How I became theologian (and how I almost didn’t): About Saami theology and my plans that may concern you too

Photo: Suvi Sahakari

Since the Saami people have suffered 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.

It was curiosity that led me to study theology at the Faculty of Theology at Helsinki university.

My study years at university, however, were far from being a success story. For a long time, I blamed myself for not experiencing any kind of mental or 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.

understand the world
The slogan of the Faculty of Theology, University of Helsinki. Photo: Helga West

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 or with peer students. It was about me.

Me being a Saami student of theology was a lonely position.

Back then I didn’t realize it, but actually it wasn’t about me either. 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 to support this attitude or at least contextual perspectives concerning peoples 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 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 Johnsen 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 reports will be published in Norway and in Finland.

It’s more than likely that the study will refer to Saami spirituality as well and the wounds of the Saami caused by Lutheran mission.

Feeling less like a stranger in my own field, theology

I got carried away with the theology of being sorry. What reconciliation means in the Saami context? What and how have the former state churches of Finland, Norway and Sweden reconciled with the Saami in the aftermath of 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 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 church-Saami reconciliation processes.

At the end of the year 2018, I received a letter from University of Helsinki.

I was one of the 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.

I would lie if I were to say I don’t have other academic ambitions in addition to the doctoral thesis. There is one. To bring a glimpse of Saami contextual thinking to the university that eventually made me theologian.