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

Radical Secularization, the Modern Age and the New Religions -- Richard L, Rubenstein

Several months ago I was invited to participate in a symposium to be held at the December 1981 meeting of the American Academy of Religion on the subject of "The Death-of-God Theology Reconsidered." Since I played a visible role in the movement of radical theology, I was pleased to accept. My colleagues in the symposium will be Thomas J. J. Altizer and William Hamilton.

The invitation elicited from me some reflection on the unanticipated direction that my career as a heterodox theologian has taken since the sixties. As some of you may know, I argued in my writings and in public forums that the doctrine of the election of Israel and the belief that God is preeminently the ultimate actor in the drama of history could only be maintained if one regarded the destruction of the European Jews an expression of divine punishment against the Jews. Since I could not so regard the event, I felt compelled to abandon those central tenets of Jewish religious self-interpretation. Had anybody suggested at the time that I would have been willing to adopt a posture of friendship, sympathy and cooperation with a movement whose fundamental energies spring from their faith in God's action in history and the election of the Korean nation as the Third Israel, I would have rejected the idea as utterly beyond the realm of possibility Nevertheless, that is precisely what has happened. In this paper I propose to share with you one of the principal reasons, though by no means the only one, why this has taken place.

Although it has often been said that I had asserted that "God is dead," I had in fact insisted that no such statement could be made about God and that the term "death of God" was descriptive of the human condition rather than in any sense a meaningful statement about God. I did say that "we live in the time of the death of God" by which I meant that the thread linking heaven and earth, God and man had been broken. What I did not then realize was that while this was an accurate metaphor for the spiritual condition of much of western civilization, it was not and could not be an accurate perception of the spiritual condition of mankind as a whole. I was reacting to the radical denial of ultimate moral or religious norms that characterized western civilization. I was fully aware of the feet that millions of men and women in every western country continued to believe in God and to conduct their lives, insofar as they were able, in accordance with their inherited faith. Although I did not spell out what I meant sociologically, the phenomenon to which I referred was intrinsic to the modernization process as that process had unfolded in the West. I define that process as entailing the progressive rationalization of the economy and society. I understand rationalization, as did Max Weber, as involving "the methodical attainment of a definitely given and practical end by an increasingly precise calculation of adequate mean."1 To the extent that an economy or a society is fully rationalized in the formal sense, all values and institutions that impede the efficient attainment of its practical ends will be rejected, even if these values are hallowed by immemorial custom or religious tradition. As Weber understood, in a fully rationalized economy impersonal calculations of profit and loss would eliminate all considerations based upon shared feelings of fraternity, kinship, community or even simple humanity. Moreover, once set in motion such a system is internally compulsive, Failure to conform to its rules brings in its train the most severe economic penalties. This is especially true of advanced technological societies in which the scale of investment is so large that failure to meet the test of rationality in planning, manufacturing, marketing and distribution can result in catastrophic loss, as the American automobile industry has recently learned to its extreme distress.

When I spoke of our era as "the time of the death of God," I had in mind the social, economic and political consequences of the modernization process as suggested above. I first became interested in the modernization process as a result of my research into the phenomenon of large-scale programs of state-sponsored population elimination such as the destruction of the European Jews, the Armenians, and, more recently the Cambodians.2 This is not the occasion to discuss that work in detail, but in all three instances once the decision was taken by the political decision-makers, no religious sentiment or value proved efficacious in halting the program. The personnel involved had only one imperative, the effective fulfillment of one's assigned task. For the vast majority of the functionaries all other considerations of value were effectively eliminated, Furthermore, such behavior was entirely consistent with Weber's description of the normal behavior of bureaucratic functionaries in both modern economic and political institutions.3 Put differently, such behavior was not a "throwback" to an earlier, more "barbaric" age, as some would suggest, but an expression of the modern spirit itself.4

