Why Shouldn't We Try to Shape the Culture?

Keith Goheen writes:

So what I am hearing you suggest is that we set aside our diversities and unite in opposition to a common enemy, those nefarious, negative and illiberal Samaritans of Christendom, the Fundamentalists, whom everybody hates anyway. If we sacrifice our inner conversation and focus outward on a mandate of positive values, our empire will flourish! People will recognize that we are the good, value-driven souls, and if they join with us in staying focused on the values, they will not have to attend to internal conflicts, either. Peace will reign! It's a catchy idea, but how does it square with Jesus' teachings?

I am tempted to repeat everything I have said in the last couple posts to show that Keith has reduced them to absurdity.  Something about a proposal of an assertive Unitarian Universalism trying to promote liberal values strikes him as aggressive and unhealthy.

But let's turn to the teachings of Jesus.  The ministry of Jesus was an embodied polemic against the theological trends of his time.  It was agitational and it was aggressive.  Scholars disagree about whether he was more angry with the Jewish orthodoxy of his time, or the Roman occupiers, or both, but no one doubts that he was pissed.

He did not stay home to befriend his inner Roman   Jesus was trying to shape his culture. All religions attempt to shape the surrounding culture.  They do so by influencing people on a personal level (what I call deciding to make the values of liberality the cornerstones of their lives, but Keith calls sacrificing our inner conversation), by building institutions (what I call healthy and thriving churches, but what Keith thinks is empire-building) and promoting beliefs and values in the culture at large, (which Keith scoffs at by equating it with being intolerant ourselves.)

I believe that liberal religion (which is a movement much larger than Unitarian Universalism) might have the impact on our culture in the next 20 years that conservative Christianity has had for the last 40 years.

If it does, we might see many of the things we wish for:  real advances against racism and sexism, world-wide work to slow climate change, real efforts to reduce inequality, more peace, less war.


  1. Jesus was pissed, but what was he pissed about? The marginalization rampant in his society and the use of scapegoating as a means to maintain social order.

    Red lining the Fundamentalists out of conversation and painting them as the opposition to the world of our dreams strikes me as the very kind of action that begins the memetic scapegoating ball rolling. Jesus told the Samaritan story as a means to show the Realm of God's inclusivity and emphasize God's valuing of genuine compassion. Where is your compassion for the red lined Fundamentalists?

    And how effective do Unitarian Universalists demonstrate this list of values you prescribe? Will visitors to our congregations experience the world we are trying to create outside our doors when they come inside our doors? I have a growing suspicion that Unitarian Universalists are eager to change the world to meet their expectations as a means to avoid doing the internal work necessary to meet the spiritual challenges of the coming world. We are substituting projection for prophetic vision.

    I am with you in realizing that the perils you site are real, are happening and will radically change our planet, and I agree that we must respond, but the response must be as innovative as the changes are radical, and everyone must participate. Building political clout by marginalizing the people whom you want to avoid is hardly innovative, nor is substituting political savvy for spiritual maturity. Besides, the culture is collapsing, why reshape that which is passing away?

    Jesus was a lousy politician, but power of his theological/spiritual maturity still calls us into right relationship. If we are doing the hard work in-house, it will flow out into the community, and we will be able to participate in the emerging reality without needing to be in charge of the changes, the way that Jesus modeled so brilliantly.

    Absurd? In the finest sense of the word.

  2. My word, Keith.
    I don't think that you are engaging in my argument seriously, but reacting anxiously to stray words and formulations. I feel that you are reading into me a version of the ultra-politicized UUism you don't like.

    My argument in a nutshell:

    1. UU's should stop trying to promote UUism as the primary goal of our public ministry, but instead try to promote the essential insights of liberal religion -- the cultural relativity of religion, that none of them possess a final truth and that they must be evaluated pragmatically. These are not platitudes, since they are explicitly contested in the public sphere. There is no reason why we should be shy about proclaiming our position on these important and contested issues.

    2. That UU's integrate our personal, congregational and public ministries around the virtues of liberality, which I have listed in various forms over and over again. Virtue or character based ministry does not assume an underlying theological unity, nor a unified political positioning.* Does the Buddhist insistence that one ought to develop compassion (a virtue) mean that they are seeking political clout, or imposing some unity on their adherents?

    3. I go further, on my own and as a result of my own thinking and experience, to argue that virtues of liberality have led me to specific stances within the environment we are in. I have my politics which I believe are derived sincerely from my spirituality. I take sides. I respect that others may take other sides or choose to sit this or that one out. I don't buy that spiritual maturity requires me to not take sides.

    *Evangelizing the virtues of liberality is the way out of theological competitiveness and political posturing as focus of UU ministry: They are the blind alleys of our movement.


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