Before Absolute Faith and Obedience:
A Case for the Primacy of Conscience
By Dan Fefferman
--Family Pledge, # 8
"Conscience before teacher, conscience before parents, conscience before God."
--Rev. Sun Myung Moon, True God’s Day Message, 1996
The answer may be very significant for the future of Unification Theology. If "absolute obedience" means the subservience of the conscience to religious authority and "absolute faith" results in blind commitment, then Unificationism will fail in its attempt to present itself to contemporary audiences. As Dr. Young Oon Kim stated in her introduction to Divine Principles and Their Application, "A blind faith has no attraction or authority over the mind of modern men." (Young Oon Kim, Divine Principles and Their Application, p. iv.) On the other hand, if individual conscience takes precedence over loyalty to God and True Parents, then the pledge of absolute faith and obedience seems empty. Is there a way to unify these seemingly opposite approaches?
The phrase "absolute faith, absolute love, absolute obedience" comes from the "Family Pledge," recited by Unificationists the world over at 5:00 a.m. every Sunday and often daily at 6:00 a.m. as part of the Hoon Dok Hwe (speech reading) movement. The theme is also repeated in many of Reverend Moon’s speeches. In the context of the Family Pledge, it is read as follows:
In Divine Principle, there are two concepts of what is commonly called conscience, known as "original mind," and "conscience."
In the slogan about "conscience before parents," Reverend Moon uses the term yangshim (conscience)—rather than ponshim (original mind). Nevertheless, the contextual meaning of the term is closer to ponshim, in that it represents an absolute standard beyond changing values. This is demonstrated by the following:
Stages of Faith and Obedience
Reverend Moon does not encourage forced obedience or blind faith, but a mature faith and enlightened obedience to an absolute subject, namely God. The concept of obedience, to Reverend Moon, is not one dimensional. He has taught that there are three kinds of obedience, corresponding to the three stages of human development.
Doing whatever one is told without questioning is a necessary stage of development. If a child does not obey unquestioningly the warning voice of his parent, he puts himself at risk. If, for example, he keeps walking across the street when his mother shouts, "Stop!" he could be killed. His intellect is not yet capable of understanding the reason why he must stop, so he must depend on his parent’s wisdom. This is formation stage obedience—children’s obedience, or unquestioning obedience. But children’s obedience is not complete, not "absolute obedience."
The second type of obedience is the type which questions, but still obeys. It asks, "Why should I not eat the fruit? Will I ever be able to eat this fruit? Why did God put this fruit tree in the middle of the garden if I am not to eat it?" But it still obeys the commandment not to eat. This is growth stage obedience—adolescent obedience. This questioning stage also is a necessary in the development of mature obedience, but it is still not complete or absolute obedience.
The final stage of obedience is obedience that knows the heart of the Father. This is completion stage obedience—parental obedience. This is the type of obedience that acts intuitively without even waiting to be told—the obedience that anticipates God, or even goes beyond God’s expectations. What would be an example of the type of obedience based on "knowing the heart of the Father?"
Conscience and Religious Authority
Another way of reconciling "absolute obedience" and "conscience" would be to assert that any impulse of conscience that contradicts the instructions of religious authority does not come from the "true" conscience (original mind) but from the horizontal conscience that is affected by changeable cultural norms. In other words, if your conscience tells you something is wrong but your religious leader tells you it is right, you should follow your religious leader’s opinion since he is more likely to be connected to God.
One teacher adopted this approach to absolute faith and obedience when he asked: "If Father holds up a white card and says it is a red card, what color is the card?" The correct answer, this teacher said, is "red card." Since Reverend Moon is God’s representative, and we are fallen human beings, we need to unite with his opinion and trust it absolutely, even if our own senses tell us otherwise.
But is this the interpretation of absolute obedience we should adopt? I believe there is ample evidence from Reverend Moon’s own teachings—let alone moral philosophy and epistemology—to suggest we should not. To deny reason and experience in the name of religious authority is precisely "blind faith." But Reverend Moon categorically rejects blind faith.
The Fallibility Question
Clearly, Unification Church leaders are human beings who sometimes commit moral errors. Does absolute obedience mean a member should follow a leader into moral error? Surely no one would want to argue that a member should follow a leader who commands him to violate God’s will. History has rendered a clear verdict on this question: "following orders" is no excuse for moral irresponsibility. Whether one is an officer in the German army during WWII or a fundraising member on an MFT team, one cannot use the excuse that "I was only following orders" to justify moral error.
So it should be clear that conscience has priority over obedience and faith as pertains to fallible persons and institutions. But what about Reverend Moon himself? Does he make mistakes? If not, then it could be argued that one is always safe in following his opinion. However, to my knowledge, Reverend Moon does not claim to be infallible. He does say that he seeks with complete sincerity to know and follow God’s will. But he also says he is a human being capable of error.
Resolving the Dilemma
There may be those who say that because Reverend Moon has fulfilled his messianic task by establishing the True Parents and True Family, the tension between conscience and obedience is now over. Such persons might argue: "From now on, we must simply obey True Parents. This is the highest form of conscience, because they are the visible manifestation of God." However, I believe it is not too bold to assert that even a direct instruction from Reverend or Mrs. Moon may hypothetically need to be resisted. Those who argue otherwise ignore the following statement from Reverend Moon:
Reverend Moon tells us that he himself followed such a course. In a well known story, he relates that God and Jesus initially denied Reverend Moon’s interpretation of the Fall. Only after insisting that he was correct despite their adamant disagreement did Reverend Moon eventually gain their assent.
When one looks at the Unification Church members whom Reverend Moon thinks highly of, a similar character is demonstrated. Take Rev. Chong Goo "Tiger" Park for example, or the American UC martyr, Lee Shapiro. Both of them were known for their passion and determination to finish what they started, even if their superiors directed them otherwise.
Other providential religious leaders have gone through a similar course. In the Bible, the prophet Elisha inherited the mantle and mission of his master Elijah only after disobeying him three times. (2 Kings 2: 1-11 NIV) Job wins God’s praise not by his unquestioning faith, but by his willingness to probe and question where others were unwilling. And of course, Jacob did not win his new name of "Victor" by being faithful to his father and obeying the rules, but by "striving with God and with man."
In holding that it may be necessary at times to resist even Godly authorities in order to follow one’s conscience and receive God’s ultimate trust and blessing, I do not mean to demean the value of strict obedience and unquestioning faith. Even for adults there may be moments when unquestioning faith is called for, and there are many times when the authority of a strong leader such as Reverend Moon is needed to encourage us to overcome our self-centeredness. At such time, the "horizontal conscience" becomes aligned with the "vertical conscience" through unquestioning faith and obedience. Yet, this is not always the case. As Reverend Moon points out, when one knows the heart of the Father "no power under the sun can deter it."
It is not easy to maintain internal unity with one’s teacher
while having to resist his instructions in order to follow one’s conscience.
However, we cannot escape the conclusion that, in the final analysis, true
"absolute faith and absolute obedience" may sometimes involve contesting
the direct orders even of one’s spiritual master. "Conscience before teacher,
conscience before parents, conscience before God" is the sine qua non
of absolute faith and obedience.