Interpreting the Principle: The Transformative and the Objective

By Keisuke Noda

The Unification Movement (UM) faces a number of challenges, most obviously denominational divisions. But another challenge is the relevance of the UM and its core teachings or beliefs to contemporary society and future generations who are expected to respond and succeed.

Such a challenge is difficult because it is not readily observable, and the way to approach or conceptualize this challenge is unclear. The issue is “hidden” presuppositions we take for granted that shape a wide array of our understandings and experiences.

For some, this article may seem merely an intellectual exercise. But the matter of presuppositions has far reaching implications for all practical exercises and activities, particularly the question of what they mean.

The Principle as Interpretive Framework

The Divine Principle (the Principle), the core teaching of Unificationism, provides a framework with which to interpret biblical texts, human experiences, historical narratives, and a broad range of phenomena from a theological perspective. The Principle is thus a Unificationist theoretical framework of interpretation.

But is the Principle free from interpretation? Or is human understanding necessarily interpretive and is the Principle thus subject to interpretation?

Human understanding is unavoidably interpretive and the framework of interpretation (the Principle) is subject to interpretation. I consider how one’s ontological stance affects his/her interpretation of the Principle.

First, I highlight two contrasting stances in interpreting the Principle, the objective and the transformative.

I then explore how such contrasting perspectives affect one’s interpretation of religious phenomena in Unificationism.

Third, I discuss how the concept of truth in the Principle informs an integral approach to the interpretation of the Principle; I argue that the objectivist stance is currently predominant among Unificationists and must be counter-balanced with the transformative interpretation.

Finally, I explore how the objectivist view became dominant in the Unification Movement from the perspective of intellectual history.

Objectivist Interpretation of the Principle

The most common interpretation of the Principle is from the objectivist perspective. This is a perspective with which to understand the Principle as objective reality, often conceived as some reality independent of our comprehension, transcending phenomenal realities of life. Simply put, this perspective sees the truth as something existing by itself; one detaches the self from the truth and observes it from a distance.

How does this perspective affect the interpretation of religious life? The central schema in Unificationism include the Creation, Fall, and Salvation/Restoration/Redemption. This perspective interprets biblical narratives as “objectively real”; the Fall of Man, depicted in the Garden of Eden narrative, literally happened; “original sin” was physically transmitted via physical blood lineage to the descendants of Adam and Eve; in order to “remove” the “original sin,” people must participate in the Marriage Blessing in Unificationism; if you attend the Blessing, “original sin” is removed, and children physically born from those “blessed couples” are “sinless.” Those with an objectivist perspective interpret the entire process as physically real.

Moreover, objectivists interpret various church events as the epochal God’s “providence” at work. Even if there is no empirical evidence, objectivists interpret biblical narratives, church rituals, and key church events as having “objectively real” changes/effects on human life. What they mean by “objective reality,” however, is not the same as what we normally understand the term to mean. In common sense terminology, “objective reality” is established by empirical data and observable evidence or, at least, statistically significant probable evidence.

Transformative Interpretation of the Principle

There is another type of “understanding” found particularly in religion or certain sciences. It is a type of understanding that has transformative effects. For example, “understanding” Enlightenment in Buddhism is possible by having a transformative experience or existential transformation of the self; understanding Buddhist truth requires self-transformation. Using an analogy, while objectivists see truth as outside of the self, the transformative perspective sees truth as the potentiality of the self. In Unificationism, the inseparable link between the self and truth is conceptualized as the concept of being an “Individual Embodiment of Truth.”

In psychology, patients’ interpretations of their experiences often affect their well-being. Because one’s understanding or interpretation of an experience has therapeutic or devastating effects, professionals work to guide patients; a change in perspective or interpretation of an experience directly affects the self.

If you take a transformative approach to the interpretation of the Principle, you will see biblical narratives, religious rituals, church events, and other phenomena under the light of “meaning” as it relates to the self. To see the meaning of a ritual or an experience, one needs to contextualize it in one’s own life. By doing so, one finds meaning within the context of one’s own life, and through engagement or dialogue with the truth, self-transformation takes place.

