Ten Theologians Respond to the Unification Church - Edited by Herbert Richardson 1981

The Unification Church as Metainstitution -- Lonnie D. Kliever

For all its sociological acuity and theological alertness, the Unification Church has no dearly developed ecclesiology one searches in vain for any sustained discussion of the Unification Church as an institution in Divine Principle or in the numerous theological commentaries and conferences devoted to an exposition of Divine Principle. This absence is all the more remarkable since the sociological-theological classification of this religious movement has played such an important role in the religious and political controversy surrounding the Moonies. Crucial issues hinge on whether Unificationism is seen as a Church, a Sect or a Cult, to say nothing of those who portray Unificationism as an economic empire, political movement or international conspiracy masquerading as a religion. How different the whole climate surrounding the Moonies would be if theologians, social scientists, legislators, judges, parents and the public could agree on what kind of religious movement and ecclesiastical organization Unificationism represents.

But such agreement is not likely to be achieved in the near future for at least two reasons. Many of the sociological-theological descriptions of the movement are ideologically motivated. This bias can be seen within and without the Unification movement. Within, the change in name from the "Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity" to the "Unification Church" is symptomatic of Unificationist efforts to enter the mainstream of American and European life partly through a process of labeling. The Unificationist pose under certain circumstances as yet another Christian "church" plays fast and loose with sociological if not theological categories. Moreover, Unificationists are quick to deny under other circumstances that they are a "church" at all, insisting rather that they are a movement to unite all religions, Christian and non-Christian dike, More flagrant and pernicious bias can be seen outside the movement in the widespread labeling of Unificationism as a cult, where "cult" is pejoratively defined as a movement which denounces the established social order as totally depraved and evil, seeks a total authoritarian transformation of society and seduces unwary young person's away from institutionalized roles in families, schools and churches in order to absorb them into a "totalistic community" (cf. Enroth, 1977; Stoner and Park, 1977), So long as categories such as "church" and "cult" are used in such self-serving ways, we cannot begin to hope for agreement on what kind of religious movement Unificationism represents and how that movement relates to other religious and cultural institutions.

Beyond such ideological labeling, formidable theoretical obstacles stand in the way of a consensus description of the Unification movement. There simply are no universally accepted typologies of religious organization among social scientists. The simple Church-Sect typology derived from the pioneering work of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch continues to be modified and elaborated by social scientists. From H. Richard Niebuhr's extended Sect-Denomination-Church continuum (Niebuhr, 1929), ever increasingly divergent systems of classification have been developed -- e.g., J. Milton Yinger's six main types of religious groups: (1) the Universal Church, (2) the Ecclesia, (3) the Denomination, (4) the Established Sect, (5) the Sect, and (6) the Cult (Yinger, 1970); Bryan Wilson's division between (1) Conversionist, (2) Revolutionist, (3) Introversionist, and (4) Manipulationist sects and his further distinctions between (5) Thaumaturgical, (6) Reformist, (7) Utopian and (8) Ritualist sects (Wilson, 1969); Geoffrey Nelson's distinction between "spontaneous" and "permanent" cults and the further division of the latter into permanent local cults, unitary centralized cults and federal centralized cults (Nelson, 1968). This burgeoning literature on types of religious organization, while obviously overlapping at many points, is still moving away from rather than toward consensus classifications and explanations of religious groups.

There are good reasons for this diversity of nomothetic constructs in the social scientific study of religious groups. These constructs were initially developed for the analysis of Central European and North American Christian groups. As social scientists began to cast a wider net to include non-Christian and Christian, ancient and contemporary, Eastern and Western, traditional and syncretistic religious groups, those simpler typologies obviously required modification and elaboration, The ways in which religious groups emerge, stabilize and develop as they interact with other religious and social groups have proven to be both complex and changing, Little wonder that theories of religious organization are so divergent!

Recognizing these reasons for diversity among classificatory schemes of religious organization helps explain why Unificationism is so difficult to classify. The Unification Church is a microcosm of the data of the scientific study of religious groups, Unificationism combines Christian and non-Christian, contemporary and ancient, Western and Eastern, traditional and syncretistic themes in complex and changing ways. As such, Unificationism fails to fall neatly into the prevailing typological categories. This elusiveness and its implications will become more dear if we test Unificationism against the prevailing typological models of religious organization.

