Leaving Stockholm on Sunday evening, May 14th, sleeping across the Baltic sea and waking up early Monday morning to sunrise over Åbo/Turku… In 2010 and 2011 I made this trip quite a few times, when engaged in the Nomadic University project at Åbo Akademi. Now I’m back to take part in a conference hosted by the Donner Institute and the University of Helsinki: Religion and Spirituality as Sites of Learning.
Nice to trod the streets of Åbo once more…
..and nice to be back in the facilities of Åbo Akademi University. Niklas the caretaker helps me to arrange a poster exhibition that I’ve brought for the occasion. Soon, conference guests begin to arrive and register. Then: coffee time, and next the welcome introduction by Ruth Illman, research director of the Donner Institute, and professor Terhi Utriainen from the University of Helsinki – followed by a keynote speech on Unlearning by professor Kim Knott of Lancaster University; a productive opening to three days dedicated to learning.
The conference proceeds with three parallel sets of lectures throughout the day. Among the presentations I manage to attend is Jaana Kouri‘s research on Learning in contemporary shamanism (carried out congruently with her own shamanist practice); among the ones I’m sorry to miss out on are Miriam Feldmann Kaye‘s Learning as Idea: ‘Hospitality’ from a Philosophical Perspective and Emine Neval’s Where are the Women?.. This first day is wrapped up with a reassembly and panel discussion on Eastern Spirituality in Arts. Panelists Nina Kokkinen, Måns Broo, Linda Annunen and Ville Husgafvel open for a highly interesting and well-grounded discussion along the themes of Inspiration, Appropriation, Conversation… upon which follows a get-together reception and the awarding of Donner Institute Research Prize 2022 to Maija Butters for her book Death and Dying Mediated by Medicine, Rituals, and Aesthetics.
Leaving the gusto of seventy researchers gathering ‘in real life’ for the first time since covid 19, to enter the calm atmosphere within the Bridgettine sisters’ guesthouse… where a modest room is waiting for me, and the singing of psalms accompany Tuesday’s breakfast.
The second day of conference begins with researchers from the University of Helsinki sharing conclusions from their project Learning From New Religion and Spirituality. In addition to informal talks and tasty lunch (the menu is all vegetarian), I enjoy and learn from Lena Roos and Laura Wickström lecturing on, respectively, The Green Sabbath Project and Learning about the Environment Within Islamic Tradition – just to mention two out of many appealing themes.
The third and final day starts directly with the sets of parallel sessions; in Auditorium Källan – the Well – we delight in multi-skilled university lecturer Mikko Autere reciting Sufi poetry in Urdu (or was it Hindi?) and introducing us to South Asian practices of aesthetic and mystical cognition; his talk followed by doctoral student Olivia Cejvan, reporting about secrecy as a didactic tool in a Swedish esoteric society. I feel very favoured to be the third one to present in this sequence – even more so, being the one non-academic person to attend the conference. My talk takes place by the entrance, in front of the poster exhibition; retelling the story of Interfaith Dialogue in Images (a workshop in two parts, which I conducted in the autumn of 2019), presenting the concept of Pictorial Reasoning and inviting feedback from a researcher’s perspective. Again, I’m privileged to get insightful comments and questions from such an extremely qualified audience. Two of them to appear on stage a little later…
After the coffee break, with continued discussions, it’s time for professor Mulki al-Sharmani to hold her keynote speech on Women Living with, Learning from, and Reasoning with the Qur’an – sharing experiences from long-time engagement with a number of Muslim women. Some of her informants belong to the islamic minority in Finland, others to the majority in Egypt; some are fairly well-off, others underprivileged; each one of them possessing deep resources of judgement and agency.
Next out, in the closing set of parallel sessions, is Laura Hellsten, dancer and doctor in systematic theology. The subject of her lecture is Dance as a Spiritual Formation Practice… partly treated in connection to her project The Praxis of Social Imaginaries; Cosmologies, Othering and Liminality, which has recently been launched in collaboration with Lindsey Drury (PhD at Freie Universität Berlin/ University of Kent). I’ve already had the pleasure to take part of Laura’s and Lindsey’s work within the framework of the Nordic Summer University. More to follow there…
And so: time for some closing words, and one more cup of coffee before we leave. The walk along the Aura river, on my way to the ferry , brings me close to the Wäinö Aaltonen Museum of Art, where a rich retrospective of Jan Kenneth Weckman’s painting is on view. I cannot just pass by, of course; after three days of intense listening, I need to wash my eyes in colour to see again. Need to pay respect to Jan Kenneth’s corpus; to art as materialized thinking.
Jan Kenneth Weckman: Mother of God (2016); oil on canvas
What, then, do I remember from these sites of learning in Åbo/Turku?
…from Jan Kenneth: to focus on painting, not on the picture.
…from the sisters’ guesthouse: A key. Clean surfaces, plain clothing, sparse colour, morning oats, singing voices converging to the unison. Austerity and care. Time stripped bare of signs of change.
…from the conference: the Q’s and A’s. Living world transformed to words, aligned according to rules of logic. A poem in urdu (or was it hindi?), ungraspable by logic. Delight in meeting, delight in sharing. The beautiful sign on the restroom doors.