First Parish in Cohasset and its ministers, pt. 2

Sermon copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.

Read Part One (covering 1721-1845)

The photographs, all of ministers who served at least ten years, are from the First Parish archives.

Reading

This morning’s reading is a short humorous poem by Roscoe Trueblood, minister of First Parish from 1945 to 1968:

Congregational Polity

“The minister should lead,” she said,
This she chose to say
Thinking if and when he led
That he would go her way.

But later, when they differed wide,
On points she would not lose,
“The minister should wait,” she cried,
“And let the people choose.”

Sermon

Our congregation was formally organized on December 13, 1721, so we are in our three hundredth birthday year. This is one of a series or occasional sermons I’m preaching this year on the history of our congregation. This morning’s topic is the relationships between the congregation and its ministers from 1835 to the present day.

In 1835, after long-time minister Jacob Flint retired, our congregation called Harrison Gray Otis Phipps to be its next minister. He came to Cohasset directly from Harvard Divinity School, and served for six years until he took ill and died at age 30. Phipps was remembered for his kindness and his good relationships with children. (1)

Black and white portrait photograph shwoing the head and shoulders of an older white man with a full white beard.
Joseph Osgood, minister from 1842-1898

Next the congregation called Joseph Osgood, who began his ministry in 1842 at age twenty-six. He continued as the minister here for fifty-six years, until his death in 1898. This was the longest ministry we’ve ever had, or are ever likely to have. Osgood became intimately involved with the people in this congregation. He presided at nearly one thousand funerals. He officiated at nearly 500 weddings, in some cases performing weddings for two or three generations of the same family. During the first years of his ministry, there was no Catholic priest in town, so Osgood was also called upon to assist with funerals and baptisms among the growing Catholic population in town. (2)

Part of the reason First Parish called Osgood was because of his prior experience as a school teacher. As has been true of many Unitarian congregation, First Parish believed in public education, and they wanted a minister who could help them in that mission. In addition to serving as minister, Osgood devoted significant amounts of time to the Cohasset schools. He served on the Cohasset school committee for thirty years. He helped establish the first high school in town. He served as the superintendent of schools for twelve years; this was a duty of which he later said, “I felt that I had hardly strength to perform or bear.” (3) He served for fifty years on the Board of Trustees of Derby Academy in Hingham. Osgood’s enduring legacy in Cohasset is his work in the schools, and there is still an elementary school in town named after him.

Osgood was able to devote so much time to education, and to people of other religions, because First Parish was not as large as we might think. In the Norfolk County Manual and Yearbook for 1876, First Parish is reported as having just 50 members, with 68 children and teens in the Sunday school. (4) At this time, women were not allowed to vote on parish affairs, so if we include women there were probably about 100 members, roughly the same number of members we have today. Given the size of the congregation and the record of his activities, I’d guess that Osgood spent forty hours a week on his own congregation, and another forty hours a week on community activities. He later wrote that kept his health from breaking under the strain of overwork by working in his garden. (5) He also depended upon his wife, Ellen Sewall, to keep him fed and clothed and to raise their children.

Twenty-five years into his ministry, Osgood wrote: “I have, time and again, felt so dissatisfied with my own work and with my own ministry, that I was ready to lay down the burden and relieve you of my presence; but your forbearance, your consideration, your willingness to overlook all my mistakes and blunders, and to take the will for the deed when I have said and done things which I should not perhaps have deliberately said and sone, have tended very much to preserve this connection.” (6) In spite of his extraordinary accomplishments, Osgood acknowledged his mistakes and remained modest about his own abilities. The congregation for its part was flexible in its expectations, and supported Osgood when he needed support. The relationship between congregation and minister was founded on mutual respect and trust .

