Introducing the Concept of Cultural Maturity

The twelve initial posts are series. Each is written so it can stand alone, but you will gain most (and most appreciate posts that follow) if you take time to engage them as a whole.

In my initial post, I introduced an observation that has more and more come to define my work:  Our times are demanding, and making possible, new steps  in our human development—an essential “growing up” as a species (what I call simply, Cultural Maturity).

This second article provides a brief “preview of coming attractions” for later pieces. Some of the articles in this series will directly address this needed “growing up”—what it entails, why it is necessary, what makes it possible. But more often I will take one specific human challenge and examine how changes in the ways we think and act will be required if we are to address it effectively.

Here I briefly introduce seven such challenges. Each will get stand-alone treatment in later pieces, but acknowledging them together helps give a feel for Cultural Maturity’s larger task and its importance. (With each one, I include links to more extended writings for those who would like to get a head start.)

What does it mean to act morally in a world without obvious moral guideposts? Up until recently, culture, like a good parent, provided us with clear rules to live by. Our task was simply to understand and obey those rules. Today, traditional guideposts serve us less and less well. And what has emerged to replace them at best provides temporary benefit. The anything-goes moral relativism of postmodern perspective in the end leaves us rudderless, this in an increasingly complex moral landscape. The postmodern solution reveals its ultimate inability to help us in the way values, today, often reduce to little more than “likes” and “clicks.” Continuing in this direction is not compatible with a healthy future—either a healthy future for individuals or a healthy future for the species as a whole. Cultural Maturity’s needed “growing up” offers that we might address moral questions with a systemic depth and nuance that has not before been an option. (See Culturally Mature Moral Decision-Making: Its Necessity and What It Requires  and What Cultural Maturity is Not #2: Postmodern Pseudo-Significance.)

How do we keep from destroying ourselves?  Throughout human history, collective identity has depended on dividing our worlds into “chosen people” and “evil others.”  Today, widely available weapons of mass destruction combined with an increasingly globalized world makes this way of defining ourselves increasingly problematical. Efforts at disarmament are appropriately applauded. But in the end they cannot be enough—the nuclear genie is out of the bottle. Our safety, in the long term, will depend on bringing greater maturity and sophistication to how we understand our human differences and relate to conflict. (See An End to War As We Have Known It  and Making Sense of Terrorism: What We Too Often Miss.)

How do we avoid making the planet unlivable? Climate change, global industrialization, and the broader effects of growing human population threaten to make the planet a less and less pleasant place to live. It is quite possible that the earth will eventually become unlivable even for us. Avoiding such an outcome will require that we step beyond our modern heroic mythology that makes limits only constraints to be overcome. Bringing greater sophistication—and ultimately wisdom—to our decisions requires that we better take into account systemic complexity and inherent limits to what often can, or at least should, be done. (See Climate Change and Culture’s Big Picture  and Asking Big Enough Questions: The Possibility of Human Extinction.)

How will the requirements of effective leadership change in times ahead? Trust in leadership of all sorts today is less than it was at the height of anti-authoritarian rhetoric in the 1960s. We could easily assume—and people have argued—that this modern lack of confidence in leadership reflects something gone terribly wrong—broad failure on the part of leaders, a loss of moral integrity on the part of those being led, or even an impending collapse of society. But culturally mature perspective  offers a more optimistic explanation. What it means to lead is changing—and in all parts of our lives, from what it means to make the most personal of choices to what is required to effectively lead organizations and nations. Along with altering how we go about making decisions, these changes invite important reflection about possible next chapters in how we think about governance and structure our governmental institutions. The picture is not all positive. Today we reside in an awkward in-between time in these changes. Too often what claims to be leadership comes close to being leadership’s opposite. But moving forward in how we embody and relate to leadership is both possible and essential. (See How Changes in What It Means to Lead are Redefining Our Human Task and Partisan Pettiness: An Abject Failure of Leadership.)

How will love change in times ahead? This question might seem primarily of a personal sort, less pertinent to big-picture cultural well-being. But it is relevant to what relationships of every kind will require of us in times ahead. While the modern age romantic ideal represented a powerful step forward from what came before it—having love’s choices made by one’s family or a matchmaker—it can’t be the last chapter in love’s story. In fact, what we have known is not really what we have assumed love to be about. We’ve thought of romantic love as love based on individual choice. More accurately it was “two-halves-make-a-whole” love—we made the other person our completion. In a sense we have not known before, love’s next chapter challenges us to engage love as whole beings. A related kind of change is reordering relationships of every sort. In the end, these changes challenge us to rethink not just relationship, but the nature of individual identity—and with this what it means to choose and to live purposefully. (See Understanding Today’s Radical New Chapter in the Story of Love  and The Myth of the Individual .)

What Will It Mean to Use New Technologies Wisely? Technological innovations will be key to future advancement. But just as important if we are to have a healthy and survivable future, we need to more effectively assess benefits and identify potential unintended consequences. These might seem like wholly technical tasks, but in fact carrying them out with the needed sophistication will require a maturity of  perspective that we have not before been capable of. At the least, we need to be more comfortable with limits that may exist to what it makes sense to do. It is our modern age tendency to treat technology as a god. If we continue to do so, our profound capacities as tool-makers could eventually be our undoing. “Technological gospel” thinking leaves us without the maturity of perspective needed to apply new technologies wisely. (See The Key to Artificial Intelligence Not Being the End of Us and What Cultural Maturity is Not #1: Techno-Utopian Delusions.)

How must we rethink the concept of progress if our actions are to in fact take us forward? Progress as we think of it in modern times describes an onward-and-upward trajectory of increasing individuality and material achievement. This definition has served us well, but it cannot continue to do so going forward—for multiple reasons. Beyond the fact that it is not environmentally sustainable, it should prove less and less successful at giving our lives purpose. Compelling pictures of advancement going forward must better take into account the full measure of human needs—not just individual accomplishment and material accumulation, but also human relationships, creativity, the health of our bodies, and our larger sense of connectedness in life. And there is more, though fully grasping the implications requires some conceptual stepping back. What Creative Systems Theory calls “The Dilemma of Trajectory” describes how continuing on as we have would sever us from aspects of who we are that are critical to being human. If this conclusion is accurate, it is not just that clinging to progress’s familiar definition would be unwise, doing so has stopped being an option. Our future depends on defining progress in more systemically complete ways. (See A New Story for the Future: Confronting Our Times Crisis of Purpose  and How Cultural Maturity Becomes “The Only Game In Town”.)

There are other questions that I didn’t include only because they might seem too abstract and philosophical—a bit too “ultimate.” But if our concern is the long term, they become at least as important. For example, there is the question of how we best understand death and our relationship to it. I’ve argued that a new, more mature relationship to death will be essential to health care’s future. I’ve also described how the implications for medicine are only one way revisiting this most basic of questions will alter daily life. (See The Profound—and Essential—Implications of a New Maturity in Our Relationship with Death.) Another ultimate question requires more detailed culturally mature concepts to usefully answer, but it begs for mature perspective: How do we best understand the historically conflicting perspectives of science and religion? Addressing this question is important not just so we can get beyond tedious, unproductive arguments. I’ve written about how learning to think more systemically about this particularly basic example of conflicting truths helps us learn to hold truths of every sort in more complete and encompassing ways. (See Science and Religion.)

Upcoming posts will examine each of these questions in more detail.

These posts are adapted from a series originally written for the World Future Society. They can be found in podcast form at


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