Secular Religious Studies

Stepping off the plane after a "busperson's holiday" in Finland—days I spent lecturing and listening at Abo Akademi and University and the University of Helsinki—I stepped into the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Chicago. There thousands of religious studies experts, most of them professors at state-sponsored or private secular universities and colleges and many at religiously-related institutions, gathered to present papers by the hundreds and tour the publishers' exhibits with their thousands of books, which lead one to gather that all is well on the academic religion front. Yes, one studies the furrowed brows of position-seeking Ph.D.s in a tight market (it has been tight in all the years that I've hung out among them), sees frowns among faculty members who are experiencing hiring cutbacks in this field of the humanities, and knows that publishers know that we know that hard times are upon us. Still a visitor would not deduce that religious studies are in a bad way. Full, or almost full, speed ahead.

The bi-continental experiences in the same half-month offered me a chance to compare the contexts of the enterprises. The differences are significant. I enjoyed hearing a score of Finnish Ph.D. candidates presenting their dissertational wares, this being my favorite way of assessing the choice of topics and the direction of energies. It would be unfair, even stupid of me, to try to generalize about the quality of the Ph.D. candidates I met and heard in Finland after only several days of experience, or to compare them with their American counterparts ten-plus years after I left our scene. Let's play the game of assuming that new and forthcoming Ph.D.s in both nations are similar. Once again, it's the contexts that differ.

Finnish universities each have well over a thousand theology and religious studies majors among their undergraduates, and award many Master's degrees and not a few Ph.D.s. Where do they all go? Finland, like many European nations, continues to have an established church and a liberal educational policy which assures that in a nation where ninety percent (or so) of the population is numbered as Lutheran but where very few attend church, most of them teach elementary and high school courses "about religion", or teach in confessional settings where minority religions have their place. Yet, with all that teaching going on, Finns will tell you that theirs is the most secular country in Europe. We heard the same thing in the Czech Republic last summer.

Meanwhile, theology flourishes among researchers and writers. I took the trip in part to become familiar with the "new Finnish School of Luther studies," with Augustinian studies thrown in. I learned much, and consider those faculties and schools to be as vital as church participation is weak. Yet, as I mentioned in a foreseeing column last week, most Finns one meets are puzzled when they look at the United States, where there is no established church, where the Constitution is silent about religion, where church and state are putatively separate and religion is not part of curricula—but there are mega-churches, reasonably high attendance at worship, and wild if not weird contention about religion in politics here. Obviously, "secular" means something very different as one compares nation to nation, ethos to ethos. The debates over what "secularity" and "secularism" means are not over, but are intensified among those who compare contexts.

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