Before Absolute Faith and Obedience: A Case for the Primacy of Conscience
"Absolute faith, absolute love, absolute obedience..."
-- Family Pledge, # 8
"Conscience before teacher, conscience before parents, conscience before God."
-- Rev. Sun Myung Moon, True God's Day Message, 1996
Both of the above slogans represent important aspects of the thought of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. On the surface, these two sayings seem to contradict each other. Can they be reconciled?
The answer may be very significant for the future of Unification Theology. If "absolute obedience" means the subservience of conscience to religious authority and "absolute faith" results in intellectual obscurantism, then Unificationism may fail in its attempt to present itself to contemporary audiences. As Dr. Young Oon Kim stated in her introduction to Divine Principles and Their Application, "A blind faith has no attraction or authority over the mind of modern men." (Young Oon Kim, Divine Principles and Their Application, p. iv.) On the other hand, if individual conscience takes precedence over loyalty to God and True Parents, then the pledge of absolute faith and obedience seems hypocritical.
The phrase "absolute faith, absolute love, absolute obedience" comes from the "Family Pledge," recited by Unificationists the world over at 5:00 a.m. every Sunday and often daily at 6:00 a.m. as part of the Hoon Dok Hwe (speech reading) movement. The theme is also repeated in many of Reverend Moon's speeches. In the context of the Family Pledge, it is read as follows:
Our family pledges, as we enter the Completed Testament Era, to achieve the ideal oneness of God and humankind in love through practicing absolute faith, absolute love, and absolute obedience, thereby perfecting the realm of liberation of the Kingdom of God on Earth and in Heaven by centering on true love.
"Conscience before teacher, conscience before parents, conscience before God" was a common theme in Reverend Moon's speeches in the period 1994-1996. It was a central part of his True God's Day message of January 1, 1996. In speeches to members, he sometimes led the congregation in chanting this slogan for several minutes. The theme of the primacy of conscience was also emphasized in Reverend Moon's teachings to thousands of Japanese women in a series of workshops in Chae Joo Island, Korea during the same period. The following is an excerpt from one of the speeches in which the slogan was introduced:
Conscience is higher even than parents. Please recite this, yangshim eun boomonim boda apsuh yitda. That means, conscience exists ahead of True Parents. Please repeat one more time. [Conscience exists ahead of True Parents.] Again. [Conscience exists ahead of True Parents.] The second is, yangshim eun seuseung boda apsuh yitda. Now repeat this, the conscience exists before the teacher himself. [Conscience exists before the teacher himself.] Again. [Conscience exists before the teacher.] This means that the conscience is ahead of the teacher. The third, yangshim eun hananim boda apsuh yitda. Conscience exists ahead of God. Please repeat. [Conscience exists ahead of God.] Again. [Conscience exists ahead of God.] One more time. [Conscience exists ahead of God.] ("Let Us Find Our True Self," December 4, 1994, Belvedere International Training Center, Translator: Sang Kil Han.)
Dictionary definitions may be helpful in our understanding. However, we should also recognize that Reverend Moon speaks Korean, and some words may not have exact English equivalents. Moreover, Reverend Moon is a highly creative and original thinker, and simplified shorthand versions of his thought sometimes lend themselves to misinterpretation.
The relevant dictionary entries for absolute are: "1. Free from imperfection; complete... 3. Complete; outright... 4. Free from restriction... 5. ... Unlimited by a constitution... 6. Not comparative or relative (Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged, 1987.) The Korean word translated as "absolute" is cholde. My sources indicate that it conveys the same general sense as its English equivalent.
The question we need to deal with in relation to "absolute" has to do with whether its means "unrestricted" or "complete." Unrestricted faith and obedience could not be limited by conscience and would therefore be higher than conscience. However, "complete" faith and obedience could carry the connotation of maturity -- a type of faith and obedience tempered by wisdom and conscience.
The relevant entries for faith are: "1. Confidence or trust in a person or thing... 2. Belief that is not based on proof... 3. Belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion... 4. Belief in anything, as a code of ethics... 5. A system of religious belief..." The Korean word translated as "faith" here is shinang.
