Dynamics of Messianism

Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 3, 1999-2000 - Pages 27-40

I am currently working on a comparative paradigm for messianism, a conceptual scheme drawn from the study of various messianic movements throughout world history. Such a typology may help us understand new messianic movements as they arise. What is a messiah? What is the difference between a true and a false messiah? And what can be expected to happen when a messiah comes, as well as when he goes? I would like to set forth the rudiments of my theory, now, in this time of messianic expectation.

Usually such synthetic studies as this one have the character of "post-game wrap-ups." They are of interest mostly to scholarly outsiders, not to members of the type of movements they discuss. This is perhaps because followers of messianic movements prefer to regard their movements and their progress as the result of pure, unmediated miracle and providence; thus, they are indifferent to the explanations of unbelievers offered in the spirit of scientific naturalism. And this is why, in the case of messianic movements, people so often ignore and repeat the lessons of history. A significant exception is a uniquely modern messianic movement, the one sponsoring this very journal, the one at whose seminary I began working on the present study: the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon. This movement seems to have embarked on its historic course with an unusually acute awareness of its position in the modern world. As a result it stands an excellent chance of learning the lessons of the past and so of avoiding the repetition of the sad ones. Thus I will begin with typological generalities, and then apply them to the specific case of the Unification movement.


1. General Characteristics of Messianism—and Its Aftermath

First, let us remind ourselves of Clifford Geertz’s description of religion as a cultural system of symbols for managing the three great negativities of life: adversity, ignorance and injustice. Life is filled with these three things, and yet we cannot grow inured to them. We seek their resolution by appealing to an imagined, unseen realm outside and adjacent to the visible world. We posit that the sad facts of death, ignorance, suffering, and oppression will be avenged, reversed, justified, explained or alleviated up there, out there, in heaven or in the future. The murderer may seem to get away scot-free as far as we can see, but rest assured, he will get what's coming to him in hell, or when he's reincarnated as a flatworm. Why did tragedy strike? We don't know, but we will when we get to heaven.

a. “This-Worldly Theodicy”

As Peter Berger notes,[1] messianism is one such rationalization strategy. Note how it works: messianism does not do what some theodicies do. It does not pretend to answer the question of how God can be good and yet allow all the evils of the world. It is more pragmatic than that. It knows that mere theories are cold comfort at best. Messianism focuses not on the beginning, the source of the problem; it focuses instead on the end of it, which it says is coming soon. The Savior, the Redeemer, will come to wipe away every tear. He will finally destroy evil. And when it is gone, who will think to reproach God? Who will care why everything went wrong once it has been made right?

Berger calls this a “future, this-worldly theodicy.” By contrast, an “otherworldly theodicy” would abandon hope for the messiah bringing justice into this world or “peace on earth.” Instead it would promise relief from the ills of this world by giving you a ticket to heaven. In the latter case, you would be leaving the visible, factual world of ills, this veil of tears, and embarking for the farther shores of Geertz’s unseen larger world on the margins of this one.[2] In Mircea Eliade’s terms, this world that needs redemption would be profane space, while the unseen world of imagined answers would correspond to sacred space. Messianism envisions that a savior is presently waiting in the wings of unseen sacred space. This may be understood as his already existing in heaven; or his waiting in concealment somewhere on earth, as a leper outside the walls of Rome; or it may be simply the prophesied certainty of his coming. In other words, he is “waiting” in the future. The messiah’s place is off-stage. He is always “the one who is to come.” The trouble starts when one day he appears.

When someone announces himself to be the Messiah, he is claiming to have brought sacred space into profane space, transforming the one into the other. "The kingdom of this world [that is, profane space] has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ [i.e., sacred space]." People are excited because they have been convinced that all evils will cease. The world will be changed. But history stubbornly goes on, even after the supposed coming of the end of history. How is the impression maintained that redemption has dawned?

First, a bulwark is erected against the profane world. Of course, the profane world does not cease to exist, but the Messiah and his followers create and retreat into a bubble of messianic, eschatological existence. Berger and Luckmann[3] call it a “finite province of meaning,” a willing suspension of disbelief, a retreat, usually temporary, into a carefully circumscribed and fortified sub-world in which the kingdom of God will seem to have come.

