Chalice Beacon Unitarian Church Unitarian Universalism Chalice
Who's Who Religious Exploration Who We Are UU Beliefs
What We Do Young Adults UU History Famous UUs
Find Us Sermons Questions? More Links
Rainbow border
Learning lasts a lifetime
Rev. Katie Stein Sather, October 2, 2005
The Unknown

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.

- U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, news briefing, Feb. 12, 2002

The poet John Keats wrote: "Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!"

Do you recognize the first reading? Because it was confusing, the press hassled the speaker, accusing him of double-speak, of saying nothing. Who remembers who said that in a speech three years ago?

Thank you. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was razzed a lot for spouting nonsense, but for once I agree with him. There are things we know, and things we don't know, and some of them we know about, and some we do not.

Rumsfeld was paraphrasing a man born in 551 B.C... Confucius, who wrote: "You know what you know and you don't know what you don't know. That is knowledge." But we live in a state of lies and propaganda in which "You know what you know, you think that you know what you actually don't know, and you even think that you know what you don't know that you don't know. That is not knowledge."

Confucius was a man born in poverty, who made his way into posterity as a teacher. Education in the ways of living well was as important as learning more objective facts, he found.

We talk about this being an information age, we live in a knowledge economy. Yet, are we better schooled than folks in previous times? What do we mean by schooling, anyway?

Our word of the month in our language of reverence is epistemology, the study of knowledge. Epistemology considers questions like "What is knowledge?" and "how do we know what we know?" One might think that you go to school to learn, but I'd like to suggest that there are as many ways and kinds of learning as there are places to learn. The material—the facts—one learns at school or university is only one kind of learning. I think there are much more important kinds of learning. I'm referring to how to get along with others, how to have compassion and empathy for others, and how to respond emotionally, and appropriately. Most of that kind of learning comes not in lectures but in the living and working our way through these experiences.

The next question, given that this is a church, is "How do we learn about our religion?" Yes, we need to be told some things, like some history and other background of who we are. It's good to know that Michael Servetus was a heretic who was burned at the stake in 1553 for insisting that there was one god, not a trinity. And I think that we need to learn what a religious experience might be, so as to recognize our own religious experiences. A good way to do this is to hear each others' stories, perhaps in a Chalice Circle. You need a chance to hear your own story as well. But I believe that no one can tell you exactly what your religious experiences are, or what they mean to you. I also believe that such understanding is ongoing, that revelation is not sealed, for we continue to better understand what we experience.

Not quite a year ago, those of us involved in the children's program got together to talk about what we envisioned for it. First, we changed the name from religious education to religious exploration. I think we were trying to reflect that we are not in the business of training anyone what to think, but encouraging us to be schooled in a more wholistic way of thinking. That is, to know more than facts, to consider various sides of things before coming to any judgement. And to learn how to live properly in our society.

The poet John Keats wrote "Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!"

According to Keats, learning to live in the world is the way to become a soul, to become whole. It is in the struggles we make our way through that our character, our individuality, is formed. It's interesting to compare how different people respond to similar situations. Two men of my acquaintance, both now dead, each lost their fathers at a young age, maybe seven. Each was the eldest child of several, and so became the "man of the family" at a tender age. One was able to take it into his stride, and get on with his life. The other was embittered, feeling cheated of his childhood. Our experience shapes us, but our responses to our experiences are just as important.

No one wishes such a challenge for a child. Yet we do want our children to learn things, and especially, how to live well in the world. Schooling an intelligence, as Keats puts it. We want them to know how the world works, and how to be both a conscious and conscientious citizen. We want our children-and ourselves-to be confident explorers of our world.

Our religious exploration visioning group said in more detail:

We want our Religious Exploration program

  • to provide opportunities for dialog
  • to initiate opportunities to develop and explore spirituality
  • to connect ages/philosophies/backgrounds
  • to empower individuals
  • to study and learn together
  • to learn about conflict management
  • to include all present gifts and teach new skills
  • to celebrate & mark milestones
  • to make room & provide information for newcomers

There are several aspects of learning that we try to help our children, and ourselves, become aware of: compassion for others, sharing stuff, understanding the systems we live in and with, and understanding how others live. The Heifer Project that the children are now engaging in, for instance, helps them learn how people in the developing world live, and to have compassion for them, and to learn how much the simple addition of a pig or a cow can add to their livelihood. An understanding of how world trade practices affect the lives of these same folks is what we as adults need to understand, and make sure our Members of Parliament know about, and care about. We continue to deepen our understanding.

