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Fri, 31 Jul 2015 21:00:00 -0400 On Memorial Day weekend, I returned for the first time in years to the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Theological Seminary (UTS) in Barrytown, New York. I travelled there with my family to attend the 39
convocation ceremony, as well as an alumni conference which followed. Though I am no longer a member of Moon’s Unification Church, and have written two highly critical books about it, I was nevertheless permitted to attend all of the sessions, and was treated with kindness and respect.
Where Have All the Moonies Gone?https://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/03/002-where-have-all-the-moonies-gone
Sat, 01 Mar 2008 00:00:00 -0500 The Unification Theological Seminary (UTS), founded in 1975 by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, lies nestled in a quiet corner of upstate New York near the town of Barrytown. An impressive two-story brick structure”a central chapel with two dormitory wings”it sits at the hub of a 250-acre estate overlooking the Hudson River. Though originally constructed in the 1930s as a Catholic boys school, by the early 1970s the buildings had fallen into disuse. And so, on January 21, 1974, the entire estate was sold to Moon, who saw the school as an ideal setting for carrying out the next phase of his grand vision: the wholesale conversion of the United States to his quasi-Christian teachings, which he calls the Divine Principle.
The school’s founding coincided with an outpouring of frightening media stories about cults deceiving thousands into adopting bizarre practices and deviant lifestyles. Newspapers were filled with lurid accounts of young people who had been transformed overnight into unrecognizable counterfeits of themselves after joining such groups as Swami Prabhupada’s Hare Krishna movement and David Berg’s Children of God.
Panicked parents took Moon’s Unification Church to be the same sort of cult. Young adults were kidnapped off the streets, bundled into vans, and spirited away to hotel rooms or secret hideaways for deprogramming from the brainwashing they had received. While all this was going on, Sun Myung Moon gleefully announced to his followers during a Sunday sermon that I am your brain, and the mother of a prominent Moon follower told the press that her son’s brain had needed a good washing anyway.
Into this maelstrom, I”an intensely shy twenty-three-year-old Canadian”blundered in the fall of 1976. In those days, I was much more responsive to the rhetoric of science and psychology than to Scripture and theology. But on the second day of a visit to San Francisco, I encountered two members of Moon’s Unification Church on Fisherman’s Wharf, and my resistance to religious-sounding messages was neatly circumvented. The strangers told me of a free dinner sponsored by the Creative Community Project where, supposedly, I could meet people from all backgrounds and dispositions. Having no other plans, I went.
At the dinner, I was invited to a weekend on a farm in northern California, near the town of Boonville. Although they told me there would be discussions about their ideals, as well as games and recreation, my hosts made no mention of the Unification Church or Moon. (In fact, as I later learned, they went out of their way to conceal this connection). I agreed to go to Boonville, where I ended up staying for four eventful weeks, during which I was lectured relentlessly on the basic ideas of the Divine Principle before my hosts finally told me the name of the founder and revealed that the Bay Area group was in fact part of a worldwide movement.
By then I had arrived at a wary acquiescence to their ideas. Several times during the first two weeks, I had resolved to leave the Boonville farm; each time, I was convinced to stay. My unease with religious rhetoric was mollified by the fact that the Divine Principle appeared to offer solutions both to my fears for the future and to my personal problems”though it did so through messianic religion rather than through psychological therapy. At first hesitantly, and then with relief, I converted.
And so it was that I came to the Unification Theological Seminary in upstate New York. Since I had a university degree, I met the basic qualifications for a student at the seminary, but, when I first traveled there in September 1977, I was one of several candidates rejected. Moon”the man we revered as True Father”entered the room flanked by seminary president David Kim and began inspecting the candidates in turn like a general inspecting the troops. When they reached me, I knew right away I was unlikely to get in. In fact, I had been rejected for being too inexperienced; in particular, I had not yet passed through Moon’s much dreaded trial by fire: the Mobile Fundraising Teams.
