Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
January 8, 2017
I had the wonderful opportunity of traveling to India for three weeks back in the spring of 2012 during my sabbatical. During the first two weeks, I was traveling with a group of Unitarian Universalists from the United States. We were there to visit the Unitarian communities in the Khasi Hills in Northeast India. After two weeks, the tour group returned to the United States, and therefore during the third week I was given hospitality by various people I had met during the previous two weeks.
At one point, I was supposed to travel from the town of Shillong to the town of Jowai, about an hour’s drive. My hosts in Shillong took me to the public transportation center and made arrangements for me to travel in a sturdy vehicle. Four or five of us squeezed into the back seat and off we went.
Traffic was quite congested on the normal route, so the driver decided to take a back route instead. For much of the trip, we bounced along on a road that was still under construction and not really open to traffic. The trip took much longer than anyone had expected. At the end of our journey, I was surprised to find that all the passengers were expected to pay more than the standard fare. To me, this seemed backward. Perfectly cast as the clueless Westerner, I voiced my opinion that since the journey had taken longer than we had expected, why were we supposed to pay more for an inferior product or service? Someone patiently explained that since we had taken a back route, which was longer than the standard route, the driver had incurred higher costs – and it was customary for the passengers to help cover the higher costs.
For me, this was an epiphany – a sudden spiritual insight. What I was experiencing was a communitarian way of organizing commerce. The passengers viewed the driver not as some nameless, faceless alien whose tough luck was his own problem.Rather, they viewed the driver as one of them. And if he had incurred extra costs while providing a service to them, well, we were all in this together. And after all, did the driver not have a family to take care of, just like the passengers did? And did the driver not have a home to maintain, just like the passengers did? Was the driver not their neighbor, their friend, their relative? So would it not make sense that the passengers would help cover the extra costs?
For me, as the clueless westerner, this was a different way of looking at commerce. Not necessarily a better way. Not necessarily a worse way. Just a different way.
The epiphany I experienced came to me in several ways all at once. First, there was the insight that there was more than one way to understand this situation. I did not even realize that there was another way of understanding this situation!
Second, there was the insight that this other way of understanding the situation seemed just as reasonable and customary to them as my way of understanding the situation was reasonable and customary to me.
Third, there was the insight that perhaps I ought not be so judgmental, that perhaps I ought not automatically assume that my way of understanding the situation is superior, particularly since I was the outsider, the foreigner, the person with the visa.
Fourth, there was the insight that my attitude might be emblematic of a larger attitude of white Western people toward the rest of the world – an attitude of cultural superiority, even cultural supremacy. Maybe annoyance or disdain is not as helpful an attitude as curiosity or appreciative inquiry or simply listening. At the conflict resolution training that I attended last summer, I was introduced to a very helpful acronym, namely, WAIT, W – A – I – T.WAIT stands for Why Am I Talking? For me, that has become a very helpful reminder!
In Western Christian traditions, Epiphany falls on January 6, the twelfth day after Christmas.(Yes, I counted. You can, too!If December 26 is Day One, then January 6 is Day Twelve.) Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the Three Wise Men from the East at the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem. Since the Three Wise Men were not Jewish, the theological significance of Epiphany has been that this was the first appearance or presentation of Jesus to the Gentiles, that is, people who were outside the Jewish community.
For this morning, however, I will be using the term “epiphany” in a different way. Here is one dictionary definition of epiphany: “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.”
Using this dictionary definition of the word “epiphany” as a sudden insight into the meaning of something, I would characterize my learning experience in India as an epiphany. For me, however, that experience was more than just an intellectual understanding. I also had to admit that my attitude toward others had been dismissive, or unfair, or insufficiently appreciative. So in addition to intellectual insight, the experience also had a moral insight for me. And the moral insight came with some degree of chagrin or embarrassment, for I had to admit that my attitudes toward others needed to be made more generous.
I certainly don’t want to hold up my personal experience as normative for everyone else. Nevertheless, I would strongly suggest that when we speak of spiritual growth, precisely this kind of self-reflection, where one does the challenging or embarrassing work of expanding one’s heart to make room for others, needs to be right up there at the top of the list.
