In spite of the fact that I grew up during the period of severe sectarian tension in Ireland, I personally knew only one Protestant family. We called all non-Catholic Christians “Protestants” not caring much about distinctions between the Church of Ireland Anglicans and Methodists and Presbyterians. At this stage, for me, the other world religions occupied an exotic far-away space.
It was only when I went to Korea in 1970 that I suddenly encountered the world of Buddhism, Confucianism and shamanism, coexisting beside one another. Although Korean Christians didn’t have much good to say about them, I was fascinated by them. I also had a gut feeling that these thousands-years-old religions had to have a big influence on Christianity in Korea which was less than 200 years old at that time.
Initially I took an interest in shamanism, the ancient peasant religion of ordinary Koreans. This hidden religion of Korea was suppressed by the government because it was embarrassingly pre-modern. I remember once attending a five-hour religious service (kut) which began on a beach just before midnight. The purpose of this particular kut was to contact the souls of five fishermen who had been drowned in a storm at sea. The religious leader, called shaman or mudang, danced herself into a trance and became possessed by the fishermen’s souls. She claimed that the fishermen were speaking through her to their bereaved family members. The whole fishing village believed that this kind of reconciliation was necessary if the dead souls were to go quietly into the next life and not disturb their families.
As I was leaving the ceremony, I saw among the shaman’s paraphernalia a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a statue of St. Andrew Kim, the first Korean priest. When I asked her about these, her answer was that shamanism is not opposed to the spirits of any religion but will use all of them!
For me it was quite a scary experience, with all the talk about troubled souls and spirits, and the fact that the shaman herself seem to be possessed by multiple spirits. I felt a sense of eerie discomfort that I’ve never felt as a Charismatic meeting or when saying the popular prayer “Come Holy Spirit fill the hearts of your faithful.”
As part of the process of becoming familiar with Korean religious culture, I studied Buddhism and became friendly with several Buddhist monks. Through them I had opportunities on many occasions to spend several days in Buddhist monasteries. Even though this too was a new experience for me, deep down the monks’ lives of prayer and chanting, of early rising and physical work, was a lot more familiar to me than the shaman’s ritual.
Probably the most impressive experience I had in a Buddhist monastery was to see a dozen monks meditating for sixteen 50-minute hours each day for three months! In the one hall, each one slept and ate on the same mat on which he did his meditation. The last 10 minutes of each hour was devoted to “walking meditation” around the hall. This time could be used for toilet breaks. The sight of these monks sitting in silent meditation challenged me about how really serious I was about my own prayer life, especially given that these monks claimed not believe in a God!
Eventually, I was asked to study comparative religions in Chicago. This was a great opportunity for me to “objectively” study the world’s religions and see how they overlapped one another to a greater or lesser degree. Many of the people with whom I studied comparative religion went on to become professors of religious studies in various universities, especially in the United States. Somewhat surprising to me at the time, many of them did not belong to any religion. Some of them claimed that in order to do a scientific study of religion it is better to stand outside all of them! That seemed like a professor of music who avoids singing or playing a musical instrument in order to have a better grasp of music.
Comparative religion does not compare one religion with another and then decide which one is true with which one is false. Rather, it studies a particular aspect of a religion, for example, sacrifice in Hinduism, and compares it with sacrifice in Christianity or some other religion. Prayer in Buddhism and prayer in Islam can also be compared in this way.
I have found that these comparisons can be great learning experiences for both sides, helping everyone to see their own beliefs and practices from a fresh angle and in a new light.
I don’t think it is good dialogue when people too easily say that all the different religions are heading to the same place, like different paths going up the same mountain or all the rivers flowing into the sea. This lazy approach underestimates the importance of real and interesting differences between religious traditions, and suggests that we need not worry about the truth claims which every religions makes.
In my pilgrimage into interreligious dialogue, I have come to realize that trying to understand the other religions of our neighbours is not just a fascinating diversion but it can deepen my understanding of Christian faith. Way back in our Church history, Church Fathers like Augustine and Irenaeus put a lot of effort into investigating how Greek philosophy can help us gain deeper insight into the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. The contemporary Church’s interest in interreligious dialogue is a continuation of this.