The concept of Cultural Maturity describes how the future will require not just new ideas, but a fundamentally greater sophistication in how we think, act, and relate. It addresses what that new and greater sophistication involves, what it will ask of us, and also how it might be possible. The changes it describes impact how we think and act in every part of our lives, from the most personal questions of identity and relationship to broadly encompassing concerns of effective governance and global well-being.
The recognition that our times require new things of us is not by itself radical. Cultural Maturity-related changes have informed the best of practices and the best of thinking for quite some time. But the recognition of just how deeply new the needed new skills and capacities are is radical–like water to fish we can miss their full significance. More radical still is the observation what might seem like very different needed new capacities directly relate one to another. They come together as expressions of Cultural Maturity’s needed new chapter in our human story.
The concept of Cultural Maturity helps us in three primary ways. First, it provides a new guiding narrative in a time when stories we’ve traditionally relied on—from the American Dream to our various political and religious allegiances—serve us less and less well. Second, it identifies needed new skills and capacities that we can practice. Deeply understanding these new skills and abilities also helps us not misconstrue what our times ask of us (it helps us separate the wheat from the chaff in our thinking). Third, the concept of Cultural Maturity helps us develop the more sophisticated conceptual tools the future will increasingly require. (Cultural Maturity involves not just new ideas, but new ways of thinking—specific cognitive changes. Understanding those cognitive changes helps us develop new kinds of conceptual frameworks.)
We are often in denial about the magnitude of the challenges we face today. Or if we begin to step beyond denial, we become vulnerable to either hopeless and cynicism or naive wishful thinking, whether of the techno-utopian or spiritual easy answer sort. The concept of Cultural Maturity makes clear that effectively addressing today’s new challenges will stretch us profoundly. But it also offers both authentic hope and concrete guidance as we look to the future.
Events happening in other parts of the world, today, help put the concept in perspective. When we look to the best of changes in the Middle East, for example, we recognize that what we see is change of a “developmental” sort. The gradual emergence of more democratic principles represents progression from one chapter in culture’s story to another. Yet, curiously, we tend assume that modern western assumptions represent an end point, this in spite of how many of our institutions are failing at the tasks for which they were designed. The concept of Cultural describes how our current chapter in culture’s story can’t be an end point, and how we are already beginning to move beyond it.
The concept of Cultural Maturity can be applied as a general, stand-alone notion or as highly detailed formulation within Creative Systems Theory, a comprehensive framework for understanding change and interrelationship in humans systems developed by Charles Johnston and colleagues over the last thirty years. Briefly summarized, the concept of Cultural Maturity describes how our times require of us a critical “growing up” as a species. It proposes that without this essential next steps in our human development, a future rife with significant disorientation and anguish becomes a very real possibility. It also proposes that with these needed steps, we should be able increasingly to make choices that can take us forward in life-affirming ways. It also describes how this needed new maturity in how we think and act is not just possible, but predicted, if we can bring the needed courage and commitment to bear.
Cultural Maturity is not as easy a notion as the simple phrase “growing up” might suggest. But most of us get—whether consciously or not—that something like what the concept of Cultural Maturity describes will be necessary. Certainly, we appreciate that a sane and healthy future will require that at least we be more intelligent in our choices. We recognize that dealing with nuclear proliferation in an ever more technologically complex and globally interconnected world will be very difficult unless we can bring greater insight to how we humans relate. Similarly, people recognize that addressing the energy crisis, or environmental concerns more generally, will demand a newly sophisticated engagement of hard realities. People’s more immediate frustrations also show a beginning appreciation of the need for greater maturity. With growing frequency, people today respond with disgust—appropriately—at the common childishness of political debate, and at how rarely the media appeal to more than adolescent impulses.
And most of us also appreciate something further. We get that it is essential, given the magnitude and the subtlety of the challenges we face and the potential consequences of our decisions, that our choices be not just intelligent, but wise. Cultural Maturity is about realizing the greater nuance and depth of understanding—we could say wisdom—that human concerns of every sort today demand of us.
