© Dr. Chris Schriner 2007
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
November 18, 2007

Plants can think! Plants have feelings! Plants can communicate with people! That's what the media reported following the publication of The Secret Life of Plants in 1973. According to authors Tompkins and Bird, scientific experiments show that plants are a lot like us, and in some ways superior. I didn't hear about anyone criticizing this new research data, so I decided it might be true. I began (discreetly) talking to the trees, and showing a new respect for earth's friendly flora.

My friends were also interested in plant consciousness, and I heard some fascinating stories. Supposedly a fellow with a bunch of tomato vines was disgusted with their poor yields one particular year. So he yanked one of them out of the ground, ripped it to shreds, and stomped upon the remains. "There," he shouted, "if the rest of you don't do better next year, this'll happen to all of you!"

The following season he had an enormous crop - so I was told. But tomatoes forget, and every few years the gardener had to repeat this frightening spectacle of plant-slaughter.

I watched the newspapers for commercial applications of this new discovery. (Even the most bizarre idea will be tested carefully if there's money in it.) I imagined a wine-maker marching through a vineyard shouting into a bullhorn, "Now hear this, all grapevines must increase output by 10% - or prepare for the chainsaw massacre." Would judges hear lawyers debating the legality of harvesting under duress?

I waited, but I heard no more. Then I read The Secret Life of Plants and was quite disappointed. Tompkins and Bird applauded any experiment, regardless of quality, that suggested plants were conscious. But other researchers failed to replicate many of these studies. Cleve Backster, the best-known investigator, complained that "Mother Nature does not jump through the hoop ten times in a row simply because someone wants her to." Those darn plants! They're so smart they can figure out what a scientist is trying to prove. As a result, Backster said, "once you are sure something will happen, it very well may not."

Now as I understand it, science is based on consistent results. If Isaac Newton's apple had fallen down three times, up twice, and sideways once, it would have been hard for old Sir Isaac to lay the foundations of classical physics.

It seems clear why we no longer hear about cacti that can count to twenty. When scientists fail to duplicate some sensational breakthrough, it isn't really "news." We hear about the stunning new theory, but not about the dreary disconfirmations. A system of mass media that is supposed to inform us is therefore a limitless source of newsworthy nonsense.

And now we have the Internet. People will believe just about anything they read on web sites if it matches their own biases. In a recent Sally Forth cartoon, Sally's daughter Hillary informs her that John Hancock was the first signer of the Declaration of Independence because he beat out the others in a bare-knuckle boxing contest. Sally replied, "Sweetie, have you been reading Wikipedia again?"

I do find Wikipedia useful even though this internet encyclopedia includes entries that were volunteered by people with no particular credentials, but I take it with a grain of salt. And my overall point this morning is that actually we have very little solid knowledge about almost anything. Intelligent and well-informed people disagree about education, psychology, psychotherapy, medicine, criminology, economics, politics, child rearing, health, and nutrition. Whenever competent people disagree, one suspects that the truth remains unknown. In other words, we are ignorant.

Unitarian Universalists are relatively open to realizing the limits of our knowledge. As the Rev. Richard Fewkes commented, "All religions have their rites and rituals. Catholics cross themselves; Jews wear a yarmulke on their heads; Muslims bow to Mecca; UUs scratch their heads."

For classic examples of human ignorance, just look at religion and politics. People gather up a few scattered bits of data and create elaborate philosophies about the nature of the universe or how American society works. They think that their theoretical fantasies are obviously true and that those who don't believe in them are either mentally or morally deficient. Isn't it ironic that the less people know about some issue, the more upset they become when others question their prejudices?

One problem in religion is that theology is based partly upon religious experience - visions, dreams, revelations, and spiritual conversions. But religious experience is often ambiguous, as open to interpretation as an abstract painting or a Rorschach ink blot. Several different people could have exactly the same inner experience and interpret it in contradictory ways. Let's say that seven people who are dealing with a personal crisis suddenly feel a profound and unexpected serenity. One of the seven interprets this experience as the presence of God. Another says it was a spirit guide. Others say it was a message from the collective unconscious, or from the higher self, or the voice of reason, or it was caused by taking vitamins, or it was simply a change in mood that requires no explanation.

