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Peniel Rajkumar reflects on WCC’s historic Christian-Confucian dialogue

Peniel Rajkumar reflects on WCC’s historic Christian-Confucian dialogue

Peniel Rajkumar, ©WCC

03 November 2017

Rev. Dr Peniel Rajkumar is programme executive for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation with the World Council of Churches (WCC). He helped to organize the first formal WCC dialogue between Christians and Confucians in WCC history. The dialogue was organized in collaboration with the Council for World Mission and the Korea Forum for Science and Life, with the support of the National Council of Churches in Korea, Sungkyunkwan University, City of Andong and Korea Foundation for Culture and Ethics. Held in Seoul from 27-31 October, the dialogue included a theological encounter as well as a dialogue of lived experience in the Confucian province of Andong.

Rajkumar offered his reflections on the historic dialogue shortly after its conclusion.

An intersection of world views

Q: What inspired the WCC to organize a Christian-Confucian dialogue?

Dr. Rajkumar: “A Christian-Confucian dialogue is an important intervention at this point in the WCC's history given that, for many of our member churches in east Asia and northeast Asia, Confucianism is the main cultural and religious partner.

The manner in which Confucian culture is, in many instances, intrinsically interwoven into the way of life for these communities and the struggles and questions which accompany this intersection of world views merits careful attention. I also see resonances between the Confucian emphasis on harmony and the WCC's emphasis on justice and peace as a way forward for these communities to work together.”

Embodying wisdom through concrete practice

Q: Please, tell us more about the dialogue? Who is involved? What have you done?

Dr. Rajkumar: “Given that this is a first-time initiative, this is largely a bridge-building effort. Therefore, the dialogue has been intentionally shaped to hold together in balance the academic engagement (usually known in Christian circles as the 'dialogue of theological reflection') with lived experience of Confucian culture ('dialogue of life’).

Our main organising partner is the Korea Forum for Science and Life and its president Prof. Heup Young Kim who has passionately worked in making this dialogue a reality.  Our dialogue partners are Confucian scholars from the Sungkyunkwan, a royal university of the Joseon dynasty and traditional Andong Confucian leaders who trace their direct lineage to several prominent Confucian clans. We will be meeting with the direct descendent of  Master Yi Hwang (pen name Toegye), the most important Confucian scholar in Korea.

The WCC has, with the support of the Council for World Mission and the consultation of the National Council of Churches in Korea, convened a group of Christians to engage in this dialogue and discern the possibilities it holds for the pilgrimage of justice and peace.  The high priority on embodying wisdom through concrete practice holds much potential for interreligious cooperation.”

Paving the path for harmony and solidarity

Q: Why now? Why in Seoul?

Dr. Rajkumar: “The plan to organise a Christian-Confucian dialogue has been in the pipeline for a few years now. The inspiration comes from our joint work with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID). The primary intention is to extend the ambit of our dialogue partners who come from the so-called 'Eastern' religions. The PCID has initiated a dialogue with Daoists and the WCC has opened up this dialogue with Confucians.

We chose South Korea because the questions which confront Christians and Confucians in Korea are very different. We also chose South Korea because an invitation came from Confucians from Andong – the most traditional Confucian part of Korea having a direct link to Toegye, the greatest Korean Confucian scholar.

Given what is happening in the Korean peninsula it is high time that Christians and Confucians engaged in dialogue and brought the treasures of our living traditions to pave the path for harmony and solidarity.”

Seeds of mutual respect and trust

Q: What’s the objective of the dialogue?

Dr. Rajkumar: “Given that this is a beginning, the main objective of the dialogue at this stage is to build mutual trust and respect. There is diversity in the relations between Christians and Confucians across the world, which has included both the positive and negative experiences. My expectation is that this dialogue will be the beginning of several dialogical encounters which will lead to better understanding between the two religions, respecting our differences and overcoming our fears and prejudices of the other.

As I mentioned in my welcome address in Seoul we entered into this journey expecting no easy or hasty fruits. This is probably going to be a process where we will not be ‘judged by the harvest we reap but by the seeds that we plant’ – the seeds of mutual respect, trust and hospitality.”

A promise of peace and partnership

Q: What’s the strongest impression so far?

Dr. Rajkumar: “I was impressed with the honesty with which we were able to open up questions of differences between Christians and Confucians, while affirming the positive experiences of Christian-Confucian relations in different parts of the world. This suggests that there is room for further conversations on contentious issues - recognising that ‘for human beings plurality can be a rock of stumbling but for God it is the corner stone of universal design’ to quote the African missiologist Lamin Sanneh.

I am confident that what we undertook was an important step.  As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu reminds us ‘the journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step’. In many ways therefore, we took those first steps to – a future that I am confident holds in it the promise of peace and partnership for a better world… a world in which members of different religious communities will discover that religions are not fortresses to be defended but are wellsprings for the flourishing of all life.”

Strengthening inter-religious trust and respect

First Christian-Confucian dialogue in Seoul

WCC work on the Korean Peninsula