Late in life, Osgood began to slow down. First Parish historian Gilbert Tower wrote, “In 1895 [First Parish] was in a weak condition. In his old age, Dr. Osgood had been unable put much life into it.” The congregation hired a young minister named William Roswell Cole to serve as assistant to Osgood. Cole arrived in 1896, and when Osgood died two years later, Cole became the sole minister. Gilbert Tower continues, “Mr. Cole succeeded in starting new projects and fresh ideas so that good health, at least, if not prosperity, was restored to the Parish.” (7)

Head and shoulders portrait of a white man with grey hair and a moustache.
William Roswell Cole, minister from 1896-1919

It is tempting to to agree with Gilbert Tower that William Cole was the one who revitalized the congregation. But I think the truth is more complicated than that. First, the Panic of 1893, a serious economic depression that lasted from 1893 to 1897, caused many Unitarian congregations to struggle. No doubt Cole deserves some credit for reviving First Parish, but the improved economic situation after 1897 also deserves credit. Second, Gilbert Tower credits Cole with starting lots of new programs. But in the period from 1890 to the First World War, most Unitarian congregations were adding new programs: local branches of the Women’s Alliance, the Laymen’s League, the Young People’s Religious Union, and so on. This new programmatic approach, a major change in the life of Unitarian congregations, was a widespread social trend, not the innovation of one minister.

Cole’s leadership style was a good match for the congregation. In Gilbert Tower’s words, Cole was a “quiet, unassuming man, friendly and easy in manner with everyone.” The minister’s unassuming leadership style, probably similar to Osgood’s leadership style, allowed Cole to work smoothly with strong lay leaders.

A white man with white hair and a moustache, standing outdoors in a garden.
Frederic John Gauld, minister from 1922-1937

Cole died very suddenly of a coronary embolism on August 21, 1919, at age 54. The congregation called a young minister named George Archibald Mark, who resigned after two years because “First Parish was not active enough for him.” (8) The congregation then called Frederic John Gauld, who served here from 1922 to 1937. First Parish historian Gilbert Tower accused Gauld of being lackluster minister: “Mr. Gauld was a wonderful man and he was very much loved. However he did not accomplish much in building up the parish membership which would have been a real index of success.” (9) But Tower’s assessment of Gauld is unfair. Most of Gauld’s ministry took place during the Great Depression. Perhaps one third of all Unitarian churches closed their doors during the Depression, including many churches in small towns like Cohasset. It’s not fair to blame Gauld for the effects of widespread social forces. Instead, we should credit Gauld and the lay leaders for managing to keep First Parish alive during the Depression.

Gauld retired in 1938, and was followed by Harry C. Meserve, a talented young minister. After four years, Meserve moved on to a larger, better-paying congregation. He was followed by Walter Pedersen, who within a year needed to take a part-time job at the Hingham shipyards to make ends meet. The congregation did not approve of this, and Pedersen resigned. Then the congregation called Roscoe Trueblood, who came to Cohasset in 1945. He was well-liked, but left after four years for a better-paying position in Seattle.

That made three ministers in eight years who left First Parish because of low pay. It turns out that Frederic Gauld’s wife had an independent income, so the congregation was able to get away with paying a small salary during the Depression. But the ministers who followed Gauld were neither willing nor able to accept low pay. Inadequate compensation had an adverse effect on the relationship between minister and congregation.

After Roscoe Trueblood left, First Parish called Gaston Marcel Carrier, a talented young minister from Montreal. When Carrier asked for a substantial raise in salary in his second year, the congregation refused. The congregation wanted Roscoe Trueblood to return, and took advantage of this request for a decent salary to get rid of Carrier. I imagine there was also prejudice against a French Canadian, a common bias in New England through the twentieth century. Carrier left First Parish and went on to a brilliant career as minister in Burlington, Vermont.

White man in a black preaching gown standing in the pulpit of the First Parish Meeting House.
Roscoe Edward Trueblood, minister from 1945-1949 and 1951-1968

After Carrier’s departure, a handful of big donors pledged gave money to increase the minister’s salary sufficiently to lure Roscoe Trueblood back to Cohasset in 1951. Together, Trueblood and the congregation were able to reap the benefits of post-war demographics. The 1950s was the decade of church-going. It was also the decade of the Baby Boom. Unitarian churches across the United States grew substantially during this time, and First Parish was no exception. While neither the congregation nor Roscoe Trueblood can take credit for the demographic trends that led to growth, both minister and congregation made First Parish a healthy, happy, and welcoming place.

