CESNUR 2004 INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE
The name Unification Church may seem a misnomer. Of all the new religious movements that have come into prominence since World War Two - with the possible exceptions of the suicide cults - the Unification Church (UC) has probably generated the most public antagonism. Academics who are involved in the study of new religious movements (NRMs) often pride themselves that their approach is objective, neutral or value free, thus implying that their writings avoid the kinds of conflict that are apparent in evangelical Christian polemic, anti-cult writing, or media coverage. In this study, with special reference to the Unification Church (now the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification), I hope to argue that, although academic writing seeks to avoid or at least minimise the confrontational stance that is characteristic of these critics, it nonetheless entails inherent conflicts of its own, which are not possible to eliminate.
The idea, often professed by academic researchers, that we study the phenomenon, but do not seek to change it, undoubtedly contrasts with the approaches taken by mainstream Christianity, by the anti-cult movement (ACM), and by most (not all) sectors of the media. Such approaches are generally aimed at making a difference to a current perceived situation. In the case of the Christian counter-cult movement, the aim is to persuade members and seekers away from the cult: as one British counter-cult organisation puts it, its aims are to [e]xamine in the light of the evangelical Christian gospel the beliefs and spirituality of people within the cults, occult and new age and all not upholding biblical truth and [t]each and share the evangelical Christian gospel (Reachout Trust, 2004). The secular anti-cult movement (ACM) only differs in not recommending an alternative faith or worldview: the principal objective is to minimise cult involvement, to raise public awareness, and to instigate whatever political action they reckon is needed to combat the threat. In Britain, one organisation urges parents and friends to write letters to their Member of Parliament, the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury, asking for action to be taken.
The approach taken by mainstream churches has aimed principally at maintaining true doctrine and seeking to exclude unsound doctrine. Throughout the history of the Unification Church this has meant exclusion; even before its foundation in 1954, Moon was associated with a number of fringe Christian groups, whose orthodoxy was questionable (Chryssides, 1991). Shortly after its inception, the Unification Church unsuccessfully attempted to establish a rapport with the Apostolic Church (Chryssides, 1990). Subsequent attempts to enlist the support of mainstream churches in the West were doomed to failure: the UC attempted to secure membership of the New York City Council of Churches (NYCCC) in the USA, and the (then) British Council of Churches (BCC) in Britain. Both attempts failed, the grounds of conflict being theological. As the NYCCC explained, their principal objections included the UCs doctrine of the Trinity and the person of Christ, its doctrines of grace and salvation, its interpretation of scripture, and Moons claims that the revelations of Divine Principle constituted a new, ultimate, final truth. The Churchs way of dealing with heresy today now involves few trials and ex-communications of heretics within; it prefers instead to keep heretics out. In the case of NYCCC, the UC decided to sue, thus exacerbating the conflict; perhaps predictably, they lost. This application prompted a study of Unificationist teachings by the Commission on Faith and Order of the National Council of Churches, which firmly concluded that The Unification Church is not a Christian Church. (Commission on Faith and Order, 1975; cited in Kelley, p.3).
Media coverage of NRMs, with perhaps a few exceptions, tends to reinforce public prejudices or preconceptions. At times, it can have a campaigning role, as in the case of Daily Mail in 1981 - an example of a campaign that had a marked effect on the Unification Churchs development in Britain. The Daily Mail had published an article on the UC entitled The church that breaks up families. The UC, tired of media hostility, decided to sue, and the result was the (then) longest libel case in British legal history. The UC lost: this piece of bad fortune not only affected their finances; the judge recommended that their charitable status be reappraised - a recommendation that led to a further legal battle in 1986, when the Attorney General issued a summons, which caused them to defend their charitable status. On this second occasion, the UCs fortunes were restored; the case was finally dropped. However, they had already been demoralised in 1981, when half of the UCs full-time membership left Britain, hoping that they would fare better in the USA.
