To Each a Search

The Rev. Alison Cornish

January 7, 2007 – 

Nothing has proven harder in the history of civilization than to see God, or good, or human dignity in those whose language is not mine, whose skin is a different color, whose faith is not my faith and whose truth is not my truth.

– Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

An Individual Perspective – Edna Trunzo

I’d like to start with a passage from the author Alan Cohen. He calls it The Mirror’s Gift where, while he was visiting a farming community, he observed Pete the duck quack at several people. And this is what he heard and saw. The first person that passed by was a singer and she said “why Pete how nice of you to sing me a morning song.” The next person who spoke to Pete was overweight and she said “always quacking for more food, it’s about time you got more serious about your diet.” And the last person was a cerebral intellectual and when the duck quacked at him he replied “Questions Pete always questions, how about some answers for a change.”

As Alan Cohen would say “Each of us sees the world not as it is, but as we are.” Do you see the world “Not as it is, but as you are?”

So here I am living my life and realizing all kinds of things in regard to Alan Cohen’s story. I step back and think about that story. How it helped me have insight as to how each person may perceive their world. While the singer thought the duck was singing her a song and the overweight person perceived the duck as quacking for more food. And still yet the philosopher saw the duck as there always being unanswered questions. How insightful this message is. It reminds me of an instance that happened to me just recently.

We were having Kwanza celebration at my college and I invited my newly acquainted friend to go with me. I only knew his first name at the time. And while introducing him to everyone, I, without thinking, introduced him by his first name to both peer and student alike. And he very graciously went along with that. But after the celebration was over and I spoke with him the next day, he very nicely told me that he was NOT happy with the way I introduced him. I said “what do you mean??” He replied, “well, I would have liked to have introduced myself, because I prefer that the students call me “Mr.” and the peers call me by my first name.” “OH,” I replied.

It never even dawned on me that he would have wanted to be introduced that way! I didn’t even THINK to ask him HOW he would have liked to have been introduced. And who knows, perhaps that was the way he was raised and saw it fit for people that were that much younger than him to call him “Mr.” Or perhaps it was a racial issue, seeing as how he is a person of color that factor of respect was involved. Maybe it was a blend of both.

The point is whatever he experienced in his life up made him feel the way he did, and made him perceive that situation differently than I did.

You see I was NOT wearing “the glasses” that he was wearing. I DID NOT see things as he did. I don’t think that I have experienced the prejudice that he may have experienced and in turn or as a result, has made him sensitive to it. I suppose I too had some options or choices I could have taken. One option would have been to turn it around on him by telling him he was being too sensitive. OR I could have chosen to honor his request and take that experience and keep it in my mental file for the next time a similar situation may arise and remember to ask “How would you like to be introduced?” I learned a lot from that situation. And I’m glad he brought it to my attention.

So I find life is a recipe. A recipe of all different kinds of experiences that happen to us, making us who we are and why we are the way we are and how we can help to change things that are hurtful to us or continuing things that help us feel better or improve our lives if we would only stay “in tune” to the lessons being taught to us and not to take it personally but to use these situations to our advantage in order to benefit from them.

Every experience helps us to grow and mature pending on “how we look at things.”

I feel that it’s very important to keep an open mind about everything. And carry on carefully and not be judgmental. Keeping an open mind allows us the opportunity to meet some extraordinary people. What helps differentiate us is our perspective on our world. Having a good, bad or indifferent experience doesn’t confirm that that’s the absolute truth about a situation or person.

Everything is relevant to itself.

In conclusion, perspective is found solely in the eye of each individual making their reality good, bad or indifferent, pending on how they choose to receive it. And depending on what has happened to each individual in their lives. If something bad happened then they can chose to use it to their advantage and turn it into something good. If something good happened then they can chose to appreciate it, and if there was something indifferent that happened perhaps they could decide to look at that indifference and be accepting of it and then have peace with it, agree to disagree. Whatever each person’s individual perspective is, is truly their own personal choice and that choice will make all the difference in their lives. Good, bad or indifferent.

