A decisive call for a theology in Myanmar, which is adequate for the religious, intellectual and social environment of Myanmar has come from a layman, a professor of philosophy, U Khin Maung Din. It is mainly two of his articles, which are always referred to and which have shaped much of contemporary contextual theological thinking in Myanmar. One deals with principles and basic ideas of a Burmese Christian theology and the other one with a new understanding of mission in the Buddhist environment. It is amazing how these two relatively short texts have had such deep impact on the Myanmar theological scene.
Khin Maung Din seems to have been a remarkable personality. He was born in 1931 into a Christian (Baptist) family in Mawlamyine in South East Myanmar and was baptized when he was eleven at the First Baptist Church there. He was a brilliant student, graduated very early from Morton Lane Judson High School, so that he had to wait a year until he could enter university.
He initiated an interdenominational youth organization in his city, the Mawlamyine Combined Youth consisting of youth groups from Anglican, various Baptist and other churches. This youth movement grew stronger year by year, organized Bible assemblies, held summer camps every year, even had its own camp site.
After he had finished the bachelor class in Philosophy at the University of Yangon with B.A. (Hons.) in 1953, he was appointed tutor at the Philosophy Department. He was the youngest tutor there, attended at the same time M.A. classes and graduated in 1957 with a Master of Arts degree in philosophy with first class honors. When Mawlamyine College (then called Moulmein Intermediate College, under the University of Yangon), which now has become Mawlamyine University, opened, he returned to Mawlamyine and started building up the Department of Philosophy. His students appreciated his teaching as clear and understandable and he was popular both among the students and at the college in general, also for his amicable personality.
In 1958 he married Daw San San Swe, with whom he had two sons. They also adopted a niece. His two sons are married and participate in the activities of a Ywama Baptist church in Insein/Yangon.
U Khin Maung Din involved a lot in the Student Christian Movement and was from 1958 to 1960 the first full time general secretary of the National Student Christian Movement of Burma. He attended the general assembly of the World Student Christian Federation at Strasbourg, France. Through this involvement he got acquainted with the Indian and Ceylonese theologians M.M. Thomas and D. T. Niles whom he regarded his teachers over decades.
Afterwards the University of Yangon invited him back to its Department of Philosophy. From 1961 until 1982 he was lecturer and the head of this department. In 1982 he was promoted to be professor.
He was not only a popular teacher of philosophy, but also involved in his church, in the Myanmar Council of Churches and, as honorary part-time lecturer in Christian Ethics, at the Myanmar Institute of Theology, then called Burma Divinity School. Among others „he helped the study commission of the Myanmar Council of Churches to formulate a response to the statements of the World Council of Churches on ‚Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry‘ and ‚Education for Ecumenism‘.” He liked to sing and to play guitar and flute and composed popular hymns, some of which were accepted in the Burmese Hymnal. He also wrote plays on Christian themes, e.g. “Calvary” and “The Life of Judson: From the Past towards the Future”. In 1987 he passed away while on a government study tour to the US.1
Aims and Achievements
Khin Maung Din had three major concerns:
1) philosophy was his main occupation. His achievements in this field, other than what has been mentioned in the short biography, are not the subject of this little presentation;
2) his work for the reconciliation and cooperation of Christians of different denominations expressed in his ecumenical activities in his home city, his involvement in the Christian Students´ Movement and his work for the ecumenical institutions in Myanmar;
3) and his concern for a Burmese theology for today. He did not just want to make the traditional Christian theology understandable for Burmese, but „to discover more about the gospel itself with the aid of some Buddhist and other Oriental categories.“ The issue for him is not how the established theology is presented to Buddhists, but what the content of theology and mission should be in the face of especially Buddhist thinking and practice. Not only the bottle should change, but also the wine.
Here a comprehensive appreciation of Khin Maung Din´s work is neither aimed at nor possible.2 In the focus of this small presentation is the last aspect: his challenging and deeply influential ideas on theology and practice of mission in Buddhist Burma.
