Panu Pihkala: Teaching young Christians in Finland

PanuPihkala-interviewThis interview was first published in the A Rocha International News, issue 55 (March 2014)

Rev. Panu Pihkala, Chair of the A Rocha Finland board, is a researcher, lecturer and writer in eco-theology at the University of Helsinki. He has prepared environmental resources for leaders to use at the Lutheran Church’s confirmation camps.

Panu, why has A Rocha Finland prioritized confirmation camps?

About 76% of Finnish people belong to the Lutheran Church, and most young people, even if they are not church-going, attend the camps, so they reach about 90% of Finnish teenagers.

What happens at the camps?

The camps are for fifteen-year-olds and last a week. They mostly take place in the summer at a camp centre near beautiful woodlands and wetlands. The youth receive an introduction to Christianity and practise living together in a Christian way, led by a pastor, youth workers and voluntary youth leaders.

Can you tell us about A Rocha’s environmental input?

The natural setting of the camps has always influenced them, but we have deliberately made this explicit. The environment participates in Christian education! Some camp staff have, for a long time, emphasized sustainable living, but many have not. ‘Greening the Confirmation Schools’ programme aims to make these themes an integral part of as many camps as possible.

What hopes − or dreams – do you have for these youngsters?

Before returning to the university, I ran many camps, and they were also very important for me in my own youth. They can strengthen your faith and teach you many things. I hope that this tradition continues, with an ever stronger environmental content.

At the moment, you’re undertaking research for your doctorate.

Yes, I’m focusing on the influence of Joseph Sittler (1904-1987), a Professor of Theology who was based in Chicago, USA, and wrote on ecological themes long before they became so widely popular. As author of Theology for Earth (1954) and Called to Unity (1961), he was hugely influential in the Ecumenical movement and within Lutheran Churches. In my dissertation I am presenting an overview of Sittler’s work and of early eco-theology in general. I have been digging up much forgotten material from the first half of the 20th Century, which has been fascinating.

How has Sittler shaped your own thinking on our relationship with the Earth?

Quoting the Apostle Paul, Sittler emphasized that people must be changed ‘by the spirit of their minds’ in order for real progress to happen in relation to nature. Sittler was also very realistic about the situation: some Christians do not care about nature at all, but rather regard it as a secular concern. In my work I have started from here: I have tried to present a Bible-based environmental theology in order to enable Christians to see that concern for the environment is a truly Christian concern and one which must be allowed to change our ways of living.

Has he inspired you in other ways?

I started by regarding Sittler as an eco-theologian in the usual sense, but by researching the Sittler Archives, I discovered that he was actually a literally ecological theologian: he thought that all things in life had theological meaning and were related to each other. I have often been inspired by his writings on literature, architecture, music and other subjects. He was an exceptionally wide-ranging theologian, which meant that he did not have the time to write long books!

You have a background in environmental education, as well as theology.

Yes, when I was writing my first book on eco-theology, I realized that environmental education was the field that studied the practical adaptation of the things I was doing. So I started to dig more deeply into it, and I had the privilege of working with excellent professional environmental educators. Together we started to develop a new thing, which I have called Christian Environmental Education. It is important to do basic environmental education among Christians, but there is also a need for making Christians realize that environmental education is Christian! Thus, I have been developing materials which combine theology and environmental education, and I hope to have the time to get the best of those translated.

Is there any Bible verse which has been particularly motivational for you?

I am often consoled by the end of the Letter to the Hebrews: ‘May God work in us that which pleases Him, through Jesus Christ’ (13:21). During tough times that verse reminds me that it is God who acts, and who carries through His plans.

You’ve worked as a guide on pilgrimages, and nature treks. What do you enjoy most about being out of doors?

I have lately realized that growing up in places where there were backwoods was very important for me. There is something crucial about going into the open, in the midst of creation, about being on the move. Being in nature is an essential part of wellbeing, and of being a human.

As Chair of the A Rocha Finland board, you lead a small group of very committed volunteers. What are your current activities?

A Rocha Finland has maximised its influence by co-operating with many organizations, but to develop our self-identity we need more explicit A Rocha activities. Thus, we are now developing those and encouraging local activities. At the same time, we emphasize that results are more important than publicity: the crucial thing is that A Rocha people are able to make a change. We have begun to publish a new journal.

Your wife, Maikki, is also a pastor and researcher, and now you have a young son, born in April 2013. What would be the perfect family day?

We like many things, but going outdoors is a must. Luckily our son is happy to travel in a baby sling or a backpack! After years of infertility, we are just very grateful to God for simple, ordinary time together.

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