So, instead of starting my first year at the seminary in 1977, I went to work in Maryland, Delaware, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia. While with the fundraising teams, I was expected to work from dawn to late at night nearly every day selling flowers, candy, or costume jewelry for substantial profits while keeping none of the proceeds. I was dropped off in supermarket parking lots, housing districts, and business strips, and was instructed to run, run, run”day in and day out”and to sell my wares with the desperation of one on whom humanity’s salvation depended.
Summoning my determination, I did exactly this. In 1978, I was again considered for the seminary; this time I was accepted, one of fifty-five students entering the two-year program that autumn. Though unaccredited, the curriculum was styled as a Master of Religious Education program. The seminary was regarded as a training ground for future church officials. (Unification Church leaders were then described as central figures, state leaders, or regional commanders, instead of as ministers or priests.)
My two years at UTS were fairly pleasant; though its lifestyle was frenetic, bizarre, and often contradictory, it was nevertheless a refuge from the even more frenetic and bizarre lifestyle of the average Unification Church member. For two years”from September 1978 to June 1980”I was shielded from the worst excesses of Moon’s church. Moon told his followers they were America’s only hope of being spared a communist takeover followed by an unimaginable bloodbath. While I was studying theology, church history, and the Bible”taught by an eclectic faculty that included a rabbi, a Jesuit priest, and a Methodist minister”most of my young coreligionists were standing on street corners in San Francisco, Boston, and Miami urging strangers to attend a vaguely described dinner. While I was dragging myself out of bed at six o’clock in the morning for worship service, my friends on the Mobile Fundraising Teams were only just returning from all-night fundraising conditions.
For us privileged seminarians to feel worthy of the relative ease and comfort of our situation, we came up with a variety of rationalizations. In the sermons we preached to one another during morning service, we claimed that we were the cream of the crop who would uncover the unifying theme that bound all religious teachings into one and thereby convert believers of all faiths to the one true church.
Inevitably, it didn’t work. Before the end of the second year, some of us had become dissidents, opposed to the dominant Unificationist culture. Far from being the place where we could hone our faith and develop our proselytizing skills, the seminary turned out to be the place where we could begin slowly to unravel our original indoctrination. Gradually, we came to accept that we could not”indeed, that we would
”convert the entire nation to Moon’s teachings. This deviation from the quixotic groupthink demanded by Unification Church leaders led to a number of defections, including, eventually, my own.
I visited the Unification Theological Seminary in May 2007, more than twenty-five years after my previous visit. It was a somnolent Sunday afternoon, coincidentally the same weekend that graduates of the 2007 class were celebrating their convocation and graduates of the first class of 1977 were returning for a thirty-year reunion.
Apart from the removal of the cross that had towered over the chapel block since it was built”and which had been left undisturbed during the two years I was a student there”the seminary seemed outwardly unchanged. Yet, on taking a closer look, I soon discovered that the seminary had changed profoundly. In the late 1970s, its penniless students were not expected to pay anything for their education, though they were required to go out fundraising during Christmas, Easter, and summer breaks. Today students are required to come up with their tuition fees in advance.
In my day, the student body was predominantly American, with only a smattering of students from Asia and Europe. Nowadays, the students are overwhelmingly Asian. On stairwells, I observed signs in English, Korean, and Japanese. A notice outside the library offered to help students who have difficulties with English grammar; they could place their term papers in a special box where they would be picked up, corrected, and returned.
A classroom where I recalled attending lectures on church history and the Bible had been converted into an exhibition room honoring Moon’s 1980s anticommunist organization, CAUSA. The walls are lined with display cases documenting the fall of communism and implying that this change came about because of Moon’s intervention.
Near the front entrance to the seminary, I discovered a similar display case enclosing the fishing nets that Moon once used to harvest carp and other fish from the tidal flats of the Hudson River. I recalled the many fishing expeditions from 1977 to 1980 in which I had participated. Large nets were set up at high tide so that slimy bottom fish could be plucked from the river basin at low tide. The fish certainly were not needed for food, but the messy labor of harvesting them was regarded as an important test of character. The overall impression I gained from seeing these two memorials was that the seminary has become little more than a museum to Moon’s movement, while the movement itself has faded away.
