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What is Love?

Given by Kara O'Neil, 10 February, 2019

As I sat down this week to work on this sermon, I reflected on why I’m standing at this pulpit in the first place. What is it that brings us to Unitarian Universalist Fellowship? What is the underlying force that brings us all together? For me, the answer came easily: Unitarian Universalists are built on Love.

But what is Love? And how does it define our practice, our rituals, our faith, our fellowship, our work, and our spirituality as Unitarian Universalists? To answer these questions, we must attempt to define the impossible, what love is – what it means - to us, individually and as a fellowship.

The ancient Greeks had many definitions of love, and offer a wonderful place to begin exploration of this simple word. When we think of love, many think of romance and passion. The Greeks called this love Eros – named after the Greek god of fertility. Our entire society is built on this concept of Eros. On the idea that passion rules all and that love is always sensual. And most of us have experienced the ‘magic’ of falling into Eros. It is undeniably powerful and consuming. But is this always a positive love, or, as the Greeks believed: is this also a dangerous force? Consider the sayings about how “love is blind” and “in love and war”. If Eros is equal to war, then it can be as dangerous as it can be beneficial. Moreover, it’s possible then that this is not the force of love so prevalent in the peace-seeking UU Fellowship. So, in the context of UUism, let’s talk about Love outside of Romance and Passion.

Next we have Philia, the love found in friendships and comradery. The sort of love found between warriors-in-arms. This love is a devotional, faithful love. It is singular in its purpose and often restricted to and within those who share the forged bond of trouble. It is necessary, and it is important, but it is not explanative of the all-encompassing love found in fellowship with not only our comrades-in-arms but strangers and new members who visit our fellowships.

Closely related to Philia is Philautia – love of self. This is a love the Greeks often associated with Narcisse and narcissism. Love of self is not only narcissistic, however. As with all things, control is the key. Aristotle stated, “All friendly feelings for others are an extension of a man’s feelings for himself.” This is still echoed today in the idea that one cannot care for others if one cannot care for oneself. It is necessary that we find balance between cutting out the world for love and loyalty only to the self, and knowing when it’s okay to own our needs and take care of that which makes us special.


As UU, we often work in acts of service. We pride ourselves on acceptance and we continuously work to 'fight the good fight'.  But let’s talk about the line between self-care and self-absorption. We must be carefully aware of the needs of our bodies, our minds, and our emotions.  The relation between the words “Philia” and “Philautia” is instructional. We must consider ourselves as our best comrade-in-arms. Every action or behavior demands a level of self-awareness: what are we doing, or  what can we be doing to mitigate self-absorption while offering the best of ourselves to the world?

How are we managing self-care as we define love in our fellowship?


And how are we tying this into our spirituality as UU members? 

All of which ties into the type of love that I believe defines UU the best: Agape.


Agape love is love for everyone. It is selfless love, extended to all. The word Agape has translated from Greek into Latin as caritas, the origin of the word 'charity'.  C.S.Lewis called this “gift love”, the love of giving oneself in service or knowledge to others, without expectation of return. This is the purest form of love, and often the most difficult. It is this sort of love that is found in the teachings of the Buddha, the writings of 1 Corinthians, ancient Celtic texts such as the Anam Cara, and more. This sort of selfless love is often referred to as The Golden Rule. It is one of the most prevalent similarities throughout religions and spiritual practices around the world.

If you will allow me to quote you some Wikipedia:

“The idea [of the Golden Rule] dates at least to the early Confucian times (551–479 BC) according to Rushworth Kidder, who identifies that this concept appears prominently in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and "the rest of the world's major religions". The concept of the Rule is codified in the Code of Hammurabi stele and tablets, 1754-1790 BC. 143 leaders encompassing the world's major faiths endorsed the Golden Rule as part of the 1993 "Declaration Toward a Global Ethic", including the Baha'i Faith, Brahmanism, Brahma Kumaris, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Indigenous, Interfaith, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Native American, Neo-Pagan, Sikhism, Taoism, Theosophist, Unitarian Universalist and Zoroastrian.[4][5] According to Greg M. Epstein, " 'do unto others' ... is a concept that essentially no religion misses entirely," but belief in God is not necessary to endorse it.[6] Simon Blackburn also states that the Golden Rule can be "found in some form in almost every ethical tradition". “

It is this love, this empathy and care for strangers and friends alike, that defines Unitarian Universalist fellowships around the world.

By this definition, love is not a noun, something to be named and left alone, as with Eros. This sort of Love is a verb on which we must act at every available moment. It is the overarching belief that built our 7 UU Principles which serve as a guideline for our discussions, a point of reference for our Social Actions, and a personal barometer for our spiritual practices. As Unitarian Universalists we must ask ourselves what each of these principles mean to us, personally, and as a congregation. We must question their application in our service and in our lives.

The first principle - the inherent worth and dignity of every person -  this is easy, right? But do we find this sometimes difficult in our day-to-day lives. Especially in a hierarchical system such as the military? Do we forget, sometimes, that the E-1 deserves to be heard, as much as the Captain? What do we do, in our day to day, that ensures we offer the worth and dignity of every person? What can we do differently? How do we extend Agape in a strict hierarchy such as the military?

Of course, this leads us to our second principle, that all human relations deserve Justice, Equality, and Compassion. Perhaps it is through an increase in compassion that we can bring more of the first Principle, that of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, to this world. What processes can we put in place to increase opportunities for compassion? How can we bring our spiritual principles to our day-to-day?

The third and fourth principles seem to be quite clearly informed by the ideal of Agape Love. They are: 3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations and 4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Though it is not an act of charity to accept and allow everyone to explore their own, right paths, it is certainly a charitable way to live. To give open space for unquestionable acceptance, to allow exploration of the self and the spirit, these are incredible gifts that mankind can give to one another. And they are gifts which are sorely needed in current times.


To accept is to give love in the form of safety and understanding. Acceptance is certainly a gift of love. It can be the most powerful gift you have ever given.


What are you doing to show those in your life that they are safe in your presence?


What small words, or tiny actions, can you engage in to give the gift of Acceptance in times when some may feel especially outcast?


How can you make spaces around you safe?

It is this ideal of understanding and safety which gives us our next two principles. The fifth and sixth UU principles are: 5. The right of conscience and the use of democratic process within our congregations and in society at large and 6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.


Once we inform our choices based on understanding and acceptance, democracy and justice become much more possible. To hear one another, and to give weight to each individual truth, this is love at its finest. The Unitarian Universalist faith is built on the idea that all humans deserve a voice – and that voice can be heard when love gives space. So while we live in a hierarchy of rank and privilege in the military, we can still allow for voice and understanding.


What ways can we let those who need it most know that they will be heard?

Ultimately, this all brings us to the seventh, and my personal favorite, UU principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. We all make up a piece of the world. No matter who we are, what we believe, or where our search for truth begins or ends, we make up a piece of the fabric which is life. This is a fabric woven from relationships with one another, friends, strangers, partners, spouses, comrades, and more. It is a fabric whose threads are strengthened or weakened by the push and pull of our actions toward one another.


It is a fabric woven most strongly in love. As I stand here today, looking out at our increasingly growing UU family, I think I know what it is that bring us to Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. I like to believe that I can make an attempt to define the underlying force that brings us all together. 


For me, the answer comes easily: Unitarians Universalists are built on Love. And love can hold the world together.

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