Hermeneutics and The Shape of the Future - Edited by Frank K. Flinn

Unification Social Hermeneutics: Theocratic or Bureaucratic -- Lonnie D. Kliever

H. Richard Niebuhi; one of the great moral and cultural theologians of our century, argues that ethical action does not rest on specific moral rules or goals governing typical situations. Formalized systems of rules and casuistry are at best assessments of ethical actions rather than descriptions of moral decisions. Moral behavior issues from and answers to an ethos -- a context in which persons act and interact on the basis of certain underlying images or models of that situation. Moral action is always interpreted action that is imaginatively and historically funded. Moral reasoning is not so much deliberately applying moral principles to situations as it is interpreting situations in the light of events and experiences from the past or the future which decisively shape personal and communal life. These events and experiences are distilled into impressions and images which the reasoning heart employs to fashion moral understanding and guidance. Morality then requires responsive action in accordance with an interpretation of what is going on and of what is fitting. As Niebuhr puts it, "We respond as we interpret the meaning of action upon us" (Niebuhr, 63).* In short, ethics is hermeneutics of society.

Following Niebuhr's lead, what is the social hermeneutics of the Unification Church? Ho w do Unificationists interpret and respond to what is going on and what is fitting? On the face of it, Unification interpretations of society are theocratic. In any social situation, the primary actor is God and the primary ethos is the kingdom of God. More precisely, Unification social hermeneutics is eschatologically theocratic. The actions of persons and events of history are seen under the aspect of God striving for the kingdom coming (Divine Principle, 68-71). The images and models of this expectation are drawn directly from the Bible. Biblical history is the hermeneutical type of all history and, within the biblical materials, marriage with its implied unification of opposites is the central eschatological type (Flinn, 157). Thus construed, the coming reign of God over a kingdom on earth will see the restoration of the original unity of the body and the mind, the male and the female, the external and the internal, the horizontal and the vertical dimensions of human existence. Accordingly, Unificationist ethics centers in bringing in this God-centered, family mediated kingdom.

On closer inspection, however, this theocratic hermeneutics differs in one crucial way from its ostensibly biblical and Calvinistic roots (Richardson, 133-40). As we shall see, this difference comes to dramatic focus in the determinative role that marriage plays in their eschatological ethics. Stated negatively, Unification hermeneutics of society invokes no overarching structural embodiment of the rule of God over the affairs of earth -- neither the structure of a divine kingship so typical of biblical messianism nor of an authoritative church so central to theocratic Calvinism. Stated positively, for Unificationists the coming kingdom centers in and emerges from the godly individual and the godly family. Neither church nor state as such will mediate the coming kingdom but rather dedicated individuals living in intimate communities of faith and love.

What then is the significance of this structural shift from public (state, church) to private (persons, families) bearers of the coming kingdom? Unificationists might answer in two very different ways. On the one hand, they might argue that this shift represents a "purification" of Christianity. The rejection of "Constantinian Christianity," with its pope and emperor, promises a theocracy free of the political entanglements and idolatrous confusions between church and state in the past. On the other hand, Unificationists might parlay this shift as a "primitivization" of Christianity. This focus on the individual and the family represents a return to a time when religion so permeated the whole of society that special religious roles and institutions were unnecessary. But the notion of a "purified" Christianity free of institutional entanglements is sociologically naive. No religion can survive without institutional embodiments. Moreover, the idea of a "primitivized" Christianity is historically unlikely. No religion is likely to gain a consensus in modern societies. Put another way, the theological pretensions and sociological realities of Unificationism are at odds with one another. In bluntest terms, a theocracy in a bureaucracy is impossible!

But why has Unificationism taken a social form that undercuts its theological vision and what problems does this contradiction generate for the movement? Answers to these questions can only be found by comparing Unificationism to other religions in modern society. Empirically considered, religious world views have had historical and social "binding power" only when they were embodied in and mediated through the primary institutions of a society. These institutional forms have, of course, varied from time and place depending on a number of structural and ideological factors (Bellah). In primitive and archaic societies, religion permeates the whole of society. Religious roles and organizations are essentially coterminous with other institutions. But, as the sociological and historical study of religion makes clear, in more advanced societies "sacral" roles and organizations have become increasingly specialized and segmented from "profane" roles and organizations. Of course, for over two thousand years the structural and ideological differentiation of the religious from the non-religious did not weaken religion. Indeed, in Western societies this "separation from the world" gave the great historic religions immense social leverage as well as existential power. But this power, in turn, hinged on two factors: (1) religious institutions enjoyed parity if not priority over their nonreligious counterparts and (2) religious representations enjoyed a monopoly over reality definition and personality formation within the society. Special religious beliefs and organizations shaped and sanctioned the whole of social and personal life so long as they remained the primary determinants of society.