In Biblical times, people spoke as if they were receiving crystal-clear messages from Heaven. But today people who think God talks to them in well-defined English sentences often quote God as saying things that are crude and implausible. "Twenty years ago, televangelist Oral Roberts said ... God appeared to him and told him to raise $8 million for Roberts' university, or else he would be 'called home.'" (The Argus, October 6, 2007, News page 4) God was gonna rub him out if he didn't raise enough dough. Garry Trudeau had fun with this in the Doonesbury comic strip. One of the characters wondered what would happen if God targeted someone really important like Vanna White [the Wheel of Fortune lady].

Revelations from a higher power, or a higher self, or our own unconscious minds must be filtered through our fragile and fallible human brains. So a little skepticism is appropriate. But even skepticism may be based more on emotions than on evidence. People are herd animals, who usually go along with those they run around with. We won't break ranks and go off on our own unless there is some compelling reason. Sometimes we march to a different drummer because of a positive motive, but in other cases the motive for becoming an individualist is anger - abandoning the herd because we're mad at the rest of the sheep.

Once while writing a sermon, I had an insight into my own skepticism about traditional religion. There were two parts to the sermon, a critique of orthodox doctrines and a positive statement of what I believe. I noticed that I was feeling more energy and excitement while writing the critique than in expressing my own point of view. It reminded me of how I sometimes felt as a child. It was fun to take things apart, with the little-boy delight of a toddler dismantling a clock. I felt aggressive, as if I were knocking over towers of building blocks. I was proud of poking holes in old-fashioned theologies, feeling smart and superior and tough enough to face life's ambiguities - a sort of a "macho" philosophical pose. And I'm uncomfortable admitting this because none of it is rational.

Now in my defense, I do sincerely want to know the truth. But paradoxically, passionate truth-seeking can lead away from the truth. I can be so preoccupied with avoiding wishful thinking that I wind up being more skeptical than I need to be. In religion especially, I often doubt an idea simply because it sounds too good to be true.

I realize that telling you about my biases may diminish my credibility. But ministers ought to undermine their own credibility once in awhile, on purpose. It's easy for clergy to fall into the trap of pretending to have all the answers, but there are no real experts about the nature of ultimate reality.

I've been mostly talking about religion but I'm also skeptical of the findings of science. In college I was excited about new discoveries in medicine and nutrition. But by now I've seen the experts change their minds about many of these "discoveries." As Mark Twain once warned us, "Be careful of reading health books, you might die of a misprint."

Now obviously we need to have opinions as a general guide to action. But we need not worship our belief-systems. Beliefs are just tools to help us get through the day. We don't have to grip them tightly as if we would die if we suspended judgment for even ten seconds. And our beliefs about health, politics, and so on are often accurate enough to make a positive difference. An airline pilot once pointed out that an airliner traveling from New York to Los Angeles is off course 90% of the time. But the automatic guidance system senses that the plane is wandering and corrects its direction. And so a vehicle that is off course almost constantly nevertheless arrives at precisely the right destination. (Your luggage, that's another story.)

Although it may be unsettling to admit the limits of our knowledge, I believe that facing our own ignorance could actually enrich our lives. This sermon is "A Gospel of Ignorance" and the word gospel means "good news." I'm not saying ignorance is good news, but I do think the willingness to admit our ignorance can be energizing, enlivening, empowering, and even inspiring.

I want to share three ways that facing ignorance could enrich our lives, and the first can be simply stated: To confess that we don't know much increases our humility, and humility is a virtue. In a pluralistic society, humility helps us compromise with those who disagree with us rather than trying to force our ideas down their throats. And spiritually, it feels fitting to set aside pride in my own intelligence, to bow before the Mystery.

