Ten Theologians Respond to the Unification Church - Edited by Herbert Richardson 1981

Toward an Asianization of Christianity: Demise or Metamorphosis? -- T. James Kodera

One of the common charges directed against the Unification Church is the alleged incongruity of "Korean Christianity." The charge stems from the doubt that a teenager in a far corner of the Asiatic continent could receive a revelation in which he was exhorted to take up Jesus' 'unfinished task" and to help realize the millennial prayer of the Christians, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Such a doubt seems deeply rooted in theological claims and cultural assumptions that have remained scarcely challenged for centuries. There is the Biblical proclamation that God works through history; when taken literally, God unveils his will only in the particularities of his chosen people, the Hebrews.- The Reformation claim of self-sufficiency of the Biblical revelation renders the Protestants more adamant than the Catholics to acknowledge the possibility of continuing revelation outside the historic and spatial confines of the biblical people.1 The puritan and evangelistic missionaries of the nineteenth century West, particularly of North America, lived with the conviction that the white, Christian West was divinely summoned to convert the heathen East from what they regarded as the tyranny of superstition and magic. To confine revelation to historical and cultural particularities is not only to delimit the infinity of divine wisdom but also to disclaim the universality of the very cause that sent forth believing men and women to the farthest regions of the world to lead the "heathens" from darkness to light, from death to life. The white, Christian West has, however, faced the rest of the world as in dire spiritual need, as objects of conversion, but not as a locus in which God may yet reveal Himself as part of his continuing reign over history.

Although the Christians for centuries have sought to read eschatology unfolding in the ebb and tide of their own history and that of the Hebrews, the turbulent history of the rest of the world has been either condemned as God's judgment or relegated to outside the reaches of God's redemption. In the sixteenth century, the Catholic nations of Europe spread the Gospel to the "heathen" world, but they also colonized the lands of untapped treasures with the might of firearms. Prior to the Pilgrims and the Puritans, North America was discovered by these zealots. The subsequent global expedition of the Protestant nations was no less, if not more, motivated by the incongruous amalgam of evangelism and colonialism. Singularly the most pressing cause for turbulence in the non-Christian, non-white parts of the world in the last two centuries is their passionate pursuit of severance from the oppression of western colonial powers, While the prevailing view among the Westerners was to regard it as native rebellions, there were men and women of discerning conscience who found themselves moved by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Steven Biko and disturbed by the capacity of their brethren for savagery in India, Vietnam and South Africa, to name but a few.

In Asia, until the last few decades, normative Christian faith and institution was conceived in western terms. For centuries, the native converts had no access to the highest ecclesiastical offices where standards of Christian belief and conduct were set. It is a fact that in spite of their indigenization policies, the Jesuits did not ordain the natives to priesthood in sixteenth and seventeenth century Japan and elsewhere for reasons unknown other than the suggestion that converted, non-white Christians were somehow less legitimate....

This paper explores the possibility of reinterpreting the Christian Gospel in Asian terms in order that not only Christianity may become a viable option for the Asians but also it may once again offer the Westerners a catalyst for a transforming reality, both individually and communally. This paper examines briefly the content and the extent of "Asianization" (a term coined after "westernization"). The purpose is to promote creative thinking and to facilitate ongoing discussion on a number of pivotal questions that need to be raised. Are there common denominators between Christianity and Eastern religious and philosophical heritage? How compatible is human pride with humility which the Christian Gospel exhorts? Why do certain firm religious convictions foster and justify prejudices? What is the meaning of God's working in human history? Are there pre-Christian and extra-Christian factors contributing to the making of "orthodox" Christian teaching? What constitutes Christian faith, hope and love?