The realization of truth in religion happens on a hermeneutic dimension. For example, the question of redemption of the “original sin” through the Marriage Blessing is not explored as an “objective” question, but in terms of what it would “mean” in one’s own life; since meanings are open-ended phenomena, one can keep discovering meaning as life contexts develop. The pertinent question of the transformative approach is: what transformative effects does the Principle have on my life? While the objective approach sees the Principle from a distance, the transformative approach sees it in terms of how it works within or upon the self.

How might these two different approaches result in different interpretations? Suppose a young couple is urged by their ardent Unificationist parents to attend the Marriage Blessing ceremony. Suppose they attend it to satisfy their parents’ desires; they neither believe in nor agree with Unificationism. Objectivists see attendance itself as meaningful even if the attendees saw no value in it. As long as the couple attends the ritual, objectivists argue that a significant “change” takes place; the couple’s internal dimension is irrelevant for the value of the Blessing.

From the transformative perspective, however, the degree of meaningfulness of their participation depends on how the ritual affects their marriage over the course of their lives. If there is no effect, it means nothing. The significance of their participation depends on the transformative effects on the couple, and so the couple’s degree or nature of “engagement” with the ritual is critical.

The Integral Approach Informed by the Concept of Truth in the Principle

What approach then does the Principle present? The Principle presents itself as a “unified truth” of “internal truth” religion pursued and “external truth” science explored (Exposition of the Divine Principle, pp. 6-7). Although the concept of “unity” requires further clarification, the Principle posits an integral approach.

Generally in science, one detaches the self from the object of inquiry and seeks truth as if he or she is independent. In religion, however, interpretation is often inseparable from the existential status of the inquirer. The Principle seems to present an integral model of the objective (external) and the transformative (internal).

It is ironic the objectivist interpretation of religious phenomena is predominant among Unificationists. The biggest problem is the detachment of the self from the truth. When one objectifies the truth as independent and transcendent, his or her existential status or even his or her life narrative is outside of the scope of interpretation. Each becomes an observer or bystander of the truth. In such scientific inquiries, detachment or neutrality has an advantage. In religious practices, however, detachment can have negative effects. By objectifying the Principle, one becomes an anonymous, nameless neutral observer. Even if you participate in the event, you are still “external” to the truth due to your basic attitude to the interpretation.

A Historical Perspective: Why Objectivist Interpretation Became Dominant in Unificationism

Why did the objectivist interpretation become dominant in the Unification Movement (UM)? Although there may be various reasons, I present one from the perspective of intellectual history.

Although I do not have an accurate account of demographic shifts in the UM over the decades, the main body of its membership joined in the mid- to late 20th century, during the last stage of modernity. In those eras, modernist assumptions including objectivist (it is also universalistic) discourse was dominant. Both Unificationism and Marxism appeared as such thoughts and young people joined the UM during this time period.

The intellectual climate, however, shifted to a type of discourse which examines truth from the perspective of its efficacy in each specific and diverse context; some may call this intellectual context “postmodernism.” It contains skepticism against the “grand narrative” (a one-size-fits-all story, applicable to all humanity), progressivism, and other modernist assumptions. In the post-modern or “post”-post-modern or post-truth era, “truth” is measured not by its universalistic objectivistic appeal but by how it in fact works in each diverse (personal, disciplinary, cultural, social) context.

In such an era, ideas/thoughts must be presented in each context and show how they, in fact, work. In the case of Marxism, some theorists took this path (beginning in the early 20th century) and explored a non-modernist interpretation of Marxism, contextualizing it into psychotherapy, social-cultural theory and other specific fields. “Truth” (some gave up on this term because of its modernist connotation) is measured not by universal appeal but by its real effects in each context.

