Tuesday, 18 May 2010

On Korean theology, and Karl Barth's reception in Korea

Since moving to Sydney last year, one of the highlights has been my involvement with a number of Korean theology students. While my Korean students tend to be interested in studying the great western traditions – Calvin, Barth, Bonhoeffer – they have in turn sparked my own interest in the traditions of Korea. The deep reception of neo-Calvinist theology in Korea; the astonishing reverence for European traditions; the vehement debates over Barthian thought; the momentous efforts at theological indigenisation; the fierce struggle sparked by the suicide of Chun Tae-il (a devout Christian labourer who committed political suicide in 1970, setting himself on fire with the cry, “We are not machines!”) – all this I find profoundly absorbing, disorienting and affecting.

I’m especially fascinated by the relation between Karl Barth and Korean theology. Sung-Bum Yun (1916-1980), the only Korean theologian to study under Barth, became the leading advocate of theological indigenisation, and one of the country’s most controversial Christian figures. I’ve been reading about him lately, and trying to track down all his works that were translated into English. (I haven’t yet been able to find English copies of his Sung Theology or Korean Culture, Religion and Christianity – if anyone has access to these, please let me know!)

By all accounts, Sung-Bum Yun was a prodigiously energetic scholar: he translated a huge amount of German philosophy and theology into Korean, including Kant’s critiques (he was regarded as one of the country’s leading Kant authorities); he wrote books on Barth, St Paul, Confucianism, ethics, theological anthropology, and above all on Korean religion and culture. All his work appears to have been driven by an immense and highly creative commitment to Barthian christology.

In one of his books available in English, Ethics East and West (trans. Michael C. Kalton, 1977), he advances a stinging critique of western (Kantian) ethics, arguing instead that Korea’s deep Confucian heritage provides a better context for interpreting the distinctiveness of Christian ethics. Observing that Barth’s doctrine of freedom marks a decisive break with the western ethical tradition, he also argues for a striking resonance between Barthian ethics and a Confucian view of the communal, familial context of freedom. All of which leads Yun to his remarkable Barthian-Confucian theology of “filial piety”, where the relation between parent and child provides a frame for understanding all other human relationships and all human action.

There’s an extremely valuable analysis of all this in the excellent study by Young-Gwan Kim, Karl Barth’s Reception in Korea: Focusing on Ecclesiology in Relation to Korean Christian Thought (Peter Lang 2003). Kim provides a broad account of the institutional and denominational contexts of Barth’s reception in Korea. He argues that the distinctiveness of Korean Barth-reception has much to do with the culture’s deep Confucian heritage, and with the intimate connection between Confucianism and the rise of Christianity in Korea. (It was Confucian scholars who first translated the Bible into Korean: Confucianism is already entwined with the roots of Korean Christianity.) After tracing the broad history of Barth’s reception in Korea, Kim provides an extensive analysis (pp. 225-324) of the work of Sung-Bum Yun. Although he is critical of Yun’s tendency towards philosophical abstraction (it becomes hard to see where the salvation-event fits into his elaborate system of Tao, jen, and filial piety), he concludes: “we cannot deny Yun’s insistence that Korean Christianity is strikingly a Confucian-influenced Christianity and that therefore the indigenization of Karl Barth’s theology within the Korean Confucian context is a viable theological enterprise” (p. 324).

Of course none of this is as easy as it sounds, since even today a huge number of Korean pastors and theologians view Barth’s theology as a dangerous “liberal” deviation from Calvinist orthodoxy. Young-Gwan Kim’s study doesn’t go into much detail about this Calvinist context of Korean theology; but I think it’s one of the most fascinating aspects of Korean Barth-reception. Protestant liberalism has never taken root in Korea, and this fact alone has a decisive influence on the way Barth’s work is read and received. It helps to explain why Barth’s avowedly anti-liberal theology could be condemned as a “liberal” threat by so many Korean theologians and institutions. (For a fascinating study of this, see the online dissertation by Jung Suck Rhee, which focuses on Barth’s polarising effects in Korean theology.) It also helps to explain the importance of Sung-Bum Yun’s insistence on indigenisation: where the questions and problems that Barth himself was addressing are simply absent from an entire cultural milieu, it becomes impossible to adhere to Barth’s intentions or to the letter of his text. Instead one can only wrest his work from its original setting, in order to use it selectively as part of one's own cultural and theological excavations.

But this interpretive freedom comes with its own considerable risks: one sees this in Japan, where an ostensibly Barthian theology of revelation was used not to critique but to justify nationalism and the imperial cult (see Thomas Hastings, Practical Theology and the One Body of Christ). And one also sees the risk when Yun's philosophico-cultural theology seems to eliminate any need for a saving event in history – or, to put it another way, to eliminate the theological significance of Jesus' Jewishness.

OK, since I'm rounding up my own recent reading, here's a few more quick notes on Korean theology:

I haven’t said much here about minjung theology, surely the most celebrated development in recent Korean theology. But it’s worth noting in passing that minjung theology also takes Barthian theology as one of its points of departure. Paul S. Chung has done a lot of good work in this area. In his recent book, Karl Barth: God's Word in Action (James Clarke, 2008), Chung closes with a valuable chapter on Barth’s “unfinished project for religious pluralism”, including a discussion of Barth’s relation to Buddhism and to Korean minjung theology. And there’s plenty more to be learned about minjung theology in Volker Küster’s new book, A Protestant Theology of Passion: Korean Minjung Theology Revisited (Brill 2010).

For some recent developments in the indigenisation of theology, I’d also recommend Jung Sun Oh’s book, A Korean Theology of Human Nature: With Special Attention to the Works of Robert Cummings Neville and Tu Wei-ming (2005), which develops a Confucian theology of filial piety – it's not as arresting or original as Sung-Bum Yun's theology, but an interesting proposal nonethelesss. And Andrew Sung Park’s new book, Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole Creation (WJK 2009) weaves together classical atonement theology with the Korean concept of han, arguing that Christ’s atonement also includes the redemption of nature and animals from human oppression.

On a broader note, I also enjoyed Mark Noll’s broad sketch of Korean evangelical history in The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (IVP 2009). Noll draws attention to a number of striking parallels between American and Korean church history. Amidst many similarities (revivalism, individualism, openness to modernisation, involvement in mission, etc.), he observes in passing that “the American churches have never known a diaspora such as the Korean churches have experienced over the last fifty years” (p. 162). It's a good point – and I wonder whether this difference is far more crucial, more formative of Korean Christian identity, than Noll seems to credit.

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