That the Unification Church is now largely forgotten in America is remarkable when one remembers the cult hysteria of the 1970s. The church had predecessor movements: the Flower Power hippie culture, for instance, and the radical New Left, exemplified by Students for a Democratic Society. Though very different in their rhetoric and goals, those movements shared a common theme: a rejection of conventional American society and a demand for sweeping change. Both, for different reasons, lost focus and began to fragment by the early 1970s.
Yet the forces demanding social transformation were not exhausted; instead, a new wave of rebellion arose as new religions seized the public’s attention in the 1970s. As the sociologist Stephen A. Kent notes
many of the leaders of the radical left later became devotees of the Guru Maharaj Ji (founder of the Divine Light Mission) or even of the ultra-right-wing Sun Myung Moon.
Nonetheless, this second wave of rebellion began to fade in the 1980s. Nowadays, hardly anyone under thirty even remembers Moon or his controversial church. Those older than thirty often ask me, Is he still around? when I mention my former affiliation. This despite the fact that Moon”now eighty-eight years old”still owns the
newspaper and still wields some influence in government circles. As recently as March 23, 2004, Moon was involved in a bizarre coronation at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., which was attended by congressmen, senators, and other dignitaries. At the end of an awards ceremony, a bejeweled crown was placed on Moon’s head and he was proclaimed the King of Peace.
Such incidents might seem proof that life persists in the corpse of American Unificationism, but, in fact, these indicators are merely vestigial. Even at its peak, Moon’s movement never exceeded five thousand core members in the United States, and what remains are mostly the families born to those weary parents who once pounded the streets so tirelessly selling Moon’s wares. If it were not for the periodic speaking tours of Moon and his wife (for which members are often called on to contribute more than they can afford), his movement would have already become nothing more than the answer to an obscure 1970s trivia question.
On the day I visited the Unification Theological Seminary, the graduation ceremonies were over and the campus was quiet. I was able to stroll around the grounds and take a quick look at the library and chapel without being questioned. Away from the buildings and close to a long-empty grotto, I discovered a labyrinth, where one might take a meditative walk, following a path outlined by small flat stones. As I set out along the path, I encountered a man who had just completed the labyrinth and who showed me his notebook. He had checked off the various right and left turns required to arrive at the heart of the maze. Thirty-four left turns and thirty-four right turns! he informed me with some satisfaction.
I proceeded along the path anyway, musing as I did so about how easily I could step outside the boundaries marked by the stones, and yet how necessary it had seemed, all those years ago, to continue plodding through the ever tightening curves and twists until at last I reached the center.
K. Gordon Neufeld is the author of
Heartbreak and Rage: Ten Years Under Sun Myung Moon.
]]>Peddler of Paradisehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2003/01/002-peddler-of-paradise
Wed, 01 Jan 2003 00:00:00 -0500 Recently I witnessed a spectacle unlike anything I have seen in twenty years: a mass wedding celebrated by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. On April 27, 2002, in the ballroom of a large hotel on the fringe of Americas capital, I watched as Moon formalized the wedding vows of-or so he claims-some 144,000 couples. What made the ceremony doubly striking was the claim that at least one partner of all the couples involved was a member of the clergy of a vast range of faiths and denominations.
The occasion inspired an overwhelming feeling of déj vu; just twenty years ago, I myself participated in one of Moons mass weddings at Madison Square Garden on July 1, 1982. The rules then in force in Moons Unification Church prevented me from ever living with my bride; eventually, we both left Moons movement and went our separate ways. Despite this heartbreak, I decided to attend this latest ceremony-but this time I would be going as an observer, hoping to see what had changed in twenty years, and what had remained the same.
Of course, only a small portion of the 144,000-some seven hundred couples altogether-were actually in the Arlington, Virginia, hotel ballroom when I entered. The remainder were linked by satellite video transmission, holding parallel celebrations in many remote sites. The participants I saw were a stunningly diverse and engaging group. Well-dressed African-Americans mingled with Sikhs and Buddhists, and there was even one couple wearing traditional Amerindian garb. While the largest turnout came from African-American churches, there were also clergy from (or so it seemed) all the creeds and persuasions of man. As the ceremony got underway, prayers and chants were offered in the traditions of Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Jainism, as well as North American Indian spirituality, Hinduism, and Christianity.