In the UM, modernist Unificationists, who presuppose an objectivist interpretation of the Principle, have been carrying their “old” framework of thought to this day. Unificationists sometimes lament: “Today’s youth no longer seek the truth. That’s why they do not respond to Divine Principle lectures or Unificationist teachings.” This observation misses the point. The real issue is that the type of truth that the majority of Unificationists interpret as such lost its contemporary relevance. As German philosopher H. G. Gadamer noted, tradition is not maintained by simply holding onto the same view and repeating the same thing; it can be kept alive by renovating it to meet the needs of the era, which requires constant dialogue with the needs of the time.

The late Dr. Sang Hun Lee developed Unification Thought (UT), the only systematic philosophical exposition of the Principle. Because he presented it as a counterproposal to mainstream Marxism, he held the same modern objectivist framework to develop UT.

Can you explore one approach, be it objectivist or transformative, without presupposing the other? Although the two approaches are interrelated, each has relative autonomy and one can take a position without implying the other. For example, an objectivist interprets the Garden of Eden biblical narrative as empirical fact and objectively real. Can you explore the transformative effects of the narrative without taking it as literal fact?

The answer is: yes, one can interpret the narrative as an archetypal myth without taking a definitive stance on its objective reality. Joseph Campbell, a mythologist, took this position. You can leave the question of objectivity open and yet the narrative can remain significant and meaningful. The meaning of the Principle can be explored in terms of its transformative effects without taking a definitive, objectivist stance. Such a possibility is completely closed, however, if your framework of interpretation is solely objectivistic.

There are three main reasons why an objectivist interpretation of the Principle is still dominant: 1) old members who held such modernist assumptions comprise the main body of membership; 2) the conservative tendency of religion and speculative nature of religious teachings prevent innovation; and, 3) there was no critical reflection to examine the contemporary relevance of Unificationism.

Concluding Thoughts

What can Unificationists do? I propose a radical critique of the question of the contemporary relevance of Unificationism, including the task of critical scrutiny of our interpretive framework. I further propose a balanced and integral approach to interpret the Principle. To counterbalance the current dominant objectivist tendencies, we need to explore the transformative dimension of the Principle: what kind of transformative effects does Unificationism have? By this standard, the measurement of truth is not its universal theoretical construct but empirical evidence in specific disciplinary or social, cultural or individual life contexts. Unificationists can discover the relevance of the Principle by exploring its relevance and redefining its tradition.

Authentic faith will be established by elevating the objective stance to a critical one, and informing emotional gratification with a transformative experience. By enhancing both dimensions of the hermeneutic stance, we will have a genuinely integral approach. Authentic faith is possible in such a clearly articulated division, and unity will not simply be a mixture of two different approaches but a balance between two poles.♦

Dr. Keisuke Noda is Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Philosophy at UTS. His books include Even Then I Keep Living (Tokyo, Japan, 2010), and Narrative History of Philosophy (two volumes) (Niigata, Japan, 2004).

11 thoughts on “Interpreting the Principle: The Transformative and the Objective

  1. This article correctly notes that there is little critical reflection by Unificationists and incorrectly concludes that the solution to today’s Unificationist woes is essentially academic.

    Dr. Noda proposes a “radical critique” of the contemporary relevance of Unificationism…but what is that critique? Just proposing it is what academics in a classroom do and isn’t helpful. He alludes to it by concluding we need a “critical scrutiny of our interpretive framework,” which sounds an awful lot like “reworking” Divine Principle. Is that what he means? In which case he’s not talking about religion or spiritual “truth” but philosophy. Is Unificationism better served as a philosophy than a theology? I doubt it. Does humanity respond to philosophy? Not really.

    People in their everyday understandings are more integral than he seems to suppose in this article. Unificationists who look like objectivists are operating off of a transformative predicate. This whole analysis fails to take into account the everyday reality of Unificationists living within the context of a hierarchical guilt-imposing order to which Unificationists react. This is where Dr. Noda’s presuppositions would seem to exist. But I don’t see his conclusion following.

