It’s Turtles All the Way Down

A sermon delivered by the
Rev. Donna Morrison-Reed
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday, 14 September, 2003

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 on?

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 stand on?

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 it yourself.

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 way down.

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 enlightened."

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:

  1. a competently functioning ‘I’
  2. a rich and energized ‘me’ and
  3. 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 and doing.

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 world.

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.