In this essay I share how I got interested in the field called Saami contextual theology and reconciliation. I also tell what I am going to do with my research interest concerning the Saami people recognized as indigenous people in countries they inhabit. Since the Saami have suffered heavily from the burden caused by Western science, I feel it’s my duty to be not only sensitive but also transparent with my academic ambitions.
I was never drawn to theology for existential reasons. Already at a young age I realized I don’t understand the world of religions or more precisely: the world with religions. It was curiosity that led me to study theology at the Faculty of Theology at Helsinki university. In the end of my high school graduation summer religions and especially Christianity perplexed me more than anything else.
However, my study years at university were far from being a success story. For a long time, I blamed myself for not experiencing any kind of mental nor cultural togetherness with the field I was studying. Only later I realized there were more structural reasons behind for my strong experience of belonging completely to another world than the world taught at my school. To make matters worse, my major, systematic theology with its philosophical analyzing method, can be regarded by some people unpractical and even – simply useless.
My motivation was damaged by the awkward feeling having wrong cultural background for theological studies. It was absolutely nothing to do with the inspiring scholars who were teaching nor with peer students. It was about me. Me being a Saami student of theology was a lonely position to be.
Back then I didn’t realize it, but actually it wasn’t about me. It was the school curriculum that offered very little contextually understandable for a student from Deatnu river valley.
Voices of marginalized people stayed in margins
In February 2016 I got a phone call from Helsinki university. Professor Elina Vuola had heard about a Saami student at the Faculty and there was something she wanted to ask. She was curious knowing whether there is Saami theological thinking that would resemble themes familiar to liberation theology. I was unprepared for her question – a topic never occurred to my mind before.
I was in a harmful illusion that to be a useful theologian one has to master some field of theology that was born outside the Northern hemisphere. To me, the content of the curriculum seemed supporting this attitude or at least contextual perspectives concerning people in margins weren’t that visible during the time I was a student.
I promised to Vuola that I will find out whether there are some sources where the Saami people themselves tell about their relationship to Christianity. It happened during the spring when I was anyway looking for a research topic for my master’s thesis. After an article received by Saami culture’s professor Veli-Pekka Lehtola, I knew I had found what I was looking for: a perfect match.
Saami theologian Tore Johnsen as a forerunner and major inspiration
In 2017 I finalized my master’s thesis on Saami theologian Tore Johnsen (born 1969). In Saami context Johnsen is a rarity: Indigenous Christian theologian who has worked as a priest among the Saami people up north. What makes him even more interesting is that he has written about themes neglected in Scandinavian church history or history in general. In his writings he deals with such topics like reconciliation and recognition in Saami church context.
Johnsen’s thinking and experiences couldn’t be more topical concerning the current Nordic wave of Saami reconciliation processes. Already in autumn 2022 the Nordic countries’ history’s first truth and reconciliation commission report will be published by Stortinget, Norway. It’s more than likely that the report will refer to spirituality as well, the wounds of the Saami caused by Lutheran mission.
Feeling less weirdo in my own field
I got carried away with theology of being sorry. What reconciliation means in Saami context? What and how have the national churches of Finland, Norway and Sweden reconciled with the Saami in the aftermath of conflict caused by Christian mission? How do the Saami think about reconciling with the Christian church? Is there anything to be reconciled in the first place?
After getting to know Saami contextual theology I felt I had arrived home in my own field. The feeling of me being a weirdo started gradually disappearing and earlier studies started to seem more meaningful from the lenses of my own reality, Saami reality. I started dreaming about doctoral studies and making a doctoral thesis on Saami reconciliation processes.
“ I was on the way to Sápmi and I couldn’t help but shed tears at airport. “
At the end of the last year, I received a letter from University of Helsinki. I was the one of two theologians selected for a salaried position to make one’s doctoral thesis in Doctoral Programme in Theology and Religious Studies. I was on my way to Sápmi and I couldn’t help but shed tears at airport. By selecting a Saami student, the Faculty of Theology signalized its openness and need for Saami perspectives.
Can the Saami be burdened once again? – Questioning my research plan
During the next four years I will try to understand how reconciliation is being understood by a) Christian churches as institutions in the Nordic countries, b) representatives and key people in charge of Saami church work and c) Saami people themselves.
At this point of my doctoral project, having started last month, I want to share my doubt concerning my own research plan.
I recognize the interest for Saami voices in academia. In my case, for example, about how Saami people understand the relationship of reconciliation and Christianity today. What comes to Saami philosophy and spirituality very little has been written. This means that only way of understanding how the Saami think on reconciliation is by listening to them.
“ If many Saami would want to collaborate with me on their relationship with Christianity and reconciliation, I am here. “
In most cases interviews as a source-producing method is no problem but when dealing with the indigenous group that has heavily been burdened by Western science, it immediately raises a research ethical question (Read my blog post about research tiredness among the Saami).
Question about how to conduct my research so that I would increase understanding on Saami reconciliation and still at the same time avoid burdening Saami communities for the sake of science, is essential. At this point I will leave the possibility for interviews open. On the one hand, if I start sensing that many Saami would want to share their views and experiences on relationship with Christianity and reconciliation, I am here.
Doctoral project is not a solo play
Doctoral thesis anyway is not a solo project but team work. I feel so lucky to have professor Elina Vuola (Professor of Global Christianity and Dialogue of Religions) and docent Jyri Komulainen to back my doctoral project as supervisors. Both Vuola and Komulainen have expertise in contextual theology (among others). They are one of the few theologians in Finland encouraging to pay closer attention to emerging theologies like indigenous theologies.
My research goal is to increase understanding on those reconciliation processes that the Saami have been surrounded since the early 1990s. I would lie if I were to say I don’t have other academic ambitions in addition to that. There is one. To bring a glimpse of Saami contextual thinking to the university that eventually made me theologian.