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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.
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Purpose and Aims

I found this on the way to looking for something else: a paragraph from an early constitution of the “Ethical Union” of the first Ethical Societies in the United States, referred to in a book published in 1896 as being from “a few years ago.”

The general aim of the Ethical Movement as represented by this Union is to elevate the moral life of its members and that of the community; and it cordially welcomes to its fellowship all persons who sympathize with this aim, whatever may be their theological or philosophical opinions.

The word “moral” is not one we tend to use today — perhaps the Moral Majority (which some of us believe was neither) ruined the term for a generation or two.  But in the context of the Ethical Movement, “moral” meant then, and means now, living in relationship in ways that respect and draw out the worth of every human being.

Apart from the slightly stilted Victorian language of the paragraph, it’s not a bad summary of what we aim to be today as well, here at the Northern Virginia Ethical Society.

As we move towards our Opening Sunday of the season on September 12th after our summer break from Sunday meetings, I think that this aim bears repeating.  In our 21st century way, we can implement what was there said in 19th century language: help our members and the community to live more ethically, bringing out the best in ourselves and others, and cordially welcome into full participation in our community, anyone who feels themselves also drawn to that aim — recognizing that this common purpose is more important than whether we agree or disagree, believe or disbelieve, on some philosophical or theological matter.

What We Value

As part of the membership meeting in June, 2010, I asked members to remember two incidents this past year that stood out for them in the life of our Ethical Society — one that they enjoyed, and one that they didn’t enjoy so much.  I also asked that they try to boil down to one word the quality of life that they were wanting — a quality of life they found in the moment they enjoyed, a quality of life that they found wanting in the moment that they didn’t enjoy.  Out of those words, I created this word cloud:

State of the Society 2010

State of the Society 2010

As we think about plans for the Society in 2011, and each of us for our individual part in those plans, these longings for what we’d like to see more of can inform us and how we continue to build our community together.

(Note that I omitted or translated a few words offered that seemed to describe what people didn’t want, or answers that were more than one word long.  The more times a word was mentioned, the larger the word in the “wordle.”)

Change Is Comin’

Many of the other Ethical Societies have, somewhere on their building and often near or above the area where the platform speaker stands, some version of the Felix Adler quote, “The place where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground.”  (Felix’s original words actually were about “men” but he did seem to mean that in the inclusive sense.)  The reference is to the idea in many religions, and especially in the Hebrew scriptures, that there is some space that is especially holy — a place set aside, a place to be especially respected.  Adler’s idea was that it was not the place that was holy; it was the act of taking seriously high ideals together, as a community, that created “holiness.”  It’s an extension of the idea of the worth of the individual human being: when such human beings act in ways that help to bring out that precious worth in each, we create something that serves, in an ethical society, the same function as a priestly dedication of a space might serve for another group with different emphasis and beliefs.

When our Society got started, using rental space, we had no way to put that wording on our space, so we included it explicitly as part of opening words.  Now, thanks to the creative and generous gift of member Amy Anderson, we have a banner with the words on it to put on the speaker’s lectern.   And so, it would be redundant to use the words as part of our opening.

Any change in ritual — even in groups like ours that eschew ritual or deny that we have rituals — will bother some, and please others.  For the remaining months before our summer break, we’re going to experiment with some different opening words, seeing how they work.  I’d ask that you not react just the first time you hear them, but “try them on for size” as you hear them several times over the next few months.  Then, in June, take some time to reflect on which words resonated for you, and which ones didn’t.  And also take some time to listen to others about which of the opening words resonate for them, and which haven’t resonated.

Perhaps some of the words will just take hold, like the candleholder of the “ethical person” migrated from the food table at a festival to the front table and transplanted what had been at the front table, with very little comment from members — and now she or he just seems to be part of our Sunday mornings.

It seems no matter what words we use in the script for Sunday morning, some people like some parts, and dislike others.  We’d love to magically find something that speaks to everyone — whether a founding member or a curious newcomer sitting in our midst for the first time, or everyone in between — and that’s not likely to happen.  But who knows?

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments the better.”  In our non-ritual rituals, let’s give these experiments some time, and see what happens.