Mushrooms and Blueberries
July 2, 1999 I received an email from a friend who
had moved to Maine. As it was a morning which I had reserved for writing
and I was in the mood, this is what resulted:
Fresh from picking wild blueberries with your son for true "blueberry muffin love," you wrote: "All truth is relative, except this, that we are all relatives, you and I and even this mushroom growing in the front yard." Later on, still quoting from a recent church newsletter, you provided the response "Sorry, but I can't love a mushroom like a relative. I just like it saut■ed with butter."
And you asked for my response.
I question the premise that "All truth is relative..." Or, more accurately, I reject the premise. I am very strongly drawn to a testimony of truth at the moment.
Let me explain.
As an amateur knower, it seems to me that there are three ways of knowing the truth, or perhaps, there are three kinds of truth which we can become aware of.
First there is the deductive, hard truth of science, which we reach by reasoned argument from axioms and laws. Thus, no modestly educated person questions the conclusion that, since 1 + 1 = 2; then 2 + 2 = (1 + 1 + 1 + 1) = 4. These truths are useful; they make it possible for us to live, work and worship in an apparently irrational world. Whatever else happens, we can still manage, from time to time, to balance our checkbooks!
Then there is inductive truth, softer but usually reliable truth, which we reach from observation and supposition. Yesterday, the sun rose here in the east and set in the west; today, it rose in the east and will most probably set in the west and I wouldn't want to bet on any other outcome for tomorrow or the next day (even if I can't "prove" that the sun will even rise!)
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, there are those things we simply know, intuitively, to be true: You and I know that we are all "relatives," even the mushroom growing in the yard.
Emerson, in the Divinity School Address (1838), said:
"The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus; the in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted..."
In this age of moral relativism, when the heresy of scientism has become orthodoxy, it is well to remember that we, as UUs, consider revelation to still be open. The same voice which spoke to the biblical prophets, which speaks to the members of the Society of Friends, speaks also to us, sometimes, in Emerson's words, as "intuition of moral sentiment." And it speaks the truth.
Truth is absolute: it is simply true. It can only be said to be relative in that, due to our poor understanding of the universe, of existence and our limits as mortal mud dwellers, we are often confused about the truth, mistaken about the truth or misled about the truth, either by others or by our own unconscious needs and desires. Thus, we can deny obvious facts or reach conclusions which are, seen in retrospect, clearly wrong or false.
I would have written, "Among the many things we know, this is true: we are all relatives, you and I, the mushroom in the yard, the blueberries on the hill and, yes, even the stars that shine at night." For this is an expression of our seventh covenantal principle: that there is an interdependent web of existence, which includes us, and to which we give recognition and respect.
As to eating mushrooms saut■ed in butter: the mushrooms would be just as happy to eat us, even without the butter!
What is called for is love, not unconditional or blind love, but love tempered and illuminated by the truth of moral intuition. A truth is that people are not mushrooms and mushrooms are not people, but each have their place in the interdependent web. Mother Teresa was not Ted Bundy and Ted Bundy was not Mother Teresa. However, each are worthy of our respect as human beings, as parts of the web, and deserved to be treated according to their individual needs and destiny.
Some years ago, Toni and I spent a week hiking and learning with a group of adult alumni from our university. One question asked, which sticks in my mind, was, "Is it all right to pick wild flowers?" And the sensible answer was: "If the species is not legally protected (as trilliums are in New York where we were), the rule is: "If you can see ten, you may pick one."
And so it should be for mushrooms and for blueberries.
And this seems to me to be true.