These thumbnail sketches of conflicts provoked by these interest groups serves as a prelude to examining academic methods of studying NRMs. Professedly, an academic approach is non-judgemental: when I first started to research new religions, people would make remarks like, I hope you are doing an exposé of the Moonies, and I had to counter this misperception, trying - often vainly - to explain that the academic is not the inquisitor or the campaigner, but seeks to inform, to discuss, to analyse and explain. Those of us who were reared on phenomenology as our principal methodological tool will, of course, of course recall the three Es - epochē, empathy, and eidetic vision - the notion that by holding back our assumptions and trying to experience what it is like to belong to a movement, as from within, will yield insight into the objective, true form of the religion that is being studied (Van der Leeuw, 1938; Sharpe, 1977).
Phenomenology has now been largely abandoned, for various reasons that go beyond the scope of this presentation. However, its legacy still remains, for example in notions that the scholar is the outsider, non-involved, and, although at times in a participant-observer role, this role must not have any impact on the phenomenon that is being studied. A book on research methods, much used by undergraduate students, says the following about ethnographical research:
In order to produce a pure and detailed description, ethnographers will wish to avoid disrupting the situation by their very presence as observers in the field. They will wish to preserve the natural state of affairs. And this is why naturalism is a key concern of ethnography. The ethnographers concern with naturalism derives from the wish to study things in their natural state - undisturbed by the intrusion of research tools or the disruption of experimental designs. Going into the field to witness events first hand in their natural habitat lies at the very heart of what it means to do ethnography. (Denscombe, 1998, p.71).
Not all scholars who have studied the Unification Church would claim to be ethnographers. Some manifestly are not, for example theologians who have offered a theological critique of Unificationist theology. Nonetheless, ethnographers or not, there is a convention in academic circles that we seek to be objective: our subject-matter is like a natural environment with a delicate ecological balance, and, whatever we do, in whatever field of study, we must take great care that this balance is not disturbed by our academic intrusion. As Eileen Barker has stated, the academic seeks to be value-free, although this does not entail that his or her work is value-less (Barker, 1989, p.x).
The first serious academic study of the Unification Church was by John Lofland, published as Doomsday Cult (1966). Since the Unificationist converts were only a very small group at the time, Lofland researched them in the name of sociology of deviance, and as a piece of early ethnography. Since the group was little known, Lofland preserved name anonymity, using pseudonyms throughout. Several of these early members are now identifiable, largely through Michael Micklers later study entitled A History of the Unification Church in the Bay Area 1960-74. Loflands methodology involved living in - a method which itself involved tensions, since Lofland was largely unsympathetic to the beliefs and practices of the group. Loflands statement in the second edition, regarding the DPs subsequent development, that Outsiders could no long so easily dismiss DPs as sickly incompetents huddling together in an obscure religion, (Lofland, 1966, p.259), is a fair indication of the way in which the author portrayed them in his original study. Loflands own presence in the group was sufficiently problematic to cause him to have to leave. (Different accounts exist as to the circumstances of Loflands departure: Lofland claims it was voluntary, whereas the UCs version is that he was asked to do so.)
Loflands study, together with the somewhat more hostile cult critiques raised the question of what induces followers of obscure religions to accept their beliefs and practices. The popular belief that no right-minded person could subscribe to the doctrines set out in Divine Principle, coupled with the intense programmes of teaching offered at UC seminars, gave rise to the mind control or brainwashing theories. Academic literature began to address the question of the process that took place when someone joined the Unification Church. The best known, and probably the most valuable contribution to the debate is Eileen Barkers The Making of a Moonie: Brainwashing or Choice? (1986).
In the meantime, another type of academic study was taking place. The Unification Church had set up a number of satellite organisations for the purpose of furthering scholarship and bringing scholars together internationally. The two main umbrella organisations for this purpose were the International Cultural Foundation (ICF) and the International Religious Foundation (IRF). The former was for the purpose of bringing scientists (including human and social scientists) together, while the latter focused on religious issues, with particular emphasis on ecumenism (both world ecumenism and Christian). Although these conferences were set up under the auspices of the Unification Church, and were ultimately funded by it, their advisory panels consisted of a variety of scholars, not exclusively Unificationists. Already, the ecological balance was being disturbed: scholars were now becoming part of the phenomenon, and not merely observers of it, emerging as an important part of the UCs development.
