Monday, December 26, 2011

Jung Do-Jeon's critique of 14th-century-Buddhism in Korea

Jung Do-Jeon (1342-1398) was a famous scholar and politician in the 14th-century Koryo dynasty. He helped Sunggae Lee to found a new kingdom called Josun, ending the Koryo dynasty whose religious political foundation was Buddhism. A new kingdom Josun lasted about five hundred years until the 19th century.
         Jung's political or scholarly vision was to establish a newly reformed country run by a philosophy of common sense, rooted in grass people. He was a very critical of Buddhism in those days and especially the hypocritical elites who accumulated wealth and secured their future salvation in heaven. Temples and elites became richer, and people became poorer.
         He rejected "reincarnation," a core doctrine of Buddhism according to which persons may continue to live a life after death. In exchange for a better place with "reincarnation," they were asked to donate lots of money to the temple. This is where corruption began in religion; elites were busy accumulating their wealth by connecting with this kind of elite religion.
         Jung Do-Jeon challenged the absurdities of such an idea of reincarnation in his book Bulsee Japbyun. In this book, his observation goes like this: "We look at the beautiful flowers or leaves in the spring and see them fading and falling off to the ground. They return to the place where they were." Here he rejects the idea of rebirth, saying like this: "How is it possible that we expect to see the same fallen flowers or leaves coming back to life in the next spring?" Simply, an old life is gone and a new life is born or started! What comes out from the ground in the next spring is a new life, not a re-birth. Old leaves or flowers are rotten and become fertilizers for a new life. Simply, what he says is that reincarnation is an absurd idea. He also says: "How can we inhale the same breath that we exhale? Each time we exhale a breath but inhale a new one, not the same breath." Likewise, the spring puts forth the ever-springing water, which is never the same. Original water evaporates and turns into the clouds. Furthermore, in his view, "reincarnation" is a selfish desire that people want to prolong their life after death. Death is the end, and it must be accepted as natural.
         I think his critique makes a very good sense for today when people are concerned too much about next-life while ignoring their responsibilities in the world now.

         The following poem was written by Jung DoJeon when he first met Sunggae Lee.
蒼茫歲月一株松 / 아득한 세월에 그루 소나무
生長靑山幾萬重 / 푸른 만겹 속에 자랐구나.
好在他年相見否 / 있으시오. 훗날 서로 있으리까?
人間俯仰便陳蹤 / 인간 세상이란 잠깐 사이 묵은 자취인 것을.
정도전, 《제함영송수 (題咸營松樹)

a pine tree standing alone for a long time;
it grew so big now through millions of mountain trails;
good-bye now to you; can we see each other in the future?
the human world is passing like a fast-moving arrow.
[a rough translation of mine]

         The following poem was written by Jung DoJeon before he died (or was killed).
操存省察兩加功 / 조심하고 조심하여 공력을 다해 살면서
不負聖賢黃卷中 / 속에 담긴 성현의 말씀 저버리지 않았네.
三十年來勤苦業 / 삼십 세월 고난 속에 쌓아 놓은 사업
松亭一醉竟成空 / 송현방 정자 술에 그만 허사가 되었네.
정도전, 《자조》

with every effort and caution, I have lived a life very well;
I did not break the wisdom of the sages in their literature;
a 30-year achievement made through trials and errors
came to an end in vain because of a glass of wine at the Songhyunbang.
[a rough translation of mine]

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Marginality and Christian Theology

Yung Suk Kim

In his book Marginality: The Key to Multicultural Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995), Jung Young Lee states that his marginal experience is the basis for his contextual theology. Furthermore, Lee affirms that marginality is a new source of power (self-affirmation) in spite of its negative connotations. Lee goes on to argue that Christian theology, the mission of the church, a habit of thinking, personal commitment and all our hearts and minds have to be based in new marginality of self-affirmation. A new marginal person is the one who relentlessly hopes for harmonious justice beyond one's identity, defiantly protesting all abusive systems and evil in the world.

To support his thesis about new marginality, Lee rejects the one-way, classical definition of marginality that emphasizes the negative sides of marginality such as alienation, rejection, and struggles, and so forth. This classical definition is the product of "centrality" according to which marginality is a situation of "got stuck" or "in-between."

But Lee defines marginality from a marginal perspective, which upholds a "both/and" and "in-beyond" approach. For example, Lee declares that he is both an American and an Asian. "Both/and" approach is a self-affirmation of both Asian and American.

He also talks about a new marginality person who stands "in-beyond," which means standing beyond "in-between" and "in-both" (Asian and American).

That is to say, such an "in-beyond" person transcends the current time and space to form a new identity, which is formulated both in "in-between" and "in-both" worlds. Lee states that this kind of "in-beyond" thinking leads to living up to "the harmony of difference," as God's creation itself is of plurality and differences.

Lee continues to explore marginality to the extent that marginality should be the center of Christian theology. For instance, God becomes marginal through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Marginality is God's choice of loving humanity. Jesus was also marginal, being rejected and crucified by the people. In other words, Jesus lived "in-beyond," affirming the world that rejected him.

Likewise, Lee suggests that the church, seminaries, and all our Christian works be a community of marginality that lives up to the love and servanthood of Jesus. The author envisions the whole church and Christian institutions to embraces a holistic "in-beyond" approach.

Lee does an excellent job because he reclaims a Christian theology of marginality. Jesus came not to be served but to serve (Mt. 20:28). As Jesus was a marginal person, so are Christians. Christians' power comes out of serving others. Another strong point is regarding the identity of the minority. Marginal experiences are certainly negative but are not hopeless altogether.

Lee suggests that we transform our marginal experiences to form a new identity of hope and love beyond the current conditions of the world. Lee also made a big contribution to the understanding of multicultural society. Pluralistic, multicultural society needs multiple centers and margins. Lee seems to encourage all of us to play an active role in making a better society.