Volumes have been written about the meaning of "faith." St. Thomas Aquinas, probably the greatest authority on the subject, provides the following definition. Faith is "the act of the intellect assenting to a Divine truth owing to the movement of the will, which is itself moved by the grace of God." (Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. iv, a.) But perhaps the most famous definition of faith is that presented by the writer of Hebrews 11:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen...Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear. By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous.
Unificationists generally ascribe to a concept of faith similar to the above. It is not a faith that is mere belief, but one that is tied to actions, along the lines of the declaration of James that "faith without works is dead." This is also consonant with the Catholic concept of faith as expressed by Aquinas, in which true faith cannot be divorced from acts of charity. We can safely assume that when Reverend Moon speaks of "absolute faith," he is referring to an active, living faith, and not merely belief in doctrines and dogma. This is also shown in the fact that the purpose of "absolute faith" (in Pledge # 8) is to "achieve the ideal oneness of God and humankind in love."
The relevant dictionary entries for the verb "obey" are: 1. "To comply with or follow the commands, restrictions, wishes or instructions of... 4. To submit or conform in action to." There is also the following entry for "obedience": "...4. Conformity to a monastic rule or the authority of a religious superior..." The Korean word translated here as "obedience" is pokjung. It should be distinguished from another Korean word for obedience, soonjung. The former is sometimes described as "hard" obedience, while the latter is "soft" obedience. In other words, pokjung implies doing something under orders while soonjung implies following direction naturally without the undertone of command.
"Absolute obedience" thus has an authoritarian ring to it. However, as will be shown below, even though he uses the term for "hard obedience," I do not believe that for Reverend Moon the concept of "absolute obedience" is synonymous with "unquestioning obedience."
The dictionary entries for "conscience" include: "1. The inner sense of right and wrong... 2. The complex of ethical or moral principles that controls or inhibits and individual. 3. An inhibiting sense of what is prudent...4. Conscientiousness. 5. Self-knowledge..."
In Divine Principle, there are two concepts of what is commonly called conscience.
The part of the human mind which corresponds to character and always directs man toward the absolute standard of goodness is called the "original mind," and that which corresponds to form is called the "conscience."
...(if man) sets up a standard of goodness different from that of the original nature of creation, the human conscience directs toward that standard; however the original mind rejects it and tries to turn the direction of the conscience toward the standard of the original mind..." (Divine Principle, second edition, page 64)
Another way of distinguishing between these two concepts is to say that original mind is "vertical conscience" and conscience is "horizontal conscience." The original mind is that aspect of conscience that leads human beings back toward the absolute standard of truth, beauty and goodness. The horizontal conscience is that aspect of the human mind that leads him toward truth, beauty and goodness as he currently understands it.
In the slogan about "conscience before parents," Reverend Moon uses the term yangshim (conscience) -- rather than ponshim (original mind). Nevertheless, the contextual meaning of the term is closer to ponshim, in that it represents an absolute standard beyond changing values. This is demonstrated by the following:
Did we inherit our conscience at our birth? No. It was before life. It has always been with God. The conscience remains the same constantly. ("Let Us Find Our True Self," December 4, 1994 Belvedere International Training Center, Translator, Sang Kil Han)
Clearly, this use of the word "conscience" (yangshim) is closer to Divine Principle's "original mind" (ponshim) than to the changeable "conscience." Thus, when Reverend Moon speaks of conscience being even higher than parents, teacher or God, he refers to the intuitive sense within human beings that identifies with absolute truth, beauty and goodness.
The word translated as "before," is the Korean word apso (apsuh). In some translations, the word has been rendered "prior to." It does carry the meaning of being prior in time. However, it could just as well be translated "in front of," "superior to," "higher than" "ahead of" or "precedent over."
Stages of Faith and Obedience
As already mentioned, I do not believe Reverend Moon encourages forced obedience or blind faith, but a mature faith and enlightened obedience to an absolute subject, namely God. The concept of obedience, to Reverend Moon, is not one dimensional. He has taught that there are three kinds of obedience, corresponding to the three stages of human development.
There are three types of obedience. One is just to obey whatever is told you. The next type is to obey while always seeking to know God, Truth and the why of things. The third type is obedience after knowing the heart of God. (Leaders Address of 5-1-65 in Way of Tradition, Vol. II, page 137.)