By all accounts, Roscoe Trueblood was quite a person: a good speaker, a good leader, and a good human being. The congregation was a good place to be during this era: friendly, welcoming to children, full of activity. (11) First Parish reached its highest membership level ever in 1969, the year Trueblood retired — 360 members. (10)

White man with a chin beard, wearing a formal business suit, sitting on a stool in front of the pulpit of the First Parish Meeting House, and playing a guitar.
Edward Trivett Atkinson, minister from 1969-1995

After Roscoe Trueblood’s retirement in 1968, the congregation called Ed Atkinson. Atkinson joined First Parish at a time when people stopped going to church, and congregations across the country began to shrink in size. Some Unitarian Universalist congregations lost three quarters of their members in the 1970s. But not First Parish: there was a decline in membership, but it was slow and gradual. Part of the credit for our success at navigating the troubled times of the 1970s must go to Ed Atkinson. He introduced some big changes. He climbed down out of the high pulpit, and began preaching from the floor. He led an effort to make this building accessible to wheelchairs. He connected with the younger generation by playing his guitar in services. During his tenure, we first began lighting a flaming chalice during Sunday services.

The congregation didn’t always agree with Atkinson’s innovations, but the relationships between congregation and minister remained one of mutual trust and respect. So his sudden death of a heart attack at age 60, on July 24, 1995, was a huge blow to the congregation. (12)

Ed Atkinson was followed by two talented interim ministers, Chuck Gaines and Jenny Rankin. This was the first time First Parish had had interim ministers. Interim ministry emerged as a specialty in the 1970s, to help congregations come to terms with the ending of one ministry, and prepare for a new minister to arrive. Jenny Rankin was the very first woman to serve as minister here, and she helped the congregation to believe that a woman could succeed as a minister here.

In 1997, First Parish called one of the most talented Unitarian Universalist ministers of the 1990s, Elizabeth Tarbox. She was well known in Unitarian Universalist circles for her haunting and compelling writing. But within a year she was diagnosed with cancer, decided not to seek treatment, and died in 1999, aged 55. This was a second huge blow to our congregation, following close upon the death of Ed Atkinson. (13)

During this troubled time, the congregation found a new minister, Jennifer Justice. A charismatic and colorful figure, Jennifer Justice had a background in theatre. Her ministry was not a success, and the congregation dismissed her within two years. First Parish was wise to dismiss her so quickly, but her unethical conduct was yet another blow to our congregation. A few years later, she was forced to resign from ministerial fellowship in the face of a denominational investigation into ethical violations relating to finances. (14)

After two years of interim ministry, the congregation called Jan Carlson-Bull, who served here from 2004 to 2010. Jan and First Parish had six reasonably productive years together. Of particular importance, Jan introduced the Circle Ministry program here, which continues to this day. But eventually tension arose between between minister and congregation. This should be no surprise. Think about what this congregation experienced in the ten years before Jan arrived: Ed Atkinson died suddenly; Elizabeth Tarbox died suddenly; Jennifer Justice had to be dismissed suddenly. Events like these strain the relationship of congregation and minister. It is to the credit of both Jan and First Parish that her ministry continued for six productive years. Jan left in 2010, and went on to a long and successful ministry in Connecticut. (15)

After a two year interim ministry with Anita Farber-Robertson, our congregation called Jill Cowie, a new minister just out of theological school. In many ways, Jill was just what this congregation needed: relatively young, with school-age children, dynamic. However, while Jill related well to some people in the congregation, there were others who did not relate well to her. This kind of divisiveness in a congregation is actually a fairly common pattern in congregations who have had unethical ministers in the past. It also appears that Jill had a different vision for her ministry than some in the congregation. She resigned in 2016, and went on to the Unitarian Universalist church in Harvard, Massachusetts. Recently she decided to leave ministry to become a social worker. (16)

In the twenty-one years from 1995 to 2016, First Parish was served by eleven ministers, two of whom died suddenly and one of whom had to be dismissed. Yet in spite of that run of bad luck, the congregation remained surprisingly healthy; for which I give credit to talented lay leaders who held kept things going in spite of frequent ministerial turnover.

