After the State Church. a Reflection on the Relation between Theology and Religious Studies in Contemporary Sweden

Article excerpt

Abstract. When the Church of Sweden ceased to be a state church in the year 2000, the parameters for a change in the relation between academic theology and religious studies (religionsvetenskap) at the state universities in Sweden was in place. My article, which is intended as a contribution to the sometimes unnecessarily agonistic discussion following the sharp critique levelled by the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education (Högskoleverket) in 2008, focuses on two basic oppositions underlying the present discourse, namely the tension between the expectation of economic utility and the ideal of a free search for knowledge; and that between, on the one hand, confessional neutrality and, on the other hand, the education of priests and pastors. As a conclusion, I suggest a way forward in three points: 1. The education of priests for the Church of Sweden must change as a result of the abandonment of the state church system. 2. At the same time, the state system should nurture a more positive attitude toward theological reflections developed at nongovernmental university colleges. 3. Thirdly, the interrelationship between secular religious studies at state universities and the tradition specific theologies developed at private university colleges could be essential for the balancing of the demand of economic utility and the principle of academic freedom as it concerns religious studies.

Key Words: State church, religious studies, theology, economic utility, academic autonomy, Sweden.

Introduction

When the Church of Sweden ceased to be a state church in the year 2000, the parameters for a change in the relation between academic theology and religious studies (religionsvetenskap) at the state universities was in place.1 However, it was only with the sharp critique levelled by the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education (Högskoleverket) in 2008 against the confessional nature of courses in pastoral theology that the temperature of the debate became sufficiently high to bring about a public reflection on questions foundational for the study of religion. The tone of that debate has been emotionally charged and antagonistic, thus making it advisable to initiate a more restrained and open approach, that is, if we are to reconsider the academic study of religion in Sweden for the 21st century in a constructive way and not merely redesign old trenches.

In my article, which is intended as a contribution to such a reflection, the Swedish situation is first presented for those not acquainted with it; then the article focuses on two basic oppositions underlying the present discussion, namely the tension between the expectation of economic utility and the ideal of a free search for knowledge; and that between, on the one hand, confessional neutrality and, on the other hand, the education of priests and pastors.

As a conclusion, I suggest a way forward for the discussion which addresses the present context of religious studies and theology in Sweden.

The state church and beyond

During the late 20th and early 21st century, the context of the academic study of religion in Sweden has been thoroughly transformed by a number of processes. Of these the most fundamental is the movement away from a state church model with its close connection between citizenship and membership in the Church of Sweden. For even if a dissenter law in 1873 made it possible for Swedish citizens to leave the Church of Sweden and join another state-approved Christian or Jewish religious community, it was first in 1951 permitted for Swedes to join a non-Christian religion as Hinduism or Islam and for Catholic monastic and mendicant orders to establish monasteries and convents in Sweden, though the latter permission came with some restrictions. In 1953, The Swedish parliament also decided that membership in the Church of Sweden was not necessary in order to be employed as a government official, for example, as a professor or lecturer at a state university. …