He also lets us recognize the mystery of creation that reflects diversity, plurality, and differences in our culture. Everyone has his or her own place of margin, because, according to Lee, margins and centers are not fixed; rather, they are dynamic and moving. A multicultural society is a kind of the web that every unit of society has its own connection to one another, modifying its place constantly.

Lee's book greatly has shaped my worldview and understanding of multicultural theology. I became confident about my role as a biblical theologian in the multicultural society. Through my upbringings, education, experiences in Korea and elsewhere (including Latin America and the USA) I came to view the world through the lens of critical diversity or imagination.

When I lived in a small rural village during my childhood, I liked to play with things in nature and grasped the harmony of differences. Not a single thing is the same as the other in nature: Different colors of leaves, different trees, different flowers, different stars, different birds, and so forth.

While we are different with each other, we also share a common humanity. We are still the same human being. In nature, dandelion is different from the rose but it is still a beautiful flower. God made all of us good, including nature. Why do we not maintain such a beautiful world?

Readers should not be confused between two kinds of marginality: a marginality given due to social, cultural determinants and a voluntary marginality. Whereas the marginalized person can affirm his or her identity amid degrading situations, injustices cannot be tolerated.

Friday, December 2, 2011

"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" (Job 38:4)

Job (in the Book of Job) is a righteous person, and God acknowledges his faith. Job lives a good life with blessings of children, wealth, and so forth, until one day he loses everything including his children. His body is soaked with skin disease. Satan bets against God, saying that if the blessings of Job are taken away from him, he will betray God. But God does not agree with Satan and goes on to bet with him. 

So the test begins. Virtually, Job loses everything, all his children suddenly being killed one after another. Even his wife asks him to die after cursing the God he trusts. He is in total despair. His friends ask him to repent his sins so that God will restore him. But Job does not agree to that conventional wisdom or theology that bad fortune is the result of sin.

Even though he is not perfect, Job does not deserve such a horrendous suffering and the loss of everything. He wants to confront such a cruel or unjust God. He laments even his birth being born with the flesh. The most difficult part of his suffering is he does not receive a right response from God. Long time of dialogues with his friends and the time of suffering persist. Yet there are no satisfactory answers.

Finally, God makes answer to Job out of the storm-wind. Job wants to hear answer regarding his questions, for example: Why do good people suffer? Is God just? Instead, God basically says, "Shut up" (this is my summary). God reminds Job of his mortality and limitations in that he cannot comprehend God. God's counter-question is just too cruel to Job in a way: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" (Job 38:4).

The idea here is that "Job, you are unable to know why you suffer. You are mortal. Stay where you are. I will be with you when you go through a long deep dark tunnel." Perhaps Job realizes his futile attempt to know all about his suffering or pain.

So he never knows the reason why he suffers. Suffering is the dark side of creation. It just happens without causality, as the wind blows from nowhere. Pain and suffering blow from nowhere. If this is a reality, the more important task is how to live with it. That is what the book of Job is about. Job endured through all of this time, searching for a deep truth in vain.

A paradoxical truth is, however, that Job maintains his faith in God even though he does not hear a good answer that expects. What is the basis of his faith then? In my view, his faith has to do with acknowledging human mortality and God's sovereignty. He maintains faith not because he received something good (like blessings or changes in his current life) from God but because God is the owner of his life and God is bigger than his thought.

Even though we don't understand why we suffer, we cannot give up our lives because we are so limited to know everything about us and God. That is where faith begins. Ultimately, we are not owners of our lives. So we cannot give up. Still we have to trust in God because we are his creation and there is no other way than trusting in God. Giving up is not a good option. That is who we are and how we live. That is what faith can do. But still the hard questions remain to be answered: What is the meaning of life in that difficult situation? Why do we suffer? That is a mystery that we never can answer.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Two Faces of Confucianism in Korea

During the JoSeon Dynasty founded in the 14th century C.E, the Neo-Confucianism flourished with an ideal of the harmonized world through moral and ethical principles. In fact, there are bright and dark sides of Confucianism as understood and practiced in Korea. Today Korean society struggles with the tension between good and bad in Confucianism.
The good side of Confucianism is relational humanism of which aspects lie at the center of our lives and thinking. In Great Learning (Confucian teachings) the notion of community is well summarized with this following: “su-shin, je-ga, chi-guk, pyong-chon-ha” (修身 濟家 治國 平天下). Sushin means training the self (literally disciplining oneself); je-ga managing home; chi-guk ruling the nation; pyong chon-ha governing the whole world. Confucius based his ideals about human communities on inseparable and harmonious relationships between the self, community and the nation.

In Confucius’ view, the purpose of soo-shin is to build home with virtues, to rule the nation and to govern the whole world. Confucius finds the essence of human beings in the nexus of intrinsic living together with others. Individuals, home, the nation and the whole world are closely related and there must be roles for each.
The centrality of human relationships is well expressed in In (or Ren) – which means love (). This word consists of two ideograms: “person” and “two.” In is often translated as ‘human-relatedness,’ ‘co-humanity,’ ‘virtuous humanity,’ … or ‘love’.” There are no individuals without communities. In our culture, therefore, a good human being is a person who relates well with other persons in communities. Interrelatedness is part of the Confucian notion of love.
This relational human existence and love is also expressed in the Chinese word for human beings, composed of two characters: (in) + (gan). In means human being, who needs others to relate (see the ideogram of In, which shows two persons in unity). To live as a person means to live with others. Gan means a space or distance “in-between.” How to relate with others is what it means to be human. This is why we often use “woori” (meaning “we”) instead of “I” or “my.” For example, we rarely say “my teacher,” but we say “our teacher.” The examples include “our car, our school, our pastor, our country, etc.” This sort of habit of language reflects the deep sense of our community life.  
However, the bad or difficult side of Confucianism has to do with its hierarchical, patriarchal worldview. As such, Confucianism has had a negative effect on women in particular. Samgang-oryn (three cardinal principles and five ethical norms) is a prime example of this.
Three cardinal principles (samgang) include 1) loyalty to ruler, 2) filial piety to parents, and 3) wife’s fidelity to husband; five ethical norms (oryun) deal with human relationships: 1) love between parents and children, 2) faith between rulers and people, 3) distinction between husband and wife, 4) order between elders and juniors, and 5) trust between friends. Especially, women did not have equal rights with men as seen in Samjongjido (women’s three things to obey): 1) obeying her father before marriage, 2) obeying her husband after marriage, and 3) obeying her sons after the death of her husband.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