One set of conferences set up under the aegis of the IRF was the Introductory Seminar, aimed at academics and clergy who wanted to know more about Unification teachings, as set out (mainly) in Divine Principle. The one at which I was present in Athens in 1984 attracted some 300 attendees, and sessions were addressed largely by younger UC leaders, who were then in the process of completing PhD degrees. The Introductory Seminar therefore served a variety of purposes: not only did it provide the attendees with the opportunity to hear a first-hand version of UC teachings, uncoloured by Christian evangelical and anti-cult critiques; it afforded these up and coming UC theologians with the opportunity to defend Unificationism against fairly weighty - although not hostile - criticisms, and to develop the Unification Churchs own theology.
Such conferences gave rise to a number of publications of proceedings, sponsored by UC publishing houses, bearing the imprimaturs of the Rose of Sharon Press, Paragon House, New Era books, as well as HSA-UWC and the Unification Theological Seminary. In some cases, the Unification Church initiated dialogues with scholars from a variety of world traditions, and in some cases responses to Unification theology from mainstream scholars were actively sought. One example of the latter is Herbert Richardsons anthology, Ten Theologians Respond to the Unification Church. Attendees at such conferences, and anti-cultists alike, sometimes speculated as to the UCs motives for expending such large amounts of money on conferences. The cynical suggestion was that the UC, faced with its poor reputation from the 1970s, wanted to improve its image and gain credibility. Some attendees hinted that Moon, whose ideas were substantially derived from Confucianism as well as Christianity, had - like Confucius and his disciples - a high regard for scholarship. Others saw the aim as being consistent with New ERAs declared purpose, as expressed in Ten Theologians, namely to unify Christianity as a basis and example for establishing unity among the religions of the world (Richardson, 1981, p.ix). It is not my purpose here to adjudicate on the UCs motives, or what might be meant by the unification of Christianity and world religions. For the purpose of my argument it is sufficient to note that participating non-UC scholars did not avoid disrupting the situation by their very presence or study things in their natural state: they had interacted with Unificationism, providing it with opportunities for development and reflection.
Some pieces of research were brought out through publishing houses that were independent of the UC. Notable examples were Sebastian Matczaks Unificationism (1982) and Joseph H. Fichters The Holy Family of Father Moon (1985). My own The Advent of Sun Myung Moon (1991) was born in the environment of the 1984 New ERA Introductory Seminar, and the circumstances and the path of the research are explained there. What is not explained, and indeed could not have been, is the possible effect my work had on the UC. At the time of writing that book, I was aware that there were a number of sensitive issues which impinged on my treatment of the theme - in particular, the details surrounding the Blessing (popularly called the mass wedding) and its various ancillary ceremonies. Until then, such details were known only to members and to seminar supporters whom the UC leaders trusted. The use of works like The Tradition, the UC liturgical manual, normally available only to members in good standing, presented dilemmas: on the one hand, I had been given it by a senior Korean leader; on the other hand I knew that UC members were wary about wider disclosure. Twenty years on, anyone who wants to consult The Tradition, as well as other publications such as Master Speaks, can now do so freely through the Internet. While I would not go so far as to claim that the disclosures in my own book prompted the UCs decision to make such documents public, the activities of academics, among others, inevitably has a bearing on a religious organisations decision to go public on formerly esoteric teachings. It is clearly better, from the UCs point of view, that such things are made known through the UC, rather than some independent researcher.
It should be apparent that ones status as a researcher on new religious movements neither involves the detached role of the onlooker, nor an opportunity to see the world and live in luxury hotels with all expenses paid. The researchers role involves several areas of conflict, which are difficult, if not impossible, to resolve.
The effect of academic participation in UC-sponsored events raised questions, both about ethics and about objectivity. The ethical conflict for participants largely related to questions of accepting funding. Where had the monies come from? Was it right to accept funding that came from members working long hours to sell flowers and candles for the movement, or from investments which were at least in part in armaments? Although the organising panels of ICUS and IRF substantially included academics who largely did not belong to the UC, ultimately those who held the purse strings had the final say in who could participate in such gatherings. It was well known that participants were assessed, and those who were considered unacceptable found that subsequent invitations were withdrawn. Academic study was therefore placed within the control of the Unification Movement, and hence was not wholly neutral.
