The question of the relationship between particular religious traditions and their surrounding social and cultural environs is too often narrowly construed as one of mimesis (religion copies social worlds) or function (religion solidifies social structures). Issues of cultural differences and multiculturalism are tied to religion and gender – in the public debate often in rather unanalytical and even stereotypical ways. A too simplistic link is made between a certain religious tradition, its teachings and its impact on individuals and society.
The project aims at developing an interdisciplinary research trajectory that combines research on religion as it is lived (ethnographic methods) with theological (textual) analysis in order to create a more comprehensive picture of how theology and religious identities interact, especially in contexts where these might be in tension with each other.
The objective is to understand the complex relationship between certain Judeo-Christian religious traditions and their followers´ identities and sense of agency within them in contemporary Finland. The meaning of that heritage is largely debated and constructed over issues of women´s rights and sexuality. The history of both Judaism and Christianity testifies to how pressures for change do not always and only come from the “outside”, from the “secular”. Different liberation theologies (including the early theological defense of women´s rights and anti-slavery activities in the 19th century) are examples of continuity and change within the religious tradition which stem from both theological developments and changes in society. Appropriation and interpretation of sacred texts, and the assertion of the right to do so, are central in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The central starting point and objective of the project is taking human agency seriously. This happens through an analysis of how identities are constructed in religious communities understood as “traditional”, but which at the same time are in a process of change. The project questions approaches to religion and religious women that are either culturally obtuse (seeing secularization as inevitable and natural) or openly negative (seeing people, particularly women, as victims). Such constructions of women´s absence or victimhood are discursive forms of otherness, in which the issue of religious difference has remained relatively unexplored.
Taking religious people´s agency as a starting point, the project will highlight the dynamics between continuity and change within the Judeo-Christian tradition. The relationship between continuity and change is always evolving, but today we see both growing secularization and growing religious conservatism. The pressures for change come from both inside and outside religious worlds. For those inside, the central question is how to balance one´s identity as a religious person and one´s need for autonomy, especially in issues concerning the body, family and sexuality, but also of religious authority.
The case studies of the project, Conservative Laestadianism, the Orthodox Church and the Jewish Community are religious traditions in Finland, which have not been studied in-depth. In public, they nevertheless often serve as examples of the problematic teaching and practices vis-à-vis gender, human (especially women´s) rights and sexuality. Such traditions are often portrayed as less enlightened, more “fundamentalist” or backward than the secular society or the mainstream majority Lutheran church. Our research aims at creating a more nuanced understanding of how adherents to these religious traditions understand themselves and their religion, and how these understandings and the practices that follow and precede them, or the traditions as such, are far from being homogeneous.