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Reviews A multi-focused read. Borders, nationalism, and religious education

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 3-4 2015, pp129-130
Published on balticworlds.com on november 19, 2015

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Hypotheses in empirical research should be possible to falsify, according to conventional wisdom in social science. Yet, social scientists are usually concerned when empirical findings falsify hypotheses and assumptions in research ventures. Contrary to medicine and natural sciences, where falsified hypotheses seem to be part of the game, negative results in social science often have a connotation of failure.

Here, Crossings and Crosses offers a stimulating, honest, and impressive contrast. This new volume presents the basic results of the Södertörn university research project “Teaching Religion and Thinking Education on the Baltic-Barents Brim” (TRATEBEEB). The project is based on case studies of educational and religious contacts in four areas: northernmost Norway and its border with Russia, the border between Finland and Russia in Karelia, the border between Estonia and Latvia in Valga/Valka, and the German-Polish border on the island of Usedom on the Baltic coast. In her chapter on religious education on the borders, Jenny Berglund, co-leader of the project, is brave enough to give a clear and uncompromising no to her research question: “whether the place of a religious education classroom, close to the concrete border, affects education content in such a way that the teacher would include the spatially proximal Other in teaching about religions.”

Berglund and her co-editors Thomas Lundén and Peter Strandbrink were even braver — to the brink of self-flagellation — in inviting the Danish authority on religious education Tim Jensen to write the final chapter and afterword. Jensen devotes considerable time to discussing and asking why Berglund even formulated this hypothesis, when the contrary should be expected. He then quite convincingly, in a broader discussion about religious education in new increasingly multi-religious contexts, argues that even in a secular Scandinavian setting a Christian bias remains in education on religion. He finds this consistent with a more national narrative in civic education in, or perhaps because of, this new multi-ethnic and multi-religious social context.

The presentation and discussion of the four cases is still interesting and valuable, even with falsified hypotheses. A negative research result is, however, not enough to fill a full book. Thus, this volume encompasses a number of different contributions more or less related to the original research project. They deal with religious developments and conflicts, border issues, and religious education in Europe in general, and northern and eastern Europe in particular. Several are of great value and interest.

The editors have gathered an interesting mix of well-established names in the research field and some younger scholars from colleges and universities, which are often located in border areas in eastern Finland, Estonia and Poland, western Russia, and southern Denmark.

For all of us concerned with nationalistic trends in Russia, Per Arne Bodin, a veteran of Swedish scholarship on Russian thought and tradition, writes an introductory essay on the Russian Orthodox Church, its domains, and its borders. Bodin explains how the domain of Russian orthodoxy “All Rus” and “Holy Rus” now defines and delimits the Russian nation better than political slogans like “the near abroad” or political institutions like the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The church’s domains often transcend the borders between the 15 independent post-Soviet states, which gives a worrisome legitimacy to what some fear are President Putin’s neo-national ambitions. And yet, the church’s ecumenical interests create strong limits to the president´s capacity and room to further achieve his ultimate nationalist aims, however frightening his efforts and results the last few years are. There is conflict in some of these domains with other strong orthodox or catholic traditions (e.g., western Ukraine), which the Russian Orthodox hierarchy needs and wants to accommodate.

The concrete complications in the Estonian-Russian borderlands are introduced and analyzed by Laura Assmuth of Joensuu, Finland, in her paper on language and nationality in that area. Specifically, she examines what used to be and still is to a diminishing extent an Estonian-language exclave in Russia’s Pechory district. Even though most Estonians have moved west to independent Estonia, there is a growing interest in learning Estonian as a foreign language, which is seen as an asset in relations not only with Estonia but also with the EU as a whole. At the time of writing, Assmuth was quite optimistic about the future of the Estonian language in Russia. If she still is, is another question.

The chapter by Marianna Shaknovich of St. Petersburg on religion in Russian education reminds us of the controversy and tension regarding post-Soviet religious education in Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church is trying to shift religious education from teaching about religion, as it was formulated in the 1990s, to teaching religion in a normative sense. Still, agents of delivery in state schools legally must be schoolteachers. Receiving accreditation from the church is possible but voluntary. Whether the church will be more successful in pushing its case for confessional religious education, possibly linking it to general national ambitions by the political leadership, will be an important issue in the coming years.

With great insight, Malgorzata Flaga and Kamila Lucjan, two young geographers from Lublin, tell us a tragic story about historic and ongoing religious antagonisms in the eastern borderland of Poland, which encompasses Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. Here national borders have been redrawn far too often and religious affiliations have been part of national and political ambitions. The millennium-old division between Western and Eastern Christianity is still visible and creates complications at blurred borders. Apart from national and political conflict, the question reappears here as to whether religions primarily promote and reinforce conflict, or, in particular in contemporary, more ecumenical and secular contexts, can help to solve them. Another young Polish scholar, Agnieszka Pasieka from Vienna, gives a slightly more encouraging picture by telling the long history of the grammar school in Lesna in the Polish, Ukrainian, Slovak borderlands under different Polish regimes.

In his chapter on post-normativity, Peter Strandbrink observes that theories of multi-religiosity and secularization play out quite differently in a post-Soviet, and thus post-atheist context, than in the Anglo-American or west European settings where they were conceived. In making this important  point, his discussion also serves as a summary conclusion that can be drawn from most contributions to this multi-focused but in the end stimulating book.

This invites further study on whether the theories played out differently because atheist communism was followed by the reappearance and reassertion of Orthodox and Catholic Christianity or whether this could occur also where the Christian tradition is Protestant and Lutheran. It is interesting to note that pre-communist Protestant areas like today´s Czech Republic, eastern Germany, and much of Estonia are becoming increasingly secular. Here the number of open religious believers is falling as in the West and public education on religion is either non-confessional or non-existent.

Nationalism in Protestant areas today seems to have no real link to religion, which is interesting to note because of what we otherwise know about the strong link in Lutheran tradition and dogma between church and state.≈