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Truth, Fantasy, and the Open Canon

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by Kathy E. Smith, Director of Family Ministry

“…the free and responsible search for truth and meaning…”

Unitarian Universalist Association Covenant of Congregations, Fourth Principle

    It’s often said that Unitarian Universalists can find meaning in any writings, from a comic book to a philosophy treatise.  We can do this because Unitarian Universalism encourages us to find truth and meaning in many sources.  Theologically, we say that “revelation is ongoing” – that is, we are continuously learning, there is no one set of sacred writings that overrides the rest, and each of us connects to the divine in our own way.  

     I recently did a class here at the church on Stages of Faith Development.  Part of our conversation was around how stories change their meanings as we grow – both intellectually and spiritually.  Take the question, “Is that story true?  Really?” 

    How you answer the “is it true?” question depends on the child’s age.  Very young children cannot clearly delineate the boundaries between fact and fiction.  That knowledge comes with their growing experiences of family, friends, pets, gardens, chores, the natural world – all the true-life experiences that help ground human beings in daily reality.  Adults often feel the need to answer the “is it true?” question before a young child even asks it, for the best way for a very young child to learn what is fact and what is make-believe is through experience, not words.  

    “Truth” is actually deeper than “is it real?” or “did it happen?”  Those are actually different questions than “is it true?”  One of the essential steps to maturity, and one we take over and over again as we grow from child to youth to adult, is learning to differentiate between truth and Truth.  That is, a story may not be literally “true” – it may not be real, or it may not have happened just that way – but it still may transmit a deeper, underlying Truth.

    Take the classic story “The Velveteen Rabbit”, for instance.  A very young child will hear the story and imagine that his stuffed animal, too, comes to life at night and talks to the other toys.  An adult might say, “No, that doesn’t really happen,” but the child will insist that it does.  That child is not developmentally ready for the “is it real?” question – he is tuned into the deeper Truth that the world is an amazing place with wondrous happenings that he cannot explain.  A somewhat older child knows that stuffed animals can’t really talk, but she still cherishes the idea that her own favorite animal is somehow more real than not.  Her Truth may be that comfort and security are embodied in the familiar objects in her everyday environment.  A teen may reject the story as baby-ish fantasy, but be ready to hear the Truth that love makes us real to each other.  And an adult can hear the story anew, and look at the historical truth of the frightening or disturbing parts – the scarlet fever, the threatened burning of the nursery toys – or the metaphorical Truth of the beauty in the Skin Horse’s words.  

    The difference between “true” and “Truth” is where the open canon plays a role, both in parenting and in our own spiritual development.  In helping our children see that Truth can be found in many places – but not all – we are helping them find the spiritual meaning in the everyday.  We adults, too, can see Truth in unexpected places as diverse as a classic short story or a blockbuster movie.  Why did this character do what he did?  What happened when she said that?  Which character do you want to be like?  What do you think is most important about this story?  Is there a part that makes you think?  Why do you love that story?  What part of it do *you* think is true, or real, or Truth?  

     Here’s to the ongoing search for Truth and Meaning, for all of us!