Religious Syncretism and Unification Theology

Unification Theology and
Religious Syncretism


No religious revolution…is
possible without paying the price of syncretism.

 � Carsten Colpe1

The study of comparative
religions has become a science at least at the level of history and textual
criticism.  But for this discipline to lay down laws of religious phenomena
would appear to be rather presumptuous.  Religious phenomena are in general
much like aesthetic phenomena:  they are very much tied to subjectivity and
the great variety of possible cultural responses.  To say that religious
behavior is lawlike is as absurd as saying that
all responses to the Mona Lisa or Bach’s piano works are going to be the


Nonetheless, some of the data
of the world’s religions are such that a few principles of comparative
religion can be proposed and tested. There are at least three principles of
comparative religion: (1) the Principle of
Religious Syncretism
; (2) the Principle of Theistic Evolution; and (3)
the Principle of the Savior Archetype.


Because of the uncertainties
pertaining to history, textual criticism, and psychology as sciences, we
hesitate to call these principles �laws.� Even though there is overwhelming
confirmation of religious syncretism, there are exceptions which are
instructive:  e.g., Judaism codified its theology after the birth of
Christianity in such a way that it has been virtually immune from syncretism


The Principle of Religious
Syncretism holds that when any two cultures meet and interact they will
exchange religious ideas with the dominant culture prevailing in the
exchange.  Current exemplifications of this principle abound.  Many
Christian sects in Korea are almost unrecognizably Christian because of the
profound syncretistic effects of Buddhism and native Korean belief.


The most fascinating example
of religious syncretism in Korea is the Unification Church.  Sun Myung Moon
openly confesses that his special revelation, although primarily Christian,
integrates the best aspects of Buddhism and Confucianism.  Unificationist
metaphysics especially shows the influence of Eastern dipolar concepts of
reality and deity.  Furthermore, the Rev. Moon boasts about his claim that
he is a Korean shaman � in the best sense of that word of course.


Most religions respond to the
charge of religious syncretism very defensively, for they believe that it
undermines basic claims to purity and uniqueness. In contrast, the
Unification Church openly embraces syncretism in an honest and refreshing


As we have
seen, the Principle of Religious Syncretism holds that when any two cultures
meet and interact they will exchange religious ideas with the dominant culture
prevailing in the exchange. The word �dominant� in this definition does not
necessarily mean numerical superiority. For example, a small group of Spanish
conquistadors essentially made Catholicism the religion of Latin America.
Similarly, but in a less violent way, Buddhism and Confucianism from China
became the major religious traditions of Korea. 


Yet in both Latin America and
Korea strong indigenous spiritual traditions remained, subtly influencing and
sometimes transforming the dominant religion. Shamanism most certainly played
this role in Korea. The impersonal tian of
Confucianism was personalized as the Korean Hananim; special Korean sutras
were composed with shamanistic flavor and ritual; and chants were done not
just for meditation but for administering cures as well.  Indeed, many Koreans
accepted Buddhism, as many native peoples have embraced Christianity, as
simply a superior form of shamanism.


One of the most interesting
examples of religious syncretism in Korea is Ch’oe Che‑u’s �Eastern Learning�
(Tonghak), which is now better known as the Religion of the Heavenly
Way (Ch’ondogyo).  Although not always admitting that his sources of religious
knowledge came from previous traditions, Ch’oe Che‑u freely synthesized
elements of Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism,
Shamanism, and Christianity. 


Like a good Confucian he
emphasized the five family relationships, and his belief that Heaven will help
only those who first cultivate themselves is strong Confucian humanism.  At
the same time Buddhist ideas of heart‑cleansing, body purification, and merit
making (kongtak) appeared in his thought.


Ch’oe’s view of nature and
creation were a mixture of Confucian and Daoist
speculation, and here he was willing to grant that he had been influenced by
the Daoists.  In fact, Key Ray Chong shows that a
story about Ch’oe being an immortal dragon/tiger has a striking resemblance to
attributes imputed to the Daoist sage


Shamanistic influences in
Ch’ondogyo also abound.  Altars on mountain tops were built to pay homage to
all the spirits of nature. Ch’oe used magic formulas and trances in his
religious rituals and his 21 character incantation has all the markings of a
shamanistic revelation.


