passed and the farmer and his son set to work taming the wild horses. One of these animals was particularly strong-willed and unwilling to be ridden – and threw the farmer’s son from its back, breaking the young man’s leg. When the neighbor heard of this, he again came to visit the farmer saying, “What a terrible loss has befallen you.”

“Maybe,” answered the farmer.

With his son laid up and unable to help him in the fields, the farmer had to quickly sell the three wild horses before they could be tamed to fetch a higher price. He used the money to hire on some extra help while he was short handed. It was during this time, while the farmer’s son was still healing, that an official from the Emperor arrived to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the farmer’s son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. Soon after, the neighbor came by once again to congratulate the farmer on his good fortune.

“Maybe,” said the farmer.

As this story illustrates, the world we inhabit is an unpredictable place. The events that shape our lives are often beyond our individual power to control. The seeming randomness of life and the all-too-real dangers that lurk within it lead to a very human desire to know why what has happened has happened and to understand what is going to happen in the future. One of the simplest examples of this is our fascination, as a species, with predicting the future.

We’ve just turned the page on another year, and particularly because it happens to be the start of a new decade in the calendar that much of the world uses, you have no doubt seen a storm of predictions about what is coming in the next year, or the next ten or fifty. A few weeks ago, the New York Times printed a follow-up piece to one it ran 80 years ago. In 1931, the newspaper asked several leading figures in medicine, science and industry for their predictions of what the world would be like in 2011. In the original series, the industrialist Henry Ford – someone I think of as being far from a progressive voice for the plight of the world’s have-nots – spoke of making the world’s economic system more humane and less driven by the empty pursuit of money. Writing just two years after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Ford may have been anticipating some of the social reforms that would come about during the Great Depression. Of course, he did not foresee the manner in which those reforms would be dismantled during the last several decades.

But much more than the predictions of pundits and futurists, the great purveyors of certainty in our uncertain world speak in the name of religion. Certainty is the chief selling point of fundamentalisms of every kind: one narrow and proscribed interpretation of a single religious tradition is said by its proponents to offer an answer to every question and to explain with utter confidence why things happen, and what the future holds. I want to be clear when I say that every religion has its fundamentalists, those who are absolutely confident that their interpretation of the faith is entirely and exclusively right. Fundamentalism is a habit of the human heart, and it exists in you just as it exists in me. The urge to give in to a comfortable narrowness and exclusivity is a habit I struggle to resist at every turn, but it remains with me, nonetheless.

Now the common answer to fundamentalism that is offered by the more moderate middle – in almost every case the larger branch of each human faith – is to make some allowance for subjectivity. Let me be clear here again that there are people who identify as fundamentalists, who wear that label proudly, but who really fall into this moderate camp because they make some space for the differing beliefs of others. A moderate of this stripe may be deeply assured of the rightness of their faith for them, and may work tirelessly to support and promote it and to live it out. Their beliefs may be just as proscribed and inflexible as those of their fundamentalist cousins, but they also permit others their own certainty about the rightness of their own faith, and if they may believe that there will come a time when the one true path will be known objectively, they also believe that that day has yet to come.

But there is a third way – not a course between intolerant fundamentalism and moderate subjectivity, but a pathway out beyond either of them. It comes from letting go of the claim to know the truth objectively, or subjectively, and instead embracing the not knowing. It is this course that I hear the poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi speaking of when he writes:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I will meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about

language, ideas, even the phrase ‘each other’

doesn’t make any sense.[ii]

This is a stance shaped not by strict rigidity, or limited flexibility, but by boundless awe. Acknowledging uncertainty allows us to experience wonder and allow it to shape who we are and how we live. Uncertainty can be frightening, and we have strong defensive impulses as human beings to block it out and convince ourselves that we have unchanging, immutable answers to the questions that follow us through life. But encountering and accepting uncertainty is the only way in which we can be truly transformed. The wondrous gift of this strangely beautiful universe we inhabit, is that such mystery is far from elusive: in fact, it is all around us.

We know, most of us I hope, that the physical world is made up of ultra-tiny things: molecules are arrangements of atoms, and atoms are made out of particles. These sub-atomic particles, some arranged into atoms and some not, are the ultra-tiniest things we know about, and are the fundamental stuff out of which our universe is composed. Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle relates to these particles. My extremely oversimplified summary of it (for a far better and more comprehensive one, please consult a scientific professional[iii]) is this: It is impossible to know a particle’s position and its momentum with the same degree of certainty at the same time. As a particle’s position becomes more certain, its momentum becomes less so, and vice versa. In fact, this inherent uncertainty about position and momentum applies not just at the level of incredible smallness, but to everything in the whole universe, no matter how big. It’s just that the uncertainty is so slight that we can only really notice it at the sub-atomic level.

