Monday, July 9, 2012

Working Out a Distinctly Christian Psychology in South Korea

After finishing my undergraduate study in South Korea in 1997, I went to Hamilton, Ontario to continue studying Christian Education. Then my academic journey turned in the direction of counseling, which led me to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. At SBTS, I was introduced to Christian psychology by Dr. Eric Johnson and I received my Ph.D in pastoral theology and counseling. Upon graduating, I worked at a Christian counseling center for three years as a professional counselor.  In September 2010, I returned to Korea after many years of life overseas with the ambitious visions of helping troubled Korean souls and building an academic community with the same mind as that of the Society of Christian Psychology. I have been experiencing both challenges and joys as I pursue those visions. I would like to share a couple of them.

 After many years of absence, I needed time to figure out how best to help my counselees using the training I had received in the West. Counseling is a culture-sensitive process. In order to help anyone with their psychological or relational trouble, you need to understand the context in which the person lives. For the last decade, South Korea has changed rapidly and in many ways. Importantly, I noticed the church has begun to take more seriously than ever the psychological well-being of the congregation. Most mega churches have their own counseling centers, and many pastors have begun to recognize the importance of soul care at a deeper level. This change has occurred alongside the general trend of the society in that people have begun to take interest in holistic well-being as their economic status has become more settled.

Although it should be considered a welcome change, problems have emerged. The primary issue seemed to me to be in understanding how Korean Christian spirituality should respond to the contradictions of modernism. Interestingly, I discovered an American pastoral theologian in the U.S. who presented a similar point of view. James Poling at Garret-Evangelical Theological Seminary wrote an article exploring several perspectives on the relationship of Christianity to traditional Asian religions and what contribution Korean spirituality can make to Western pastoral care and theology (Poling, 2010). Although his article did not directly discuss Christian psychology in Korea, it offered a good historical background to understand where to look as we lay down the foundational framework in building the house of Christian Psychology here in Korea.

South Korea imported the idea of modernity from Christianity and the U.S. After the Cold War in 1945, modernism began to shape Korean culture powerfully, which subsequently influenced the church greatly. Koreans are very religious people by nature. The integration of Confucianism, Shamanism, Buddhism and Daoism are strongly embedded in this culture. The religious tradition of each family is respected. Furthermore, Koreans are a community oriented society. People find their identity in the community to which they belong. Relationships really matter. As you might already notice, these historic roots conflict with the modernist beliefs. In accepting modernism along with Christianity, most Korean churches took the role of persuading people that pre-modern religions were not scientific enough to follow. Western Christianity was the only religion which was founded in ‘reason.’ However, different voices were raised within the church questioning the contradiction of modernism and Christianity. Some Christians averred that postmodernism would fit better for Korean Christian spirituality. Others argued that Korean Christians should develop a distinctively Korean Christian spirituality using the active cooperation of traditional Korean religions. Presently, thanks to some faithful theologians in Korea, constructive dialogues have been developed (Lee, 2003). Yet, we are still at a premature stage. We need extensive research and theory building to understand this complicated agenda. This is particularly important for Christian psychology and the counseling field in current South Korea. Taking Christianity in its modern version, Korean churches trust science in its commitment to evidence and technology. The Korean church seems too wide open to modern psychology as that psychology is understood to be a reliable source in healing hurting souls ‘scientifically.’ Although many Christian counselors and pastoral caregivers adopt modern psychology theories without any doubt, some people are deeply concerned (Ok, 2007). Thus, Korean Christians have responded to the contradiction of their faith in modernism in different ways. Some responses seem to show similarity to the way in which American Christians responded to the contradictions of their Christians beliefs with modernism decades before. Yet, Korean Christians’ struggle is more complicated because it is rooted in the relationship with other traditional religions.

Building a house of Christian psychology in Korea will be a difficult work. Nevertheless, I become very hopeful when I meet Christian psychologists and counselors who share the same vision of establishing a distinctively Christian version of psychology and developing creative methods for caring for souls in South Korea (Lee 2008; Kim 2003). I believe the foundation is laid and we have the Cornerstone. Therefore, the future is surely bright. 

Kim, J. (2003). Story That I Want To Share With Christians(trans.). Seoul: Ddstone.
Lee, H. (2003). Modernism, Postmodernism, and Theology(tans.). Seoul. Presbyterian      
   University Publishing
Lee, K. (2008). Reformed Pastoral Counseling. Seoul: Daiseo.
Ok, S.H. (2007). Psychologically Influenced Church (trans.). Seoul: R&R.
Poling, J. (2010). Is There a Korean Contribution to U.S. Pastoral Theology. Pastoral   
    Psychology, 59, 513-524.

UnHye Kwon, PhD
Maum Counseling & Research
Bundang, South Korea

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