In the face of a culture that proved to be practically Godless, no matter what the private religious sentiments of the individuals who comprised that culture might be, it is altogether understandable that sensitive individuals might turn to traditional religious institutions as a counter to a normless and valueless culture. Indeed the revival of religion in the United States in the past decade has been a reaction to the threat of anomy that a world that is practically Godless inevitably entails. There is obviously a limit to the kind of moral and spiritual anarchy that had begun to characterize the advanced technological societies of the West. Nevertheless, we must ask whether the current revival is likely to provide an adequate long-term response to the problems of relativism, skepticism and normlessness that has afflicted the modern world and that led Dostoevsky to depict Ivan Karamazov as asserting, "If there is no God, all things are permitted,"

Unfortunately, there are good reasons for believing that the radical secularism to be found in the West is not a cultural force independent of western religion but an unintended consequence of it. Permit me to offer an example of what I mean. In the part of the United States in which I live there are huge pine forests that are periodically cut down and replanted by the corporations that own the forests. The behavior of the corporations is an example of the rationalizing spirit of modernity. The trees are simply regarded as a commodity to be produced in accordance with a planned schedule to meet the demands of the world market. There is nothing inherently sacred in the trees. For the corporation and even the local people, trees are there simply to be cut down and used by man. Yet, such an attitude is by no means universal. In many parts of the world trees are thought to be possessed by spirits and hence to be sacred. An important moment in the history of western religion came when the Emperor Charlemagne deliberately caused to be cut down trees in the Saxon forests as a means of demonstrating that the trees were possessed of neither deities nor spirits. Although most people in the West today take it for granted that woods, mountains and streams are simply natural objects devoid of any inherent sacrality, an extraordinary spiritual revolution had to take place before people could so regard the phenomena of the physical world. Moreover, this transformation was part of a larger revolution in which human political institutions were radically desacralized. Where once the majority of mankind believed that an aura of divinity encompassed their rulers and their political institutions, both rulers and governing institutions have normally come to be regarded as purely human institutions.

The cultural process whereby the natural and human world came to be regarded as devoid of any inherent sacrality has been identified as that of Entzauberung der Welt, the disenchantment of the world. According to Max Weber, where such disenchantment occurs "there are in principle no mysterious forces that come into play, but rather one can, in principle, master all thing by calculation5." Inevitably, such disenchantment leads to radical secularization. Where this process reaches its logical conclusion, the world is regarded as totally godless and hence anomic, a condition that most men and women find intolerable.

It is sometimes claimed that the process of disenchantment and secularization is the result of modern intellectual criticism of traditional beliefs and institutions. In reality it is highly unlikely that secularism could have taken hold as a mass phenomenon on the basis of intellectual criticism alone. Every person is born into the world in such a way that fear, reverence and awe of sacred institutions, traditions and powers can be inculcated with overwhelmingly powerful emotional force long before he or she acquires the faculty of critical reflection. If, for example, I had been taught from earliest childhood that the trees in my garden are the abode of sacred spirits and that I must be ever on my guard not to injure them, it is not likely that a university course in biology or philosophy could change my mind about the trees. Only a religious faith that is radically polemic to the forces of magic and to belief in the earth's indwelling spirits could have legitimated the profound spiritual, cultural and psychological revolution that was necessary before an entire civilization could reject and negate that which men and women had revered as sacred from time immemorial. Moreover, only one religious tradition proclaimed the existence of an absolutely sovereign Power, upon who m all things without exception were utterly dependent for their existence, who was unremittingly hostile to the powers of magic and polytheism. Given the exclusive power of that sovereign Power, those who accepted him as their God, at least in the West, felt they had no alternative but to assume a posture of radical hostility towards the sacred spirits and traditions of the rest of mankind. In his claim to total and exclusive worship, the transcendent God of Biblical monotheism demanded that his followers regard all other gods, powers and spirits as of no account. Put differently, belief in the God of the Bible involved a radical rejection of any sort of belief in the reality of the spirit world, at least in the West. This attitude is characteristically expressed by the Psalmist:

"Great is the Lord and worthy of all praise.
He is more to be feared than all gods.
For the gods of the nations are idols every one;
But the Lord made the heavens," (Ps. 96:4-5)

A similar attitude is to be found in Deutero-Isaiah:

"Thus saith the Lord, King of Israel,
the Lord of Hosts, his Redeemer:
I am the first and I am the last,
and there is no God but me." (Isaiah 44:6)

