Monday, January 24, 2022

Sung Il Lee: Korean and Western Experiences of Religious Pluralism

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Sung Il Lee. Rev. Dr. Lee is a missionary of Global Ministries and Missionary Practitioner in Residence at Candler School of Theology.

Most Koreans, including myself, are exposed to the gospel of Christianity for the first time in a religiously pluralistic world. Korean religious culture includes elements of Shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity. In my last post, I examined the personal questions that this religious pluralism raises. In this post, I want to contrast the Korean context with the Christendom context in the West.

Becoming church members, Koreans come to think that Christianity, to which they belong, is one of many religions in Korea; that is, they have a relativistic view of religion. Evangelists did not regard Shamanism or Confucianism as religions, so they are eager to share the Gospel with people. However, Buddhist monks who were clearly regarded as Buddhists would pass without evangelism. However, through many miraculous experiences of meeting Jesus Christ personally, Korean Christians became exclusive and aggressive evangelists in the eyes of non-believers, but they acknowledge that Jesus is the only King of kings and Lord of lords and show zeal to evangelize to all people.

As such, the experience of Korean Christians started in the world of religious pluralism, and through hearing the Christian gospel and receiving Jesus as Savior and Lord, Christianity developed into a religious relativism that is one of many religions in Korea. Then, through a miraculous religious experience, they also made the same confession that Moses' father-in-law Jethro confessed after hearing Moses' testimony. "Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods, and he has overcome those who behaved proudly toward Israel" (Exodus 18:11).

This confession of Korean Christians becomes an absolute confession of faith that only Jesus Christ is the God of all gods and the Lord of lords in the context of religious pluralism. Experiencing maturity through the experience of the Holy Spirit, it develops into what Wesley called “religion of the heart, faith that works by love” (Section 1 of the preface series § 6, #7 Path to Heaven I. §6). In the eyes of others, it appears to be a religiously exclusive attitude, but over time, while ethically considerate of other religions, those Korean Christians embrace people of other religions with love. In the end, we can see the heart of Christ, who endures all persecution and misunderstanding and leads us to the Lord with love, in the hearts of Korean Christians.

Western Christians' experience of religious pluralism is fundamentally different from Korean Christians. They traditionally lived in a Christian world (Christendom) and considered themselves true Christians. Perhaps in Wesley's eyes, they would have looked like “nominal Christians” (#63. The General Spread of the Gospel. §1) with a formal and outward religion, but the sad thing is that they think themselves true biblical Christians. The Western world has traditionally viewed evangelism as a domestic activity targeting non-believers and nominal church members and missions as targeting unbelievers in the non-Christian world. However, surprised by the vast scriptures of Eastern religions and their piety, Western Christians, starting with the missionaries who served on the mission field, gradually changed from the belief that Christianity is the only absolute religion to a religious relativist teaching and finally took over a pluralistic teaching, wherein they became accepting of the existence of other religions. By a relativistic teaching of religion, I mean one that is based on the premise that you should not impose your religion on me; and by pluralistic teachings, I mean those that assume that all religions represent only one path to salvation.

Although the Western world has now embraced a religious pluralism that has always characterized Korea, Koreans have not found Western views on pluralism helpful. Korean Christians are generally conservative. Out of thankfulness to the church in USA, which sent missionaries to Korea, Korean Christians have put more trust in American theologians than others. Yet, those Korean theologians who have accepted a religiously pluralistic theology developed in the United States have shaken the Korean Christian faith fundamentally. In this sense, the religious pluralism developed by Western theologians has been damaging to the churches in Korea. What is necessary is for Korean Christians to develop their own understandings of other religions and to be trained to have an ethical attitude toward peoples of other faiths so as not to demand social conflicts due to the lack of ethical attitudes that deserve respect in a religiously pluralistic Korean society.

In future posts, I will read Wesley’s sermon series from a Korean perspective on religious pluralism, examining how John Wesley understood religions, including Christianity, and their salvation.

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