Doing whatever one is told without questioning is a necessary stage of development. If a child does not obey unquestioningly the warning voice of his parent, he puts himself at risk. If, for example, he keeps walking across the street when his mother shouts, "Stop!" he could be killed. It is not important for him to know the reason why he must stop. He simply needs to stop. This is formation stage obedience -- children's obedience. The fact that it is unquestioning obedience should not distract us. Children's obedience is not complete, not "absolute obedience."
The second type of obedience is the type which questions, but still obeys. It asks, "Why should I not eat the fruit? Will I ever be able to eat this fruit? Why did God put this fruit tree in the middle of the garden if I am not to eat it?" But it still obeys the commandment not to eat. This is growth stage obedience -- adolescent obedience. This questioning stage also is a necessary in the development of mature obedience, but it is still not complete or absolute obedience.
The final stage of obedience is the type which risks even self annihilation in order to save its beloved, as shown in the examples given by Reverend Moon below. This is completion stage obedience -- parental obedience. This is the obedience that concerns us here, for this is the completion stage of obedience and therefore the closest to "absolute obedience." This is the type of obedience that willingly sacrifices oneself for others without even waiting to be told -- the obedience that anticipates God, or even goes beyond God's expectations. What would be an example of the type of obedience based on "knowing the heart of the Father?"
No knowledge, no position, no wealth...nothing can please Father except your heart of love for God alone, which will make him cry -- that alone can ease His heart.... If you are ready to die, if you cry out to God... "I am ready to die in the place of other people for the sake of Your cause," and if you really dash to that point, ready to sacrifice yourself, then God may be able to trust you. (Our Determination to Win 3-1-73 in Way of Tradition Vol. 1 page 47.)
Regardless of where the heart of God moves, no power under the sun can deter it... as a father, God is ceaselessly going after His own children, but He will never tire. When you put yourself totally on the side of God, you a like a parent trying to save your dying children. (The Return to Tears 10-16-77 in Way of Tradition Vol. 1 page 67)
It is important that we not confuse children's obedience with adolescent obedience or parents' obedience. Unquestioning obedience is the formation stage, questioning obedience is the growth stage, and obedience that identifies with the heart of God is the completion stage. Thus, absolute obedience is neither blind obedience nor questioning obedience, but obedience that understands intuitively, beyond the need for questions. In other words, absolute obedience is obedience unite with "vertical conscience."
Conscience and Religious Authority
One way of reconciling "absolute obedience" and "conscience" would be to assert that any impulse of conscience that contradicts the instructions of religious authority does not come from the "true" conscience (original mind) but from the relative -- non-absolute -- conscience that is affected by changeable cultural norms. In other words, if your conscience tells you something is wrong but your religious leader tells you it is right, you should follow your religious leader's opinion since he is more likely to be connected to God.
A teacher at Unification Theological Seminary, Mr. Taek Young Oh, adopted this approach to absolute faith and obedience when he asked: "If Father holds up a white card and says it is a red card, what color is the card?" The correct answer according to absolute faith and obedience, Mr. Oh went on to explain, is "red card." Since Reverend Moon is God's representative, and we are fallen human beings, we need to unite with his opinion and trust it absolutely, even if our own senses tell us otherwise. (Unpublished speech at the Unification Church of Washington, D.C. July, 1998, author's notes.)
But is this the interpretation of absolute obedience we should adopt? I believe there is ample evidence from Reverend Moon's own teachings -- let alone moral philosophy and epistemology -- to suggest we should not. To deny reason and experience in the name of religious authority is precisely "blind faith." But Reverend Moon categorically rejects blind faith.
There has to be a scientific, logical explanation because now is not the time for blind faith. You have to have a logical, scientific explanation of the truth and that alone will be able to penetrate this twentieth century world. Blind faith, reading the Bible and going to church regularly will not work anymore. (True Parents and the Creation of the Ideal Family, February 15, 1994, World Mission Center, NYC. Interpreter: Dr. Bo Hi Pak.)