When faith fades and fear engulfs us

1 Kings 19:1-10
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’ Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough (I have had enough); now, O Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’

All too often we feel like giving up when there is no hope or meaning in this world. We live in the world where so many people are badly affected by disasters, natural or human. We live in the world where our circumstances block our growth and survival.

There are even people who are fast doing evil. For many reasons and in complex situations, we often say just like Elijah: "I have had enough, Lord; take my life. I am no better than my ancestors." This is the moment when we like to give up on ourselves, only finding many reason for giving up. Jezebel seeks the life of Elijah because of his bold prophecy and mighty action that caused the destruction of the Baal prophets.

Now she tries to revenge him because her power and prestige were ridiculed and damaged. So Elijah ran for his life. Where is his faith and courage that he made great works for God? Is this the picture of a great spiritual leader?

But his fear is real. Indeed, he is a mere man, not an angel or god. His joy, energy, and passion for God on the mount of Carmel melted out just like the snow under the sun. He is drained out and completely burned out. Nothing is left on him other than the desire to give up. Instead, Jezebel's threat filled him.

This is the time that he needs to sustain his life not by looking to himself or to other people or environment. He needs to refresh his body and soul by looking to God. When a person is situated in this dire moment when nothing he or she can do other than the desire to give up, this is the moment of lament, crying for God's justice and power.

We still can pray when nothing can be achieved. Because a prayer can change or transform a person's mind and heart to get focused on God, beyond one's own ability and judgment. That is a moment of relief! That is a moment of refreshing one's soul, coming from not an easy environment but from the unfamiliar, mysterious source of God.

Actually, this is the very dangerous time too, because one can take his or her own life when there is no easy way out. This is where there must be a miracle, not a supernatural one but godly help. This is when the preacher or teacher or friend might come into his or her aid.

In Elijah's story the angel appears and provides the need of Elijah. In a very dire moment like this, there must be an aid from outside of him. He cannot deal with everything by himself. He should realize this. Although he did a marvelous job on the mount of Carmel, what he did was not his but God's.

Often leaders forget about this. When things go rough, they easily forget about their identity or place that has to do with God's mission. Elijah should have reflected on where he was or what he was doing in the wilderness.

He seeks his life only, abandoning God's work and people. God wants him to go back on his journey. God's message is: "Hang in there; I will provide for you. You can give up on yourself. But don't give up on me." Elijah needs God's power once again. That is only through his realization that he cannot sustain by himself. That is faith and courage. When faith fades and fear engulfs, we have to know this: "Nothing can separate us from the love of God" (Rom 8:28).

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Problems of translation (in case of Paul's letters)

Though there is no perfect translation of the Bible, we have to work hard to make a more acceptable one, not by injecting our ideology or interest but by honoring the original syntax and experience of the people in and behind the text.

I often use Rom 3:22 and Gal 2:16 as a test case for judging the quality of translation. Below are CEB (the most recent translation), NRSV, NIV (new), and NIV (old). Generally speaking, CEB and NRSV are preferable to NIVs. Even CEB and NRSV have some problems.

CEB has a nice job in Rom 3:22 by translating pistis christou as "the faithfulness of Christ" and also dikaiosyne theou as "God's righteousness" (both of which are the subjective genitive cases). But unfortunately, in Gal 2:16 the same phrase pistis christou is translated as "faith in Christ" (the objective genitive). This means there is no consistency. Perhaps this is because of the influence by the doctrine of "justification by faith."

NRSV is similar to the CEB. The good thing in NRSV is that dikaiosyne theou is translated as "the righteousness of God," which allows room for interpretation (either as the subjective genitive or the objective genitive case). In other words, the reader has to decide which genitive case he or she will read. NIV (old) is not good.

Erga nomou is translated as "by observing the law," which is not found in the text; this translation is based on a clear theological interest. Literally, the phrase erga nomou means "the works of the law" whatever it means. Again, it is the reader's job that what the works of the law means in Paul's letter. NIV (new) has it now "the works of the law" like the NRSV. That is a small improvement. But both NIV (new) and NIV (old) have a strong tendency for securing the theological doctrine of "justification by faith." For example, in Rom 3:22, both versions emphasize an individual righteousness by faith in Jesus. But this reading does not reflect Paul's concerns and theology.

Syntactically speaking, CEB translates Rom 3:22 very well and is close to my interpretation about this verse. As I wrote in my book, A Theological Introduction to Paul's Letters (Cascade Books, 2011), Rom 3:22 presents a snapshot of Paul's theology lodged in three parties to effect the salvation of God: God, Christ, and people.

There are three aspects of God's righteousness, Christ's faith, and believers (followers of Jesus), who have the faith of Christ. Furthermore, "believing in Jesus" in Gal 2:16 does not mean that Jesus is the object of faith in the sense that the believer put a faith in Jesus. In fact, the preposition used there is eis, not en. Eis means "toward" or "into," a kind of movement, action, or participation.

