Doing Theology in Myanmar

Definition of Doing Theology

“Theology is the systematic and rational study of religion and its influences and of the nature of religious truths, or the learned profession acquired by completing specialized training in religious studies, usually at a university or school of divinity or seminary” . There are many fields in the study of theology, especially in the Catholic Church. However, doing theology is a different thing. Doing theology, as the author of this paper understands it, is living witness of the Christian faith based on the gospels and at the same time, reflecting and analyzing the context of a situation and envision how one can respond to that situation. Doing theology surely cannot give all the answers and solutions to the problems. However, in doing so, it shares the very meaning of God’s salvation through incarnation into a human being, struggle, suffering, death and resurrection. In this paper, the author will discuss on Myanmar as locus theologicus or doing theology in Myanmar.

Context of Myanmar in General

“Myanmar is a multiracial and multi-religious country and has an estimated population of 50 million people. “The population is comprised of some 135 ethnic groups speaking 106 languages. The eight major ethnic groups and their percentage of the total population are: Bhamar (69), Shan (8.5), Kayin (6.2), Rakhine (4.5), Mon (2.4), Chin (2.2), Kachin (1.4), and Kayah (0.4).”

“Myanmar is home to primal religious beliefs and major world religions such as Nat (local spirits) worship, animism, Theravada Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. Chinese temples are found in major cities plus a Jewish synagogue and a Silk temple in Yangon. However, the country has “no official state religion” today. There is freedom of worship. In reality, there is no religious freedom.” “Religious plurality, however, has existed in Myanmar since her early history.

The nation’s political history can be divided into the times of the monarchy (1044-1855), colonialism (1824-1947), parliamentary democracy (1948-62), the socialist regime (1962-88) and the Military regime (1988 to the present time)” .

Religions in Myanmar

“The major religions in Myanmar are Buddhism (89.4%), Christianity (5.9%), Islam (3.9%), Hinduism (0.5%), and animism (1.2%). Small numbers practice Confucianism, Judaism, and Laipianism. Even though it is a multi religious society, one can generally define the society of Myanmar as a Buddhist society.”

“In Myanmar, the Nat or the indigenous spirits are the natives. Hindu deities are the first comers. Many of them are renamed, localized and transfigured into the native Nat. The Buddha is the second comer. He was to accept the Nat, giving due respect to them while maintaining his superiority. Siddhartha Gautama Buddha alone would not have had a place in the heart of the Burmese if he, and the Burmese Buddhism, did not tolerate the locals, the Nat. Christianity and Islam came later. There is a critical encounter between Gods of the East and Gods of the West. Unfortunately, they are still seen as invaders, conquers, and colonizers. The Gods of the Jews, the Hindus, and the Muslims have little influence on not more than ten percent of the population.

In Myanmar, Christ stays aloof from the other religions. That is to say, he is put far from Hindu Gods, Muhammad, the Lord Buddha, and the Nat. The Gospel and Nat worship have not yet encountered each other because Nat worship was regarded as “anti-Christian” and “superstitions.” Most of the Buddhists still worshiping Nat while being rooted in Buddhism too.

Buddhism in Myanmar

Buddhist also searches for the truth like any other religion. The truth is the way to their goal. Their goal may be divided into three hierarchically. The highest goal is nothingness. Buddhist doesn’t believe in God since their final goal is nothingness. To achieve that goal, a person has to pass hundreds of lives because it demands total detachment from desire: desire for anything. The Buddha is believed to have achieved this after having passed 550 lives of reincarnation. The second highest goal is to become an angel and live in one of layers in heaven. This can be achieved only through many virtues and purification. The third highest goal is to be human again. To be human again after death is not an easy task of preparation while still living in the material world. This can only be achieved by many good deeds motivated by pure intentions.

Furthermore, in Buddhism, “the law of Karma is the main doctrine and the second is the doctrine of Dhamma, the truth. According to this doctrine, by the law of karma (the law of cause and effect which is ordered by one’s past actions) one cannot escape from the wheel of life – which is symbolical of suffering. To be liberated from this, one needs to know or realize the Dhamma or Truth and live according to it. No other thing, or more specifically, no external things can help or cause one’s liberation. That is to say, one has the sole responsibility for one’s own liberation.”

Therefore generosity, compassion and donation is the main practical virtues of Buddhist since they believe that by being free from materials, can they be free to become a human or an angel in the afterlife. Only by being generous and giving alms to others, can they be given in return in the next life as much as they have given in this life.

