Religion in Korean culture has increasingly led to division and strife, sometimes through deviation from tradition, and sometimes from structural weaknesses.
Though many religious institutions and people have called for a rejuvenation of their respective faiths, they continue to muddle along, plagued by the imperfections of their all too human adherents.
Can religion in Korea be reformed and purified?
In response to the corruption of Christianity in his day, the philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) said: “The corruption of the best is the worst of all.”
Hume was responding to intolerance, moral insensitivity and superstition, which he deemed to be endemic.
His words are no less relevant in our time and to all faiths in the country.
Believers and non-believers alike would agree that the highest spiritual values for all religions are self-emptying love and mercy.
But we see that among the country’s many religions, service to the faithful is perceived as a family right and passed down from generation to generation.
It becomes, in effect, an inherited office rather than a work based on passion and faith. What greater proof of this secularization of faith than modern religions’ failure to successfully oppose social injustices.
Love and mercy do not reside only in fanum
(a sacred place). They reside everywhere, and they should be practiced everywhere – incarnated, if you will, and shared with others who suffer.
Religious people who desperately cling to their own interests and compete for power in collusion with politicians, all the while ignoring the victims of injustice, have willfully renounced their social responsibility.
Korea may indeed be a paradise for religions, but society is in greater need of what I call “purified religiousness.”
Just as the measure of true faith is the fruit it produces, the measure of purified religiousness is religion’s good effect on society.
Therefore, true and pure religion must fulfill its social duties, must stand with victims of injustice and shed the self-interest of worldly spirituality.
If religion fails to purify itself, how can it expect to purify an impure world?
This is the challenge that people of faith in Korea must confront. Religion must be true and effective and relevant.
If it fails in this, it is a dead thing – capable only of division and discord instead of love and mercy.
Father Thomas Lee Jong-jin SJ is professor of philosophy in the Jesuit-run Sogang University and dean of the Graduate School of Theology
Academics blame religions for conflicts