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Global Vision - Fall 2009

View more articles in the Fall 2009 issue.

Theology Under the Bo Tree

by Andy Behrendt, M.Div. Senior

Dr. Ling, Kuntz, and Ling's wife, Sui
Cia at the Karaweik Palace, Rangoon,

Last fall, Jen Kuntz heard stories about Buddhist-Christian dialogue in Myanmar from Dr. Samuel Ngun Ling Luther Seminary's 2008 Schiotz Visiting Professor. Last summer, she lived through those stories.

Kuntz, a 2009 M.Div. graduate, accepted Ling's invitation to rejoin him in Myanmar (Burma) and experience life in the predominantly Buddhist country firsthand. She spent July "Doing Theology Under the Bo Tree," a seminar hosted by the Myanmar Institute of Theology where Ling is a professor.

"I got another chance to hear him speak about faith and interfaith relationships in a country where that's a top-notch priority," Kuntz says of Myanmar, a country of 135 recognized ethnic groups where Christians and Muslims live among the Buddhist majority. "When you're in the context, it takes on a whole new importance and meaning that you don't get from just hearing about it or reading a book on it."

Sparking a Passion for Interfaith Dialogue

Kuntz had developed a curiosity about interfaith connections after hearing the Dalai Lama speak in Seattle in spring 2008, while Kuntz was interning in Lynnwood, Wash. That led her to take Ling's two courses—"Confessing Christ in Asia" and "Buddhism and the Christian"—when she returned for her senior year at Luther Seminary. Ling's lessons on life in a religiously diverse context deepened her interest and opened the door to learning those lessons more intensely in Myanmar.

Indeed, the "Bo Tree" program—named after the tree beneath which the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama was sitting when he was enlightened, according to Buddhist tradition—proved to be an intense four-week experience. Kuntz and 10 other participants from around the globe engaged with Ling and other speakers of different religious and ethnic perspectives, traveled to homes and temples in several Burmese cities, and heard Bible stories from entirely new views—all while the monsoon-season temperature and percent humidity were each pushing 90.

The final week of the experience focused on the relationship between Buddhism and Christianity. Kuntz was fascinated by the life of Burmese Christians, who make up about 6 percent of Myanmar's population. As a religious minority under a military government that associates itself with the Buddhist majority, these Christians are essentially second-class citizens. But Kuntz found them to be surprisingly vibrant in their faith and attitude, so much so that they could teach American Christians a thing or two.

"If (more people) could hear from them, what kind of table-turning would that do for the people in this country?" she muses. "They really tell you their faith, and they take it seriously, and it's vital to their daily living—unlike here, where, as a generalization, it's something fun to do on the weekends."

Continuing a Ministry of Global Outreach

Kuntz plans to pursue ordination and become a parish pastor next year. Until then, she hopes to continue broadening her outlook for ministry through further travel. Already, she says, her experiences in the "Bo Tree" program will be helpful in settings where there are differences in faith, such as in conversations with people here in the United States who are outside the church.

As she better learned the stories of cultural and religious life in Myanmar—of women who spent their childhoods in human trafficking, of a pastor who operates a free clinic in his church, of a woman who set up a youth center that allows children a stronger education—Kuntz also better learned how stories promote interfaith discussion, whether in Myanmar or Minnesota.

"The best thing, if you're going to walk into that kind of situation, is to share stories and to listen, to find common ground and work from there into other conversations," she says. "One of the big take-away pieces from the program is better understanding the value of the story—that's something you can carry with you across borders for free, and you can share that with people anywhere, everywhere, anytime.

Imagine a day in the life as a student in the "Theology Under the Bo Tree" program by reading  Kuntz's reflection of her experience.

Read about Dr. Ling's time at Luther Seminary as the Schiotz Visiting Scholar.

  • Kuntz took both Dr. Ling's classes at Luther Seminary. Read a Q&A with her about the courses.

Read Kuntz's travel blog including posts from her time in Myanmar.