The Words of the Smith Family

This Religious Moment

Huston Smith
August 11, 1984
Plenary Address
God: The Contemporary Discussion
Seoul, Korea

Huston Smith

Ladies and Gentlemen:

As chairman of the Fourth International Conference on "God: The Contemporary Discussion," I have the honor of seconding the informal welcome that Darrol Bryant and John Maniatis yesterday extended to those of you who are in that group. And to the Youth Seminar on World Religions -- you who arrived from Beijing last evening, tired but I gather exhilarated -- I greet you as well. To both groups a hearty welcome to Korea, this Land of the Morning Calm, and to this first occasion on which these two parallel projects -- junior and senior, student and teacher, parent and child one could almost add, inasmuch as the Youth Seminar grew out of the first God Conference -- have assembled as one body.

I welcome you both, and I also thank you for your presence. Whichever group you are in, you have extended yourself to be here; we realize that, and we appreciate it. If you are in the God Conference you have made time in your busy schedules to write a paper and -- as the Conference grew to unanticipated size due to the number of invitations that were accepted -- you have read what must at times have seemed to be an interminable number of papers for your group. As for those of you who are in the Youth Seminar, you have cut the film experience, "Around the World in Eighty Days" almost in half while making the journey yourselves, not leaving it to cameramen. As many in the God Conference have also travelled great distances, I think of the rabbinic teaching that there are three things that weaken: sin, illness and travel. May you be free of the first two during these days in Seoul. And may you recover quickly from the third and settle in for what we hope will be not only an intellectual feast but a spiritual banquet for us all.

Those of you who are with the God Conference will recall that its letter of invitation said that the Reverend Sun Myung Moon would be with us this morning and included the hope that His Holiness the Dalai Lama would be present as well. A conflict has prevented the Dalai Lama from coming. His message will be read by his delegate immediately following my remarks. As for our host, Rev. Moon, it is common knowledge that he is not at liberty to join us here in his homeland.

This is not the place to retry the case that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) brought against Rev. Moon, but as his imprisonment has deprived us of his scheduled presence, to pass over it in silence might raise questions that could unsettle the atmosphere of our discussions. So I shall give you my reading of the matter, asking you to keep in mind that what I say here, in this first half of my talk, I say not as a member of the Unification Church -- which I am not -- nor even in my capacity as chairman of the God Conference. What I say on this subject I say as a citizen of the United States.

As we know, America was initially settled by men and women who braved the perils of an ocean and an unknown continent for freedom to worship God as they felt called. The memory of the persecutions that had driven them to those lengths was fresh enough in the minds of the Founding Fathers to cause them to build into the United States Constitution safeguards for religious liberty that are one of the glories of history -- untold millions have drawn hope and inspiration from their ringing words. So much greater the tragedy, therefore, that the practice of the United States has fallen far short of its preachment.

Anti-Catholic sentiment was part of our history until John E Kennedy's election, and to some degree anti-Semitism is part of it still. We hounded the Quakers, the Shakers and the Amish. We drove the Mormons into an empty state that was worthless until they made it otherwise. As recently as six years ago a special act was required to bring religious freedom to the American Indians, and in places it is still today honored only in the breech.

The record of the United States on religious liberty is not a pretty one. Sen. Orrin Hatch is conservative, so I was surprised to find him convening on June 26 his Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution to hear charges that a number of recent court decisions have violated the First Amendment. I was even more surprised to hear him say outright at those hearings that in the case of Rev. Moon, justice had (in his opinion) seriously miscarried. As I say, I was surprised by, his courage in those respects until I realized that as a Mormon the memory of the mob that stormed a prison to murder Joseph Smith is probably always with him, honing his conscience where religious freedom is in jeopardy.

I attended those hearings of Hatch's committee, and out of what I heard there, as subsequently published in the Congressional Record, I want to set before you my understanding of why Rev. Moon is not with us this morning.

The IRS charged that in addition to taxes that Rev. Moon paid on his salary he should also have paid taxes on certain sums that he deposited in trust for his church but which the IRS claimed were actually his. As it is perfectly legal and common practice for priests and ministers to hold funds for their congregations in trust, many civil libertarians are disturbed right here, at government arrogating to itself the right to determine where religion may and may not draw the line between the public and private roles of its leaders. For the sake of argument, though, let us grant that in this no-man's land there is room for differences of opinion.