A further concern about participation was whether accepting such invitations made one a cult apologist. This term, coined by anti-cult movement (ACM) is dangerously ambiguous, and perhaps deliberately so. The word apology literally means putting in a word (logos) away from (apo) an opponent. Historically, the term apology was used by early Christian writers such as Tertullian and Justin Martyr, and their apologies were a defence of Christianity, either against heretics or against non-believers and detractors; hence the apologist was one who had accepted the movements worldview and commended it to its opponents. It scarcely needs pointing out that few, if any, academic (outsider) researchers have endorsed the teachings and practices of the Unification Church. Much more common is the phenomenon of members of NRMs who have wanted to deepen their knowledge of religion and have turned to academic study: from apologist to student or researcher.
However, there is a weaker sense of apologia - which is not carried out from the standpoint of commitment, but from the conviction that criticism or treatment has been unjust, and needs rebuttal from an outside source - putting in a word for a controversial and perhaps unpopular religious movement? There is a strong case, surely, for putting in a word of defence on behalf of any organisation that has been misunderstood, unjustly maligned, or victimised. Academics have an obligation to portray our subject-matter in as impartial and accurate a way as possible, and to inform and influence public debate. Academics who enter the field of NRMs are frequently asked to sign petitions, or write to politicians or mainstream religious leaders, lending support for some difficulty experienced by an NRM. One important issue for the Unification Church in Britain at the time of writing is the continued refusal of the Home Office to provide the Rev Moon with a visa, which would enable him to enter Britain. What should a scholar of new religions do?
These are not easy conflicts to resolve. Different academics have different personal rules. The present writer does not pass on chain e-mail petitions, and does not write to politicians at the behest of NRMs. Other academics go further, some refusing to engage in any form of campaigning, or declining to attend events sponsored by NRMs, and some even refusing to act in courts of law as expert witnesses - a role which the present writer construes as impartial.
Throughout my own research on NRMs, I have to confess that I found a blurring of the textbooks categories: insider/outsider, supporter/observer, campaigner/expert witness, researcher/friend. Even sympathy/empathy has blurred edges: I often sympathise with ideas and concerns that NRMs, although never to the point where I am even mildly tempted to join. One recent episode serves to illustrate some conflicts arising from these blurred categories.
In recent years there have been important changes in the UCs position on the Blessing, which has now been widened out beyond members of the Unification Church: this notion of widening access to the Blessing was reflected in the name change in 1996 to the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. Even before 1996, the UCs position was that membership of the organisation was less important than the Blessing: gaining entry to the Kingdom of Heaven is not through becoming a member of the UC, but through blessed marriage. Increasingly it was taught that, as the UCs own members paid indemnity (compensation to God, which atones for sin), the requirements for the Blessing became less stringent. In the mid-1980s eligibility for the Blessing involved being formally matched by Moon, acquiring at least three spiritual children, paying a fairly substantial fee, and taking part in a series of ceremonies, the details of which are described in The Advent of Sun Myung Moon. Such requirements have been greatly relaxed as the Blessing is made available to outsiders, who can be asked to sign a simple statement relating to family values, and to consume a small amount of wine. (They may not necessarily be told that this is the holy wine, made according to the recipe approved by the Rev Moon, and of the kind employed in the Holy Wine Ceremony that preceded the traditional Blessing.) Ones spouse, of course, is normally the person to whom one is already married: the UC would not normally encourage already established partners to divorce. Sometimes high profile people have participated in the old-style Blessing and attracted publicity: the most notable example in recent times is the Roman Catholic Archbishop Milingo, whom Moon married to Maria Sung on 26 May 2001.
This relaxation in requirements explains the seemingly astronomical numbers of Blessing participants in recent times, which now run into the millions, apparently at a single ceremony.
1988/1989 8,000 (actually 6,500 + 1,275)
2000 400,000,000 (10 February 2000)
Of course it is impossible that such numbers are present in any place at any time. The participants in the 2000 Blessing are the equivalent of 6.5 times the population of Britain! These are names taken to a ceremony over which the Rev or Mrs Moon preside. One way of obtaining such high numbers is for the UC to invite sympathisers to seminars on various themes such as Family Life, where part of the programme consists of a re-dedication of ones marriage, or an affirmation of family values. An ex-member informed me recently that another way of obtaining such numbers is through the zeal of UC members, who, mindful of the fact that it the holy wine is the crucial substance in the Blessing, secreted minute quantities of wine in foods that they then offered to non-members. One informant told me of members who went around with candy bars whose ingredients included a drop or two of wine, thus enabling the UC to claim to have blessed anyone who partook.
