What Is Absolute Obedience and How Do We Practice It?

Morning Beach Edited

By Dan Fefferman

“Absolute faith, absolute love, absolute obedience…”
— Family Pledge, # 8

Dan FeffermanThe idea of absolute obedience, enshrined in the Family Pledge alongside absolute love and absolute faith, is problematic.

How can we be “absolutely obedient” to something or someone without violating another cherished teaching of Father Moon, namely “conscience before teacher, conscience before parent, conscience before God?” Moreover, if we practice complete obedience to any external authority, don’t we risk compromising our integrity in case that authority proves to be less than absolutely just?

One way of dealing with this problem is with reference to what I call the “three stages of obedience.” In a relatively early speech, Reverend Moon explained the three stages of obedience in the following manner:

“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 the Father.” (Leaders’ Address, 5-1-65, The Way of Tradition, Vol. II, p. 137)

Clearly there are three stages here. The first is childlike obedience (without questions), the second is adolescent obedience (with questions), and the third is mature obedience (already knowing). From this, we can deduce that unquestioning obedience is the formation stage, obeying-but-questioning is the growth stage, and already knowing God’s heart is the completion stage.

“To obey whatever one is told” is a necessary stage of development. If a child does not obey unquestioningly the warning voice of her parent, she puts herself at risk.

If, for example, she keeps walking across the street when her mother shouts “Stop!”, she could be killed. It is not important for her to know the reason why she must stop. She simply needs to obey, or she could die. This is formation stage obedience — children’s obedience.

The second type of obedience is the one which questions, but still obeys. It struggles to know “God, Truth and the why of things.” Teenagers are the best example of this stage. They are often not content to simply obey, or should they be, for they need to “own” the truth behind parental commands in order to become true parents themselves.

In terms of the Divine Principle, an example would be Adam or Eve asking: “Why should I not eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? 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?” Ideally, however, the adolescent still obeys the commandment not to eat, and eventually comes to understand the reason for it. This is growth stage obedience. This stage of questioning — like the stage of “just obeying whatever one is told” — is necessary in the development of mature obedience, but it is still not “absolute” obedience.

The final stage of obedience is the type that follows God’s will without even being asked, because the person knows God’s heart. This is completion stage obedience — mature obedience. It is the type of obedience that willingly sacrifices oneself for others without being commanded to do so. It is the obedience that anticipates God, or even goes beyond God’s expectations. An example is a mother who risks her life to save her child, or a patriot who goes beyond the call of duty in battle.

Is it the formation stage, the growth stage, or the completion stage that most closely conforms to “absolute” obedience? Certainly it is neither children’s obedience nor adolescent obedience, but mature obedience. Moreover, mature obedience, as described here, is not actually “obedience” as normally understood. It acts without being told, and thus transcends the normal sense of obeying an external command. At times it may even contradict an order from an external authority if that authority does not conform to a person’s conscience.

The attitude I’ve suggested regarding “absolute obedience” can also be applied to the question of absolute faith: children’s faith accepts what is taught without question; adolescent faith has questions, but accepts church doctrine; and mature faith (absolute faith) does not need to question, because its owner knows God’s heart and follows his/her conscience.

Examples of “absolute obedience” that contradicts external authority include cases where a teacher tests his student by ordering him to do the opposite of what he should actually do. In the Bible this is exemplified by Elijah instructing his protégé Elisha to stay behind while Elijah went to the opposite side of the Jordan. Elisha disobeyed, and was rewarded by seeing Elijah ascend into heaven and inheriting a “double portion” of his spirit (2 Kings 2). In Reverend Moon’s teaching, this principle is exemplified in the following quote:

“…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)


On this basis, I conclude it is a grave error to equate “absolute obedience” with blind obedience. “Absolute obedience,” as understood here, is in complete harmony with the idea of “conscience before teacher.” A spiritually mature person already knows God’s heart and does not need to wait for instructions. Such a person also has the freedom to disagree with an external authority without violating a commitment to “absolute obedience.” Indeed, there may even be times where opposing external authority is necessary in order to practice true “absolute obedience.”

A practical example confronts us today in the form of our response to the publication of the Cheon Il Guk Constitution (CIG-C).