* * *

The history of Christian mission, particularly after the sixteenth century, has unfolded a strikingly similar face in different parts of Asia. Before the improved navigation gave the Spaniards and the Portuguese, and later the Dutch and the English, the power to colonize the rest of the world half a millennium ago2, there was no fear of the West in the East. Both sides of the world found each other utterly fascinating. Marco Polo's travel on land to China in the thirteenth century, the driving forces behind Christopher Columbus' journey to what he thought was Asia and the whole Silk Road trade illustrate mutual fascination between the East and the West. The Nestorian Christians, the followers of Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople, who were declared heretical and excommunicated by the ecumenical council in 431 sought refuge in India and China where they were warmly welcomed. After the sixteenth century, however, zealous missionary activities came to be perceived inextricably linked to the far-flung colonialism of the white, Christian nations of the West. The Portuguese Jesuits successfully Christened and colonized the two key ports of the Indian Ocean, Goa and Macao. When Francisco Xavier reached the southern shores of Japan, intending to convert the entire nation from the emperor on down, he enjoyed initial favor. The seed sown by him grew rapidly. By the time Alessandro Valignano, the Italian Jesuit, arrived to become the chief architect of the Japanese mission, there was a flourishing community of some 100,000 Christian converts, mostly in and around the city of Nagasaki. They included many feudal lords who considered their conversion advantageous to their trade with the Portuguese and especially to their military advancement with the superior European weaponry. When the shrewdest and the luckiest among the contending feudal lords succeeded in unifying the war-torn Japan in the late sixteenth century, suddenly there emerged a need to protect the fragile nation from any potential threat, both internal and external. In 1587, Hideyoshi, the Horatio Alger of Japan, ordered the expulsion of all Christian missionaries. When disobeyed, six Franciscan missionaries,3 seventeen Japanese converts and three Japanese novitiates in the Jesuit order, altogether twenty-six, were crucified on a cold winter's morning in 1597 in Nagasaki to show the remaining Christians the fate they, too, might face unless apostatized. A far more systematic and extensive campaign against the followers of the despised teaching of the "foreign devils" was waged under the Tokugawa shogunate. By the mid-1600s, every visible vestige of the mocked religion disappeared, although the most persistent believers, mostly illiterate peasants and fishermen, went into hiding until their descendants were discovered in the mid-nineteenth century.

Why did the feudal rulers of Japan adopt the policy of unrelenting persecution of the Christians? What was their red motive? The more research is done on the subject, the dearer it becomes that if Christianity had not brought with it the aggressive colonialism of the West to Japan, the shoguns would not have feared the missionaries and converts as co-conspirators. Recent historic findings indicate that not only did some of the early Portuguese and Spanish missionaries have colonialist ideas but some even believed that Christianity could take root more quickly through military take-over and recommended as much to their governments.4

In China, the Jesuits had considerable success due largely to their extraordinary effort at indigenizing Christianity in native Chinese ideological and cultural terms, The greatest of these pioneers was the Italian, Matteo Ricci, a.k.a, Li Ma-tou (1552-1610), who was gifted with great intellectual acumen in theology, literature and science, combined with engaging personality. Guided by their earlier experiences in India and Japan, Ricci and his followers adopted Chinese cultural mores to a maximum extent, including the donning of a Confucian scholar's gown, while avoiding all open connections with the Portuguese traders in Macao. Instead of preaching they marveled the Chinese with demonstrations of prisms, docks and geographical knowledge. Above all, they spoke fluent Mandarin. All these enabled Ricci to represent Christianity as a system of wisdom and ethics comparable to classical Confucianism. Furthermore, Ricci gained access to the innermost circles of the Chinese intelligentsia and court. Ricci received stipend as a scholar from the emperor, while making converts at all levels of the society Ricci's successors carried on his tradition of indigenization and non-pastoral approach to proselytizing. The German Jesuit, Johannes Adam Schall von Bell (1591-1666), sought to help the Chinese improve their calendar through the application of western astronomy. The Son of Heaven, as the emperor of China was called, took particular interest in the idea because of his responsibility to carry out the "Mandate of Heaven." He needed a calendar that would accurately foretell the position of heavenly bodies and the timing of the seasons. Schall met that need fully, and celebrated his first mass in China in the palace itself. In the meantime, the decay of the Ming regime made the dynasty no longer a worthy focus of loyalty for many Chinese scholars. As a result, they turned to the combination of western science and Christian ethics. The most famous among them was Hsu Kuang-ch'i (Christian name: Pad Hsu, 1562-1633), who, as Grand Secretary, granted missionaries entree into high official circles. Hsu and Schall helped the Ming court obtain western arms to fight against the surging Manchus. The height of the Jesuit success in China was during the middle decades of the long reign of the mighty emperor K'ang-hsi5. The method of sinification as a means of applying Christianity to the concrete realities of China indeed worked. Paul Hsu remarked that Christianity "does away with Buddhism and completes Confucianism," At that time, Buddhism had fallen from favor and Confucianism was on the rise again.