The boundaries of this island reality are laid down by behavioral rules, inner-circle jargon, special clothing, and distinctive beliefs. Contact with outsiders is strictly regulated: believers spend all their time with each other and interact with outsiders only by token of evangelism. An example of this is the Jehovah’s Witness sect. In evangelism, as John Lofland explains in an early study of the Unification movement,[4] the evangelist sets the terms for interaction with the unbeliever. By offering him the gospel, the evangelist shapes the unbeliever's response: he will either reject the gospel, playing the role of worldling, rejecter, Satan-deceived persecutor, or he will accept the gospel and join the group, another welcome vote for the beliefs of the beleaguered sect. Either way, the evangelist wins!

Within the magic circle of the mustard-seed kingdom, the fires of supernatural redemption are stoked by charismatic prophecy, speaking in tongues, and reports of miracles. Soon, the believers assure one another, this beachhead of salvation will spread abroad to the ends of the earth. But redemption does not come, not according to the original, Technicolor expectation. The most successful it can be is eventually to become a new worldwide religion or the ideology of an empire. But even this will fall short of the once-imagined glories of the millennium. (Rest assured, though, its hierarchy will still claim the absoluteness of eschatological truth to authorize its dictates and dogmas!)

b. Maintaining the Sacred Realm

The process of adjusting to the delay of the end already begins within the reign/ministry of the messiah, if it lasts long enough. Otherwise it may occur at his death. Either way, there are various ways of adjusting to the failure of the eschaton, coping with the ongoing of history. One is ritual anticipation/evocation of the future. Eliade[5] understands ritual as the process of cyclical return to the sacred time of origins, as nature is renewed and rejuvenated each year when spring comes. But in the case of a messianic sect, ritual is the calling into the present of the future. (Not that this is much of a difference from Eliade's paradigm, since in most eschatological schemas, Erdzeit = Urzeit anyway. The future state of bliss is a return to Eden, a re-creation.) For concrete examples, take the Lord’s Supper and the Dead Sea Scrolls messianic banquet. Both are rehearsals, and at the same time stop-gap substitutes, for the real thing. In precisely the same way, watching low-budget Rapture movies (Distant Thunder, Years of the Beast, Image of the Beast, etc.) provide Fundamentalist church audiences with a kind of cathartic vicarious experience of the eagerly-awaited eschatological events. The believer hopes to see the events predicted by Hal Lindsay happening soon, being covered on CNN. But it never comes. So in the meantime, one can watch theatrical simulations of the events. It's not the apocalypse, but it's better than nothing. John Gager is surely correct in seeing this as the function of the drama-like Book of Revelation.[6] It is a powerful psychodrama, supplying at least a measure of the eschatological excitement with which mundane reality is so stingy.

A second historic strategy for managing the delay of the predicted End is to “realize,” i.e., demythologize, eschatology. Though Lutheran existentialist Rudolf Bultmann is the best-known exponent of this approach, it is, as he himself pointed out, quite old. The Gospel of John already seem to have abandoned hope of the second advent of Jesus and says it has happened in an unfalsifiable, invisible form as the coming of the Paraclete. The predicted resurrection? It will not happen literally; rather, the resurrection is the rebirth from the Spirit of those who believe in the word of Jesus.[7] Similarly, in the Gospel of Thomas, the disciples ask Jesus when the repose (i.e., resurrection and final rest) of the dead will come. His answer: "What you expect has come to pass, only you do not recognize it." (Saying 51) Ali Muhammad (the “Bab,” or Gate) and Hussein Ali (“Bahá’u’lláh,” the Glory of God), founders of the Babi and Bahá’i Faiths in nineteenth-century Iran, likewise preached that the End-Time events were to be realized figuratively—in their own ministry.[8]