Therefore, what is emphasized here is that we have believed into him (like participating in him). That is, we co-work and co-suffer with him. That is what the faith means. Jesus showed that faith, and we follow his faith for God's righteousness. This is what I mean the threefold theology of Paul. For more about this, see my book, A Theological Introduction to Paul's Letters: Exploring a Threefold Theology of Paul.
CEB (Common English Bible)
Rom 3:22: "God's righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him"
Gal 2:16: "However, we know that a person isn't made righteous by the works of the Law but rather by faith in Jesus Christ. We ourselves believed in Christ Jesus so that we could be made righteous by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law -- because no one will be made righteous by the works of the Law"

Rom 3:22: "the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe"
Gal 2:16: "yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law" 

NIV (new)

Rom 3:22: "This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe"
Gal 2:16: "know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified"

NIV (old)
Rom 3:22: "This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe"
Gal 2:16: "know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not be observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified"

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Shamanism, Exclusivism, and Christianity in Korea

"Shamanism and exclusivism" represent a typical form of conservative, fundamentalist Christianity in Korea. Yonggi Cho, founding pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church and now retired, along with fundamental pastors, stands out in this direction. He delivered a rare speech at the Buddhist Graduate School of Dongguk University, Seoul, Korea. As I hear him, his story begins and ends with a form of shamanism. After his speech, he said that each religion matters and functions on its own with a message of salvation. But later, he reversed his statement because of the pressures coming from his church.

I translated Cho's speech and interview (Q & A) because it gives us an opportunity to examine shamanism and exclusivism in Korea. His speech centered on his conversion experience and the history of his church planting. After the speech, he had a time of Q & A. Someone asked: "Do you believe that Jesus or Christianity is the only way to salvation, and that other religions are not true?" His answer was shocking to his fellow conservative Christians since he said Buddhism has its own message of salvation. Furthermore, he said, "We (Christians and Buddhists) need to coexist." Soon I heard that he corrected his position because of the pressures from his church.

Tips for Group Discussion

1) Cho's distinct theology of the threefold blessing was well marked in his lecture. As you might understand, his theology is just like saying like this: "hope, hope! blessing and blessing! now and tomorrow!" Otherwise, there is no mention of the gospel of justice or the cost of discipleship. It is a typical example of charismatic/shamanistically driven faith. But his message appealed to many poor. He told a story about one woman who says: "Here is a hell already I live now. Show me a little bit of heaven now..."

2) He also made bold statements about other religions in his lecture, especially during the interview after the lecture. He said, religion is equal and Buddhism has its own concept of salvation and therefore it should be properly recognized.

Discussion questions

Where is his theology rooted? What are some socio-political implications of his theology? Is he a shaman? How is his theology different from Shamanism? How does a shaman play in the contemporary religion or culture? Is Jesus a shaman for him?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Where does the church belong?

Where does the church belong? Most people will answer that the church belongs to Christ. But the answer is not obvious. For Paul, the church is God's. It is Deutero-Pauline letters (for example, Ephesians 4:1-17) that the church is Christ's. As for Paul, the church belongs to God (God's), not to Christ. Christ serves God. Paul's theology is thoroughly theocentric (God-centered). Only in Deutero-Pauline or Pastorals, we see clearly that the church belongs to Christ, who is the head of the church. Christ is served (for example, read Colossians 1:18 or Eph 4:1-12). How will you interpret these two different views of the church?

In Paul's letters, "the body of Christ" (soma christou) does not refer to the church. The body of Christ is, first of all, Christ's own body -- his life and death. It is a metaphor for a way of living: being Christ-like.   "You are Christ's body" may mean that you are to live like Christ. If we understand the body of Christ as Christ's body crucified, the image of this body of Christ provokes all kinds of bodies.
For more about this kind of reading of Paul's letters, see the following books:

Monday, October 3, 2011

Mystery of life together

Through a little cottage
the bland, uncaring wind blows,
a candle fire wanes,
a baby sits on a sick-bed
breathing a deadly silence of peace
a brisk voice shouts:
“do you love me?”

“Do this for all”
“again, do you love me?”
“do this love for all people”
“do all, sick or healthy,
poor or rich, strong or weak, all”

Sisters and brothers,
Fathers and mothers,
“Nothing can separate us
from the love of God,”
“do you believe this, my son, my daughter?
do this love for all, my companion!”

the melting, sweet wind blows to unfreeze all,
it blows through the seasons,
in the spring —a time to wake up, a time to tell the people
of hope that God breathes into all.
only then we live together,
only then we are resurrection,
only then we find you in our heart,
in our walking,
in our dreaming,
in the desolate winter – a time to wait
for a hope yet to be realized;
a time that we realize we are nothing to be something,
in the summer—a time to sweat for our gardens
a time that we are baptized with waters all over again
a time that toil and sweat never pass away without returns,
in the fall—a time to thank God for our life here together in difference
a time that we see different colors in our gardens, hills, mountains, and forests.

My daughter!
Do you feel this power of ever-new, ever-fresh dews?
My son!
Do you feel this joy of the loving wind –
in the past, present and future seamlessly
flowing into our heart of spring,
whispering that we are one and different.

In seasons like this we feel
seasonal beauty embedded in our souls and bodies,
a sense of solidarity and diversity,
in the same glaring sun rising in Panama and in Korea,
in the same azure ocean of the Pacific in Fiji and in America,
it is the mystery of life together
the mystery of love and peace so vulnerable,
the mystery of ever-challenging differences,
the mystery of this life,
the mystery of you and me in the world.