To Each a Search – The Rev. Alison Cornish

Today we explore one of the seven principles of our religious tradition, of Unitarian Universalism. We consider these words – We covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. One writer has called this principle the “keystone” of our tradition. That is, if you take our seven principles and arrange them in an arch, one stone laid next to another in a high arc, the fourth principle ends up at the top of the curve, which, in architectural terms, is the keystone. The physics of archbuilding dictate that, without the keystone, the arch will fail. And this seems to fit well our fourth principle – without a free and responsible search for truth, the substance of who we are, as Unitarian Universalists, will fall apart. The freedom to search for the truth, as understood by individuals applying reason (rather than as declared by a doctrine or scriptural revelation) has given our tradition its martyrs and its heroes. We are descendents of the free church and freethinkers, and we are justly proud of these roots.

Edna has laid some groundwork for our exploration with her “Individual Perspective.” She has asked us to consider just how much of what we see in the world around us might be somewhat a reflection of who we are. Just what do you hear when that duck quacks? And she’s asked us to think about how much of what we encounter in the world is conditioned by what we’ve experienced in life, or the assumptions we don’t even know we have. We all have “lenses” through which we view the world, but we’ve been wearing them so long, and they fit so well, that we just don’t notice them anymore, never mind question them. The tale from India about the Blind Men and the Elephant tells a similar story, but also ominously warns us about what happens when we think our “view” of the world is the only one, or if we get too convinced of our rightness. “Sometimes the men became so excited over their differences that they would quarrel and wrangle loudly with one another. Sometimes their tongues seemed sharp as daggers.”

Now, none of this is particularly new news. As long as there has been recorded history, we have known that people are not all the same, and look at the world with different eyes. And, over time, we’ve come to understand more about the multitude of ways that we become, and are, different. And, we often talk about how these differences add richness and depth to life. But living as if difference is good and desired is pretty challenging. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, there’s a fragile balance in having “the freedom we need to be true to ourselves while being a blessing to others.” (Sacks, 56) When the subject at hand is “truth and meaning,” as we say in our fourth principle, well, then the stakes are high. My understanding of truth, and yours, might land us in a confrontation of epic proportions. As indeed it has, for peoples the world over. The words from Rabbi Sacks at the top of your Order of Service capture this so eloquently: “Nothing has proven harder in the history of civilization than to see God, or good, or human dignity in those whose language is not mine, whose skin is a different color, whose faith is not my faith and whose truth is not my truth.” (Sacks, 65)

When our fourth principle was crafted, back in the mid 1980s, it came out of a process that was attempting to put some shape and form to our still-newly emerging denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association. In an effort that lasted more than five years, and involved nearly every one of our congregations, we were trying to capture those things which made our tradition unique, special – and true, for us. Each of our principles emerged from theological and historical developments in either Unitarianism, or Universalism, or both. In the end, these statements, these principles, are lenses that we say we want to use as practicing Unitarian Universalists. For example, even if we grew up not thinking that a free and responsible search for truth and meaning was important – perhaps at one point biblical revelation was far more important – once we arrive here, we agree to this principle.

Well, as we all know, it’s one thing to hold such a principle – it’s another to live it. And still another to live it in community. Something I often say to people inquiring about Unitarian Universalism is that anyone might choose to go to the “spirituality and religion” section of Borders and read volumes and have many thoughts – but we, here, agree to do that kind of searching in community, which includes conversation with others who have different ideas than our own. Even though this can be hard, we have decided that we want to engage in “a sustained act of understanding and seeking to be understood across the boundaries of difference.” (Sacks, 83)

Unitarian Universalist still wrestle with this, and probably always will. Any tradition that welcomes theists, atheists, pagans, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Transcendentalists, naturalists, humanists – and others who eschew all labels – will have to work at creating safe spaces where we can both understand and seek to be understood. In doing this, we are guided by that wonderful concept, “covenant,” wherein we promise to walk together. Covenants exist, says Rabbi Sacks, “because we are different and we seek to preserve that difference, even as we come together to bring our several gifts to the common good.” (Sacks, 151)We promise to trust each other, even in the midst of disagreement. We remind one another that we need not think alike to love alike. If our fourth principle is a keystone, without which our arch of Unitarian Universalism will fail, our covenant is like a buttress that keeps the arch from flying apart. It’s the check and balance that comes with living with others instead of going it alone. Our friend Margot Adler says, “to be truthful Ö not everything comes from personal experience and revelation. There are times when gut and heart and intuition are not enough, [and] it’s important to have a reality check, people who will bring us down to earth.” This is the value of a covenanted community of like-minded seekers – this is the value of a congregation.

