Why is theological research topical?
22 May 2012
Is religion nowadays just the dusty family Bible on grandma’s bookshelf? Where do we need theological research today and what does it focus on? What exactly is the value of Finnish university theology in the international market? These questions were answered by Aila Lauha, Chair of the Research Council for Culture and Society at the Academy of Finland.
Religion is here to stay
For hundreds of years it has been predicted that religions would die out; as science develops, it was assumed that people would no longer need religion, so the religions would gradually lose their social significance.
“This is not, however, what we see happening. Religions haven't disappeared, in fact, they're still having a great impact on human lives and societies. Today, religion is strongly present in public debate, and religions play a constant role in global politics. Once you have an understanding of religions, you're better able to understand the conflicts taking place all over the world. At the same time, it's necessary, when discussing ethics, for example, to take into account the influence that religion has on the value choices that people make,” says Lauha.
In Finland, theological research and training are provided by three universities. The largest unit is the Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki, where Lauha serves as Dean and Professor of Church History.
Independent research topic, shared research methods
Theological research focuses on religion, religious people, and the social and cultural impact of religion. The research methods used are the same as those used in the humanities and social sciences; there are no strictly theological research methods.
European theological research has been characterised by a focus on Jewish and Christian traditions, and from a highly historical approach. Today, we are using this foundation to move ever increasingly towards multiculturalism and dialogue between religions. Classical theological research is, of course, still being done, but new questions are emerging.
Interesting cultural roots
The new winds of change also have an effect on university education in the field. The Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki has a joint Nordic Master’s programme in English entitled "Religious Roots of Europe". Within this programme, students look more closely at the formative processes and mutual interactions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Themes related to the multicultural aspects of Europe are also being studied in, for example, many projects being funded by the Academy of Finland.
“We can all see that the religious field in Finland is also changing. We need current research knowledge about religious traditions and practices and, at the same time, about the religious dimensions of our own culture,” says Lauha.
The strengths of the field rest on internationality and successful networking
The Academy of Finland is once again surveying the state and quality of Finnish scientific research, also in terms of theology. The field is currently characterised by a heavily international approach to research, active networking, and success in acquiring research funding. “Finnish theologians are internationally respected experts and reviewers, as well as contributors to international scientific publications. As a result of the activities of the Centres of Excellence hosted by the University of Helsinki, research in the fields of exegetics and philosophy of religion, in particular, is among the best in the world. Each of the three centres also has its own strengths in the area of research,” Lauha continues.
There is, however, still room for development in the field. “There's a need to construct a national research strategy in the field of theology, and do so in relation to the international research field, without, of course, forgetting about the significance of good Nordic research cooperation.”
Theologians are a visible and audible presence
The visibility of theologians within society has, according to Lauha, improved over recent years. Theologians are often asked to join panels and act as commentators. For example, the ethical problems that have arisen in relation to the female image within the Laestadian movement or in terms of bioethics have recently been discussed on many current affairs programmes. Religion-related themes are often drawn into discussion, also, for example, in relation to films. “Good use is made of the theological expertise that we have available. This is a clear change from the situation during my own years of study,” says Lauha.
No moral regulations
In Aila Lauha's opinion, what does theology not reflect? “Theological research is academic work, not a moral or religious lesson. A theologian can't use science to take a stand on how things should be, what one should believe or how one should act. On the other hand, a church historian, for example, may, in the course of research on the 1920s and 1930s, bring up issues that question the operational models chosen by the churches at that time. I think it's great if the researcher makes you question, for example, justice, also in a modern context. I would still stress, however, that research results can't be directly adapted to serve as moral directives.”
Text: Marja Nousiainen
Photo: Kari Likonen