Around the circle of bonfire
we feel it, we live it -
only then we say it enough;
enough is all, for all creation;
only then, doves and eagles fly in their sky,
together, we fly into the same sky;
only then, we feel the power of mystery of God everyday,
today and tomorrow, yesterday and today,
like an ever-flowing river we too blow.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Reading the Bible through the eyes of "kenosis"

I have a passion for human transformation, rooted in self-knowledge and self-criticism. Traveling many Latin American countries during my business career, I learned a great deal about cultural diversity and the need of human solidarity. With a new vocation of theological education, I now ask: What does it mean to live in this world in relation to each other (i.e., meaning of the Other -- which resonates Emmanuel Levinas' "the face of the other," Paul Ricoeur's inter-subjective narrative identity, or Jacques Derrida's "relationless relation"), and How can we do theology in our thoughts, deeds and action, while moving pointedly away from individualism? How can we read biblical stories with each other in a critical context? What are some viable definitions of cross-cultural hermeneutics, if any, by which we can improve the sense of living together in difference?

My approach to the Bible and human transformation is based on kenosis. Let me illustrate it. Once upon a time there were a father and his son; they were beggars.  One day just across a river a big fire broke out and saw a big house being burnt down by the fire. The father said to his son proudly, "My son, we are so fortunate because we do not have a house to be burnt down." This comic but pithy conversation speaks of some lessons about our life. There is a saying in the Buddhist book banyasimkyung: "sak-jeuk-see-gong and gong-jeuk-see-sak," which can be translated as "all visible things are empty, and all that are empty are visible." It is hard to explain here what it means. I can say like this: life is nothing (empty) but your nothingness (emptiness) makes you something.

Similarly, Christian understanding of kenosis (Phil 2:6-11, emptying of oneself) reflects nothingness attitude in our lives. It is also found in the Q gospel: There was once a rich man whose lands yielded a good harvest. He thought to himself, "What should I do? I don't have enough room to store my crops. I know, I'll tear down my barns and build bigger ones so that I can keep all my grain in them. Then I will say to myself, 'I have enough to last me for years. I can take it easy, eat, drink and have a good time.' But God said to him, "You fool! This very night you may die. Then who will own this hoard of yours? So it is with those who pile up possessions but remain poor in the treasures of the spirit. Jesus says, "If you try to gain your life, you will lose it; but if you lose it, you will gain it." St. Paul also says, "I die everyday on the cross." If you gather more and more and do not give out, you will become slaves of riches. But if you give up more and more, your freedom of heart will be greater and greater. Furthermore, your self will live a meaningful life, a perfection of life with a sense of living with others in the community. In this way our life extends forever; it is not different from the idea of “eternal life” in the Gospel of John. True spirituality begins when we feel the same fate with others and act out by giving what we have. God wants a fair balance between the rich and the poor. God wants the light and life for all because God is the God of all. That is how I read the Bible.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

On Truth

As for me, truth is deeply experiential, confessional, and contextual. It should be engaged in a community that he or she lives, embodied in a world beyond his or her immediate community, and testified at all costs because of the love of God for all people. Bellah also comments on the mistaken view of truth: “The mistake arises when we take language which is deeply contextual, that is confessional, and in the case of Paul probably also liturgical, and turn it into objective assertions of a quasi-scientific form that give us information about the eternal fate of non-Christians.” Robert Bellah, “At home and not at home: Religious pluralism and religious truth” Christian Century, April 1995.

On Imagination

As I wrote elsewhere, the role of critical imagination is important in biblical interpretation:

“We will need a critical imagination that engages both history and theology seriously in Paul’s texts and contexts. The use of critical imagination can be explained by the following illustration. Suppose that a person wants to fly like a bird, which is a good and necessary imagination, and so jumps off from the mountaintop in an attempt to fly. That person will be killed because of his or her naïve imagination. But if a person devises a fyling machine, then he or she can fly; this exemplifies that a critical mindset and creative imagination should work together.” Yung Suk Kim, A Theological Introduction to Paul’s Letters (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 5.

Similarly, Amos Wilder cautiously emphasizes the role of imagination:

“Imagination is a necessary componment of all profound knowing and celebration; all remembering, realizing, and anticipating; all faith, hope, and love. When imagination fails doctrines becomes ossified, witness and proclamation wooden, doxoligies and litanies empty, consolations hollow, and ethics legalistic … Then that which once gave life begins to lull and finally to suffocate us.” Amos N. Wilder, Theopoetic: Theology and the Religious Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), 2.

Monday, August 1, 2011

History of faith

What is faith? Or what kind of faith do we talk about when we deal with matters of faith in Christianity? The answer will be neither easy nor simple. But we have to consider complexities involved with the concept of faith because no word or concept is made out of context. When I wrote my book, A Theological Introduction to Paul’s Letters: Exploring a Threefold Theology of Paul (Cascade Books, 2011), one of my concerns has to do with the familiar notion of faith. The following is an excerpt from my book, page 64:

Excursus: “History of Faith”
“The Hebrew word for faith is emunah (for example, Hab 2:4: “The one who is righteous shall live by faith”), whose basic meaning has to do with faithful­ness, fidelity, or steadfastness. All of these involve a person’s cost and time, as Abraham paid such a price in living his lifelong journey of steadfastness to God. In the New Testament, the Greek word for faith is pistis, whose ba­sic meaning also has to do with faithfulness, fidelity, or commitment. … One of the problems in English translation is that there is no equivalent English verb for the Greek verb pisteuo, whose noun is pistis (faith). The closest thing in English might be a form like “faithize.” … …

For more, read A Theological Introduction to Paul’s Letters: Exploring a Threefold Theology of Paul (Cascade Books, 2011), p. 64. Visit the book information page too.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Reconstructing Paul's theology

Why is it crucial to understand Paul's theology in terms of a God-centered ecclesiology? 
For Paul, the church is God's, never Christ's. In order to reconstruct Paul's theology, we must put him in both Jewish tradition and the Greco-Roman world. Paul's theology is thoroughly theocentric, and Jesus as the Jewish Messiah serves God. For more information or discussion, please visit my web page.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sharing an endorsement of my new book; I am humbled and honored

"Yung Suk Kim possesses one of the most original, refreshing, and urgent voices among the rising generation of New Testament theologians. Kim has a rare ability to synthesize various critical approaches in constructing Paul's theology: historical criticism, sociological analysis, and post-colonial interpretation interact productively. Kim's Theological Introduction to Paul's Letters invites readers to rethink crucial aspects of Paul's theology--'righteousness,' 'faith,' 'embodiment'--as avenues of subjective participation in the politics of love."

