Understanding God: The Conceptual and the Experiential in Unification Thought

Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 4, 2001-2002 - Pages 7-16

How can we understand God? This is a difficult question. Because God does not supply us physically sensible contents[1] that we can detect and measure with a common standard, we cannot describe Him in an ordinary manner. Furthermore, we do not know exactly what kind of access we have for knowing Him. For this reason, there are some who deny the existence of God while others attempt to prove His existence. The fact that people seek to "prove" God’s existence already indicates the scope of the difficulty.

This essay is neither an attempt to give another proof of the existence of God, nor an analysis of the meaning of "proof" of His existence. It rather presupposes our tacit understanding of God’s existence, no matter how vague it might be. Starting with the two basic cognitive activities in human understanding, that is, conceptual understanding and experience,[2] the point of this essay is to clarify how these two activities work together to provide a general understanding of God. In particular, it examines how Unification Thought deals with this issue. Here, the term "understanding" is used in broad and multiple senses, encompassing both the state of awareness and conceptual knowing.

The main thread of the essay, that is, the pairing of the conceptual and the experiential, is discussed in relation to three other threads of Unification Thought. First, it will be discussed in relation to two components of the Original Human Nature: Heart and Logos. Second, since conceptual understanding takes place by the mediation of language and experiential understanding by the mediation of substantial beings such as other humans and things, these two ways of knowing God are discussed with respect to the kind of mediation each requires. More specifically, "representational mediation" and "substantial mediation" are related to two types of existence: the "substantial object in image" (human beings) and the "substantial object in symbol" (all things). Third, the conceptual and the experiential will be discussed from the perspective of the two stages of a person’s growing relationship with God, that is, Indirect Dominion and Direct Dominion.

In sum, the purpose of the essay is to develop the perspective of Unification Thought on the cultivation of human understanding of God by showing the integral links among these key concepts of Unification Thought through the examination of the two cognitive activities—the conceptual and the experiential.


1. The Conceptual and the Experiential: Human Nature and Ways of Understanding God

a. Hegel and Kierkegaard: Two Approaches to God

When Hegel presented his thoroughly rational and systematic explanation about God and His manifestation in the world and history, Kierkegaard was deeply disappointed with it. While Kierkegaard understood the need for conceptualization in defining God, he was critical of rationalist approaches in general and particularly as applied to God.[3] For Kierkegaard, one comes to understand God in one's personal relationship with God, which involves commitment and a paradoxical leap of faith.

The conflict between Hegel and Kierkegaard poses a question concerning the way we approach the issue of understanding God. Can we find God on a rationalist path, or should we pursue an existential or experiential approach? The contrast between Hegel and Kierkegaard certainly involves complex issues beyond the scope of the present essay. I rather re-formulate the contrast more broadly as between the conceptual and the experiential ways of knowing. How does Unification Thought deal with these two opposing approaches?

b. Conceptual Explanation and Heartfelt Experience

The power of conceptualization is beyond dispute. Without conceptualization, no one could explain his or her philosophy.[4] No matter how powerful and necessary the conceptualization might be, however, it is equally true that conceptual knowledge has a limit. One cannot adequately explain by concepts an experience to someone who has not had a comparable experience. For example, one cannot explain what is the taste of sweetness to someone who never tasted sweetness. Encountering God is also a kind of experience. When Kierkegaard was disparately seeking an answer about God, he was seeking the sort of answer that could truly touch his heart. At the root of a life of faith, we often find a believer’s personal, lively, heartfelt experience with God.

Nevertheless, experiences are always interpreted within a certain conceptual framework. It may be argued that an “experience” of God presupposes a theistic theoretical framework. One might question whether it would be possible for someone to interpret his “experience” as the encounter with God if he did not have the theistic matrix of interpretation. Can a person have any meaningful “experience” without a theoretical framework within which particular “experiences” are interpreted and integrated into the totality of his life as meaningfully felt?

Human “experience” is a product of the act of interpretation. The framework of interpretation can be deeply hidden below one’s consciousness or can be clearly noticed. A theoretical framework of thought gives a systematic context within which one interprets the variety of experiences and integrates them into a coherent whole.

