Links for the sermon, and for the entire service can be found below
Rev. Moodie's Address at the Dublin Unitarian Church.
The title of my address today is Beauty Goodness & Truth, although I think the more correct order should be Goodness, Truth & Beauty.
Today, I put Beauty first because it is probably the more accessible word, and a little less open to abuse than the words Goodness and Truth.
And today, I would like to reflect on those words in the context of my own spiritual-pilgrimage-and-life-journey which will hopefully make me a little less of a stranger standing in front of you as I speak to you today.
And so I begin this address in 1999 as a young 24 year old in my first year as a Minister in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. It was just 5 years after the first Democratic Elections of 1994. Nelson Mandela was President and there was a real sense of hope for change with the ending of Apartheid.
As part of the Methodist Church’s program to embrace and facilitate the process of reconciliation in the country and in the church itself, they had begun placing many of their new ministers in cross cultural appointments, so we could begin to bridge the cultural divide after decades of racial segregation in the country.
And so in my first year of ministry I was sent to Soweto the largest African Township in the country. It was both exciting and challenging. Exciting because it felt like I was playing my part, however small in building a new South Africa. Challenging, because I was thrown into the midst of another culture that was so different from my own, surrounded by a variety of languages that I did not speak or understand. Challenging also, because I was brought face to face with levels of poverty I had never seen before. It had always been kept somewhat at a distance.
About two or three months in, the senior minister I was working under, assigned me to lead a Wednesday evening healing service at one of our churches deep in the township. After some beautiful and moving hymn singing, in which the congregation of about 50 people swayed and danced in true African style, Bible readings were read and a short sermon delivered myself, and opportunity was then given for people in the congregation to come forward for prayer and healing. This was a first for me. As I descended the pulpit, feeling a little anxious about what would happen next, pews were shuffled around, and very soon I found myself sitting in front of a row of about 20-30 people all seeking prayer. The majority of them were young mothers with little babies strapped to their backs or sitting on their knees. And as I listened to-each-one, before praying for each of them individually, a common theme began to be expressed by almost all of them. ‘I am unemployed. We don’t have enough money at home. Please pray for me that I will be able to get a job.’
I left that service quite shaken that day. Filled with questions and a gnawing doubt. Even while listening and praying for each of the 20-30 people who had come up for prayer I had found myself questioning how on earth my prayer would make any difference in their lives, questioning how on earth my prayer would miraculously get jobs for each of those people in a country which had one of the highest unemployment rates in the world and where the very structure of the economy was working against them.
It was a kind of shattering experience. In that moment, I found that whatever had remained of my naïve Sunday School faith, which had already been deeply challenged by 4 years of theological study, collapsing around me. Who or what was God? How was God at work in the world? What difference if any did my prayers make?
A few days later, I remember writing a letter to my parents. And in that letter I expressed something of the inner struggles I was facing. And I remember writing the following words: “I don’t know what I believe any more, but I know that I still believe in Goodness, Beauty and Truth”.
I am not exactly sure where those words came from, because at the time I had not heard of the Three Transcendentals in my Theological Studies. It was only later, that I came to read that those three words are known in Philosophy and Scholastic Theology as the Transcendentals, The Good, The True and The Beautiful.
Some philosophers and theologians would add a few extra 'transcendentals' to the list. Philosophically speaking, The Good the True and the Beautiful were regarded as The Transcendentals, because they were said to Transcend our ordinary experience of form in this world, and at the same time, everything in this ordinary world of form was understood to be expressions, in one way or another, of The Good, The True and The Beautiful.
I am still not an expert in the Philosophy of the Transcendentals. But it was helpful to discover later on that those three words that I identified in 1999 as being essential to my own personal value system and faith, have a deep and venerable history in the realm of philosophy going back to the time of Plato as pointing to the essential nature of the Divine or Reality Itself. For me, it felt like I had stumbled upon those words intuitively and by accident as I had found myself flailing about as a young minister struggling to make sense of my faith, my calling and my vocation.