A third tried-and-true approach (and no doubt the most controversial) is transcendence (of the present) by transgression (of the present order). In the seventeenth century, messiah Sabbatai Zvi convinced much of Eurasian Jewry that the messianic utopia would soon arrive, that he would persuade the Ottoman sultan to convert to Judaism. Instead, the sultan threatened him with death if he did not convert to Islam. His response? Allah-o-Akbar! If a crucified Messiah was a bitter pill to swallow (1 Corinthians 1:23), how much more an apostate Messiah! Most left the fold in disgust, but many did not, clinging rather to various theological rationalizations for the infamous act, many of which bore a startling analogy to the atonement theories attached to the crucifixion in early Christianity. For these believers, the question arose as to whether the messianic age had dawned or not. Outwardly, things appeared stubbornly the same. But the Messiah had come, had he not? His messianic kingdom, then, was for the time being a secret, a mustard seed kingdom. One day soon it should burst forth in its Technicolor fullness, but in the meantime believers must live out the kingdom in secret, living by the standards not of the old age but of the new. And what were these? Some mystics had dared to posit that in the redeemed, sinless age, there would be no need for the many prohibitions of the Torah, so on that glorious day the Torah would show a new face: all its prohibitions would turn to positive commands. Among one radical sect of Sabbatians, the Dönmeh,[9] the piety of the secret conventicle was to joyfully perform every act that the Torah had forbidden! Needless to say, their liturgical orgies had to be kept secret. The strange world they lived in was antipodal to that of their fellow Jews (and Gentiles). It was so different from everything else in the world; one might well believe it to be the kingdom of God.

c. Messiahs Live On, But Transformed

These processes may begin already within the lifetime of the Messiah, but they will surely get underway once the Messiah dies. And then his status of finality (i.e., his futurity, his eschatological character) is relativized. He remains “the Seal of the Prophets,” God’s final messenger, in name only. His community, which had anticipated no further need for revelation (since God, after all, would shortly be making his dwelling among men) still requires divine guidance. So other revealers will follow the "last prophet." This may happen in either of two ways: charisma is either routinized or inherited. All this, of course, is familiar from the great sociologist of religion Max Weber.[10] Charisma (the status and personal influence of the messiah) is routinized when the charismatic prophet is replaced by theologians and managers, caretakers and interpreters. Concurrently, the messianic sect is being socially and religiously mainstreamed on the way to accommodating itself to society. The sect and society will begin to permeate each other: the church in the world, the world in the church. Things become more comfortable, less exciting. As Abraham Maslow sees it,[11] the founder, the Messiah, had visionary "peak experiences" and invited others to share them, whereas after his death, managers, notorious for their lack of inspiring vision and charisma, take over to build institutions, tombs for the prophets.

Why does this evolution/devolution occur? A messianic movement cannot remain a radical sect and succeed demographically, since sects cater to the elite; they want only "hundred percenters." Catholic Christianity and Sunni Islam, by contrast, are mainstreamed messianic sects. They are no longer "the camp of the saints" but, as Saint Cyprian said, a "school for sinners."

If, on the other hand, the movement remains a sect at the margins of society, content with “a few good men,” the charismatic prophet will have been replaced by successors in kind. His charisma is inherited, as from Elijah to Elisha. The successors are vicars of the Christ who will return, while he is temporarily unavailable. (The Pope is an exception that proves the rule: he is really an institutional caretaker and only claims to speak with the Messiah’s absolute authority very rarely.) Bearers of inherited charisma would include the Shiite Imams descended from Muhammad through Ali. These Imams are not prophets (God forbid! Muhammad was the last of those!), but they are divinely inspired interpreters of the Koran, unlike the mere caretakers of Sunni Islam, the Caliphs. Shia Islam remained sectarian; Sunni Islam mainstreamed and continually persecuted new Shiite messianisms.

In early Christianity, the charisma of Jesus was inherited by the wandering prophets and apostles whose activities are attested in Matthew 25:34-40; 3 John vv. 5-8, the Didache, and other texts.[12] These Jesus-prophets, brethren of the exalted Son of Man, would speak new revelations in his name, with his authority: "Whoever hears you hears me." (Luke 10:16) "Whoever in this sinful and adulterous generation is ashamed of me and my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes." (Mark 8:38) Bultmann and other form critics attribute much of the sayings-tradition of the Synoptic Gospels to these itinerant charismatics. As 3 John and the Didache make clear, these "loose canons" (pardon the expression) eventually came into conflict with the consolidating authority of the bishops, those who also claimed to be successors of Jesus, but through "apostolic succession," i.e., routinization of charisma.

Let me mention one more interesting development once the messiah dies and history continues. Very often the believers go into denial: they say he did not die, but only seemed to! Invisibly to mortal eyes, he really escaped! (Note how we are again appealing to an imaginary unseen realm to soften the blows of adversity.) He is waiting in seclusion to return; or he rose and went to heaven, whence he will soon return; or his spirit is with God in heaven, whence it will return by means of the soon-coming resurrection of the dead. By these expedients, the terrible event which seems to debunk the messianic faith instead reenergizes it, since the death is now taken to betoken the final stage, the eleventh hour. Time to get cracking!

