ESR MDiv student Chris Duff is spending Fall Semester abroad - studying in Seoul, South Korea thanks to an exchange program partnership between ESR and Hanshin University Graduate School of Theology. In the spring, Chris will return to Richmond along with two students who will join us at ESR from Hanshin. Below are some of Chris's initial reflections on his time there:
(Chris, 3rd from left, with fellow classmates)
I’ve been here in South Korea for the past two and a half months attending the Hanshin University Graduate School of Theology as a part of a student exchange. The life of a student here in Korea is really no different than it is in the United States: lots of paper writing, replacing blood in your veins with coffee, and an unhealthy lack of sleep. However, an added benefit is being able to witness a unique blending of culture and religion that we often don’t get to see in the west.
Korea is a country with a long history and diverse religious landscape. Shamanism was for the longest time the dominant religion in the country, and over the course of time Buddhism, Confucianism, and, in the past century, Christianity have made their marks on the culture and society of the country. Around 30% of Koreans are Christian, a little less than 25% are Buddhist, and the remaining are generally non-religious with small groups of other religions mixed in here and there.
As it usually goes, when these new religions came to Korea, they mixed in with the culture in varying ways; while in other cases, some aspects of culture have been rejected. For example, while Shamanism is no longer widely practiced, some aspects of it have been assimilated into Buddhism. Buddha’s birthday and Christmas are national holidays, and Chuseok (the Korean Thanksgiving), which has been around since Korea’s earliest days and is still a big celebration, is often accompanied by ancestor remembrance and veneration. Of course, not all cultural aspects are seen in the same light. While the Buddhist or secular Korean may have no issue with the ancestor remembrance of Chuseok, a lot of Korean Protestants will not engage in that particular ritual while still celebrating the rest of the holiday. Interestingly enough, the Catholic church in Korea as had no stance on ancestor remembrance and, technically, doesn’t forbid its members from engaging in it. Likewise, it’s not likely that one will see more conservative Christians go to temple for Buddha’s birthday.
This blending and remembrance of culture can be seen in other ways as well. Allow me to give a couple of examples: the trip my class made to Ganghwa Island a couple of weeks ago and the Orthodox church that we visited last week.
Ganghwa Island is located about an hour outside of Seoul and is an important place in Korean history. Not only have there been battles against the French, Japanese, and Americans fought here, but historically it has been viewed as a place of great spiritual presence and energy. Many people, including the founder of the Korean Kingdom, view it as the center of the world.
The most striking meeting of culture and theology to me is a small Anglican church, which we first visited upon arrival to Ganghwa. Anglicanism isn’t a particularly big denomination, but it first came to Korea in the early 1900s. The church that we visited was Anglican through and through, with the altar, crucifix, and statues of Mary and the saints as a part of the external trappings. Yet, the exterior of the church was 100% Korean. It was designed in the style of buildings common at the time, complete with sliding doors and cupboards for taking off one's shoes. When the missionaries came to the Island, they wanted it to be familiar with what the Koreans knew. I found this to be very interesting. As far as I’m aware, many churches brought to foreign lands by missionaries often didn't build the churches to resemble the architecture of the native land. They may have aspects in their building style, but the overall structure tended to resemble the style of the country where the missionaries came from. I just thought it was a unique aesthetic and one that I wish I had seen more of during my time here.
On the flipside, the Orthodox church I visited had little to virtually no influence from Korean culture, aside from having Korean deacons and priests. The architecture, interior, and general atmosphere was 100% Orthodox and, honestly, seemed kind of out of place in relation to its surrounding area. Even the resident nun, one of the priests, and a monk of the church were European, and a sizeable percentage of people the church served were Russian and English speakers. Additionally, knowing what I know of Orthodoxy, I can guarantee that this is a denomination that has very little blending of their theology with certain aspects of Korean culture. I just don’t see an Orthodox Christian going to a temple for Buddha’s birthday or venerating their ancestors on Chuseok.
These are but a few small examples of the meeting point of culture and theology that I have seen here in Korea, and I’m certain that there will be more. All of this has me thinking, which is more important: the theology or the culture? Of course, the theology shapes the beliefs found in any belief system and shapes how one sees the world, but culture is every bit as important to how one sees the world. What is the best way for these two to meet? Does theology take precedence over culture completely eradicating parts deemed too “pagan” and claiming a universal truth? Does culture take precedence over theology, to the point where practices and customs fall outside of theological orthodoxy and into syncretism? Is there (or can there be) a middle ground between the two?
Personally, I don’t know. I would like to think there’s a middle ground, but both culture and theology are such complex entities that neither can be limited to neat little boxes or simple “yes or no” hypotheticals. Take me for example: I’m a white western dude, who practices a very eastern religion, but I am not culturally Indian and I never will be. I’m western through and through and am proud of the intellectual and philosophical history of many great western thinkers. Yet, at the same time, my theology does influence a large part of my life and how I see the world; which is radically different than how most westerners see the world and universe.
Then again, I’m just a graduate student on a consistent coffee rush living on a tiny blue ball in a vast starry universe. What could I possibly know with any kind of certainty?