Living in almost the same world, some people deepen their understanding of God while others sustain their atheistic convictions throughout their course of life. The difference between them is not so much the actual “experiences” they have but the “experiences” as the result of interpretation.[5] Conceptual understanding plays a key role in the act of interpretation. The experience of encountering God may not be possible without an adequate conceptual framework.

The conceptual and the experiential work complimentarily in developing a person’s understanding of and relationship with God. Unification Thought explains this issue in terms of heart and logos, two essential natures of God and human beings.[6] Human growth is explained as the process of cultivating, embodying, and manifesting God's heart and logos[7] (reason-law[8]) as well as His creativity, which is a process for a person to become an "image" of God. Described from a cognitive perspective, this is a process by which people deepen their awareness of God, both as understanding and as feelings of intimacy.

Awareness of God—the understanding of God in a broad sense—takes place both on an intellectual level and an emotional level. As a "being-with-logos," human beings can have conceptual understanding of God and His works in the world. That is why Unification Thought provides a conceptual explanation about the Principles by which God exists, creates, and works. As a "being-with-heart," humans can have an intimate emotional bond with God, sometimes felt as a type of holistic understanding. Both a conceptual understanding of the rational dimension of God's world and substantial experiences in heart are necessary for the fullest understanding of God.[9]


2. Mediation in Human Understanding: Representational and Substantial

a. Mediated Nature of Human Understanding

Human understanding, both conceptual and experiential, requires certain forms of mediation. Conceptual understanding is carried out through interactions among concepts and ideas, which are usually conceived as and mediated in linguistic terms. Conceptual understanding is largely a human cognitive activity carried out by the mediation of language.

Experience is also ordinarily mediated. It generally takes place through the interactions among existing beings such as humans and other natural and artificial things. In Unification Thought terminology, this interactive or mediated character of existence and cognition is explained by “give-and-take-action.”[10]

The conceptual and the experiential are complementary, like a set of different colored threads that weave a beautiful tapestry. The linguistic (representational) and the interactional are another set of threads. These two sets of threads cross each other and weave a web of human understanding. As I discussed earlier, the conceptual and the experiential interactively work together. Likewise, the linguistic and the interactional also work together. These four threads may not exhaust all the components of human understanding, yet they are certainly important ones.

b. "Embodied Object Partner in Image" and "Embodied Object Partner in Symbol"

Unification Thought sees all creation as the object partner of God, the Subject partner. It further classifies created beings into two categories according to the level of their relationship to God. Human beings are "object partners embodied at the level of image, and the rest of creation are object partners embodied at the level of symbol. These object partners called individual embodiments of truth, in image and symbol."[11]

The distinction between "symbol" and "image" is made based upon differences of: 1) the level, intensity or degree of the manifestation of God's nature, and 2) the nature of the relationship to God according to the purpose of creation. Human beings are "incarnate object partners in image" and other created beings are " incarnate object partners in symbol."

The myriad qualities of God, in their duality, are apportioned into diverse human beings, each an incarnate object partner at the level of image. These qualities are also apportioned into all the diverse things of creation, each an embodied object partner at the level of symbol.[12]

The binary concepts of "image" and "symbol" are also applied to the interpretation of history in Unification Thought. There the concept is seen as a part of a trinomial division of substance-image-symbol.[13] Symbolic representation by numbers is also one of the interesting characteristics of the Unification view of history. I shall not pursue the question of symbolic representation by numbers and natural objects due to the limited scope of this essay.

c. Duality of Understanding and Being

Why do human beings have these two ways of understanding, that is, the conceptual by means of linguistic or symbolic representations and the experiential by means of actual encounter? Does this fact have something to do with the way beings manifest God's nature? In human beings, who are the "substantial object partner in image," God's nature is directly and fully manifested, while the rest of creation manifests God’s nature to a lesser degree or intensity.

In other words, God's involvement to the world takes place on two levels, direct and indirect. The experiential, which is mediated by concrete interactions, is the direct encounter of a person with objects of knowledge. The conceptual, which is mediated by linguistic symbols and signs, is an indirect kind of encounter with objects. The dual structure of human understanding seems to have some connection to the ways beings manifest God's nature. I cannot draw any definitive conclusion at this stage, but the parallel between cognition and the existence seems to support the link between the structure of human understanding and that of the world that is characteristic of Unification Thought.