I. The Limiting Cases -- Church and Mysticism

Though Troeltsch's pioneering classification of religious organization has dearly been superseded, two of his categories may still serve as useful pointers to the limiting cases for any such typology. Commentators often forget that Troeltsch did not offer a binary Church-Sect classification but rather a tripartite Church-Sect-Mysticism scheme (Troeltsch, 1931). "Church" and "Mysticism" are his limiting cases of the sociological development of Christianity.

According to Troeltsch, the Church as a type is a religious group that recognizes the importance and integrity of the secular world. Rather than abandoning or battling the secular world, the Church accepts the main structures and functions of the secular world as penultimate goods. The Church is therefore built on a compromise which ideally extends the Church throughout the culture and absorbs the culture into the Church. Individuals are born into the Church as surely as they are born into the State. Indeed, Church and State are mutually supportive, though quarrels over priorities and prerogatives within this mutuality have been long and often bitter. The Church stabilizes and sanctions the State. The State supports and defends the Church. Going somewhat beyond Troeltsch's description, we may define the Church as "a religious association characterized by (1) a relatively high degree of institutionalization, (2) integration with the social and economic order, (3) a membership recruited on the basis of residence or family, and (4) relatively restrained and routinized participation" (Broom and Selznick, 1977:386).

According to Troeltsch, Mysticism appears when ideas which have hardened into formal worship, abstract doctrine and conventional religiosity are transformed into a purely personal and inward experience. This characterization of mystical religious experience is reminiscent of William James' analysis in terms of ineffability, noetic quality, transiency and passivity (James, 1902), Mysticism is thus essentially individualistic. This highly personal and private religious experience may give rise to the formation of informal groups, but these associations develop no authoritative doctrine or social strategy. On the contrary, they emphasize the importance of individual religious experience, liberty of conscience and otherworldly vision.

Defined in these terms, Unificationism is obviously neither a "Church" nor a "Mysticism," though there are elements and tendencies of each within Unification thought and life. Of course, churches do not spring full blown from the head of Zeus or Christ; nor do mysticisms remain insular and isolated visions of another world wholly separated from this world -- sociological facts that Troeltsch overlooked or ignored. Perhaps Unificationism is a religious movement born of the mystical experience of the Rev. Moon and his first associates but now growing toward a church which will indeed be truly one, holy and catholic. But as the Unification Churchy stands today, he/she is neither a "Church" nor a "Mysticism," But the possibility of such an historical development and the fact of observable changes within the movement suggest alternative classifications of Unificationism.

II. The Presumptive Alternatives -- Sect or Cult

For all the typological complexity and variety most scientific definitions of "Sect" and "Cult" are drawn with reference to Church and Mysticism as the limiting cases. Sect and Cult are more or less stable religious organizations which are neither establishments of traditional religion nor assemblies of private piety. Some social scientists see the Sect and the Cult moving inexorably toward either establishment or dissolution. Others see Sect and Cult as relatively permanent types of religious organization. But whether transient or permanent, most social scientists regard Sect and Cult as distinct and identifiable types of religious organization.

No attention can be given here to the entire literature on the Sect as such. Our purposes can be served, however, by a generic description of Sect that is mindful of the diversity in this literature, The Sect no less than the Church claims a unique legitimation as means of access to truth and salvation, though this means is not invested in a sacerdotal system or hierarchical priesthood. The Sect is a group that repudiates the Church's compromises with the world and withdraws from both the Church and the world in search of purity of rite and dogma. Typically there is a voluntary membership which stresses individual perfection. Sectarian movements always stand in sharp opposition to society though they differ over how that opposition is expressed -- whether through chiliastic transformation, ascetic differentiation or revolutionary agitation (Werner Stark, 1967), Thus, the Sect is free from worldly alliances and ecclesiastical hierarchies.