Although Ch’oe played down the
impact of Christianity on his thought, evidence of its influence is clear.
Chong contends that Ch’oe believed in faith healing and he notes interesting
parallels between his and Paul’s conversion accounts. Finally, contemporary
Ch’ondogyo services occur on Sunday, Christian hymns are sung, and
Christian‑like sacraments are celebrated.


If we look at two Ch’ondogyo
mottos, we see some initial parallels to Unification thought. The first is
�Treat people as though they were God� (sa in yo ch’on), and the second
is �All live evolves towards a social oneness� (tong kwi il ch’e). The
second motto is certainly one to which all Unificationists would subscribe,
and I wonder if the Rev. Moon might not have been influenced by Ch’ondogyo on
this point. Both religions are to be commended for stressing so heavily the
virtues of human equality, benevolence, and justice for all.


Theologically, the first motto
reveals an Asian tendency, especially in Hinduism,
Buddhism, and Daoism, to identify God and the
world.  A Euro-American Christian would mitigate the
pantheistic implications by saying �children of God.� Unificationnist rhetoric
generally follows this qualification, but commentators have frequently
mentioned the implicit pantheism in much of Divine Principle. 


But there is no question that
pantheism is stronger in Ch’ondogyo; so strong, in fact, that it might be
accused of being a form of Titanism.2
Titanism can be found in any religion or philosophy that merges human nature
and the deity too closely. If the Ch’ondogyo claim
�Man is God� (in nae ch’on) simply means that human beings have a spark
of the divine in them, then Ch’o Che‑u’s view is not
.  But if we are to take this phrase literally and take it in
conjunction with other statements, then it becomes a
rather perverse form of radical humanism. I believe that
religions are correct in holding that, although intimately
related, God and his creatures constitute different orders of being.
Unificationist thought generally avoids Titanism by stressing the fallen and
finite nature of all creation and ultimate power of God to make all things


Some instructive contrasts with
Ch’ondogyo can be drawn by taking a closer look at the Unificationists’ view
of religious syncretism.  First, they are much more forthright about the
sources of the Rev. Moon’s thought. Rather than hiding these influences or
claiming the insights as their own, Unificationists celebrate the positive
contributions of Asian religion to their world‑view.
Second, while Ch’oe’s mixing of the various traditions is confused or
inaccurate, Unificationists have a clear, even scholarly, grasp of the various
traditions that make up the Rev. Moon’s theology. 


Third, rather than playing down
the Christian elements, the Rev. Moon is of course primarily a confessing
Christian who has attempted to adapt biblical revelation to a Oriental
setting. As Andrew Wilson states: �Divine Principle is an honest
indigenization [of Christianity] because it not only expresses the biblical
message in Confucian terms, but also allows the Bible to address and critique
Confucian life and values.�3


For example, Unificationists
believe that Christianity’s personal God is far superior to Confucius’
impersonal Providence, and they contend that Confucianism fails with regards
to philosophy of history and eschatology. The Neo‑Confucians made li
into a cosmic principle, but it was still static and unchanging. Divine
melds this neo‑Confucian idea, just as early Christians did with
the Greek logos, with the covenantal history of the Bible.


When confronted with evidence
of heavy Canaanite, Babylonian, and Zoroastrian influences in the Bible, many
Euro-American Christians react defensively, fearing
that to accept such claims would undermine the revelational purity and
uniqueness of Christianity. The response of most Orientals is just the
opposite, and the Unification Church’s open embrace of non‑Christian
influences is especially fruitful and refreshing.  Genuine ecumenism will come
only by recognizing the truth of religious syncretism.  The Christ of Origen
of Alexandria is just as much Hellenized as the Christ of the Rev. Moon is


The two most significant
Asian elements of Unification theology are the
relational ontology drawn from Buddhism/Daoism and
the emphasis on familial piety that comes from Confucianism. Many commentators
contend that one of the greatest mistakes of Hellenistic Christianity was its
acceptance of the substance metaphysics of Greek philosophy. The major effects
of this world‑view on Christianity were two‑fold: (1) viewing God as an
impassive, self‑contained substance made unintelligible any intimate relation
between God and the world; and (2) the Boethean doctrine persons as rational
substances blocked any true understanding of the emotional lives of both God
and human beings.


