Excerpted from N. F. Gier, Theology Bluebook, 3rd edition, 1994.
It pleased the Divine Power to reveal some of the most important articles of our Catholic creed first to the Zoroastrians, and through their literature to the Jews and ourselves.
– L. H. Mills
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 law-like is as absurd as saying that all responses to the Mona Lisa or Bach's piano works are going to be the same.
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 since.
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 way.
Other examples abound. Latin American and Filipino Catholicism is pervaded by indigenous influences. And it is amazing how American Christianity and American individualism have merged into a unique form of religion. Very few American Christians are aware of the fact that the strong collectivism, as seen in the idea of “corporate” personality, of the Bible stands in stark contrast with the American celebration of the individual.
One of the supreme ironies in contemporary American culture is the phenomenon of fundamentalist Christians supporting both Reaganomics and conservative social programs – a synthesis of classical liberalism and conservatism. Also the fundamentalist view of biblical inerrancy is also an uneasy merger of ancient scripture and modern “scientism.” (See GRE, Chapter 6.)
I believe that religious syncretism has led to two major compromises with the original theological genius of the Hebrews. Along with the Zoroastrians, the early Hebrews discovered the transcendence of God: they separated the sacred from the worldly and the natural. This is what I call the “Hebraic” principle. The belief in human immortality (not present in early Hebrew literature) and the idea of the man‑god (the Hebrews never accepted the Incarnation) are definitely pagan intrusions into the Judeo‑Christian tradition which embedded themselves by means of religious syncretism.
Asia has been a veritable melting pot of different religious views. Although the Aryan invaders of India attempted to eradicate all traces of the indigenous culture and religion, some of the key concepts of the Hindu religious tradition – like noninjury (ahimsa), yoga, reincarnation, and karma – come from non‑Aryan sources. As time passed after the Aryan invasions, the non‑Aryan religions gained ascendence in the form of Jainism and Buddhism.
Although the Buddha claimed to have made a clean break with his Hindu heritage, traditional themes are still preserved in Buddhism. Religious syncretism manifests itself in a fascinating way in Tibet, where the native Bön religion merged with the thoughts of Buddhist missionaries. Chinese Buddhism also developed according to the Principle of Religious Syncretism, even to the point where the Chinese word dao replaced the Sanskrit dharma. Daoism's general effect on Buddhism was to “naturalize” it, bringing it more down to earth. Incidentally, the Burmese translation of John 1:1 reads: “In the beginning was the dharma.”
The effects of Canaanite and Persian culture on the evolution of the Hebrew faith have been documented in over a century of scholarly work. Mitchell Dahood's innovative interpretation of the psalms is based on his mastery of the Ugaritic texts discovered at Ras Shamrah in 1929. These documents have led to a veritable knowledge explosion about Canaanite mythology and religion.
With regard to the Hebrew psalms, Dahood concludes that “Israelite poetry continues the poetic tradition of the Canaanites, borrowing Canaanite poetic techniques, parallelism, vocabulary, imagery, [mythology], etc.”2 Phillips agrees with Dahood and expresses an important element in the Principle of Religious Syncretism: the dominant culture prevails in the exchange. Phillips states: “Undoubtedly on entry into Canaan, Israel did take over much of the indigenous religion and absorb it into her own. This was inevitable when a simpler culture encountered a much wealthier and more sophisticated environment.”3
Cooke, Gaster, Dahood, and others have concluded that the religious synthesis with Canaanite hymnology was so pervasive that the Hebrew poets “Yahwinized” pre‑existing Canaanite hymns. At least Ps. 29 (but perhaps more) is a Yahwist adaptation of an older Canaanite hymn to the storm god Baal. As Dahood states: “Virtually every word in the psalm can now be duplicated in older Canaanite texts.”4
Zoroastrian influences on late Judaism was pervasive, profound, and continues with us today.305 The traditional claim that the Jews learned monotheism from the Zoroastrians during the Babylonian captivity can be disputed by the fact that by that time Zoroaster's strict monotheism had been compromised by polytheistic practices. The famous inscriptions of Darius, although mentioning the supreme God Ahura Mazda on almost every line, nonetheless refer twice to “other gods which are.”6
It was not so much monotheism that the exilic Jews learned from the Persians as it was universalism, the belief that one God rules universally and will save not only the Jews but all those who turn to God. This universalism does not appear explicitly until Second Isaiah, which by all scholarly accounts except some fundamentalists, was written during and after the Babylonian exile. The Babylonian captivity was a great blow to many Jews, because they were taken out of Yahweh's divine jurisdiction. Early Hebrews believed that their prayers could not be answered in a foreign land.