In recent weeks, several writers on this site have expressed objections to the CIG-C. I myself have expressed serious disagreement with the document’s provision that “some or all” Cheon Il Guk citizenship rights shall be forfeited for such actions as renouncing God or True Parents, or renouncing the constitution and its ideology.

As a longtime professional working in the religious freedom field, it is clear to me that this provision — while permissible for churches who need to uphold certain membership standards — is not permissible for nations which seek to uphold human rights. Thus, in the name of “absolute obedience,” I choose to follow the lead of my conscience over the authority of the CIG-C. As Father Moon himself taught in his testimony before the U.S. Senate in 1984, “if you do not have religious freedom, you have no freedom at all.”

When I recite Family Pledge number eight, I do so with a clear conscience.

When I affirm a commitment to “absolute obedience,” I am not pledging to obey external commands. Instead, I am pledging to achieve a state of “absolute obedience” — already knowing God’s heart — in order “to achieve the ideal of God and human beings united in love… and to perfect the realm of liberation and complete freedom in the Kingdom of God on earth and in heaven, by centering on true love.”

To me, this means I am striving to unite with God’s heart, so that I don’t need to be instructed, but can realize God’s Will as a “true owner” of Cheon Il Guk.

I sometimes toy with instituting my own ninth pledge: “Our family, the owner of Cheon Il Guk, pledges to realize a heavenly world of God’s complete justice, practicing the principle of ‘conscience before teacher, conscience before parents, conscience before God’ by centering on true love.”♦

Dan Fefferman (UTS Class of 1986) is President of the International Coalition for Religious Freedom in Washington, DC, and a member of the UTS Board of Trustees. He is also the author of many of the Unification Movement’s best-loved songs. More than 100 of his compositions can be found on SoundCloud.com.

Photo within text: “Sunrise by the Seashore on Assateague Island, Maryland.” Hosted by Premier HDR.

20 thoughts on “What Is Absolute Obedience and How Do We Practice It?

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  1. “Absolute obedience” = follow your conscience. Period.

    That’s the principle enshrined in U.S. constitutional and statutory law (the reason why law can be overturned, and you judged not guilty, when you’ve made the case the law is morally wrong).

    That’s the principle enshrined in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which demands that soldiers obey only lawful orders. At the end of the day, what determines lawfulness is quite often, simply, conscience.

    That’s the principle enshrined in Father’s speeches and his way of life.

    All other forms of obedience are to keep order and efficiency in human organizations, including families. But this is not a subject need. It is a reflection of people living through conscience (or not). If conscience is good enough for U.S. civil and military law, and even for Father, it is certainly good enough for any CIG constitution that dreams of being the root of a heavenly society.

    Notice I didn’t say heavenly “kingdom.” Because “kingdom” abrogates conscience.

    Goodness and God’s providence have only moved forward or prevailed when human beings followed their conscience. The tangible root of religious freedom is freedom of conscience, just as for civil freedom it is freedom of action. Both are required for human liberty, else you don’t have it.

    Nice job, Dan.

    1. The best understanding of ‘absolute obedience’ can be found in Peace Message 1,14 (an explanation of the Family Pledge #8) and Peace Message 15.

      The question to ask is, “Who or what was God obedient to”? Then you can understand the meaning of absolute obedience.

      Realistically there was no ‘who’ for God to be obedient to. God was obedient to his own Ideal and Purpose of Creation, through keeping His Word (Logos) and by also practising absolute faith, and absolute love. (Absolute meaning centring on God and God’s Ideal of Creation, as in the meaning of Absolute Sex)

      Adam and Eve were to emulate God by also practising absolute faith, love and obedience in keeping God’s Word, the Commandment. Adam and Eve were to obey the Commandment as their portion of responsibility, thus becoming co-creators with God, and fulfilling the purpose of Creation. (God of Day)

      Therefore, we are not talking about obedience to any person, but in keeping God’s Word and God’s Ideal, and establishing the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth through fulfilling our portion of responsibility as God did.

  2. This is a good explanation. Thanks, Dan. I have often referred to that passage from The Way of Tradition to consider the distinction between absolute and blind obedience.

    German sociologist Ernst Troeltsch made a similar distinction in his book The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions, where he had a chapter on “two types of absoluteness”: naive and evolutionary. However, he also discussed an intermediate stage, parallel to the growth stage in your description, where people question their faith and often become disillusioned or turn atheist. A mature absoluteness is based on one’s own understanding after all comparison and analysis possible has been done.