The eclipse of the Jesuit influence was, however, inevitable for one principal reason. Their indigenization efforts were perceived by the purists as going too far. The Jesuits were accused of allowing "pagan worship," referring to their veneration of ancestors before the family altar which was essential to the Chinese way of life. They were charged therefore with allowing the destruction of the original monotheistic character of Christianity. These accusations were reported to the Vatican by the Franciscan and Dominican friars who had a wholly different view on missionary work. Working in Mexico and the Philippines, where the culture was younger and cruder than that of China, providing little resistance to Catholicism, these non-Jesuit missionaries tried to transplant western Christianity on alien lands with no significant change. In the early 1700s, the Vatican scorned the Jesuits.6 The Yung-chen Emperor, K'ang-hsi's fourth son, turned against the Jesuits and started an active suppression of Christianity in his empire.7

The plight of the Jesuits in China illustrates a different tale than that in Japan. Alessandro Valignano's Japanization of Christianity, linking it with devotional Buddhism, enjoyed some success, but the missionaries were summarily expelled from Japan for fear of eventual colonization by the West that had already disturbed the nation with fire arms. The feudal lords of Japan never ceased to view Christianity as a dangerous western influence. In China, on the other hand, the successful indigenization of Christianity was met with strong denunciation by the Vatican on the grounds that indigenized Christianity was not genuine Christianity. Is western, westernized Christianity the normative Christianity? Should it be?

The early history of Christian mission in Korea parallels closely that in Japan. Except for the Nestorians of a millennium or more ago, the Koreans' first encounter with Christianity was, curiously enough, during the Japanese military expedition of Korea in 1592. One of the generals in Hideyoshi's troop was a Jesuit convert named Konishi Yukinaga, a.k.a. Dom Agostinho.8 After the expedition, the Korean prisoners of war who were taken captive by Hideyoshi converted in large number to Catholicism. Among the martyrs during the anti-Christian campaign in Japan were these Korean converts.9 The architect of Korean Christianity was an eighteenth century scholarly patrician, Yi Pyok. The Jesuit tracts enthralled him so much that he set aside one day a week for prayer. He convinced his closest friends in the government to sponsor an annual delegation to the Chinese capital to study Christianity. His friend, Yi Seung-Hoon, upon returning from Peking where he was baptized by a missionary, in turn baptized Yi Pyok. This marks the beginning of Korean Christianity. The bishop in Peking, however, admonished the first Korean church for uncanonically appointing priests. Furthermore, the bishop denounced simultaneous ancestor worship, which was an important feature of Korean life and culture under the dominant Confucian influence during the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910). The controversy over ancestor worship precipitated governmental suppression. A noted scholar, together with his nephews, was arrested and beheaded for burning ancestral tablets, while others were imprisoned. The martyrdom provided a powerful incentive for more Koreans to convert to Christianity. Within ten years after Yi Pyok and Yi Seung-Hoon were baptized, there were 4,000 Catholics in Korea. The reason for the systematic suppression of Christianity in eighteenth century Korea was not simply a radical affront to traditional Confucian morality but more critically the fear of colonization by the West. At that time, the Catholic mission in Korea was under the supervision of French priests, and it looked as if the western imperialists were ready to create yet another colony in Asia. The government officials feared that the missionaries were agents of French imperialism in Korea. Such a fear was real in light of the colonization of Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), as well as of North and West Africa,

The threat of colonialism continued in Korea in the late nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. No longer the white, Christian nations of the West but Japanese imperialism and Russian communism provided the threat. This is precisely why the Protestant mission unfolded a markedly different path from the earlier Catholics in Korea. The Protestant missionaries from the US, Canada and Britain worked on behalf of the Koreans in social reform, medical care and education. In 1886, Mary Scranton opened a girls' school, which was to become the largest women's college in the world (Ehwa Women's College). The first Protestant missionary, Horace Allen who was also a medical doctor, was called upon to save the life of Prince Min Young-Ik, a conservative statesman who had been severely stabbed during a coup. His successful treatment won the support and confidence of the ruling house because Min was the queen's nephew. At the request of Allen, the king built a government hospital in Seoul, Allen also served as American Consul General and U.S. Minister Plenipotentiary until the Japanese started taking control over Korea in 1905. Meanwhile, in 1887, three years after Allen's arrival, a Presbyterian church was chartered in Seoul. A Methodist church also was established later in the year.