The Problems of Doing Theology in Myanmar

If we want to do theology in Myanmar, we must nurture inclusive attitude to create inter-religious dialogue. The Catholic Church in Myanmar is rather exclusive to other religions in Myanmar. Christians used to defend the Divinity of Jesus while offending the Buddha as merely a human being. Since the Buddhists also see Christianity as western religion, the fear of religious conflict and possible undesired consequences has led both parties into silence about religions. To make the matter worse, the Church has no significant history of participating in the struggle for independence and demonstrations for social, economic and political justice.

Therefore, if the Church wants to do liberation theology amidst these political restrictions, it must embrace liberal attitude first within the Church itself. The contradictory here is that the Church doesn’t want to give a place for critical opinions and reflections about the Church itself through media. All the media and publications within the Church itself are monitored by the Church leaders. They are just acting in the very same way with the dictator government.

Our Catholic theology, doctrine, dogma and teachings are, as known, very complicated and difficult to understand. The number of the faithful who received basic catechism is much less than those who did not. The leaders of the Church failed to give enough programs for delivering effective catechism to the faithful of the Church. These faithful of the Church are the ones who do the theology in their day to day life in various local contexts among other religions. If they do not receive basic understanding of the faith of the Church but only rather only devotions, what else is there that they can share with other religions.

The Church in Myanmar until now can’t stand on its own feet financially. It is being helped by PIME Pontificio Istituto Missioni Estere just for survival. That is the thing that makes the Church unable to produce institutions for research fields; spirituality, philosophy, cultural research, anthropology research, and so on.

The core of the aforementioned problems: exclusivity, conservativeness and lack of knowledge of the Church lies at the heart of poor quality of education and deep rooted poverty in Myanmar. Because of many restrictions, the taste and value for education has disappeared in the hearts of the people. Because of that substandard education that can’t give a graduate not more than a certifying letter of degree, people have lost hope and motive for attaining education. Because of moral decline in the educational system such as cheating and buying marks, the education has become a hindrance to development of human potential rather than a learning process of integration.

Another problem is severe poverty. Deep rooted poverty for people of Myanmar is a prison, of which they can’t get out to dream a better life. If someone is just struggling for survival, how can that person care for higher level of life, which is education, knowledge, self development, politics, religion and nation development? Even Jesus in the Gospel preached the word of God to people after he fed them. He doesn’t preach while the people go hungry, thirsty and homeless.

What the Church can do

My simple answer to the question “ What must the Church do to do theology in Myanmar” is reflect upon the kind of Jesus Christ the Church would like to present to the people of Myanmar and be consistent in doing it. The Christ we would like to present must surely be the Christ that all people of Myanmar need, search for and come out from the situation. Therefore, one must know what is going on and critically analyzes the situation. In Myanmar, it is to know deep enough about the Burmese culture, the Buddhism in Myanmar and the country situation mentioned in the previous pages of this paper.

The Christ we need in Myanmar is the Christ who communicates with people of different religion, different ethnic and different levels of living standard. Therefore for this we need theology of dialogue that will bring the religions and ethnics into dialogue. Only through dialogue, real understanding and acceptance of the differences, uniqueness and richness of religion and culture can be attained.

Theology of dialogue

There have been attempts and reaction from Christians and church to preach the good news to the country. The Protestants were rather aggressive in doing this. They literally preached the Gospel, persuaded people with money and salary in local churches. At the same time, they insulted the Burmese belief and culture and threatened “you are worshiping spirits that can’t help you, bowing down before status that can’t feel what you are going through. If you don’t convert to Christianity, you will go to hell. No one will save you.”

The Catholic Church was the opposite. The Catholic was more to passivity; closed and do not talk with other religions in fear of conflict especially over the hot topic about Jesus Christ as divine and the Buddha as human and other undesired possible consequences.

To be able to enter into dialogue especially with Buddhism, one of the studies in the intellectual formation should include Buddhism, philosophy of Buddhism, and Buddhist culture. Unfortunately any newly ordained priest in Myanmar gets busy with taking care of the seven sacraments and devotions. This is also basically what makes the Church become more exclusive. They get busy within the Church but lose connection with the outside world. Therefore all the Bishops during the recent Bishop Conference in Myanmar agreed that priests who have received master degree in theology, philosophy, human development and management should start writing and publishing articles, journals, and even books. This is a positive step toward creating inter-religious dialogue.

Moreover, “if Christian can present Christ as Dhamma which is the way and power to liberate people from the wheel of life – suffering, and if Christians can also explain the Cross of Christ as the greatest Karma, which can nullify or destroy all the effects of all other Karma, it will be the greatest good news for Buddhists” .