Rev. Moon's case took on the clear guise of a vendetta in what happened after his indictment. When 60 percent of the respondents to a public opinion poll reported that if they were on his jury they would vote for conviction no matter what, Rev. Moon elected to be tried by the judge instead. That right was denied him. Commenting on this at the hearing, Sen. Hatch said that in his entire legal career he had never heard of another plaintiff who was denied his right in that regard; the choice was built into the law precisely to protect defendants from public prejudice, not subject them to it. Then, when the case did go to jury, the judge instructed it to disregard its religious aspects entirely.

At the hearings, Laurence Tribe, professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard University, branded this "end run around the Bill of Rights egregious and horrendous," forbidding the jurors (as it did) to accord the church any religious rights at all. The jury was forced to consider it just another corporate body.

As a result of these abuses, Prof. Tribe continued, Rev. Moon will be not only the first religious leader sent to prison largely because of the tenets of his faith and the way it chose to organize its affairs. He will also be the first American in at least a quarter century, religious or secular, to be sent to jail for an alleged tax violation where the appellate judges could not even agree among themselves as to the tax standards applicable.

Are we really to believe -- I am speaking for myself now -- that it is simply by chance or impartial turnings of the wheels of justice that "the newest kid on the block," religiously speaking, got hit with these two punitive "firsts"? "By almost any standard of justice and fair play," John McClaughry wrote in his column for The New York Times on May 20, "Mr. Moon was railroaded for his unorthodox religious beliefs."

Meanwhile, [as the Bible says,] "even the wrath of man shall praise Thee" (Psalms 76:10). Rev. Moon is behind bars, but his presence there has, along with other recent governmental moves, alerted America's conscience. Forty organizations, ranging from the National Council of Churches and the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Conference of Black Mayors, a coalition as politically diverse as can be imagined and representing a combined membership of 120 million Americans, entered briefs urging the Supreme Court to review Rev. Moon's case. The court declined, but we can take hope from the words with which Prof. Tribe closed his testimony to the Senate Committee: "The books of history," he said, "close very slowly on cases of great moment. The last words on matters of this kind have not been written."

Both the God Conference and the Youth Seminar are international bodies, so perhaps I should apologize to those of you who are not citizens of the United States for devoting half of my time to an issue for which you are nowise responsible. I may be unusually sensitive to this case because 34 years ago something very much like this happened to my parents in China. When the communists took over the Shanghai area, my mother and father were as missionaries placed under house arrest -- in their case for nine months -- for refusing to surrender a gun that in fact they had never possessed. But it is not from the irony of the present reversal -- now my country is doing the imprisoning -- or from remorse over my government's behavior and the need I feel to apologize for it that I have gone into the matter considerably. Rev. Moon's case turns out to relate more to who we are here than it first appears. It goes without saying that your presence here carries no obligation to agree with my reading of the event. But unless I am mistaken, you would not have signed up for a conference on God, or for a seminar on religion as the case may be -- in short, you would not be here if the fundamental issue that underlies Rev. Moon's case were not important for you.

It is that underlying issue that concerns us integrally that I turn to in the second half of my address.


The Senate hearing to which I referred was not occupied solely with Rev. Moon's case. A broad spectrum of churches registered complaints, minorities prominent among them. "It's comin' on down," a black minister from Montgomery said to me in answer to my question as to why he was there, giving sober balance to Jesse Jackson's campaign slogan, "We're moving on up!" There were allusions to from six to nine thousand U.S. citizens currently experiencing harassment from the government for their religious beliefs. Those numbers were not documented, but enough evidence was cited to lead Prof. Tribe to register his fear that the United States is departing dramatically from the relationship between church and state so wisely contemplated by the framers of our Constitution. Government institutions are arrogating to themselves the power to define new boundaries between the secular and the sacred, to swallow the life of the spirit into the bowels of bureaucracy, and to surround the secular halls of the state with the sacred garb of the church.

I want to stop talking about the United States and its problems; in dwelling on them I feel that I have already compromised the genius of both the God Conference and the Youth Seminar as truly international bodies. But for better or worse we live in one world, and it is becoming more so every day. Issues of religious freedom take different forms in different traditions and nations, but it is not likely that any of us in this hall is, or will be, totally insulated from them. So in this Orwellian Year of the Big Brother, 1984, one thing Rev. Moon's absence can do for us all is quicken our resolve to defend religious freedom wherever we find it endangered.

Any actions we may take, though, will be taken back home as individuals, for neither the God Conference nor the Youth Seminar are action projects; we do not pass resolutions, issue proclamations or sign petitions. Yet what the God Conference will do collectively, and the Youth Seminar has been doing for six weeks, relates crucially, if indirectly, to the religious liberty issue I have addressed, as follows.