The eschaton, the end, has been deferred, but only to the immediate future. In the meantime, however, divinely inspired spokesmen, such as the Bab or the Paraclete, represent the vanished Messiah till he should reappear. The longer this “interim” lasts, the more likely it is that the sect will remain messianic in name only, or will return to traditional future expectation: the vanished messiah, or a new messiah, will come someday. In fact, one of the interim spokesmen likely will claim to be the returned messiah, and the cycle will begin again.

The major alternative to having the messianic tension slacken and go limp is for the sect to perish together in a this-worldly Armageddon. Jim Jones and David Koresh took this alternative. In this way, and only in this way, can the messiah actually and literally lead the faithful into the promised land of Geertz’s imagined unseen realm of final rectification.

But short of this, every messiah must become a false messiah the minute he sets foot on the stage of history, because history will continue. He will either be discarded by disillusioned believers or he will later be reinterpreted as a “new Moses,” a founder figure, a figure of a receding past (e.g., Jesus in Matthew's Gospel; Muhammad as the provider of the Koran). Or he may be assigned to a kind of messianic Valhalla with the honorary status of a preliminary messiah, as was Simon bar-Kochba, hailed as King Messiah by no less a personage than Rabbi Akiba. Simon briefly achieved Jewish independence, only to be overwhelmed by Rome. But he was not then retroactively made a false messiah. As Geza Vermes argues,[13] it was Simon bar-Kochba's noble failure that prompted some sages to split the office of messiah into two: that of Messiah ben Joseph, an Ephraimite messiah doomed to die heroically in battle to atone for Israel's sins, and a victorious Messiah ben-David, to carry the banner to victory. This way, Simon could be venerated as a messiah despite his failure, and eschatological expectation could begin again, only momentarily deferred. A similar strategy is to understand a messiah who died without bringing in the kingdom of God as the first coming of a messiah who will come again, this time in glory. This, of course, is the Christian option. Again, it is only a deferral.

No messiah ever manages to bring the unseen sacred space down to the profane world, so that we may walk henceforth by sight and no longer merely by faith. He may pretend to, in which case provisional opinions are given the unimpeachable status of absolute truth, and one dare not question it. Accordingly, though he anticipated distant-future revelations supplanting his own new dispensation, the Bab commanded book-burnings of all uninspired books in his own day.

At best, a clever messiah can “stall” and remain with one foot in the future by being cagey about his messianic identity. Jesus is asked if he is the messiah, and he leaves 'em guessing: "You say that I am." Reverend Moon used to be asked the same question, and his nimble reply topped even Jesus: "I'd have to give the same answer Jesus did." Beautiful! If he gives Jesus' answer, he must be the messiah like Jesus, no? But, then, strictly speaking, Jesus' answer was elusive! So close, but so far! Or recall Rabbi Schneerson's caginess: he would neither confirm nor deny his avidly believed messiahship. The uncertainty kept people on edge: they thought the messiah was present, but strictly speaking his explicit messianic claim was still at least a few minutes in the future!

When the messiah dies, he will have returned to Geertz’s unseen realm. He will be “back” in heaven, “hidden,” like the Mahdi, somewhere on earth, or “he” will return to the merely virtual existence of a second prophesied messiah. Heaven, earthly seclusion, or futurity—all are in the imaginary realm.


2. Messianism in the Unification Church

As I have anticipated, the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon has already managed to learn a number of the lessons described here, having progressed with unprecedented rapidity through several stages that take most sectarian movements many generations. The result is that now, while the Messiah himself is alive and in active charge of the movement, the Unification Church has already sloughed off much of its sectarian alienation from nonmembers, its disdain of "worldly wisdom," and its fear of institutionalism.[14] It has not merely assimilated the element of "realized eschatology;" rather, realized eschatology and demythologizing are at the heart of its theology. Though Unification theology is unabashedly supernatural, even spiritualistic, realized eschatology is primary to it, and not merely, as usual in messianic movements, a fallback position.