Bob McKetchnie arrived as minister in 2016. Bob’s skills and personality proved to be a good match for the congregation, and the congregation started to bounce back. In March of 2020, the congregation was about to begin a major push for new members. Then the COVID pandemic hit. Yet even though the pandemic was another piece of bad luck, because of good relationships between the minister and the congregation, First Parish weathered the pandemic in remarkably good shape.

As we reflect on the relationships between minister and congregation in the past two centuries, this morning’s reading, the poem by Roscoe Trueblood:

“The minister should lead,” she said,
This she chose to say
Thinking if and when he led
That he would go her way.
But later, when they differed wide,
On points she would not lose,
“The minister should wait,” she cried,
“And let the people choose.” (17)

The relationship between minister and congregation requires constant negotiation. We cannot say definitively that the minister should lead, and the congregation follow. Nor can we say definitively that the congregation should lead, and the minister follow. Sometimes the minister is the leader, and sometimes people in the congregation are the leaders. Because this relationship requires constant negotiation, it helps when the minister and individuals in the congregation are — to borrow from Gilbert Tower’s description of William Cole — quiet and unassuming, friendly and easy in manner with everyone.

It also helps if both the minister and the congregation have a shared vision for what they want to do together. When minister and congregation share a vision, then the words of Joseph Osgood apply: there will be forbearance and consideration, there will be a willingness by all concerned to overlook any mistakes and blunders, and “to take the will for the deed” when we have said and done things which we should not perhaps have deliberately said and done. As with any human relationship, a shared vision allows people to live and work together peaceably in spite of our human failings; and a shared vision contributes to strengthening the connection between people so that we may together strive towards goodness and truth.

Notes

General information is taken from the following histories:
Cole, William R. “One Hundred Fifty Years of the Old Meeting House in Cohasset, Mass., 1747-1847.” Boston George Ellis, 1897.
Osgood, Joseph. “A Discourse Delivered in Cohasset … on the 25th Anniversary of His Ordination as Pastor.” Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1884.
Tower, Gilbert. Unpublished manuscript, 1956.

(1) E. Q. S., “Notice of the Late Rev. H. G. O. Phipps,” Monthly Miscellany of Religion and Letters (Boston: William Crosby and Company, 1842), Feb., 1842, Vol. VI No. 7, p. 92 ff.
(2) “Address of Rev. Joseph Osgood,” Celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Ordination of Rev. Jospeh Osgood, D.D. (Cohasset: privately printed, 1892).
(3) Joseph Osgood, “Discourse.”
(4) “Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Wedding of Rev. and Mrs. Joseph Osgood, Cohasset, Thursday, May 20, 1869” (Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, Printers, 1869), p. 14.
(4) Henry O. Hildreth, compiler, Norfolk County Manual and Year Book for 1876 (Dedham, Mass., 1877), p. 54.
(5) Tower manuscript
(6) Joseph Osgood, “Discourse.”
(7) Tower manuscript, p. 101.
(8) Tower manuscript, p. 118.
(9) Tower manuscript, p. 122.
(10) Membership as recorded in the annual Directories of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
(11) Information about Roscoe Trueblood from First Parish archives, and reminiscences of First Parish members.
(12) Information about Ed Atkinson from First Parish archives, and reminiscences of First Parish members.
(13) Information about Elizabeth Tarbox and interim ministers from First Parish archives, and reminiscences of First Parish members.
(14) Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association, “UUA Clergy Removed or Resigned from Fellowship with Completed or Pending Misconduct Investigations,” www.uua.org/uuagovernance/committees/mfc/clergy-misconduct-investigations accessed November 21, 2022.
(15) Information about Jan Carlson-Bull and interim ministers from First Parish archives, and reminiscences of First Parish members.
(16) Information about Jill Cowie from First Parish archives, reminiscences of First Parish members, and other sources.
(17) Roscoe E. Trueblood, I Was Alive and Glad (Cohasset, Mass.: First Parish, 1969).

