Living with Tolerance and Ambiguity

By Larry Sherber

This presentation was delivered to the congregation of Mountain Light UUC on 2008 March 09

James O'Dea is one of my heroes. I have learned through experience that I have to be very careful when using the word "hero." In my younger years I tended to place my valiant and mighty champions on pedestals from which, one by one, they all eventually fell, leaving me disappointed and disillusioned. Knowing now that all of my heroes are, like the rest of us, human, flawed, and far from perfect, I still think it's OK to have an occasional hero mixed in with my role models; and James O'Dea is one of them. This Irishman is a former director of the Washington office of Amnesty International and also of Seva, an organization working with international health and development issues in different parts of the world. He is involved with many global organizations and lectures worldwide on global healing, evolutionary change, consciousness, science, and spirituality. I figure if you're going to have a hero, it's good to pick one with lots of credentials.

Among his many publications is a recently written essay entitled "You Were Born For Such A Time As This." I cannot remember ever reading an article that so beautifully, eloquently, and accurately expresses my own personal worldview; the belief system that I have been developing with great effort for the last 60 years through extensive reading, intensive thinking, and, in great part, through my affiliation with the Unitarian Universalist Church. I continue to reread this essay because it gives me comfort, validation, and hope. It will, I'm sure, inspire a number of future sermons.

The idea for today's came from the following sentence: "We can see in our daily experience that there are, in fact, many people who carry in their presence a magnanimity and life-enhancing energetic that invites tolerance, spaciousness for difference, and a capacity to be comfortable with ambiguity." Gee I wish I could write like that… tolerance, spaciousness for difference, and a capacity to be comfortable with ambiguity. I had to think about that phrase for a long while before its importance sank in. If you haven't figured it out by now, ambiguity is present at all levels of our existence: personally, locally, globally … in the mysteries of life itself. Very few things in a complex world can be wrapped up in a nice neat package and the luxury of "black and white" solutions to life's important problems is rare. So, with most of us thinking we have all the answers and they don't, is it too late for all of us to get together to address problems such as the environment, war, and genocide? Of course not. But the alternatives to "all or nothing" thinking are words that sound good until you have to put them into action: compromise and accommodation.

Let's try an exercise: I'll pick a topic near and dear to our hearts. We'll use a moral, legal, and political hot button UU issue like abortion. Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, feminists and fundamentalists are all afraid to back off from their positions. It's all or nothing: Roe vs. Wade as opposed to the banning of all abortions, no exceptions. How many times have you heard this outcry: "It's a slippery slope – if you give an inch, your opponents will take a mile." People, get over it! If this mindset is not overcome we are headed for disaster. It's not only about you or your belief system, it's about everybody and all our belief systems. We live in a diverse country on a diverse planet. We are not dealing with purity and homogeneity in race, ethnicity, religion, or culture. Advances in communication and transportation have turned our world into a giant melting pot of peoples and ideas. It's complicated! So what do we do? I have created my own compromise for the pro-choice vs. pro-life issue. I have stopped wearing the t-shirt that proclaimed "choice=liberty"; the one I wore years ago when I marched with my fellow Unitarians. To some of my fundamentalist brothers and sisters it reads: "choice=murder." I have learned to respect their beliefs and I'll tell you why. These are not Hitler's Nazi's; these are the same people that I work with in food banks and on Habitat houses. Their ideas may be different but their intentions and motivations are the same as mine: as best you can – do the right thing. I shall replace "Roe vs. Wade" with "Sheber vs. Himself." 1) Abortion should not be used as a substitute for birth control; some personal responsibility must be taken. Accordingly, every woman is entitled to only one legal abortion with the exceptions of rape, incest, or a threat to the mother's life. All situations that fall into gray areas will be decided by a court of law. 2) No partial birth abortions unless the mother's life is in danger. 3) No prolife demonstrations are allowed within 5 miles of any clinic where abortions are performed. 4) No pro-life advocates can have any contact with any woman seeking an abortion without a personal request. Do I like "Sheber vs. Himself?" Not really. Can I live with it. Absolutely. Probably brighter minds can come up with a better accommodation. That's not the point. This issue is only a microcosm of the greater global problems we must solve, and they can't be solved without concessions on all sides. Every belief and issue needn't be compromised, but everything must be on the table.

Let's try another tough issue – the teaching of evolution vs. creationism: scientism vs. fundamentalism. Gee, abortion, creationism and evolution; somehow I don't think we'll have any problems getting a discussion started after this sermon is over. OK, here's one way to compromise. Let public schools teach evolution in science class as it has always been taught. Then tell the students that this is the best that science has to explain why we, as human beings, are here. Then explain that there are other non-scientific theories that deal with the awesome precision and organization present in the universe – students like it when you use the word "awesome." Because it's not practical to discuss every group or religion's theory of creation, let the students bring up what they have learned and what they believe. This type of discourse, when guided by a teacher who shows respect for alternate views, could, in my opinion, be healthy and even – well "awesome." As a young boy I was taught in my Jewish religious classes that Moses spoke directly to God through a burning bush that never actually burned up. I never believed it for a second. What are we afraid of? Science doesn't always have all the answers. A subject that is taboo draws a lot more attention than one that is freely and openly discussed.

The two issues I have discussed are important examples of how we can compromise our principles to work together for the greater good. Are these accommodations full of ambiguities. Sure they are. But remember, if we are going to be good citizens in the 21st century we must have "… tolerance, a spaciousness for difference, and a capacity to be comfortable with ambiguity." If none of this makes sense to you, you are part of the problem, not the solution. Your uncompromised principles won't do you any good on a dead planet.

A pertinent question is "How do we define a greater good?" Not easily. But if you look into your heart and use the left side of your brain, it's hard to argue against the idea that the ultimate goals should be more love, more peace, and a greater desire to work together. If we take all the time, energy, and resources that we use fighting each other to accumulate wealth or power or just to prove a point, and use them for solving important problems, we will all benefit. We must somehow raise our collective consciousness, accentuating our commonality and interdependence over self-interest and nationalism. If we don't, I'm afraid the consequences will be dire and final.

The task seems daunting. How can we change the way people think? James O'Dea is an optimist. He thinks that our inner evolution has brought us to a time where in a "do or die" situation we, as human beings, are capable of making the necessary adjustments in our collective worldview. My hope for the future, though less generous, is also one of optimism. In my experience, people tend to procrastinate. But we are considerably better at crisis management than we are at sacrificing today for a better tomorrow; and the crisis is at our doorstep. We must, and I have to believe we will, respond.

In closing, I have a confession to make. I am not the most tolerant person you know and my obsessive-compulsive nature has a real problem with ambiguity. But, I struggle with it and deal with it everyday of my life and I'm confident that I will eventually prevail in this internal conflict. Deep in my heart I know that changes in the collective consciousness start with each of us as individuals, and I sincerely want to be a part of that change.