This is because of the unique Christology. Rev. Moon claims to be the Lord of the Second Advent, the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Parousia of Jesus Christ, not an independent messianic figure in his own right, like Rabbi Schneerson. Short of contriving to descend from the sky in celestial glory, how else could Reverend Moon justify this claim without demythologizing the Parousia? He was a man among men, a man born of woman, not an apocalyptic angel. If he were to heed the charge of Jesus on Easter morning 1935 to fulfill his mission, demythologization was inevitable. (The Bab had been forced to draw the same conclusion once he realized he himself was the Mahdi whose advent he had been heralding.[15])

When Unification theology demythologizes the advent of the Christ, reconceptualizing it as a birth (of Reverend Moon, plus, of course, his accomplishments), it transmutes the prophesied “end” into a new beginning. In the same way, the messianic fulfillment brought by Sun Myung Moon must be that of establishing a new dispensation, defining the threshold of a new age stretching into the future. History will continue. It is supposed to continue, unlike the expectation of most messianic sects. Notice the contrast between Paul's reference to Jesus as "the last Adam" (1 Cor. 15:45) and Unification theology's understanding of Rev. Moon as "the Third Adam." Paul sees his messiah as ringing down the curtain of history. He calls Jesus an Adam just to make him the capper of history, the opposite number of the first man, the other bookend. The Third Adam, on the other hand, is a parallel to the Edenic Adam, not an antitype. The Third Adam raises the curtain on a new era of history. He is an inaugurator.

a. Problem of Succession

And this means, in turn, that Rev. Moon's messianic identity already includes and indeed demands the transition, described above, from messiah figure to founder figure. Since it is supposed to happen, it will be no shock or disappointment when it does happen. Still, certain problems may remain, even if they are seen clearly ahead. For instance, there is the problem of succession. Even though no one will be taken aback at the very fact of Rev. Moon's eventual passing, succession disputes tend to emerge only at the moment of succession itself, since the moment unleashes certain tensions that could not come out into open negotiating space earlier on. The situation and its outcome will be even more unpredictable if someone suddenly feels the impulse of prophecy. It would be very surprising if a movement like Unificationism, a surprising hybrid of businesslike administrative organization on the one hand and of shamanistic spiritualism on the other, did not eventually find itself forced to decide, as early Christianity eventually had to, between "ecclesiastical authority and spiritual power."[16]

The Church has already felt something of the turbulence that can erupt between office and charisma, even during the founder's lifetime, when, for a while, Rev. Moon himself took seriously the claims of a radical Zimbabwean youth who claimed to be channeling the spirit of a deceased son of Rev. Moon. Events revealed the channeler to be a charlatan, and the storm passed, but it should remain a living warning of what might happen following the founder's death: what if someone should step forward claiming to be the prophetic voice of Sung Myung Moon from the spirit world? For speculation's sake one might suggest that such an eventuality might be ruled out in advance by the founder's own prescriptive stipulation. But then we would simply be moving one notch over to a slightly different version of the dilemma of religious authority, that between canonical scripture (the founder's bequest) and the living voice of prophecy (the claim of a self-appointed successor).

In any case, the two models of authority seldom peacefully coexist. For instance, the Taiping messiah, Hong Xiuquan, who understood himself to be Melchizedek and the younger brother of the ascended Jesus Christ, was able to brook the sometimes intrusive revelations of Xiao Chaogui, an early compatriot who was believed to channel revelations from the ascended Jesus himself, not to mention the utterances of Yang Xiuqing, who spoke with the very accents of God the Father. But eventually, Xiao Chaogui lost out to Yang Xiuqing in what appears to have been a prophetic power struggle.[17] The Younger Brother of Jesus still had to put up with the sometimes humiliating oracles of the Father, but his Elder Brother fell conveniently silent.

b. Evolution towards the Mainstream

Another problem, usually met with after a founder's death, but already occurring within the Reverend Moon's lifetime, is the painful evolution from a "camp of the saints" sect to a "school for sinners" church. Stevan L. Davies has mapped out the social dynamics between factions of an evolving movement of this type in his The Revolt of the Widows: The Social World of the Apocryphal Acts.[18] He shows how the itinerant prophets, those who had heeded the gospel counsels to leave home and family to preach the News of the kingdom of God, conducted a circuit-riding ministry among sympathetic house-churches and Christian communities, to whom, however, these prophets had less and less to say. As Christianity took root among communal entities, families, homes, settlements, the old commands to sell one's possessions and give to the poor fell increasingly on deaf, or at least puzzled ears. Notoriously, such dominical commands found no welcome in increasingly bourgeoisie Christian social settings such as eventually produced the Pastoral Epistles. Settled, domestic life represented a mainstreaming of the originally radical apocalyptic preaching. A sect was becoming a church, and the spokesmen for the old order became increasingly irrelevant fossils as things changed.