Continue reading “First Parish in Cohasset and its ministers, pt. 2”

Thanksgiving

Homily copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The homily text may contain typographical errors.

[This homily followed a play, which showed how many myths of Thanksgiving simply aren’t true.]

For many of us, Thanksgiving is our favorite holiday. It hasn’t gotten too commercial. You don’t have to do anything except eat. And it’s all about giving thanks. What’s not to like? — Which means it can be hard to hear that some of the things we thought we knew about Thanksgiving aren’t exactly true.

I think the most depressing thing for me is that after that first harvest celebration in the autumn of 1621, that one day when the Native people and the European colonists sat together in peace, the European colonists went back to treating the Native peoples badly. Just two years later, European colonists who had settled on the Fore River in Weymouth, not too far from here, carried out the massacre of Wessagusset, killing seven native people for no good reason. And in the years to follow, people of European descent went on to sell Native men into slavery, break treaties, steal Native land — a centuries-long litany of abuse that continues to this day. It’s fine for us to remember that moment of racial harmony on an autumn day in 1621, but we must also remember the other four centuries of history of the Native people of Massachusetts.

And I find it disconcerting to learn that our modern celebration of Thanksgiving is really just a fictional invention of Sarah Hale in the mid-nineteenth century. A big dinner with a roast turkey wasn’t central to Thanksgiving until Sarah Hale made it so. In fact, Thanksgiving wasn’t even a national holiday until Sarah Hale started petitioning the president of the United States to make it a holiday. Thanksgiving as we know it today really has no historical connection to the Pilgrims.

While all this may sounds depressing and disorienting, I feel this actually frees us Unitarian Universalists to reinterpret Thanksgiving in some positive ways. Here are some of my ideas:

First, turkey becomes optional. If you like turkey, go ahead and have turkey. But if you’re vegan or vegetarian, or if you’re cutting down on eating meat to lower your carbon footprint, then there’s no reason to serve turkey. Or if you just don’t like turkey all that much, then don’t cook something you don’t like.

Second, we can be more realistic about what happened to Native peoples in southeastern Massachusetts. At some level, we all knew that the old myth of Thanksgiving whitewashed Native history. We all knew that old myth was at least misguided, at worst an outright lie. It’s a relief to be able to let go of a myth that really isn’t true. After all, isn’t that what Unitarian Universalism is all about? We try to find the truth, and not remain mired in misleading myths.

Third, all this means we can start creating a new kind of Thanksgiving. Instead of following the lead of Sarah Hale, we can create a Thanksgiving that’s more in tune with our hopes and dreams and values. We can keep those Thanksgiving rituals that work well for us, and let go of whatever doesn’t work well for us. For myself, I’d like to keep gathering together with family and friends to share a meal, but I don’t feel a need to cook a turkey any more.

Going beyond the Thanksgiving rituals, we might also reconsider the purpose of Thanksgiving. Which means it’s OK to revise the old myth of Thanksgiving, and tell what really happened to the Native peoples. And as we revise that old myth, we can put the emphasis back where it belongs: on giving thanks. We can give thanks in spite of everything that’s going wrong in the world. Last Thanksgiving, I did that for myself by rereading the poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” by Ross Gay. I’m going to do that again this year, but this time in public — at this afternoon’s community Thanksgiving celebration, I’ll be reading an excerpt from Ross Gay’s “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.” I especially like Ross Gay’s approach to gratitude, because he gives thanks in spite of his father’s death, in spite of his friend’s drug addiction, in spite of all that can go wrong in this world. Just as I’ll be giving thanks this year in spite of serious health problems in my extended family.

