Global Christianities and Religious Pluralism

On February 21, 2012, the Center for Christianities in Global Contexts organized and sponsored a noontime panel discussion entitled “Global Christianities and Religious Pluralism.”  This was a follow-up on the November 9, 2011, panel entitled “Global Christianities: Complicating the Concept.”  The panel invited exploration of the question of why it is that we must, seemingly, engage the issue of religious pluralism when we think about Christianity as a global phenomenon.  It also provided an occasion to celebrate Professor Wesley Ariarajah and the recent publication of a “Festschrift” entitled Theology Beyond Neutrality, in honor of his seventieth birthday.  Dean Jeffrey Kuan offered a welcome and CCGC Co-Director Virginia Burrus introduced and presided over the panel, which included presentations by faculty members Wesley Ariarajah, Hyo-Dong Lee, and Laurel Kearns, as well as Luce Graduate Fellow Junehee Yoon.  Like the prior panel discussion, this event was extremely well attended and generated much enthusiasm on the part of attendees.

Dr. Ariarajah opened the panel by stating that there are at least three core issues that link global Christianities with religious pluralism—theology, missiology, and ecumenism.  In elaborating these points, he initially sketched a concise history of Christology, noting that Jesus was first received as a teacher, or rabbi, whose message focused on the Kingdom of God.  Subsequently, the figure of Jesus as teacher was overshadowed by that of Jesus as Messiah, interpreted in the light of the Jewish scriptures.  Later still, as Jesus’ following reached beyond the Jewish communities, Greco-Roman cultural categories came to dominate the interpretation of Jesus’ significance.  At this point, Ariarajah fast-forwarded to the seventeenth century, when Christianity reached into new regions of Asia and Africa.  “One might have expected that the same thing would have occurred,” he noted, namely, that Christianity would have acculturated with respect to local religions and philosophies in Asia and Africa.  “But what happened? Nothing happened!” he exclaimed. Because modern missions were carried out as an aspect of western colonialism, evangelization was burdened by an unquestioned sense of western cultural superiority.  As a result, “Christianity was impoverished,” Ariarajah stated.  Indeed, this remains the case, as non-western theologies continue to be located on the margins of western theologies, or inscribed as postscripts, when they are recognized at all.  “This is one of the largest challenges we face,” urged Ariarajah.  “Christian theology as such must change, and not just by addenda.”

Ariarajah next turned to consider the terms of Christian missiology more closely. He recalled the 1910 World Missions Conference, with its slogan, “evangelization of the world in this generation.”  The fact is, whatever the aspirations of this conference might have been, evangelization was not particularly successful in much of Asia and Africa; to this day, only 2% of Indians are Christian, for example.    The question that Christians must therefore confront is:  “What happens if people hear the gospel and do not accept it?”  Ariarajah went on to wonder whether the Christian mission might not have been fundamentally misunderstood when it was taken to be directed at other religious traditions.  “If this is misguided, what should the mission be today?” he asked, stressing that “any global Christianity has to completely rethink missions.”  It is about people and their needs, not about conversion, he urged.  Correspondingly, ecumenism itself needs to be rethought.  Is it about the unity of the church? About the unity of people in a particular region?  It is about the unity of humanity, Professor Ariarajah proposed.