The sophisticated angelology of late books like Daniel has its source in Zoroastrianism.7 The angels of the early Hebrew books were disguises of Yahweh or one of his subordinate deities. The idea of separate angels appears only after contact with Zoroastrianism.
The central ideas of heaven and a fiery hell appear to come directly from the Israelite contact with Iranian religion. Pre‑exilic books are explicit in their notions the afterlife: there is none to speak of. The early Hebrew concept is that all of us are made from the dust and all of us return to the dust. There is a shadowy existence in Sheol, but the beings there are so insignificant that Yahweh does not know them. The evangelical writer John Pelt reminds us that “the inhabitants of Sheol are never called souls (nephesh).”8
The claims about an advanced eschatology in the psalms cannot be supported. The judgment of the wicked in Ps. 1 may be due again to Persian influences, as most scholars date the writing of this psalm after the exile. But even if it is pre‑exilic – Dahood has established enough Ugaritic parallels to make this a possibility – there is no explicit mention of a Last Judgment or an end of the world. The punishment of the wicked could just as well be worldly as other‑worldly. This interpretation is certainly to be preferred given the general context of early Hebrew thought. (See Chapter 19‑A)
The fiery judgment and immortality mentioned in Ps. 21:9‑10 has also been used to support the idea of an advanced eschatology in the psalms. Mitchell Dahood helps interpret these passages correctly. The Canaanite parallels show that God makes the king, not any other human, immortal. Furthermore, those who are burned are the king's foes, not all the wicked; and the burning furnace is probably the mouth of Yahweh and not any burning Hell.9
Some say that the Hebrew ge‑hinnom is fiery hell independent of Persian influences. But all references to ge‑hinnom refer explicitly to a definite geographic place, the valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem. The only eschatological implications we can find are in Jer. 7:31ff, where Jeremiah predicts that the Lord will destroy the place and it will be used for the disposal of dead bodies. This is obviously not the place of fiery torment of the New Testament gehenna, which was definitely influenced by Zoroastrian eschatology. Even an evangelical scholar admits that gehenna a place of eternal torment is a late concept, probably first century B.C.E.10
Saosyant, a savior born from Zoroaster's seed, will come and the dead shall be resurrected, body and soul. As the final accounting is made, husband is set against wife and brother against brother as the righteous and the damned are pointed out by the divine judge Saosyant. Personal and individual immortality is offered to the righteous; and, as a final fire melts away the world and the damned, a kingdom of God is established for a thousand years.11
Satan as the adversary or Evil One does not appear in the pre‑exilic Hebrew books. In Job, one of the very oldest books, Satan is one of the subordinate deities in God's pantheon. Here Satan is God's agent, and God gives him permission to persecute Job. The Zoroastrian Angra Mainyu, the Evil One, the eternal enemy of God, is the prototype for late Jewish and Christian ideas of Satan. One scholar claims that the Jews acquired their aversion to homosexuality, not present in pre‑exilic times, to the Iranian definition of the devil as a Sodomite. See this link for more on the biblical meaning of sodomy.
In 1 Chron. 21:1 (a book with heavy Persian influences), the Hebrew word satan appears for the first time as a proper name without an article. Before the exile, Satan was not a separate entity per se, but a divine function performed by the Yahweh's subordinate deities (sons of God) or by Yahweh himself. For example, in Num. 22:22 Yahweh, in the guise of mal'ak Yahweh, is “a satan” for Balaam and his ass.
The editorial switch from God inciting David to take a census in 2 Sam 24:1, and a separate evil entity with the name “Satan” doing the same deed in 1 Chron. 21:1 is the strongest evidence that there was a radical transformation in Jewish theology. Something must have caused this change, and religious syncretism with Persia is the probable cause. G. Von Rad calls it a “correction due to religious scruples” and further states that “this correction would hardly have been carried out in this way if the concept of Satan had not undergone a rather decisive transformation.”12
The theory of religious influence from Persia is based not only on the generation spent in exile but the 400 years following in which the resurrected nation of Israel lived under strong Persian dominion and influence. The chronicler made his crucial correction to 2 Sam. 24:1 about 400 B.C.E. Persian influence increases in the later Hebrew works like Daniel and especially the intertestamental books. Therefore Satan as a separate evil force in direct opposition to God most likely came from the explicit Zoroastrian belief in such an entity. This concept is not consistent with pre‑exilic beliefs.