Few serious modern theologies take the position that faith contradicts reason and experience. The Catholic position, for example, is that:
...The supernatural truths of faith, however they may transcend our reason, cannot be opposed to it, for truth cannot be opposed to truth, and the same Deity Who bestowed on us the light of reason by which we assent to first principles is Himself the cause of those principles, which are but a reflection of His own Divine truth. (Hugh Pope, "Faith," in The Catholic Encyclopedia, electronic version © 1996, http://www.knight.org/advent/cathen/04268a.htm).
If absolute faith is not blind faith, then what is it? It must be mature faith, complete faith or perfected faith. Faith, like obedience, passes through stages. Formation stage faith is unquestioning faith. Growth stage faith wrestles with difficult questions but continues on the faithful path. Completion stage faith has gone beyond questioning to knowing the heart of the Father.
Thus, we have reached an interim conclusion. Just as absolute obedience is not blind, unquestioning obedience, so absolute faith is something other than blind, unquestioning faith. There must be an explanation for reconciling conscience with absolute faith/obedience, without putting conscience in a subservient position to external authority.
The Fallibility Question
Clearly, Unification Church leaders are human beings who sometimes commit moral errors. Does absolute obedience mean a member should follow a leader into moral error? Surely no one would want to argue that a member should follow a leader who commands him to violate God's will. History has rendered a clear verdict on this question: "following orders" is no excuse for moral irresponsibility. Whether one is an officer in the German army during World War II or a fundraising member on an MFT team, one cannot use the excuse that "I was only following orders" to justify moral error.
So it should be clear that conscience has priority over obedience and faith as pertains to fallible persons and institutions. But what about Reverend Moon himself? Does he make mistakes? If not, then it could be argued that one is always safe in following his opinion. However, to my knowledge, Reverend Moon does not claim to be infallible. He does say that he seeks with complete sincerity to know and follow God's will. But he also says he is a human being capable of error.
Do you trust me? (Yes!) Do you trust me? (Yes!!!!) Do you REALLY trust me? (Yes, Father!!!!!) You should not trust me so much. I am a man, and I can make mistakes. When you make a mistake, it is not such a big thing. But if I make a mistake, the entire providence may be affected. Instead of just trusting me, you should be praying for me, asking God that he will be able to guide me. (Unpublished speech to CARP leaders, 1981, author's notes.)
Moreover, even if Reverend Moon himself were infallible, the question remains as to whom "absolute obedience" is due. Since, in Reverend Moon's teaching, conscience is before parents, teacher and God, it can only be concluded that absolute obedience is due to first to conscience and not to any outside authority. Even in relation to God, it must be to one's inner sense of God's will that obedience is due, rather than to any external power speaking in God's name.
A Conflict of Culture?
The tension between conscience and faith/obedience reflects the tension between two main trends in Unification Theology, namely Judeo-Christianity and Confucianism. Confucian tradition emphasizes the concepts of filial piety and obedience to authority as the foundation of a good society, while Judeo-Christianity stresses that loyalty to external authority is not an absolute. The Confucian attitude is exemplified in the follow quotes:
Surely proper behavior toward parents and elder brothers is the trunk of Goodness. (Analects 1.2)
Filial piety is the root of all virtue, and the stem out of which grows all moral teaching... It commences with service of parents; it proceeds to the service of the ruler; it is completed by the establishment of character. (Classic on Filial Piety 1) ws 172
The superior man, taking his stance as righteousness requires, adheres firmly to Heaven's decrees. (I Ching, Hexagram 50)
In contrast to the Confucian ideal in which officials obediently execute the Will of Heaven as expressed through the ruler, one of the most important characteristics of the Old Testament prophets was their moral courage to stand before king and temple and speak "truth to power." Whether one considers Nathan confronting King David about his adultery or Jeremiah standing before the Temple and denouncing its spiritual complacency, the prophets did not hesitate to assert their own understanding of God's will over and against that of God's anointed priests and kings.