Superficially, this ceremony was very different from the grandiose pageant of twenty years ago. Rather than having the couples pass in procession before him as he did in 1982, Moon and his wife (and clergy from other faiths) formed their own procession. He also eschewed the flowing white robes and gilded crowns he normally wears at such ceremonies and instead donned conservative business attire. More importantly, most of the couples present were recommitting to marriages they had already undertaken; very few, if any, were newly matched.
Yet the underlying significance of the ceremony was identical. Nothing I witnessed at that Arlington hotel contradicted Moons fundamental claim about his Blessing Ceremony: namely, that no marriage is acceptable to God without it. Moreover, Moons teachings, known as the Divine Principle, assert that the Holy Wine-a consecrated wine that is served to committed couples before the public wedding-literally frees those who partake of it, along with their subsequently born children, from original sin. They are then free to propagate a sinless and increasingly perfect world.
This, I believe, is the source of Moons mesmerizing draw and power: the elusive (and illusory) vision of Paradise on Earth. One might justifiably describe Moon as a peddler of Paradise-or even a Paradise pusher-because this dream can take on the spellbinding lure of an addictive substance.
The messianic ministry of Sun Myung Moon began in 1936, when Jesus allegedly appeared to him in a vision to commission him as his earthly successor. Moon was then just sixteen years old.
In the harrowing years that followed-according to the hagiographic legends I once heard repeatedly-Moon urgently sought to comprehend the mysteries of the Bible. After nearly a decade of desperate, tearful prayers, he discovered the fundamental teachings of the Divine Principle.
Among these ideas is the claim that the Fall of Adam and Eve was actually brought about by an act of sexual impropriety. The eating of the fruit from the forbidden tree symbolizes an illicit sexual act which polluted their blood lineage, with the result that henceforth their descendants would inherit original sin. To resolve this predicament, God appointed Jesus to lead the world back to its state before the Fall. Jesus was to have married and then, in turn, to have blessed all mankind in marriage, thus liquidating original sin through a ceremony similar to Moons Holy Wine Ceremony.
However, Jesus failed to gather a significant following in his day, and he could not even create a sufficient spiritual base upon which to marry. Therefore, he had to be sacrificed on the cross so that sincere believers could enter Paradise in the afterlife. Finally, with the advent of Sun Myung Moon, God was able to return to His original plan of a married savior who would build the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
It must be noted, however, that when Unificationists speak of Jesus as Lord and Savior, they intend those words in ways that depart markedly from their customary meanings in Christianity. To a Unificationist, Jesus is a Savior only in the spiritual sense, since he merely opens the way to Paradise in the afterlife, but not on this Earth. Furthermore, to Unificationists, Jesus is Lord only in the narrow sense of a spiritual master or a great individual; he is not literally God in the flesh. On this point, my 1973 edition of the Divine Principle is emphatic: Jesus, as a man having fulfilled the purpose of creation, is one body with God. So, in light of his deity, he may well be called God. Nevertheless, he can by no means be God Himself.
While the significance of the Blessing Ceremony is unaltered since 1982, the target audience Moon hopes to influence through the ceremony has changed markedly. The Madison Square Garden wedding, which received heavy media coverage, was the high water mark of Moons original scheme for conquering America, in which he hoped to build a mass movement that would sweep the nation with its fervor and idealism. In the late 1970s, when I was a new member, I was often told that by 1981 most Americans would have embraced True Father and would be turning out in droves to hear lectures on the Divine Principle. The 1982 mass wedding was probably originally conceived as the crowning gala of this expected Pentecost of conversion.
Nineteen-eighty-one dawned, however, with no sign of the predicted mass conversion. By then, the swelling tide of membership in the American branch of the Unification Church had crested at a mere five thousand members. Even so, Moon plowed ahead with his mass wedding, relying on Japanese and European recruits to bolster his faltering numbers. By 1984, however, it was clear that he had reached the end of the line with his original plan for converting America. In that year, he was convicted in U.S. federal court of income tax fraud and began serving thirteen months of an eighteen-month term in a Danbury, Connecticut, prison.