-Laurence L. Welborn
Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity
Fordham University

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Three questions to ponder to become a "good" preacher

This morning I sat down in the pew and listened to a sermon. At times I learn from a counter-example of things that I appreciate most. Moments later, driving to a nearby coffee shop, the sermon that I heard caused me to rethink about the rationale or quality of preaching; I liked some part but didn't like other part. Drinking coffee, I came up with certain clarifications about the sermon, along with a set of critiques and new ideas. To become a good preacher, I think, the following three questions should be asked and answered: 1) Are you a good theologian?; 2) How do you read the text?; 3) Do you know how to communicate with the audience? Let me explain one by one.

Are you a "good" theologian?
It is a big misunderstanding if we think that all preachers have a blank mind, getting all preaching insights from the Bible. In fact, the Bible does not speak, but the reader makes sense out of it. Furthermore, there is no clear, single voice or theology in it. Most of time people read what they want to read from the text. On one hand, this kind of "contextual" reading helps those who need particular helps in their lives. But on the other hand, it can be naive, or even dangerous to others if applied without discerning the implications or ramifications of a particular reading. Often preachers love to say, "The Bible says." But if the Bible says, there must be many things. Unless a preacher explains in which way the Bible speaks and why, the Bible saying is hollow. All I am saying is this: "Even before you preach, you have to be a good theologian. In other words, your theological lens or perspective is a basic starting point." Otherwise, people always preach the text naively regardless of which text they read. Why does this happen? It is because they preach the texts with a same naive theology all the time. It is a miracle how some preachers preach often contradicting, difficult texts harmoniously without tensions with other texts. Whichever texts they read, the conclusion is always the same, something like this: "Jesus is the way; Jesus saved you because he died for your sins." Therefore, the most important first step for a better preaching is not to begin reading the text but to begin reading your perspective or theological lens.

How do you read the text (the Bible)?
Each text can be read on its own without being harmonized with other texts or being reduced to one particular meaning. Even though all texts, written or living texts (life), are inter-textual, it does not mean that all texts can be mingled without careful discernment. An example helps. If the difficulties of innocent human suffering or problem of theodicy is a focus of preaching with a text chosen from the book of Job, by and large, preaching should stay with that particular concerns that people need to tackle. If a preacher adds a Jesus-talk in the middle of a sermon saying, "Jesus suffered for you and your tears will be wiped out eventually," he or she suddenly confuses listeners (at least for me) because the main issue of theodicy or innocent suffering in Job is lost. In other words, there must be tensions intact throughout, thorny issues regarding God's character or innocent human suffering without giving an easy answer. Obviously, Jesus did not remove suffering of people today. Jesus' suffering on a cross did not eliminate suffering of people today. But still preachers do the same preaching again and over again. I guess people in the pew listen to the same sermon again and over again. Then, what? Does this help? Is this sermon a panacea for all kinds of disease? Or is it opium that gives people oblivion about their lives?

Do you know basic skills of preaching?
Whichever sermon we hear, we expect something of a life lesson or a moral challenge, or some sort of spiritual comfort or encouragement. This means the entire sermon needs to get focused on a particular need or issue. But the real sermon is a far cry from this. Some preachers are almost writing a book when preaching. I mean he or she uses big theological vocabularies without clarity or elaboration, much less with real life connection. Some are explaining about theological doctrines without life lessons in real life contexts that the audience needs to tackle. Others are doing a very good job in the beginning; there is a nice introduction with possible topics and thesis promised. However, soon my expectation collapses when the preacher suddenly incorporates a particular view of atonement when talking about innocent suffering of humanity (as mentioned before). I still don't know how Job's suffering is related to Jesus'. There can be a connection between them. But there must be a clear explanation about that. Otherwise, that is a moment of anticlimax.

*Disclaimers: My observation here is personal. Don't take offense if you disagree with me.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Theological Introduction to Paul's Letters

A Theological Introduction to Paul's Letters: Exploring a Threefold Theology of Paul (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011)

The book informational page

Sample syllabus

  • A new wave of Pauline theology characterized by the threefold participation of God, Christ, and the believer
  • An extensive, insightful, original research on key themes of Paul’s texts and contexts
  • Engaging Paul for today: Convergence of theology and ethics

Author information
Yung Suk Kim is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology, Virginia Union University, in Richmond, Virginia. Kim is the author of Christ’s Body in Corinth: The Politics of a Metaphor(Fortress, 2008), and editor of the Journal of Bible and Human Transformation (Sopher Press).

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Music and theology (written in 2000)

Music and theology basically deal with human experiences, which involve our whole sphere of life interacting with the world, people, and God. Music is composed, based on a composer’s self-reflections on the world and meaning of life. Theology is not very different. Sad or merry, lucky or unfortunate, mundane or religious, private or public, light or serious events can be expressed, interpreted or reinterpreted by the theologian. In fact, many classic music pieces have been written through the religious spirit. Maybe it would be impossible for us to think of Beethoven and Mozart without religion or theology. Their faith with life stories was expressed through music that delivers messages, feelings, and mysterious sound. Likewise, theology is a response to a life, based on reflections on our lives: happy or sad events, mysterious experiences, inexplicable life moments, etc. A theologian uses religious language, symbols, metaphors, and all forms of story to do theology.

Music and theology is a public act, because they touch on other people. Any music piece or theological work must be played out in public to make effect on the audience. There is responsibility entailing of course. Any theological work should be shared with others so that there might be further theological conversations. Theology must be practiced and rewritten accordingly because there is new discussion and engagement among people. These days I feel a great responsibility that I have to take my theology to the public and listen to other people. My audience is never a silent multitude.

