March 20, 2017 Øivind Holtedahl defended his doctoral thesis titled: Community, God from above and God from below: An Ethnographic Study of Religious Knowledge Practices in Two Youth Ministries in the Church of Norway.
Monday March 20 Øivind Holtedahl held his trial lecture on the given topic: The Empirical Turn in Contemporary Youth Ministry Research: Patterns and Challenges. Later the same day he publicly defended his thesis with Researcher Jonas Ideström (Svenska Kyrkans forskningsenhet) as first opponent and Associate Professor Bård Eirik Hallesby Norheim (NLA University College) as second opponent. Professor Ingunn Moser (VID) has coordinated the work of the evaluation committee and vice-rector Bård Mæland acted as chairperson of the trial lecture and public defence.
Holtedahl's study asks: How is religious knowledge enacted in two youth ministries (15–18 years old) within the Church of Norway? The thesis is based on an abductive design, which means that the research process is a continuous dialectic between the empirical material and the theory.
The empirical material was established through a yearlong period of ethnographic-inspired fieldwork in two youth ministries within the Church of Norway. Theoretically, the thesis is situated within a sociomaterial paradigm, drawing particularly on actor-network theory and the notion of modes of ordering. Through the fieldwork and analysis, three different modes or rationales for enacting religious knowledge in youth ministries evolved and are described below.
From the beginning, the enactment of community emerged as a central and commonly acknowledged mode within the practice of youth ministries. The analysis reveals how the different actors, the human and the non-human, aim to order the youth ministry into a community. The mode of community works to establish and offer subjectivities that the youth can move into and possess. However, the subjectivities of the community are not stable or fixed entities but are instead always potentially fluid and may potentially be left. Community becomes a common way of enacting religious knowledge in the youth ministry, and all who visit the youth ministry on a regularly basis relate to this mode, whether or not they are experiencing themselves as members of the community. Through the analysis, the thesis demonstrates how the mode of community is characterised by closeness, intimacy, and fellowship, with similarities to family life and the youths’ private lives at home. In this mode, informality and equality are emphasised as important characteristics of the youth ministry, and socialisation and participation are valuated rather than acquisition and formality, which the youths associate with the adults’ religious practices in the Sunday morning service.
Further, the thesis inquire into how different actors in the youth ministry constitute other networks in addition to community. Along with community, ordering the presence of the divine emerged as a central objective in the youth ministries. However, this is done through two alternative modes or strategies. The bodies, the bible and the conceptual theological knowledge, the sermons, the language and oral utterances, and the time are all enacted in different ways and constitute two different modes or networks for making God present. The thesis names these two modes as God from above and God from below, respectively. In the youth ministries, the two modes of enacting religious knowledge coexist and are partially overlapping, though sometimes also opposing each other. The thesis considers these two disparate, alternative, and coexisting strategies to be two sub-modes or sub-strategies under community, which I find to be the major, common mode of religious knowledging in the youth ministry.
To understand the difference between God from above and God from below, it is necessary to explore how the two strategies produce two different types of religious knowledge and how authority is enacted in two different ways within the two modes. God from above is characterised by what seems like a deductive approach, where religious knowledge is enacted as something given, distant, and non-negotiable. The religious knowledge that is enacted within God from above is constituted and treated as a reference to, or a factual representation of, an independent and distant religious knowledge. Through references, God from above establishes a religious knowledge that is detached from the daily conditions of the youths' living.
God from below is characterised by what seems like an inductive approach, where religious knowledge is enacted as something fluid, adjacent, and negotiable. Religious knowledge is enacted in dialogue with the youths’ everyday experiences and is constituted through negotiations. The religious knowledge that is enacted through God from below is evaluated according to its capacity to transform and enhance their experience of life and to be relevant for the youths.
Whether religious knowledge is enacted as detached and at distance or attached closely to the youths’ lives leads to different claims of authority and needs for subjugation.
Both God from above and God from below are driven by a quest for relevance. However, in order to make the religious knowledge relevant, the two modes provide different solutions and strategies. Since the gap between the religious knowledge that is enacted within God from above and the other realities the youths participate in become so extended, the only solution for overcoming this gap is to subjugate oneself to the authoritative claims of this mode. While God from below negotiates and accommodates the religious knowledge in order to make it relevant, it is the subjectivities within God from above that have to accommodate and subjugate to the religious knowledge in order to keep God from above relevant.
Finally, the thesis discusses how to understand and relate to this heterogeneity of community, God from above, and God from below in the youth ministry, concluding that it is crucial to acknowledge and be aware of all these modes.