Yi Jeong Yong , Voice in the Wilderness

Yi Jeong Yong, one of BUSTH’s alumni from the 1960s, was an intellectual and a prominent theologian. He reflected on his diasporic and transcultural experience through the lens of marginality, and used it as a resource for his theological work.


Dr. Yi Jeong Yong was born into a traditional Christian family in Suncheon, Pyeonganbuk-do, North Korea in 1935.[1] After the outbreak of the Korean War, he crossed the border to seek refuge in South Korea. Five years later (1955), when he was twenty years old, he came to the United States and began his life at the margins of western society. He did his bachelor’s degree at the University of Findlay, Ohio, majoring in chemistry and mathematics and his master’s degree at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary majoring in library science. Then, he came to study at the Boston University School of Theology and earned his Th.D. in 1968 with a concentration in systematic theology and comparative religion. After the completion of his theological education, he taught the science of religion and theology at Otterbein University and the University of North Dakota. In 1971, he was selected as an Outstanding Educator in America. Also, with support from the Fulbright Institute, he visited South Korea to teach at Seoul National University and Ewha Women’s University in 1977. Yi was the founder and first chair of the Korean Religions group of the American Academy of Religion. In 1989, he was appointed a professor of systematic theology at Drew University and established the Korean Theological Institute. Living in the midst of western culture, he continuously held on to his eastern cultural heritage, and established his unique and distinct theology by theologically reflecting on what he had experienced in his own context and situation. There are several important factors essential to understanding his life trajectory: the frequent change of his life sphere, the contextual orientation gained from theological education in Boston University, the constant concern about his own identity, and the influence of Minjung theology that brought about his own theology of marginality.

First of all, Yi’s life can be characterized as the continuous shifting of life sphere, that is, translocality. Like many of the influential people who made their home in Boston, translocality was a central feature of his experience. Due to the Korean War, he was driven to seek refuge in South Korea. After he came to the United States to study, he frequently changed his Sitz im Leben. He confessed that he was always treated as a stranger and marginalized in his place and time. Among the causes of the marginalization, two things that he could not overcome were the barriers of culture and race. In his book, Marginality: The Key to Multicultural Theology (1995), Yi summarized his experience of effort and failure to overcome marginalization with four key words: humiliation, alienation, loneliness, nothingness. For example, when he finished his master’s work at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in 1961, he had much difficulty getting ordained and appointed because of his cultural and racial background, thereby experiencing humiliation and alienation. Yi used those experiences, however, to re/interpret his environment and to reconstruct his own identity. In other words, his experience in specific place and specific time became the formative sources of his unique theology.

His personal experiences were theorized, systematized, and theologized through the education he received at the Boston University School of Theology. He has acknowledged that his way of thinking is profoundly different from that of other western theologians. Whereas they usually ground themselves in the Hellenistic way of thinking, Yi Jeong Yong developed his theology by employing the Northeastern Asian way of thinking (especially of Confucianism), along with its worldview and cosmology, because those are the crucial components of his identity as Korean-American. The outcome of his study has been two important books: God Suffers for Us: A Systematic Inquiry into the Concept of Divine Passibility (1974) and The Theology of Change: A Christian Concept of God in an Eastern Perspective (1979). Yi continued on to de/reconstruct conventional theology in his unique way based on Book of Changes and yin-yang theory. He firmly believed that his theological work would open the pathway to reveal, acknowledge, complement, and overcome the limitations of western theology.[2] What made this creative task possible was the wide-open academic tradition of the Boston University School of Theology, which did not compel students to simply learn/imitate western theology but encouraged them to create their own theological understandings based on their distinct contexts. In other words, his approach can be regarded as Korean-American contextual theology since his theological reflection was deeply rooted in his own life experiences.

Although Yi Jeong Yong began his career as a rising scholar and the importance of his contextual approach was gradually accommodated in the field of theology, he felt that the marginalized situation to which he belonged did not change. He was still a stranger and an Asian. Dr. Yi confessed his marginal experiences as follows: “I have felt that I was climbing up an icy hill. The more I climb the hill, the more I slip downward. Thus there was constant insecurity because I wanted to be a part of those who rejected me.”[3] Finally, in 1977, he temporarily returned to South Korea in order to examine the possibility of his permanent homecoming, while teaching at Seoul National University and Ewha Women’s University with the support of the Fulbright Institute. It was another unexpected and painful memory for him. He recalled, “When I was alienated by the central group in this country, I wanted to return to my homeland to find security there. When I returned to Korea, I discovered that I had become an alien in my homeland because of my Americanization. Although I once moved back to Korea with a permanent teaching job in Seoul, I had to return to North America. I have discovered that I belong neither to my homeland nor to North America. I am twice marginalized. I am truly in-between two worlds, and to be in-between means to be lonely.”[4] While feeling severe loneliness among Koreans, Dr. Yi often visited Mudang (Korean female shamans) and their Guts (rituals to appease/exorcise ghosts by singing and dancing) to collect the materials for his next book. After he came back to the United States in 1978, he published Korean Shamanistic Rituals in 1981.[5]

While following this life trajectory, Yi Jeong Yong seemed to ruminate continuously over how to establish his own identity. As a person neither American nor Korean (perhaps this can be applied to all people who share the same/similar experience, in its different degree), finding one’s identity (and meaning of life) could not be a matter of choosing between two or choosing both, but a matter of balancing/harmonizing both identities based on his own context, which brings about a so-called hybrid identity. At this stage of his life, Yi began regarding his marginalized experience as something inextricably linked to and/or a profound component of his identity. In other words, he embarked on ultimately affirming himself as well as all the components of his life, dealing with them as invaluable sources for his theological task: self-negation to self-affirmation.

