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Nobody ever joins a cult. One joins a nonprofit group that promotes green technology, animal rights, or transcendental meditation. One joins a yoga class or an entrepreneurial workshop. One joins a church. One begins practicing an Eastern religion that preaches peace and forbearance. But no one joins a cult. A cult is how others see a community. And cults are marked by strict adherence to the rule of a leader, by a willingness to give up your possessions and disassociate from your family, and a belief in a truth which supercedes all others. The odd thing about cults is that while they claim to set you free from earthly troubles, they imprison you in the sacrifice of all other truths other than the one Truth with a capital T. Not an objective truth mind you. Not a truth that can be tested and verified. Not a truth that is good for you. But a truth that they are somehow special, chosen and worthy of the leader. And most of those truths these leaders promote have little to do with inner light and understanding.
No, predatory cult leaders depend on the deep hunger of vulnerable people to find a truth that will somehow validate their existence and subdue their pain. And then that “truth” becomes a trap. Far from setting the initiate free it imprisons them further into a hell of dependence. They join the cult and give over their money, their bodies, give up their families and friends and sometimes give up their lives. This is not a truth that sets you free.
David Sullivan is a private investigator in San Francisco who specializes in finding those trapped in cults and helping them and their families to set them free of the false truths they have been skillfully fed. The first rule of recruitment, writes Margaret Singer, the doyenne of cult scholarship, is that a recruit must never suspect he or she is being recruited. The second rule is that the cult must monopolize the recruit’s time. Therefore, in order to have any chance of rescuing a new acolyte, it is critical to act quickly. The problem is that family and friends, much like the new cult member, are often slow to admit the severity of the situation. Truth matters and countering predatory and false truths matters a lot. It’s one of the reasons why this church exists.
Several years ago I met a woman who had been imprisoned within a cult. She recalls how she and her husband believed that they had been saved by this pastor who persuaded them to give everything they had to the church. They slept in a communal house. They would work at jobs but turn most of their income over to the pastor. They would spend their free time preaching on the beaches. She started to get sick and she couldn’t understand why. She started to have nightmares. Finally, a friend from work convinced her to see a doctor. It was the doctor who started to figure out that she was imprisoned by this predatory truth. She told her to leave the church. But to leave the church would mean she would have to leave her husband. Finally, she found the strength to do that. And yet, she was afraid and lonely and hungry for community. She wandered into my previous church. She sat in the back. She left right after the service. I would come up to her and ask how she was but she didn’t want to tell me. She told me later she was afraid of me. Not me but pastors who controlled people. Finally, she told me this story. We met several times as she worked through the false truth and the only real truth which is that what she believes shouldn’t be coerced, shouldn’t be punishing. True faith is freeing I told her, we are free to ask questions, to explore, to doubt and to find a community like this one that accepts her as she was.
Our truth in the open nature of the Spirit, in love and compassion freed her from the truth of sin and damnation and self-loathing. As my friend Alan Taylor puts it “it’s not so much what your believe but how you live your life that matters.” She was with that UU church for about six months, and then she told me she was moving to be closer to her sister. She said she would attend a UU church there as well. We helped to save her life.
What communities such as this one do believe in is the pursuit of truth, with a small “t”. That is the faith we share and that our new members have joined with us in. Not a belief in the Big T truth, but in the pursuit of that truth that helps you live a better, more generous, and more integrated life.
Our fourth principle calls on us to a responsible search for truth and meaning. What does that mean? It doesn’t mean all truth is relevant.
But it does mean that we are encouraged to search for that truth that provides us with the greatest meaning so long as it doesn’t hurt others which is why it is the ‘responsible’ search. We are all encouraged to search for our truth, in fact, to even agree on some truths, but more importantly we encourage you to act on that truth. By welcoming this woman in we were acting on our truth and it probably saved her life.
That is what frees us. Not the truth itself but how we act upon the truths we share.
In the bible Jesus says “the truth will set you free”. But “will the truth set us free?” I think it depends on the kind of truth you are after. If you are in search of the one and only truth that will make the world a better place if only everyone believed in that truth, I have some sad news. That truth does not exist. There are truths about love and respect and courage and hope that do make our world better but in this postmodern age there is no an exclusive truth that trumps all the others. This does not mean that all truth is relative to however it serves our better interest. Robbing banks is wrong for all people, despite the truth as Jesse James observed when asked why he robs banks, “that is where the money is”.