We can think of Cultural Maturity’s changes in terms of three essential recognitions. The first observes that culture’s guiding rules on all fronts—unswerving national allegiances, clear moral codes, tight bonds in community, and more—are becoming less and less reliable. The concept of Cultural Maturity describes how our times challenge us to step beyond the comforting surety of familiar cultural guideposts and assume a new maturity of responsibility in the choices we make both in our daily lives and as cultural beings. Globalization explains part of this new requirement. It is hard to hold fast to the absolutes of one’s own culture when the unquestioned beliefs of different cultures can be so decidedly at odds. But the concept of Cultural Maturity proposes that the diminishing power of past absolutes also has deeper origins: Who we are is changing.
The second recognition relates to just how we are changing. It concerns our relationship as individuals to our cultural contexts. In times past, culture has functioned like a symbolic parent in the lives of individuals. It has provided us with our rules to live by and, in the process, given us a sense of identity and connectedness with others. Culture’s parental dictates have also protected us from truths that would before have been beyond us to tolerate—how complex things can be, limits to what may actually be possible, the depths of life’s uncertainties.
This relationship is changing. The consequences of this shift in the relationship between the individual and culture is Janus-faced, at once about loss and possibility. We feel loss because the diminishing effectiveness of familiar cultural guideposts leaves us without familiar sureties. But in stepping beyond past cultural absolutes, we also at least gain the ability to choose outside the bounds of convention. Often we discover whole new kinds of options.
The third recognition concerns a further way in which who we are is changing that has particular significance. The concept of Cultural Maturity describes how today’s changing relationship between the individual and culture does more than provide greater freedom of choice. It brings with it fundamental changes in how we see the world and, more generally, in how we understand—specific cognitive changes.
This further kind of change is critical. If our future is to be bright, we can’t stop with just a loss of guideposts. The general notion that traditional absolutes are not serving us as before is a common theme in what people speak of as “postmodern” perspective. But what comes next after our guideposts are gone? If we merely lose traditional guideposts without gaining some new source of understanding, the best that can result is the illusory freedom of an “anything goes” world. Postmodern thought, while historically significant, at best reflects recognitions of a transitional sort. We need more if today’s loss of past guideposts is not just to set us adrift.
Understanding Cultural Maturity
We can get to the concept of Cultural Maturity in a variety ways each of which provides its particular perspective. Each is drawn on in this site’s reflections. We can look at the new challenges before us and examine the capacities they will require if we are to address them effectively. We can also apply developmental perspective. Creative Systems Theory describes how we find direct parallels between the challenges we confront in our times and those presented by the tasks of second-half-of-life maturity in individual development (and ultimately in second-half developmental tasks in formative processes of all sorts). (The concept of Cultural Maturity takes as its reference a very specific kind of “growing up,” not the fresh freedoms of adulthood, but rather the greater perspective and sense of proportion—and even wisdom—that potentially comes with life’s second half.) A next approach is cognitive. Creative Systems Theory describes how we can understand all of Cultural Maturity’s changes in terms of a developmentally predicted process of cognitive reorganization. With the resulting “Integrative Meta-perspective,” both more systemic understanding and more mature ways of acting and relating come to seem like common sense. We can also get at the concept of Cultural Maturity by comparing and contrasting its conclusions with other views of the future and what it asks of us.
In the end, the concept of Cultural Maturity is about leadership, though this in a particular sense. Its concern is not just good leadership, but the specific kind of leadership the future will require. It also about leadership understood most expansively. It is about what the future demands of all of us—personally and in associations small and large. What it entails is pertinent to leading nations or organizations, but just as much it concerns making good choices as lovers, friends, or parents. Ultimately, it is about leadership in the choices we make as a species.
If the concept of Cultural Maturity is accurate, its changes will define our core human task over the next twenty to fifty years. If we don’t make a good start with the “growing up” it describes during that time, we will pay a very high price. In the end, it defines humanities defining task far into the future. And, while it may stretch us to fully grasp, in the end, it defines today’s core task. The most important questions before us require culturally mature perspective not just is we are to effectively answer, but just if we are to understand them in ultimately useful ways.
While the concept of Cultural Maturity is radical in its implications and requires that we think in new ways, with familiarity, most people find what it describes straightforward—in the end, rather common sense. What is different is that this is a kind and degree of common sense that before now we could not have fully understood, or tolerated.
 For this reason, while the phrase “growing up” is initially helpful, I will always put it in quotes.