wish to pay tribute to what Rev. Sun Myung Moon has done for academic development in the areas in which I have had personal experience. My first contact was in 1979 when I received an invitation from Nobel Laureate, Sir John Eccles to attend a Conference in Los Angeles on the Unity of the Sciences (ICUS) focusing on the relationship between mind and brain. As a young lecturer whose first book owed much to Eccles' thought, I had no hesitation in accepting, though I was puzzled to see that the conference was sponsored by a religious leader, whom I knew to be a controversial figure.
I found the conference absolutely fascinating. I noticed that although many of the brain specialists present supported the mind-brain dualism advocated by Eccles, these were all emeritus professors. Younger scholars favored the alternative of mind-brain unity. However, there was also a session on near-death experiences (NDEs) which seemed to suggest that near the point of death, mind and brain separated; those who had had this experience were convinced that their minds (or souls) would live on after bodily death.
I drew from these different conference sessions the conclusion that if the immortality of the soul were to remain a credible belief it would be better to direct one's research toward NDEs rather than to conventional brain research. This is what I have subsequently done. My conference contribution was published in the Journal of Theology as "Death-bed Visions and the Christian Hope," and over the following twenty years research into NDEs became my primary academic interest leading to a succession of books, articles, and television documentaries, as well as to the supervision of a stream of young doctoral researchers who have made their own contributions to this debate.
The climax of all this endeavor was an ICUS committee in Washington in 1997 on "Life, Death and Eternal Hope," which drew together all the leading researchers in this field and will hopefully lead to a further book.
Rev. Moon has long been concerned to seek ways to bring unity among Christians of different denominations and unity between the world religions. To this he has sponsored a wide variety of conferences, some of which have focused on Christianity and some on world religions. As a professor of both theology and religious studies, it has been my privilege to attend both types of conferences. I have participated in conferences on the challenge of secularization, on feminist theology, on religious pluralism, on the meaning of the doctrine of the incarnation, and on the ecumenical movement.
Some of these conferences have been global, drawing together Christians from across the world to explore the different challenges facing their faith in different cultures. Others have been European in their context. In every case, however, it has been a unique opportunity to meet scholars from Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Calvinist, and other traditions and to explore the diversity of views in contemporary Christianity. The papers have been of a very high standard and in every case the conference has led to a publication. It is hard to think of any comparable foundation which has led to such productive and useful conferences in Christian theology.
The conferences sponsored by Rev. Moon on the wider dimension of world religions have been even more important, because they have made it possible to engage in dialogue across the continents. Scholars from countries like India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, or Bangladesh often find it economically impossible to attend Religious Studies conferences organized by the normal scholarly associations in the west.
Hence, it is often the case that discussions about Buddhist or Hindu thought are often led by academic scholars of religious texts rather than by participating believers from inside the tradition. This is not so with the God Conferences or the New Era Conferences sponsored by the Unification movement. These enable the authentic voice to be heard.
My own understanding of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam has been transformed by meeting believers in such faiths at Unification conferences. I find it extraordinary in hindsight that as a student at Cambridge, I took courses in Buddhism and Islam without ever meeting a Muslim or Buddhist. Yet in every case, living religions today often differ profoundly from the impression one can gain simply from reading their classic foundational texts.
This was highlighted for me at the God Conference, which led to my edited book, Death and Immortality in the Religions of the World. There was absolutely no doubt that for the Buddhist participants from Thailand, life after death was a central theme of Buddhist thought in which "the consciousness principle" goes on to new life and for which the evidence of near-death experiences is strongly supportive. One can gain a very different picture concerning such issues from western scholars whose knowledge of Buddhism is derived solely from western interpretation of the Pali texts rather than the living encounter with contemporary believers.
Although the historical formulas by which different faiths expound their future hope are very different, such differences are greatly reduced if one looks at how these beliefs are actually interpreted today. For example reincarnation, resurrection, and immortality are historically quite distinct and incompatible beliefs. But if one asks a contemporary Buddhist how he or she understands reincarnation (perhaps as rebirth into Buddha's Pure Land), it may be very similar to the way a contemporary Christian might reinterpret resurrection in terms of getting a "spiritual body" for life in heaven.
