Dozens, if not hundreds, of Unitarian Universalist congregations have a covenant that begins with words to the effect of “Love is the Doctrine of this Church”. These words appear all across UUA.org in handouts and discussions. They even appear in our hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition (#471).
Love: a word with too many meanings
We throw out the word “love” a lot in the English language. We all want a lot of certain kinds of love; love as a noun that we can feel and wrap ourselves up in. We also treat love as a verb; we love spouses and siblings and friends, but we also love potato chips and cookies. I love what the Rev. Fred Rodgers, television icon and community minister extraordinaire, said:
“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”
That is the kind of love we mean here. Loving the world isn’t simple, and we will have to practice it, but we have faith that it is worth working towards. Is that faith enough to warrant the opening quote?
Is it fair to say that Love is our doctrine, as a faith? It does not appear in our Principles, though it is mentioned twice in our sources. That alone says much about the role of love in our religious movement; it is not an aspiration, as our Principles are. Our second source talks of prophetic people who “challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love”. Love, then, is the energy with which we do the work of bring those Principles into being.
What about the word “doctrine”?
(noun) something that is taught, believed in, or considered to be true.
So, a doctrine is assumed to be true and factual and is foundational to the teachings of a group or organization. That certainly rings true for what I know of Love and Unitarian Universalism. We teach that love is a source of power and strength. We teach that it can be a guiding force in problem solving and community building.
Our Doctrine, that which is central to what we believe and teach, is definitely love. We want to extend love to every person who will accept it, even if they are not ready to love us back. Unitarian Universalists aspire to convince the world of the inherent worth and dignity of all people, and we hope to encourage them to recognize it in themselves. We strive to look at each other as family; very different people who have different views, but who are looking out for each other and what we share.
Two entries down from #471, we have a different covenant with very similar wording; similar but very different in meaning, as befits the congregational nature of Unitarian Universalism. #473 says, “Love is the spirit of this church…”. That important change shifts Love’s function from a thing we teach to a thing that lives in us. “Spirit”, in many languages, is homophonous, even identical, to the word “breath”. This feels more aspirational than the other version, but we can hope to get there, one day.