Koreans live in a religiously pluralistic and tolerant society, and the idea of an exclusive membership of one religion is still foreign to many. In the first part of this paper, I will explore the development of the concept of “religion” and “religious belonging” or “religious identity” in the West, and its imposition on Asian people. Then I will reflect on the establishment of my own religious identity, that is, becoming a Christian in a religiously pluralistic society. In the second part, I will discuss further how my studying comparative theology as an Asian convert to Christianity is distinguished from the work of western Christian comparative theologians.
When I was young, there was a census in Korea. I replied to this census with my mother. Among the inquiries, there was a section on religious belonging, and my mother hesitated over which religion she should indicate. My mother, like many other Korean women, often went to the Buddhist temple to hang a lantern to seek blessing from the Buddha on his birthday. She also sought counsel from a shaman about major family affairs. The annual ancestral rites for our family were also of paramount importance to my mother. So, she could choose either Buddhist, Confucianist, or Shamanist as her religious identity. Or, she might consider herself a Buddhist–Confucianist–Shamanist, all-in-one. However, it didn’t matter much to her how her religious practice was categorized. After all, according to traditional Korean thinking, identifying oneself with just one of many religions is an alien concept. In fact, the idea of religious belonging is a modern introduction into Korea. In the end, could my mother be considered as belonging to multiple religions? But there was no option for “multiple religions”. So, I remember that I checked off “Buddhist” on her behalf.
Unlike my mother, I have a modern understanding of religion and religious identity, and I identify myself as a “Christian”. Nevertheless, I still sympathize with my mother’s frustration. As a Korean, I share with my mother the cultural and religious background that defines the distinctive religiosity of the Korean people, regardless of their religious identification. I was baptized Francis of Assisi at the age of twenty in the Catholic Church in Seoul, and it was not until my baptism that my Christian identity began to form. I can say that this identity was established in the peculiar context of the general religiosity of the Korean people.
In the first part of this paper, I will explore the development of the concept of “religion” and “religious belonging” or “religious identity” in the West, and also briefly look into the imposition of this western concept on the people in Asia. This may help explain why an Asian woman like my mother was baffled when required to choose her religious identity in a census. I will also reflect on the establishment of my own religious identity, that is, becoming a Christian in a religiously pluralistic society. A growing interest in the reality of religious multiplicity in Korean society and the constituents of my own religiosity eventually led me to study religions, in particular Buddhism, along with Christian theology. This I did through the discipline of comparative theology. In the second part of the paper, I will address issues related to studying comparative theology as an Asian convert to Christianity.
1 The Development of the Concept of Religion and Religious Identity and Becoming a Christian in Korea
When a modern person hears the word “religion”, it is automatically associated with doctrines, institutions, communities, scriptures, rituals, and the like. We understand religion to be a system that contains various “religious” elements. In fact, the concept of religion is the result of a particular historical development. Only in the seventeenth century did the Latin word “religio” come to connote a system of doctrine. By the eighteenth century, the notion of religion had expanded to include the idea of an exclusive community holding shared beliefs. In the nineteenth century, scholars began to pay attention to the historical development of religious systems and to distinguish various religious traditions with proper names such as “Boudhism” (1801), “Hindooism” (1829), “Taouism” (1839), “Zoroasterianism” (1854), and “Confucianism” (1862), among others. 1 Since that time, scholars of religion have been occupied with defining the meaning of religion and identifying the common constituents of religions. 2 This is how the concept of “religion” has evolved over the centuries. Wilfred Cantwell Smith described this lengthy evolution as “a process of reification” that “mentally makes religion into a thing, gradually coming to conceive it as an objective systematic entity”. 3
Thus, the concept of religion and the many names of world religions are the result of modern western scholars’ work, and as such, foreign to people in the world beyond Europe. For example, the so-called “Buddhism”, “Confucianism”, and “Taoism” have existed and flourished in China for millennia. However, there was traditionally no concept of religion in China that distinguishes itself from other social realities like ethics, philosophy, politics, and social norms. For the Chinese, there were not “three religions”, but instead “three teachings”, and these three teachings were all integrated into their individual and social life without clear demarcations. Therefore, a Chinese would have been (and some might still be) as perplexed at a request to choose a “religious belonging” as westerners would have been to discover that a Chinese person could belong to two or three different religions at the same time.
