LeNeRe launched internationally at the Research Conference in Theology and Religion (September 10–11, 2020)

In the fall of 2020, the fields of theology and religious studies in Finland organized their first joint international conference in Helsinki. The Research Conference in Theology and Religion was organized by the University of Helsinki in collaboration with several academic associations, such as the Finnish Society for the Study of Religion. Due to COVID-19, most of the conference was realized online, allowing students and researchers to participate in the sessions and follow the keynote speakers live at a distance.

The Learning from New Religion and Spirituality research project’s session was organized in the form of a panel discussion. The panel was opened by Professor Terhi Utriainen’s introduction to the project, which was then followed by post-doc researcher Linda Annunen’s introduction to her case study of healing practitioners of Tibetan and crystal singing bowls. Various facets of the project were subsequently discussed by three special guests: Associate Professor Mulki Al-Sharmani (University of Helsinki), Professor Arniika Kuusisto (Child and Youth Studies, Stockholm University), and Professor Kim Knott (Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University).

Professor Knott shared that the viewpoint of our project—that is, learning from religion—is an especially interesting one to her, since she herself has been lately working on ideological and cultural transmission (Knott & Lee 2020). Furthermore, Professor Knott pointed out that learning does not always happen individually in an intellectual manner; it can also occur in other ways, including physically and disciplinarily. This is can include the ritual way of learning, which is practiced and shared by many religious traditions.

Professor Kuusisto reminded us that not only learning but also the effects of learning and transferability, comprising one of the key themes in our project, are always a multifaceted process; in addition to answers and solutions, tensions and contradictions can teach us things. Furthermore, one negotiates the significance of learning in relation to the personal, professional and societal dimensions of life at different moments in different ways. Professor Kuusisto highlighted the importance of thinking carefully about the way in which the various research materials of the different cases can be brought together at the moment of the analysis.

Professor Mulki Al-Sharmani brought anthropological viewpoints into the discussion by noting how the conceptual division of religious and secular spheres of life does not necessarily correspond to the experience of religious practitioners themselves, for whom the religion can equally permeate all aspects of life. Hence, she asks whether we really wish to talk about learning from religion, or could it also be learning through religion? Professor Al-Sharmani also reminded us that religious practice is not free-floating; every practice, such as a Shii’a muharram ritual (one of our research cases), is connected to larger religious narratives and sets of beliefs and practices, as well as the cultural elements to be accounted for in the study.

In sum, our discussion panel in the conference was very successful. We felt fortunate to receive three sets of insightful and thought-provoking comments from the different perspectives of our discussants. Thank you, Professor Knott, Professor Kuusisto, and Professor Al-Sharmani! And thanks to the organizers of the Research Conference in Theology and Religion for facilitating such a wonderful commencement of our project.

Professor Mulki Al-Sharmani, Professor Arniika Kuusisto, and Professor Kim Knott following the presentation. Screenshot from the session.