Conversion to Orthodox Christianity and Class Culture among Finnish Cultural Professionals
Postdoctoral project funded by the Academy of Finland (2019–2022), carried out at the Department of Cultures, Faculty of Humanities, University of Helsinki
My study investigates the religiosity of artists and professionals involved in various fields of cultural production who have joined the Orthodox Church of Finland as adults, and examines how it is aligned (or not) with their class fraction subculture. I understand conversion as a dynamic process of religious self-transformation, which unfolds over time and intertwines with the social context. Furthermore, I understand class cultures to consist of bodily and linguistic practices through which social distinctions are produced. To conceptualize both conversion and class culture, I employ concepts provided by Pierre Bourdieu’s social theory. The research material consists of interviews and primary literature such as autobiographies and media features.
The phenomenon of conversion to Orthodox Christianity is closely tied to two significant and interconnected developments within the late-modern Finnish religious field: the proliferation of new forms of religious identity and self-expression, and the changing status of the Orthodox Church of Finland. Starting from the 1970’s, personal quests of religious change and re-orientation have been a growing phenomenon in Finland, just like in many other Western European countries. One religious tradition that has drawn the attention of many of these “seekers” is Orthodox Christianity. In Finland, unlike in any other country west of the now-demolished Iron Curtain, Orthodox Christianity is an indigenous minority religion. However, the position of Orthodox Christianity within the Finnish religious field was, until recently, undermined by its public image as an alien, “Russian” form of religion. The connotations attached to the Orthodox faith first begun to gain positive value in the 1960’s. Soon, this shift in public esteem could also be discerned in the membership statistics of the Church.
Over the course of the past 40 years, converts have had a profound impact on the Orthodox Church of Finland. For one thing, they are over-represented among clergy, particularly at the upper echelons of the Church. Furthermore, the phenomenon of conversion has also made Orthodoxy more known among and accessible to the majority population. Here the role of prominent individual converts has been significant. Indeed, it is a generally held view in Finland today that Orthodox Christianity is a denomination favored by the “cultural elite”. The origins of this notion can be traced to the 1970’s, when a number of Finnish artists and intellectuals became interested in the Orthodox faith. Some of them were celebrities whose religious preferences also became part of their public image.
During the past few decades, in the wake of growing disillusionment with the classic secularization paradigm, scholars of religion have become increasingly aware of the historical baggage inherent in academic definitions of religion. The issue boils down to discussions concerning religion and modernity, hopelessly entangled in struggles for power to control and govern various “others”: people of different religion, ethnicity, class, or gender. In these discussions, certain forms of Protestantism came to be seen as, ultimately, the only form of religion compatible with modernity. Contemporary Finnish cultural professionals’ turn towards Orthodox Christianity explicitly challenges the idea of modern, educated, and enlightened Europeans as secular or religiously indifferent. The phenomenon therefore constitutes an excellent empirical case for critically investigating the relationship between religion and modernity, as well as conventional academic interpretations of this relationship.
Orthodox Christianity is a relatively understudied field in the academic study of religion. Down to the present day, significant engagements with Eastern Christianity among Anglophone social theorists have been rare. Thus, for instance, while the exclusion of Roman Catholics from classic narratives of religion and modernity has been vigorously criticized for some time now, a similar project of rehabilitation of Orthodox Christians has only just been launched. Furthermore, even though the results of previous empirical studies indicate that in Eastern Orthodoxy the nature of conversion is understood in a fundamentally different way compared to Protestantism, scholarly interpretations of Christian conversion processes within the academia continue to be molded on the basis of the Protestant model.
In this study, I understand conversion as a dynamic process of religious self-transformation, which unfolds over time and intertwines closely with the immediate realities of everyday life and the wider social context. Adopting a practice-oriented stance towards religious change, I acknowledge the role of concrete bodily as well as linguistic activities in embedding converts in new forms of social being and belonging, somatic experience, and cultural knowledge. Furthermore, I also emphasize the socially and historically mediated nature of projects of individual religious transformation.
The classic academic interpretations of “modern religion” commonly took the religion of specialists and elite social groups as their starting point. However, in investigations into the embodied, material, and practical expressions of religion, these groups remain neglected. In fact, the majority of existing research on religion-as-lived discusses the religion of various marginalized groups. Giving voice to the margins, to people whose experiences have previously been left unarticulated, is an important objective. If, however, the center is overlooked in the process, scholars risk perpetuating dichotomies between modern and un-modern, elite and popular, and intellectual and embodied religion.
Elites, in Pierre Bourdieu’s definition, are groups with disproportionate access to or control over a certain social resource. “Cultural elites”, more specifically, have influence over matters of cultural taste and disposition: their choices set the tone for what phenomena, practices, and products become esteemed more generally. In this study, I investigate how Finnish cultural professionals’ trajectories of religious transformation are connected to practices that produce valuations and legitimacy in the fields of culture and religion in contemporary Finland.
The study produces new knowledge on the changing public image of Orthodox Christianity, the intertwinement of religion and social class, and the proliferation of projects of religious “seeking” in contemporary Finland. As an examination of Orthodox conversion, the study can challenge Protestant-biased scholarly interpretations of the nature of Christian conversion. Furthermore, it also opens novel theoretical paths in the study of religious conversion and religion and class. The results are disseminated to the scientific community primarily in the form of scientific articles and to a wider audience through newspaper articles, blog posts, and public presentations.