The Japanese attitude is similar to that of the Chinese. For them, Buddhism and Shintoism have been the chief options concerning the sacred and spiritual realms of human life, while Confucianism mostly addresses morality and the principles of governing social life. Therefore, for the Japanese too it may be rather strange to insist on the exclusive belonging to one religion. 4
In nineteenth-century Sri Lanka, the open attitude toward multiple religious belonging perplexed Christian missionaries of the time in that country. The British evangelical missionaries realized that, despite their willingness to listen to Christian teachings, Sri Lankan Buddhists did not consider abandoning their Buddhist practices or accepting Christianity. The local Buddhists did not see Buddhism and Christianity as mutually exclusive; neither did they have the idea of an exclusive commitment to a single religious teaching. Eventually, the missionaries took the offensive, attacking Buddhist teachings and practices, engendering a hostility that would bring about resistance and confrontation from the Buddhist elites. This confrontation led to a strengthening of religious identity among Sri Lankan Buddhists. 5
As with the religious situation common in Northeast Asia, various religions have assumed different roles in the life of the Korean people. Shamanism has responded to particular urgent needs of the populace, telling fortunes to those who are eager to foresee their future, and performing rituals in order to expel harmful spirits. People have also relied on buddhas and Buddhist deities for blessings. Furthermore, Buddhism, a teaching of a sophisticated philosophical system, has provided metaphysical explanations of the transcendental world. Confucianism has shaped the social structure, made prescriptions for the social life of the people, and established moral standards on both the social and personal level. Thus, diverse religions, with their different social statuses and prominence, have coexisted in Korea throughout the country’s history. Despite Korea’s long history of diversity, Christianity was initially not welcomed with open arms by Koreans. It was not a rejection of Christianity as a religion since the concept of religion was not introduced yet, but rather a social reaction against its exclusivist approach that offended already functioning social, cultural, ethical, and religious norms, just as it occurred in China. This Christian exclusivism contributed to the government persecutions that claimed the lives of countless Korean Catholics in the nineteenth century. On a personal level, this Christian exclusivism scandalized my mother. When her daughters-in-law disregarded the ancestral rites, my mother could not condone because these rites were of considerable significance to her and to some extent provided her with moral guidance.
Catherine Cornille defines “religious belonging” as follows: “Religion and religious belonging is about the complete surrender of one’s own will and judgment to a truth and power that lies beyond or beneath one’s own rational and personal judgment”. 6 Cornille’s definition of religious belonging implies an exclusive commitment to a particular religion as is emphasized and demanded in monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. She admits that multiple religious belonging is possible, but it is a “transition” at the end of which the individual practitioner comes to adopt one religious tradition. 7 However, as we have seen, the phenomenon of multiple religious belonging is accepted as something normal among Asian people. Not only the term and concept of “religion” itself, but also the associated concept of “religious belonging”, as articulated by Cornille, are not shared everywhere in the world. They are rather products of “a particular modern, European, and Christian history”. 8 The evolution of the concept of religion was driven by European encounters with non-Christian religious phenomena and European expansion into other parts of the world. The concept was superimposed on the non-Christian religious traditions, and, with its modern, western, Christian origins did not precisely correspond to the religious experiences of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Oceania. Moreover, the construction of the concept of “religion” and the imposition of it on non-western religions are related to the ideological and political intentions of colonial powers. World religions other than Christianity were evaluated from the modern, western, Christian perspectives and their categorization served to support ideological justifications for the European colonization of the world. 9
It is worthwhile then to look into the general conception of Shamanism in modern Korea for a better understanding of the imposition of a modern concept of religion on the Korean people. Indigenous Shamanism underlies my mother’s religious life and also the shared religiosity of the Korean people. Even though Shamanism has been an integral part of the religious scene in Korea throughout its history and is still crucial to the religiosity of many modern Koreans, it has been marginalized at various periods, including the epoch of Choseon Dynasty (1392–1910), and the same marginalization continues up to the present times. Especially in the twentieth century, along with the overwhelming influx of foreign ideas and values into Korean society, the western concept of religion was introduced. In the western scheme, religions were ordered hierarchically. Shamanism was placed at the lower rung since it was considered primitive, premodern, and a superstitious religion. This is why my mother did not want to check off “Shamanism” as her religious belonging; most Koreans would be reluctant to reveal that their religious life is closely associated with Shamanism.