My experience of interfaith dialogue at Unification-sponsored conferences has profoundly shaped my thinking on how religious studies should evolve as a discipline. It seems clear to me that if one is to help young people to a knowledge of what other people believe, it is essential that what they are taught corresponds to the actualities of religious belief and practice today. In this context, it is extremely useful if faiths can be taught from within as well as from without. This can sometimes be helped if the lecturers themselves stand within the tradition they teach—although this must never be a condition of appointment. Academic study requires the prohibition of religious tests.
What one can seek to do is to ensure that there are no negative religious tests in which there is actually a prejudice against a believer teaching his or her own religion. Thus, it is important that each religion be studied from the perspective of what matters to a believer in that religion. This can be implemented if the lecturer concerned participates in interfaith dialogue or visits communities in which the religion is alive. I am personally conscious of just how great my debt is to the Unification movement in introducing me to believers across a wide spectrum of the religious experience of humanity.
I vividly recall three conferences. One was concerned with the role of religion in the troubles of Northern Ireland. Another was concerned with "Religion, State and Society in Modern Britain." This latter conference led to my book of the same title which drew together for the first time chapters from each Christian denomination in Britain, separate chapters on the different situations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as coverage of the new black-led churches, the sects, and new religious movements and the Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Sikh and Hindu communities in Britain.
Because the Unification movement has attracted much controversy, some people have criticized scholars who have been willing to attend them. I do not think such criticisms are in any way justified, because—in fact much of the criticism of the Unification movement is based on misinformation.
The most glaring example of this is the oft repeated claim that Unificationists have all been "brainwashed" into believing. This claim has been subject to the most searching investigation by many of the world's leading sociologists of religion and has been found to be without foundation. None of the highly intelligent young Unificationists whom I have known for twenty years could possibly be described as brainwashed. Many have obtained doctorates at famous universities.
All the conference series are explicitly designed to draw together into dialogue people with different viewpoints and who come from different belief systems. In the nature of the case, very few of the actual conference participants are members of the Unification movement, and Rev. Moon has always made it clear that participation in such conferences in no way implies any kind of endorsement for his views. This is always explicitly stated in the literature associated with such conferences. It seems to me important that one should be willing to collaborate with others in worthwhile ventures in areas where there is common ground, even if in other areas there may be differences.
The one proviso for any academic in participating in any conference is that one's own academic freedom and integrity must never be compromised. I have found that this proviso has always been honored by the Unification movement in their relationship with me.
I found clearest evidence for the openness of the Unification movement towards academics when I attended two conferences devoted to Unification thought and belief. I felt I ought to inform myself properly about what the movement's own belief system was.
During these conferences, I made it clear that—as an Anglican priest—I disagreed with many of the distinctive beliefs of the Divine Principle as presented to us. In fact I drew on my expertise as a Christian theologian and church historian to ask searching questions of those conducting the sessions. I was always treated with the utmost courtesy and it was clear that we agreed to differ. Nevertheless, in view of the sharpness of my critique I was quite surprised and very impressed when further invitations came to participate in the more general conference series.
In the academic world today, attendance at conferences is recognized to be of great importance for the intellectual growth and development of the university teacher. Nevertheless, funding for such conferences is extremely tight, and this is particularly the case in relation to international and interdisciplinary conferences. Therefore, the academic world in general and the world of religious studies in particular is greatly indebted to the Unification movement for the support which they have freely given.
I realize that there may be things said in other chapters with which I would wish to differ, and my agreement to participate in the festschrift as a whole must not be taken as any kind of endorsement of what may be said elsewhere in this book by those closer than I am to the Unification system of beliefs and values. But I believe in what I have said in this chapter. I wish to pay tribute to a benefactor whose generosity in sponsoring conferences has greatly enhanced my life, and that of a large network of other scholars whom I have come to know through these conferences. Many of those who are now close friends were first met on Unification-sponsored conferences. Much that I know and value in other world faiths was initially stimulated and encouraged by what I learnt in such conferences.