All this makes Thanksgiving simple. We gather together, with friends or family or chosen family — and if prefer your alone time, you can even gather together with just yourself. We gather together, and we give thanks. We give thanks in spite of all that’s wrong with the world. We give thanks for those little moments of joy that burst into our lives, often when we least expect them. We give thanks for whatever is good, for whatever is true.

And that’s all we have to do. Gather together. Give thanks. Anything else we choose to do is icing on the cake. So go ahead and cook that elaborate turkey dinner, with five different kinds of pie, and thirteen side dishes. Go ahead and set up a table that will seat twenty-three, and bring out the fancy dishes and flatware, and create elaborate centerpieces. Go ahead, just so long as you remember to gather together and give thanks. In my household, we might just opt for a Thanksgiving picnic at the beach; that’s what we did for the last thirteen years in California, and it might be warm enough here in Massachusetts this year. It doesn’t matter where you gather, as long as you gather together and give thanks.

May your Thanksgiving be what you want it to be. May your Thanksgiving be as elaborate as you want, as long as you remember the two simple things at its core: to gather together, and to give thanks.

How Can We Know What Is True?

Sermon copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.

Readings

The first reading comes from Plato’s Republic, 514a-515c, as translated by Francis Cornford. In this passage, the character of Socrates is speaking.

“‘Imagine the condition of [people] living in a sort of cavernous chamber underground, with an entrance open to the light and a long passage all down the cave. Here they have been from childhood, chained by the leg and also by the neck, so that they cannot move and can see only what is in front of them, because the chains will not let them turn their heads. At some distance higher up is the light of a fire burning behind them; and between the prisoners and the fire is a track with a parapet built along it, like the screen at a puppet-show, which hides the performers while they show their puppets over the top. Now behind this parapet imagine persons carrying along various artificial objects, including figures of men and animals in wood or stone or other materials, which project above the parapet. Naturally, some of these persons will be talking, others silent.’

“‘It is a strange picture,’ Glaucon said, ‘and a strange sort of prisoners.’

“‘Like ourselves,’ I replied….”

The second reading this morning is from the Christian scriptures, Matthew 13:1-9. This is the translation by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar.

“That same day, Jesus left the house and sat beside the sea. Huge crowds gathered around him, so he climbed into a boat and sat down, while the entire crowd stood on the seashore. He told them many things in parables:

“‘This sower went out to sow [said Jesus]. While he was sowing, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground where there wasn’t much soil, and it came up right away because the soil had no depth. When the sun came up it was scorched, and because it had no roots it withered. Still other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them. Other seed fell on good earth and started producing fruit: one part had a yield of one hundred, another a yield of sixty, and a third a yield of thirty. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!’”

Sermon: “How Can We Know What Is True?”

The question facing us this morning is how we can know what is true. In today’s divisive political climate here in the United States, this has become a most pressing question.

As one example of what I mean, consider the politics surrounding the teaching of systemic racism. There are now laws in several states that forbid teaching about systemic racism. The proponents of these laws say that teaching about systemic racism is divisive and destructive, because it turns white people into oppressors, and anyone else is a victim. The people who want us to teach about systemic racism in the schools say teaching about systemic racism shows that individuals are not responsible for structural racism, and thus it can empower people of all races to help end structural racism.

One side claims that teaching about systemic racism makes racism worse. One side claims that teaching about systemic racism will help end racism. How can we know which claim is true?

Probably many of you have strong opinions about this particular issue. If you have strong opinions about this issue, you’re probably thinking to yourself right now: “I know which claim is true! The other side is wrong! How can anyone possibly believe what the other side believes!” But the other side has equally strong opinions. Just like you, they are now thinking: “I know which claim is true! The other side is wrong! How can anyone possibly believe what the other side believes!”

