Monday, January 17, 2022

Sung Il Lee: The Unspoken Questions of Religious Pluralism in Korea

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. It is the first of a four-part series.

In this series of posts, I will first share my wrestling with unspoken questions of Korean Christians in the religious and historical context of Korea. Next, I will contrast Korean and Western experiences of pluralism. Then after sharing Wesley's understanding of religion, I, as a Korean missiologist, will continue to examine how Wesley understood mission and testified to the gospel from a multicultural and religious background.

As in any Asian country “culture and religion or culture and ideology are intertwined,”[1] Korea has been a religiously pluralistic society that has seen a history of conflict between national spirituality and foreign religion or cultures. Korean religious culture was formed through the union of these elements, including Shamanism (BC 5th century), Buddhism (6-14th centuries), Confucianism (15-19th centuries), and Christianity (19-20th centuries). In other words, “there is no strong line of demarcation, and each of these religions has borrowed much from the others.”[2]

This means that Koreans, including myself, are living a religiously pluralistic society. Let me start with my personal experience of religious pluralism. I entered a seminary with my parents’ conviction that God has called me to be God’s servant. During my second year of seminary education, I was exposed to religious pluralism, which challenged the foundations of my faith. I almost lost sight of why I had come to seminary and became very discouraged. It was during this struggle that I encountered the One who called me by my name. He was Jesus. This spiritual encounter with Jesus led me to confess that Jesus was my Lord and Savior and to commit my life to Christ.

In a pluralistic world of religions, all Koreans, including myself, who encountered the gospel and became a Christian, have unspoken questions in their minds. These are questions that no one is willing to answer and are reluctant to ask: My father, who accepted Jesus on the day I was born, always held a memorial service on the anniversary of my great-grandparents and grandparents. I still remember his prayer, which he said while shedding tears after the sermon. It was a plea to “have mercy on our ancestors who would be in a place (hell) they did not want now because they could not have heard the gospel.” He was not ignorant of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, but I knew that it was an earnest prayer that came out of the mouth of a child to an ancestor who did not believe in Jesus.

There are many heroic and altruistic people that Koreans respect. Among them, Admiral Yi Sun-sin (1545-1598), who saved my country by preventing Japanese invasion, and Sejong the Great (1397-1450), who created Hangeul (the Korean alphabet) to help poor people protect their rights. If you are preaching the gospel outside the church or preaching on “salvation through faith in Jesus” within the church, there is a question you are always asked. “You mean they went to hell because they didn’t believe in Jesus?” “I do not know. Only God knows. I'll find out more about it in the future.” If you answer honestly, you'll pass, but if you say, “They must have gone to hell because they didn't believe in Jesus,” the situation will get worse for a moment.

Before the missionaries came to Korea, I thought that there was no God but only idols and demons in Korea and God had tailgated the missionary who came to Korea. However, I was very surprised when I found out that Koreans were using the word “Hana-nim” for the only and one God before the Scottish missionary John Ross, who made a Korean translation of the New Testament in 1887, walked around the borders of Korea to spread the gospel, and before the American missionaries Allen (1884) and Appenzeller and Underwood (1885) set foot on Korean soil. Before the missionaries came, God already existed in Korea. That is why God is called “Jehovah Shammah” (Ezekiel 48:30-35).

In high school, I was once surprised to watch Hudson Taylor's documentary film preaching the gospel to the Chinese with the Chinese character Ui (義) for “righteousness or justification” that comes from the death of the lamb of God. Then, through C. H. Kang and Ethel R. Nelson’s The Discovery of Genesis: How the Truths of Genesis were Found Hidden in the Chinese Language (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1979) and other books,[3] I came to confirm the meaning of the gospel contained in the pictograms called Chinese characters through the Chinese characters created by Korean ancestors.[4] I became convinced that Korean people were not people who did not know God and the Gospel without a constant supply of God's revealed word.

During this time, a new spiritual change took place. While studying the history of Christian missions in Asia, I found much evidence that showed that the Apostle Thomas' visits to India, China, and even Korea and Japan is not a theory but a reality.[5] Among them, evidence was also confirmed that Hwang-ok Heo (32-189), an Indian princess who came to the kingdom of Gaya (42-542) after hearing the Apostle Thomas' visit to India and became the queen of King Kim Suro (42-199), testified to the gospel of Christianity in Korea. After a few centuries, there is no denying that Buddhism in Silla was influenced by Nestorian Christianity of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). After a brief intermission, the Christian gospel was heard again through the Mongol Empire and the Great Yuan (1271-1368). However, it disappeared from the stage of East Asian history again with the collapse of the Yuan dynasty.

I want to say that God was illuminating all Korean people through Christ, who came as the true light to our Korean ancestors in various ways (John 1:9). Despite this historical evidence, the questions and answers about the salvation of so-called “good people” who have not yet heard the gospel are like hot potatoes. Of course, were there good people in Adam's descendants? As our inner self testifies, it is true that we are all “a brood of evildoers” (Isa.1:4) who must hear the Gospel.

[1] Donald L. Stults, Developing an Asian Evangelical Theology (Manila: OMF Literature, 1989), 106.

[2] Roy E. Shearer, Wildfire: church growth in Korea (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1966), 31.

[3] Ethel R. Nelson & Richard E. Broadberry, Genesis and the Mystery Confucius Couldn't Solve (Concordia, 1994). Ethel R. Nelson, God's Promise to The Chinese (Read, 2014).

[4] Regarding the origin of Chinese characters, the Chinese academic community also acknowledges the historical fact that Chinese characters were not made by the Han Chinese ancestors, but by the Korean ancestors Dongi people (東夷族). Dongi is a term used by Chinese people to refer to Koreans.

[5] Jeong Hak-bong, The Story of Apostle Thomas (Dongseonambuk, 2009). Lee Yong-bong, The Apostle Thomas and the Asian Church (Visionsa, 2017). Dongwook Yeom, Silla and Gaya-the New Kingdom of Israel. (Shinil Choolphansa, 2017).

No comments:

Post a Comment