Some examples shall demonstrate this:
- The concept of God
Over against a traditional Christian presentation of Buddhism as an atheistic at best non-theistic thinking and practice, Khin shows that there is clear evidence of the fundamental role of transcendence in Buddhism, even though it could and should not be described. To be sure the idea of a personal God is rejected in Buddhism. However, dialogue between Christians and Buddhists should be possible if Christians broaden their understanding of God to allow non-personal aspects and to accept meditation as a way of communication with transcendence. For Khin, such communication can also lead to the „peace which passes all understanding“. This would mean that the one and only God can be worshipped in non-Christian forms and communities too.“ This has been widely accepted in contextual theology in Myanmar, but criticized by evangelical authors.
- The role of Christ
Khin wants to eliminate unnecessary “stumbling blocks” (1 Cor. 1,23) for the understanding of Christian faith. So the idea of blood sacrifices, which existed in the pre-Buddhism Burmese society, but were gradually abandoned under Buddhist influence, is repulsive for Burmese and an unnecessary hindrance for them to believe.
Khin wants to distinguish the relative and particular Jesus-event in its Jewish context from the universal and eternal Christ-event. Jesus reveals God’s coming into this world before, through and after Jesus. In this sense the cross of Jesus should be understood as the centre of history. „The continuing Incarnation, the ongoing Immanence, ministry, crucifixion, and the resurrection of the Transcendent Christ“ in the „’now‘ of every moment of history“ should be emphasized.
These ideas have strongly influenced Burmese Christian theology, especially the idea that in Burmese history and religion Christ has spoken even before his coming into this world and, through Christian mission, into Burma, which now is called Myanmar.
- Buddhist Christians
Khin was invited to speak at a Seminar on Evangelism of the Burma Baptist Convention in 1986. The topic given to him was „Challenges Confronting Mission Today“. Khin asked the responsible people to change the topic into „Can Buddhists be Buddhist-Christians?“
He did not reject what he calls classical evangelism aiming at converting animists to Christianity or so-called dead Christians to have a living faith. But he asked whether there could not also be another kind of evangelism, a dialogical evangelism, based on Jesus’ command to love. The aim would not be to convert Buddhists to become Christians, but to help them to become Buddhist-Christians, which means that they remain Buddhists but also become Christians. Instead of asking what a Buddhist must give up in order to become a Christian (things like atheism) or should believe (like the doctrine of grace, the Triune God), he asks what is essential for a Buddhist to enter the Kingdom of God. What would Jesus require from a Buddhist? According to Khin that would rather be decisions of life rather than doctrinal affirmations. And if the church insists on confessing a creed it should be something like a “Christocentrically Syncretized Creed”, which includes both Buddhist and Christian elements and is acceptable for both religions. This idea goes back to M. M. Thomas, the mentioned Indian theologian.
Khin exemplifies this with a cousin of his, a Burmese Buddhist who is married to a Muslim. She is a Buddhist Muslim, a very religious person and prays every morning and evening. Instead of asking doctrinal questions, Khin’s Christian family loves her prayers. Khin says he has seen Buddhist people who love and serve their fellowmen.
Khin also thinks that interfaith communities of Buddhist-Christians and Christian Buddhists are possible, with a very practical mission for “liberation, peace, justice and development”. Dialogical evangelism would strive to form such communities. Within them the good news is proclaimed not only by the Christians, but Christians are also ready to hear the good news from the Buddhists, especially on the unity of mankind. For Khin, there would be no problem in them partaking in the Holy Communion, since Jesus has called and invited them. They could also be witnesses to Jesus, since they have “seen his salvation”.3
He suggests a yin-yang approach to theology, i.e. the idea that the whole can only be grasped as opposites supplementing each other, that God should be understood not so much in terms of either-or, but of both-and, e.g. that God is somehow personal and somehow non-personal, Christ is fully human and fully divine, conversion somehow requires a definite confession of Christ, and somehow it does not require such confession.
These ideas has been reflected and acclaimed by prominent Myanmar theologians. They certainly have had a deep impact on the Myanmar Institute of Theology. However, there is a question whether such communities have been established in Myanmar in reality (as has been done for instance in Sri Lanka), and how much these thoughts have influenced the missionary practice in Myanmar.
