Weekly Local Biography

  John Butt

John Butt was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in the USA but raised in a very small town of only 4,000 people in southern Kentucky. His father died when he was four years old, and his mother and grandfather raised him. By the time he was in the fourth grade, he knew that he wanted to become a minister. Perhaps his decision was driven by the need for a father. His best friend became almost like a brother, and the friend’s father was a good role model both at home and in church. But the church his family attended had several quite outstanding ministers for such a small town, and they also inspired him.

He graduated from high school and Southwestern College in Memphis, Tennessee. Then he left the Deep South and went into serious academia at Harvard University’s Divinity School, which is non-sectarian. The next few years were an important intellectual part of his life, very challenging and exciting. It was Harvard’s theological heyday, but John jokingly says that he’s a slow learner. It was several years before he really understood the importance of his experience.

He applied to the Presbyterian Church, USA, for a post “anywhere overseas”, and in 1963 found himself teaching English at Prince Royal’s College in Chiang Mai. Male volunteers, paid teachers and missionaries all lived together in a large house on the grounds, and their female counterparts lived in a women’s dormitory there. They all ate breakfast together, sharing common experiences and goals, and it was there that John met Martha.

They married in Thailand, and then returned to Harvard for John to pursue graduate work. Their daughter was born in Boston, and the family came back to Thailand in 1972. This time they lived in Bangkok while John did research in preparation for a doctoral dissertation. He and Martha adopted their son there. He worked with the Supreme Patriarch, learning about Buddhist reform, but never completed the dissertation. Instead he accepted a position at Macalester College in Minnesota teaching world religions.

The family lived in Minnesota for about nine years, and John says that the academic experience made as big a difference in his thinking as his formal educational experience had. He broadened his knowledge of many religions, and became in this layperson’s opinion, a theologian. In 1977 the family made a move that would be significant to the children. John accepted a position with a Japanese studies program in Japan, and the children were enrolled in Japanese public schools. The Japanese language fluency that they developed, as well as their experiences in living abroad, internationalized them and made them multilingual and highly tolerant of other cultures. I envy their experience.

John and Martha brought their family “home” to Chiang Mai in the early 1980s when John accepted a position at the McGilvary Faculty of Theology. John believed that it was necessary to understand Buddhism in order to understand Thai people, and that theologians needed to understand other religions in order to understand their own.

We talked about the great religions of the world, and he said that each of us should consider our own religion to be one piece of the puzzle of “human religiousness”. I lamented the narrowness of religious fundamentalism, and its divisiveness. A well-known quotation by the President of the United States came to mind, “You’re either with us or against us”. While made in a political context, it also appears to apply to many who espouse very conservative religious viewpoints. John says that religious fundamentalists believe that their religion is the “whole puzzle” rather than one piece of the puzzle. It is an “arrogance” that divides rather than unites. He encourages his students to closely examine their beliefs, to discard those that are built on sand and replace them with those of substance.

With such a broad view of religion, it was no surprise to learn that he moved to the Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture of Payap University in the mid-1990s and became the director. Following the footsteps of other theologians who had also been teachers at McGilvary, the institute’s mission is to contribute to greater inter-religious and intra-religious understanding. John Butt, Christian expert on Theravada Buddhism, became fast friends with Sang Chandrangam, Buddhist expert on Christianity, and the two began to teach joint Buddhist/Christian studies. The board of advisers at the Institute reflects the makeup of the Chiang Mai community – Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Muslim. The Institute hosts lectures, conferences and study groups from abroad. Many groups come to Thailand to learn about the entire culture, just as international students do, and religion is an important part of what they study. So John has acquired great expertise in working with local tour companies and guides to develop well-rounded study curricula.

John considers the appointment of his successor at the Institute to be one of his greatest accomplishments. He had long worried that the work would be put aside when he retired, that nobody else would find it as important. But it didn’t work out that way. There is a new Director, and John has become the Senior Advisor. A newly endowed chair now funds the director’s position, also an enormous accomplishment. The direction of the Institute is broadening, and now will include conflict resolution. The Institute will host an international conference in 2006 on Religion and Culture that will include academics and theologians representing the major religions of the world.

John will retire in two years. He never finished that Ph.D. but has a host of honorary degrees and accolades that more than compensate. He regrets having to give up his motorcycle since the traffic in Chiang Mai has become so difficult, so he drives an aging and disintegrating truck. He misses the White Castle hamburgers from his childhood. He plans to improve his golf score. But what he’s really excited about is that he will have time to study and write on his own. He hates deadlines almost as much as he loves cookies.