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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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“Ethical Religion” by William Salter

Mohandas Gandhi acknowledged that reading William Salter’s Ethical Religion was an influence on his own developing thought.*  The book was created from a collection of addresses Salter gave in his early years as Leader (equivalent of a minister) at the Chicago Ethical Society, and was published in 1889.

The following excerpt is my slight update of Salter’s words, using more modern language where his dated words might distract from his message for many of today’s readers. The original can be found and downloaded for free at Google Books.


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Clarence Darrow and the Ethical Society

Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center credited Clarence Darrow as an inspiration for practicing law in a way that helped the powerless. Clarence Darrow is remembered as someone whose motivations came from outside traditional religion.

I feel as I always have, that the earth is the home and the only home of man, and I am convinced that whatever he is to get out of his existence he must get while he is here.

Courtesy Library of Congress

Courtesy Library of Congress

Clarence Darrow’s father had studied to become a Unitarian minister at Meadville Theological School (then in Ohio), inspired to leave Methodism over slavery. He had been ordained, but doubts concerning God led him to start his own manufacturing business, instead. His wife also was what at the time was called a freethinker. They did name one son Channing, presumably for the early Unitarian leader, and another Everett for Edward Everett (the same Unitarian whose oration preceded Abraham Lincoln’s at Gettysburg, and was a contrast in its length of 2 hours compared to Lincoln’s very short address). Clarence was named Clarence Seward, remembering the ardent abolitionist and Republican Party founder who served as secretary of war during Lincoln’s presidency. (Darrow became associated with the Democrats in his own adulthood.)
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Reading from William Salter: The Higher Life of Humanity

From William Salter, an early Ethical Culture leader who had also been a Unitarian minister; adapted by Jone Johnson Lewis:

“The higher life of humanity is made of our higher impulses, our higher thoughts, our higher strivings. We all must live and we must work (or some one must work) for us to have the means of living. But this physical life is not its own end. It is not enough to eat and drink and sleep, to labor and amuse ourselves. In this way we may keep the body fresh, but the body is the servant of the soul. When we think, when we search after truth, when we aspire to bring our lives into harmony with the best that we know, when we wish to put ourselves in alliance with all the better and nobler forces in the world, then we are most truly ourselves, then we become aware how great are the heights and how rich are the rewards of living. May we enter into this higher life of the spirit today, may we in the brief time of our being together here give a welcome to all good thoughts, to all generous impulses, and may they stay with us and more and more make their home with us, so that gradually, little by little, our lives shall be transformed and transfigured by them.”

A. Eustace Haydon on Humanist Spirituality

A. Eustace Haydon, a signer of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto, Dean of the Department of Comparative Religion at the University of Chicago, a Baptist then Unitarian minister, and for some years a Leader in the Ethical Culture Movement (AEU) had this to say on the spirituality of humanism:

© Clipart.com - used with permission

© Clipart.com

“The Humanist rarely loses the feeling of at-homeness in the universe. The Humanist is conscious of being an earth-child. There is a mystic glow in this sense of belonging. Memories of one’s long ancestry still linger in muscle and nerve, in brain and germ cell. On moonlit nights, in the renewal of life in the springtime, before the glory of a sunset, in moments of swift insight, people feel the community of their own physical being with the body of mother earth. Rooted in millions of years of planetary history, the earthling has a secure feeling of being at home, and a consciousness of pride and dignity as a bearer of the heritage of the ages.”


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Differences between UU (Unitarian Universalism) and Ethical Culture

Note: the original of this message was written in 1998 as a contribution to the AEU email list, Dialogue, in 1998.  I might write it somewhat differently today, but I’m still in general agreement with these past words.

In my experience, and from long and many talks with people who identify themselves as Ethical Culturists or Ethical Humanists who are attending UU churches because there is no convenient or well-functioning local Ethical Society: the key differences between the two are not theological diversity (Ethical Culture has almost as great a proportion of naturalistic deists/theists as does the midwestern Unitarianism in which I grew up) nor “creed” but the following:


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