Four seasons: Memory ingrained in my flesh and blood (written in 2000)

My early childhood memories begin and end with nature. There were no toys or television sets available in our small village; so we had to go out to play with other kids in the rice fields or on the little plateau of the small mountains in front of our village. I have so many beautiful memories about these early days. I would like to describe how we played in nature according to the seasonal change. In spring we have a very mild weather, which naturally calls our minds into the rice fields, the hilly small mountains and orchards and vineyards. Usually we play soccer on the low plateau or sometimes on the rice fields. Often times we play other kind of games that has to do with the ground. Another time in spring we go out to the mountain or orchards to find a bird’s nest or sometimes to put a trap in between the fence trees to catch a wild rabbit. At another time we shoot birds with a handmade wooden rubber shooter (sling shot). This very primitive tool cannot kill birds but at most hurt them maybe. Still at times we just play on the grass by wrestling with one another. As is often the case, one of our tasks as a rural boy is to feed rabbits or oxen at home, which means we have to collect various plant foods from the nature. Those good plants for rabbit and oxen can be obtained in the edges of the unpaved rural pathways, of riverbanks, small fords, rice fields, orchards, and so forth. But sometimes we take our oxen to the good places to feed them.

In summer we go to a river to swim or to fish. We have a shallow river a mile off from our village. We all kids love water. Nobody taught us how to swim, but we learned. We go fishing at times to the rivers and ponds. On some rainy nights we stay awake to catch lots of fish. In autumn we help our parents in harvesting rice, apple, grape, pear, watermelon, and many other produces. In the middle of dark night, sometimes we crawl under the fence of the small watermelon field to pick and eat watermelon. When winter comes, we go to the small mountains to hunt rabbits by chasing them through their footsteps clearly marked on the snow. We also do sledding at a small hilly mountain, using a small plate put on our hips. At other times, we go to the frozen rivers or the ponds to enjoy skating or to break ice (risky play) in the middle of the ponds.

Nature, my school (written in 2000)

Long ago I was sitting on a bench at Nichols Park in South Chicago. On a sunny, breezy, flowery, green, spring afternoon, heart-melting spring wind touches on my winter soul, barren tiredness after a long snowy, chilly, desolate winter. I felt ineffably smug like a baby in a mother’s bosom. Green grass, different plants and trees blanket the whole park. My eyes conspicuously spotted yellow dandelion. Some trees wear white flowers; still others do not put on any green clothing and remain the same as winter. I see some trees tall and others small. Above me the sparse gray-white clouds hung in the sky and the pleasant sun throws its warming light upon nature. Birds are singing sweet songs of the spring. When I look at green leaves, I feel energized. Looking at winter trees that do not hold any leaves, I prepare for the spring through winter. It is a great reminder that how humans go through that kind of cycle, which is nothing negative but a necessary part of life rooted in divine, providential wisdom.

Oh! Nature is truly a learning school--the best school in the world. I can learn many things from great nature, which has multiple, divergent, different colors, shapes, and heights. No green or white is superior to black or brown or yellow. In nature many different things naturally inhabit. Each thing in nature does not seem strange to one another. Each thing is just there as part of the whole and also as a distinctive agent in nature. When each thing takes one’s own color, shape, and size, which means distinctiveness, then each thing in nature is beautiful on its own and is in harmony with other things. Heidegger’s philosophic idea dasein (being-there) is a great reminder that each being in nature is meaningful by being there. In other words, no one can control others' existence or impose a meaning on to the other. It is a joy to find a similar idea from the Chinese word for nature: cha-yun. Cha literally means "for oneself" or "self" and yun means "for granted" or "given."

In nature, there is no hierarchy but interdependent relation through which other things exist. On the other side of "being-there," interdependence or interconnected life in nature must be emphasized, as modern ecology or biology or any other science greatly reflects this interconnected life in the world and universe, which marks a great shift away from Newtonian idea of materialistic, atomic, mechanic worldview in which things are not connected with each other, often leading to lifeless study and to an exploitation of nature. Sheer realization is that no thing in the world or universe including humankind can exist without its connection (interdependence) to others.

Reflections (written in 2000)

Staying is different from living. I have stayed in Hyde Park, Chicago, but I have not lived here in a sense much less enjoying this neighborhood; I was not aware of this community of neighborhood. Most of time I just passed by the streets or maybe I thought I didn't have to know this community. I stayed here in Hyde Park as guest. But today I realized that I live here. This afternoon my wife and I went out for lunch. By the way the weather was just perfect. We went to a small neighborhood restaurant. Food was wonderful together with nice people there. After eating, we walked around the Harper court to see what was interesting around us. We found many interesting stores such as health foods, records store, and face and body care shop, etc. For the first time since we lived here we realized that living is different from staying.

Stillness in the midst of busy-ness, 3/1/2000
No matter how busy, there is always a place for stillness, a time for calm down, a time for a little reflection, a time for thinking back to my past life, a time for thinking ahead of my life. 'Busyness' doesn't have to do with my absolute time. Rather, it has to do with my mind capacity. Even Jesus often times found a still place, a kind of solitary place for praying, for thinking ahead of his life, even though he was so busy taking care of the needy. I need ten minutes with my own place of being myself. It can be a corner of the library or any place that I find easily according to the day's situation. The richness of life is from the little time of contemplation. I enjoy being alone, at least for ten minutes a day. I stand before God as a solitary unique person.
A little flower that knows the time, 2/29/2000
After a long hibernation a tiny flower in front of my apartment was in bud. It could not be seen easily before our eyes because we don't have still mind and open eyes. But this afternoon I saw it awakening from such a long sleeping. I was just amazed by this flower that knows the time to come out and to tell the season to us. A time to know the season, a time to rethink about our past winter, a time to awaken my hibernation, a time to restart and a time to work.  

