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June 2009

What can Buddha and Confucius teach Christians?

By Paul Titus

JC Park says Christians must come to terms with their pre-Christian heritage and approach other religions with openness and tolerance.

Evangelism in our culturally and religiously diverse world requires being a witness to the Gospel but also learning from those of other faiths.

This is the view of Equipt 09 plenary speaker Rev Dr Jong Chun Park. Jong is professor of systematic theology at the Methodist Theological University in Seoul and chair of the World Methodist Council’s Theological Education Committee.

He says for Korean Christians, the dialogue with other faiths is not just external, with people of other religions. It is also internal because aspects of pre-Christian religion are still part of the psyche of Asian Christians.

"The Korean Methodist Church is a missionary church. But we must contextualise the soil in which the church was planted. The Korean people are not a tabula rasa, a blank paper on which anything can be written.

"There are layers of religious experience that are intermingled in the Korean psyche. These include shamanism, Buddhism and Confucianism. The shamanistic drive is a yearning for unity with Mother Nature. Buddhist consciousness is the wish to be liberated from worldly lust and desire. And Confucianism holds up the ideal of living a life of prosperity and benevolence.

"Many Korean people visit shamans who predict the future or perform exorcisms. There are many, many Buddhists in Korea. And most Koreans, even Christians, are Confucian in the sense that they venerate the ancestors.

"Christian conversion means we give our heart to Jesus. But when Koreans give their heart to Jesus they do not become Western Christians, the still remain Confucian and Korean.

WMEI director Winston Worrell (left) with Auckland-Manukau Tongan Parish superintendent Taufa Filiai

"So for Asian Christians religious dialogue must also be a dialogue that takes place within ourselves because these traditional religious influences are still part of us. How can we incorporate them without giving up our Christian identity?"

Jong says this religious dialogue now takes place in the post-modern, secular world. In Korea the 1960s and 70s were decades of rapid change during which society became more Westernised, and traditional authoritarian and patriarchal institutions were demystified. This created conflict between generations and between classes.

To evangelise in this context he calls for a canonical approach that respects scriptural authority, Jesus Chris and the Trinity. From this basic foundation Christians should reach out with an attitude of tolerance and openness to other religions.

"Without this open, tolerant spirit Christianity will always give the impression of the Crusades instead of the suffering love of crucified God.

"This is a serious challenge for Korean Christians because many are now rushing out to evangelise in places like China, Africa, Latin America and even Western countries. They must be sensitive enough to respect other people’s religious traditions."

By having peaceful relations with other religions we can learn from them and thereby understand ourselves better, Jong says. We can understand the Bible more deeply if we can learn from Buddhists and Confucians.

Evangelism must include witness to the Gospel. To dialogue with others we have to have our own position.

But Jong says Christians should approach dialogue with others with spirituality as well as with doctrine. Many people are experiencing a return of the sacred. While some of this may be dismissed as New Age fads, many serious intellectuals are not satisfied with tired forms of Christianity that see religion as church going.

"People are seeking deeper, more individual experiences and a sense of community but not necessarily from established forms of Christianity. Churches need to adapt to these fluid, contemplative forms of spirituality.

"They need to be open to communal forms of spirituality and faith. In future church will be more like family – in which people are welcomed and find a sense of belonging. This is more like house churches, a household of God rather than an authoritarian established religion.

"Like a family, people may leave the church and go abroad but they can go back anytime because they have invisible ties. And like a family, the church should give a sense of freedom as well as responsibility."