This information was given shortly after my wife and I had been invited to dinner by a Unificationist couple whom we had not seen for years, and who were most pressing in their invitation, which we accepted. While I have no reason to believe that the invitation entailed no more than a renewal of a friendship and an opportunity for the couple to inform us about a UC project in which they were involved, my informant speculated that our food may have contained small quantities of holy wine and that the meeting was designed to add numbers to their inventory of blessed couples. It is not my place here to adjudicate on what precisely took place, but merely to highlight a further conflict in academic research into NRMs. How near should one get, and should one place oneself in a position whereby an NRM can use the researcher for its own ends?
Can such tensions be resolved? In drawing to a conclusion here, I do not wish to open up a new discussion on possible methods of solving these academic dilemmas, even though some may think that this ought to be the aim of this article. Am I disturbing the ecological balance of the religions I study? I think the answer must be yes. Does it matter? Yes, it probably does, but to ask the question, Should I help to effect change in the religions I study? is really to ask, Should I be studying these religions at all? The only live question is, How much should I be changing them?, for changing a religious community by ones presence and ones study is inevitable, even though the change may be small. Does it matter if my researches cause me to disturb this ecological balance? Only, I suggest, if we adopt an old-fashioned and outmoded model of religious studies, whereby the researcher is the supposedly objective outsider, studying a phenomenon distinct from himself or herself, and trying to create from an epistemic distance what the phenomenologists called a bridge of understanding. The notion that the researcher is in the research, and not outside it, is now widely accepted, and the veracity of this post-phenomenological view, I believe, is reinforced by my discussion of the conflicts presented within the study of new religious movements.
Barker, E. (1986). The Making of a Moonie: Brainwashing or Choice? Oxford: Blackwell.
Barker, E. (1989). New Religious Movements: A practical introduction. London: H.M.S.O.
Chryssides, George D. (1990) The Welsh Connection: Pentecostalism and the Unification Church; Religion Today, vol 5, no 3, pp 6-8.
Chryssides, George D. (1991). The Advent of Sun Myung Moon. London: Macmillan.
Commission on Faith and Order of the National Council of Church (1975). A Critique of the Unification Church As Set Forth In Divine Principle. Quoted in affadavit of D.M. Kelley, 4 November 1987 in the High Court of Justice, Chancery Division; 1984-A-6263 and 1984-A-6264; Her Majestys Attorney General vs. Alexander Frederick Herzer and Hamerish Roderick Colin Robertson.
Denscombe, Martyn (1998). The Good Research Guide for small-scale social research projects. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Eu, Hyo Won. Divine Principle. New York: Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, 1973.
Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (2001). True Love, Marriage, and Ideal Family. <http://home.online.no/~raygd/marriage.htm>. Last updated 6 April 2001; accessed 15 June 2004.
Ferguson, J. and E. J. Sharpe (1977), The Study of Religion. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
Fichter, Joseph H. (1985). the Holy Family of Father Moon. Kansas: Leaven Press.
Kwak, Chung Hwan (1985). The Tradition, Book One. New York: Rose of Sharon Press.
Kwak, Chung Hwan (1985). The Tradition, Book One. In Unification Home Page (2004). URL: <http://www.unification.net/tradition> Accessed 27 June 2004.
Lofland, John (1966). Doomsday Cult. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.
Matczak, S. A. Unificationism. New York: Edwin Mellen, 1982.
Mickler, Michael L. (1980). A History of the Unification Church in the Bay Area: 1960-74. M.A. Thesis, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley CA.
Reachout Trust (2004). Frequently Asked Questions. <http://www.reachouttrust.org/regulars/qanda/qanda.htm> Accessed 27 June 2004. See also any edition of Reachout Quarterly.
Richardson, Herbert (ed.) (1981). Ten Theologians Respond to the Unification Church. New York: Rose of Sharon Press.
Sharpe, E. J. (1977). Some Modern Approaches to the Study of Religion; in Ferguson, J. and E. J. Sharpe, The Study of Religion. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
Sontag, Frederick (1977). Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church. Nashville: Abingdon.
Van der Leeuw, G. (1938). Religion in Essence and Manifestation. London: Allen and Unwin.