If one wants to find the origins of the modem secular world, one can find its beginnings here. Only those who believed in God's unique sovereignty could safely abandon belief in magic, spirits and powers and create a world that was as subject to mankind's absolute mastery as men were subject to God's mastery. This is evident in the incident of Charlemagne and the trees. It was only because Charlemagne believed in the one God of the Bible that he was liberated from fear of the spirits of the woodland groves and did not hesitate to cut down the trees. He could not have foreseen that a day would come when men would lose all reverence for nature and see the forest simply as a source of monetary gain. Nevertheless, disenchantment of the world, or radical desacralization and secularization, is the indispensable precondition of the rationalization of the economy and society which is the fundamental characteristic of modernization and capitalism. Thus, the paradoxical precondition of a radically secularizing attitude that has effectively eliminated all religious values from both the economy and the productive processes of the modern world was a religious revolution. A further paradox is that the very absence of religious values which is characteristic of modem secular capitalism is an unintended consequence of the cultural triumph of the polemic attitude to the gods, spirits and traditions of the nonbiblical world. This point of view is, of course, thoroughly consistent with the insights of Max Weber on the biblical roots of the disenchantment of the world and the role of Calvinism in the emergence of rational bourgeois capitalism. Crucial to Calvinism's role in creating the modem world has been the fact that it affirmed with far greater consistency than ever before the transcendence, exclusiveness and sovereignty of the biblical God. Unlike Judaism, which was the religion of a small group of outsiders, Calvinism was the predominant religious force precisely in those communities in which capitalism experienced its initial impetus.

If the above analysis has any merit, it would follow that a return to the traditional biblical faith of the West will not serve as a long-range antidote for the negative cultural and moral consequences of contemporary secular civilization. The economic achievements of rational bourgeois capitalism, by which I mean the civilization in which formal rationality has achieved its greatest success, are in a certain sense the unintended consequences of religious values that are rooted in faith in the sovereign and radical transcendence of the unique God of biblical monotheism. But note: these values have had a totally secularizing effect! Faith in the sovereignty of this God has intensified our sense of the worldliness of the world and of the futility of mastering the world other than through methodically organized, disciplined, systematic calculation. Moreover, the theological consequences of the affirmation of the radical transcendence of this God, both by virtue of the utter inaccessibility of his transcendent nature and by virtue of the suspicion that by means of relating to him, even in prayer and religious worship itself, might be a form of magic.6 In the find analysis, as Weber understood, those who believe in this God have no choice but rationally to pursue their vocations wholly within the world, the one remaining link to their God being their faith that he has manifested his sovereignty by causing them to prosper in their vocations. Worldly success is pursued in early capitalism not for the sake of consumption or any of the superfluous gratifications that affluence might bring, but because it offers the believer, cut off from God by an impossible transcendence, the last remaining hint of whether or not he has been accepted by God,

There are many reasons why Weber remains worthy of study today not the least is the insight implicit in his work that modernization is Christian in its origins and that, even when it has lost its original religious motivation, it nevertheless represents both an intrinsic and a socio-cultural expression of the triumph of the world view of what he called "ascetic Protestantism." Put differently the Weber hypothesis implies that modernization represents a highly successful form of Christianization even when it is adopted by non-Christians who continue to be faithful to their ancestral religious traditions. Lest I be misunderstood, I do not offer these observations because of any desire to foster Christianity among non-Christians but because I see no other way to interpret the socio-cultural meaning of the phenomenon of modernization, Here again Weber is instructive. Commenting on the modem world, Weber observed that:

The fate of our time is characterized by rationalization and, above all, by the 'disenchantment of the world.'7

In essence to modernize means to rationalize and to "disenchant," but, as we have seen, it is only with the triumph of Protestant Christianity and its doctrine of the radical and unique sovereignty of the transcendent Creator God that such rationalization becomes possible for whole masses of people rather than for a small group of intellectual elites.

