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.