Drawn thus sharply, the organizational problems of religious sects and the conceptual difficulties for a Sect typology are apparent. Ideally, the Sect is a one-generational phenomenon, born of religious dissatisfaction or cultural deprivation. But sects are seldom such short-lived protests. What happens to the sect when children of believers are born, when a clergy replaces lay leaders, when prosperity and respectability are achieved? The sect, of course, takes on a different sociological if not theological character, These shifts are charted in the typological refinements of the Sect noted above and in the development of such additional categories as Denominationalism or Ecumenism as mediating sociological forms on the Church-Sect continuum. Nevertheless, those sects which become fully institutionalized always retain something of their original sense of the gathered community in opposition to the world. Such sectarian iconoclasm and authoritarianism can be perpetuated through many generations.

Defining the category of the Cult confronts us with difficulties and developments of a different kind. The sociological category of the Cult as developed by Howard Becker and Milton Yinger (Becker, 1932; Yinger, 1957) is closely related to Troeltsch's type of Mysticism. For Becker and Yinger, the Cult is a syncretistic movement usually inspired by a charismatic leader and typically centered in mystical experiences, Rodney Stark introduced an important further clarification by noting that cults unlike sects draw their inspiration from other than the primary religion of the culture, They are thus not schismatics concerned with preserving a purer form of the traditional faith but rather pioneers in search of a new form of faith (Rodney Stark, 1965). These various elements can be reduced to three major criteria by which cults are distinguished from other types of religious groups: (1) cults are groups based on mystical, psychic or esoteric experiences, (2) they originate as a fundamental break with the religious traditions of the society in which they arise, and (3) they are more concerned with the problems of individuals than those of social groups (Nelson, 1968).

These criteria allow for a number of historical and structural variations among cults. A cult may originate in the esoteric experiences of a charismatic leader or in the "parallelism of spontaneities" among people having similar experiences (Martin, 1965). Though cults represent a break with the religious traditions of their own society, they may draw their fundamental inspiration from either an existing alien culture or an earlier native tradition. Moreover, such borrowed or retrieved religious concepts may be combined with elements drawn from the dominant religious tradition of the society. Cults may be a loosely organized affair or they may develop into either centralized or federated organizations. Finally, cults may in time develop into the dominant religion within a society or they may survive for generations as underground or alternative religious traditions. For dl these differences, however, the essential feature of the Cult is the break with the dominant religious system. Thus cults are frequently persecuted and they flourish only when the traditional religious system has broken down to the point where that system no longer ominates or legitimates the cultural order,

Though the categories of Sect and Cult have only been briefly described, the difficulties of classifying Unificationism as either type is readily apparent to anyone thoroughly familiar with this complex religious movement. Viewed from a certain perspective, Unificationism is a sect -- it has withdrawn from the church and the world in search of purity of rite and dogma; it has a voluntary membership which stresses individual perfection. Viewed from another perspective, Unificationism is a cult -- it is based on mystical experience; it does break with the dominant religious tradition; it does focus on the religious problems of individuals. But which Unificationism is sectarian or cultic -- Korean? Japanese? North American? West coast or East coast? The truth of the matter is that Unificationism has appeared too lately developed too rapidly, and migrated too widely to be captured in either of these classifications or their multiple permutations. Not that Unificationism is unique and demands a category of its own. It is simply a modern religion (Kliever, 1981). Indeed, Unificationism is a quintessentially modern religion and, as such, the typologies developed to classify and explain pre-modern or early modern religious groups simply do not fit. We need new categories for dealing with the institutional forms and societal roles of distinctively modern religious groups such as Unificationism.

III. An Interim Category -- The Metainstitution

Both historical and theoretical challenges can be put to the notion that we need new categories for dealing with distinctively modern if not modernized religions. Cannot the received categories of Church, Sect and Cult be refined to include such sociological developments? Obviously, this is the route taken by most social scientists, All three classifications have been variously reformulated to include modernizing tendencies among the religions -- e.g., Yinger's sub-classifications of the Church (Yinger, 1970); Wilson's elaboration of the typology of the Sect (Wilson, 1966); Roy Wallis' reformation of the concept of the Cult (Wallis, 1975). Typologies are, of course, heuristic schemes designed to deal with particular problems and thus may be modified when new problems arise. But broadening typologies of Church, Sect or Cult too far weakens their historical and comparative usefulness. Perhaps a wiser course of action is to develop new categories to supplement the Church, Sect, and Cult typologies already in place. For sociological developments currently underway, an interim category like the "Metainstitution" may serve a useful purpose.