His attempt was clearly exemplified in his autobiographical theology, which came from the recognition that no theology is free of personal bias. More precisely, he concluded, “our sociological, psychological, political, economic, ethnic or cultural backgrounds determine our personal theological orientation.”[6] For him, theology is the story of oneself trying to strive to understand how God works in one’s and others’ lives. In this sense, Dr. Yi asserted that theology should be thoroughly autobiographical and criticized any attempt to either unify or assimilate various theologies into the Eurocentric western theology as if it were the role model and provided the norms to follow, because western theology is the autobiographical construct of western white males in their the specific contexts. Using a metaphor of mosaics, he contended that all theologies should maintain their uniqueness and characteristics and coexist together honoring and complementing other theologies in order to complete the entire picture of Christianity and theology. In other words, being autobiographical connotes relativism, necessitating one’s effort to interpret his/her experience and de/reconstruct theology based on it. The thing that should be noticed is that Yi differentiated being autobiographical from being individualistic, since for him, experience should not be limited to each individual, but must evolve from the individual to be linked to the collective entity (including community) sharing the same/similar marginalized experience. Insisting it was the ground of contextual theology, he interpreted his and other numerous North Korean refugees’ experience of suffering in 1950 through the lens of the exodus story of the Israelites, and his and other foreigners’ experience of marginalization through the lens of Jesus’ story.

This autobiographical orientation motivated him to rethink his own marginalized experiences. Marginalization is always relative to or rather inseparable from one’s social location(s) and context(s) and it can also shift over time. In fact, one’s social location(s) varies according to particular context and is governed by power structures/systems, since one is embedded in multiple structures/systems. The governing hierarchical systems in the context always form one or multiple centers and margins. In many cases, as they become more rigid/fixed over time, they ultimately lead to the fixed identity of the marginalized people and to the reification of their marginalized experiences (marginality). Yi Jeong Yong explained this notion with the tension between the center and the margin and fostered the decentralizing thinking which enables the marginalized foreigners (including himself) to regain their own subjectivities. That is, he overcame the negative connotation of marginality in pluralistic society and came to regard it as the place/sphere of creativity, thereby presenting an alternative definition of marginality of in-beyondness which incorporates the classical definition of marginality of in-betweenness and the contemporary definition of “in-bothness.[7] Based on this understanding, he boldly argued that marginality is the essence of Jesus Christ and marginalized place/sphere was the field of Jesus’ life and ministry and is the place/sphere where the church and all Christians should be. His ultimate vision was to recover the subjectivity of the marginalized and to build solidarity among them.

This vision shares some commonality with liberation theology. However, Yi Jeong Yong clearly differentiated his theological stance from that of liberation theology. Whereas the latter has a relatively exclusive and mutually oppositional perception of the oppressor and the oppressed, the former has characteristics of harmony and coexistence. Focusing on the proximity between his theological stance and Minjung theology, he began conversations with Minjung theologians, including An Byungmu, and introduced the movement to the United States as well as facilitating conversations among the theologians of Western Europe, Africa, South America, and Asia. The dialogue was later compiled and published under the title of An Emerging Theology in World Perspective: Commentary on Korean Minjung Theology (1988). Through the framework of Minjung theology, Yi explored the possibility of building solidarity among those who share experiences of marginalization, regardless of culture and race. Yi’s theological venture culminated in his final work, Marginality: The Key to Multicultural Theology (1995). In this book, he presented his theology of marginality–based on his marginalized experience–which can be applied to pluralistic society beyond cultural and racial barriers. Through the lens of the common experience of marginality, Yi illuminated several topics of systematic theology, such as Jesus Christ, discipleship, and the church.

Yi Jeong Yong was highly creative, writing about 15 books including Cosmic Religion (1973), The Trinity in Asian Perspective (1996), and Korean Preaching (1997) plus the books mentioned above, as well as approximately 50 articles. While actively developing his theology, he suddenly passed away on November 9, 1996. Among his many contributions, three stand out. First, as a prominent theologian he laid the foundation for Korean contextual theology. Second, he provided the Northeast Asian interpretation of Christianity through a theology of change, and a prophetic spirituality of transformation through a theology of marginality. Third, in the 1980s he played a significant role in introducing Korean studies into the United States. In sum, based on his unique theological understanding, he devoted his life to reinterpreting the world, event and faith by explaining theological subjects. His diasporic life and accomplishment affirm that he was indeed one of the most important figures among Korean alumni of Boston University School of Theology.



[1] “Interview: Dr.Yi Jeong Yong (Professor of University of North Dakota)”, The Kyunghyang Shinmun, September 07, 1977, accessed March 14, 2015. http://newslibrary.naver.com/viewer/index.nhn?articleId=1977090700329205007&editNo=2&publishDate=1977-09-07&officeId=00032&pageNo=5&printNo=9829&publishType=00020&from=news

[2] Kangsin Kwi, “Modern Science and Book of Changes (Dr. Yi’s Lecture)”, The Kyunghyang Shinmun, November 23, 1977, accessed March 14, 2015. http://newslibrary.naver.com/viewer/index.nhn?articleId=1977112300329205001&editNo=2&publishDate=1977-11-23&officeId=00032&pageNo=5&printNo=9894&publishType=00020&from=news

[3] Yi Jeong Yong, Marginality: The Key to Multicultural Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 167.

[4] Ibid., 166.

[5] “Interview: Dr. Yi Jeong Yong (Professor of University of North Dakota)”

[6] Marginality, 2.

[7] Ibid., 42-70.


Written by Duse Lee

Edited by Daryl Ireland