Confronting the disputed theme of “religious belonging” in modern religious studies, wherein the definition of religious belonging indicates a complete commitment to a single religious tradition, Jeffrey Carlson suggests that religious belonging is “one coherent amalgam that works to provide meaning and purpose”. While a person inherits a religious tradition, this person also comes to revise it into “a new amalgam” through selective appropriation, modifying it to accommodate changes in time and place and adding new practices and beliefs. In this regard, a religious tradition or a religious belonging that is an amalgam comprising multiple elements is “inevitably, itself, mixed, pluralistic and syncretic”. 10
In the light of all the above discussions, let us now broach the census question. If I were responding for my mother (or for many Koreans in a position similar to her), I would, if it were possible, characterize my mother’s religious identity as “an authentic fruit”, 11 blessed by the sunshine of Buddha’s compassion, nourished by the minerals of the moral and social ethics of Confucianism, and thirst-quenched by the rain of the shaman’s advice, all of which teaches her to live in harmony with the people around and the universe. This would be far more accurate than checking off Buddhist.
So how can I designate my own religious identity? In many parts of the present-day world, religion no longer has the predominant influence on society that it formerly had. Nevertheless, it is still embedded in the cultural and social life of every society and every person, and this applies to me too. For example, influenced by Buddhist thought and practice, I communicate using words in their Buddhist connotation, my eyes appreciate the aesthetics of Buddhist art, and sometimes I see even the world of Christianity through a “hermeneutical framework” 12 of Buddhism. Besides, my social behavior complies with Confucian social norms, and I sometimes sympathize with the Shamanist worldview (even though my religious training tells me it is incompatible with Christian teachings), including its teaching of the involvement of spirits in human life. The Shamanist worldview prevails in the culture of the Korean populace and permeates even modern culture as can be seen in movies, tv programmes, and literature. These religions may not be visible on the surface of my religious life, but they run through the veins under my skin. Thus, learning about other religions is a way of getting to know who I am, and in particular, who I am as a Christian since my Christian identity involves multiple non-Christian elements, including Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shamanism, which I have inherited, and other world religions, which I have newly learned.
2 Practicing Comparative Theology as an Asian Theologian
Studying other religions, while helping me better understand my religiosity, also made me realize how much Christianity was and still is, to some extent, foreign to Asian people and to me, since this religion that originated and developed in the Mediterranean region and Europe has a linguistic and cultural framework distinct from those of Asian religions. George A. Lindbeck states, “A religion can be viewed as a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought”. 13 According to this understanding of religion, one who studies or practices a particular religion is required to attain more than an intellectual understanding of its scriptures, doctrines and rituals. It is a process of acquiring and also interiorizing a linguistic-cultural framework through learning and practice, and this is a very demanding task as it requires arduous intellectual efforts and a sincere commitment to religious practices. Jeannine Hill Fletcher sees it as “a practical impossibility”. 14 This difficulty may partly explain why Christianity is still considered foreign in Korea despite its more than two century-long presence in the peninsula and its considerable number of adherents. Besides, this foreignness of Christianity in Korea and Asia predicts how the study of comparative theology by an Asian theologian like me is distinguished from that of western theologians.
