Transforming Culture

So, the UUA (Unitarian Universalist Association) as an organization seems to be proposing that it is more a movement for transforming the culture, rather than defining itself as an association of congregations.  And of course that’s got a lot of people nervous and has engendered some conversations, some of them somewhat angry or bitter.

I find something quite visionary and exciting in that idea of becoming a movement for transforming culture. A lot more exciting than “being an association of congregations” — if that means simply counting the number of congregations there are, and how many members they have, and doing whatever can be done to keep those numbers from falling or even growing them.  Or if it means “doing whatever congregations think they want and have the energy to ask for or do right now, without changing much.”

I guess I’m still an unapologetic humanist, because I believe that “transforming culture” requires people to do the transformation.  “Transforming culture” also requires that people be transformed. Reification of the concepts of culture or movement can lose track of the fact that both are made up of people.  The people, and the systems their relationships form, are ultimately what we have to work with, and to work on.

One could assume that theists add another dimension: engaging a deity (or more than one) or divine force in the process.  But most theists in the UUA assume that such deities or divine forces work through human beings, and even with confidence that the universe bends towards justice, those human beings still need to be convinced to follow that curve.

And so, any effective movement to transform culture has to be oriented to organizing people to transform themselves and, through relationships, others.

If not congregations — groups of people with a commitment to each other — how will these people be organized?  Transforming our idea of congregations, and how they function, and actually learning to function that way, is certainly a major part of how such transformation of culture happens.

My first reaction in this controversy was to think, “If we can’t transform congregations of people, how do we think we can transform the whole culture?”  And so, of course, the two are tied intimately together.

I’ve long said that a major purpose of congregations is to serve as microcosms of the larger culture, learning to transform ourselves in our relationships.  That is why diversity matters — diversity of experience and of ideas.  Diversity is not about some aesthetic principle of balance — it’s about reality (humanity is incredibly diverse in so many different ways) and it’s also the means for transformation.

I celebrate the vision of transforming culture. I also believe that small groups of thoughtful, committed, caring people can transform culture — and that we really don’t have any other ways.  To paraphrase Margaret Mead.

So a religious movement to change the culture ultimately ends up working through congregations — small groups of committed, thoughtful, caring people — by whatever name they’re given. And we still need to learn and teach how such committed groups can function more effectively.

Having a larger vision than “assembling congregations” is likely to be a major part of reorienting congregations to be more successful at serving the people within them — for don’t we all want, ultimately, to live more meaningful lives?

It’s a both-and vision:  a movement transforms culture through enabling small groups of committed, caring, thoughtful people to transform themselves and, through our interrelatedness, others.

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1 comment to Transforming Culture

  • Vincent Downing

    Enjoyable read and wonderful to see others already thinking the way I am. Ethical Culture, UU Humanism (or however you want to call it.) and the like are also to me tools for transforming the larger culture not just associations that work particularly well for a certain type of people. I like the poetry and drama of the seed crystal metaphor myself.