That said, there are truths especially the ones that expose hatred and abuse to the light of love that will set you free. I believe that what Jesus meant by “truth setting us free” is more nuanced than the faith that he came to die for our sins. I do have to point out though that Jesus was a cult leader. That notwithstanding, I believe he was calling us to action. To stand for the deeper and shared truths of a civil and compassionate society. I have told some of you about how, years ago when I first arrived in my first chruch outside of Washington D.C. I spoke out against the KKK marching in the Memorial Day Parade. Here I was not even in my pulpit writing a letter to the editor against this traditional arrangement. I argued that the parading of hate while a freedom of speech had no place as a shared truth that marching in the parade implied. I received numerous phone calls in response; most in favor of my position, some against. Even a few threats. The next week there were letters in the paper, three pages worth. One of those speaking for the right of the KKK to march was one of my own parishioners. He argued the right of that truth to be expressed on grounds that it was a freedom of speech. As a member of my church we weren’t getting off to a very good start. I talked with him privately and said that our religion is not the ACLU, we are a faith, which embraces freedom as a means but not an end. Hatred is wrong and its expression is not warranted no matter what.
As I reflect on my reaction to this KKK incident years hence, I still think I made the right call. Freedom is not freedom to say anything we want or express any truth that comes to our minds. Civil society, indeed our church, does not exist to permit just any freedom. We don’t allow child pornography, why would we allow racial hatred to be so expressed? Will the truth set us free? It depends on which truth. Truth in service of exclusion traps us further. Truth to how we are living our lives, not that is freeing, even lifesaving.
Truth is not a warm and fuzzy idea. It is a polarity, which is to say, the idea of truth implies that there is an opposite, untruth or even a lie. And yet we operate all the time with an agreed upon set of truths in the world Truth is a mental construct but it does have variations.
First is the truth that can be known. By this he means the empirical facts of science and everyday observation. We all agree that there is a planet and that we are bodies on that planet, and that gravity and age pull us down. Those common sense truths are verifiable and not very exciting but they are truths. I imagine though that this is not the kind of truth that our religious principle is urging us to search for.
The second kind of truth is that which might be known. These are the fuzzier observations. What color is red or blue? Did you really feel that way or was it just a bad day. This is the realm of relative and emotional truth. This can also be the truth that hurts. Several years ago, Miss Manners, (it is amazing what your minister reads isn’t it?) decried the overt prevalence of nasty frankness. Criticism is not always necessary she proclaimed. And expressing how we feel to the determent of other’s feelings is often just plain wrong. Unfortunately, this is an area in which every congregation and most every family needs to pay more attention. It is tempting to gossip, assume and make innuendoes about the people we share our lives with. And those so called “truths” which are really just opinions can really hurt. We have seen this happen here. Expressing your truth to the determent of another is not good. As Miss Manners put it so well: “In other words, we have hit bottom. The thrill of deliberately opening up our feelings and telling the whole truth to one another is hurtful….” Speaking our minds without any concern about how another might feel about it, may free you to some extent but it can imprison another with hurt. This is why I caution debate by email. We, and I include myself, are likely to write a truth as we see it much more harshly than we would say it to a person’s face.
Then there are the truths that won’t be known. I am fairly certain that the more we know about the working of the universe the more mystery it will present us with. This is the realm of spiritual truth. At this level most organized religions will agree on the nature of God and the universe, usually around a story of some kind. They or we believe this to be true with all our hearts, in fact that is what faith means. But we can’t possibly prove that truth outside ourselves. Many spiritual thinkers have determined that in fact, there is a fundamental difference between the empirical truth of science and the improvable truth of religions and never shall the twain meet. I am not so sure.
There are the truths that should not be known. I am by nature a mystic. That is, I accept the reality of the world as I see it but sense a greater mystery, which I will never fully comprehend. I know this because I have experienced it. I don’t degrade others ultimate truths (unless the hurt others) because I am not going to know for certain who is right and who is wrong. This requires a bit of humility and loss of ego. I could just be wrong about God. Maybe the Christians are right and I am going to hell.
Finally there is the truth that should be known. It is true that we often hide what hurts. But the truth will set us free to the extent that we open what was hidden. Child abuse, alcoholism, sexual abuse, these cycles of pain, breed in the secrecy of the families and communities we share. Expose these to the light of day; tell what actually did happen and the victim finds a certain kind of freedom.