But this primacy has been dissolved in modern societies. Religious institutions have lost their political parity and their ideological monopoly (Luckmann). This loss, which began with the break-up of all hierarchical legal and sacramental systems in the Protestant Reformation, is the outcome of certain far-reaching ideological and structural changes in modern societies. Briefly reviewed, the traditional preeminence of religious roles and organizations became increasingly problematic in the modern era as the forces of industrialization and urbanization spawned new tasks and new institutions. As social structures became increasingly specialized, religious institutions became decreasingly authoritative. New political, economic, educational, military and labor organizations appeared, each such specialized group generating its own goals of endeavor and ways of proceeding and each pressing its own autonomous rationale on its own membership. As a consequence, life in the modern world became increasingly organized in segmented ways that neither require nor permit overarching religious institutionalization. Religious representations increasingly have become one among other fragmented ideologies covering limited domains of experience. Religious organizations have become one among many specialized institutions catering to a specialized clientele.

The structural differentiations and ideological autonomy of modem social institutions have conspired to limit religion's sphere to the personal and interpersonal. Modern society's primary institutions (political, economic, educational, military, and labor) care nothing for the whole person. They only require individual compliance with their own particular institutional norms. But these segmented "performance demands" leave wide areas of personal thought and life untouched and undetermined. These interstices form a "private realm" of relatively autonomous individuals who are left to their own devices in choosing goods and services, careers and pastimes, friends and mares, even morals and religion. In point of fact, within this private realm individuals are free to construct their own personal identity so long as that identity does not encroach unduly on the freedom of others or disrupt the performance of public duties. Seen in this light, the widespread toleration and equivocation of modern religion is fully understandable. Since individuals are free to choose their own religion, differing choices between individuals or changing choices by individuals are to be expected and respected. Rather than internalizing any official or permanent religious system, modern individuals build their own private systems of ultimate significance out of the varied biographical and cultural resources that are available.

Thus, religion in the modern era unlike religion in earlier eras receives only marginal support and confirmation from primary public institutions. Modern religion depends on the more ephemeral support of autonomous individuals. In the private sphere, interpersonal sharing and even joint construction of systems of ultimate significance are possible without conflicting with the functionally rational norms of primary institutions. For many, the nuclear family provides a structural basis for the production of these systems of "ultimate" relevance. The upsurge of "partnership marriage" in industrial societies (with its extraordinary expectations of personal fulfillment and its resulting vulnerability to break-up when those expectations are not realized) reveals the importance of marriage in modern society. Indeed, for many the family affords the only possibility for extending the autonomous individual into a social world. Religious support may come from persons and cliques outside the family within the private sphere. If the religious outlooks of individuals coalesce to some degree, the ad hoc-groups formed may develop into cults or sects in the sociological sense of these terms. But even such stabilized groups remain "secondary" institutions serving and conserving individual and interpersonal religion.

Seen in the context of our modern day segmented and rationalized society, Unification seems very much a modern religion. Like other modern religions, it trades on the privatization of religion. Its search for inner peace and self-realization bears the stamp of the modern celebration of individual autonomy. Its aggressive evangelism and theological syncretism mirrors the modern fluidity of personal identity. Its unmarried constituency and nomadic mobility echoes the modern preoccupation with perpetual youth. Its sexual chastity and tribal mentality reflects the modern hallowing of intimate relationships. All of these themes come to focus in Unification familism -- in the family as religious cult and the religious cult as family. Not surprisingly, Unificationism's greatest appeal is its promise of a new family -- a perfect family that will radiate outward from one home to one church to one earth.

Sociologically, this focus on the family is quite consistent with modernity's restriction of the moral and the religious to the private realm of personal existence and family life. But this structural compatibility stands in tension with the ideological incompatibility of Unificationism and modernity. Indeed, Unificationism's theocratic ideology of family life creates problems for those within and for those outside the movement. For those inside the movement, the ideal of a perfectly God-centered family where loving mates beget sinless children is a counsel to despair. In a time of inflated expectations of the family, extending these expectations to the perfection of the home and through that to the perfection of the earth is a burden no individual, marriage, or community can bear. Perfectionist movements have always foundered on the stubborn imperfections of their members. For those outside the movement, the fact of a blatantly patriarchal family where farther figures rule is a cause for alarm. Unificationism's hierarchical structuring of home and cult stands in sharpest contradiction to modernity's celebration of democracy and autonomy. No doubt, this perceived contradiction lies behind the oft-repeated charges of brainwashing and fears of subversion that surround the movement. In summary, Unification social hermeneutics reveals a deep ambiguity between ideological and structural programs of social action. While that ambiguity is what makes Unificationism such a fascinatingly complex and controversial movement, it also stands in the way of the Unification Church taking its place among other modern religious ideologies and institutions.


* See bibliographical references at the end of this article.


Bellah, Robert N. "Religious Evolution." In Sociology of Religion. Ed. Roland Robertson. London: Penguin, 1969, pp. 267-92.

Flinn, Frank K. "Unification Hermeneutics and Christian Theology." In A Time for Consideration. Ed. M. Darrol Bryant and Herbert W. Richardson. New York: Mellen, 1978, pp. 141-66.

Luckmann, Thomas. The Invisible Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1967.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Responsible Self. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Richardson, Herbert W., "A Brief Outline of Unification Theology." In A Time for Consideration. Ed. M. Darrol Bryant and Herbert W. Richardson. New York: Mellen, 1978, pp. 133-40.

Divine Principle. Washington: Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, 1973. 

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