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 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.


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.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 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.”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 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”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 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.”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 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.”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 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.7


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.”8


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 Titanism.


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.


4. Proslogium VII.


5. 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.