During his incarceration Moon had plenty of time to ponder the error of his ways. Nevertheless, it was not the allegations of tax fraud that haunted his waking hours; these he shrugged off as mere trumped-up charges. Rather, it was the errors in his strategy to conquer America that troubled him.
At some point during those thirteen months, Moon came to a decision. He would no longer concentrate on converting individuals to his cause; rather, he would focus on winning allies and fellow travelers-be they politicians, churchmen, or members of the media-who would support limited portions of his agenda without wholly converting to his faith.
Using his Washington Times newspaper to lead the charge, Moon shifted his focus to an anti-Communist political agenda centered on his new organization, CAUSA, which was an alliance of politicians and organizations covering the range of the political right. CAUSA sponsored seminars attended by Senators, Congressmen, and public officials where they were taught the doctrine of Godism-really just a watered-down version of Chapter One of the Divine Principle, which ponders questions of ontology and the nature of God.
When communism collapsed, Moon was forced to cast about for a new crusade. Eventually the answer came to him: he would become the savior of the traditional family. He would excoriate divorcées and adulterers, and set himself up as a champion of family values. Never mind that his current marriage happens to be his third-and that his former daughter-in-law, Nansook Hong, reported in a 1998 memoir that Moon had admitted to her his adulterous affairs.
For his latest crusade, Moon adopted a strategy parallel to the one he had used for CAUSA. Once again, he set up a seemingly independent organization that taught a portion of the Divine Principle; but this time he hoped to teach Chapter Two to ministers and priests. (Chapter Two is the section of the Divine Principle that reinterprets the Fall of Adam and Eve.) The agency Moon founded and funded for this purpose was the American Clergy Leadership Conference (ACLC), which sponsored the April 2002 wedding.
The participants at that ceremony did not object to some of the more eccentric conventions of a Moon wedding-for example, the earth-shaking shouts of Mansei! (which means Victory for 10,000 years!) at the end of the ceremony. Nor did they seem to mind the open adulation that was expressed for Moon and his wife, who were proclaimed by the emcee as the True Parents of all mankind! They had come, dressed in their best attire, for the solemn purpose of recommitting before God to their own marriages-and most of them likely understood little about the true meaning of Moons Blessing Ceremony. Yet the fact remains that according to the Divine Principle, this ceremony signifies that their previous inadequate marriage rite has now been supplanted by the Unification version-the only rite, Unificationists believe, that is truly acceptable in the eyes of God.
How could clergy of any faith adopt such views, contrary as they are-or even totally alien-to their own doctrines? Certainly, Moons almost unlimited largesse is part of the reason for his growing influence. In 2001, he gave extravagant gold watches to many of the pastors who worked with him on his We Will Stand! speaking tour. At the April wedding, he handed out free vacations to a Caribbean resort.
But the most important reason for Moons success is surely more than mercenary; the explanation, I believe, lies in the enduring appeal of the millenarian dream. All of humanity longs for a day when God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain (Revelation 22). Moon would convince us all that this vision is actually attainable; that, indeed, its fulfillment lies tantalizingly near, if only we do all we can to bring it to fulfillment.
This is the glorious dream into which I was seduced in 1976. And it is the same dream that animated that hotel ballroom in Virginia twenty-six years later. As Sun Myung Moon strode triumphantly to center stage, I became caught by the spirit of the occasion. I began to wish that it might be true after all; that here indeed might be the man who would heal all marriages and fashion all parents into unshakably loyal true parents.
The dream of an earthly Paradise dies hard. Like an addict gone clean, I have never forgotten its seductive power. Yet I also knew that to return now would be a terrible mistake. Following the ceremony, as I watched Moon leaving the room with his entourage, and listened to the resounding cheers of the audience, I felt both an urgent call to return to the fold and a compelling need to get away. Yet for the moment I did not move, but simply stood and watched.
K. Gordon Neufeld is a literary critic and freelance writer living in Calgary, Alberta.