†first met "the Moonies" in the 1970s at the height of their "cult status controversy." A new arrival in New York to study for a Masterís degree in theology at the prestigious Union Theological Seminary, I was told that my next-door neighbor in my residence hall, an Indian, was being held unwillingly by them, and I was warned that if I accepted an invitation to any of their conferences, the food would be drugged and I would surely never leave their evil clutches.
Sadly, at a place that was committed to open theological dialogue and that indeed had invited their denomination, the Unification Church, into their ecumenical training programs, I never managed to discover the actual teachings or workings of the followers of Sun Myung Moon at that time, since I accepted the advice offered and kept them deliberately at armís length, despite the fact that Gordon Anderson and other members did indeed reach out their hand of friendship to me in college life.
It took me another two decades to encounter the movement again, this time when I was appointed to help build a multi-faith centre on the campus of a modern university in the United Kingdom, and I needed to be in touch with whoever was in the field of multi-faith endeavor. From my first contact with Robin Marsh and Margaret Ali in the London office, I realized what a mistake I had made in the 1970s in not becoming more engaged with this wonderful group of devotees of "True Father," as I discovered they affectionately called their founder and leader.
I was very touched when the UK director, Tim Read, gave me (and indeed my undergraduate students later for Winchester Universityís New Religions Course) an informative PowerPoint presentation on the life and teaching of Sun Myung Moon which began with the inspiring vision he had from Jesus himself as a teenager, inviting him to help complete the Messiahís work. As soon as I realized that that was the founderís starting point, participating in and not replacing the call and person of Jesus, I realized that the Christian churches had profoundly misinterpreted the Unification Churchís mission. They had called attention to the Founderís messianic claims, which I later discovered were, like those of the historical Jesus of Nazareth, guarded, secret to his followers, and often enigmatic.
When I later read Moonís writings themselves and also heard him speak of his messianic commission in relation to Jesus, I realized that although he claims a messianic status he also believes that the messianic vocation is universal and he is not in any way wishing to detract from the figure of Jesus, who he argues in The Divine Principle plays a key role in the history of salvation and indeed advises contemporaries, as do the Prophet Mohammad and the Lord Buddha, from his unique position in the spirit world.
It is important not to pass over these controversies too lightly, as Rev. Moonís role in the Unificationist project remains central and does remain a bugbear for critics and especially orthodox Christians. Accepting his controversial status, I would like to ask his detractors which religious leader coming from any tradition has made an impact on the spiritual geography and history of the world without controversy.
Religious traditions all have established scriptures and liturgical practices, and additions to these have always raised doubts and questions about authenticity and status. Here Sun Myung Moon is in no different position than, say, St. Augustine or Martin Luther, who both found themselves subject to opprobrium and indeed outright persecution by Christians but who are now regarded universally as contributing to a fuller understanding of the meaning and significance of the Christian faith.
I can already imagine my Christian and scholarly colleagues raising their bushy eyebrows and asking me whether I am putting Sun Myung Moon on a par with St. Augustine and Martin Luther. Well, I am ready to wipe the smile off their faces by stating boldly that I am! For indeed Rev. Moonís contributions both to understanding the place of Christianity within the gamut of world religions and in exploring the spiritual globe from the principle of unification are unique modern contributions to the global religious vision and a challenge to open up our individual theologies and communities to a more inclusive understanding of the workings of the divine in our midst.
Here we see the true profundity of Sun Myung Moonís theological perception, which has attracted even radical theologians such as Richard Rubenstein to come back to an understanding of God as objective that they had rejected in the humanitarian theological climate of Western academia in the 1960s.
For Rubenstein, God can indeed be seen as a unifying force, bringing together the teachings of monotheistic, polytheistic, and even technically atheist faiths such as Buddhism, into a central theological schema which believes that God, far from being a distinct personality working out the salvation of the world, needs our active human collaboration to achieve the necessary spiritual goals of spiritual and (above all: yes!) ethical harmony, to bring the world back to a purity it tragically lost in Eden.
The centrality of the story of Adam and Eve, and indeed of their sons Abel and Cain, and the paradigm of their relationships and what they did wrong and right, produces some challenging ideas for todayís world. Not least, they reintroduce into the religious debate the universal importance of sexuality as the basic human bonding and the importance of faithfulness to oneís spouse within all religious and ethical codes.
Sexuality is also regarded by Sun Myung Moon in his writings as having a central importance in spirituality. Though the teachings on sexual abstinence and its significance, even within the context of monogamous marriage, have caused disquiet and even ridicule among some critics, Moon has reminded the religious world that sexual discipline is vital to the control and expansion of oneís spiritual vocation, and that "playing around" can have dire consequences for oneself and those who surround one. It is a universal malaise that the world does not know how to cope with sexual freedom.
The conclusions offered by Unificationism, including arranged inter≠religious marriages, may not be universally accepted, but the importance of sexuality and fidelity are part of the message that surely should be welcomed and incorporated by all faithful followers of the divine and human ethical imperative, as Kant would have described this area of common experience.
But, above all, Sun Myung Moonís abiding contribution has surely been to provide a vital link between the spiritual and the political, in his emphasis on the importance of the United Nations and his founding of the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace.
The foundation of the "Ambassadors for Peace" as a convocation of like-minded individuals from every country and society in the world was a stroke of genius in the world of religious diversity in which we find ourselves today. It proclaims by its very foundation the importance of founding not an exclusive club of believers but rather an international network of individuals, families, and associations that are all committed with their own people and localized religious and philosophical groups to the idea of working for a common good, encapsulated in the idea of a spiritual "house" in the United Nations.
Such a "house" may perhaps be focused in the geographical centers of New York and Geneva, but it effectively works every place where the Spirit of God works today to unify divisions, such as between North and South Korea, or Protestant and Catholic Christianity, or between Singhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka. The Spirit is working to bring about Cheon Il Guk, the long-expected commonwealth of God within the technological world which is our achievement as human beings today. It is working to sustain and support the world for our children to enjoy and build upon what their parents have done for the foundations of true peace, a peace that eluded us until Sun Myung Moon gave us a vision to which he and we can both fully commit.
Thank you, Rev. Moon, for your life of self-sacrifice and vision. In some sense, even we who are outside your membership as Ambassadors for Peace can salute you also as our "True Father," for you have contributed to the global vision of the earlier messiahs, and we salute your noble path and commit ourselves to follow it in the future!