|William James was giving a public
lecture on astronomy, describing how the earth spins around
itself as it orbits the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits
around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our
galaxy. He was in full flight when a little old lady interrupted
from the back of the auditorium. "Young man, excuse me, but
you’ve got it wrong. The world rests on the back of a giant
turtle." William James was slightly taken aback, but ready
for a discussion. He asked, "If that is true, madam, what
is the turtle standing on?" "Another turtle," she shot back.
Gently, now, "And what is that turtle standing on?" "Don’t
get smart with me, young man. It’s turtles all the way down."
We are like that little old lady. Spinning
worlds, spinning suns and stars, spinning galaxies, a spinning
universe: we know William James must have it wrong.
And yet, ‘it’s turtles all the way down’ doesn’t quite cut
it either. If we are resting on the back of a giant turtle
which in turn is resting on the back of a giant turtle on
the back of another giant turtle, there must be a bottom
turtle somewhere. What is that turtle standing
Our problem this morning can be stated this
way: how are we to find a foundation to live by when there
are no more foundations, when all the foundations have given
way and even the nature of the problem has shifted from
"what are we standing on?" to "what are we orbiting around?"
How are we to ground ourselves in a universe that seems
incomprehensible and feels disorienting, a universe that
leaves us feeling lost and dizzy?
For the Bible is no longer the only
sacred Word of God. There is no single omniscient, omnipotent
Supreme Being on which the bottom turtle can stand. Today
theologians talk about Charles Hartshorne’s process God
continually spinning, forming and reforming as we live our
lives. They turn to Martin Buber’s "I-Thou" God orbiting
around our relatedness. Von Ogden Vogt’s numinous
God is the vast and unknowable wonder of the universe, but
not the foundational answer to it. When our absolute "ruler
of the universe" God is dead, what does the bottom turtle
In his essay on Self-Reliance, Ralph
Waldo Emerson said, "The highest merit we ascribe to Moses,
Plato and Milton is that they set at naught books and traditions
and spoke not what [others], but what they thought." And
again, he said, "You will always find those who think they
know what is your duty better than you know it. … What I
must do is all that concerns me, not what … people think."
And again, "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity
of your own mind."
"Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity
of your own mind." The old answers are gone and even the
nature of the problem has shifted. There is no longer any
firm foundation upon which to stand. Rather, the universe
is spinning and we are spinning around ourselves. Emerson
calls us to self-reliance.
We Unitarians are the children of Emerson.
Just a few years before Emerson wrote his essay on Self-Reliance,
he worked as a Unitarian minister in Boston. But he quit
the church, rejecting churches along with just about every
other anchoring institution. He spoke of "the prison-uniform
of [whatever] party to which we adhere." He called "a foolish
consistency … the hobgoblin of little minds." He asks: "Is
it so bad to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood,
and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and
Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that
ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood."
And we are the Unitarian children of this
anti-institutional Emerson. A creedless faith is our response
to his call for self-reliance. Ours is a religion with no
foundation, no commandments, only suggestions. There’s the
joke about the woman buying material for her wedding night.
She takes the bolt up to the cutting table: "I need seventeen
metres." The sales clerk is astounded: "Seventeen metres?
What kind of nightgown takes seventeen metres of fabric?"
"Oh, my fiancé is a Unitarian. He’d rather seek than find."
But seek what? Wouldn’t it be simple if
there was some firm foundation somewhere, the
sacred Word of God, Ten Commandments, one Supreme Being,
some foundational value, first principle,
bottom line, Ultimate Truth we could all agree on. So many
times, I’ve smiled in sympathy as some poor life-long Catholic
leaves our Sunday service for the first time. "You named
the problem perfectly. But you didn’t tell me what I have
to do about it." We have no Pope with all the answers. And
the truth is, I don’t know your answer better than you know
Emerson may have quit the Unitarian ministry,
but he still had his way with us. Instead of Ten Commandments,
we base our principles on "The living tradition we share
[which] draws from many sources." For us,
it’s turtles all the way down. Our "world", our worldview,
rests on the truths unveiled by reason and science, the
words and deeds of prophetic women and men, the rhythms
of the earth, the wisdom of all the world’s religions, our
Jewish and Christian heritage. Yes, it’s turtles all the
But that still leaves us with a problem.
Having lots of turtles doesn’t help us mediate between them
and it doesn’t tell us what the bottom one is standing on.
Emerson tells us, "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity
of your own mind." We are standing on ourselves. Ultimately
we are called to self-reliance. The Buddha tells us, "Whosoever
… shall be a lamp unto themselves, and a refuge unto themselves,
… holding fast to the Truth as their lamp … shall not look
for refuge to any one besides themselves." And Lao-tzu "He
who knows others is clever, but he who knows himself is
Who is your ‘self’? What is a ‘self’? What
are the distinguishing characteristics of a ‘self’ that
has integrity and self-reliance?
I see two aspects to this search. First
is the problem of actually having a ‘self’. How are we to
grow or acquire a ‘self’ that is secure enough to hold us
firmly and safely within its gravitational pull? Or, if
you prefer, strong enough to hold ‘our world’ on its shoulders?
