Monday, June 27, 2011

Importance of Interfaith Dialogue

Korea is seen by many to be a country where religions can exist in harmony.  Few countries have the variety of religions living side by side with so little friction: indigenous religions, religions from the outside, and a mixture of these. There is no religion that  can be considered representative of the country. And although it is easy to say that Koreans have a spiritual outlook on life, almost half of them do not consider themselves believers. Some would even say that Korea is one of the 10 most atheistic countries in the world.

Statistics mean little without interpretation, and yet there is something that is unique about the way Koreans see life and its meaning. Percentage-wise, Christianity has more followers in Korea, except for the Philippines and East Timor, than in other Asian countries. There is a feeling on the part of Koreans to live and let live; they do not like to confront others or inflict pain. Foreigners can see this as somewhat artificial: saying yes when they mean no. The Korean, however,  has little difficulty in understanding what is meant.

Shamanism, also a part of the religious background, influencing many other religions, including Christianity, helps to explain the Korean openness to other beliefs, even though most religions  have beliefs that can be considered exclusive or absolute or deeply embedded within a culture . The many years of Buddhist and Confucian ascendancy have greatly influenced the culture and the way Koreans see the world, sometimes for good and sometimes for the not so good. 

One of the big changes in our understanding of Catholicism since the II Vatican Council is the openness of  the Church to other religions and its desire to participate in interfaith dialogue and ecumenical contacts. The Church, realizing  that many of the conflicts in the world--in the past and in the present--have had a religious basis, wants to work for a world without conflict and oppression. The Church strongly supports religious freedom; though proposing  what she believes is true she does not desire others to believe against their will. The words we hear often today: "She proposes, not imposes."

An  example of the efforts of the Korean Church to foster understanding among religions is the 4th annual meeting of religions sponsored by the Korean bishops. On June 23 and 24, the bishops and the apostolic nuncio, with 19 deacons, will be spending time learning about other religions, as they visit with the Orthodox, Anglicans, Buddhists, and  Islamists.

The need for such exchanges is felt by many. Others are also doing what they can as individuals, as parishes, and as religious communities to  foster understanding and respect for the  beliefs of others. Seeing the need, the Korean bishops have increased the formal exchanges to twice a year. A sign to the whole Church of the importance of interfaith dialogue.

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