I see something similar already happening among the ranks of Unificationism. Unificationists who began, precisely in the fashion of early apostolic workers, street witnessing and fund-raising, passed through the sacramental portal of the Blessing, a hieros gamos whereby they officially became grafted into the True Family of the True Parents. The very notion of Perfect Families, models of stability and matrices for the production of Perfect Children, immediately clashed with the continued obligation to perform apostolic ministries suitable for the celibate and unattached. These tensions are still being worked out. The felt contradiction seems to be the result of an attempt to keep the Unification movement a sect even while it is marrying its way into a church.

The transition from the camp of the saints to the school for sinners has been accelerated even more by the decision to open up the sacramental Blessing of couples to those who are not believing Unificationists. In this way, the influence of the True Parents is believed to be increased like leaven in the lump, permeating society in a broader way. But some veterans of the movement fear that what is happening is theological inflation: a wider extension of the influence of the True Parents, but at the cost of shallowness.

What we have, apparently, is an analogy to the controversy over the Halfway Covenant in American Puritanism. Puritan congregations required an “experience of grace,” a datable moment of conversion to faith in Christ, or one could not be a full member. Otherwise, one soon has a school for sinners, not a “visible church.” And they didn't want that. But that is what they got, in the form of Solomon Stoddard's Halfway Covenant, which allowed the children of converts to take communion in church even though, having been raised as perfect children (pardon the borrowed terminology), they lacked the opportunity to convert to Christ from a previous life of sin.[19] If non-Unificationist sympathizers can be united with the True Family without conversion, then one must ask whether the movement is not only compromising its original sectarian zeal but even blurring the borders of the Unification Church as a movement at all. It might appear to be rapidly evolving into something of a para-church movement like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association or the Christian Broadcasting Company. The support thus sought and gained is proverbially a mile wide and an inch deep. There is nothing necessarily wrong with such a change. But we seem to be passing from one New Testament analogy, that of the seed growing secretly, to another, the salt of the earth. That is, the hope is no longer that the messianic movement will gestate unobtrusively till the Great Hour comes at last, but rather that it will quietly and subtly savor the general stew. It is a more modest goal, and a more realistic one, from a demythologized point of view.

And yet the danger is great that the more at home in the world the Unification Church feels, the more difficult it will be to distinguish it as an alternative to the prevalent social order and value system. Many once-revolutionary movements have in this fashion sold their birthrights. If I may venture a guess, I would suggest that the Unification Church will follow the same path marked out already by that movement which has in so many ways foreshadowed it, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Mormons. Both movements have seen the need for maintaining two seemingly contradictory emphases: a settled, domesticated life (reminiscent of the Pastoral Epistles) on the one hand, and a call to an elite, apostolic ministry of pioneers who have left home and hearth behind them for the sake of the Kingdom of God (reminiscent of the Synoptic mission charges). Both churches understand salvation as a corporate transformation or recreation of a social order, thus demanding a “bourgeois” ethic of “ordinary” righteousness. And both churches understand the need for some to keep alive in practice the “higher righteousness” of the hero, the knight of faith, as living pointers to that kingdom to which all aspire.

The result is a two-track system akin to that of Theravada Buddhism, where it is the lot of the elect few to bear the burden of the dharma and the sangha, to pursue the straight and narrow Eightfold Path to Nirvana, pointing the way for those “worldly” but faithful masses who hope to share a prophet’s reward by keeping the prophets in good supply with cold water and alms. Their “secular” common life is enriched by the stricter vision, ironically, of those who have renounced the comfort of a natural family to seek instead the spiritual brotherhood of one’s fellow monks. Mormons maintain the system by encouraging young LDS men to undertake a two-year faith mission of evangelism, after which time they reintegrate into the settled, more mundane existence of most Americans. But for a while they understood what it meant to live the apostolic life, and it is hoped their subsequent lives as parents and professionals will be forever colored by those two years.

Likewise with the Unification Church: if many put their street-witnessing days behind them to undertake a more relaxed family life, that earlier term of duty will help assure their family life will itself become a ministry, a living out of the ideals they once fervently preached “in the trenches.” Each stage will be seen to have validated the other. As with the Mormons, one’s initial missionary service raises the standard to which later life is expected to conform, and that later life vindicates the gospel one earlier preached by showing that it can be real not only on the rather atypical, even surreal period of street corner evangelism, but in the “real” world, in which most people live, as well.