The presentations by Dr. Lee and Ms. Yoon picked up on themes introduced by Dr. Ariarajah, while looking more closely at the particular historical circumstances of Korean Christianity.  Dr. Lee spoke about two incidents that he believes embody the complexity of the missionary and colonial legacies of Korean Christianity; each evidences both the antagonisms and the hybridities that have resulted from the encounter of Christianity with other religions and philosophies in Korea.  The first incident took place in 1791, when Yun Ji-chung and Kwon Sang-yeon, Christians from the Korean ruling class of Confucian literati, burnt the ancestral tablets used in the rites of ancestor veneration.  Christianity initially came to Korea not through missionaries but out of scholarly interest in so-called “western learning” (i.e., Roman Catholicism), made known to the Korean elite through the influence of Chinese Christians.  Roman Catholic missions to China go back as early as the arrival of the Jesuit Matteo Ricci in 1582, and Ricci himself had attempted a “Confucianization” of Christianity that met with papal disapproval.  In late eighteenth-century Korea, Catholics were a tiny minority, and at first they were ignored or tolerated as engaged in an idiosyncratic scholarly pursuit.  “But Korean Roman Catholic Christianity was on a collision course with the state when it rejected the core Confucian ritual of ancestor veneration,” noted Lee.  When major persecutions and martyrdoms took place in 1801, 1839, and 1866, two kinds of response arose from among Korean Catholics, one polemical, the other accommodating.  For example, Hwang Sa-yeong called for armed intervention from the West.; Jeong Ha-sang, in contrast, penned a “Letter to the Prime Minister” in which he argued that the respect for parents and monarch so important to Confucianism was also part of the Ten Commandments.  These twin strategies of antagonism and hybridization have remained part of Korean Christianity, as Lee emphasized; even ancestor worship was ultimately accommodated through the practice of “chudo yebae.”

The second exemplary incident that Lee discussed was the Japanese colonial imposition of Shinto ritual as a patriotic duty in the early 1930s, resulting in the imprisonment and martyrdom of some Presbyterian, Methodist, and other Protestant Christians who refused to comply.  Again, this crisis was the culmination of a longer history, this time of North American Protestant missions, which began in the mid 1880s.  “The missionaries established a secure presence by offering modern technology and educational institutions,” noted Lee, and when Japanese colonial rule was imposed “the Christian Gospel came to be seen as the source of dignity, self-affirmation, and strength for the Korean people.”   Indeed, Korean Protestantism came to be closely allied with Korean nationalism, and the churches played a leading role in the March 1st independence movement of 1919.   At the same time, Korean Christians took on the hostile attitude of the missionaries not only toward the religious traditions of their Japanese colonizers but also toward indigenous Korean religious traditions.  This was the case even though they had adopted aspects of Korean folk religions, whether wittingly or unwittingly: “Protestant pastors, like practitioners of folk religion, used everyday language as the language of rituals, including the names of God (haneunim, hananim),” explained Lee; “their participatory style of worship, large scale revivals, early morning prayer meetings, ‘mountaintop prayers’ all resembled the rituals of charismatic shamans in emotional intensity.”  Here too we see a doubled heritage of antagonism and (largely disavowed) hybridization, now entangled more than ever with national identity, political liberation, and decolonization.

Lee left his audience with the parting question:  Do these two incidents constitute cases of “religious” conflict and/or “interreligious” relations, and if so, what do we learn from them?  Clearly, religion, culture, and colonialism cannot be easily disentangled from one another in the history of Korean Christianity.

Ms. Yoon carried the Korean story forward while also engaging some of the theological questions raised by Dr. Ariarajah.   She opened with a set of provocative questions:  “Just how ‘plural’ can Christianities be? Does the term ‘global Christianities’ imply the embrace of multiple cultural customs and religious rituals by Christian believers? Are we Christians willing to dialogue with people of other religions to the point of open discussion and questioning of our core doctrine of salvation?”  Yoon echoed Lee in observing  that Christianity had played a liberating role for many Koreans in relation to both the Confucian hierarchy and Japanese imperialism; however, the result was a version of Christian imperialism vis-à-vis other religions–religions that were, moreover, entwined with Korean cultural identity and practice.  “Ancestor worship, Shamanism, Buddhism, as well as other mediums of worship that Koreans had practiced for thousands of years, had to be abandoned if Koreans were to accept Jesus as their only savior, and God as the one God.  In this exchange, the missionaries were givers and Koreans were receivers of the truth,” she argued. Yoon added that the Christian missionary ideology was not without racist overtones, as has so often been the case in the history of imperialism and colonialism.