    Troeltsch was referring to the naive way Christians were promoting their faith and the way scientists and people of other religions reacted to such professions. The next stage was the liberalization of the faith in which faith didn’t really mean anything, and the final stage was a new-found faith that had evolved from the inherited tradition, been tempered by the questioning phase, and ended in a new personal understanding of the “Absolute” — a term Paul Tillich would further develop to help explain the distinction between our understanding of the absolute, and the absolute itself. For me, Rev. Moon and Troeltsch were both making a similar point about stages of faith. Therefore, it was entirely possible to earn a Ph.D. in Religion without fear of rejecting my faith or leaving my church.

    One problem that our church suffered in the wilderness period is that commands were given to people in ways that treated everyone as though they were in the formation stage on their path of spiritual growth. Thus, if a “leader” was in the formation stage and demanded blind obedience of a person in the growth or maturity stage, it was very hard for that person to follow the command. However, since True Father was ultimately in charge, and was personally at the perfection stage, it was possible to view that less-developed leader as an “Uncle Laban” who didn’t understand but was doing his best. Things are different in a settlement period. People cannot be all lumped together as though they were at the same place spiritually, and each is just another foot soldier. Rather, we should recognize that each person is on their own path and seek to create a society that honors that.

    The Ten Commandments have survived because they foster personal and social well-being. You might be inclined to disobey them if you are at the formation or growth stage, but would not disobey them when in the completion stage because you come to understand they are important — not because the Bible said so, or your mother or pastor said so, but because every society in human history that didn’t teach such commandments collapsed, for scientifically understandable reasons.

    1. Well said, Gordon. I think the Ten Commandments survive because they are fundamentally a call to conscience and put forth no punishment. They simply “are”…what I consider The Way of God’s Will in a nutshell.

  3. As a non-pledging, nominal “Unificationist,” the only way I have ever found reconciliation or resonance with the founder’s (brief) litany on conscience is by recalling (and affirming) the counterpart or subjective aspect of that — original mind. Within that, in my own experience (and estimation) there is room for practice, just as valuable and important as that noted in this exegesis and its responses.

    Absolute faith, absolute love, and absolute obedience correspond quite nicely to the Buddhist path of (seeking/doing) righteousness, when/if one takes the time to consider such more closely.

  4. Dan was correct in noting that TF said that our ultimate guide is our conscience. Of course, we live with our conscience and it is always there as a constant reminder of what is proper behavior and thought. If our computer is on the blink and we don’t get the latest directive from HQ, we still have our conscience to rely on.

  5. Thanks everyone for your comments. Christopher says “‘Absolute obedience’ = follow your conscience. Period.” That’s almost what I’m trying to say but not quite. To me “absolute obedience” means following a perfectly-aligned conscience (called “Original Mind” in DP). The key point is that absolute obedience is not owed to any authority except an absolute one.

    1. Important distinction, Dan.

      And it would seem to me, from all evidence and reflection, so far, that such an authority does not exist. Glimpses and parts, here and there, but the whole (or highly theoretical “perfectly-aligned”) has yet to emerge.

    2. Dan, I think it is worth noting that this “absolute” we use in English is based on the Korean word [jeol dae] 절대, that is, when Father uses it, and that in Korean, this word has two clearly distinguishable meanings in actual use. One, absolute in the sense of “transcendent, complete, unchanging, eternal,” etc., and two, it is also used to mean “to the utmost,” “to the utter best of one’s ability,” etc. Likewise, sometimes in English (“I absolutely love Italian food”). But inasmuch as it is used in the Family Pledge, I agree: “absolute obedience” is not owed to any authority other than an absolute one (in the first sense of the word given above).

    3. Good point, Dan. That’s what I get for not being more specific when I write.

      Naturally, I meant that “conscience” refers to one aligned with God’s heart…otherwise it’s hardly a conscience and more like an opinion or set of values. I’d have to add that the only absolute authority that exists to which conscience could possibly be obedient is real love…the very sort to which God himself is absolutely obedient.