Most scholars actively engaging in comparative theology are westerners who claim to be both faithful to Christianity and committed to the study of other religions. These scholars came from the Christian tradition and thus were already fluent in the language of Christianity, and it was their goal to acquire the “rare bilingualism” 15 through the committed study of other religions and lifelong engagement with living religious traditions. There is a notable difference between those western scholars and myself. Although all of us study religions other than Christianity, for most western and some eastern comparative theologians, Christianity is their home tradition, but for me Christianity was foreign, and the Buddhist worldview felt rather familiar from the beginning.
Undoubtedly, I faced difficulty in understanding Christianity without sufficient historical and cultural appreciation of European Christianity and without having participated actively in its religious practices. Therefore, for me, the learning of Christianity required considerable effort and time because of its foreignness, a learning which might not be necessary for the western scholars. However, when it comes to studying Buddhism, the dynamic changes.
At the beginning of my study of Buddhism, I was not intellectually conversant with many Buddhist doctrines, terms, and concepts, just like any western scholar who just begins to study Buddhism. Nevertheless, it felt very natural when I learned new ones. Movies, books, stories, idioms, rituals, aesthetics—every aspect of life in Korea is pregnant with explicit and implicit Buddhist references, and Buddhism has permeated my linguistic, philosophical, and religious framework. I admit to some extent that Buddhism may have influenced even my understanding of Christianity. For example, when I joined the Franciscan Order, my initial understanding of religious life was already profoundly shaped by Buddhist monastic life. Also, I have considered non-conceptual contemplation similar to Zen’s sitting meditation as being an essential part of religious practice. In Korea, many Catholics, and in particular religious women and men, have shown great interest in contemplative prayer, and some of them learn Zen meditation and incorporate it into their prayer practices. Subsequently, through my academic study of Buddhism, I brought up into my consciousness the Buddhist elements embedded in my worldview without my being aware of them. That is to say, I was already culturally familiar with Buddhism before I came to acquire linguistic fluency in Buddhism. This is the opposite of the method of interreligious learning engaged in by most western comparative theologians, for example, those who study Buddhism. They learn the language of Buddhism through studying its scriptures, doctrines, rituals, and devotional life. They then need to acquire “the comprehensive outlook or worldview shared by the community” through lifelong practice and participation in it. 16
Let me give an example of how religious and cultural familiarity facilitated my study of Buddhism: I began to study Buddhism not in Korea but in the United States. One day in a graduate course on Buddhism, the class learned about the doctrine of “emptiness”. “Emptiness” is an English translation of the Sanskrit term, “Śūnyatā” (translated into Chinese as “kōng”, with the Korean pronunciation of “kong”). When I heard the English term “emptiness”, it didn’t feel right to me. I thought to myself, “Kōng is not a mere emptiness, but connotes more than that”. Even though I hadn’t had a chance to investigate this philosophical concept before the course, it was so familiar that it seemed I knew it already. The more I learn about Buddhism, I realize how much it has made up significant parts of my linguistic, cultural, philosophical, spiritual, and aesthetic frameworks. I also recognize that my Christian life is greatly connected to Buddhism.
All this reflection sheds light on understanding my practice of comparative theology. Several years ago, I wrote an article that compared the Second Admonition of St. Francis 17 with the concept of “no-self”, a crucial doctrine of Buddhism. The Second Admonition is Francis’ spiritual exegesis of Genesis 2:16–17, the story of original sin. In this brief biblical interpretation, Francis explains that making one’s will one’s own is sin. In my article, I suggested that Francis’ spiritual poverty of not owning one’s own will is compatible with the Buddhist doctrine of no-self. A scholar who reviewed my article criticized my understanding of the Second Admonition as misunderstanding Francis’ point. The gist of this critique may be that although I endeavored to analyze the Second Admonition by drawing on the writings of St. Francis, my investigation might have been influenced by my understanding of Buddhism. Putting aside whether my reading of the Second Admonition was correct or not, there is a notable point regarding the critique. From the moment I encountered this spiritual commentary by St. Francis, I was captivated by its profound insight. This might have been because the Second Admonition’s spiritual resonance with the Buddhist concept, which was instilled in my spirituality while growing up in Korea, appealed to me. I intended to provide an intelligible demonstration of this resonance through this unpublished paper. 18 In other words, the reviewer might have been correct that my understanding of the Second Admonition was not faithful to Francis, but was instead influenced by the idea of no-self, which was a prior part of my religious and spiritual framework.