Furthermore, Buddha also teaches about the eightfold path to the truth. “ Right View. The right way to think about life is to see the world through the eyes of the Buddha–with wisdom and compassion. Right Thought. We are what we think. Clear and kind thoughts build good, strong characters. Right Speech. By speaking kind and helpful words, we are respected and trusted by everyone. Right Conduct. No matter what we say, others know us from the way we behave. Before we criticize others, we should first see what we do ourselves. Right Livelihood. This means choosing a job that does not hurt others. The Buddha said, “Do not earn your living by harming others. Do not seek happiness by making others unhappy.” Right Effort. A worthwhile life means doing our best at all times and having good will toward others. This also means not wasting effort on things that harm ourselves and others. Right Mindfulness. This means being aware of our thoughts, words, and deeds. Right Concentration. Focus on one thought or object at a time. By doing this, we can be quiet and attain true peace of mind” .

Thus these eight fold path is the very virtue which can be found in the life of Jesus either explicitly or implicitly manifested and His followers should do the same. In mastering these eightfold path, we share the same “spirituality” with the Buddhists in Myanmar.

Theology of dialogue is very important in the context of Myanmar because the moral authorities are the monks who are the figures of Buddhist in Myanmar. The monks have a historical social power for social transformation. They were the one of the earlier groups that provoked revolution for independence from British colony. Again in 2007, they were again, who couldn’t stand anymore but fought against the social injustice done by the military government. They have courage, power and trust of the people in Myanmar. To enter into dialogue with the monks is, in the author’s opinion, the high priority in Myanmar. Aside from this, we need to consider also students and social and voluntary workers. The students, like the monks, had a historical involvement in fights for independence from British, demonstrations against social injustice and all forms of violence done by the military. Likewise, the social and voluntary workers are the organizations that can easily and most effectively reach the poor and the forgotten. Therefore, it is also very important to enter into dialogue with the students and social and voluntary workers so that we can work together to build up the nation.

Since Myanmar has been through decades of dictatorship which block human development, morality development and nation development, we need the Christ who incarnated into human being and in doing so; He gave hope and reasons to humanity to be real human. Thus he liberated humanity from anything that prevents us from growing as human. For this, he went against political parties, religious leaders, and cultural fanatics as far as humanity concerned.

Now it seems that democracy is coming up. Signs of change are taking place in various fields. There is bigger space for free media, internet, criticism, and opinions. Some political prisoners have been released. Generals and officials are more open and available to interview. However, the bigger problems remain the same. Power abuse, child labor and forced child soldier, ethnic conflicts, poverty, labor abuse, health crisis, raping women from minority groups and drug usage are prevailing all around in Myanmar. The Church should take this opportunity to respond to these problems as the country is opening up itself little by little.

Recently in 2008, Myanmar suffered from Nagis storm. Thousands of people died, millions of houses are swept away, and thousands of homes have been taken by the storm. Many groups from religious congregations, Catholic youth and voluntary workers offered themselves to rescue the victims of the storm in the name of the Church. It was indeed a saving hand of the Christ in Myanmar.

Opium and all kinds of drugs are getting widespread in Myanmar, especially in Kachin state, Shan state, and at the boarders of Thai-Myanmar and Myanmar-China. Drugs are used especially by the young people and it has caused another moral decline: robbing, stealing, rapping, laziness, and selling all the belongings of the family.

Health crisis has been a prolonged challenge for Myanmar. HIV/AIDS, SARS, Malaria, Polio, Tuberculosis, Cancer and hypertension-related diseases are the major diseases and sickness in Myanmar. The nation is in great despair.

Corruption is a structural sin. All the people associated with military general and those businessmen who could bribe the general are the rich. There is no middle class in Myanmar. There is only rich and poor class. The percentage of the poor is much bigger than the rich and since the military power is prolonging, the rich are getting richer and continue to take advantage of the poor and the poor are getting poorer and poorer every year.

Therefore to do theology in Myanmar means to enter into dialogue with other religions especially with Buddhist and with ethnic groups. The priority goes to dialogue with the monks, the students and the social and voluntary workers to be able to respond to the problems that arise. In doing so, we can work together with other citizens in bringing up the nation. Through this service, I believe, we are presenting the Christ that the people of Myanmar need and long for.

Bibliography (downloaded on December 16, 2011).

Saw Shee Sho. “ Doing Theology in Myanmar’s Context: vol-7.” 2006. Sungkonghoe University, Department of Theology, Seoul.  (downloaded on December 17, 2011). (downloaded on December 17, 2011).

Maung John. “Myanmar as Locus of Christology”.  (downloaded on December 17,  2011).