Mystery lies at the heart of all existence, and so too, mystery lies at the heart of our faith. Now friends, make no mistake: Unitarian Universalism has fallen prey to both fundamentalism and subjectivism in its past, and still suffers from both of these at times. But at its finest and, I believe, in its heart, our faith is based in awe. In the shared covenant of our movement, the first source of our living tradition is named as “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit, and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” Bill Schulz, formerly the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association once said that, “Unitarian Universalism affirms that Creation is too grand, too complex and mysterious to be captured in a narrow creed.” A framed copy of Bill’s words hangs on the wall outside the entrance to our sanctuary –if you had stopped to read them this morning, you would have seen that they continue: “At the same time, our convictions about Creation lead us to other affirmations…” You see, to practice a religion based on awe does not mean to believe in nothing, or to give up all hope of determination, purpose, and the will to change the world. Embracing uncertainty, accepting my finitude and the limits of my own understanding gives me clarity about the way in which I must live my life.

I stare into the starry sky, pour over the words of ancient prophets and look upon my own daughter’s face and I cannot help but smile; awed, and blessedly uncertain. So I cannot discard any person or treat them as something disposable. I cannot hate those with whom I share the Earth. I cannot deny that I am bound together with everyone else by the same perplexing, all-encompassing mystery that surrounds and suffuses my body every moment of my life. I cannot disregard any other being because I cannot afford to give up even one companion on the extraordinary voyage of existence. Any time that a life goes out from the world, a piece of the precious puzzle of life’s mystery is lost. How could I ever wish harm on any one of these, when I need all the help I can get?

But we know, tragically we know all too well, that the uncertainty of our existence brings pain as often as joy. I had a list of misfortunes big and small all prepared to share with you here, but then yesterday, a gunman in Tucson, Arizona attacked a congresswoman meeting with her constituents at a shopping center. In the face of suffering, of violence and death viewed up close – not at a distance, as so much of the world’s grief is held from us each day – words fail. The other side of awe ascends: fear and trembling, lamentation for everything that is wrong with the world. Certainly, a world in which a nine year old child is shot dead outside of a grocery store, has a great deal that is wrong with it. Just as any world which would allow its children, of any race or nationality, to be killed by guns, or bombs, or the lack of food, or of clean water, or of a safe place to sleep at night.

My faith as a Unitarian Universalist offers no answer to the cosmic ‘why?’ of events such as these. I cannot appeal, for my part, even to some hidden reason, just out of reach of my own limited understanding – my heart and my stomach will not tolerate it. The only thing that makes sense to me from the senselessness of such violence is the clarity with which I know that it ought not to be. So staggered and struck by the backhand of uncertainty, there is a part of my soul that scrambles for the easy answers and comforting delusion of a fundamentalism. Any fundamentalism, really. But times such as these are the most important moments in which to resist that fear-born urge.

Though I have no answer for the cosmic ‘why?’ there is still the more literal version of that question. A federal judge is among the murdered, a member of congress among the wounded, but this does not appear to have been a coherently political act on the part of the gunman. For now, all signs seem to point to the dangerous, and yet appallingly common intersection of untreated mental-illness and easy access to firearms. And yet, this all took place in a context. Not all forms of fundamentalism are to be found in religion. Particularly in the last few centuries, it has been the political sphere in which unflinching dogmatism has been perfected, particularly with regard to defaming and dehumanizing all unbelievers and apostates.

Congresswoman Giffords has been an outspoken opponent of the harsh immigration laws recently passed in Arizona, and for this and other positions she has been targeted by political opponents with language and metaphors of violence. The atmosphere in our country and in particular in Arizona right now is one in which the threat of violence hangs always in the background of public debate, and more and more frequently creeps into the foreground. Whether a young man with an ailing mind set out on his deadly course in part because he picked up on the violent and hateful rhetoric of politicians and political commentators, is not knowable with certainty. But the episode is a sign to me that we are suffering, as a people, from an overabundance of fundamentalism and a massive deficiency of awe. As Unitarian Universalists, we do not have a monopoly on this – awe, like fundamentalism, is a voice in every faith. But we have a duty, I believe, to help our neighbors and friends reclaim that voice in their own tradition, that our society might be guided by humanizing wonder, rather than intollerant dogma.

Like the farmer in the old Taoist story, accepting the uncertainties of existence must not weaken our will to act. Rather it should allow us to focus on the actions that human need demand of us. If the horse is lost, then the loss is real; but there is work still to be done. Get up the next morning as the day before; the land still must be tilled. When chance presents an opportunity, seize it, but not so tightly that to lose it again will break you. It may be, that even after the most horrible calamity, good may come not from it, but after it. So close to the moment, it is too early to tell. But maybe the next unforeseen happening will be for the better. In this uncertain world, the best preparation is to be prepared for awe.

[i] A few of which are compiled here:

[ii] Rumi, as translated in The Essential Rumi

[iii] Special credit is owed to my favorite scientific professional – my dad – for his consultation on this


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


Office Hours: Mon 8:00 - 11:00 am & Tue-Fri 8:00 am - 12:00 pm

Site maintained by webmaster Amy Carlin