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Reviewed by:
  • Korean Spirituality
  • Timothy S. Lee (bio)
Korean Spirituality, by Don Baker. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2008. 184 pp., illus., index. $45.00 cloth; $15.00 paper.

In this useful book, Professor Don Baker provokes some good questions about Korean spirituality (and religions) and advances a thesis that is both stimulating and contestable. The “book provides a general overview of Korean spirituality”—fruit of Baker’s “search for common themes across the wide spectrum of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices in Korean culture, past and present” (pp. 153, xiii). For Baker, “Spirituality can be defined as attitudes and actions grounded in the belief that there are invisible forces more powerful than we are, and that through interaction with those forces we can better ourselves or make our lives more pleasant or meaningful . . . spirituality is broader than religiosity in that it can take place either within or outside a religious organization” (p. 5). He adds, “A defining characteristic of spirituality is a search for transcendence, in the sense of transcending the limitations of normal human existence and normal human capabilities” (p. 7).

This move may strike some as novel, since in the study of religions, [End Page 183] the practice has been to subsume spirituality under religiosity (or religion), or to treat the two as synonymous. Indeed Baker’s definition of spirituality overlaps quite a bit with the general definition of religion, like this one in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of destiny, and as being entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship; the general mental and moral attitude resulting from this belief, with reference to its effect upon the individual or the community, personal or general acceptance of this feeling as a standard spiritual and practical life.” Consequently, given such overlap, even if the book was titled “Korean Religiosity (or Religion),” with the understanding that a person may be religious even if she doesn’t belong to an organized religion, no great harm would have been done.

What is truly novel, if not seminal, is Baker’s presupposition that there is such a thing as Korean spirituality (religion). Korean religions have usually been studied as a constellation of distinct traditions—shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, New Religions, and the like. But the constellation itself has rarely, if ever, been regarded as having a reality of its own. Indeed, in his book Korea: A Religious History (revised edition, 2002), James Huntley Grayson rejects the materiality of such a constellation: “the author does not believe that there is such a ‘thing’ as Korean religion, but only Korean religions, or better, Korean religious traditions. Granted that there are certain cultural influences which give religion in Korea a different character from religion in China or Japan, none the less, the author does not think that taken as a whole there is a phenomenon which can be labeled as Korean religion” (p. 2). If Grayson is correct, Baker’s thesis is a nonstarter. On the other hand, Baker may be on to something that Grayson has missed. The issue bears further discussion.

Further discussion is needed in part because if Korean spirituality does exist as an independent entity, Baker has not made a convincing case for it in this book. The author asserts, “spirituality in Korea is essentially one manifestation of the universal human desire to transcend the limitation of individual human existence and overcoming suffering” (p. 10). He further states, “Korea in the twenty-first century is quite different from the Korea of only few decades ago, but its spiritual problematic has remained fairly constant for two thousand years. Koreans tend to assume that human beings are essentially good. They also recognized that human beings often act in inappropriate ways. The long history of Korean spirituality is a history of attempts to resolve this contradiction” (p. 2). [End Page 184]

Several concerns arise here. One is whether an encompassing entity such as Korean spirituality should pivot on a “problematic,” a problematic that is ethical in dimension. How, for example, does this problematic operate in a kut aimed at appeasing souls of fishermen who perished in a storm; in a...


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pp. 183-186
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