Monday, August 20, 2012

Interfaith Dialogue in South Korea

By the Revd Dr Guen Seok Yang (Anglican Church of Korea)

1. General Context

Colonialism, cold war confrontation and developmentalist despotism were the three stages of last century of Korean history. Most Korean political, economic, cultural and religious conflicts are very much in debt to those historical experiences. For the majority of responsible thinkers in Korea, the crucial concern for their intellectual endeavour is how to overcome the heritages descended from those three historical experiences of perversion. Even in the overwhelming advance of globalisation, such a historical recognition is neither abandoned nor outdated by them. Rather, I believe, it is continued to be refined as a more elaborate idea, particularly within the Korean peoples' struggle against the ruthless appetite of neo-liberal capitalist globalisation.

The Christian history, particularly protestant history of Korea, has followed the same trajectory of the rather sad history of transaction with Western modernism. Under the colonialist formation of power relations, in which unequal communications were legitimised and the denial of Koreans interpretative potentials was socio-culturally generalised the protestant Christian mission was started. Because of the already formed colonial relations, Christianity could avoid an excessive burden to be a prime suspect of anti-Korean culture, and Christianity could compete and collaborate with Japanese colonialism under the common recognition of the inevitability of the unequal colonial power relationship with Koreans. The cold war in Korea has left not only several millions of victims but also deep scars of division. The atrocious antagonism between ideologies, and between religion and ideology, was the experience of the cold war confrontation. Through the war, Christian churches had experienced the oppression and antagonism by the communist ideology of North Korea. It was time for them to arm with anti-communist spirit. The exclusive and antagonistic attitude against the ideologies, cultures and religions became a socio-cultural character of the divided country. Exclusivism and dogmatism were the principles of cold war confrontation, not only for religions but also for political ideologies. Under the development of military dictatorship, this religious and ideological dogmatism was combined with the capitalist spirit of competition. It is not too excessive to say that this deliberate combination of religious ideological dogmatism and the capitalist spirit of competition is the main reason for the rapid economic and religious growth in Korea.

With the beginning of more democratised civil government and the end of the cold war system of the world in the 1990s, Korean society is experiencing unexpected confusions. For the development of democratic society and for the reunion of a divided country, Korean society demands a more tolerant and dialogical attitude of all segments of society. Korean society is waiting for the emergence of the new vision for humanity and community. I believe Korean peoples are expecting religions including Christianity to respond and to co-operate with others for the new vision of humanity and community. However, Korean religions including Christianity are not very ready to commit themselves to dialogue with others, particularly just to satisfy the peoples' expectation.

The overcoming of negative heritages of colonialism, cold war, and military dictatorship, and the participation to the constructive and co-operative dialogue with the other religions and ideologies, are both the basic contexts of Korean inter faith dialogue and for a Christian theology of religions.

2. The Social Practices of Inter Religious Co-opertion

In spite of the history of conflict and division, there have been experiences of inter-religious co-operation for social and national issues. The most foundational experience of inter-religious co-operation for national issues was the "March 1st movement", in which all the Korean religions including Christianity had co-operated in the independent movement against Japanese colonialism in 1919. Until now, this experience has become the foundational reason for why all the religions should co-operate with each other on national issues.

Although the reason is not very clear, the Anglican Church of Korea has been known as a church truly respecting Korean traditional culture. Perhaps it maybe the distinctive church building styles following Korean tradition. But as on reflection, the most important Anglican missionary experience for the inter-religious co-operation was the 1960's mission for coal miners. According to Bishop John Daily's diary, this mission was started very accidentally. One day, he was searching for missing students in mine villages. They were students who were arrested and sent to the mines by military government. As he was going to leave one village student camp failing to find his missing students, one of those students in the camp, asked the bishop to pray for them. Most of the students were not Christians. The bishop's translator, he was also a Buddhist, translated their request. When the bishop hesitated ho to do so, the Buddhist translator sincerely asked him to pray for them. Bishop John Daily remembered the experience as on eof the most exciting moments of his mission in Korea. Several months later, he started his mission for coal miners in that place. This mission has been known as the beginning of Korean industrial mission of the Christian church. Furthermore, he wanted to build an octagonal hall as a church building at the village. He planned to provide the eight different corners of the octagonal hall to different Christian denominations and other religions including Buddhism. Although his dream was not achieved, his experience has become a very important heritage of Anglican ecumenical and inter-religious co-operation.

Recently, the inter-religious co-operation for social issues and each of the religion's intended efforts to so-operate with other religions is clearly expanding. Many Buddhist temples are pronouncing congratulatory messages at Christmas. Some Christian churches, particularly Roman Catholic Churches, are celebrating the birth of the Buddha with Buddhists. But the most exciting experience, which will be remembered for a long time, was the 'three steps and one bow' protest journey that was organised very spontaneously in order to stop the national government's land reclamation project. This journey led by Buddhist and Christian leaders continued for sixty-five days. Finally, it succeeded in gainig the co-operation of most of the religions in Korea, and temporally achieved its goal of stopping the land reclamation project. With the success of this very religious protest journey for an environmental issue, the inter-religious co-operation for social issues becomes a much more widely and easily accepted agenda for Christian churches in Korea. We can expect that this developing and widening co-operation among religions in Korea will be advanced into a deep spiritual and theological dialogue.