For example, Anselm’s prayer to
God � �Thou art compassionate in terms of our experience and not compassionate
in terms of thy being�4 � shows the
negative implications of Greek substance metaphysics. This Greek influence
forced the Church to declare that patripassianism � the view that God the
Father actually suffered on the Cross � a heresy when in fact it was the only
intelligible way to make the suffering of Jesus a truly redemptive event. 


Unificationists believe that it
is the suffering of God and humans together that genuinely redeems a fallen
creation.  It is here that the Orientalization of Christianity by the Rev.
Moon and his emphasis on the Heart of God makes its most profound
contribution. A combination of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah and the
Buddhist Bodhisattva ideal has led to a new powerful interpretation of


The relational ontology of
Divine Principle
can be seen its theory of polarity, obviously drawn from
the yin/yang philosophy of China. All things, we are told, exist in
�reciprocal relationship� with one another, and biblical passages, especially
from Genesis, are interpreted accordingly. The Greek idea of self‑contained
substances externally related to one another is totally alien to this view. 


Unification thought also
appeals to the evidence of modern physics, which has found that the classical
atomistic, mechanistic cosmology is simply no longer tenable. In fact, the
universe is now better conceived as a gigantic field of pulsating energy,
rather than empty space filled with colliding material atoms.


Unification theology is very
similar to the process theology developed from
Whitehead’s  metaphysics. Drawing from modern physics and rejecting the idea
of substance, Whitehead, like the Rev. Moon, conceives of the universe in
organic, not mechanical, terms. �The universe is a perfect organic body
created completely in accordance God’s purpose of creation.�5


While agreeing with the organic
analogy, process theologians would most likely object to the word �perfect�
and the idea of complete divine sovereignty.  Although the idea is present in
Unification thought, process theology stresses much more the idea of the
continuous cocreation of God and creatures and maintains that such a
cooperative cosmic adventure can never be perfect.


The theological implications of
a relational ontology are both fruitful and challenging.  We have already seen
the salutary effect it has on a doctrine of atonement.  Contrary to western
views, Unification theology believes that, as there is always reciprocal �give
and take� between God and his creatures, if humans fail to live up to their
covenant, then God cannot experience joy. The self‑contained God of Anselm,
more like Aristotle’s unmoved mover than the biblical Yahweh, experiences joy
(if that is even possible for an impassive being) regardless of what happens
in the world. 


Some process theologians stress
the doctrine of cocreation so much that they confess that God could not
prevent, if self‑determining creatures chose it, a great cosmic catastrophe. I
doubt that Unificationists, with a more traditional view of divine
omnipotence, would go this far.


Another theological implication
of relational ontology, again shared by both Unification and process theology,
is the idea of incarnation as continuous. The result of conceiving God so
intimately involved in creation is a comprehensive idea of the divine presence
in the world. The Incarnation did not happen in the unique and isolated way
implied by western Christianity; rather, the kenosis of which Paul
speaks (Phillipians 2:7) is continuous and universal. 


While neither Unification nor
process theology can be called pantheistic, they can indeed be called
panentheistic � not God identical with the world, but God fully in the world
as well as transcendent to it.  As we shall see, such a view can incorporate
the best elements of Shamanism without rejecting basic Christian beliefs.


There is a natural link between
Unification’s relational ontology, taken primarily from Daoism
and Buddhism, and its strong emphasis on the family, which clearly originates
in Confucianism.  At the basis of the universal goal of perfected families is
a fully relational view of human nature.  Under the influence of Greek
philosophy, theological anthropology in the West has taken a different


Following Boethius’ definition
of person as an individual rational substance, early Church fathers held that
the image of God meant that the rational faculty was the essence of human
nature.  In this view social relations were the result of self‑sufficient
individuals reaching out of their private lives to join with other autonomous
individuals. In European philosophy this led
inevitably to the so‑called �egocentric predicament,� a dilemma found in the
East only in some Hindu and Buddhist schools of thought.