    The premise of this article is faulty in its assumption that Divine Principle is not relevant to contemporary people because, somehow, authentic “faith” can’t be discovered in a non-integral approach to DP. This is like saying that freedom can’t be relevant to contemporary people because of its abundance, or that heart can’t be relevant to the cynic. If one wants to understand why contemporary people fail to see the value in DP one need only look at second generation Unificationists’ response and the answer becomes quite clear.

    Philosophy is transformative beginning with the seat of intellect, but religion is transformative beginning with the seat of emotion. Philosophy that strays from that rubric fails to transform, and the same is true of religion. Yet at the same time, philosophy and religion that fail to cross that barrier to embrace the other side run out of steam because, ultimately, human beings exist with a foot in both. Intellectual transformation ultimately requires the nourishing soil of feeling or it degenerates into the merely academic; emotive transformation ultimately requires the nourishing soil of cognition or it degenerates into alienating fanaticism. Our movement of Unificationism is presently oil-and-water split between these extremes, and doubling down.

    The short description of the problems of Unificationism is that its adherents really don’t care about much beyond themselves and their cherished belief in whatever, and this glaringly shows in their frequent poverty, whether intellectual, financial, familial, heartistical, and eventually transformal. Nobody sees relevance in poverty of any sort. Academic analyses and pragmatic solutions like re-imagining DP are not what our movement needs and will not deliver the (re-)imagined results.

  2. Let’s look at the ontological status of the Garden of Eden narrative. I would suggest the consequences of regarding it as an archetypal myth are not only in its effect upon our interpretation of how to live, how to choose self-transformation based on its intrinsic message, but also in the effect on the whole of the religious story itself.

    I have not yet managed to find a way to interpret the fall of man story as myth without losing my belief in God’s basic goodness. If I don’t believe that God is good (only my experience tells me that He/She is) then I have absolutely no reason to choose a path of suffering on behalf of humanity. Why bother?

    The problem for me is that if the story is a myth, then my scientific side, which I agree is only a partial explanation, takes over and says then this step from immaturity to maturity, from living as an intellectual animal to living as a spiritual being, was planned from the beginning to be along the lines of what we’ve experienced. I find that unacceptable, incompatible with the notion of a God who cares, that such a being would design a world where people experience relentless, ongoing suffering as an essential step in their evolution.

    The Garden of Eden story seems to offer greater potential for understanding this, basically placing the path of humanity as the consequence of a human mistake, which is conceivable on the part of a single pair of humans, and some sort of spiritual invasion of the intended path. It does, however, present God as too trusting, not having enough imagination to foresee just how bad things could get when you combine immaturity and a being of great intellect, unbalanced by heart. It doesn’t explain the whole thing, it doesn’t yet exonerate God from blame in my mind, but I can live with that and its unknowns as long as I can keep questioning.

    However, adopting the purely mythic approach, looking for the transformative effect, the inner meaning and significance to my growth, leaves me with no big picture, no ontological base for understanding God as good in the presence of so much evil. Therefore I can’t adopt the purely mythical approach, even though the objective account also doesn’t answer my concerns completely.

    I can’t see then that we could separate the two approaches without deep and severe consequences, such as having to drop the whole concept of a Creator God, for example. I think that is what keeps me from converting over completely to the mythic approach, that it so severely changes my ontological base as to radically transform everything that has been of importance to me in my life.

    I would love to discuss how to develop an approach that incorporates both perspectives, because for sure, the objective interpretation can be such as to allow avoidance of real issues within us as humans.

  3. A very thought-provoking essay. I had been conversing with my wife about the subject for a while, explaining to her that I joined the movement in the mid-1970s under the impression that the Principle was explaining things as “literal” events. That is, I once was an apparent “objectivist” Unificationist looking for “truth,” a person with less sensitivity to any “transformative” promise the Unification experience might offer personally.

    It has been a real downer for me to realize, over the decades, that most if not all Principle (or all religion) is “metaphorical” in nature. Obviously, the dichotomy of literal versus metaphorical is just my nerdy way of expressing the issue.