Yet, if modernization is a form of Christianization, there is great irony in the feet, that as a form of secularization, modernization is an expression of self-negating Christianization. This does not mean that Christian Churches have lost their power or their numbers. On the contrary in the United States they are gaining in strength, but do Christian religious values have the power to dethrone morally-neutral economic values where the survival of great financial institutions are at stake? To pose this question in this form is to answer it as did Weber:

The material development of an economy on the basis of social associations flowing from market relationships generally follows its objective rules, disobedience to which entails economic failure and, in the long run, economic ruin.8

Is there then no way out of a civilization of quantifying rationality that has the effect of dissolving all spiritual and ethical values? Are we condemned to the "iron cage" of the future, as Weber suggested, or is there a way out? It is my conviction that the situation is by no means hopeless although no man can predict the outcome. If we are correct that only a religious revolution could have brought about the transformations of consciousness that led to the disenchantment of the world and eventually to modernization, then in all likelihood, it will take a transformation of consciousness originating in religion to overcome the present situation. Unfortunately, genuine religious transformations cannot be brought about simply because their need is deeply felt. Moreover, such transformations must originate with men and women of inspiration, inspiration that is credible. They cannot originate with contemporary western-trained theologians or religious scholars. The theological training received by most clergymen in the West, whether Protestant or Jewish, and to a certain extent Roman Catholic, is an expression of the same spirit of rationality that has brought forth the modem world. It is, for example, impossible to receive a theological degree from any mainstream western institution without studying the basic texts of the biblical religions as if they were literary documents to be investigated in the same spirit of critical inquiry as any other historical document. One might say that the disenchantment process, with its attendant secularization, has expressed itself not only outside of the religious community but also in the way religious professionals are currently trained. This is understood by those Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist Christians who continue to regard the Bible as literally the word of God. Nevertheless, it is impossible for western religious communities to overcome secularization when the very way they train their professionals is itself an expression of the secularization process. If credible, world-transforming religious inspiration is needed in our times, it is not likely to come from either the scholars or the clergy trained in the modern institutions of the western world. I include myself in this category. This is not because of any flaw in the character of the religious professionals but because of the unavoidably secular nature of the training which is today an indispensable prerequisite of their certification. In spite of themselves, they are fully a part of the rational spirit of the age. This is part of what I meant when I said that we live in the time of the "death of God."

It is, however, my conviction that possibilities for spiritual renewal exist in the Orient which may have an important long-range impact on the world as a whole. Lest I be misunderstood, I do not see the conventional American experiments in oriental religion or fundamentalism as the way out of the "iron cage." The fundamentalist renaissance represents a return to biblical religion, but if, as we have argued, modern secular culture is an unintended consequence of the triumph of biblical religion, then any return to biblical religion, unless it is combined with some new spiritual element, can only have the long-range effect of further intensifying the rationality of the modernization process,

Although it is too early to offer a judgment on whether the Unification Church will be the effective agent of the spiritual renewal that is required if we are to find a way out of the "iron cage," it does offer certain elements of promise. The rest of this paper is devoted to a brief enumeration of some of these elements:

Charismatic Leadership. If it is the fate of the biblical religions to negate themselves in ever-widening areas of human endeavor, only a religious leader who can with credibility claim the authority to define what is to be permitted and what prohibited is likely to overcome the value-free character of the present situation. While such value-definition is possible today on the part of religious authorities, it is largely limited to matters of private morality. It has little effect on the larger community. Neither mainstream Jewish nor Protestant clergymen have effective value-defining authority. They are largely salaried professionals who know their social location and its constraints. Charismatic leadership can be derived either from the office or the person of the leader. As we know, the papacy is an institution whose authority derives from office charisma. The leader of the Unification Church derives his authority from personal charisma.

His claim to authority is based upon his experience of having been commissioned to carry on and perhaps to complete the work of redemption commenced by other great religious figures of the past. Moreover, his claim carries with it what can minimally be described as a psychological authority that no western religious figure could possibly possess. He comes from a country in which indigenous shamanistic religion co-exists with Protestant Christianity in a way that would be utterly impossible in the West, According to the English scholar Spencer J. Palmer, the revival of indigenous Korean religion was an important element in fostering the spread of Christianity in that country. Palmer maintains that Koreans were able to identify Hananim, the High God of their indigenous tradition, with the biblical God.

