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Rachel Davies: You completed your dissertation this year at the University of Helsinki on the spirituality of Ellen White. Since spirituality is a relatively new field of study, what drew you to it? What was your university's response to your research on Ellen White?
Harri Kuhalampi: About ten years ago I became interested in spirituality as an academic question because I was not satisfied with just being religiously active in an external way. That was how I felt. I wanted to understand what religion is fundamentally about. I was looking for a way for religion to be more meaningful.
I was well received in Helsinki. When I met my professor for the first time he expressed how glad he was to get an opportunity to learn more about Adventism. He said that at the theological faculty they have only a rather superficial acquaintance with Adventism. During the whole time I received excellent guidance and support. The university provided a good environment for my research on Ellen White, although there was no related material at their library.
RD: What were your initial research questions and what process did you use for interpreting your literature?
HK: I started with the intention of finding out in what way Ellen White’s book Steps to Christ has impacted the personal spirituality of Adventists. However, this was more difficult than what I had thought. I noticed quite soon that I needed a definition and a description of the spirituality presented in the book before I could study its impact. I decided to concentrate on this. Instead of performing a qualitative study I started a systematic analysis of the six consecutive books which Ellen White wrote after the famous 1888 General Conference Session at Minneapolis which marks a spiritual paradigm shift for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
RD: In a nutshell, what was the outcome of your research?
HK: I was able to detect a well-balanced and mature structure in Ellen White’s spiritual thinking. The methodology which I had adopted helped me to see general features in her thinking rather than just individual statements. I discovered that her general thinking on the basic preconditions for spirituality is surprisingly similar to that of Martin Luther, and that she distances herself from John Wesley’s approach to Christian spirituality. But the main outcome of my study was a description of her holistic approach to spirituality, which indicates the originality and independence of her thinking.
RD: Were you surprised at all by what you learned? What were some of the most original discoveries that emerged from your studies?
HK: Yes, I was surprised to realise the extent to which Ellen White acts as a spiritual guide and to see her continual interest in caring for the spiritual well being of her readers. In the material her constant attention is on the individual. She writes to guide her readers toward an optimal personal spirituality. Meanwhile, I found very few, if any, references to the role of the church, for example, in spiritual growth. And I was similarly surprised to discover how little she speaks about eschatological topics.
RD: Why is your research important for our understanding of Ellen White? How do you hope it will shape our growing understanding of Adventist spirituality?
HK: It was my intention to discover the fundamental spiritual thrust in her thinking and to construct a structure of her spiritual ideas. Her individual sayings should be interpreted in the context of such a framework. She promotes spirituality and not outward performance of religious duties. Inner peace, joy and trust are more important for her than is impeccable faithfulness to any Christian standards. She is not primarily a teacher of correct theological understandings or a source of doctrinal knowledge. By regarding her first and foremost as a spiritual guide we might come to a more balanced approach to spirituality with less concentration on knowing and understanding or doing and performing.
RD: On a personal level, how has your research impacted your own spiritual life?
HK: The greatest reward was the discovery that spirituality is primarily about being face to face with God. Even if I as a theologian know a lot about God, all my knowledge is insufficient to really know who he is. He remains an un-knowable God, a mystery, a paradox. But he has made his love known to me and therefore I may enjoy peace, joy, trust, and a sense of security and hope. I don’t worry any more about whether I am able to please God or people. Instead, I am at the receiving end: I am content, as God pleases me with his goodness and grace. Religion has become a source of deepest pleasure and satisfaction.
RD: Is there a way for people to read your entire dissertation who might wish to do so?
HK: The editor of the Spectrum journal has requested my permission to publish the final chapter of my dissertation, which I have granted: so it is forthcoming. I hope that the conclusions will help readers capture some of the main points of my findings. But the dissertation has been printed and is available from me. Please contact me by email if you would like a copy: firstname.lastname@example.org The University of Helsinki also publishes all dissertations on the Internet at the address: http://ethesis.helsinki.fi
RD: What do you do now and what are your plans for the future?
HK: I started working as a counsellor while I was doing my doctoral studies. My speciality is counselling and consultation at places of work (supervision). In addition I give lectures and training sessions. I hope I will find time to write a book about spirituality. However, during the past two weeks I have received two very interesting job offers, both of which would offer ample opportunities to put into practice much of what I have learned. I do not know what the future holds, but I am content and happy because I know that God is guiding and I am safe with him, come what may.
Harri Kuhalampi, ThD, completed his doctoral dissertation at the University of Helsinki in 2010.
Click here to read an article by Dr Kuhalampi on the holistic spirituality of Ellen White.
Click here to read a review of Dr Kuhalampi's dissertation by Graeme Sharrock.