Antti Räsänen: Why is theology needed?

Theology is the systematic study of religious ideas, a science that investigates religions, beliefs and, broadly speaking, all types of spirituality. Theological research is conducted within the framework of the surrounding culture.

In Finland, this framework has traditionally been pronouncedly protestant, but in the modern world of many cultures and religions, theology investigates a number of religions, as well as a range of religious and non-religious worldviews. Academic theology is not normative. In other words, it does not strive to establish religious philosophies, nor does it profess any particular religion, although both of these aspects are topics of theological research.

Theology is needed, because, regardless of secularisation, religions, beliefs and spirituality are here to stay. Only their forms and interpretations change. In a multicultural society, the understanding of religions is priceless knowledge.

Theology is a field enormously important to Finnish society and welfare. Theologians are able to read and interpret cultures, ideologies and spiritual trends. As interpreters of sacred texts, theologians working in religious communities have a special duty, while specialists of the field in other positions often serve as identifiers, assessors and interpreters of cultural trends, religions and ideologies. The mission of interpreters is to explain and make matters understood. Theologians are needed in positions where the aim is to solve questions related to life and the meaningfulness of the world. Theologians’ competence extends to questions of individual and communal welfare, as well as problems linked with the future of the world as a whole. Theological expertise is needed in improving mental wellbeing both at work and in the hobbies people enjoy in their free time. For instance, environmental theology is an upcoming discipline which has a lot to contribute for the benefit of the world.

Theological research identifies weak signals, or perceives trends and phenomena yet uncovered, but that are perceptible to analysts with the keenest eye. The ascent of anti-Semitism in Europe, for example, has regrettably developed from a weak signal to a stronger one. In theological research and discourse, a critical approach was applied to this phenomenon already at an early stage. The voices of various minorities, as well as underprivileged and disadvantaged people are among the weak signals transmitted within our society and throughout the world, something which theology also recognises.

Theology is not limited to the identification and description of phenomena. It aims to establish new realities, build a new kind of world and engender new forms of thinking. The goal is for theologians to feel as if they are building a better world, a world that is fair, democratic and equal, a place where everyone is happy to live.

The foundation of spiritual and material welfare is education. A society based on education is able to see to the needs of its members and provide the stability required by comprehensive development. Theology is a field of science that provides general knowledge. In feedback given by employed theologians, the significance of knowledge is highlighted. In the words of a recent master’s degree graduate: “In itself, a degree based on extensive general knowledge is an unquestionable asset in terms of employment. Theologians have the opportunity to find positions in an extremely wide range of fields.” The propagation of knowledge requires tools, the ability to conduct dialogue, as well as interaction and empathy. Many theologians are employed in positions that require interaction skills and the ability to execute understandable and clear communications, along with compassionate encounters. In fact, theology per se is a field that emphasises understanding and communication. Theologians are taught the conflict resolution skills especially needed in multicultural work environments. The Faculty of Theology hosts the Religion, Conflict and Dialogue Research Centre, which produces information on the role of religions in conflicts and their resolution. The centre pays particular attention to questions of gender in the promotion of equality and peace.

Theology’s success in its mission can be used to measure the importance of the theological research and education field, using as indicators the experiences of Faculty of Theology graduates concerning the professional skills provided by a degree in theology and their employment opportunities.

According to the latest career monitoring survey of the University of Helsinki, 76% of the graduates from the Faculty of Theology consider the ability to describe their personal expertise important or very important in terms of finding employment. A share of 87% believe that at the least they are able to utilise the competence gained at the University well. Comprehensive theological education that increases general knowledge retains its benefits in the job market.

Based on the employment rate of theologians, there is demand for experts of the field in a wide variety of positions. The unemployment rate for theologians is low. Statistics show that the year 2015, for example, was difficult in general in terms of employment: the overall unemployment rate in Finland was 9.4%, while among theologians, however, it was only 5%.

Many kinds of jobs are available to those with a theological background. Theologians work in positions associated with more than 200 professional titles, 90% of them notably in positions corresponding with the academic educational level in theology. These positions are far more varied than simply being employed within the church. In a survey conducted in 2015 on education and competence needs in the theological field, 38% of respondents worked as priests in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, 19% as teaching staff in schools and 36% in other positions in public and private sectors in organisations, the culture sector, the social and health sector, business administration and government.

#ResearchMatters

Antti Räsänen
Dean of the Faculty of Theology
University of Helsinki

In the series Science Advocates, people describe the significance of research and research-based teaching for themselves. Read the other instalments on the Researchmatters website (scroll down)..