There is no question that the concept of a separate evil principle was fully developed in the Zoroastrian Gathas (ca. 1,000 B.C.E.). The principal demon, called Druj (the Lie), is mentioned 66 times in the Gathas. But the priestly Jews would also have been exposed to the full Avestan scripture in which Angra Mainyu is mentioned repeatedly. His most prominent symbol is the serpent, so along with the idea of the “Lie,” we have the prototype for the serpent/tempter, in the priestly writers' garden of Genesis.13 There is no evidence that the Jews in exile brought with them any idea of Satan as a separate evil principle.
The word paradis is Persian in origin and the concept spread to all Near Eastern religions in that form. “Eden” not “Paradise” is mentioned in Genesis, and paradise as an abode of light does not appear in Jewish literature until late books such as Enoch and the Psalm of Solomon.
In Zoroastrianism the supreme God, Ahura Mazda, gives all humans free‑will so that they may choose between good and evil. As we have seen, the religion of Zoroaster may have been the first to discover ethical individualism. The first Hebrew prophet to speak unequivocally in terms of individual moral responsibility was Ezekiel, a prophet of the Babylonian exile. Up until that time Hebrew ethics had been guided by the idea of the corporate personality – that, e.g., the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons (Ex. 20:1‑2).
In 1 Cor. 15:42‑49 Paul definitely assumes a dual‑creation theory which seems to follow the outlines of Philo and the Iranians. There is only one man (Christ) who is created in the image of God, i.e., according to the “intellectual” creation of Gen. 1:26 (à la Philo). All the rest of us are created in the image of the “dust man,” following the material creation of Adam from the dust in Gen. 2:7.
We have already discussed close parallels between the Christian savior and the saviors of the Hellenistic mystery religions. Many scholars categorize early Christianity, especially in its Pauline form, as a mystery religion, which has been defined as “a sacramental drama, a personal religion to which membership was open only by a religious rebirth. It appealed primarily to the emotions and aimed at producing psychic and mystic effects by which the neophyte might experience the exaltation of a new life.”14
Although the Savior Archetype is due more socio‑psychological factors than historical interchange, the parallels between Christianity and the mystery religions could have had elements the latter. G. J. Frazer comments on some of these aspects: "...Whether he be called Tammuz, Attis, or Adonis, the main lines of the story are fixed and invariable. Always he is young and beautiful, always the beloved of a great goddess; always he is the victim of a tragic and untimely death, a death which entails bitter loss and misfortune upon a mourning world, and which, for the salvation of that world, is followed by a resurrection.”15 The mystery saviors were not historical personages like Jesus, but his charisma and horrible death could have easily merged with these traditional Hellenistic models.
Even with Paul's emphasis on the Cross, its folly, and the importance of Christ's suffering, Christian art of the first three centuries shows a strong religious and cultural synthesis with the Hellenistic world. The most predominant symbol in early Christian art was Christ as the Good Shepherd. The figures were distinctively Greco‑Roman, not Semitic, probably taken from models of Apollo Nomius or Hermes the Ram‑Bearer.16
Some early Christian fathers rejected the Cross as the standard of Christianity.17 The first known artistic portrayal of the Crucifixion comes a full 400 years after the execution of Jesus. Even when the Crucifixion is portrayed, Jesus is usually alive, showing no signs of suffering, and usually has a royal crown rather than a crown of thorns.18 It is interesting to trace the development of the Buddha as he was transformed into a Hellenistic Lord by contact with Greek culture in Northwest India.
We have seen that Christianity is actually a very eclectic world‑view, having been drawn from several major sources. In addition to Zoroastrianism and the Hellenistic mystery religions, there was the profound influence of Greek philosophy. There is also the connection between the logos of the pre-Socratic Heraclitus and the logos of John.
In the first five Christian centuries, it was neo‑Platonic philosophy that had the most impact on the development of a systematic Christian theology. Undoubtedly the most significant element of this synthesis was the acceptance of Greek humanism by thinkers such as first Justin Martyr and then later Thomas Aquinas and Erasmus.
