Love is the Center of Unitarian Universalism
In surveys about values at the center of Unitarian Universalism the Article II Study Commission did, what came back overwhelming was love. And I am aware this may not resonate as the center for everyone. I’d like to explain why it is … for me.
Up until I was just 23, I had a view of love that was personal. I loved my parents, my younger sister and some of my childhood friends but I didn’t use that word more widely than that. Love was a term I reserved for people to whom I was in a committed relationship. I’d had that feeling for all the women I’d had romantic partnerships. I would have described my co-workers, classmates, housemates, and other relationships in my life as people for whom I had positive regard … but not love.
That changed on a February evening in 1980. I was at the Berkeley, California YMCA. I had just completed playing a game of chess unlike any game I’d ever played before. I’d played a lot of chess with friends and on the chess team at Newark High School in Delaware where I grew up. But I hadn’t played for several years and was out of practice.
I was playing that game that evening because I had planned to meet up with a young woman in one of my classes at U.C. Berkeley to whom I felt an attraction. She had a much better chess rating than I did. I’d asked if we get together to play a game and she suggested we meet at the YMCA where they had competitive chess tournaments every Friday night with skilled players.
Excited with anticipation, I walked from my home on Oxford Street, down Shattuck Avenue to the YMCA. Much to my disappointment, she stood me up. I was there so I thought I’d play a game. I got paired with an opponent who had a much better chess rating than I did. I figured I was going to lose badly so I just relaxed. I figured maybe I’d learn something that would improve my play.
What completely surprised me was the subjective experience of playing the game. It felt as though I was being internally guided as I considered my moves. Moves appeared effortlessly in my mind as if I was being directed to the correct moves to play. I won in about 26 moves. We replayed the game and analyzed it. We both agreed it was a strong game. I had brought a carnation for the woman who stood me up so I gave it to my opponent and left to walk home.
As I was walking down the stairs leaving the YMCA building, I had a very strong sense that I had just been given a lesson in the power of unconditional love. Not only had I been given a lesson, it wasn’t just for me, it was for me to share with others. This released an enormous amount of energy in me as my whole world view was being called into question. I started reassessing the rational scientific humanism I had grown up with. Something more was going on in me and around me I had no clue about.
I needed to find out more.
A couple of weeks later, another woman who was attending the UU Student Group hosted by a seminarian at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, invited me to go to a healing circle for my leg. I had been in an accident three years before. I had been hit by a car while on a moped that had badly broken my right leg. It had healed and I’d asked to have a large metal plate holding it together to be removed. Sadly, the result of that surgery was for a non-union to develop in the bone that I’d only recently discovered. About a month before I’d started wearing a leg brace to immobilize the bone hoping it would heal by itself.
I attended the healing circle with a big dose of skepticism. People sat in a circle and “channeled” energy with images of colors and vocalized sound to a person in the center who needed healing. As we did this together, I reconnected with the feeling of what had happened to me playing that game of chess. I realized that there was something more going on that spoke deeply to my heart that I needed to investigate.
As I look back from over 40 years perspective to these awakening experiences, part of me is a little embarrassed. It feels a little like watching an adolescent falling in love for the first time. I was experiencing a kind of love that I’d never experienced before, a kind that might be very familiar to other folks. It is a kind of love I later discovered has a name in the Buddhist tradition: metta, or loving-kindness directed beyond oneself without a specific object. It is a love like a light bulb that radiates on all directions indiscriminately.
The first place I discovered how to practice and develop it in Berkeley was with the American Sufis and the Dances of Universal Peace, called Sufi Dancing at the time. The object of their devotion was Allah, but the dances embraced a wide variety of divine names. These Americanized Sufis were cultivating the inner experience of love and devotion that was much more important than the name for God. And that inner experience of devotional love I found very satisfying. It fed a hunger I didn’t even realize I had.
All this time, I remained a lifelong Unitarian Universalist. I wondered whether what I was experiencing could connect with my childhood faith. It wasn’t until I visited the Oakland Unitarian Church and listened to the Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs preaching about the importance of spiritual practice and its development in Unitarian Universalism that I realized I could find a way to integrate the two together. And this new sense of ministry helped me begin to recognize I too might be able to bring the two together as a minister as well.
So much has changed in Unitarian Universalism since the early 1980’s. In the 1980’s, we defined ourselves as a religion of freedom, reason and tolerance. What was then an outsider vision of Unitarian Universalism has now found a strong home here and moved toward becoming the center of our faith. Love is now being proposed as the core of our religious tradition. And I’ve been part of the movement to help us begin to define religious language for that love as a value rather than a belief.
Will the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly delegates agree and make that change? Maybe you can be a delegate, cast a vote, and help make that determination.