Where is this ‘self’ that is capable of responding in the
midst of all the astoundingly unexpected situations that
confront us daily in this astonishing world of ours. When
the power goes out on the entire Eastern seaboard, when
the Twin Towers fall, when mysterious viruses spread underground,
when our children suddenly wake up one morning having turned
into adolescents, when a relationship fails, when cancer
is the unexpected diagnosis, when our best friend dies,
where is this ‘self’ that can sustain us? We need a ‘self’
that can distinguish its own view from the fashionable view,
has the strength to be misunderstood and still hold to its
own perspective, a self that has taken off the prison-uniform
of whatever political party is currently holding sway, a
self that will sustain us in times of despair.
The second part of the problem is not having
a self, but having a self that is connected realistically
to the rest of the world. How to distinguish between our
‘self’ and our sense of entitlement? If I want it, I ought
to have it. How to distinguish between our ‘self’ and our
projections? Those times when I know it’s his fault, and
I am in no way to blame. How to grow a ‘self’ that is not
completely self-referential or self-delusional or self-absorbed?
If I believe it, it must be true. In Habits of the Heart,
Robert Bellah refers to a woman named Sheila, who has a
religion. She calls it Sheilaism. How to have a ‘self’ that
both is itself and yet comfortably resides within and is
richly connected to all, sufficiently independent to be
able to tolerate being misunderstood, yet connected enough
to deeply appreciate that it is not completely self-made.
According to my favorite writers on this
topic, the Malones, The Art of Intimacy, a healthy
‘self’ is the result of three things:
- a competently functioning ‘I’
- a rich and energized ‘me’
- a healthy partnership between the
two, each clearly itself, each able to flourish in
the presence of the other.
Do you have a competently functioning ‘I’?
‘I’ is the subject. It initiates. It decides. It acts. It
relates to the world. ‘I’ am Donna Morrison-Reed. ‘I’ am
a minister. ‘I’ am speaking right now. ‘I’ am telling you
what ‘I’ think. What is your ‘I’ doing with its life? How
is the state of your ‘I’? Is it shy and retiring around
strangers? Or does it over-compensate by monopolizing the
conversation? Does it cope by incessantly doing? Or does
it maneuver from behind the armour of some overly-rigid
role, posturing like a little girl, or a wise old professor?
What we are trying to grow is a comfortable, clear, confident
‘I’ that does not need to posture, protest or protect itself
as it moves in and among the people and the places, the
social spaces of this world.
And what about ‘me’? Do you have a rich
and energizing ‘me’? ‘I’ acts; ‘me’ feels. ‘I’ looks out;
‘me’ looks in. ‘I’ is my personality; ‘me’ is my character.
‘Me’ is where my call comes from; ‘I’ follows its directive.
‘Me’ is the deepest core of our person, our most profound
feelings, our most enduring motivations, our sense of right
and wrong, our most embedded convictions about truth and
beauty. How are your dreams? Do you have a rich internal
life? Do you have an exciting relationship with yourself?
Are you renewed and energized by your own great passions.
We grow a strong and resilient ‘self’ when
we pay attention to both our ‘I’ and our ‘me’, pay attention
to each individually and pay attention to how they work
in partnership with each other. Self grows as we allow ‘I’
and ‘me’ to energize, renew and inform each other.
Every summer I go up to Georgian Bay and
sit on a rock that looks very much like the back of a giant
turtle. There I sit, read, think and commune with my ‘me’
before returning to this twirling city of ‘I’, with its
curling chaos of events and people, newspapers and television,
fads and fashions, and its ever-present swirl of deciding
Our turtle-island rests right beside an
Ojibway native reserve According to Ojibway legend, the
earth was formed when Kitchi Manitu, the Great Spirit Woman
painted the rim of the turtle’s back with a small amount
of earth that had been brought to her. She breathed upon
it and into it the breath of life. Immediately the soil
grew, covered the turtle’s back, and formed an island. The
island formed in this way was called Mishee Mackinakong,
the place of the Great Turtle’s back, now known as Michilimackinac.
And, according to the legend, for his service to humanity
and to the spirit woman, the turtle became the messenger
of thought and feeling that flows and flashes between beings
of different natures and orders. Hey, wait a minute. He
became, not Von Ogden Vogt’s numinous God, but certainly
Martin Buber’s ‘I-Thou’ God and Charles Hartshorne’s process
God, the turtle, slowest of all creatures, representing
celerity and communication between all the beings of the
But we are not the Ojibway. We are the Unitarians.
We refer to Emerson, and seven principles we try to live
by. We did not simply receive those principles from either
Kitchi Manitou or that Judeo-Christian "ruler of the universe"
God. We wrote them ourselves, relying upon ourselves and
each other, using our history, our experiences, and our
community as a foundation for our values. Not commandments,
not rules, for those are too restrictive. They eliminate
human agency, take away our freedom and our responsibility.
As Emerson reminds us, we need to follow an inner voice.
Yet, we still scan the horizon, looking not so much for
something authoritative so much as support along the way,
something, like the back of a slow and steady turtle, upon
which we might journey through life together.