Our third Unitarian Universalist principle calls us to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth within our congregations. Similarly, our fourth Unitarian Universalist principle calls us to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. These two principles imply that a healthy spiritual life is dynamic, that is, a healthy spiritual life includes actions like growing and searching. However far we may have come on our personal spiritual journey, we can be sure that the path continues. However far we may have come on our spiritual journey, we can be sure that we can still expand our hearts beyond what we had thought. However far we may have come on our spiritual journey, we can be sure that more epiphanies are waiting for us.
Others may use different language, but I like the term “intellectual humility.” When we are at our best, we Unitarian Universalists resist claims of absolute truth by adopting an attitude of intellectual humility. Who among us can really claim to have all the answers? Who among us can announce that the era of uncertainty is over because they have found the truth that is true for everyone? Part of our discipline as Unitarian Universalists is to make our theological or ethical assertions within a context of intellectual humility, that is, with the understanding that we might be mistaken.
I’d like to return for a moment to the ancient story that has a special association with the word “epiphany.” Imagine the arrival of the Three Wise Men at the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem. If you were here for the 4:30 Christmas Eve pageant, you would have seen angels and shepherds and a star and cows and sheep along with Mary and Joseph and the baby, so maybe that memory can assist your imagination! In any case, suppose that instead of humbly welcoming the Three Wise Men and gratefully accepting their gifts, Mary and Joseph had looked suspiciously at those three outlandish travelers, and then whispered to one another, and then loudly announced, “No wisdom needed here, thank you! We simply have no need for any more wisdom this evening! So please, Wise Men, just return to your country, which we have never heard of, and which we could not spell, and which we not find on a map. Thank you again for your trouble, but we have all the wisdom we need!”
I could have adopted that kind of attitude with regard to that journey from Shillong to Jowai.I could have said, “What do you mean, I have to pay more? The ride was supposed to take one hour. Instead it took two hours. And you people are asking me to pay more? If anything, I should be getting a discount. No wonder you people have such a poor country! You people don’t know the first thing about how to treat your customers! You people should try learning from the United States, where we actually understand business and know how to get things done and how to make money!”
Fortunately I did not say anything so foolish or ignorant or insulting. Fortunately I was able to quickly adopt an attitude of intellectual humility.
Nevertheless, when those Three Wise Men showed up and offered me a different way of looking at things, it took a couple of minutes before I was willing to welcome them and accept their gifts. Someone had to explain to me that when the driver incurred higher costs, it was customary for the passengers to help cover those costs. It was a different way of looking at things, a more communitarian way of organizing commerce. Well. Who knew? I was wrong to think that I had the only reasonable and the only acceptable way of understanding the situation. I was wrong to form such a negative judgement of my traveling companions. I was wrong to push away the Three Wise Men with their gifts of appreciation for different customs, different ways of understanding things, and different attitudes toward the tough luck of others.
Why don’t we all have epiphanies more often? Why don’t we have quicker spiritual growth? Why doesn’t our free and responsible search for truth and meaning produce faster results? Perhaps we are too quick to say, “No wisdom needed here, thank you! So please, Wise Men, just return to your country!” Perhaps we are too quick to push away the Three Wise Men, in whatever disguise they might be wearing, because inviting them in and accepting their gifts might mean that we will experience chagrin and embarrassment as we realize that our hearts are not as generous as we had thought, or that we have been too judgmental toward others, or that we have been the cause of suffering to others without even realizing it.Moreover, perhaps it is easier to discern that someone else might need more intellectual humility than it is to discern that we ourselves need more intellectual humility.
So when the star appears above our home, may we swallow our pride and make ready for the arrival of the Three Wise Men with their winter tonic that may temporarily embarrass us but will soon make us grow spiritually. May we become accustomed to inconvenient and uncomfortable truths about ourselves and our cultural assumptions. May we be grateful not to be forever stuck in our spiritual growth even though we may resist being pushed along. May we welcome our epiphanies even though the season of new life may be somewhat distant.
© 2017 by David Herndon