The recently appointed university lecturer in urban theology, Henrietta Grönlund, is known primarily as a researcher of volunteer work. She defended her doctoral dissertation on the role of volunteer work in Finnish society in 2012. Grönlund’s other research has focused on the church’s charitable work and its relation to publicly provided services and safety nets, contemporary religiosity and spirituality as well as themes relating to equality and disadvantaged social groups.
At the moment, Grönlund is studying what Finns think about how responsibility for public welfare is distributed and the related moral frameworks, while heading a research project organised in cooperation with HelsinkiMissio, concentrating on urban poverty.
Theological frameworks to alleviate suffering
The project on urban theology organised by the Faculty of Theology combines all of Grönlund’s main fields of research.
“For the past decade, I have worked with the church and NGOs, developing solutions for urban social problems. In addition, I’ve trained church and NGO staff to develop more communal, bottom-up systems and ways of working,” she explains.
Grönlund is excited by the new perspective:
“More than half of the world's population live in urban environments, and this number keeps increasing. Urban contexts are so diverse that they create completely unique environments for religions and theology – they both challenge them and enable them. They also have unique social problems, some of which are common in all environments.”
Grönlund believes that theology has a central role in addressing social problems.
“Theology as well as religions and religious communities have always provided frameworks to alleviate suffering and facilitate human coexistence. Such frameworks are still needed today, particularly in urban contexts that are multicultural and multi-faith but that also emphasise the individual instead of the community.”
“Existential issues, questions about right and wrong, and the search for meaning are an inevitable part of people's lives, and theologians are experts in these issues from many different perspectives."
“It’s crucial for us to understand the urban context from a religious standpoint and to ensure that our students are provided with the skills they need to work in urban contexts and with their specific social issues,” Grönlund continues.
New departures and problem-based teaching
In urban theology courses, the students will go into the field and integrate theoretical perspectives on the city, religion and justice with practical work.
“I hope I’ll be able to develop courses in which students can really work with actual social issues and learn by doing in addition to learning the theories. A key tool for this is creating cooperation projects with parishes and other partners, and to develop project-style, problem-based teaching and learning in authentic work environments," Grönlund states.
The goal is to also include perspectives from all disciplines at the Faculty of Theology and to cooperate with both other faculties at the University and other institutions of higher education. According to Grönlund, such a network-based approach will be an integral component of urban theology:
“One university lecturer alone would be able to teach only the narrowest slice of such an extensive topic.”
Fighting marginalisation, poverty and loneliness
How would Grönlund solve the growing problems of urbanisation, such as loneliness and marginalisation?
“There's no one solution for these problems; we need many different approaches. Individuals, communities and public policy all have their roles to play.”
“We need individuals to act, communities to work together and politicians to make decisions and enact measures to make a society that doesn't feed loneliness and marginalisation and which helps those struggling with these problems."
“Religion and religious institutions link to and have an impact on all levels: they motivate individuals, generate action and services, enable community and political engagement and influence social justice and decision-making,” Grönlund says.
A key aspect of urban theology is to not "just" seek to help the disadvantaged, but to support them to help themselves and to promote their interests in society. Influencing politicians and society at large is crucial if social change is to be effected.