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Follow the Evidence – 5/13/2012

The truth is an elusive thing. It is something we desire, but also often fear. We cannot live without some understanding of what we know to be true, and yet there are some truths in life that seem hard, or even impossible, for us to live with. As Unitarian Universalists we are dedicated to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. But that search is rarely easy, and it almost never leads where we expect it to.

Raymond Chandler is one of the authors credited with inventing the hard-boiled detective genre, defined by grim wit, dangerous intrigue and hard-nosed protagonists out to uncover the truth, whatever the risks or the costs. In his first novel, The Big Sleep, Phillip Marlowe, a stone-faced, hard-drinking private eye takes on the seemingly simple case of a wealthy family being blackmailed, but it quickly leads him into a tangled web of murder and intrigue. As the numerous guilty parties start killing to cover their tracks, the stakes of the affair rise higher and higher. Bit by bit, the pieces begin to fall into place until finally, with a closing twist the last of the puzzle is solved, and the grizzled gumshoe gains the satisfaction of solving the grand mystery.

The book was eventually made into a movie, starring Humphrey Bogart. While it was in production, Raymond Chandler received a telegram from the studio. You see, they’d sat down with his book to go over all its twists and turns – to make sure the story all came out right up on the big screen. But there was one fraction of the case that didn’t seem to square with the rest. As the tension mounts and Marlowe begins to realize the case he’s working is far stranger and more dangerous than he originally thought, he gets a call telling him the latest twist: The chauffer of the wealthy family he’s working for has been found, murdered. But that particular part of the case is never clearly solved, and the folks at the movie studio couldn’t come up with any obvious explanation as to which of the many villains might have done it. Thinking they must have missed something, they sent word to the author, asking him to clue them in. Chandler got their telegram, and thought about it for a while, but his answer wasn’t particularly satisfying: he couldn’t figure out who the killer was either.

Sometimes, no matter how hard we try to fit the puzzle together, the answer eludes us. There are questions that human beings have been asking themselves and each other for thousands of years: no perfectly definitive, end-to-all-debate answer should be expected on these any time soon. More personally, there are other more particular questions we ask ourselves: the whys and what ifs of our losses and wins for which no easy answers or simple truths exist. The ambiguity and uncertainty we are left with in the absence of solid facts or clear explanations can be frightening. We can be seduced into taking refuge in the comfort of self-deception when a marriage ends, or a loved one dies, or some other grave loss or deep disappointment befalls us. Thinking that there is a neat explanation for exactly why things happened as they did, or exactly what we, or anyone else, could have done to make them happen differently.

There is danger in being dishonest with ourselves; in settling into believing anything other than what we know to be true. As we let go of the truth – even to protect ourselves from it – we open a door that is difficult to close. It is like the story of a man who lived alone in a simple house. It wasn’t much, but it was all he had. One day a sly fellow came to his door and asked if he could buy the house from the man; he offered more money than the man made in a month, but far less than the house was actually worth. The man refused, of course – if he sold his house, he would have nowhere to live. So the visitor made a different offer: he would pay the same considerable amount of money to buy just one nail in the wall of the man’s house. The rest of the building would remain undisturbed, but the nail would belong to the stranger to do with as he pleased. Thinking this visitor foolish, and himself quite lucky, the man agreed to sell the one nail in his wall, and to allow its new owner to do with it as he pleased. The stranger paid him the money, hung his coat on the nail in the wall, and went on his way. That night, there was a knock at the door and the sly stranger came in to collect his coat, and left a bag of potatoes hanging in its place. The man who lived in the house thought this was strange, but he had to admit that the nail’s new owner was within his rights. The next morning, the sly visitor returned and replaced the bag of potatoes with a sack of rotting meat. Eventually, the owner of the house was forced to abandon it.[i]

But following the facts, and sticking by what we know is right can be quite satisfying. Consider the story of Benjamin Coady, a 7th grader who went with his mother last summer to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. He noticed an error in a map of the Byzantine Empire and reported it to the museum staff. They didn’t take Benjamin’s concerns very seriously – who would you be more likely to trust about the borders of a fifteen-hundred year-old empire, the professionals at a major museum, or a 13 year-old? But he filled out the paperwork – apparently, the museum has a form for visitors who believe they have corrections to offer. Then, this past winter Benjamin got an email from the museum’s curator for Byzantine art – congratulating him on spotting the mistake and giving her the opportunity to correct it.[ii]

There is also no upper limit to the price of remaining loyal to what we believe is right. If you visit the statehouse in Boston you may find in a lovely shaded spot beside the main building a statue of a woman named Mary Dyer. Mary Dyer was a resident of Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600s. She was expelled from the colony for her heretical religious beliefs and practices; among her leading offenses was her belief that women ought to be permitted to study and discuss the bible for themselves. While travelling during her first exile from Boston she became a Quaker, finding in that religion an expression of the values and ideas she already held. She eventually returned to Boston specifically to protest the declaration banning all Quakers from the colony. There, she was arrested and banished again. She repeated the process three more times: returning to Boston to protest the law that banned her and other religious dissenters. The second time, after her fourth arrest over all, she was nearly executed, but was exiled instead at the last moment. After her fifth and final entrance into Boston, she was not so lucky. Mary Dyer was tried once again for heresy and hung on Boston Common on June 1st, 1660. The cost of her loyalty to the truth of her heart proved terribly, painfully high.