  6. There are two words in the Korean language to express absolute obedience:

    1. Bok jong = obedience where someone cannot make a choice
    2. Sun jong = obedience where someone can make a choice

    Both bok jong and sun jeong have their origin in the Chinese characters of the Korean language. Does anyone know why TP have not chosen joldae sun jong, giving us the opportunity to make a choice?

    1. Migliore, this is an interesting point. Did TF always use bok jung? Also, within the Chinese tradition there has been a tension between “legalism” and “Confucianism,” where, under various regimes, “law” or “morality” were given the more absolute role. I don’t know the language, but bok jong sounds like a term that would be promoted by a legalist regime, and sun jong a term that would be recognized by a Confucian regime.

    2. Migliore, if you will first allow me to point out a technicality — the two words you mention express “obedience” not “absolute obedience.” The “absolute” dimension is introduced by fusing these words with [jeol dae] 절대 — [jeol dae bok jong] 절대복종, [jeol dae sun jong] 절대순종. Also: sun — (in this case) — to follow, bok — to rule (or be ruled)

      To answer your question, I’m not certain that bok jong necessarily implies no choice and sun jong choice. I’d be curious to hear your source for this interpretation.

      To me, sun jong implies “following” in the sense of compliance. We follow, to comply with, or to avoid bumps and conflict — to make things smooth. Bok jong, on the other hand, implies (in my mind) an element of surrender, complete acquiescence, somewhat in the sense of the word Islam, “submission, surrender to Allah”. Where sun jong almost implies a temporary compliance, bok jong implies a complete surrender to [God, conscience, etc].

      In either case, we have a choice, but the degree of adherence to the subject is somewhat different. In sun jong, we join with the subject (for now), and hence partially. In bok jong, we join with the subject completely, almost like an irreversible choice. It is perhaps the difference between a promise or agreement, and an oath.

      On the other hand, when used in the causative form (combining the verb stem [sun jong] with [shikida] (to cause to…), sun jong shikida is more likely to be used in the context where force is not used — it does suggest greater choice (held in reserve) by the object, because someone is almost persuaded to comply (“you persuaded me to comply with your request”). Bok jong shikida means to force or cause submission (“you forced me to submit”), and in such a context, it definitely has the connotation of a more extreme quality. However, the key factor here is the causative element being in another (the other person).

      However, in the Family Pledge, there is no suggestion anyone is forcing us to submit (completely), but rather, it is an expression of our personal willingness to offer or pledge “absolute faith, absolute love, and absolute submission/obedience” (to God, to Conscience, etc.).

      Finally, compare also with [gul bok], as in [jayeon gul bok], 자연굴복 “natural surrender” as in “the natural (or willing) surrender of Satan” — [gul] meaning to bend, and [bok] meaning, in this case, come under (the other’s) dominion. Thus, bok jong connotes more than mere following, but a submission that allows no gap or discordance.

      Of course, to really know why Father chose these words, we’d have to ask Father why he chose one word over the other, but this would be my guess. The nuance is quite different.

  7. Dr. Anderson, thanks for the reply. Yet, HP does not force anyone to obey. We have the choice, our free will should be respected.

    Why does Family Pledge number 8 state: “absolute obedience” (bok jong u ro —- without choice) and not (sun jong u ro — someone can have a choice).

    bok (507 basic characters) —– serve, submit, clothes
    jong (931 basic characters) —– follow, obey, comply, from

    sun (1212 basic characters) —– in accord with, smooth, gentle, obey
    jong (931 basic characters) —— follow, obey, comply, from

    Will Family Pledge number 8 change in the future? I don’t think so.

  8. Your explanation on obedience is very fine and the conclusion that obedience in the perfect sense is aligned with one’s own understanding of God’s heart which moves parallel with God and True Parents is correct in my understanding.

    But then suddenly you make, in my opinion, a huge shift in your otherwise very good editorial in questioning a basic object of obedience, the basic pillar of the constitution. Clearly someone who does not live in one of the stages of obedience you described is a villain in a nation that is built centering on True Parents (the incarnation or temple of God). If one would be accepted neglecting it, then those in the first or second stage of your explanation on obedience could easily be misled and make-believing in a seemingly reasonable alternative society.

