“No UU culture there is….”

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.”

Hmmmmm, indeed.

9 thoughts on ““No UU culture there is….”

  1. Jaume

    Thank you for your thoughtful contribution to this reasoned debate. I found it most enlightening.

  2. Bill Baar

    That whole issue of UU World made us look an awfully introverted Church, and an odd bunch who immediately size up others by how they’re not like us.

    That can be awfully off-putting to others who may not feel they’re all that different from us to begin with.

    I’d had to bring my Hispanic nieces to Church and have them greeted as different because I’m quite certain their thought is they’re no different at all from anyone in my Church.

    We seemed totally ill-at-ease in our own-skins in that UU World.

    That kind of estrangement just leaves everyone else uncomfortable with UU Churches.

  3. Dan

    Steve @ 4 — Jason Shelton’s article did not ring true for me. OK, so he happens to know lots of UU dorks, but the UU congregations I’ve been a part of have not been dominated by “dorky” people — more sports fans than dorks, in fact. As a self-proclaimed geek, I often feel like a fish out of water in UU settings — just the other day, I was talking to someone at this church who didn’t know what XKCD was!

    As for Star Wars, I work with kids, so I think of the Star Wars phenomenon as kids’ culture. Maybe my problem is that I’m such a geek that Star Wars seems mainstream to me. A reference to THX-1138, now that would be geeky….

  4. Victor

    The problem with most UUs who claim to be rationalists is that they are supremely irrational about religion. Any rational human would acknowledge that reason has limits, and that the search for truth involves exploring that which is largely unknowable by scientific means. Pascal says it best: “La coeur a ses raisons que the raison ne connait pas.” Mysticism, therefore, plays an important part in most religions traditions. Many of the smart and educated people I know who have gone to UU churches and weren’t impressed all tell me the same thing – there’s no sense of wonder, no sense of entering a sacred time and space. Living ethically and trying to save the world are noble goals – but most people (at least those who weren’t traumatized by early childhood religious experiences) are looking for something more from a religion.

  5. Dan

    Bill @ 6 — Yes, and there is no joy in San Jose or Silicon Valley tonight because of those doggone ‘Hawks.

    Victor @ 7 — Bingo.

  6. VB

    If we say reason is the highest virtue, then say we want to attract “diverse” people, what do we have to offer them beyond reason? A “church” that lives in its head is a dying institution these days; hoping that “rational faith” will attract a wider audience, in a culture that runs on direct transfer of emotion from the TV screen to the brain stem, is a losing proposition. Continuing to act like “God’s frozen people” will not get the job done.

    If we want to attract a diverse population, then we will have to stop being who we are now. We will have to stop preaching sermons that sound college lectures. We will have to start singing songs that make people want to jump up and clap and sing at the top of their voices. We wll have to hear meditation readings that stun us into awed silence, or wipe tears of joy or compassion from our eyes. We will have to hug everyone that comes through the door and tell them – truthfully – how glad we are that they came to us.

    That’s not who we have been, traditionally. We are comfortable being who we are and doing things like we have always done them. But as Anthony Robinson pointed out, you can get everything that model has to offer at the bookstore, the yoga class, the internet chat group. Why go to church if you don’t get connection or transformation?

    If we want to be something radically different than we are, we will attract different people. The message here, familiar and probably uncomfortable to those who grew up Christian, is “you are broken, but if you are ready to drastically change your life, you can be healed”. Are we really ready to do that?

    I see it happening in a few places (the recently posted video about Oak Ridge TN’s “celebration service” was very encouraging), but it’s going to take some deep, systemic change for that to become our standard operating procedure.

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