“In all the difficulties which will arise in life,” Olive Schreiner wrote, “fling yourself down on the truth and cling to that as a drowning man in a stormy sea flings himself on to a plank and clings to it, knowing that, whether he sink or swim with it, it is the best he has.”[iii] The truth is, finally, all we have. I do not mean the truth as distinct from other great virtues, such as love and justice. I mean the truth as the root of those values. Human beings, frail and imperfect as we are, can manage to find good in one another, and to love and care for each other despite any struggle or pain; this is the highest truth I know. Sometimes we try to clothe something hurtful or cruel in the garment of truth: that dress looks awful…this food tastes terrible…you are a spectacular failure as a stand-up comedian. We take our shot and duck for cover behind the argument that we were only telling the truth. But it is never the whole truth. Because if we were to express the whole truth, we would have to include the fact that the person in that tacky dress, with the burnt casserole and the corny jokes is a wondrous and unique being, impossibly, indescribably valuable, and worthy of our compassion and respect. Anything said of anyone, that does not take that into account, could never be the whole and real truth.

Mary Dyer was not the last person to be tried and punished for their personal religious truths in this part of the world. Abner Kneeland is remembered as the last man ever to be jailed in America for blasphemy. He was a Universalist minister in the first half of the 1800s whose theology and understanding of the truth as he saw it evolved to a point that most of the other Universalists of his era could not tolerate. Under tremendous pressure, he resigned his fellowship in ministry, and went on to serve as the leader of a group called the Society of Free Inquirers in Boston. His lectures drew thousands, and his publications had a notable circulation, though it was perhaps driven as much by his opponents as his supporters. The free, and very public expression of his ideas eventually led to his trial for blasphemy. He was convicted and after several appeals eventually spent sixty days in jail. During the initial case, the prosecuting attorney in his remarks to Abner’s jury, declared that if he was not punished for his dangerous ideas, prostitution would become endemic, the institution of marriage would collapse and private property would be erased.[iv] Some of those attacks sound familiar, don’t they?

The judge and prosecutor at Abner’s first trial, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court which heard his final appeal and upheld his original conviction, were all Unitarians. So what was so appalling in Abner Kneeland’s beliefs that they were found illegal, and held to be generally unacceptable among both Universalists and Unitarians? Abner proclaimed that scripture was not divinely inspired, but the product of human authors telling stories to make sense out of their own lives. He believed that God was not a being with thoughts and feelings and other attributes of a person; instead, he called himself a Pantheist, and understood God as synonymous with nature and the world of which all are a part, saying, ‘I believe that in the abstract, all is God.’[v]

Abner’s enemies saved their harshest words and deepest concerns not for his theological ideas, however, but for the social teachings that he drew from them. 100 years before the constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote, Abner championed the rights of women: the right to vote, to keep their own names once married, to hold their own bank accounts and to use birth control. He argued for the abolition of slavery and the establishment of full equality under the law and in society for people of all races. He spoke out for the right of divorce and the for legalization of interracial marriage.

We Unitarian Universalists are a varied and assorted lot, but both in his social values and in his personal theology, Abner Kneeland is as close to our general consensus as I can imagine. Anti-racism, equal rights, birth control, scripture as something that can be considered and challenged rather than unflinchingly obeyed, and God as the wholeness of the universe rather than a human-like super-being: you might not agree with all of that, but I would be willing to bet that you can find something you value, or at least do not hate or fear, in the ideas for which Abner Kneeland was jailed. In less than two-hundred years, our understanding of the truth has changed. It happens all the time.

The world is, in some ways, like a great detective story. To make our way through it, we must seek out the facts and our own practical experience. But particularly because our world contains so much uncertainty, and many of our questions have no answers, or no definitive ones, we need most of all to know what is deeply true in us, true down in our bones, and to follow that when all else fails. You are a precious and wonderful creature, and so is everyone else around you. Everyone you love, and everyone you despise. Everyone who is kind to you, and everyone who mistreats you. Everyone you know, and everyone you do not know. It is not quite that we are in a story where the creator does not know everything that is going on. It is rather that we are in a story which is still being written, not by a single hand, but by each of us writing together. So let us devote ourselves to writing something beautiful – and true.


[i] A version of this story appears in Gadi Pollack’s A Never-Ending Tale, itself a rendering of a teaching attributed to the Jewish mystic and teacher, the Ba’al Shem Tov.

[iii] Olive Schreiner, From Man to Man, p. 158

[v] Stephen Papa, The Last Man Jailed for Blasphemy, Trillium Books, 1998


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