This last kind of truth is the one that really can set people free. This is prophetic truth: the truth we proclaim by standing for compassion and understanding of others. It’s not just the truth that speaks out against the pitiful minimum wage it’s the truth that you are welcome here to explore that saved that young woman from the Christian cult. A son estranged from his father, finally has the courage to speak his mind in kindness even if the pain – his truth – is real. Siblings give name to that unspoken difference between them and they are reconciled. Those abused speak out against their abusers, and, as in the case of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, admits they were wrong and apologizes. Truth is a close cousin to forgiveness my friends, and when offered and accepted as gently as possible, can free ourselves from the sacrifice of falsehood and shame.
Bruce Feiler in his book Moses: America’s Prophet, argues that truth frees people when it is linked to a higher shared calling. He compared Moses, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln before him. Like Moses, King was a “freedom caller” who led people across the desolate landscape of hatred and bigotry. Like Moses, King reminded us that there will always be a struggle for freedom, who after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, turned his attention to the rights of the poor and ending the Vietnam war. And like Moses, King died in sight of the promised land, but not able to enter it. We are still waiting at its borders today. True, we have elected our first African American president, but freedom is still denied our GBLT brothers and sisters, the disabled, the poor and immigrants. The truth that is our American ideal has not yet set them free.
The third source of our faith is the wisdom that calls us to live the ethical life. We are still being called to speak out against injustice and against hatred. But we are also called to be sensitive to the feelings of those around us, especially in this community. Because, while we are called to heal the world, we are also called to nurture the soul. And the truths we proclaim, whether the right to be heard or the right to be fed, live side by side with the truths to be polite and civil with one another.
The truth of the matter is that we here are looking for a truth, that will help us deal with a separation, a loss or just the numbing complexity of life. What kind of truth can we offer up to each other that will set us free? As my colleague Marni Harmony put it, it’s not so easy for spiritually open and critical people such as us to rest comfortably with any one truth: “Though the spirit yearns for certitude, for answers, for stability, that is not our lot when it comes to the ultimate questions in life. If we are lucky we may get a temporary, workable truth but we do not get The Truth. No one does.” (Harmony in Quest 1993)
And maybe that is all right. I believe that the free and responsible search for spiritual truth can only lead to temporary ownership. The very nature of human life is to grow and change. Why shouldn’t our spiritual truths grow and change as well? I began my adult spiritual journey as an avowed atheist; I moved to an avowed theist, even a Christian, backed away again to a wandering Buddhist and have come to rest comfortably in a faith of accepting mystery. Why stay the same? Are you the same person you were as a youngster? The freeing part of our search for truth is that we are free to choose. And once chosen we are free to change are mind. This is why I have so much trouble with religious bigotry. Don’t be so smug to dismiss the faith of another as “unreal and out of touch”. You may just find yourself sharing that faith some day. This kind of truth will set you free: Believe in what you know is right and good and let that be your theology. Accept what you don’t know as possible even if it is not certain. Sacrifice your own need for certainty for the possibility that you might just be wrong. Your life will be so much better.
Truth seeking must entail some discipline, some rules for discernment. Traditionally, that has meant for us as UU s use of the power of reason, that is, could this make sense and experience, have I ever experienced this? Truth finding is not like shopping from the spiritual marketplace for what feels good and novel. Rather it is like wrestling with angels for what is unavoidable to believe. I believe in the inherent goodness of people, even though it is tempting to believe in human depravity. Why? Because it makes sense and fits my experience. There are plenty of opportunities to abandon our truths. But make the criteria for changing your truth a high bar. If we still believe that freedom is calling us to stand for equal rights, for instance, than we can’t be selective about whom we welcome into our midst. It’s a radical truth that welcomes the other.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights…” when Thomas Jefferson penned these immortal words, the enlightenment was in full swing. The world was easier to understand. Self-evidence for truth was easier to see. It’s harder to know whether we can trust just anyone. Yet, I believe, that we can give each other the benefit of the doubt. Several years after the woman who survived the cult left our church, I received a letter. She was living in Northern California with her sister and attending a UU Church. She had become a pastoral care associate, helping others find their freeing truth of personal salvation. She thanked me and our church for being so patient and kind. I held that letter in my hands for a long time. This is why we are here, to set the bonded free, to find a truth that makes our lives whole.
Will the truth set us free? Yes, if the truth we seek is calling us to our higher selves, to change the world for the better, and heal the broken. This is what MLK meant when the night before he died, he preached that like Moses “….I’ve been to the mountaintop… and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you… But… we as people will get to the Promised Land.” (April 3, 1968, in support of the Sanitation Workers, Memphis, TN as cited in I Have A Dream: Writings) I still believe in that truth. It might not be in my children’s lifetime but it will be one day. We will answer the call of the truth which matters most. Someday. Amen.