Like Lao-tzu, who emerged from the womb already an old sage, Unificationism seems to have been born with a mature historical consciousness. Like the adolescent Jesus in the apocryphal Infancy Gospels, who irritated his tutors because he already possessed an adult's knowledge, Unificationism is uncannily shrewd in its self-understanding. Only history will show how this unique perspective will affect the survival, success, and further evolution of the Unification Church.



[1] Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Approach to Religion (Garden City: Doubleday, 1969), pp. 69-70.

[2] “Religion as a Cultural System,” in Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), pp. 87-125.

[3] Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City: Doubleday, 1967), p. 25.

[4] John Lofland, Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization, and Maintenance of Faith (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1966), pp. 208-209.

[5] Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1959), pp. 68-161.

[6] John Gager, Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early Christianity (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1975), pp. 50-57.

[7] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), e.g, p. 261; see also Robert T. Fortna, The Fourth Gospel and Its Predecessor: From Narrative Source to Present Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1988), pp. 284-293.

[8] Bahá’u’lláh, Kitab-I-Iqan, The Book of Certitude (Wilmette: Bahá’i Publishing Trust, 1950), passim.

[9] Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York: Schocken, 1971), pp. 142-166.

[10] Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), pp. 60-79.

[11] Abraham Maslow, Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences (New York: Viking, 1974), pp. 23-29.

[12] Gerd Theissen, "The Wandering Radicals," in Theissen, Social Reality and the Earliest Christians (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), pp. 33-59; M. Eugene Boring, Sayings of the Risen Jesus: Christian Prophecy in the Synoptic Tradition, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 46 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

[13] Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew: A Historian's Review of the Gospels (London: Fontana/Collins, 1973), pp. 139-140. See also Leibel Reznick, The Mystery of Bar Kochba: An Historical and Theological Investigation of the Last King of the Jews (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996), pp. 130-131, 145-146.

[14] Michael L. Mickler, “When the Prophet Is Yet Living: A Case Study of the Unification Church," in Timothy Miller, ed., When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), pp. 183-194.

[15] In the invaluable Selections from the Writings of the Bab (Translated by Habib Taherzadeh, [Haifa: Baha’i World Center, 1976]) we have a recapitulation of the much-disputed Son of Man problem in the Gospels. Bultmann and others suggested that the Gospel sayings on the future coming of the Son of Man were indeed authentically dominical but referred to someone other than Jesus himself, and that they must be carefully disentangled from the mass of Son of Man sayings, authentic and inauthentic, apocalyptic or not, which are all unceremoniously dumped side by side in the Gospels. In the same way, many statements of the Bab regarding Him Whom God Shall Make Manifest seem to anticipate the soon coming of the Mahdi as someone distinct from himself, implicitly Bahá’u’lláh, but this turns out to be an optical illusion: the Bab never predicted an immediate successor to himself. Rather, he at first considered himself merely the forerunner of the Mahdi and thus, as Bultmann suggests for Jesus, spoke of a distinct, soon-coming figure: the Hidden Imam, the returning Muhammad al-Mahdi, the 12th Shiite Imam. Subsequently, he realized he himself was the Mahdi (see Ignaz Goldziher, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, trans. Andras and Ruth Hamori [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981], p. 246) and may have spoken of himself for a while in the third person, deferring his self-revelation, as Albert Schweitzer thought Jesus was doing in his futuristic Son of Man sayings. But the redaction of this collection of the Bab’s statements is the work not of the surviving Bab’i (Azal’i) sect, but of the Bahá’i sect and reflects their belief that the Bab meant to refer to the coming manifestation of Bahá’u’lláh.

[16] Hans von Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries, trans. J.A. Baker (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1981).

[17] Jonathan D. Spence, God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (New York: Norton, 1997), p. 147.

[18] Stevan L. Davies, The Revolt of the Widows: The Social World of the Apocryphal Acts (Carbondale: Southern University Press, 1981).

[19] See Stoddard's “The Inexcusableness of Neglecting the Worship of God,” together with Robert L. Ferm's introduction, in Ferm, ed., Issues in American Protestantism: A Documentary History from the Puritans to the Present (Garden City: Doubleday, 1969), pp. 41-48.