How can we know what is true?

And this brings us to the first reading, the allegory of the cave from Plato’s Republic. In this allegory, the character of Socrates asks us to participate in a thought experiment. What if, says Socrates, we were chained in a cave? What if the only things we could see were shadows cast by puppets moving in front of a large fire that was behind us? We would think those shadows were real, because those would be the only things we knew.

Socrates went further with this thought experiment. What if you were one of those people chained in that cave, then you were removed from your chains, and caused to stand up, and stare at the fire? At first, your eyes would be dazzled, and you would not be able to see clearly. In fact, you would doubt the evidence of your eyes. You would be used to seeing the shadows cast on the wall of the cave, and you would be convinced those shadows were real. So you would believe that the fire was false.

And then, says Socrates, what if you were taken out of the cave, up into the sunlight? Your eyes, accustomed from birth to being in a cave, would be completely overwhelmed by the bright sunlight. You would not be able to see at all for an extended period of time. Again, you would believe in the reality of the shadows. You would doubt the evidence of your senses.

But if you are kept up in the sunlight long enough, you would learn how to see in that bright world. Eventually you would even be able to see the Sun, the ultimate source of light and life. Then if you went back down into the cave, and told what you saw to your friends who were still chained down there, they wouldn’t believe you. They’d think you were deluded.

This allegory is so much a part of Western culture that I think many of us believe it to be true, without even thinking about it. We actually believe there is just one truth, like the sun in Plato’s allegory. We think of ourselves as the ones who have gone up out of the cave to look at the sun. And then, if anyone disagrees with us… well, they must be the ones who are still chained in the cave.

In fact, this is how most Western religion works. Most religions in the West claim that theirs is the only truth. For example, many Western Christians say: We have the truth and all non-Christian religion is wrong. Different branches of Western Christianity look at each other and say: Our branch of Western Christianity has the truth, and everyone else is wrong. Then the Western atheists come along and say: No, WE have the truth, and all you Christians are wrong. Each group is quite convinced they are the only ones who have the truth. To use Plato’s allegory, each group is convinced they are the only ones who have left the cave and perceived the sun, the ultimate source of truth.

That’s not the way it works in other parts of the world. For example, in East Asia it is common for people to follow more than one religion. Thus in China one person might follow Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism, and Chinese folk religion, all at the same time, or at different times of life. Contrast this with the West, where a multi-religious identity is still uncommon; you’re either one religion or another, or no religion at all; you only get to choose one religious category.

Here in the United States, we are particularly fond of this either/or thinking. You are either Christian or non-Christian. You either believe in God or you don’t. You are either Republican or Democrat. You are either liberal or conservative. You have either escaped from the cave and seen the sun, or you are still trapped in the darkness.

Either/or thinking makes it hard to have productive arguments. If someone says you are wrong, you are liable to reply: You may think I’m wrong, but I know I’m right. I’M the one who has climbed out the cave and seen the sun. Maybe you climbed up far enough to see the fire that casts the shadows, but you didn’t get all the way out to see the sun. I’M the one who has climbed out the cave and seen the sun. I’M the one who is right.

Either/or thinking makes us rigid. Either/or thinking can make us oblivious to complexity. We become so sure we’re correct that we may no longer be aware when we’re actually wrong.

Now some people try to get out of the bind of either/or thinking by claiming that there is more than one truth, that you may have your truth but I have my truth. There are “alternative facts.” Or as Rudy Guiliani put it: “Truth isn’t truth.” This is what’s known as postmodern thinking.

I don’t want to go down that path. I’m reasonably convinced out there somewhere is Truth-with-a-capital-T. I don’t want to do away with Truth, I simply want to answer the question: How can we know what is true?

This brings us to the parable reportedly told by Jesus of Nazareth. In the parable, a person goes out to sow some seed. Depending on where the seed falls, it either gets eaten by birds, or it sprouts and quickly dies, or it gets choked out by weeds, or or it sprouts and produces fruit in large amounts.