My own account may reveal some of the struggles facing Asian theologians. The theological reflections of an Asian theologian can be viewed with the suspicion that their theological discourse might be syncretic, contaminated by the terms, ideas, and worldviews of indigenous religions. This kind of suspicion may put a damper on the confidence of these theologians. Rather than being apologetic about being syncretic, I insist that we Asian theologians (and American and African theologians, too) should admit the limitations of our understanding of western Christianity owing to difficulties in translation. We can never be European, let alone European Christian. We should recognize that as universal as Christianity is, it is at the same time, particular. When Christianity is “lived” by Asians, it becomes Asian Christianity. Theology, liturgy, arts, and devotion all become Asianized when they are practiced by Asians. They embrace Christianity on the linguistic, cultural, and religious grounds that have been shared by their community and internalized by individuals. As a result, Asian Christians are shaping a new amalgam within a religious framework that integrates both Asian and European aspects. In this regard, we can look again at the critique of my understanding of the Second Admonition. I read that work, composed by a thirteenth-century Italian man through my own religious framework, which includes both Christian and Buddhist elements. My article may not have offered an “authentic” standard interpretation of the Second Admonition that may comply with those of other Franciscan scholars, mostly westerners; nevertheless, reading Francis from an Asian perspective enriches Franciscan spirituality and, furthermore, facilitates inculturation of the Franciscan ideal on Asian soil.
3 Comparative Theology as a Way of Internal and External Integration
In conclusion, practicing comparative theology as an Asian theologian is a way of learning about oneself. It helps the comparative theologian appreciate innate religious multiplicity and enables a proper learning the native religious–cultural tongue. In the process of practicing comparative theology, theologians first recognize Christianity as something foreign, but then bring it back inside their experience, enriched through communication with another religion. As Francis Clooney mentions, the comparative theologian is “a marginal figure”, placed on the boundary line between two religious communities. 19 While this position can put theologians in a vulnerable and marginalized place, it can also be beneficial to both themselves and their community. Practicing comparative theology may give rise to confusion within oneself. However, for an Asian theologian, the acknowledgement of the religious multiplicity within oneself leads to an inner dialogue, which should not be confined merely to the theologian. Eventually, it should extend outwards so as to connect two distinct religious systems and communities. Therefore, people living on a boundary should have confidence in themselves. Comparative theologians identify the religious multiplicity and complexity within individuals and in society at large, and persuade others to respect religious diversity. Francis Clooney states: “Studying another tradition eventually brings us home again. My reading brought me back to the Christian tradition and to today’s diversity, and yielded fresh insight into Christian and even Ignatian ways of visualizing God”. 20 Likewise, my study of Buddhism definitely shed new light on my understanding of Christianity and even of Franciscan spirituality. It also brought me home, but the home I found is not only the Christian tradition but also the Buddhist. The journey to Buddhism is a way to my new home where my adopted home, the Christian tradition, is now renewed and merged with my old home, the Buddhist tradition.
Carlson, Jeffrey . “Pretending to Be Buddhist and Christian: Thich Nhat Hanh and the Two Truths of Religious Identity.” Buddhist–Christian Studies 20 (2000), 115–25.
Clooney, Francis X. Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley–Blackwell, 2010).
Cornille, Catherine . “The Dynamics of Multiple Belonging.” Chap. 1, in Many Mansions? Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity, ed. Catherine Cornille (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 1–6.
Francis of Assisi. Francis of Assisi: Early Documents. Vol. 1, ed. Regis Armstrong, J. A. Wayne Hellmann, and William J. Short (New York: New City Press, 1999) .