Nonetheless, attempts to indigenize or inculturate Christianity in Korea have been made, as Yoon went on to relate.  In the 1960s and 1970s, Yoon Sung-Bum called for better understandings of Korean religious heritage, but he did so primarily in order to filter out this heritage from Koreans’ understanding of Christianity;[i] he utilized Korean cultural heritage only insofar as it served the existing Christian doctrine and tradition.[ii] “In the end, Yoon’s theology was more about protecting Christianity from adaptation than about inculturating the Christian message into the Korean heritage,” observed Yoon.  In the 1970s and 1980s, however, Yoo Dong-Sik engaged Korean heritage more profoundly in his theological articulations, based on his belief that Korean spirituality is grounded in traditional Korean Shamanism, whence it evolved through the encounter with other religious traditions such as Buddhism and Confucianism, ultimately reaching its full expression with Christianity.[iii]  Thus, Yoo Dong-Sik “attempted to acculturate the Christian message into Korean culture, whereas Yoon Sung-Bum resisted any sort of acculturation in order to secure the purity of the Christian religion,” noted Yoon.  Yoo Dong-Sik denied that his theology was syncretistic, however, insisting that it was simply a transformation of the universal Christian message into a Korean context.[iv]  Moreover, he negated all possibilities of finding salvation in other religions, differing little from Yoon Sung-Bum on this point.

Two theologians who affirmed salvation outside of Christianity met with significant resistance.  Byeon Seon Hwan’s inculturation theology, also of the 1970s and 1980s, began with a dialogue with Buddhism and broadened to engage other religious views.[v] He argued that dialogues could not be unilateral but were necessarily reciprocal; moreover, he suggested that reciprocal dialogue requires Christianity to accept other religions as partners who have their own truth. His view was compatible with, and in conversation with, the theologies of John Hick, Paul Knitter, and Raimundo Panikkar.[vi] However, Byeon’s endeavor to create an interreligiously dialogical and thereby genuinely Korean Christian theology was caught in heated debates among Korean Christians, and eventually he was expelled from the Korean Methodist conference on charges of syncretism. Chung Hyun Kyung was caught in similarly passionate debates about syncretism, in the wake of her speech at the 1991 World Council of Churches Assembly in Canberra, Australia.[vii]  The speech was denounced by most theologians in Korea as blasphemous. They condemned her shamanistic costume and rituals and her theological linking of the Korean traditional concept of han-spirit with the Holy Spirit.  Chung Hyun Kyung’s name continues, for many, to be associated with that speech and the charge of syncretism.

Yoon concluded by suggesting that we should follow Chung in letting go of the fear of syncretism, which need not be encountered as a threat to Christian identity.  Rather, proposed Yoon, so-called syncretism is a marker of Christianity’s capacity to transform itself so as to convey the wisdom of all of the peoples of the globe, “so that we can really listen to people’s cries and answer their cries with healing and comforting power.”

The twinned topics of global Christianities and religious pluralism may seem to pertain only to Christianity that is “elsewhere.”  Dr. Kearns reminded us that this is not at all the case!  A glance at the Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey[viii] indicates how religiously pluralistic the U.S. is.  Moreover, each of the categories listed in the survey (“Evangelical Protestant,” “Muslim,” “Hindu,” etc.) encompasses a diversity of religious, racial/ethnic, and national groupings.  For example, Muslim Americans originate from more than 80 countries.  “Contrary to popular belief, most are not Arab.  Nearly one-third are South Asian, one-third are Arab, one-fifth are U.S.-born black Muslims (mainly converts), and a small but growing number are U.S.-born Anglo and Hispanic converts.”[ix] Interestingly, a 2008 poll found that 52% of U.S. Christians think that at least some non-Christian religions “can lead to eternal life,”[x] suggesting that religious pluralism is more widely accepted and even embraced than is usually portrayed by the American media, noted Kearns.  (One might wonder what a similar poll in Korea would reveal.)