A second benefit is that admitting ignorance helps us find true spiritual security. Of course, when I first admit my ignorance I will probably feel less secure. But when I let go of some cherished certainty and go through a period of feeling discombobulated, after a while I feel okay again. My sense of lost certainty heals itself in a way that is predictable and reassuring. It's like dropping a crutch that I have been leaning on, and discovering that I can walk anyway. A miracle!

The seductive thing about belief systems is that we can imagine that we enjoy our lives because of what we believe, because of knowing some reassuring facts about life, death, and the universe. "Smile," the bumper sticker says, "Jesus loves you." Being loved by a benevolent spirit is a good reason to smile, but I've noticed that people smile regardless of their beliefs or their lack of beliefs. In a way, this is the ultimate freedom and security. We can believe or disbelieve, and the world is still an exciting and miraculous place. Whether it's Jesus or brain chemistry that makes us say Yes to life, those affirmations keep on coming. I'm reminded of a statement by the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus: "In the midst of winter I found within myself an invincible spring."

And one more benefit that I have personally experienced is that truly facing ignorance fills me with awe. When I notice the thoroughly mysterious quality of human existence, I feel profound wonder. I sense this most intensely in the darkness walking late at night, looking toward the heavens - vast, unimaginable spaces surrounding our planet, filled with countless stars and "dark matter." At times I am seized by the stunning realization that I have no idea what is out there! Or out there in universes beyond this one - struck dumb by the limitlessness of what I do not know.

Interestingly enough, awe is one of the most important aspects of religious awareness. Rudolf Otto in his classic book, The Idea of the Holy, talks about how people experience the divine. Men and women in all eras and all cultures have felt what Otto calls the mysterium tremendum, a mystery so profound that it can make us tremble with awe. He says we encounter this mysterium tremendum most vividly in silence, in darkness, and when contemplating vast open spaces, which is exactly when I feel my own lack of knowledge - remarkable parallels between the experience of cosmic ignorance and the spiritual experience of awe and wonder. In fact, a believer who is contemplating God and a skeptic who looks with amazement at the night sky may be in similar states of mind. Both of them are attuned to something thrilling and astonishing that we can reach out toward even though we cannot touch it, a mystery that can only be grasped by seeing that we cannot grasp it.

The darkness has its own kind of light, and this invisible light can lead us like a beacon. The silence has its own secret music, and its own silent voice that calls to us without words. Something about the unknowable essences of life beckon to me, inviting me - something marvelous beyond measure. Perhaps I am drawn to Mystery because I want to know my own context, and my context is truly the Great Unknown. I'm reminded of something e.e. cummings wrote: "all nothing's only our hugest home." (from "what if a much of a which of a wind," 100 Selected Poems, p. 91)

And so I celebrate the admission of our ignorance. Admitting ignorance fosters humility, helps us find an inner security that is unshaken by changing opinions, and can fill us with an awe that is deeply spiritual. In two weeks I'll expand further on the idea that admitting ignorance can be a sort of gospel.

Let me close by sharing a metaphor with you. Imagine that I was born in a cabin on a great ship, way down below the water line, and I never left that little cabin the whole time I was growing up. But one day I became insatiably curious. I ventured into the hall, up several flights of stairs and onto the deck - where I saw something that scared me so much I ran back down and bolted the door. THERE WAS AN OCEAN OUT THERE. An entire ocean.

That was many years ago, and now I still spend most of the time in my little room. It's warm and comfortable, and I know where everything is. But sometimes I feel drawn out of that quiet, familiar space, and I go back up to the deck to stare out over the railing toward the horizon.

It's fine to live in our cozy cabins where we think we know so much about so many things. It feels safe there. Yet if you ever find yourself feeling adventurous, I invite you to come up with me and take a walk on the deck. Let's look out as far as we can, seeing for miles and miles yet sensing how much we cannot see. It's spine-tingling, yet somehow irresistibly beautiful and fascinating, this vast ocean of ignorance, on which we sail.

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