The Confucian term for basic
human nature is ren and the contrast
between its meaning and western psychology is striking and instructive. First,
the Chinese character is a combination of �man� and �two,� which graphically
illustrates the meaning of ren: viz.,
that human beings are not self‑sufficient individuals but are constituted in
social relations.


Second, in all the references
to ren in the Confucian texts not one
refers to the rational faculty as significant.  The best translation of
ren is �human‑heartedness,� and it can
be rendered in Unification language as a person living according to the
principle of Give and Take.  The ultimate moral rule of
en is the Golden Rule (not original with Jesus) in which we
are exhorted to do unto other as they would do unto us.  In a relational view
of the world reciprocity and mutual dependence, rather than self‑sufficient
independence, are the principal characteristics of all reality.


The Unificationist
view of human nature is much more compatible with original Hebrew ideas than
Hellenistic Christianity.  No where in the Hebrew Scriptures do we find the
imago dei
defined in terms of self‑sufficient rationality.  Rather, we
find that it is explicitly defined in terms of the male‑female relationship
and stewardship over nature.  Furthermore, the center of a Hebrew’s being was
her heart, not her head, and there was no concept of a mind‑body dualism nor a
split between the emotions and the intellect. See this
link for a comparison of Hebrew and Buddhist
concepts of self.


The early Church fathers exhort
us to become one with the Mind of God, but the Rev. Moon, following both
Confucian and Hebrew insights, tells us to know the Heart of God. Like the
medieval voluntarists, who fought a losing battle against the moral
rationalism of Thomas Aquinas, the Rev. Moon’s Divine Principle holds
that the mind follows the heart, not vice versa.


�Heart (Shimjung) is the
essence of God’s personality � the essence of his Sung Sang.  Heart is
the most vital part of his nature, such that all other attributes in him are
what they are and do what they do solely because of this attribute….God’s
Heart has within itself its own purpose; so it is through God’s love, through
his Heart, that The Principle (Logos) is expressed and the Creation comes into
being and achieves fulfillment.�6


With a relational ontology and
social view of human nature, the Rev. Moon’s Confucian Christianity breaks
with western Christianity most controversially on the issue of the redemptive
work of Christ. Humanity is not saved by individual forgiveness through the
sacrifice of Christ, but by the establishment of a perfect human community
with a Messianic couple at its head. True to its Confucian roots, Divine
tells us that we are saved through filial piety not through
blood sacrifice. 


Therefore, the Rev. Moon sees
the death of Jesus as a horrible defeat, not a victory over sin. The
Crucifixion prevented Jesus from marrying and setting up the familial basis
for the Kingdom of God. Equally provocative, but faithful to yin‑yang
polarity, is the Unification view that the Messiah cannot be a single
individual, but the Savior must be a perfect married couple. In
Asia the masculine must always be completed by the


Shamanism is the last element
about which I wish to speak in relation to Unification theology. The Rev. Moon
claims authority for his doctrine on the basis of a series of visions and
visits to the spirit world; and, as in many shamanistic theogonies, he speaks
of our divine parents. Liberal Christians in the West are not adverse to
embracing elements of the Asian religions, but many
would balk at something as �primitive� as shamanism. There is, however, much
value to draw from this parent religion of all religions. 


Any faith which believes in a
spirit world and relies on the visions of prophets is essentially shamanistic
at its core. In addition, there are tenets of animism which we ought to
resurrect, such as the idea of a sympathetic continuum in which all nature is
alive and all things are sacred. We need to remember that Adam and Eve once
spoke to the animals and that reestablishing intimacy with nature must be an
important item on our ecological agenda. Indeed, we practice a type of
shamanism every time we read an animal story to a child.


There is one significant facet of
Korean shamanism which has been a key to the ease by which so many Koreans have
accepted Christianity. When Koreans first encountered Confucianism, they
interpreted the Chinese tian (impersonal
providence replacing the ancient personal God di)
as Hananim, the personal high God of the shamans. 


