Risto Saarinen is professor of ecumenics at the University of Helsinki. Saarinen is a widely esteemed scholar with a profound approach who, through his person, is an exemplary representative of the Faculty of Theology, his alma mater and an international academic community that is unaffiliated with any particular religion or belief.
Saarinen, who effortlessly traverses the intersections between systematic theology and philosophy, holds a doctorate in both theology (1988) and philosophy (1994) from the University of Helsinki, in addition to which he holds an honorary doctorate awarded by the University of Copenhagen in 2017. He has headed a number of research projects, most recently serving as the director of the Reason and Religious Recognition Centre of Excellence of the Academy of Finland (2014–2019).
Saarinen is a strong educator of a new generation of theologians and philosophers, with activities ranging from organising basic courses to nurturing Finnish and international talent. As the dean of his discipline, he has significantly promoted international research networks (e.g., Erasmus agreements).
In the field of theology – in which the Finnish Cultural Foundation has never before awarded the prize – Saarinen has been active in building bridges in systematic, empirical and practical theology, among other disciplines.
Alongside many elected positions, Professor Saarinen has been a member of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters since 1999. In 2015, Academia Europæa invited him to become a member.
Saarinen is also an internationally recognised top-level scholar whose publications include 229 articles, 167 book chapters and 27 books. In addition to his considerable academic career, Saarinen has published works in a more popular vein (including the book ‘Jeesus Jokisen tapaus’) and recently completed the wonderful three-volume work targeted at both scientists and the public, published by Gaudeamus: ‘Oppi Toivosta’ in 2020, ‘Oppi Luottamuksesta’ in 2017 and ‘Oppi Rakkaudesta’ in 2015. The latter, for instance, focuses on universal questions: how should love be expressed, whom are we allowed to love and is love always altruistic? What do we talk about when we talk about love?
Lately, Saarinen has also focused on the relationship between religion and politics by examining the rise of the New Right and what is known as the Identitarian Movement from the perspective of intellectual history and religious studies. Saarinen has observed that in Finland, the views of the New Right and conservative Christians have been converging.
“Those who consider the world too liberal and pluralistic can easily identify with rhetoric that feeds nationalistic polarisation,” Saarinen assesses.
He thinks that our time encourages fear, adversarial attitudes and the setting up of oppositions. “Fear is the classic opposite of hope. The creation of hostile stereotypes implies that hope is on the side of your own group, as if fearing the other increases hope on your side,” Saarinen has noted. All this despite the fact that the exact opposite holds true.
Saarinen believes that what is needed now is a theology of hope that emphasises ethical behaviour. “Anything that dispels fear increases hope.”