BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA — My science students here tell me that, despite the half-dozen red neon crosses reaching for heaven on every street corner—despite missionaries magically transubstantiating your doorbell into a church bell—despite the Bible thumpers everywhere who thump their Book with more zeal than thump traditional Korean drummers their buk—that, despite all this, Creationists will not corner Korea. They tell me students here learn evolution without theological qualms, and that, despite the omnipresence of Abrahamic theology, there is no tension here between science and religion. Creationism, they tell me, is an American disease. When they tell me this, I stand back askance, and sidle to the nearest window to see if God again has stopped the Sun, if not all critical thinking, that Joshua may win his battle.
My science students tell me that roots here are very different than those of the United States, which has again shown its old worrisome tendency towards theocratic puritanism; they tell me that their sindansu roots protect these old rain-worn Korean mountains from landsliding into Creationist abysses. They tell me that Korean mythology does not celebrate a creator of the universe so much as it celebrates and venerates clan lineages and leaders who teach how to live upright and virtuous lives.
To an extent, what my students tell me makes sense. Korea does have a unique mythology, latent in their formative and regulative concepts. We see this in the god-status of North Korean leaders whose sons are given to rule. We also see this in South Korean capitalism, where fathers like Samsung or Hyundai naturally give their sons to rule. Here, Abraham’s sacrifice makes less sense. Yet Korea’s sons are now increasingly tied upon Abraham’s altar by an organized and zealous minority who would presume the godly authority to “correct” biology textbooks and “delete” the error of evolution, and unscientific creationists are getting into the business of editing science textbooks.
Korean origin myths are different than Genesis. They don’t begin at The Beginning. Rather, they establish how Koreans came to be and are staged in an already existing world. In philosophical parlance, these myths are not concerned with the speculative question, “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” Korean mythology is not concerned with the infinitely regressive and speculative problem of how Being came to be. Rather, Korean mythology is concerned with establishing a unifying narrative, and in establishing a practical foundation for a Korean civilization and ethics.
Consider the Korean island of Jeju, and its unique culture. It has a rich array of cultural myths, among them the founding myth of Samsonghyol, in which three divine men emerge from three holes near the already existing Mt. Halla. These men are the ancestors of the three family names, Go, Yang and Bu. The people of Jeju have traditionally traced their historical narrative back to these three divine men. The people of Jeju don’t fear that Darwin as a threat to their unique island culture, nor do they rally behind the battle flag of the king of kings—well, not until recently, when many among them enlisted in The Army of The Lord and found a peculiar admiration for Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son’s scientific education.
Jeju also has a story about the origin of people, which is infinitely more naturalistic than the story of Genesis. In this myth, the two giants Maitreya and Sakyamuni fight in an already existing world. Maitreya kills Sakyamuni and makes earth out of the corpse; and the maggots which form on it become people. In this, we can clearly see one species changing into another: maggots to people. Clearly, one might think, Darwin will have less of a problem here, for who is so attached to maggots as to become a zealot? Who on this myth would suppress science education? Who for maggots would stop the sun, and declare truth changeless?
Peninsular Koreans have the myth of Dangun to establish their origin and ancestral lineage. In this story, a heavenly prince named Hwanung looks down on an already existing world. He wishes to possess it and to rule over the mortal men who live there. His father Hwanin knows that Hwanung will be a good ruler and will make the people happy, and so this father sends his son down to earth, setting him on Baekdu Mountain; this father sends his son down to earth, not in order to sacrifice him, but to establish the holy city of Sinsi. Moses-like, this good god-son establishes laws, moral codes and the cultural order.
Later, a male tiger and a female bear pray to Hwanung in order that they would become human. So he tells them to spend 100 days out of the sunlight, in a kind of maternal cave, with only the sacred foods mugwort and garlic to eat. (We can deduce from this that fruit is among the oral pleasures forbidden them.) Naturally, the male tiger gives in to temptation and is delivered to evil. He leaves this maternal cave a kind of Oedipal miscarriage, while the female bear manages to suppress her natural desires and oral fixation; thus she is transformed into a human.
This obedient and virginal Eve-bear lacks a husband, and so naturally prays for one at a sindansu tree. Though no serpent tempts her, Hwanung is happy to answer her prayer, and blesses her with a son named Dangun, who is given to rule, who establishes a walled city near Pyongyang, and who thus begins the old kingdom of Gojeosan and Korean history in about 2333 BCE.
Nearly 4,000 years later, in 1603—just 30 years before the Inquisition would jail Galileo for his scientific heresy, and just 89 years before the Salem Witch Trials condemn 19 Americans to death for anti-Christian witchcraft—a Korean carries an atlas of theology into Korea, and Korea begins to learn a new story.
Yet it was not until the mid 1960s, some 40 after Tennessee put John Scopes on trial and a thin decade after the Korean War, that the number of Korean Christians spiked and began to outnumber adherents of traditional religions. Interestingly, this spike parallels the radical Westernization of South Korea; there is a common causal link between sightings of both Ronald McDonald and sweet Jesus.
The conflict between science and religion is not native to Korean soil—yet the infection is here. There is nothing in the traditional Korean mythology which claims eternal authority on an unchanging and otherworldly Truth. The Korean mythos tends to be pragmatic, not speculative, not inclined to mud-over cracks in the fortress of theology, not inclined to suppress science education.
Korean philosophy is traditionally Confucian, which tends toward creating social order and to defining virtuous living. It is less concerned with the ultimate structure of reality. Even in Buddhism, metaphysical speculation is seen to be a waste of time and effort, to which point we have the parable of the poison arrow: “Suppose,” the Buddha says, “that a man is shot with a poisoned arrow, and the doctor wants to remove it immediately. Suppose the man refuses to let the doctor remove the arrow until he knows who shot it, what his age is, who his parents are and why he shot it. If he waits to answer all of these questions before removing it, he may die.”
Korean science expresses this pragmatic tendency, and a kind of economic urgency, trying to pull out a poison arrow called poverty. Koreans tend to fund well the applied sciences, which have helped to build such economic giants as Samsung, they also tend to under-fund speculative science, which does not fit well into practical economic structures and does not quickly fill empty rice bowls.
One consequence of this is that Korean scientists have not, as a whole, taken a keen interest in Darwinism as a question of ultimate origins, and have been able to ignore the profound zero-sum contradiction between modern science and the Abrahamic religion—Abraham, who is usurping Dangun’s claim for mythical origins. In place of a virtuous and chaste she-bear, Koreans are increasingly meditating on Eve and Mary; for their love of Christ, they are increasingly denying empirical science. Korean scientists, meanwhile, going about their daily business, have been caught flat-footed, thinking, like my students, that there is no need to worry.
There is need to worry. If we don’t, the sovereign mind of free-thinking Koreans, who would do right by their country to practically solve real problems—indeed, the sovereign mind of free-thinking people everywhere—risks to become a blood sacrifice to an Abrahamic metaphor.
The opinions of the writer do not necessarily reflect those of Haps Magazine.