3. Historical Experience of Inter Faith Dialogue

The history of inter faith dialogue in academic groups has to go back to the first encounter between 18th century Korean Confucian scholars and Christian literature, which was published as the result of 17th to 18th century Jesuit mission in China. This Christian literature includes the Chinese translation of Christian texts and Christian or non-Christian Chinese scholars' texts about Christianity. Through this encounter, a very spontaneous Confucian-Christian community has been established without any direct intervention from Roman Catholic missionaries in China. Although this pre-colonial and very voluntary acceptance of Christianity by Koreans has not been seriously reflected by official Roman Catholic historians or even by Korean scholars of mission studies, I believe this historical experience tells us many things about the present discussions about inter faith dialogue and Christian mission. Here I would like to talk about just one point. It is about what kind of process Confucian scholars had taken to understand Christianity. This small group of young Confucian scholars' main concern was to find a new way of self-discipline and governing of people (or community relationship), which are key themes of Confucianism. They had voluntarily read Christian texts. Their reading of Christian texts was not confined to intellectual and doctrinal understanding. They tried to practice Christian liturgical and spiritual teachings. They used to their own style of comparative method to read Confucian and Christian texts cross-scripturally as well as top practice the self-discipline methods of Confucianism an Christianity very cross-religiously. Through these readings in liturgical or spiritual practices, they wanted to carefully work out what changes were made in their mind and soul, and they wanted to find what kind of help the Christina teaching could give for the new way of self-discipline and community relationship. One interesting thing was that this experimental study had been carried out in the Buddhist temple by a group of sincere Confucian scholars. These Confucians' voluntary encounter with Christianity had given deep influences for the reformation of Confucianism and one of the results of the encounter was the voluntary formation of Christian community in Korea. However, Roman Catholic missionaries in China criticised the leaders of this community as sinners who profaned God and the church, furthermore, the Korean Confucian government suppressed them as heretics. I believe this pre-colonial experience of the encounter between Confucianism and Christianity tells us many things about today's issues, like '"What is the foundational motivation for inter faith dialogue?", "What kind of process has been taken in inter faith dialogue, particularly in relationship to various aspects of religious practices?", "What is Christian mission in the situation of inter faith dialogue?", "What is an equal and creative dialogical relationship among partners?".

Even after the beginning of protestant mission at the end of 19th century, this kind of comparative approach by Christian and non Christian Korean intellectuals has been continued. however, the present situation of inter faith dialogue, particularly after Christianity became one of the dominant religions in Korea, is not very easy. Rather, the Christian churches' narrow and triumphalistic attitude looks likely to suppress the sincere dialogue among religions.

4. The Present Disputes on Inter Faith Dialogue

In this final section, I would like to introduce the theological conflicts between church leaders and theologians involved in inter faith dialogue. In order to avoid too much theoretical discussion, I am explaining a discussion among church ministers, theologians and a Buddhist scholar, which was organised and publicised by one of the representative Korean theology journals, "Theological Thought". This dialogue shows us a development of the discussion of inter faith dialogue in Korea. As many Asian theologians know, Korean Christian churches except Roman Catholics were very antagonistic towards inter faith dialogue. Most Christian church leaders have regarded inter faith dialogue and pluralism as the most serious potential threat to Christianity. So, two eminent scholars from a Methodist Theological seminary had been expelled from their teaching position by Methodist church leaders. Some Presbyterian scholars has also been expelled or threatened with expulsion. But this situation is changing slightly since the middle of 1990s. With the development of the social experiences of inter-religious co-operation and public opinions' strong criticism of Christian exclusivism, the situation has advanced toward a more or less positive direction. The dialogue in the theological journal reflected such a changed situation.

In this dialogue, church ministers tried to put their emphasis on inter-religious co-operation for social issues rather then theological dialogue, and theologians did their best to persuade them of the need for theological dialogue. Here, what we have to look at is what kind of theological rhetoric and logic is used against intellectual and theological inter faith dialogue by church ministers. There is no change in their position that the inter faith dialogue, which is advocated by theologians, is paralysing the belief and the church membership of individual Christians as well as the mission and the very existence of Christian church. If I may summarise their assertions, in spite of the danger of over simplification, firstly, they consider that the inter faith dialogue promotes relativistic attitudes threatening the absoluteness of Christian truth. For them, all thoughts rejecting the absoluteness of Christian truth are anti-Christian. Secondly, they consider that Christians cannot devote themselves to mission without conviction about the absoluteness of Christian truth. Therefore, they assert that the pluralistic approach of inter faith dialogue is negating the inherited nature of the Christian church as a missionary community, and in the end it is destroying the foundation of the existence of the Christian church. Thirdly, they assert that theologians who are involved in inter faith dialogue are not in the position to decide the relationship among religions. Looking from their point of view, theologians' ideological and transcendental attitude pursue only what should be done without considering the living relationship with religions and religious individuals. Therefore, they ask theologians to reflect the living relationships instead of sticking to the ideological presuppositions. In this point, some of the contextual theologians support the church ministers' assertion. They also complain that inter faith dialogue in Korea is not very contextual, rather it is very western in its subjects and concerns. Fourthly, they assert that the problem of truth and the issue of co-operative practices for social issues have to be differentiated. Furthermore, they consider that co-operative inter-religious social practices have to precede theoretical and intellectual practices. Here, the church ministers advocate the reductive method of contextual theology, particularly of Minjung theology. Fifthly, they assert that the theologians do not have any concern for the development of the church and the concrete life of church members. They think theologians are people who judge the Christian church from outside the churches. They consider that is why theologians do not give any alternative suggestions about the issues that churches are facing in this secularised world of relativism. Although the assertions are expressed roughly and are rather church centred they clearly show the theological agendas that interfaith dialogue has to solve.

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