Outside of the logos doctrine of John, scholarly work on the influences of Greek philosophy on the New Testament writers is not widely known or appreciated. David L. Balch's book Let Wives Be Submissive contains the proposal that Aristotle's ethics is behind the views expressed in 1 Pet. 2:11‑3:12.19
The most interesting work, however, is Norman W. DeWitt's book St. Paul and Epicurus.20 It is DeWitt's thesis that the philosophy of Epicurus, although never explicitly mentioned, is Paul's main target in his epistles. Lactantius, a Christian writer living in the third century, claimed that those who followed the philosophy of Epicurus were the largest constituents of pagan belief, much larger than the Mithraists, the Stoics, the Skeptics, or the neo‑Platonists. The Epicureans were especially strong in Asia Minor, the center of Paul's missionary efforts. Epicurean schools were found in Lampsacus, Mytilene, Bithynia, Colophon, close to Ephesus.
Paul's home city Tarsus was ruled by Epicureans in the second century B.C.E.; and Epicureanism was the court philosophy of the notorious Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes (174‑167 B.C.E.). Their main tools were textbooks and manuals, many of which a well‑educated Hellenistic Jew like Paul would have undoubtedly read. Like Paul, Epicurus composed many epistles to his friends, admonishing them and making the correct doctrine clear.
Scholars have known for a long time that Paul's Greek vocabulary differs substantially from that of the Gospel writers. The following words are used rarely, if not at all, by the Gospel writers, but were standard words in Epicurean texts:
Makarismos (cf. Gal. 4:15): technical term in Epicurean philosophy for unalloyed joy, the ultimate end of a life of right reason and right action.
Calculus (cf. Philip. 4:8): usually rendered as “think” or “meditate.” It was used widely by the Epicureans. It does not occur in the New Testament except in Paul. “Think on these things” is repeated in Epicurean texts.
Autarkes (cf. Philip. 4:11‑12): used by many of the Hellenistic philosophies but used only by Paul in the New Testament. Paul's meaning here is the same as Epicurus' conception of autarkes – being content with little or with what the circumstances provide.
Aidios (cf. Rom. 1:20): “eternal” as in God's eternal power. It is used by Epicurus to describe his atoms. The only New Testament writer besides Paul to use it is the author of Jude. It almost seems as if Paul deliberately used this Epicurean technical term to “twit” the Epicureans in their mistaken belief in the incorruptibility of nature.
Nouthetesis (cf. 1 Thes. 5:12): “admonition” in this sense is a technical term straight from Epicurean manuals. Its sense is “correction without blame or reprimand.”
Although there are no direct references to Epicurus, DeWitt has gathered an impressive list of allusions that are in his opinion unmistakable in their indication. Here are just some of them:
“Peace and Safety” (1 Thes. 5:3). These were the watchwords of all Epicureans and DeWitt is convinced that Paul's reference is specific: that he is predicting the destruction of the many Epicureans he encountered in his travels in Asia Minor.
“Their god is the belly” (Philip. 3:19). DeWitt is convinced the reference is specific to the Epicureans and not just general paganism. Anti‑Epicurean phrases like these were due to the common mistake of taking the following quote by the Epicurean Metrodorus out of context:
“The pleasure of the stomach is the beginning and the root of all good, and in this the things of wisdom and the refinements of life have their standard of reference.” Metrodorus was starting a genetic approach to ethics and was talking specifically about infants and their first sensations in life.
“Prince of the Power of the Air” (Ephes. 2:2). This is one of the most obscure phrases in all of the Pauline epistles. The beginning of Ephes. 2 in the RSV reads: “And you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course (DeWitt: “generation”) of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.”
DeWitt's hermeneutical clue is to put these two verses into the Sitz im Leben of the times. Ephesus was filled with faithful Epicureans who accepted no world except the physical one composed of atoms. The Christian converts whom Paul is addressing are therefore largely former Epicureans. The “sons of disobedience” are then the still unconverted pagans of Ephesus, again predominantly Epicureans.
The “power of air” is, according to DeWitt, a reference to the Epicurean ethical psychology, again based on the theory of atoms. Atoms of air were the main ingredients of a perfect soul. The power of air then was the power to calm the soul: to prevent it from imbalance and over‑indulgence. A state of ataxaria (unperturbedness) was the goal of Epicurean ethics. Epicurus, the supreme master of such an ethics, was therefore the “prince of the Power of Air.”
“Elements of the World” (Gal. 4:3). The Greek here is ta stoicheia. DeWitt prefers the King James translation because it correctly describes ta stoichea in physical terms. Again, most of Paul's converts in Asia Minor would have been former Epicureans and they would have been “enslaved” by the theory of the atoms.
