Couch Potatoes and Plato’s Cave

A sermon delivered by the
Rev. Donna Morrison-Reed
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday, 12 May 2002

Four hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Plato created the Allegory of the Cave, his theory of the human condition.

It is as if we human beings are living in a cave, he said, chained by the legs and neck, facing away from the entrance, unable to turn our heads or see anything except the shadows projected onto the back wall of the cave. We see nothing but shadows, and so, of course these shadows are all we know. They are our truth, our reality.

But suppose one of these poor, chained creatures is "reluctantly dragged up the steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until … forced into the presence of the sun himself?" What will happen? That poor person will be pained and irritated, dazzled and blinded by the light, unable to see. That person, blinded by the sun, will naturally claim the shadows are real, the light is false.

But gradually sight will return. For one grows "accustomed to the … upper world. First [one] will see the shadows best, next the reflections of [people and] objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then [one] will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; … see[ing] the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day. … Last of all," Plato writes, we "will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but see him in his own proper place, and not in another."

Our fourth principle: As Unitarian Universalists we covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. In Plato’s language, we dedicate ourselves to breaking the chains, struggling up the rugged ascent, and adjusting to the light.

I have begun using a daily meditation book called The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo. On May 1st he writes: "Living in modern times has turned us into watchers, placing a sliver of distance between us and everything we meet. It is this watching that disheartens our days, that takes the colour out of the earth and makes the songs of time sound flat. … The difference is between painting a bird and flying, between understanding the secret positions of love and feeling your heart pound. Too often, under the guise of being asked to be prepared and mature, we are seduced into watching over living, into naming over feeling, into understanding over experiencing."

This is a sermon about our fourth principle, the search for truth and meaning. I’m going to take a different tack this morning, for I am going to recommend a very unUnitarian approach. Rather than suggesting some type of intellectual search for truth and meaning, I am advocating an experiential quest. How are we to drag our reluctant selves out of the cave and into the dazzling, blinding, sun-filled world? By moving from watching to living, from naming to feeling, from understanding to experiencing. This is our challenge this morning.

First, let us consider our shadow world? What does it look like? It is a passive world. It is a world in which politicians are expected to solve our social problems; a world in which doctors are expected to keep us healthy; a world in which teachers are responsible for our education; a world in which newspapers and television define what is happening; a world in which spirituality is mediated by popes and priests, ministers and gurus of various faith traditions. It is a world in which we believe the advise in self-help books while ignoring the stirrings in our own hearts and souls. It is a passive world, in which we can feel helpless, impotent, and therefore angry. It is also a boring world of categories, a world in which we abhor surprises, already know what to expect, a world in which we know who is right and who is wrong by what label they wear, because we’ve got it all figured out. The shadows in Plato’s cave look real. But just like our categories and assumptions, they are not true, because they are not alive.

This morning I’d like to challenge those categories and assumptions and our passivity. I am asking you to reflect upon the shadows you take for reality. I am asking where you are trying to struggle up the rugged ascent. I am asking how the light of the sun has dazzled and blinded you. Let us reflect upon our fourth principle, the search for truth and meaning.

What is real? "Real isn’t how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

Are you real? Really alive to living, feeling, experiencing? Or are you chained, leg and neck, mesmerized by the shadows on the back wall of the cave? Are you painting a bird or flying, seeking to understand the secret positions of love or feeling your heart pound?

As Unitarian Universalists covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. This morning I have three suggestions on how we might proceed.

First, let us remember that we are here.

Wendell Berry is my favorite Luddite. He is a poet and a farmer who has forsworn the Ivory Tower to live and farm in his native Kentucky. He has published almost forty volumes of fiction, poetry and essays. It is on his farm, his piece of land, that his truth and meaning emerge, for life is here, right here in this particular place.

This is a small, fragile place, a slender strip of woodland between the river and the road. I know that in two hours a bulldozer could make it unrecognizable to me, and perfectly recognizable to every "developer."

The one thing that I know above all is that even to hope to protect it, I have got to break out of all the categories and confront it as it is; I must be present in its presence. …

In all of the thirty-seven years I have worked here, I have been trying to learn a language particular enough to speak of this place as it is and of my being here as I am.

Almost forty volumes of fiction, poetry and essays that say "I am here." And where are you? Where is your particular place? Not the place of watching, but the place of living. Not the place of naming, but the place of feeling. Not the place of understanding (comfortable though that be for most of us), but the place of experiencing.

Wendell Berry writes: "When I try to make my language more particular, I see that the life of this place is always emerging beyond expectation or prediction or typicality, that it is unique, given to the world minute by minute, only once, never to be repeated."

Which leads to my second suggestion. We are here. We are also now.

Annie Dillard writes:

There is no less holiness at this time—as you are reading this—than there was the day the Red Sea parted, or that day in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Chebar, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of God. There is no whit less enlightenment under the tree by your street than there was under the Buddha’s bo tree. There is no whit less might in heaven or on earth than there was the day Jesus said "Maid, arise" to the centurion’s daughter, or the day Peter walked on water, or the night Mohammed flew to heaven on a horse. In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree. In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies; to accept failure, slander, or the grief of loss; or to endure torture.

Purity’s time is always now. Purity is no social phenomenon, a cultural thing whose time we have missed, whose generations are dead, so we can only buy Shaker furniture. "Each and every day the Divine Voice issues from Sinai," says the Talmud. Of eternal fulfillment, Tillich said, "If it is not seen in the present, it cannot be seen at all.

And are you living now? Not watching, but living. Not naming, but feeling. Not necessarily understanding (comfortable though that be for most of us), but experiencing.

We are here. It is now. And finally, life is real; not shadows to watch, not concepts or categories, not some ideal we carry around in our imaginations.

Joyce Rupp, a Catholic nun, tells the story of her friend Pat who has a bowl her mother gave her long ago. The bowl had a lovely oriental design on it, and was used often for family gatherings over many years. But over the years the design faded and one side of the bowl received a crack and several chips from so much use. Pat used to turn the "bad side" of the bowl to the wall of the china closet so the flaws would be less noticeable. But there came a moment when she decided to turn the bowl around so that the faded and chipped area faced the room so all could see and enjoy the stories it had to tell.

Life is like that, a real adventure, happening right here and right now. We are alive and we have the cracks and the chips to prove it.

"Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand."

Four hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Plato told the Allegory of the Cave. It is the story of life’s journey away from the shadows on the back wall of the cave, away from a chained existence and into the dazzling sun. It is the journey our fourth principle calls us to. It is a journey from watching to living, from naming to feeling, from understanding to experiencing. The difference is between painting a bird and flying, between understanding the secret positions of love and feeling your heart pound. May your journey be here, now, and very, very real.