While the chief adversary of Christianity was the nationalists in Japan and China, and also earlier in Korea, Korean nationalism became a strong ally of Protestantism in the late nineteenth century. The continuing alliance accounts for the popularity and stability of Christianity in Korea today. Although born of political circumstances of modem Korea as well as of deliberate efforts of the foreign missionaries, the political indigenization of Protestantism in Korea sets itself apart from the cultural indigenization of Catholicism that was espoused by the Jesuit missionaries in Japan and China in earlier centuries. The marked difference is that the indigenization by the "outsiders," the missionaries, ultimately failed, while the internal indigenization by the native converts themselves took root. Insofar as indigenization is imposed on the natives, assimilation appears not possible.

During the Japanese annexation of Korea between 1910 and 1945, there was a systematic suppression of Christianity and the alliance between Korean nationalism and Christianity strengthened. Marquis Ito Hirobumi of Japan was assassinated in Manchuria in 1909, by a Korean Protestant nationalist. A year earlier in San Francisco, Ito's American adviser was killed by a Korean Catholic. In 1910, an alleged plot to kill the new Governor Generd was uncovered by the Japanese. Among the thirty-three signers of the 1919 Declaration of Independence, sixteen were Christians and fifteen were followers of Chondogyo, a syncretism of Buddhism, Confucianism and Catholicism, The Japanese military increased its condemnation of the Christian religion, while forcing upon the colonized Koreans the nationalistic brand of Shintoism of Japan.

When the Japanese were defeated in 1945, the Japanese colonialism ended in Korea but the threat of Russian communism became more real than before, particularly in northern Korea. The communists sought to destroy the Christian political organizations, the Social Democratic Party and the Christian Liberal Party followed by the imprisonment of the clergy, confiscation of the church properties and the execution of some ultra-nationalistic Christians. Samuel Moffett a Presbyterian missionary reports that no less than four hundred ministers were killed. The Korean Christians fled south to unite both as Christians and staunchly anti-communist nationalists. The founder of the Unification Church moved south to Seoul in 1953. The vitality of the Unification movement is deeply rooted in the turbulent history of modem Korea.

The nationalist-Christian alliance in the last two centuries in turn facilitated the indigenization of Christianity at the theological level. The first notable example is Chondogyo, or the Heavenly Way. Ch'oe Cheu-u (1824-64) received a revelation in which he heard the "Sacred Formula":

May the creative force of the universe be within me in abundant measure. May heaven be with me and every creation will be done. Never forgetting this truth, everything will be known.10

From this "Sacred Formula," he derived his basic principle that man and God are one, He articulated the universal monism in the language of Confucian "five essential human relationships," the popular Taoist "unadulterated life," and the Buddhist mind-development. Because Ch'oe saw divinity in every human being, his understanding of Christianity assumed a tone that was more theological and less christological. The centrality of God is only reminiscent of native Korean shamanism, in which Hananim, the Master of the Sky, was worshipped as the supreme deity. Because of its resemblance to the despised Catholicism and its belief in the Master of the Sky as higher than the king, Chondogyo was met with governmental disapproval. Ch'oe himself was hanged for alleged treason. Chondogyo, however, provided a national pride based upon the importance of self-cultivation, a spiritual discipline long respected in Neo-Confucianism which served as the greatest influence on the traditional Korean intellectuals before the introduction of western thought and religion. Many an uncompromising follower of this syncretic teaching provided relentless support for nationalist causes,

In assessing the syncretic "Korean Christianity," before condemning the idiosyncrasies of the Korean Presbyterian Church or the Unification Church, one must also realize those western elements that were brought to Korea by the missionaries, In the nineteenth century, American missionaries established and taught schools in Korea and included in their curriculum the thinkers who were vital to the American intellectual life such as Horace Bushnell, Dwight Moody, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau11. The similarities one may find between the nineteenth century American thought and Koreanized Christianity are, in fact, no coincidence at all, when one comes to grips with the historical, cultural and intellectual dynamic of Korea of that century.

