A Theology of Dao

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Heup Young Kim
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , May
     2017.
     288 pages.
     $40.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626982192.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

As a timely attempt to “locate Christianity more thoughtfully within the global community,” Heup Young Kim’s A Theology of Dao provides a bold and thought-provoking example of how Christian theology might draw on the rich conceptual resources of East Asian religious traditions (ix). In doing so, this book also marks the fruition of several decades of development in Kim’s theological thinking, with each chapter adapting a different essay published throughout his career. Thus, A Theology of Dao serves as an excellent starting point for those interested in engaging with Kim’s distinctive body of work. 

With that said, despite the deeply personal roots of Kim’s turn toward embracing East Asian religious resources for theological construction, the implications of his work are by no means limited to himself or to East Asian Christians. On the contrary, he audaciously argues that “East Asian theological perspectives” should be seen “as an antidote to Western modes of thinking,” as they provide “an alternative paradigm that can effectively address the problems of Christian theologies due to the enduring legacy of Greek dualism (e.g., theory and praxis) and substantialism in Western thought” (x). Accordingly, Kim builds a cumulative case for eschewing the dualistic paradigms of theo-logy and theo-praxis—and embracing a third, Neo-Confucian-inspired paradigm, called theo-dao

In making this case, A Theology of Dao is divided into three parts: “Theodao in Construction,” “Theodao in Bridge-building,” and “Theodao in Action.” In part 1, Kim begins by framing the problem autobiographically, admitting the difficulties he encountered as a convert to Christianity in reconciling his faith with his Korean family’s time-honored traditions. In particular, Kim writes of his realization that “spiritually and religiously, Confucianism and Daoism … still function as my native languages.” As a result, he claims, “the Western form of Christianity is not enough, not appropriate, and not viable. I need a new form of Christianity. To be fully human, I should be able to utter my faith and experiences of God in my own native religious languages, as fully—without restraint and shame—as possible” (6). Kim therefore finds the root-metaphor of daoto be a more personally and culturally appropriate paradigm within which to frame his faith. Chapter 2 expands on this by exploring how the inadequacies of the theory-praxis dichotomy can be overcome by shifting to a theodao rooted in “a radically different hermeneutical world” with notions like sin-ki—vital energy that Kim likens to the biblical pneuma, or spirit—and yin-yang correlation (26-7). After discussing, in chapter 3, how the theodao paradigm renders fresh understandings of Jesus Christ in terms central to Neo-Confucianism like “the Great Ultimate” and “the Being-in-Non-Being” (45, 48), Kim then applies the paradigm to the doctrine of Trinity in chapter 4, submitting that the Confucian and Daoist traditions contain profound resources for resolving persistent dilemmas in Western formulations of Trinitarian doctrine.

The first three chapters of part 2 recapitulate several comparative projects produced in the first decade of Kim’s career. In particular, chapter 5 places the prominent Neo-Confucian Wang Yangming in dialogue with the towering theologian Karl Barth, demonstrating “thick resemblances” between Wang’s conception of sincerity (chèng) as it relates to self-cultivation, and Barth’s understanding of Christian love (agapē) as it relates to sanctification (117). Chapter 6 compares 16th century Korean Confucian Yi T’oegye with John Calvin, provocatively suggesting that similarities in their thought may help explain the significant success of Reformed Presbyterianism in modern Korea. Chapter 7 discusses the seminal theology of Korean Christian Ryu Yŏng-mo, whose “Christodaoist” perspective built on inter-textual study and dialogue with Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism (147). Unlike the previous three chapters, chapter 8 covers a topic addressed more recently in Kim’s career: multiple religious belonging. Employing Trinitarian arguments developed earlier, Kim makes an insightful contribution to contemporary discussions on this hot-button topic by proposing the adoption of a uniquely Confucian-Christian conception of “hospitality” (179). 

The third and final part explores pressing issues in our “eco-scientific age” through a “trialogue” between Christian theology, East Asian religious traditions, and science (197). Chapter 9 argues that such a trialogue can lead us both to critique the utilization of natural science in perpetuating “colonialism, orientalism, and cultural imperialism,” and to advance the science-religion dialogue “beyond its current confinement on the isolated Christian temporality toward the real, religiously plural globe” (192, 200). Rounding out the book, chapters 10 and 11 then highlight the positive potential of this trialogue by applying a theodaoist perspective to contentious issues like human embryonic stem-cell research and transhumanism.

Since A Theology of Dao is essentially a collection of adapted essays published in academic journals, the intended audience is a scholarly one. Given this, readers unfamiliar with theological neologisms will likely find this book difficult. Moreover, although Kim provides helpful footnotes and cogent explanations of Neo-Confucian concepts, the same can be said for those with little or no prior knowledge of East Asian traditions. This, however, should not scare interested readers away, nor is it a criticism of Kim’s overall argument; rather, it speaks to the weighty nature of what he is proposing: a revolutionary shift in theological paradigms. 

Perhaps this should be taken as a charge for those seeking to build on Kim’s trailblazing work, to consider how such a shift might be clearly articulated to non-experts and within other cultural-linguistic contexts. To effect a shift of the magnitude Kim finds necessary, different terms and concepts will be required to discuss the divine, the cosmos, and humanity—as well as the convergence of the three—in new ways. Whether or not Christian thinkers outside East Asia—or within it, for that matter—finally adopt Kim’s proposal is yet to be seen; undoubtedly, some will find his views disconcerting. Nevertheless, Kim’s argument is both courageous and compelling, and it behooves us to listen. Scholars and students of theology familiar with the jargon Kim simultaneously uses and critiques would do well to read this book, to sit with it, and to ponder it carefully, for it has the potential to challenge some of our most sacred theological assumptions. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ryan Pino is a doctoral student in comparative theology at Harvard University, focusing on Confucian-Christian dialogue in East Asia.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Heup Young Kim is professor emeritus of theology at Kangnam University, South Korea. He is a past president of the Korean Society for Systematic Theology, and a founding member of the International Society for Science and Religion. He has published extensive works in the area of East Asian constructive theology, interreligious dialogue, and religion and science including Wang Yangming and Karl Barth:A Confucian-Christian Dialogue (University Press of America, 1996).

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