When Jesus walked this earth, he continued the prophetic tradition and brought it down even to the family level. He did not appeal to the Old Testament dictum to "honor thy father and mother," but urged his disciples to leave their parents to follow him. He even proclaimed, "He who does not hate mother and father... is not worthy of me." (Lk. 14:26)
Throughout Judeo-Christian history, we perceive tension between the individual conscience centered on God and external authority speaking in God's name -- from Moses standing before Pharoah to demand liberty for God's people, to Martin Luther in Wittenburg denouncing the corruption in his own Catholic Church, to Thomas Jefferson declaring "on the altar of God eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man." The tension between conscience and faith/obedience is not something new or unique to Unificationism. It is an age-old struggle
Resolving the Dilemma
There may be those who say that because Reverend Moon has fulfilled his messianic task by establishing the True Parents and True Family, the tension between conscience and obedience is now over. Such persons might argue: "From now on, we must simply obey True Parents. This is the highest form of conscience, because they are the visible manifestation of God." However, leaving aside the question of obedience to fallible church leaders, I believe it is not too bold to assert that even a direct instruction from Reverend or Mrs. Moon may occasionally need to be resisted. Those who argue otherwise ignore the following statement from Reverend Moon:
The day and the moment will come when even God seems to be saying 'I don't know you.' At that time you will feel that you are utterly alone in all the universe. If under those conditions you still do not give up, but insist, 'No matter what God thinks or what True Parents say to me, no matter how unsympathetic the church members are, this is the right way and I will go on anyway.' Then at that moment you are elevating yourself to the highest level of faith. Once you reach that level you can be trusted unconditionally by God and by me, and eventually the whole world. (The Desire of All Things 6-17-77 in Way of Tradition Vol. III page 267.)
In the above, we have the key to reconciling the question of conscience vs. absolute faith/obedience. According to Reverend Moon, the "highest level of faith" is to persist in going the way one knows to be right, no matter what God, True Parents or church members say. In other words, "absolute faith" is synonymous with putting conscience before any other authority, including even Reverend Moon and God. In fact, Reverend Moon seems to be saying that the way to be fully trusted by God is precisely by demonstrating that one holds the authority of one's own conscience -- not God, True Parents or church members -- to be paramount.
Reverend Moon tells us that he himself followed such a course. In a well-known story, he relates that God and Jesus initially denied Reverend Moon's interpretation of the Fall. Only after insisting that he was correct despite their disagreement did Reverend Moon eventually gain their assent.
Other providential religious leaders have gone through a similar course. In the Bible, the prophet Elisha inherits the mantle and mission of his master Elijah only after disobeying Elijah three times.
Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here; the LORD has sent me to Bethel." But Elisha said, "As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you." So they went down to Bethel... Then Elijah said to him, "Stay here, Elisha; the LORD has sent me to Jericho." And he replied, "As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you." So they went to Jericho.... Then Elijah said to him, "Stay here; the LORD has sent me to the Jordan." And he replied, "As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you." So the two of them walked on.
Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and to the left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, "Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?" "Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit," Elisha replied. "You have asked a difficult thing," Elijah said, "yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours--otherwise not."
As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. (2 Kings 2: 1-11 NIV)
In holding that it may be necessary at times to resist even Godly authorities in order to follow one's conscience and receive God's ultimate trust and blessing, I do not mean to demean the value of "hard obedience" and unquestioning faith. Even for adults there may be moments when unquestioning faith is called for, and there are many times when the authority of a strong leader such as Reverend Moon is needed to encourage us to overcome our self-centeredness. At such time, the "horizontal conscience" becomes aligned with the vertical conscience through unquestioning faith and obedience. Yet, this is not always the case. As Reverend Moon points out, when one knows the heart of the Father "no power under the sun can deter it."
The well-known Unification Church leader, Reverend Chong Goo "Tiger" Park, proudly spoke of his many arguments with Reverend Moon. Sometimes he won these arguments, and sometimes he lost them. Yet Reverend Moon lifted him up as an example of true discipleship. What made him so beloved by Reverend Moon? According to Tiger Park, Reverend Moon once told him tearfully, after a particularly intense disagreement, "Tiger Park, I need you. You are the one disciple who can argue with me while maintaining the attitude of a True Son." (Personal conversation with the author.)
It is not always easy to maintain unity with one teacher -- as Elisha and Tiger Park did -- while at the same time resisting his instructions. However, we cannot escape the conclusion that, in the final analysis, "absolute faith and absolute obedience" may sometimes involve contesting the direct orders even of one's spiritual master or other high religious authority. "Conscience before teacher, conscience before parents, conscience before God" is the sine qua non of absolute faith and obedience.