Going round is not really going round, 3/7/2000
My daily life is full of busy schedule. So often times I am hurried to making my schedule going well. I choose the best way to keep my schedule fine. I am probably too much tuned to economic living that needs efficient time management. As always, I try to find a short-cut to get to the meeting place. But life is not used to such a well-planned economic system. Rather, life needs a free, flexible, indirect way. That is to say, GOING ROUND gives us time to enjoy the time and the process of getting there. How did I get this idea? This morning I walked around the nearby park Nichols in the morning. With the fresh air I tasted a smell of maturity of the spring. In fact, this park is close to our apartment by several blocks away. But I don't use this park all year around. I could have used this park going to the school or the bank I was going to. Life is not always giving us a best shortcut. Intentionally I choose a round-way. Going round is also going.

A new definition of living together, 3/8/2000
When we say we live together, it usually means living together with other people (human beings). But living together is not complete unless we extend its meaning and boundary to the whole creation. Namely, we have to include birds, dogs, any living animals, any kind of living things on the world such as trees, plants, grass, and more than that, even including the earth, air, the wind, whatever exists in the world. But unfortunately because of our anthropocentric orientation we have been thinking in a way that we maximize our own benefits at the price of our fellow beings whether living or not. When we say that we are part of nature, our eyes and ears are opened so that we can hear the sound, the color, and the smell of the nature. We, then, can hear the birds singing and flying over the sky freely. We would spot even a little movement of the ants on the ground, otherwise it will never be recognized. Humans are not a center in this world but just a part of it. What is benefit for us to say this? Yes there is a big benefit. Try this! Go out for a walk in the early morning and find a best park or any street you want to walk on for a while. Slowly walk around it and have attention on your breath, on whatever you see with the fresh air. Then your heart will be full of the energy of the nature.

Living with disability in God and community, 6/22/2000
Many people live with disability but our culture and society function for the majority of "normal" persons. I walk well but sometimes I do not consider much about those who do not walk well. I think every one tends to forget about others' difficulty. In one way or another, we all have kinds of disability or weakness. Nevertheless, somehow we tend to promote the society of "normal" people. But we have to remember we have more or less intrinsic disability whether it is physical or not. The weakness or disability of our bodies makes us rethink of ourselves, especially about our living together. In other words, the life of a community needs to find a new meaning of living together. The meaningfulness of a community does not lie in the degree of success, which is measured by soundness or healthiness or normality. The real meaning of a community, I think, should be found in its community itself in terms of how that community as a whole supports the weak, the unfortunate and the disabled in many ways. In this way of thinking disability is not an unfortunate thing of an individual but a task that a community should embrace to support for the disabled persons. This word "support" does not limit to social welfare. It is more than that. In fact, this support involves a whole aspects of life, from bodily to spiritual, from social, communal to personal. It is also a mystery that we grow together through taking care of each other. Sharing our sound body with others and supporting for those in need are blessings of God who intends to enrich our human community in a way we learn to help each other.

Dancing at a time of low
When I led a bible study group, one person asked or rather challenged to me, saying: "how is it possible to dance when I am low?" In fact, this question was not a sudden but was expected because my day's topic or theme was related to dancing with God. My thesis was that we could dance bodily or spiritually in any circumstances. What is dancing? If we can think of dancing as an expression of merriness with a bodily movement, that person cannot dance at all when s/he is low. But what if we would think of dancing as something like an expression of our whole being, high or low? Certainly, there is a sorrowful or liberating dancing in Korea such as Hanpoori, which is usually performed by women. Women used to express their Han - bitter and hurt feeling or oppressed one - by this Hanpoori. In this sense of dancing of Han, dancing is hardly related to simple joy or happiness. Rather, hanpoori is one way of letting go of emotional or oppressive leftover of hearts. Through that process of Hanpoori, women reach liberating moments and get energy to sustain them with self-empowerment. So, we can dance all the time, high or low. Dancing is, in essence, God's in a sense that God is dancing with intra-divine relationship: God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Like a divine community of dancing, our dancing is also danced in a community, high or low.

A Life of Kenosis

ONCE upon a time there were a father and his son, who lived as beggars. One day just across a river they watched a big house engulfed by the fire. This father said to his son proudly, "my son, we are so fortunate because we do not have any house to be burnt down." This comic but pithy conversation speaks of some lesson about our life. Buddhist book banyshimkyung says, "sak-jeuk-see-gong and gong-jeuk-see-sak," which can be translated as "all visible things are empty, and all that are empty are all visible." It is hard to explain here what it means. I can say like this: life is nothing (empty) but your nothingness (emptiness) makes you something.

Similarly, Christian understanding of kenosis (Phil 2:6-11, emptying of oneself) reflects nothingness attitude in our life. It is also found in the Q gospel: There was ONCE a rich man whose lands yielded a good harvest. He thought to himself, "What should I do? I don't have enough room to store my crops. I know, I'll tear down my barns and build bigger ones so that I can keep all my grain in them. Then I will say to myslef, 'I have enough to last me for years. I can take it easy, eat, drink and have a good time.' But God said to him, "You fool! This very night you may die. Then who will own this hoard of yours? So it is with those who pile up possessions but remain poor in the treasures of the spirit. Jesus says, "if you try to gain your life, you will lose it; but if you lose it, you will gain it."

St. Paul also says, "I die everyday on the cross." If you gather more and more and do not give out, you will soon be troubled with riches of consuming fire, and it can happen even now. You will become slaves of riches. But if you give up more and more, your freedom of heart will be greater and greater. Furthermore, your self will live a meaning life, a perfection of life with a sense of living with others in the community. In this way our life extends forever. Its basis is nothing, which gives a sense of something special in your life, and then by return you can become anything to serve others.