Lived religion reflects society

A painting on the church wall.
The Academy of Finland-funded Centre of Excellence in the History of Experiences (HEX) is investigating both the way experiences are actively produced and the world where this happens. One of the research groups at HEX explores lived religion and its societal impact.

The new history of experiences approach focuses on how experience is created in human interaction.

“We are delving into the way experiences are produced. We conceptualise phenomena in a way that allows us to explore how experiences are actually constructed,” says professor of history Raisa Toivo, leader of the Lived Religion group at HEX.

A series of events that took place in Kokemäki Western Finland 370 years ago is an example. The religious experience of an individual was extended to the entire community. In a shared meaning-making process, which included both everyday negotiations and legal proceedings, the spiritual experience was finally given a plausible explanation in the community. (Read more in the Alusta online magazine).

“Experience is a holistic phenomenon, which combines the micro and macro levels, the individual and society. It can be applied to a wide range of research topics, including the economy, institutions and individuals,” says Senior Research Fellow Sari Katajala-Peltomaa from HEX.

The research approach is based on a view of the past where people live their lives and orient themselves to the world through sharing, and common interpretation forms experiences. Concepts and social structures are formed when enough people share an experience such as an understanding of, for example, faith. Eventually, institutions take shape and in turn shape interpretations – and continue to evolve based on these shared interpretations.

The two other main themes at HEX, which is led by professor Pertti Haapala, are the lived nation and the lived welfare state. These themes structure the history of society over a long period of time. A lived phenomenon forms the context for the experience under investigation. At the same time, the social background is explained by the process in which experiences emerge.

The past cannot be studied based on present-day assumptions

Katajala-Peltomaa is an expert on the Middle Ages and has researched, for example, miracle narratives, which include experiences of the miraculous, like sudden recoveries from an illness via the help of a saint. She is also leading a research project funded by Svenska Litteratursällskapet on the interaction with saints in medieval Finland.

“In the study of lived religion, we have drawn on our strengths because we have a firm background in studying faith, emotions, embodiment, materiality and narratives. We have a clearly more conceptual approach than in previous research. We do not take experience as a given, but rather set out to explicitly deconstruct it,” Katajala-Peltomaa says.

To explain the topic historically, it is important to consider the changing nature and position of religion in a society. The cult of the saints with the practice of pilgrimages characterised the Middle Ages also in the Nordic countries; these traditions still live on in the Catholic world.

“Because religion plays a different role in contemporary society, there is a danger of looking down on the people of the past. Religion was not detached from daily life in the pre-modern era,” Katajala-Peltomaa explains. The secular and the spiritual were entangled; they were not two separate categories.

This is also important to acknowledge for ethical reasons: the people of the past as well as their experiences should be analysed with respect.

A critical approach to religion

Researchers talk about the religious turn in research which means new interest in this sphere of life and society. It does not involve making value judgements or taking religious positions. Instead, the researchers see religion as a valid research topic with societal impact.

Research on religion is also important today because of global mobility and intercultural encounters.

“In academic discourse, this means that research is taking religion seriously and it is under scrutiny again. Faith is conceptualised as a factor that influences societies. We analyse religion with a new critical approach that addresses its meanings,” says Katajala-Peltomaa.

Historically, not everyone has shared their community’s experience of religion. For many people, this has meant exclusion and persecution.

“At the very least, research allows us to see how conflicting experiences emerge and who exercises power as a result. These are power structures to a large extent,” sums up Toivo who has studied, eg, witchcraft and witch hunts.

Past and present politics appeal to experiences

Experience is an active collaborative activity that is always shaped by the exercise of power.

“We need to look at how experience is controlled; what kind of experience is allowed for some people and not for others,” Toivo illustrates.

HEX’s research will provide a new way of understanding experiences, and the complexity of their emergence and generation. Experiences are always present at our time and they are invoked as a political argument.

“Yet, it is not so clear-cut how things are experienced. Experiences are produced, controlled, and criticised. This is the general social significance of the history of experiences,” Toivo says.


An important milestone in Katajala-Peltomaa’s and Toivo’s twenty-year research is a recent monograph published by Routledge, which brings together research on lived religion and gender in medieval and early modern Europe.

Katajala-Peltomaa, Sari & Toivo, Raisa Maria: Lived Religion and Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Routledge 2021. The Introduction of the book is openly available on the publisher’s website.

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