The Korean Church

Cambridge, MA. I am just returned from Seoul, South Korea, where I spend the last 9 days. I was there for the Second East-West Theological Forum, hosted at Ewha Women's University. This forum is intended to bring together Western and Korean theologians as colleagues for extended theological conversation. This time the theme was the Trinity. About 15 scholars gave papers, half from outside Korea and half from within the country; most, if not all, of the Korean scholars had studied in Europe or America, while only a few of us visitors had been to Korea before. (This was my first visit.) Many a fine paper was given, and from different perspectives: Biblical analyses of the sources of our understanding of Trinity; reflections on the points of convergence and difference in the teaching on Trinity in the Christian West and Christian East; broader comparisons with Asian thought, e.g., Confucian or Taoist. (My own paper treated of the long history, since the sixteenth century at least, of the ways in which Christians in India brought the Trinity into encounter with Hinduism, and the ways in which Hindus struggled to understand what Christians meant by Trinity, and whether Trinity was a reality, or idea, that Hindus and Christians did (or not) have in common.)

Throughout the Forum, some differences were notable. There were varying degrees of linguistic expertise: the medium was English, interpreters were not used, and the papers were given out in printed form. But fluency in English clearly uneven, as one might expect; indeed, some of the Korean professors were more fluent in German than English, due to their doctoral studies in Germany. And more to the point, none of us visitors knew more than a few words of Korean, so everyone did us a kindness by speaking in English. Cultural differences too may have been operative. Western scholars tend to be forthright with ideas and criticisms, while it seemed that our Korean counterparts preferred a lower key deference and were less inclined to criticize directly the ideas of the presenters.


Since I arrived a few days early, I was happy to have the opportunity to lecture about my work in comparative theology in a number of other venues, including Seoul Theological University, Hyupsung University and, on my last day before heading to the airport, at the Korean Society for Systematic Theology, which met at Korea Nazarene University. I was not in Seoul long enough to understood the role of these institutions, but at first glance, they seem to fill a double role, as educational institutions for undergraduate and graduate learning, and as training centers for Christian pastors. I was also happy to lecture in both the Religious Studies and Theology sections of the Jesuit Sogang University, a highly respected institution now just over 50 years old; I was particularly glad to engage some of the graduate students in informal conversation, and to hear of their hopes and energetic plans for their studies. In all these settings, the hospitality and courtesy were remarkable; I fear that often enough we Americans do not welcome or assist visitors nearly so ably!

There are other Christian sites worth noting in Seoul. (I did not see any of the country outside the immediate environs of this great city.) For instance, right across from my hotel was the Yoido Full Gospel Church. This very vigorous and popular church not only has 8 or 10 very crowded services on the weekend but also, taking its satellite communities into account, is said to have an overall congregation of over half a million members.

As for the Catholic side of things, I was told that due particularly to the lasting good influence of Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan (1922-2009), who was notable for his work for democracy and for justice in Korean society, the Catholic community is healthy and growing in Korea, and is appreciated for its commitment to the poorer members of society. The Myeong Catholic Cathedral was full on a Sunday evening, and the Jeoldusan Martyrs Shrine contains a museum that recounts the troubles of the Church during centuries of persecution.

I was glad to visit twice the Jogyesa Temple in the middle of the city, a medium-sized temple in which three very large Buddhas figure prominently. It was packed at midday Sunday, as the monks recited Buddhist sutras while some people sat and meditated, as others made offerings for the dead or for various temporal needs. On Thursday evening, it was nearly empty, but attractive in its quiet emptiness, as the Buddhas serenely watched over the space. I was told that Korean Buddhism is quite vigorous, and Korean Zen a living tradition blessed with many practitioners. I spent one evening in conversation with a senior Zen teacher — again, receiving wonderful hospitality — and was impressed by his commitment to the practice of meditation: theological and philosophical discussions could be left to others, he felt, since his work was to aid people practically in dealing with the burdens of this life and on their journey to enlightenment. I also enjoyed visiting the famous Jongmyo Shrine, a large compound where for centuries the Korean kings venerated their ancestors in accord with Confucian tradition. This World Heritage Site is a place of particular peace and tranquility, and very attractive in its natural simplicity.

I did not get the impression that interreligious dialogue is a high priority here. Perhaps this is because the various communities are still preoccupied with the internal dynamics of growth and maintenance; perhaps the relatively conservative culture — thus it seemed to me — makes interest in dialogue seem both optional and risky; and perhaps there is still a deeper continuity in Korean culture that all the religious constituencies are content to live and share a common culture, without having to address religious differences. I am sure there are religious tensions among the several very vigorous religious communities, but I was not there long enough to verify this.

This was just a week’s experience, so none of the preceding comments should be taken as authoritative (and, yes, your corrections will be gratefuly received). But given the problems in our own Church here — just read many of the entries in In All Things in recent weeks — it was somehow comforting to see the Church amidst many Christian communities and amidst still more ancient Korean religious traditions, a Church working out its destiny far from America and with decreasing dependence on the West.

Note: More could be said: Seoul/Incheon is the world's number one ranked airport; the subway system is one of complexity, efficiency and cleanliness; more than once, we were feasted on a wonderful and varied cuisine...



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Jim McCrea
7 years 9 months ago
" - a Church working out its destiny far from America and with decreasing dependence on the West."

Ah, but no matter how self-sufficient and independent it will become, it will have be very, very careful.  The Eurocentric Vatican has long arms and will be quick to slap down anything and anyone who strays from the One True Approved Way of Doing Everything, No Matter What.


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