3. The Process of Understanding God: from Indirect Dominion to Direct Dominion

a. Direct Dominion and Indirect Dominion

According to Unification Thought, there is a process or "growing period"[14] through which human beings pass before becoming the full image of God, before they manifest His nature to the fullest extent. This period is called the Realm of Indirect Dominion.

God, the Author of the Principle, has regard only for the fruits of their growth which are based on the Principle. In this way, He governs all things indirectly. We call this growing period the realm of God's indirect dominion or the realm of dominion based on accomplishment through the Principle… In His capacity as the Creator, God created human beings in such a manner that they can pass through the growing period (the realm of indirect dominion) and attain perfection only when they have completed their own portion of responsibility. [15]

After the process of growth, human beings enter the Realm of Direct Dominion:

Human beings abide in the realm of direct dominion when, as subject partner and object partner, they unite in the love of God to form a four position foundation and become one in heart with God. In this realm they freely and fully share love and beauty according to the will of the subject partner, thus realizing the purpose of goodness.[16]

How can human beings become "one in heart with God" and "freely and fully share love and beauty according to the Will of the subject partner,” God? In the Theory of Education, Unification Thought explains three areas to be cultivated and their methods, that is, Heart, Norm (Logos), and Creativity (Dominion).[17] To become one with God in Heart, human beings need to grow in heart (love) and come to embody normative principles (logos). Maturity of love is a central goal of growth. Growth is the process to cultivate heart and develop rational understanding in such a way as to "resemble God" or "manifest God's nature."

The idea of becoming "one in heart with God" suggests a unity of being, which is more than a cognitive matter. Direct dominion is described as a realm where human beings have established a certain bond with God, experienced as an intimate closeness in heart. Without such oneness in heart, it is impossible for human beings to "freely and fully share love and beauty according to the will of the subject partner," God. At this level, human "understanding" of God is authentic.

b. Process of Human Growth

Cultivation of heart cannot be accomplished in a short period of time. It takes years of real interaction with fellow humans and nature. Unification Thought sees the family as the actual locus where people cultivate their hearts during the growing period. In the view of Unification Thought, God’s love has phenomenal manifestation in the creation. God's love in its archetypal form is manifested as the actual loves among members of a family. To be specific, a person experiences God’s love as parental love, conjugal love, children’s love, and brother and sister’s love.[18] Such human love mediates for enhancing the understanding of God’s love. In other words, a person can enhance his or her understanding of God's heart through the interactions with or the mediations of other members of his family during his growing period.

The Realm of Indirect Dominion is a sphere or a growing period where people can gradually develop their bond with God, leading to full intimacy in heart. Nevertheless, as discussed previously, experiences cannot yield a desired result without proper guiding ideas. Conceptual understanding of principles and norms are necessary to be able to see the divine nature in human love. No matter how rich might be one’s experiences of human love, they could hardly be put to enhancing one’s understanding of God without proper conceptual guides.



The conceptual and the experiential are two complimentary components of cognition. They interactively work together to develop cognition that is clear and deep. Both are necessary for human beings to enhance their understanding of God. Unification Thought provides a theoretical explanation about the principles concerning God and His works on the one hand, and on the other hand also discusses the need for an experiential basis for knowing God in heart. God’s relationship to human beings is both universal and personal. The components of “logos” and “heart” in Unification Thought seem to reflect the two dimensions that rationalists and existentialists put forth. They reflect both the universal and the personal dimensions in the human relationship with God.

Human growth in the Realm of Indirect Dominion provides the means to progress in the understanding of God. It leads into the Realm of Direct Dominion where a person becomes the fullest "Substantial Object Partner in Image" to God. Like a matured child's relationship to parents, a man's bond with God is destined to be inseparably close in heart.



[1] Because God does not supply any sensible contents to us, Kant placed Him in the realm of unknowable “thing-in-itself.” According to Kant, “thing-in-itself” is in principle unknowable, and God falls in this category.