Before we examine this interim category more closely, a preliminary question must be addressed. Are religious institutions and religious consciousness, in fact, undergoing dramatic change in mode m culture? If Robert Bellah's theory of religious evolution is correct, and I think he is essentially right, then a new stage of religious development is emerging in our time. Bellah traces out a pattern of growing complexity in religion and in society that falls into five distinct stages (Bellah, 1965). These evolutionary stages are not necessarily discontinuous, but in actuality the earlier stages are rapidly spreading throughout today's world.

In Bellah's account, primitive religion is that stage where everyday existence and religious life are intimately and fluidly related. There are no special religious roles and organizations separated from ordinary social roles and organizations. Religious roles are fused with other roles because the society is the religious organization. Archaic religion represents a growing differentiation between the sacred and the secular though these are not yet separated into a dualism in archaic cultures. Religious institutions are still largely merged with social structures, though the appearance of worshipping cults and priestly classes signal the emergence of a "two-class" system of social and religious structures and symbolizations. Historic religion breaks through the cosmological monism and tribal insularity of the earlier stages by affirming a hierarchical and universalistic vision of reality, Though both the heavenly and the earthly worlds are ordered by a sole creator or single principle, dear separations are drawn between the realms of political and priestly leadership and between the roles of the believer and the citizen. Early modern religion retains a dualistic separation of this world and the next but collapses dl hierarchical structuring of them, Hierarchical, legal and sacramental systems of salvation are supplanted by an emphasis on the direct relation between the individual and God and on worldly life as an expression of that relationship. Though personal autonomy is still severely limited in religious and moral matters, individuals assume increasing control over political and economic affairs. The increasing separation of worldly organizations from ecclesiastical control and legitimation allows more open and voluntaristic forms of religious organization to develop. As such, early mode m religion plays a key role in the emergence of the multi-centered, self-revising social order that characterizes today's voluntaristic and pluralistic societies. Finally, modern religion leaves behind all dualistic conceptions and authoritarian definitions of reality Indeed, the responsibility for making sense of human existence has shifted more and more to the individual. Modern religious groups exhibit far greater flexibility of organization and fluidity of membership than previously. The role of enforcing standards of doctrine and morality has largely been dropped with the religious group serving as a supportive community for those individuals involved in a search for meaningful solutions to ultimate concerns. The underlying assumption of these modern trends is that culture and personality are endlessly revisable.

Given Bellah's five stages of religious evolution, a case can be made for an evolutionary arrangement of the Church, the Sect and the Cult (Hargrove, 1979: pp. 65-67). The Church is the dominant form of religious organization at the historic level of development, the Sect does emerge to prominence in the early mode m period, while the Cult seems peculiarly appropriate to the modern stage, though only if the concept of the Cult is reformulated dong Wallis' lines as a deviant and pluralistic religious movement, only one of a variety of equally legitimate paths to the truth or salvation (Willis, 1975), But this evolutionary argument finally does not work for two reasons. It requires us to regard the persistence of churches and sects into the modern period of religious development as cultural lag and it obscures the presence of both sects and cults throughout the historic as well as the early mode m religious stage. Indeed, all founded religions of the historic period began as cults or as sects (Nelson, 1968: pp. 357-58). Only later did Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam finally emerge as dominant religious systems of an empire, thereby achieving the sociological status of a Church.

Better that we search for new categories more appropriate to modern organizational forms of religion, without for a moment denying that churches, sects and cults persist in the modern world and are undergoing a process of modernization themselves. Harvey Cox, in his usual inimitable way, has given us a word for such organizational forms -- the metainstitution (Cox, 1969: pp. 93-97). Though Cox speaks of religious metainstitutions more as desiderata than as actualities, his description is suggestive of what in fact might be emerging as a distinctively mode m form of religious organization. Cox calls for a special form of flexible institution which exists not for itself but to join the two worlds of "fact and fantasy," or of culture and religion:

This "metainstitution" must have a number of characteristics. In order to animate fantasy it must cultivate the symbols that opened men to new levels of awareness in the past. It must be in effective touch with the most advanced artistic movement of the day and with historical and trans-historical images of the future. It must teach men to celebrate and fantasize. But above all it must provide a fertile field where new symbols can appear. Since man is body and heart as well as brain, it must include affective and ritual components. Finally, it must be part of the culture in which it lives but sufficiently free so that its fantasies are not pinioned and hamstrung by present expectations (Cox, 1969: pp. 94-95)

Admitting that the churches are not such metainstitutions, Cox nevertheless hopes for such a company of "dreamers, seers, servants and jesters." He concludes, "The new church we look for need not come entirely from the churches of today. It certainly will not. It will come, if it comes at all, as a new congeries of elements, some from the churches, some from outside, some from the fertile interstices between. And it will assume a shape we can hardly predict, though we can sometimes see its outlines -- in fantasy" (Cox, 1969: pp. 96-97).

Is then the Unification Church such a coming metainstitution? That possibility cannot be lightly dismissed. To be sure, the Moonies all too frequently look and act like a church struggling for power, like a sect reaching for purity or like a cult searching for peace. There are strong indications that Unificationism is aging backwards, reaching toward the vanished glory of historic religion's dream of a universal church and a world empire. If these fantasies of universal church and world empire prevail, then Unificationism will either fall between the cracks of passing time or persist as an established sect or a permanent cult, Historic religion's dream of a universal church and a world empire is gone forever.

But there are counter-indications that Unificationism may be a part of the "coming metainstitution" that Cox envisions, There are structures and ministries of the Unification Church that have a metainstitutional character -- the International Cultural Foundation, the International Conference on the Unity of the Sciences and the fledgling New ERA. What if these are not mere organizational fronts? What if these are the Unification Church, not serving or supporting its own institutional and doctrinal interests but providing a structural and symbolic context within which diverse individuals and groups, institutions and traditions can freely explore that "infinite-possibility thing" which is modern religion and life!

Could this company of "dreamers, seers, servants and jesters" be a herald of the "new church"? Clearly the game is still too new to call. The odds are that Unificationism will in fact not dare the future as future but rather treat the future as past. But the possibilities are there for the Unification Church to pioneer the way toward distinctively modern forms of religious organization.


Becker, Howard. Revision of L. von Wiese, Systematic Theology. New York: Wiley, 1932.

Bellah, Robert. "Religious Evolution." In Reader in Comparative Religion. Ed. William A.

Lessa and Evan Z. Vogt. New York: Harper and Row, 1965, pp. 36-50. Broom, Leonard and Philip Seknick. Sociology. New York: Harper S Row, 1977. Cox, Harvey. The Feast of Pools. New York: Harper and Row, 1969. Enroth, Ronald. Youth, Braimcasfting and Extremist Culls. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1973

Hargrove, Barbara. The Sociology of Religion, Arlington Heights, 111.: ALTM, 1979. James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Longmans, Green, 1902,

Kliever, Lonnie D. "Unification Social Hermeneutics: Theocratic or Bureaucratic?" In Hermeneutics and Horizons: The Shape of the Future. Ed. Frank K. Flinn. Barrytown. N Y: Unification Theological Seminary, Distributed by Rose of Sharon Press. Inc., 1981.

Martin, David. Pacifism. London: Roudedge, 1965.

Nelson, Goeffrey K. "The Concept of Cult." Sociological Review 16, (1968). pp. 351-62.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Social Sources of Denominationalism. New York: Meridian, 19^7. Stark, Rodney and Charles Y Glock. Religion and Society in Tension. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965.

Stark, Werner. The Sociology of Religion. New York: Fordham University Press, 1967.

Stoner, Carroll and Jo Anne Parker. All God's Children. Philadelphia: Chilton, 1977.

Troeltsch, Ernst. The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches. New York: Macmillan, 1931

Wallis, Roy. "The Cult and Its Transformation." In Sectarianism. Ed. Roy Wallis. New York: Wiley, 1975, pp. 35-49.

Wilson, Bryan. Religion in Secular Society. Baltimore: Penguin, 1969.

Yinger, J. Milton. Religion, Society and the Individual. New York: Macmillan, 1957.
............ The Scientific Study of Religion, New York: Macmillan, 1970. 

Table of Contents

Tparents Home

Moon Family Page

Unification Library