Today, I shall draw attention to the life and work of a significant Norwegian theologian and politician who passed away three days ago. His name is Per Lønning (1928-2016), and every Norwegian of my generation knows who he was and what he stood for. No, it is not true that religion is non-existent in the otherwise secular Norway and Scandinavia! Let this article show a bit of religion’s importance in society. But first, a tribute, albeit not quite a eulogy, to Per Lønning, with lessons to us all wherever we are.

Per Lønning was bishop in two dioceses, Borg and Bjørgvin; he was professor in two cities, Oslo and Strasbourg; he was doctor in two subjects, theology and philosophy; and he was a Member of Parliament, but only for one party, the Conservative Party (Høyre). He had two brothers, both remarkable persons and contributors in their jobs and society. I knew one of them, Inge Johan Lønning (1938-2013), when he was pro-rector and later rector of the University of Oslo, and I was a young head of international development studies there.

It was a turbulent time for the university head, and he had to take time off due to psychological challenges. This was an unexpected thing to know about a man who was as intellectual and successful as his bishop brother. But under the surface of confidence, yes, over-confidence, sometimes arrogance and self-centeredness, the Lønning brothers, too, faced life’s challenges. The bishop revealed some ‘rainy days’ in his life, which he only spoke about when he had grown old. But as for faith, it seems that there was never any doubt. But then faith is a gift, not an achievement. The bishop, the rector, and the third brother, an accomplished engineer in the private sector, were lucky to stay in their childhood faith till the end.            

Per Lønning was an activist and advocate for many things, such as working for women to serve as preachers on equal footing with men at all levels in the church, at a time when few agreed with him. The first woman pastor was ordained in 1963; many have come later, including as bishops, and in a decade or two, there may be more women than men in the church. Perhaps there are some aspects of the calling and service that come easier to many women than men? Well, I should say that the required qualities are gender neutral – as the Arab word for God, Allah, is also gender neutral.

Later, there have been many administrative changes in the Church of Norway, and the church and state split some five years ago (with gradual implementation), something Per Lønning was for, expecting that the church would become more active as a separate institution. But he was against many other changes that have taken place in the church and society, including that the church accepts same-sex unions and has made the marriage law gender neutral. In old age, after having retired early from his second six-year round as bishop, he said that he regretted he had not stayed longer and continued to play a more active role as a church leader.

He said he had wanted to give room and space for younger forces, but they had not quite shouldered the tasks. In one of the last newspaper interview with him a few years ago (before old-age caught up with him and his ability to formulate his thoughts in the crystal clear language he was known for), he expressed sorrow over many of the liberal new ways of the church. Yet, Lønning was more a liberal theologian than a conservative one; he wanted issues to be debated, but some issues were also above debate in his thinking. Perhaps that is the kind of leader that believers in all religions like, including Christians and Muslims in Norway and in Pakistan? We want leaders who have clear opinions and stands, but who are able and willing to talk and reason with everyone, lay and learned. After all, true believers are thinking people, and if we don’t ask questions, maybe we are superficial in our faith?  Lukewarm attitudes may make it easier to stray away from active faith, Lønning would say. 

As an author of some fifty books, writer and translator of hymns, a cherished speaker and member of debate panels at conferences and TV shows, and much more, Per Lønning will be remembered as a spokesman for Christianity and for ecumenical dialogue. If he had been born a generation later and lived in the midst of the current time of immigration and refugee turbulence in the Oslo, I am sure he would have given engaging contributions and lifted the debate. He would have demanded that we think, debate and do what is right. Today, religion, the role of Islam and Christianity, is often not given the prominence it deserves.  

As a liberal Norwegian, and writing about Per Lønning, who never shunned a debate, I would like to emphasise the importance of discussing and talking about religious dogma, traditions and administrative ways of organising and practicing faith. I believe that there is a need for much more open debate within all religions, indeed within Islam. Not all questioning and doubt need to be heralded in public, but in our time, most issues should be talked about openly, in polite debate forums. It is when we put the lid on free debate that issues get out of hand when they eventually are aired; not to talk is worse than being uncompromising.

Per Lønning was the kind of robust debater, who had no problems defending and defining his position, but who also listened to opposing views, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually – and as a scientist, he would not know all answers a priori – but he often sounded as if he did. I believe that even today, and indeed in the past, this has been a weakness in so many religious leaders.

Per Lønning was a specialist on the monumental Danish theological philosopher and social critic Søren Kirkegaard (1813-1855); he argued that the human being has a free will, with personal choice and commitment. Yet, Lønning would add that faith is not only that, it is also to succumb to God’s will.

As Per Lønning is mourned, and his achievements and prolific life remembered, Norwegians of any faith or none, acknowledge the role of religion in society, and moral and religious leadership. Christianity is Islam’s sister religion, and with an increasing number of Muslims in Norway, I hope that the two religions can together place religious, moral and social issues high on the public agenda, with secular politicians. It is a duty of all religions to show solidarity with and love for people in need everywhere. In multi-cultural and multi-religious societies, such as in the Norwegian cities, a church and mosque is not only there for its own members; it is for everyone. This is the universality of God. I believe that Christians and Muslims in Norway will draw lessons from Per Lønning’s unique leadership so that it can help shape secular and religious life when people of different faiths live closely side by side – realising that there is more that binds than what divides in human communities and in faith.