Scholars have drawn a parallel
between Hananim and the biblical Yahweh, including the
shared idea of the divine father sending his son as a messianic king. Scholars
of the Christian mission to Asia have long
acknowledged this natural convergence of Korean and Abrahamic
monotheism.  Jews and Muslims have always held that the Christian Trinity
compromises this claim to monotheism. In Unification theology, it is a divine
dipole of Mother and Father, not a triad, which vitiates the unity of God.


In his famous Decline of the
Oswald Spengler calls syncretism �historical pseudomorphosis�
and he views it in quite negative terms: �The older
alien culture lies so massively over the land that a young culture, born in this
land, cannot get its breath and fails not only to achieve pure and specific
expressional forms, but even to develop fully its own self‑consciousness.  All
that wells up from the depths of the young soul is cast in old molds. Young
feelings stiffen in senile works, and instead of rearing itself up in its own
creative power, it can only hate the distant power with a hate that grows to be


Religious syncretism in
Asian societies appears to disprove Spengler’s
dramatic thesis. If we take shamanism to be the ancient religion of Korea, it
looks alien to some contemporary Koreans only in its purest form, viz., the
village kut rituals. The doctrines of spirit worlds and inspired prophets
are so subtly embedded in other religions that sophisticated believers are
unaware of their shamanistic origins.  While Spengler is right in maintaining
that the �younger� religions of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity have
not attained �pure and specific expressional forms,� there is no evidence that
they have grown to detest shamanism, let alone to have lost their own creative
awareness. Besides, why do we have to accept the Abrahamic
bias that the superior revelation is �pure and specific,� or to think that such
a revelation is even possible?


Religious syncretism at its best
is not old truths in new guise or just old or new truths confused; rather,
through a creative dialectic, new religious insights have been born. Herbert
Richardson phrases the need for such creative interpenetration very nicely:
�Christianity has been a Western religion too long. While there is strength in
the West, there is also a great lack. Christianity…must be strengthened and
renewed by prophets from the East. Why, then, not by prophets from Korea?�9



1.Carsten Colpe, Syncretism and Secularization: Complementary and
Antithetical trends in New Religious Movements,� History of Religions 17
(November, 1977), p. 168.



2. The most radical forms of Titanism not only confuse the role
of creature and God, but sometimes reverse them in a rather perverse way.
Titanism is at its strongest in Ch’ondogyo when Ch’o Che‑u states: �Man is more
respected than heaven and earth. Therefore, man of this day is above all else.
Man no longer has to obey God. Rather, God must obey man, for man is in command�
(quoted in Jung Young Lee, �The I Ching and Korean Thought� in
Religions in Korea: Beliefs and Cultural Values,
eds. Earl H. Phillips and
Eui Young Yu [L. A.: Center for Korean‑American and Korean Studies, 1982], p.
20.) Moon’s Divine Principle approaches Titanism when it proposes that
human beings can �attain deity� (p. 43). If this means deification in this life
and partially under one’s own power, then this is definitely an expression of


3. Andrew Wilson,
�Biblical Hermeneutics in Divine Principle: The Context of Confucianism�
in Hermeneutics and Horizons: The Shape of the Future, ed. Frank K. Flinn
(New York: Rose of Sharon Press, 1982), p. 21.




Divine Principle
(New York: HSA‑UWC, 5th ed., 1977),
p. 25.


6. Chung Hwan
Kwak, Outline of the Principle (New York: HSA‑UWC, 1980), p. 13fn.  Again
this understanding of the Christian Logos truer to Scripture than later
rationalistic interpretations, especially among some contemporary evangelical
Christian theologians.  See GRE, pp. 18‑22.


7. For the
insights in this paragraph I am indebted to Herbert Richardson’s 1976 lecture at
Unification Theological Seminary found in Time for Consideration, eds. M.
Darrol Byrant and Herbert W. Richardson (New York: Edwin Mellon Press, 1978),
pp. 311‑16.


8. Oswald
Spengler, The Decline of the West, trans. C. F. Atkinson (New York:
Knopf, 1937), Vol. 1, p. 6.


9. Richardson,
op. cit., p. 317.

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