Yet merely to note the religious pluralism of the U.S. does not tell the whole story.  Christian privilege remains a strong feature of the U.S. religious landscape, as evidenced in the broad cultural assumption that Christian holidays are not work days, but other religious holidays may be. More subtly, perhaps, Protestant Christianity tends to set the terms for religious life in the U.S.  “Reformed Judaism and The Buddhist Churches of America are a good example of what scholars term the ‘Protestantization of religion’ in the U.S.,” stated Kearns.  A certain Protestant-centered concept of what a religion looks like prevails, and non-Christian religions tend to conform to these expectations in order to gain acceptance.  “Religion is associated with a building and events taking place at a certain time on the weekend and includes ‘hymns’ and some form of religious education similar to ‘Sunday school’; authority is vested in a pastorlike figure.” Another kind of change that takes place in the religious practice of immigrant groups, suggested Kearns, is that religion becomes more closely fused with racial/ethnic or national identity.  The religious community becomes the place where cultural traditions are maintained and transmitted, in other words–an endeavor typically met with ambivalence on the part of a younger, more Americanized generation.  Tension may arise not only generationally within the U.S. context but also in the relationship to religious practices back “home,” due not only to changes taking place in the U.S. but also to changes taking place elsewhere:  the U.S. immigrant religion may express both an Americanized and an “outdated” style of religiosity, from the perspective of the denizens of the immigrants’ countries of origin.

The U.S. religious landscape, like the Indian or Korean religious landscape, is thus very much a global or transnational one as well as a religiously pluralistic one, caught up in dynamic processes of ongoing change and multidirectional influence.  The West may have brought Christianity to Asia and Africa, but Asians and Africans have also brought their religions to the West—including their own varieties of Christianity.  The layered complexity of cultural and religious interactions across both place and time is difficult to overestimate.  Yet it is consistently occluded by Christian theologies that strain, understandably, to give expression to an identity and doctrine that is both distinctive vis-à-vis other religions and universally shared by Christians of all times and places.  As the panel discussion opened out to include voices from the audience, many wondered how our theologies might continue to become more responsive to the global and pluralistic context of Christianity.  For example, might the creative and ongoing processes of religio-cultural syncretism—something simply taken for granted by sociologists, anthropologists, or historians–be embraced rather than repressed and denounced as heretical?  Ariarajah suggested, with a twinkle in his eye, that the most distinctive and universally shared feature of Christianity might be precisely its religio-cultural mobility and adaptability:  “Christianity is the most syncretistic of all religious traditions!” he declared.Virginia Burrus, Professor of Early Christianity and Co-Director of CCGC

[i] Yoon Sung-Bum, “Bokeumeui Tochakwhaae Daehan Junihae” (Preunderstanding of Inculturation of Gospel), Gidokkyo Sasang (Christian Thought) (June 1963): 31. [Korean]


[ii] For example, Yoon Sung-Bum hypothesized that Dangun mythology (a Korean legend about the legendary founder of Gojosun, the first Korean kingdom) originated from the Christian understanding of the Trinity. Yoon Sung-Bum, “Hananim Gaenyumeui Saegyesajeok Sunggyuk” (Historical character of the concept of God), Sasangge (Thoughts), (September 1963): 229. [Korean]


[iii] Yoo Dong-Sik, “Poongryu Sinhakeui Yeoro” (A Journey of Poongryu theology) Jeonggyo Dawonjooeuieui Mirae (Future of Pluralism) (Seoul: JongRo Seojeok, 1988). [Korean]

[iv] Yoo Dong-Sik, “Bokeumeui Tochakhwawa Sungyojeok Gwajae” (Inculturation of Gospel and Missiological Task), Dowa Logos (Tao and Logos), (Seoul: Daehan Kidokgyoseohwae, 1978). [Korean]


[v] Byeon Seon Hwan,”The problem of the Finally of Christ in the Perspective of Christian-Zen Encounter”  (Dr. Theol. Diss., Univ. Basel, 1975); Byeon Seon Hwan, “YuBulSunMu wa Gongjonhanun gilro” [A Way of Coexistence with Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Shamanism], Madang (Feburary 1984) [Korean]

[vi] Byeon Seon Hwan introduced their theologies and translated their books into Korean, i.e., Paul Knitter’s No Other Name? and John Hick’s The Metaphor of God Incarnate.


[vii] An edited version of her speech can be found at



[ix] Jen’nan Ghazal Read, “Muslims in America,” Contexts 7(4): 40.