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The famed mountaineer George Mallory might be the first man to have successfully climbed Mt. Everest – 30 years before we know for sure it happened. Mallory and his climbing partner were last seen on June 8, 1924 only 800 feet below the summit. They were never seen or heard from again. For decades, their disappearance remained a mystery.
In 1999, an expedition to find Mallory’s body was successful. George Mallory was remarkably well preserved. His head was pointed up toward the summit. He was face down with his fingers dug into the rocky soil. His feet were likewise dug into the soil. It’s surmised that he and his partner lost their footing in loose rocks on their way down from the mountain top. He had begun the climb with a picture of his wife and daughter in his pocket – which he intended to leave on the summit. There was no such picture found on his body which leads many to think he successfully climbed the mountain.
Two years before, Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest. He answered with his famous line, “Because it’s there” and then he elaborated. “Nothing will come of it,” he said. “We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver…We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food…So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself – upward and forever upward – then you won’t see why we go.”
For George Mallory, his life meaning was to meet challenges head-on and then hopefully conquer them. It’s symbolic that his body was found with his fingers and feet dug into the mountain side, he died not giving up hope and still looking forever upward toward the challenge, and meaning, of his life.
My intent this month has been to look at three of the seven Unitarian Universalist Principles to find additional inspiration from them. I’ll look at another three in November. Today, I’ll consider the fourth Principle, “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
In Victor Frankl’s well known book Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote after surviving the Holocaust, he asked, “What is the one thing that gives life value?” Frankl then answered his question. It is not pleasure, power, fame or money that gives life value. It is meaning.
George Mallory clearly had meaning for his life – and he died in its pursuit. But for Frankl, the meaning of life was bigger. Life meaning for him was hope expressed through love. He witnessed during four years in concentration camps that physically strong persons were not those who survived. They often felt defeated by hardship – and then died. Frankl said that those who survived did so because they found hope in living for a higher purpose – which was love for others. For Frankl, he held on to the hope he had to see his beloved wife again – as well as his concern and service to fellow prisoners.
Both Mallory and Frankl believed that without having meaning, there is no point to go on living. And while some find life meaning in the pursuit of pleasure, which Sigmund Freud said is the primary motivator for people, Frankl and Mallory emphatically said no. A worthy life meaning is not in serving our desires, but in serving a higher purpose – to face life challenges with courage and to selflessly serve the needs of others.
I believe the UU Fourth Principle endorses what George Mallory and particularly Victor Frankl said about life meaning. Reading the fourth principle we see that the free and responsible search for truth and meaning is exactly what they advocated. And for me, the two key words in the Fourth Principle are “responsible search.”
For any person, a search for what is true and meaningful is a fundamental obligation. Ultimately, I believe a search for truth is a search for what might be called god. As I’ve said here before, capital ’T’ Truth, for me, is god. It is what the ancient Romans called axis mundi. Translated literally, axis mundi is the cosmic – but figurative – axis or pole around which all else is centered. Everything in the universe functions and operates based on it. For religious people, the axis mundi is God, Yahweh, Allah or Brahmin – the supernatural creative being that made and controls everything.
Unfortunately, however, religions don’t allow for an ongoing search for Truth. For them, it’s already been found – God is the axis mundi so there is no need to look further. All existence can be explained by her.
World religions further believe there is no need to search for meaning either. For them, meaning is found in obeying, honoring and worshipping God. There is no greater purpose in life, for Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims, than to love and obey the one great, all-powerful, and all-knowing deity.
For most other people, and particularly for us as Unitarian Universalists, we are not satisfied with such an absolute answer to the question, “What is Truth?” It could be God, or it could be some other unifying force that explains everything. As UU’s, we admit we don’t know the answer and so, as stated in the Fourth Principle, we affirm and promote the responsible search for an answer to the question “What is Truth?” or “What is God?”
Beyond that search, we also undertake a search for meaning. Since nobody knows for sure if there is a God or not, we do not find meaning in worshipping her. So we search for a life meaning that is responsibly provable and good. To seek knowledge of new things, to seek a better world through loving and serving others, to seek betterment of one’s attitudes, speech and actions – these are clearly beneficial and responsible searches. I believe we undertake all of those searches in here.
Indeed, one of the definitions of the word “responsible” from the Merriam Webster dictionary is that anything is “responsible” if it is trustworthy and the total opposite of evil or wrong.
Unitarian Universalists, therefore, do not affirm and promote poorly considered searches for Truth and meaning, or ones that do not promote well-being. In our search for Truth and meaning, the the fourth principle asks to to be prudent, reasonable, and attuned to what is ethical and right. In other words, responsible. In that sense, Truth and meaning won’t be found in a Freudian pursuit of selfish pleasure. That isn’t beneficial for anyone other than one individual.
Wherever ultimate Truth and meaning are found, and whatever they may prove to be, we intuitively know that they will be good, beautiful and beneficial to all creatures and to all existence. As I have said, that’s my definition of God even though I have yet to discover capital ’T’ Truth. And so I search and so do all of you.
Our search is one that began with the dawn of humanity. While some found security by believing they’ve found Truth in a religion, others like the philosophers Plato, Aristotle, Rene Descartes and John Locke found greater security in searching – just as the fourth Principle affirms. Truth, for these philosophers, is an objective reality found through reason and observation. It is not by faith that Truth is discovered, but by our responsible minds.
There are thus two competing answers to the question of, “What is Truth?” People of religious belief say that, for them, ultimate Truth is known by faith. Since we will never be able to see God on this side of death, they say, we can know her – or Truth – only by sincere faith. But equally good and sincere people believe that such faith is unprovable and thus unsatisfying.
Fredrich Nietzsche, the philosopher who is famously known for declaring “God is dead”, proposed we look for Truth and meaning in whether anything is life enhancing or life diminishing. Without knowing it, he was a Unitarian Universalist! For something to be life enhancing is to be responsible and trustworthy. His suggestion to serve for Truth by what is life enhancing is exactly what we affirm. We study, we read, we ponder, we listen, and we keep open minds to everything that is loving and beneficial.
I don’t know about you, but that’s why I try – not always successfully – to be more loving, humble, kind, non-judgmental, and equality minded. Whatever any of us think about the usefulness of attending a community like ours, I believe it’s invaluable. There are not many places in the world where people are encouraged and celebrated for responsibly seeking Truth and meaning, and also gently reminded when they fall short.
I was recently reminded, in this community, of how I had fallen short in a responsible search for Truth. That was both embarrassing and good. I not only realized my mistake, but also my need to work all the harder to be better. And I don’t think I would have realized that without good people in this community telling me so. They didn’t do so to attack me, but to help me – and thereby help others – because I hopefully won’t make the same mistake again.
For all those who say spiritual communities like GNH are of little use, I strongly disagree. Not only can we point to the many ways we help enhance lives in Cincinnati, we can point to the often unknown but nevertheless vital ways we enhance life for our members and staff. We mutually encourage in one another goodness, kindness, and a search for all that is true. That’s a very big deal. Whenever any of us doubt this place, the work we do, or whether GNH has value, please remember: This congregation makes the world a better place. That is precisely because we seek life-enhancing Truth about ourselves and the universe.
The search for Truth, dear friends, is not a destination but a journey. It is a life long journey to listen, learn and understand. It is a journey to love and be kind. It is a journey to heal the self and heal the world. Let us explore, let us question, let us believe, and let us doubt but, I pray, may we never take for granted or cease a responsible search for Truth and meaning.
I wish you all peace and joy.