* * *

In the turbulent and often tragic history of Christianity in Asia, one may unravel a basic pattern that is woven into the dissimilar background of the three Asian nations. In every case, there is a juxtaposition of two conflicting threads, preservation and expansion. Asian cultures seek to preserve intact their tradition, the ways of thought and life of their ancestors. The impulse of the Christians is, on the other hand, laterally expansive, which is not unrelated to their aspiration for vertical transcendence. The difference is ultimately attributable to the conflict between the instinct of the agrarian people of the monsoon climate and the nomadic people of the desert, among whom the early Christians originate. While the land cultivators of Asia work toward the renewal of life through the mystery of cosmic recycling, the hunters of the Near East find it a matter of survival to conquer untamed territories and peoples. The former seeks stability and continuity, and the latter annexation and hegemony. Recently, Kosuke Koyama remarked in his inaugural address as Professor of Ecumenics and World Christianity at Union Theological Seminary in New York that in the Japanese way of thinking continuity contains discontinuity and cosmology is more comprehensive than eschatology12. The expulsion of Christianity from Japan and China is a necessary result of built-in inertia that seeks to preserve the integrity of their respective tradition. That is why the attempts at indigenization by the outsiders were treated as no indigenization at all. Only when indigenization is sought by the natives themselves in cultural as well as political terms as did the Koreans, could there be no collision of the two distinct impulses inherent in Asian and Christian ways. There still remains after diagnosing the historic conflict, however, the unresolved question: is Asianization a demise of Christianity or is it the metamorphosis without which the gospel of Christ could not take root in a land so different from the West, where the first phase of indigenization took place?


1 Revelatory experiences of some of the most formidable spiritual leaders of the past few centuries have been summarily rejected by mainstream Christian churches, both Catholic and Protestant. Among those declared heretic are: Emanuel Swedenborg, Joseph Smith, Ann Lee and Mary Baker Eddy. See C. S. Braden, These Also Believe (New York: Macmillan, 1970).

2 The compass that enabled long distance journeys on the sea was originally invented by the Chinese, So was the gunpowder that aided the global conquests of the Portuguese and the Spaniards.

3 The reason why he executed Franciscan missionaries was to avoid interference with over fifty feudal lords in the Nagasaki region who had become Jesuit converts.

4 For more on the history of Catholic mission to Japan, see Michael Cooper, S. J., They Came to Japan; An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1545-1640 (Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 1965), and George Elison, Deus Destroyed: the Image of Christianity in Early Modern Japan (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1973). For Protestant mission to Japan in the 19th and 20th centuries, which was markedly different in character, see Irwin Scheiner, Christian Converts and Social Protest in Meiji Japan (Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 1970).

5 For K'ang-hsi's upbringing by a Jesuit, see Jonathan D. Spence, Emperor of China: Self-portrait of K'ang-hsi (New York: Knopf, 1974),

6 The Vatican has yet to recognize the descendants of "Clandestine Christians (kakure kirishitan)" who had disguised their Catholic faith under native teachings and practices for over two centuries until they were discovered by Father Bernard Pettijean, a French priest serving the European residents of Nagasaki in the late 19th century.

7 See John K. Fairbank, Edwin O. Reischauer and Albert M. Craig, East Asia; Tradition and Transformation (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1973), pp. 244-51

8 There were three other Christian cohorts of Hideyoshi during the Kyushu Expedition of 1587 that preceded the Korean Expedition. Among the three was Dom Justo Takayama Ukon.

9 Public documents from 1614 to 1629 show Korean Catholic martyrs.

10 Charles Allen Clark, Religions of Old Korea (Old Tappan, N.J.: Revell, 1932), pp. 144-72.

11 See, for example, Thomas McGowan, "Horace Bushnell and the Unification Movement: A Comparison of Theologies," in this volume.

12 Kosuke Koyama, "Ritual of Limping Dance: A Botanical Observation," Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 36 (September. 1981), pp 91-104. 

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