Goodness, Truth and Beauty. At the time I never tried to define those words. My engagement with them was at a more visceral and intuitive level, but they became three essential words that enabled me to continue as a Christian minister when I found myself doubting almost everything else. They became like a touchstone to me, a tool for spiritual discernment. A bit like the bread-crumbs in the story of Hans and Gretal, they became like clues with which I could begin to navigate myself back Home wherever Home was. And as a Christian minister, as I reflected on the life of Jesus in the Gospels, in many of the stories I felt I could still discern something of the Good, the True and the Beautiful, in some stories more brightly than others, but there nonetheless.
Before coming here to preach today, I listened to quite a number of the sermons on the Dublin Unitarian Website. I found there a wonderful array of thought provoking reflections on a wide variety of really challenging topics, reflections on the possibility of reincarnation, reflections on the migrant crisis facing Europe and Ireland, reflections on the changing nature of sexual mores in a post-Christian society. There was also a challenging reflection entitled “Can we trust the New Testament” in which Dr. Martin Pulbrook raised important and challenging questions about the historicity of the New Testament. I would have to agree with him. There are major question marks that surround the historical details of the Gospels.
If the New Testament cannot be trusted from an historical perspective, what value if any remains in it one might ask? My own answer to that question lies in part in those three words: Goodness, Truth and Beauty. If there is value in the New Testament, then its value exists to the extent that it is able point us in the direction of Goodness, Truth and Beauty… Truth, not in the sense of absolute propositions and doctrines that are then proclaimed to be ‘The Infallible Truth’, but rather intimations, and archetypal stories that have the ability to inspire us to become True, Wholesome (‘Good’) and Beautiful and human beings.
I think for example of the story of Jesus and the Woman caught in adultery and Jesus’ incisive and compassionate response, “Let the one who has no sin cast the first stone”. It is a moving story because the Jesus whom it depicts embodies and and radiates a deep sense of The Good, The True and The Beautiful in contrast to the self-righteousness, the judging and condemnation of the religious Pharisees. Even if there emerged some absolute proof that Jesus never in fact existed, the Beauty, Goodness and Truth of that story would remain and would still have the ability to inspire us to become more compassionate human beings.
Going back to 1999, a few months after that shattering experience leading that healing service, I was out shopping and found myself drawn into a Bargain Bookshop. I’m sure some of you might identify with the experience. And there in the bookshop, I found a copy of a book by the Vietnamese Zen Teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn entitled: “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching”. Paging through it, even in the shop, I knew I had found a treasure, because almost immediately I could discern signs within it of the same Goodness, Beauty and Truth that I had could see and discern in the stories and teachings of Jesus. And as I arrived back to the Youth Centre where I was living, as I got out the car, I felt my heart expanding with a sense of joy and gratitude as I soaked in the beauty of the sky and the clouds above me.
And so I discovered that those three words had given me a set of intuitive tools which enabled me to read and appreciate the writings and scriptures of other faiths too, The Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, and Upanishads, the Chinese Tao Te Ching which soon became a favourite and the many Buddhist writings and scriptures.
It is something that Unitarians have known for a large part of their history, that the Scriptures of other faiths also have value to the extent that they can inspire and move us, helping us to become ever more deeply True, Wholesome (‘Good’) and Beautiful and human beings.
In Closing I offer you three quotes from Khalil Gibran that might invite us to reflect a little more deeply on each of those three words:
On Goodness - he writes: In your longing for your giant self lies your goodness: and that longing is in all of you.
On Truth he writes: “Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather, “I have found a truth.”
Say not, “I have found the path of the soul.” Say rather, “I have met the soul walking upon my path.”
“Truth is a deep kindness that teaches us to be content in our everyday life and share with the people the same happiness.”
And on Beauty, he writes:
Beauty is life, when life unveils her holy face.
But you are life and you are the veil.
Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror.
But you are eternity and you are the mirror.