[2] The contrast between the rational and the experiential is as old as the history of philosophy. Plato generally took a rationalist approach and Aristotle took an empiricist approach, although both of them were aware of the validity of both paths. These two paths to knowledge re-appeared as the contrasting views of Augustine and Aquinas, and that of modern rationalists and empiricists. We generally understand the validity of these two cognitive activities as sources of knowledge since they are working in our everyday life.

[3] In reference to Hegel, Kierkegaard remarked, "In relation to their systems most systematizers are like a man who builds an enormous castle and lives in a shack close by; they do not live in their own enormous systematic building." The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, trans. Alexander Dru, (London: Oxford, 1938), p. 156.

While rationalist attempts to establish "objectivity" of knowledge, Kierkegaard points out the importance of clarifying how the subject relates to the object: "When the question of truth is raised in an objective manner, reflection is directed objectively to the truth, as an object to which the knower is related. Reflection is not focused upon the relationship, however, but upon the question of whether it is the truth to which the knower is related. If only the object to which he is related is the truth, the subject is accounted to be in the truth. When the question of the truth is raised subjectively, reflection is directed subjectively to the nature of the individual’s relationship; if only the mode of this relationship is in the truth, the individual is in the truth even if he should happen to be thus related to what is not true." Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. by D.F. Swenson and W. Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1941), p. 178.

God is precisely a kind of object for which the knower's relationship to Him is involved in the knowledge of Him. For this reason, Kierkegaard presents "subjectivity of truth" against "objectivity of truth." He accepts rationalist approaches in logic and mathematics, but not to the matter of God.

[4] Human understanding takes place by the mediation of language, and concepts are its components. The involvement of conceptualization in the process of understanding is inevitable partly due to the linguistic nature of human discourse.

[5] This does not exclude a possibility of extraordinary experience which cannot be coherently interpreted within one’s present framework of thought. Unexplainable experience can demand a modification or a total replacement of one’s framework of thought. Conversion is a radical shift of the framework of thought.

[6] In the Theory of the Original Image (Essentials of Unification Thought [Tokyo: Unification Thought Institute, 1992], pp. 1-40), Dr. Lee explains “Heart” as the “core of the attributes of God” (p. 17) and “logos” as “God’s Word” (p. 22) referring to John 1.1-3 of the New Testament. In the Theory of the Original Human Nature (pp. 89-130), he explains human nature as “Divine Image” and “Divine Character” since humans are created in the image of God.

[7] In the Theory of Education, human growth is characterized as the process “to attain resemblance to God. To resemble God is to resemble the Divine Image and Divine Character.” (Ibid. p. 169)

[8] Here “reason” encompasses both “theoretical reason” and “practical reason” in the traditional classification of philosophy. The former refers to abstract intellectual activities in science, logic, and mathematics, and the latter refers to a discourse for moral judgement. Likewise “law” refers to both natural and ethical laws.

[9] When one understands someone, one has certain emotional feeling and intellectual understanding at the same time. Understanding a fellow human means this holistic grasp. This analogy can be applied to man's understanding of God, since man's relationship with God is personal (person to person).

[10] See "Scope of Give-and-Receive Method" in Methodology, which describes the scope where the concept of Give-and-Receive Action is applied. The interactive character of cognition and thinking is explained by this concept. (Ibid., p. 409.)

[11] Exposition of the Divine Principle (New York: HSA-UWC, 1976), p. 20.

[12] Ibid.

[13] History is divided into three parallel periods: the "age of symbolic parallels," "age of image parallels," and "age of substantial parallels." Ibid. p. 311. If we take the triadic structure of God–human–all things, where God is the substantial subject, humans are object partners in image, and all things are object partners in symbol, then the whole of existence can be seen in three stages of substance–image–symbol.

[14] "All things are designed to reach completion only after passing through a set growing period." Ibid. p. 41.

[15] Ibid., p. 43.

[16] Ibid., p. 44.

[17] Essentials of Unification Thought, pp. 175-190.

[18] Unification Thought explains how God's heart is manifested in human relationships in a family through the "Four Great Realms of Heart." Shinban Toitsu Shisou Yoko [Esssentials of Unification Thought, new edition] (Tokyo: UTI, 2000), pp. 734-745.