Khin Maung Din’s ideas have been a great challenge and inspiration for Christian theology in Myanmar. They have pioneered a new and fairer approach especially to Buddhism and Buddhists. Some points seem to be simply convincing, especially concerning the Christian critique of Buddhism as an atheistic religion and the challenge to a mere saving souls mission, which does not take into account the challenge to an egocentric life by both Christianity and Buddhism, the responsibility of people of all religions for the wellbeing of the whole population and of the earth, and dialogue as a way towards this goal. It also makes sense that such dialogue can lead to a new fellowship of Christians and Buddhists in the service for the society of Myanmar and of the world at large, since e.g. the environmental issues concern everyone and cannot be understood and tackled without a global perspective. It is true that the church has to play a serving role in the society and has to be ready to find ways of serving together with people of other religious communities for the best of the people and the nation, following the example and command of Jesus (Mk.10,45).
While some later theologians have followed Khin Maung Din almost completely and developed his ideas, even going beyond Khin (e.g. Saw Hlaing Bwa, who has rejected classical evangelism completely), others have modified Khin Maung Din’s approach, even though they have been appreciative and indebted to his pioneering ideas. Particularly Samuel Ngun Ling and Simon Pau Khan En have maintained the necessity of the Christian witness to the Gospel in a humble way, but also of listening to the other side and being open to what God has to say through them.
In fact, when Jesus has died for the sins of the world (e.g. John 1,29.36, Mat. 26,27 parr), should the Buddhists be excluded? On the other hand it is true that Jesus has emphasized the reality of a life of love over against a relying on right belief and pious action (Mt.7,21; 25,31-46; Lk.10,25-37). Therefore Christians should not hide the Gospel of Christ, while they also must be mindful of themselves and of the lives of other people, learn from whatever good can be found and be ready to serve the common human needs with anyone prepared to do so.
Khin Maung Din, “Some Problems and Possibilities for Burmese Christian Theology,” What Asian Christians are Thinking, ed. Douglas J. Elwood, Quezon City, The Philippines: New Day Publishers, 1976, p.87-104 (Khin Maung Din, “Burmese Christian Theology“), here p.88. The article has also been published under the title „How to Feed His Lambs“ in International Review of Mission, Vol. LXV, 1976, p.151-163, also in Collections of Professor U Khin Maung Din’s papers & articles, Yangon: Myanmar Council of Churches, 2002.
Khin Maung Din, „Can Buddhists be Buddhist-Christians?“ Collections of Professor U Khin Maung Din’s papers & articles, Yangon: Myanmar Council of Churches, 2002, p.181ff.
The Collections of Professor U Khin Maung Din’s papers & articles is book is not easy to get by, but there are good summaries with discussion in the following articles:
Saw Hlaing Bwa, „The Contextualization of Theology in Myanmar“, kindly made accessible by the author in 9/2010, published in Contextual Theological Education. Practice and Reflections from the Mekong Region, 5th Mekong Mission Forum Publication, Editor-in-Chief Christa von Zychlin, Hong Kong: Lutheran Theological Seminary, 2012, p.35-46, here p.40f;
Saw Hlaing Bwa, „Doing Theology in Myanmar on the Way to Democracy“, in Regionale Aspekte der Globalisierung: eine theologische Würdigung = Regional Issues in Globalization, ed. Hans Schwarz/Thomas Kothmann, Frankfurt/M., Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York/NY, Oxford, Wien: Lang, 2012, p.181-204, here p.180-189. The part of this article about U Khin Maung Din’s second essay was published before under the title „Theological Reflections on Prof. Khin Maung Din’s Article: ‚Can Buddhists be Buddhist-Christians?'“ in Engagement. Judson Research Center’s Bulletin, Myanmar Institute of Theology, Insein, Yangon, Vol.9, 2007, p.59-67).
U Win Tin, „Biography of The Late Prof. Khin Maung Din, A Burmese Lay Theologian“, Engagement. Judson Research Center’s Bulletin, Myanmar Institute of Theology, Insein, Yangon, Myanmar, Vol.9, 2007, p.37-39. See also http://www.burmesebible.com/bio/din.u.khin.maung.htm, accessed 2-May-14 (in 2019 not found any more).
Sincere thanks go to Nyan Min Din for providing some comments and the pictures.
1 hhttp://www.burmesebible.com/bio/din.u.khin.maung.htm, accessed , accessed 2-May-14
2 the author does not understand Burmese
3 Khin „Can Buddhists be Buddhist-Christians?“, No. XV