While we still have a lot to learn about living this principle within our congregations, I want to suggest that, given the state of the world, it is a learning well worth our time. You don’t need me to tell you that our world is currently experiencing enormous strife and conflict based, at least in part, on the fact that many people cannot tolerate one another’s interpretation of truth and meaning. We’d need another few services to start to unpack all the reasons behind this intolerance, and we’d have no shortage of different views on the problem. But I think our time might be better spent today looking at what characterizes “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” for if we can cultivate these qualities in ourselves, and within our congregations, perhaps, just perhaps, we might be the “lamp unto the world.”

Unitarian Universalist minister Fredric Muir offers that there are at least seven considerations to our “free and responsible search.” (Muir, 63-67) First, he says, our search must be characterized by humility. Muir offers this lesson from Anthony de Mello:

To a visitor who described herself as a seeker after Truth, the teacher said: “If what you seek is Truth, there is one thing you must have above all else.”

“I know,” answered the student, “an overwhelming passion for it.” “No,” said the teacher, “an unremitting readiness to admit you may be wrong.”

Edna showed us how humility works – a readiness to admit shortcomings and fears. How this goes against the grain of those who ask us to set aside our uncertainties, even contradictions, and accept a singular version of the truth. The fourth principle says “a” responsible search for truth and meaning, not “the” search Ö it implies that there is more than one search. There are as many searches as there are people! And truth never has a capital “T!”

Edna also shared with us an illustration of what Muir calls “the awareness of oneself and others” that is essential to the authentic search. She named both what she had experienced – and what she hadn’t. That gave her an awareness of where her responses came from, and where they led her. I think of the all the times that we are gifted with just such opportunities, and yet our discomfort, our anxiety, our resistance, even our habits and tendencies allow us to be blind this vital step.

Another characteristic of the search is the need to be nonjudgmental. Now, this is a tough one. Nonjudgmentalism is a potential Achilles heel for those who believe in tolerance, because it may look, on the surface, like moral relativism. But really what it means to be nonjudgmental is to avoid personal attacks, insults or stereotyping. It doesn’t mean that you can’t disagree with someone. And it doesn’t mean that you need to compromise moral values that are universal, like the affirmation of the worth and dignity of individuals everywhere.

Three of Muir’s considerations come together – balance, learning and focused attention. The search for truth and meaning is a life-long journey – a cross-country marathon, you might say, rather than a 100-yard sprint. It calls for intention, but also patience; it includes frustrating dead ends and pitfalls, and so perseverance; the joy must be in the search itself, and not the pursuit of an answer. It is life’s work, this process of becoming ever more human.

Finally, “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning means being engaged with the world instead of transcending it.” (Muir) Even we Unitarian Universalists are susceptible to dreams and visions of some other reality that holds all the answers – the proverbial “mountaintop.” But the search for truth and meaning must ultimately be somehow grounded in the stuff of the everyday – in our living with complicated families, less-than-perfect jobs, bruised friendships and inconsistent health. It is a search in the here and now.

Muir sums up his vision of our fourth principle thus:

“We covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search – a search characterized by humility, awareness, nonjudgment, balance, learning, engagement, and focusing. It is a search, not the search; it is done per person, one at a time. Yet it is not done alone. We covenant to affirm and promote That’s not the language of one hand clapping! The value and role of a congregation – the community of like-minded searchers – is what gives our individual journeys support and context, it gives each one of us reasons to keep our search free and responsible.” (Muir, 67)

That last point is perhaps the most critical to us in these times, for I understand the free and responsible search for truth and meaning as our bulwark against idolatry – against fundamentalism – against “us and them” thinking – against neat and simple categorical thinking that narrows possibility. And that’s just in our own congregation!

I imagine that this approach to the religious journey is still an anathema to many people. Too often, the last words one would associate with religion are humility, nonjudgment, and balance. That may be what causes so many to be disillusioned with religion, and to say we would all be better off without it. But if religion is here to stay, and I believe that it is, then it’s good for us to articulate – and then to try to live – a free and responsible search that might grant us the freedom to be true to ourselves while being a blessing to others.


Fredric Muir, “We Affirm and Promote a Free and Responsible Search for Truth and Meaning,” in With Purpose and Principle: Essays About the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism, Edward A. Frost, ed. (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998).

Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (NY: Continuum, 2002)

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