A simple chat with someone in hospital, or in some difficult situation, gives us new insight. Even reading in the newspaper yesterday about the life of Sam Sullivan, Vancouver's quadriplegic mayoralty candidate, gives a story of how one can learn to deal with life's difficulties. It's not always quick or easy; we continue to learn.

Part of what we need to discover is how be in relationship with others. Some relationships are more intimate, as in our families. Other relationships, like the neighbors, the kids at school, the people we work with, the folks at church, are different. A big part of being human is being in relationship, and we never truly master it.

We learn so much from the people who surround us. How does one treat the others in your family? Do you acknowledge the kid on the street looking for a handout, or do you whisk by without a second glance? Do your children see you being neighborly, chatting with the folks next door occasionally? I think my father has the neatest job for him. At the age of 80, he is the his township's eyes on who lives where. He doesn't do any assessing of property values, he just reports who lives where, so it can be done. I think he gets $1 a name. But he has a valid excuse for knocking on the door and chatting with his neighbors, something he enjoys more than anything else in the world. He catches up on the news, and figures out whether this person is related to anyone he knows. I thought of him yesterday as I took a few minutes to chat with my neighbors at their yard sale. The only thing I needed, a coffee pot, they didn't have. I often wave to them as Bill takes his daughter to school, but yesterday I had the opportunity of chatting with them, and their next door neighbor, too. I'm still learning how to meet people with the ease that my father does.

Parents matter so much as role models. Another thing I learned from my father was how to live in an old house. His house was built in the same decade ours was. Other houses we lived in when I was a child were much older, 50 to 100 years older than my now 85 year old house. He is always puttering at some job around the house. I have learned the art of puttering.

I hope that telling you "learning lasts a lifetime" seems a bit trite. Well, of course, learning lasts a lifetime. You can't ever know everything, and things keep changing, anyway.

Yet I wonder how it is that we stop learning, or learn with less enthusiasm. What kinds of obstacles do we face? I know that I dread new software, new gadgets like the MP3 player/recorder I just bought. I don't like the learning curve I face. I just want something that works. I'm still learning how to deal with difficult neighbors who don't respond the way I would. I'm not sure that learning gets easier as I get older. But if I stopped learning, I know I would be up the creek without a paddle in no time.

I wonder if there are blind spots in the other, less tangible, kinds of things we learn as well. Like how to get to know others, how to make friends even if there is less common ground than is first apparent. What kind of effort do I need to expend to learn to use new technology? What kind of effort do I need to bring to bear on finding new friends now that I've moved. And do I have the patience to wait for a friendship to bear fruit? Just because I play hockey with the same dozen women every week doesn't mean any of them are close friends! Have I even remembered to nurture the friends I've had in previous places I've lived? We get so busy with our day-to-day lives that new stuff can be put aside.

Have you learned how to have a fulfilling life? A meaningful life? Could you even define fulfilling or meaningful in this regard, for you? I'd like to suggest we need to learn how to do these things as well, and that this learning is a lifelong task, too.

I will close with a story from Turkey, called Hide and Seek (Parabola, Spring, 1997). A man renowned for his knowledge loved to converse with the wise men of Turkey. One day a boy was brought before him. "This child has great learning," he was told. "And who has he studied with?" The man was informed that the source of the child's wisdom was natural.

Immediately the man questioned the child. The boy's answers were simple, elegant, beyond ordinary comprehension. Hungrily, the man continued his questioning. However, the child grew bored.

"Let's play a game," he said. "You hide and I will find you." The man laughed. "It is better if you hide first and I will find you. After all, I am knowledgeable in six kinds of magic." "No, you go first," insisted the boy. The man snapped his fingers, disappeared, and entered another world. The boy sighed, "It's not fair. Come back. You're not supposed to hide in the other world."

The man reappeared. The boy vanished, leaping into the heart of the man. The man looked everywhere. He couldn't find the boy. "Where are you?" "I'm here." The boy's voice was near but muffled. "I can't find you." So the boy reappeared saying, "I was in your heart. If you do not look in your own heart first, then you will not find wisdom."

So, look to your own heart. Listen to your own heart. Are you still learning as much as you need to?

Back to sermon links


Rainbow border