Many contemporary Western Christians are quite sure they know what this parable means. It means that there are some people who know what the truth really is, and others who don’t. And of course the people who know what the truth really is are the ones who are telling the story.

I have a different interpretation of this parable.Jesus does NOT say the seed grows in one place but not in another. Jesus does NOT say only only a few people know Christian truth, and the others are ignorant and miguided.

In this parable, Jesus is not talking about Chrisianity — there was no such thing while he was alive. Instead, he is talking about what he called the Kingdom of Heaven. What Jesus meant by the Kingdom of Heaven is some kind of ideal state of being, where all people recognize their interdependence; or, to use Jesus’ words, all persons love their neighbors as they love themselves. All people, indeed all of life, is bound together in an interdependent web of existence.

To explain his idea of the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus used an ecological metaphor. Jesus asked us to imagine seeds being sown. Plants produce more seeds than than are needed to keep the species alive. Plants produce enough extra seeds so that birds and other animals may feed on them. They produce enough extra seeds so it doesn’t matter if some seeds don’t reach maturity. Even if some of the young plants are out-competed by other plants, there will still be more than enough to produce seeds for the next generation. This is how ecological systems work.

Jesus added another layer of complexity to this short parable. In the parable, the seeds which do not sprout can be understood as Jesus’ analogy for the people who don’t perceive the Kingdom of Heaven. As I understand the philosophy of Jesus, he felt that the Kingdom of Heaven is always present — the interdependent web of all existence is always present — though often we fail to perceive it. First, there are the people who have lost all understanding of the interdependent web. Second, there are the people who, for the sake of short-term profit, deliberately ignore the interdependent web. Third, there are the people whose understanding of the interdependent web gets choked out by competing trivial concerns.

Finally, there are the people who fully realize that we are bound together in an interdependent web of existence. We are bound to all other human life. We are bound to all non-human life. We are interdependent.

Despite what popular culture believes about the teaching of Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven is NOT pie in the sky, bye and bye, after you die. To quote Joe Hill, that’s a lie. Jesus tried to tell us that the Kingdom of Heaven — the interdependent web of life — exists right here and right now. Jesus also tried to teach us how to know that truth. He continued the ecological metaphor. We can know the truth in relationship to one another. Truth happens in community.

Community, by the way, is the power of the scientific method. Scientific method is a communal approach to finding truth. Science does not happen without the scientific community. It is the community which tests and refines new concepts. It is the community as a whole that slowly works its way towards the truth. Mind you, I am NOT saying that Jesus was some kind of proto-scientist. The questions which interested Jesus differ from those which interest today’s scientific community. But in both cases, to know the truth requires being in community.

Community is also why we come to Sunday services. We are a community which seeks after truth and goodness together. No, we have not yet reached ultimate truth here on Sunday morning. Reaching the truth is a process. By participating in various communities that seek to know Truth, we can over the course of our lives make significant progress towards the Truth.

You will notice that a communal search for truth differs from the way most people interpret Plato’s allegory of the cave. In the common interpretation of the allegory of the cave, one individual at a time escapes from the cave, sees the sun, and so knows the Truth. Although I don’t think that’s what Plato intended, that’s the way our highly individualistic society interprets this allegory. Unfortunately, that’s also the way many people interpret Jesus’ allegory: you have an individualistic relationship with a personal God, and you know the truth through that one-on-one individualistic relationship.

That individualistic way of knowing truth is not working well for us right now. In politics and in social media, you’ll find little pockets of people who are quite sure they’ve found the ultimate truth, and they shut themselves off from any dissenting views. If you gently challenge these little pockets of people by suggesting that they might not have the final and complete truth, you are liable to find yourself on the receiving end of vitriol.

How can we know what is true?

We know the truth in relationship to other people, and in relationship to other beings. We know the truth by being in community, by being in relationship to all other people. We know the truth by recognizing that we and all other beings are part of the interdependent web of life.