Heup Young KIM. A Theology of Dao. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2017. pp. 224. $30 pb. ISBN 1626982198. Reviewed by Jordan Thomas CHRISTOPHER, PhD Student, University of McGill, Montreal QC, Canada, H3A2B3.


Heup Young Kim in A Theology of Dao attempts to resolve theological problems both profoundly global and deeply personal. Drawing on predecessors such as Lee Jung Young, whose work The Theology of Change: A Christian Concept of God in an Eastern Perspective (1979) was a clear influence, Kim continues the ongoing task of producing a syncretic Korean Christianity. Kim’s primary addition to this discourse is his notion of Theodao, brought forth as a solution to the Theology/Theopraxis divide that Kim diagnoses as responsible for several current disputes in modern theology, as well as even the current ecological crisis due to western inability to move away from Greek dualistic paradigms (46, 205). However, the book is also a direct response to the very personal and private struggles that East Asian Christians have in balancing out Christian theological doctrine with their native spiritual traditions.

To accomplish this, the author lays out his work in 12 chapters divided into three parts: Constructing the core idea of Theodao, then embarking on a limited comparative study of notable theologians of the western and East Asian tradition, and finally concluding with a brief exploration of the uses of Theodao for handing contemporary debates on matters such as the current ecological crisis and human stem cell research. In the first two of these parts especially, the author draws heavily on his Korean upbringing to color discussion of the relevant topics, before becoming slightly more personally distant from his own work in the final segment.

As the book divides its attention between two major topics (the usefulness of Theodao as an analytical framework and the attempt to resolve spiritual and emotive dissonance to be found in East Asian Christians) it seems prudent that this review will cover them both separately. To begin then, first this review will examine the more personal matter of East Asian spiritual dissonance. Kim’s personal accounts of the tensions found in the identity of Korean Christianity split between new faith paradigms and old native traditions is compelling, and his familiarity with Korean theological traditions is made very clear by an extended comparison of the Christological framework of John Calvin and Yi T’oegye, and extended discussions of specifically Korean experiences found throughout the book. However, Dao isn’t a uniquely Korean concept, and while engagement is made through an excellent comparative analysis of Wang Yangming with Karl Barth, the larger engagement throughout the text leans heavily towards Korean experiences and sources, seemingly meant to stand in for the breadth of East Asian experience.

Taking a larger view of the work, however, it is clear that the lasting value of the text to those outside of a specifically Korean-Christian faith background is the new Theodao framework itself. The diagnosis made by Kim as to the enduring friction between Theology and Theopraxis is both topical and on target. The Theodao concept would indeed appear to be a way out of this interminable argument, but it is not without its own pitfalls. One of the largest among these, like the aforementioned flaw with this text as a restorative for all East Asian Christians (5, 15-17, 148), is that the notion of Dao is itself a term with a long and gritty history that Kim himself pays lip service to without actually engaging at length. (17 f.6, 59) Kim does provide significant context and discussion of Neo-Confucian terms and principles, sufficient for scholars who have no background in East Asian religions or philosophical traditions to read A Theology of Dao and understand the arguments being made. However, Neo-Confucianism is not the only philosophy with a claim on Dao, and it is not the religious-philosophical tradition that the term as Kim uses it arises within. While Kim makes use of the text of the Daodejing, the originating text for this concept of Dao, there is no discernible engagement with the larger philosophies or religious traditions of Daoism as a whole. Echoing the claim of Tu Weiming in Confucianism in an Historical Perspective (1989) that East Asians are near universally Confucian at heart regardless of what other traditions they may follow (59), Kim goes through his piece with this unquestioned assumption. What results is a work that is brilliantly formed with Neo-Confucian readers in mind, and to the extent that his readership self-identify with Confucian roots that will no doubt be effective. However, Tu’s claim is not unassailable, and without real engagement of the larger Dao beyond that of mainline Neo-Confucian orthodoxy, the concept of Theodao is inherently limited to a kind of partiality based in something akin to East Asian denominational definitions. That is to say, today there exist communities of large size in East Asia who identify strongly with their Daoist or Buddhist or other non-Confucian designations, and to them, this book says little.

The text’s engagement with and understanding of Korean Neo-Confucianism is superb and unimpeachable, and Theodao carries a great deal of potential as a theological tool for discourse among western scholars. However, the contentious nature of Dao amid disagreements between scholars of Confucian and Daoist tradition (59) may make this promised “third way” end up as more of just a third front of argument. However, Kim cannot be expected to resolve thousands of years of East Asian philosophical debate in a work meant for largely western audiences unfamiliar with those issues. Still, at least cursory glances to the deeper complexities of the issues would have been beneficial both for East Asian Christians of various backgrounds as well as for Theologians hoping to engage with the concept of Theodao in more depth.

A Theology of Dao largely succeeds as a work bringing together the two seemingly disparate strands of Korean Christian theological experience, as well as a proposition for a new paradigm of theological understanding. Its few flaws are not of argumentation but rather of omission, and should Kim seek to develop the concept of Theodao himself it would behoove him to explore these places of omission in more detail. The writing flows smoothly and topics presented thoughtfully, making this book a must-read for any interested in East Asian Christianity and/or the difficulty in reconciling Theology and Theopraxis.