    This is to say that my beef with the Unification experience is that the extreme sacrifices I, perhaps like many others, was constantly compelled to consent to in my formative years and beyond could do little more than produce and maintain an objectivist view of events. I find myself being unable to re-interpret the experience of that past in a more faithful, positive light. Should I have done what I did if it was not for the “truth?”

  4. Applying Dr. Noda’s framework expressed here into the many contentious issues seeming to divide our worldwide faith community via the “splits” is a great place to begin, I think. Thanks for this authentic inquiry, Dr. Noda.

  5. What meaning can be derived from the statement, “Unificationists can discover the relevance of the Principle by exploring its relevance and redefining its tradition”?

    The UM is making a transition from the viewpoint of sacrificing the family for the sake of the whole purpose; conditions of restoration through indemnity; to a new mindset of focusing on personal character development, the inter-generational family and the extension of tribal lineage. Therefore, in due course, major parts of the whole, crucial hidden aspects of the providence, can and will take care of themselves.

    The laws of creation and history remain relevant to key persons in positions of public leadership. Nevertheless, the tradition of wholesale sacrifice of personal family life for the sake of the whole has transitioned; sacrifice of the family no longer has its preeminence, thus allowing for a wider range of diverse expressions of family life and devotional attendance to tradition.

    More importantly, in the realm of religion, this new pragmatism is separated from the traditional focus on the existential status of the seeker-inquirer. This pragmatic shift is taking place as part of the providential merit of the age.

  6. Robert Yee is correct in noting the maturation of our movement. We are using new material like the Matching Handbook and the three books of scriptures which are intended to be transformational on individual, marriage, family, church and community levels. GPA’s purpose is explicitly transformative on the individual level.

  7. Indeed a thought-provoking well-written article, Dr. Noda.

    It deserves more profound analysis since it hits a few critical points in our movement. I am unable to do this, but just touch upon a few, in my opinion, essential elements that always have guided my life, ever since I joined the Unification Church.

    In my opinion, the difference between the “objective” and “transformational” viewpoint as you put it can only be bridged by experience. I believe the precondition to understand the Principle is the search for the purpose of life. Already Jesus mentioned, those who knock at my door, it will be opened. Therefore, the portion of responsibility is there right from the beginning.

    I do not know how many experienced the Holy Spirit while studying or hearing DP. I only know from my friends that more than half had such experiences including myself. Profound experiences are following in the course of testifying to it, going through ordeals, etc. This is the “salt” of the Principle, I would say.

    The difference with any other scripture is that the founder to which the scripture testifies is among us. As such, the scripture is a bridge to understanding who the Lord is. After crossing this bridge, we reach the higher ground of attendance to True Parents. In this realm, even the truth that served as the bridge becomes secondary, though never to be negated, but explained to the follower on a higher dimension in a complex providential network following the age after the arrival of the Lord.

  8. I must admit to being intrigued by the premise presented here, but alas, as Dolly Parton sings it, “the circle [remains] unbroken…”. In my (adjective deleted) mind there have always been two separate, sometimes complimentary organizations – The UM and The UC.

    If one wants to, one can indeed decipher or conclude that one is the yin (or sung-sang), the other is the yang (or hyung-sang) secular/religious or political/religious; internal/external; even male/female, etc.

    However, all of this still leaves us (you, me) fairly much in the middle of the ultimate quandary… In working to transform the world, do I (ultimately) matter? And have I changed (enough?) to effect real, meaningful and lasting change upon others (even, the world)?

    • Reading over this article again, as well as the comments, including my own, I must admit to probably being grumpy, or simply sleep deprived that day.

      There is much to commend in the approach offered here. In particular, it seems I truly do resonate with the quest for an “authentic faith . . . elevating the objective stance to a critical one, and informing emotional gratification with a transformative experience.”

      Thank you.

