Ham Sok Hon and an Imagination of Korean Civil Religion

Ham Sok Hon and an Imagination of Korean Civil Religion

Song Chong Lee - Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Seoul National University, Korea

Monday, November 14, 2022 - 4:00pm to 5:30pm
Room 05 (Lower Level), Rosenkranz Hall See map
115 Prospect Street
New Haven, CT 06511

Highlighting major shortcomings of the traditional models of civil religion, Professor Lee’s talk will introduce the religious thought of Ham Sok Hon (1901-1989), arguably the most influential religious-political activist in modern Korea and a two-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. He attempts to continue the conversation of civil religion of the world, which Robert Bellah expressed despondently in his 1967 essay by saying “flickering flame of the United Nations.” Lee points out that the popular frameworks by classical theorists such as Durkheim and Rousseau have long shaped the general contour of civil religion under the premise of power-dynamic/relation in which the idea of religion is utilized simply as a counterforce to, or a soulless symbolic system for, society. Ham’s idea of religion, based on the philosophy of ssial (seed/people/minjung), saengmyeong (life) and ddeut (meaning), and developed out of his unique experience and interpretation of Korean history, presents a useful thought process, which could help various on-going efforts to redirect the conversation. Arguing that most Korean academics have also employed the traditional power-dynamic model simply by identifying Korean examples such as Confucian norms, national slogans to sanctify economic development and anticommunism and national symbols/saints, Lee suggests an alternative, inspired by Ham’s thought, with the articulation of three projects: 1) bottom-up project through which civil religion starts from the dimension of the individual and internal 2) de-institutionalization project in which religion is redefined to play an organic function in society 3) cosmopolitan project in which the level of civil religion discourse is raised above nation-state or statism and it goes deeper in building the self-identity and the sense of community in this highly pluralistic society. Lee concludes that Ham’s thought is useful particularly to bring (the traditional sense of) religion back to the conversation of civil religion. 

Song Chong Lee is an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Seoul National University, Korea. He is interested in themes dealing with the dynamic between religion and society. The topics of his research cover religion and politics, New Religious Movements and globalization/cosmopolitanism. In particular, he is currently working on evaluating the validity of various ideas of civil religion, including classical understandings, for our own time and Korean context. Professor Lee’s recent publications include Ham Sok Hon’s Ssial Cosmopolitan Vision (Lexington Books, 2020) and “Re-envisioning Civil Religion in a Collaborative, Constructive Model” (Religion and Culture, Seoul National University, 2022).