    Already in the Garden of Eden, God put up a serious threat if violating a basic law; it is the same thing, in the stage of indirect dominion, the consequences of one’s own action have to be put forward if parents want to act in a responsible way. Human freedom and responsibility in its maximum extension is our Blessing and warnings along the way are signs of God’s love and not His eager waiting for punishment or restriction of freedom.

  9. “Obedience is better than sacrifice”, suggests 1 Samuel 15:22. I heard this from one of my 430 couples in Benin. He is a Jehovah’s Witness and explained to me why his church is willing to obey the secular authorities during the Covid 19 virus. In Benin, there are so many churches and religious groups, and it is one of the most democratic nations of Africa (and also very poor). The law is respected and the death toll very low, so far. Probably because most people, like my beautiful friend Djijoho, think that “obedience is better than sacrifice”.

    The church of Djijoho is closed, but the JW remain active in other ways. If I see the best practices of Korea, Japan, Taiwan, but also New Zealand and Norway in facing Covid 19, I feel that the populations really obey the instructions and follow their conscience. They have a mindset where you don’t need thousands of people to die from the virus. It seems that some big and rather arrogant nations easily tolerate a certain amount of lives lost on some sort of altar of sacrosant principles.

    The first reaction in France, for instance, was of total blindness, arrogance, and denial, but when many people died, there was a feeling that you can’t really do so much about it. It is only by comparing with Germany that the French saw that you don’t need to make the pandemic such a national tragedy.

    The United Kingdom, France, the USA, and Spain have a high death rate (between 400 to 600 deaths per million people) when Korea has only 6 and Japan only 8, whereas they are very close geographically to China, where it all began. From the beginning, some nations took the virus very seriously and decided to be humble, disciplined and to follow the procedures strictly. By contrast, some nations have acted in a rather rebellious way, being slow to react. Even if it is unconscious, it is also because they accept more easily that many things have to be sacrificed in such a crisis. The case of the USA, the most religious nation of the Western world, is worth pondering. Could it be that, in American culture, sacrifice can sometimes be seen as a higher virtue on the moral scale than obedience? Or am I mistaken?

    1. Conservative Americans “obey” the Constitution. Liberal Americans “obey” government fiat regardless of the Constitution. But there is no value in obedience. It’s a false construct entirely. “Obedience” is a term that conveys unwilling outward compliance, whereas willing compliance is simply an integration. Religion has always wanted people to naturally order their lives according to God’s laws but people are generally unwilling for a variety of reasons, so religion chose the obedience route. The concept of obedience was invented in religion and then used to justify absolute obedience to temporal power.

      SMM’s “absolute obedience” concept really just refers to integration with the Principle, such that people naturally orient their lives according to it. It has nothing to do with the normative concept of obedience, or compulsion.

  10. Laurent,

    Maybe the 1 Samuel translation is not the best in light of these, most interesting, words of the Former Chief Rabbi of the UK, Jonathan Sacks, which I saved from something William Haines wrote on this topic long ago: “Judaism has many commands. You would have thought that a religion with 613 commands had a word that means ‘obey’. The whole of Hebrew does not have a word that means ‘obey’. What is the verb that the Bible uses instead of ‘obey’? Lishmoa, shema. Shema means not ‘to obey’; it means ‘to listen’, ‘to hear’, ‘to internalize’, ‘to understand’, ‘to respond’. There is no English word that means what the Hebrew word shema means.”

  11. Thank you, David, for this good comment, which reminds us that, precisely, the etymology of obedience is the latin ob + audire, to listen from.

    I think you are making a very good point. Synonyms of “to obey” are “to observe” and “to respect” (observing the law, respecting the rules), and here, it is not so much hearing well, but seeing well or objectively, using your eyes properly. You observe and respect natural laws and you observe and respect ethical laws, which are often based on the natural law.

    This confirms that you obey when you have internalized the proper information provided by your perceptions. It has been suggested that Koreans could handle the COVID crisis very well through excellent organizational learning: they could observe very well what was going on in their country and react very quickly to thir information. See this amazing article.

    I found this study on organizational learning very interesting for our own movement, because it shows how an organization manages or fails to know and assess what it is doing. (Organizational learning is the process of creating, retaining, and transferring knowledge within an organization) If we knew better what is going on in our movement, we would certainly achieve better obedience, but we often can’t understand enough to be willing to obey.

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