Palmer also holds that the traditions that assert that (a) Hananim gave life to the people by sending his divine son into the world and (b) that Hananim's grandson Tan'gun was the first Korean king seemed to many Koreans closer to Christianity than to either Buddhism or Confucianism.9 If Palmer is correct, Korean Christianity was in general never as hostile to or removed from the nation's original spiritual traditions as was the case in most predominantly Protestant countries, Hence the turning of the Korean people to Christianity was less uprooting and less alienating than elsewhere. Put differently, Korean Christians, or at least a goodly number of them, did not experience the kind of "disenchantment of the world" that was experienced in the West, It has therefore been possible for religiously-inspired Koreans to claim to have received communications from the spirit world with none of the self-doubt or imputation of bad faith that would inevitably attend such assertions were they made by a western religious leader. Of course, it is possible to reduce the Rev. Moon's experiences to the categories of western psychology of religion, but to do so is merely to translate the terminology used in one culture to describe a phenomenon to that used in another. There is absolutely no reason for asserting that one mode of description is superior to another. Insofar as the Rev. Moon is not cut off from the sources of inspiration present in indigenous Korean religious culture, he may be able to infuse his movement with a spirit of inspiration that is no longer possible in the secularizing and disenchanted West. That he has been able to inspire an impressive number of persons both in the East and the West is evident from the growth of the Church.

Obviously, charismatic leadership has a certain element of instability in it as Weber understood. It serves best an as agent of radical change, its long-range effects can only be ascertained over time, perhaps only after the charisma has been routinized. Yet, it is interesting to note that at least one important German historian of sociology, Wolfgang Mommsen, has claimed that Weber came to see charismatic leadership as the only hope of overcoming the "iron cage" of a bureaucratically-ossified modern world. Because of the horrendous experience with charismatic leadership experienced by Germans during the period of National Socialism, there has understandably been much controversy over Mommsen's attempt to depict Weber as in any sense favoring what could be regarded as the Fuhrerprinzip. Yet, Mommsen's observations cannot be easily dismissed. In a structured world in which each person is required to fulfill his assigned task without concerning himself with the value of what he does, somebody must decide in the area of values. According to Mommsen, Weber came to the conclusion that the charismatic leader would ultimately be that person.10

I find no reason seriously to question Mommsen's basic conclusions, while fully recognizing the hazards involved in charismatic leadership. There is, however, one fundamental difference between Weber's charismatic value-creator and religious charismatic leaders such as the Rev, Sun Myung Moon. Weber's charismatic leader is the great man who is responsible to no one save himself. Moon's charisma is based upon a claim of divine commission that places him in a line of religious leaders and thus is likely to have certain safeguards that a leader responsible only to himself would lack. Obviously, the Rev. James Jones can be offered as proof that the safeguards are a slender thread on which to rely, but Jones and his community were involved in a strategy of separation and withdrawal from the world whereas the Unification Church is thoroughly engaged in the world it hopes to transform.

I should like to conclude this section with a comment that is both personal and theological. When I participated in die so-called death-of-God movement, I was in a sense saying that the theological enterprise could go no further, Moreover, I was acutely conscious of the feet that I and my peers were the generation after Tillich. I was convinced then and remain convinced today that no purely intellectual enterprise in the domain of theology could transcend the "death of God." I also knew that were some religious figure to present himself as divinely commissioned, a fundamentally new element would be introduced into the contemporary religious situation that would transcend the "death of God." Theologians can reflect on those who claim to have been commissioned by God. They do not claim such a commission. My attitude to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon is one of respectful and sympathetic appreciation of what he has achieved and promises to achieve in the future. I have until now found no way in which I can evaluate his claims. Were I to do so by customary method, that is the interpretation of religion in terms of the psychology and sociology of religion, I would merely be incorporating his experience into my system without having come any closer to an accurate evaluation of it. Of one thing I am convinced. Only a charismatic religious figure could extricate us from the "iron cage" of secularity and modernity. I will concede that the Rev. Moon is the most significant charismatic leader to arise in our times.

