The fourth of Unitarian Universalism’s Seven Principles is, “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Three years ago, several hundred UU ministers signed on (literally) in a thuggish attack against one of their fellow ministers, Todd Eklof, who had had the unspeakable temerity to publish and distribute a book. The book, The Gadfly Papers, made some observations and raised some questions about the direction in which UU leadership has been taking the denomination.
Not only did those hundreds of other ministers violate their own covenant by criticizing a fellow minister publicly rather than raising their concerns in private, they plainly wanted nothing to do with a free and responsible search for truth. We can judge this by the fact that the open letter that they all signed unequivocally refused to enter into debate with any of the points Eklof had raised in his book. The responsible thing to do would have been to quote the passages in the book that they found objectionable and to explain the manner in which they were convinced Eklof had erred.
They did nothing of the kind. And really they had little choice, since there was not a word in the book that was actually objectionable. (If you think I’m wrong about this, then please — cite specific sentences in the book, and explain your objection to those sentences. If you try to take me to task for defending the book without being specific in your dissent, I will delete your comments.)
A responsible search for truth requires free and respectful debate over ideas. Attacking a book and claiming that it caused “harm” while refusing to debate the ideas in the book or demonstrate the alleged harm just makes you an asshole. One has, then, no alternative but to conclude that quite a lot of the ministers in Unitarian Universalism are assholes.
When I discussed this with the former minister of my local congregation (without, I should add, calling her an asshole), she placed some emphasis on the word responsible. She plainly felt that Eklof’s criticisms were not responsible. I don’t recall that she was able to articulate the manner in which they were irresponsible, but I’ve continued to mull it over.
Without wading too deep into the swamps of postmodern anti-racism and identity politics, I think we can guess that the problem with the book was that it hurt some people’s feelings. It raised questions that made some people uncomfortable. Just reading the table of contents was enough for some of them to become uncomfortable; it’s pretty well established that quite a lot of the original signers of the open letter savaging the book had not read the book.
What puzzles me, I confess, is how I would identify an irresponsible search for truth and meaning. What would such a search look like? If it were irresponsible, how would I know?
In a search for truth and meaning, observations may sometimes be voiced or questions raised that make some people uncomfortable. They may make the person who is doing the searching uncomfortable, or they may make other people uncomfortable. I take it as axiomatic — axiomatic, damn it! — that the mere presence of this sort of discomfort cannot possibly be an indication that the search is irresponsible. A search for truth and meaning will sometimes make people uncomfortable, perhaps deservedly so. If it never makes anybody uncomfortable, it’s not an effective search, it’s just pablum.
Okay, I think I can give one example of an irresponsible search for truth. It’s generally accepted (and I would certainly agree) that asking a male-to-female transsexual about her genital surgery is extremely rude. If you’re genuinely in search of the truth about this type of surgery, go look it up on the internet. Asking someone a personal question about their genitals, unless you’re dating them and in a rapidly advancing phase of mutual ardor, is irresponsible, and you don’t get to defend yourself by saying you were just searching for truth.
Maybe there are other examples. Maybe asking someone why they decided to have their dog euthanized is an irresponsible search for truth. It’s none of your business. But raising difficult questions about the direction your religious denomination is headed? No. That can’t possibly be irresponsible, even if you’re dead wrong.
A guy I used to know was fond of quoting — well, he claimed he was quoting — André Gide: “Follow those who seek the truth, and flee from those who have found it.” The UU ministers who felt it was their mission to bully Todd Eklof into silence were, I’m quite sure, convinced that they had found and were in possession of The Truth.
Be that as it may, my question remains unanswered. If I’m to have any hope of following the Fourth Principle, I need to know: What would an irresponsible search for truth and meaning look like?
In fact, the question is deeper than that, because the Fourth Principle enshrines “a free and responsible search.” A searcher who tiptoes around in an effort to be responsible is not searching freely. A free search may, once in a while, transgress into irresponsibility. Potentially, at least, the two terms contradict one another. How are they to be reconciled?