Although Paul and Epicurus come to decidedly different conclusions about the solution to the human predicament, they do, according to DeWitt, share some common ground. Both Paul and Epicurus use the Greek word psyche as a mortal, fully corruptible soul. In contradistinction to the Gospel writers, who use psyche equivocally for humans, Jesus, and God, Paul makes it clear that all humans from Adam onward had only the mortal psyche until the coming of Christ, who is then able to miraculously bestow the immortality spirit (pneuma) upon us (cf. 1 Cor. 2:14; 15:45).
DeWitt's contention that Paul did not believe in eternal torment for unbelievers is perhaps the most controversial claim in his book. DeWitt takes Paul literally when he says that “the wages of sin is death” and takes Paul's silence about Hell as proof that he meant simple and physical death in this verse. DeWitt also uses 1 Cor. 15:26: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” It goes without saying that the Epicureans rejected the idea of Hell.
DeWitt goes to great lengths in comparing Paul's famous passages on faith, hope, and charity in 1 Cor. 13 with similar doctrines in the manuals of Epicurus. DeWitt thinks that it is significant that the Gospel writers do not use the noun “hope” at all. It is, however, a common word in the ethics of Epicurus, along with faith and love.
Ultimately the philosophies of these two figures diverge radically. Although Paul uses Epicurean terminology concerning peace of mind and related concepts, the two ways to blessedness are quite different. Epicurus thought that happiness in this life could be achieved by any person using right reason. Paul of course believed that humans could not possibly save themselves and that faith in Jesus Christ was the only medium for human salvations.
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 Zhuangzi.
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.21 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 Titanism. 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 Abrahamic 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 anew.
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.”22
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 Principle 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 Confucianized.
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”23 – 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 Christianity.
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.”24
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 position.
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 ren 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.”25
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 Principle 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 feminine.26
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 West Oswald Spengler calls syncretism “historical pseudo-morphosis” 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 monstrous.”27
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?”28
1.Carsten Colpe, Syncretism and Secularization: Complementary and Antithetical trends in New Religious Movements,” History of Religions 17 (November, 1977), p. 168.
2. Dahood, The Anchor Bible: Psalms, Vol. 3, p. xxii.
3. Anthony Phillips, Deuteronomy: The Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 9.
4. Dahood, Vol. 1, p. 175.
5. R. C. Zaehner is probably the world's foremost Zoroastrian scholar and he gives the best summary of Zoroastrian influences on Judaism in The Comparison of Religions (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), pp. 134‑53.
6. This reference to “other gods” could have just been for diplomacy's sake, just like Jephthah recognizing the authority of the gods of the Ammonites and Moabites in Judges 11. But there is no question that polytheism creeps back into later Zoroastrianism with references to other gods in the Vendidad (Fargard 19:23, 28, and 30).
7. Albright, From Stone Age to Christianity (New York: Doubleday, 1957), p. 362.
8. John Pelt, The Soul, the Pill, and the Fetus (New York: Dorrance, 1973), p. 18.
9. Dahood, Vol. 1, p. 133.
10. The New Bible Dictionary, p. 390. Although the author does not say how late gehenna became fiery Hell, we assume that he is following standard scholarship on this issue.
11. Yashts, pp. 220‑2; 306‑7; Bundahish in Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East (New York, 1917), pp. 179‑184.
12. G. von Rad, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, Vol. 2, p. 73.
13. See R. C. Zaehner, The Teachings of the Magi (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 47.
14. Samuel Angus, The Mystery Religions and Christianity (London: Murray, 1925), p. ?
15. Quoted in J. L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance (New York: Doubleday, 1957), p. 143.
16. M. Gough, The Origins of Christian Art, p. 19 and passim.
17. See Minucius Felix, Octavius XXIX, 6‑7.
18. See Walter Lowrie, Art in the Early Church (New York: Pantheon, 1947), p. 48 and plates 99 ff.
19. David L. Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive (Chico: Scholar's Press, 1981).
20. Norman W. DeWitt, St. Paul and Epicurus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1954).
21. 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 Titanism.
22. 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.
23. Proslogium VII.
24. Divine Principle (New York: HSA‑UWC, 5th ed., 1977), p. 25.
25. 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.
26. 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.
27. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, trans. C. F. Atkinson (New York: Knopf, 1937), Vol. 1, p. 6.
28. Richardson, op. cit., p. 317.