The Millenarian Character of the Unification Church. Millenarian movements arise at moments of great historical crisis when the customary institutions and traditions are no longer adequate as cultural and/or spiritual vehicles for coping with the situations in which large numbers of people find themselves. As is well known, the dislocations that have attended modernization frequently result in the rise of millenarian movements. This was the case with the Cargo cults of the Pacific Islands as well as the millenarian movements that have arisen in Japan and elsewhere in the orient in the twentieth century That the present time is one of historical crisis would seem to be obvious, Moreover, there is one respect in which the crisis has deepened spiritually as contrasted with the pre-World War II period. In that period the substitute ideologies of right and left-wing politics still seemed credible as alternatives to a religion that had failed of credibility at least among the intellectuals. Today, both fascism and communism still have their adherents, but the historical failure of both the regimes of the right and the left, such as Nazi Germany and communist Russia, render the political alternatives less attractive as surrogate faiths than they once were. Yet, the need for spiritual and cultural transformation remains. It has been said that millenarian movements can be pre- and post-political. Yet, such movements have been known to act as agents of both religious and social transformation. There is risk in the fact that the Unification Church is a millenarian movement as there is risk in the feet that it is led by a charismatic figure. Yet, it is precisely in these elements of risk that the movement may also find its ability to be a genuine agent of transformation.

The Asian Origin of the Church. As one who believes that, both economically and politically the center of gravity of world civilization is in the process of shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific, I find the Asian origins of the Unification Church a distinct advantage to it. At one level, the Unification Church has almost single-handedly, reversed the historic role of the Christian missions. Until its advent, Christian missionary efforts were almost exclusively those undertaken by western churches to effect the spiritual transformation of the non-western parts of the world. The Unification Church is the first church of purely Asian origin to carry its mission successfully to the West. Moreover, it has done so with a degree of intelligence, sophistication and style that is perhaps unparalleled in the history of Christian missionary efforts in modem times, One result of the Church's mission has been the fact that a number of western thinkers, among whom I include myself, have been exposed to Asia and Asian religion in a direct and immediate way that would not have been possible otherwise. We have yet to be able to calculate the extent to which the Unification Church has come at precisely the moment when the balance between East and West had shifted decisively. Perhaps the moment at which western religion had come to the dead end of the "iron cage" was followed by the kind of shift from one civilization to another that makes a new beginning possible. In human history, every new era has witnessed its own characteristic spiritual response. It is doubtful that many moments in human history have been as laden with the potentialities for new material and spiritual beginnings as the inauguration of the "Pacific era. With that new beginning the Unification Church has a unique and unparalleled opportunity. Hopefully, it will grasp that opportunity. Hopefully, it will give to humanity a new fulfillment for a very old idea: Ex Oriente Lux, Light out of The East.


1 Max Weber, "The Sociology of the World Religions," in H, H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1946), p.293.

2 See Richard L. Rubenstein, The Cunning of History (New York: Harper and Row, 1975).

3 See Weber, "Bureaucracy," in Gerth and Mills, pp. 215 ff.

4 See Rubenstein, pp. 78 ff.

5 See Weber, "Science As A Vocation" in Gerth and Mills, p. 293.

6 See Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy (New York: Doubleday, 1966), pp. 111 ff.

7 Weber, "Science As A Vocation," p. 155.

8 Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (New York: Bedminster, 1968), 2, 636ff.

9 See Spencer). Palmer, Korea and Christianity: The Problem of Identification With Tradition (Seoul: Hollym, 1967), pp. 5-18.

10 See Wolfgang J. Mommsen, The Age of Bureaucracy: Perspectives on the Political Sociology of Max Weber (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1974). For a discussion of the Mommsen thesis, see Raymond Aron, "Max Weber and Power-Politics," in Otto Stammer, Max Weber and Sociology Today (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), pp. 83-100; and the responses to Aron by Carl J. Friedrich, Hans Paul Bahrdt, Wolfgang J. Mommsen, Karl W Deutsch, Eduard Baumgarten and Adolf Arnt. 

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