Harris, Elisabeth J . “Double Belonging in Sri Lanka.” Chap. 7, in Many Mansions? Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity, ed. Catherine Cornille (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 76–92.
Hill Fletcher, Jeannine . “As Long as We Wonder: Possibilities in the Impossibility of Interreligious Dialogue.” Theological Studies 68 (3) (2007), 531–54.
Lee, Yongho Francis . Mysticism and Intellect in Medieval Christianity and Buddhism: Ascent and Awakening Bonaventure and Chinul (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2020).
Lindbeck, George A . The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984).
Van Bragt, Jan . “Multiple Religious Belonging of the Japanese People.” Chap. 2, in Many Mansions? Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity, ed. Catherine Cornille (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), pp. 7–19.
Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, repr. 1991), p. 61. The names of religions are usually formed by adding the Greek suffix “-ism” to the word referring to followers of a particular tradition or religious community. See Smith, p. 62.
Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion, chap. 2, pp. 15–50.
Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion, p. 47.
See Jan Van Bragt, ‘Multiple Religious Belonging of the Japanese People’, chap. 2, in Many Mansions? Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity, ed. Catherine Cornille (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), pp. 7–19.
Elisabeth J. Harris, ‘Double Belonging in Sri Lanka’, chap. 7, in Many Mansions? Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity, ed. Catherine Cornille (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), pp. 76–92.
Catherine Cornille, ‘Double Religious Belonging: Aspects and Questions’, Buddhist–Christian Studies, 23 (2003), 43–49 at 48.
Cornille, ‘Double Religious Belonging’, 45. For Cornille’s reserved approach to the possibility of multiple religious belonging, see also Catherine Cornille, ‘The Dynamics of Multiple Belonging’, chap. 1, in Many Mansions? Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity, ed. Catherine Cornille (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), pp. 1–6.
Kevin Schilbrack, ‘Religions: Are There Any?’ Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 78:4 (December 2010), 1112–38 at 1114; See also Pui-Lan Kwok, Postcolonial Imagination & Feminist Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), pp. 186–89.
Schilbrack summarizes the critiques of the concept of “religion”, its modern, western, Christian origins, and its associated ideological roots. See Schilbrack, ‘Religions: Are There Any?’, 1113–17.
Jeffrey Carlson, ‘Dual belonging/Personal Journeys–Responses’, Buddhist–Christian Studies, 23 (2003), 77–83 at 79; see also Jeffrey Carlson, ‘Pretending to Be Buddhist and Christian: Thich Nhat Hanh and the Two Truths of Religious Identity’, Buddhist–Christian Studies, 20 (2000), 115–25 at 124.
Carlson, ‘Pretending to Be Buddhist and Christian’, 117.
Cornille, ‘Double Religious Belonging’, 47.
George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984), p. 33.
Jeannine Hill Fletcher, ‘As Long as We Wonder: Possibilities in the Impossibility of Interreligious Dialogue’, Theological Studies, 68:3 (2007), 531–54 at 539.
Hill Fletcher, ‘As Long as We Wonder’, 544.
Hill Fletcher, ‘As Long as We Wonder’, 538.
The Second Admonition: Francis of Assisi, Francis of Assisi: Early Documents Vol. 1, ed. Regis Armstrong, J. A. Wayne Hellmann, and William J. Short (New York: New City Press, 1999), 129.
My book, Mysticism and Intellect in Medieval Christianity and Buddhism: Ascent and Awakening Bonaventure and Chinul is the result of another comparative project that was inspired by the resonance between Franciscanism and Buddhism on the matters of integration of spiritual and intellectual life and of the tension between cataphasis and apophasis. See Yongho Francis Lee, Mysticism and Intellect in Medieval Christianity and Buddhism: Ascent and Awakening Bonaventure and Chinul (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2020).
Francis X. Clooney, Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley–Blackwell, 2010), p. 158.
Clooney, Comparative Theology, p. 151.