How I became theologian and how I almost didn’t: About Sámi theology and the need to reconcile

Photo: OL & Pixlr

Since the Sámi people have suffered from the burden caused by Western science, 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 cultural togetherness with the field I was studying.

Only later I realized that there were more structural reasons for my feeling of alienation in my school.

To make matters worse, my major systematic theology with its philosophical analyzing method, can be regarded completely unpractical by many or – simply useless.

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

My motivation was weakened by an uncomfortable feeling that I’m representing a wrong world 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 Sámi student in theology was a lonely place to grow up.

Back then I didn’t realize it, but actually it wasn’t about me either. It was a school curriculum. The curriculum that only included majorities’ realities. Everyone else were excluded: children, disabled, pour, LGTBQIA2S+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Two-Spirit, and the countless affirmative ways in which people choose to self-identify), and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People with Color).

Voices of marginalized people stayed in margins

In February 2016, I received a phone call from Helsinki university. Professor of Global Christianity and Dialogue of Religions Elina Vuola had heard about a Sámi student at the Faculty and there was something she wanted to ask.

She was curious knowing whether there is Sámi theology that would resemble themes familiar with Latin American liberation theology. I was unprepared for her question – a topic never occurred to my mind before.

I was living with an illusion that to be a good theologian one has to master some mainstream field of theology. This meant reading, studying, and discussing Western theology that has largely been created by men. To me, the content of the curriculum seemed to support this attitude. Peripheric and everyday perspectives concerning regular peoples’ lives in margins weren’t visible during the time I was a student from 2010 until 2018.

I promised to Vuola that I will find out whether there are sources where the Sámi people themselves would 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 academic article received by Sámi culture’s professor Veli-Pekka Lehtola, I knew I had found what I was looking for: a perfect match.

Sámi theologian Tore Johnsen as a forerunner and inspiration

In 2017, I finalized my Master’s thesis on Sámi theologian Tore Johnsen (born 1969). In the Sámi world, Johnsen is an interesting figure: Indigenous Christian theologian who has worked as a priest among the Sámi people up north.

What makes Johnsen even more interesting is that he has written about themes neglected in Scandinavian church history. In his writings, he deals with such topics like reconciliation in Sámi church history.

Johnsen’s thinking and experiences couldn’t be more topical concerning the current Nordic wave of Sámi reconciliation processes. By 2022, the Nordic countries’ history’s first Truth and Reconciliation Commission report will be published in Norway, and later in Finland and Sweden as well.

It’s likely that the commission reports will touch on the spiritual wounds caused by Lutheran and Orthodox forced Christianization. The Sámi people were forcefully Christianized since the 16th and 17th centuries in Fennoscandinavia where the Sámi traditonally live, in Northern Europe.

Feeling less strange in my own field, theology

I got carried away with the theology of being sorry.

What reconciliation means in the Sámi world? What and how have the former state churches of Finland, Norway and Sweden reconciled with the Sámi in the aftermath of Christian mission? How do the Sámi think about reconciling with the Christian churches?

What destruction have both the states and churches caused for Sámi communities?

After getting to know an emerging field called Sámi contextual theology, I felt I had arrived home in my own field. My sense of being an awkward student was gradually replaced with enthusiasm. Earlier studies started to seem more meaningful from the lenses of my own reality, Sámi reality.

I started dreaming of writing a doctoral thesis on the Sámi 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 Sámi student the Faculty of Theology signalized its openness and need for Sámi 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, perhaps more important. To bring Sámi theology to the university that eventually made me a theologian.