|by Tom Bohache
|Spiritual Bridges to Overcome Discontent
Last issue, in examining the spiritual concept of Divine Wisdom, I described certain aspects of Asian religion. The spiritualities of China, Korea, and Japan are incredibly rich and diverse sources for anyone seeking to expand their horizons or to "go deeper" religiously or theologically. Those in predominantly white, Western societies must be careful, however, not to oversimplify and co-opt what we find there, as many spiritual seekers do, for example, when experimenting with Native American traditions. Nevertheless, I believe that it is possible to look at world religions with a view not toward syncretizing or relativizing beliefs, but in order to expand our knowledge about what others believe so as to better understand and articulate what we ourselves believe.
In Western, Christianized North America we are (overly) familiar with the concept of sin. Centuries of Christian male theologizing have taught that sin is an unavoidable part of human existence, rooted in pride and arrogance and the human tendency to strive with God and become more than what we should be. In recent decades, however, feminist and other non-normative theologies have criticized this supposedly universal view of sin, noting that one's experience of sin is conditioned by one's cultural position and role; while pride may be a sin for men, the lack of pride is what often constitutes sin for women and other oppressed groups, whose esteem has been irreparably wounded by the prevailing heteropatriarchal system. Many theologians from marginal groups have thus jettisoned completely the traditional notion of sin, believing that this concept is unsalvageable and that oppressed groups should articulate brokenness and separation from the Divine in our own terms and not those of the oppressor.
A concept from the Asian tradition that is instructive in this regard is that of han. "Han" is a difficult-to-translate Korean word which names an abstract human condition of discontent; in the polytheistic, ancestral faith systems of Korea, han represented the chaos that exists in the universe and interferes with human well-being. Korean theologian Hyun Young Hak describes it this way: "Han is a sense of unresolved resentment against injustice suffered, a sense of hopelessness because of the overwhelming odds against, a feeling of total abandonment, a feeling of acute pain and sorrow in one's guts and bowels making the whole body writhe and wiggle, and an obstinate urge to take 'revenge' and to right the wrong all these constitute." In this milieu, the goal of any legitimate spirituality must be to help people liberate themselves from han. Priests and shamans facilitate this, often employing rituals such as exorcism to eject han from a suffering spirit. Many Asian people rejected the overtures of Christian missionaries because they did not see Christianity as offering a helpful solution to han.
Asian and Asian-American Christian theologians have in recent years begun incorporating the idea of han as sin in order to bridge the gap between Asian spirituality and Christian theology. In Korea especially, where the majority of the population (i.e., women and children) are poor and destitutedespite what the U. S. government would have us believea new category of theology called minjung has developed, which seeks to reach out to those who are cast away by societythe "underside" of history, the poorest of the poor, the oppressed among the oppressed. Asian Christians see the crowds to whom Jesus ministered as the minjung; they image Jesus in his exorcisms and healings as a shaman struggling against the han he found all around him. Chung Hyun Kyung, Professor of Ecumenical Theology at Union Theolological Seminary in New York City, rejects many Western religious categories and prefers to look for spiritual truth in Buddhism and in the indigenous religions of Asia. She says that she must do theology that her mother, a poor Korean woman, would understand; any minjung theology must be congruent with the life situation of the common people. I believe this is one of the problems with much of the religion practiced in North Americait does not relate to the daily struggle of regular people; it does not intersect with the things that hold meaning for the majority of the population. That's why it is so difficult to be a spiritual person in today's world: We have lost the right vocabularies for faith and good ways to explain the Divine in a postmodern world.
Japanese-American feminist scholar Rita Nakashima Brock translates han as "broken-heartedness" and believes that any truly meaningful spirituality today must be able to help people overcome the brokenheartedness that pervades our society. She notes that Asian religions, Judaism, and Christianity all in some way over the generations have tried to help people regain their hearts in a heartless world. Indeed, if we look at the great spiritual seekers of the past fifty yearsGandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther Kingwe see people for whom the brokenheartedness of the world's minjung was of primary importance. (Compare this to the reckless disregard of the world's suffering by religious poseurs such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now called Pope Benedict XVI.) Perhaps in our quest to follow Spirit in our lives today we should stop trying to fit into the dominant mold and quit trying to translate our struggles and hurts into traditional terms. Maybe it's more important to try to eradicate han than to try to translate it; maybe it's more productive to mend a broken heart than to try to capture it. What do you think?
For Further Reading:
Rita Nakashima Brock, Journeys by Heart (Crossroad, 1991) Chung Hyun Kyung, Struggle to Be the Sun Again (Orbis, 1990) Kwok Pui-lan, Discovering the Bible in the Non-Biblical World (Orbis, 1995) Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite and Mary Potter Engel, eds., Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside (Orbis, 1998)
The Rev. Tom Bohache, Pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of Rehoboth, is a speaker, teacher, and writer on the intersection of sexuality and spirituality. E-mail him at email@example.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 12 August 26, 2005