  9. I like your idea of the Principle as an interpretative framework as that is how I use it myself. I agree that many Unficationists are objectivists as you put it, although I would suggest the DP text itself and the way the Principle is applied in it is not objectivist. The Garden of Eden story in the Bible is interpreted as being full of symbols or metaphors or almost as a myth in the normal way a myth is understood: a sacred narrative in the sense that it holds religious or spiritual significance for those who tell it, and it contributes to and expresses systems of thought and values. Use of the term implies neither the truth nor the falseness of the narrative. To the source culture, however, a myth by definition is “true”, in that it embodies beliefs, concepts, and ways of questioning and making sense of the world. The DP also de-mythologises the apocalyptic passages in the Bible as opposed to taking them literally. At the same time the things you called objectivist — the blessing, etc., could be easily re-interpreted as something real and yet invisible using the model of sacramental theology — an outward visible expression of an inward invisible grace — which is nothing less than the language of sungsang and hyungsang.

    The titles of the texts — Application of the Principle and Exposition of the Divine Principle also contain the suggestion that there are other ways that the Principle could be applied to interpret the Bible and history and other ways in which it could be expounded.

    I also agree that UT is like old-fashioned Marxism-Leninism in its assumptions. But it is also very post-modern if applied to hermeneutics. It argues that things have a potential, as opposed to an essential, value and that the actual value of something is decided by the subject: “The value of an entity may be determined by the relationship between its purpose of existence and the desire that a human being has for it.” In the same way the meaning of a text is determined by the relationship between the reader (subject) and the text (object) and what the reader brings to the text (reason they are reading it, values and knowledge they have, etc.). Classic 4PF. So the idea of an objectivist reading of the Principle is in itself “unprincipled”.

    Certainly the Principle should be taught in a way that is transformative so that it speaks to every generation.

    I think Tillich expressed what you wanted to say quite well:

    Theology, as a function of the Christian church, must serve the needs of the church. A theological system is supposed to satisfy two basic needs: the statement of the truth of the Christian message and the interpretation of this truth for every new generation. Theology moves back and forth between two poles, the eternal truth of its foundation and the temporal situation in which the eternal truth must be received. Not many theological systems have been able to balance these two demands perfectly. Most of them either sacrifice elements of the truth or are not able to speak to the situation. Some of them combine both shortcomings. Afraid of missing the eternal truth, they identify it with some previous theological work, with traditional concepts and solutions, and try to impose these on a new, different situation. They confuse eternal truth with a temporal expression of this truth. This is evident in European theological orthodoxy, which in America is known as fundamentalism. When fundamentalism is combined with an antitheological bias, as it is, for instance, in its biblicistic-evangelical form, the theological truth of yesterday is defended as an unchangeable message against the theological truth of today and tomorrow. Fundamentalism fails to make contact with the present situation, not because it speaks from beyond every situation, but because it speaks from a situation of the past. It elevates something finite and transitory to infinite and eternal validity. In this respect fundamentalism has demonic traits. It destroys the humble honesty of the search for truth, it splits the conscience of its thoughtful adherents, and it makes them fanatical because they are forced to suppress elements of truth of which they are dimly aware.”

    I have had a go at reconceptualising the Principle and teaching it differently which you might find interesting at these YouTube links:

  10. I am not really qualified to comment on this article from a theological or academic perspective. I do have one or two points to make.
    I thought that the whole point of the Divine Principle was that it was meant to be a transformative experience. This new expression of truth should lead to new enlightenment and a more mature practice of faith. I think that the author is implying in his article that there has not been a sufficient manifestation in practice of the new truth. There is a discrepancy between the word and the practice of the word. True Father always challenged us to bring unity of mind and body in this regard.

    I also would like to point out that regarding the stories in the Principle as archetypal myths will diminish the impact of these stories. Rev. Moon himself always indicated that Adam and Eve were real people whose lives and actions had real consequences for humanity. Even though i sometimes get a little annoyed by that.constant reiteration, I take his word for that even though i dont have direct access to these historical figures. I do think that there is transformation going on currently and a constant attempt by many brothers and sisters young and old to make Principle relevant to their lives and to apply Principle in meaningful ways in their lives. Of course we can always improve and include new insights from current thoughts in all fields such as science, psychology, etc.

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