In an article titled “Can Unitarian Universalism Change?” published in the spring, 2010, issue of U[nitarian] U[niversalist] World magazine, Paul Rasor made this statement: “Unitarian Universalism has its own cultural tradition, one that is rooted in European-American cultural norms and ways of being in the world.” That simple statement has unleashed a torrent of verbiage, both in print and online. The summer, 2010, issue of UU World magazine offers seven different responses to the question, “What is UU culture?” and Unitarian Universalist bloggers have gone at great length trying to articulate what “UU culture” might be.
A closer reading of Paul’s article offers a pretty good definition of what he means by a Unitarian Universalist culture “that is rooted in European-American cultural norms.” More specifically, Paul mentions the norms of European-American modernism: “Unitarian Universalism has for the most part adopted the core values of modernity, including its emphasis on human reason, the autonomous authority of the individual, and the critical evaluation of all religious truth claims.” Paul goes on to make a modest-sounding but very radical statement: “We cannot reason our way into multiculturalism.” That means that the usual tools of reason — debate, argument, reasoned essays and articles, thoughtful conversation — won’t create multiculturalism. I would offer a corollary to Paul’s argument: if you want Unitarian Universalism to remain white and uni-cultural, stick to reasoned debate.
Following immediately upon Paul’s article in that same spring, 2010, issue of UU World, was Rosemary Bray McNatt’s article, titled “We Must Change.” She says it’s not just that “UU culture” encompasses more than race: “We… underestimate the reality of resistance [to multiculturalism] in our congregations, a resistance rooted not so much in racism as in matters of class and culture.” Those who are continuing the conversation in print and online have picked up on Rosemary McNatt’s article, and they keep trying to have reasonable discussion and debate about “UU culture” — does it include listening to National Public Radio stations, and not listening to hip hop? — and then try to reason how we might get change that culture.
Reasonable debate, however, turns out to be a fairly useless strategy. You can reason it out this way: Social systems can be modeled as multi-loop non-linear feedback systems, which means their behavior will be counter-intuitive. Therefore, if the majority of Unitarian Universalists stop talking about National Public Radio, and start listening to hip hop music, that only affects one feedback loop within the complex multi-loop system; the equilibrium of the overall system will not change. If we want to change and become multicultural, reason is the wrong tool for the job; reason is simply inadequate for developing a sufficiently accurate mental model that would adequately guide us into multiculturalism.
How then are we to change? It will be messy. A decade and a half of experience with congregational social systems has led me to believe that true change happens in one area when you are working on something that is only tangentially related. Want to grow your children’s program? Don’t bother with advertising aimed at new families, pour your energy into teacher training and youth ministries. Want to increase worship attendance 10% in a year? Ignore your membership committee, and instead teach your congregation how to sing lustily. Want to become multicultural? Don’t effusively welcome the people of color who actually do show up at your church, but instead claim your congregation’s identity as an introverted church (or your identity as an extroverted church, if that’s the case).
Not that it’s that simple: there is no step-by-step checklist that will lead to multiculturalism — that would be too reasonable to work. Throw out your checklists and your reasoned arguments. If I might quote Yoda: “No UU culture there is. Only people who are UU, there are. Hmmmmmm.”