Increasingly the operative religion in the modern world is coming to be nationalism. The only force that has the power to check unbridled nationalism -- the insatiable claims of the nation state -- is religion. It follows that the most serious danger to religious liberty is not any specific prerogative a government might seize. The gravest danger is decline in the degree to which mankind lives within, and out of, the divine life.

Here our two projects become central for the religious freedom issue that I have used as my entree into what we are here for. Beginning with Rev. Moon's absence (on the particulars of which we may differ), I have moved through the principle of religious freedom (on which we presumably agree but which is not our direct concern), to what, I take it, does concern us directly; namely, the reality of God and the presence of that reality in the lives we live. (I must ask Buddhists to excuse my clumsy vocabulary here. I emphatically include sunyata in my referent.)

Many factors -- political, social, and psychological -- work today to diminish God's presence in our lives, but I shall confine myself to cognitive ones, for we are mostly students and teachers and thereby jnana yogins.

Because of science's astounding accomplishments we look to it for truth. But scientific truth must establish itself through controlled experiments. It follows that nothing superior to ourselves can ever turn up in a scientific world- view, for we can control only our inferiors. So our cognitive deference to science saddles us with an inferior world. The world which used to be an "enchanted garden," to invoke Weber's memorable phrase, has had the enchantment drained from it, with alienating results. Existentialism and phenomenology responded by setting out to reclaim territory the human was losing to science, but they made a serious mistake. Assuming that metaphysical objectivity is of a piece with the scientific, they turned their backs on both varieties and launched the "post-Nietzschian deconstruction of metaphysics." A surprising variety of schools joined this project: Anglo-American philosophy with Wittgenstein, Continental philosophy with Heidegger, Deconstruction with Derrida, the advocates of narrative over formal discourse, and theologians as well. "The Bible does not give us a worldview," we now read. The disclaimer goes back to Schleiermacher who broke with metaphysics to found religion on experience. The movement has left us sloshing in the historicism, relativism and subjectivity of a single- storied universe where time reigns supreme. In Walker Percy's current title, we are Lost in the Cosmos.

God has difficulty entering lost lives -- or to change the metaphor, lives that have gotten themselves into the box of the modern Western mindset. But there is no logical reason to stay in that box; only psychological ones which, though they are powerful, can be dispelled. Those of you in Asia and Africa who have not been driven as deeply into the box as the rest of us can help us here. I speak not hypothetically but in testimony, for if I at least see the box -- I struggle as much as the next Westerner to stay out of it -- this is only partly because 15 years at Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed me how science can skew our sense of reality when overemphasized. More important were three decades of tutelage under masters of the Vedanta, Buddhism and Islam who, as learned as they were holy, brought me to the Jewish and Christian mystics as well and showed me that their worlds are as accessible today as they ever were. Reality hasn't changed -- it is we who have closed important doors to it.

To reopen those doors we need to stop railing indiscriminately against metaphysics, objectivity and hierarchy, reserving our fire for instances where these have miscarried. With these conceptual tools restored to us, we can open ourselves to the world in which the invisible and immaterial -- Spirit if you will -- is not only as real, but more real, than matter; in which the positive attributes of being -- power, wisdom, beauty, love, duration -- increase in concert as they ascend being's golden chain to culminate in an absolute perfection which many call God; in which causation is more downwards, from superior to inferior, than the reverse as science postulates; and in which human life is indefinitely open to divine incursion to its eventual eternal beatitude.

You will see that I have not used this occasion to mold consensus; I know that many of you disagree with things that I have said. What I hope you will sense is the deep respect I have for you in admitting you to my personal thoughts on what our times require. I have been able to do this because I feel comfortable with you, sensing you to be friends, and also because I see you as a priceless resource for setting me straight where I may be mistaken. It was an opportunity I could not resist.

So now to my coda:

Having joined the two previous Youth Seminars in their final week, I have some sense of the pride of achievement, the joy in new friendships, and the poignancy over immanent separations that will attend these final days for those of you who are in that group. As for the God Conference, though I have not read all of your papers, I have read enough to sense the excitement that is in store for your groups here. One of your papers captures the intent of these conferences so well that I cannot do better than to borrow it for my close.

"'The reconstruction we need," Henry Ruf writes, "never can be carried out by isolated individuals. It must be realized in dialogical communities. Today [these] are being distorted, undermined, and systematically blocked from coming into existence. There is no 'logic of history' that must inevitably lead to communities that embrace all humanity and in which rational persuasion flourishes. Such a movement gains reality and power only if we dedicate ourselves to the practical task of furthering the type of solidarity, participation, and mutual recognition that is founded in dialogical communities." Having quoted that passage from Richard Bernstein's Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, Prof. Ruf adds, "I assume that this is exactly what this conference is all about."

I agree. 

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