Surge of interest in theology due to COVID-19 pandemic

Theology has received a boost from the COVID-19 pandemic with both Denmark’s University of Copenhagen and Aarhus University this year experiencing a significant increase in the number of applicants to the bachelor degree programmes in theology, with 595 applications in total for both universities, 61% up on 2019.

Out of 312 applicants at the University of Copenhagen, 165 were women and 147 men.

Traditionally, the average age of students applying to study theology is five to six years older than the average, the dean of the faculty of theology at the University of Copenhagen, Professor Carsten Selch Jensen, said last year, stating that the average age for students starting theology studies was close to 30.

He also said that a third of the students had started on another higher education degree or career before coming to theology.

In an interview with the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, Selch Jensen attributed the increased popularity of theology to several factors, including an increasing demand for priests in Denmark and that fact that the pandemic has made it impossible for young people to travel abroad and therefore many have gone into higher education instead.

But the dean also indicated that he has a feeling that due to the closing down of society, people have had more time to sit and think over what they want to do with their lives.

“It is normal that one starts up studies in theology after several years in the workforce,” Selch Jensen stated.

Jyllands-Posten interviewed Charlotte Birkeholm (54), a lawyer; Anna Sander (22) who is studying to become a psychiatric nurse; and shop owner Peter Larsen (48), who all are starting their bachelor degree studies in theology at the University of Copenhagen this autumn.

Larsen said he is not looking for a priest’s collar but rather his primary aim is the spiritual and intellectual dimensions of working with people who are hit by stress.

Birkeholm said that she had an inclination to work with things other than law, and that the closing down gave her the opportunity to reconsider her life choice for higher education.

“I seriously could reconsider and think through if I could choose another way, and if I could afford it,” Birkeholm said.

Selch Jensen said: “The coronavirus crisis without doubt has led many to reflect over what the pandemic is doing to each human being and society at large.”

Grand questions

“Theology is a study that dives into the grand questions about life and makes the students think about them. Today there is a general existential rootlessness and therefore a need to sit down and think through your life,” Selch Jensen said. “Theology is a field that can offer much.”

Sverker Sörlin, professor of environmental history at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, said in Sweden young people are now flocking to health and educational study programmes in the universities and colleges and theology and the humanities at large seem to be going the same way.

“The pandemic has made many people think twice about their existential situation. They seem also to value the immaterial sides to life more,” he said. “The crisis feeds a deeper and relational – in some cases perhaps also spiritual – approach to the choice of future professional life. It may be that calling and meaning will be concepts that rise in relative status, while career and wealth may go the other way.”

Meanwhile, Mette Birkedal Bruun, who is professor at the division of church history at the faculty of theology at the University of Copenhagen and leader of the Danish National Research Foundation Centre for Privacy Studies, has been awarded DKK6.1 million (US$974,000) from the Carlsberg Foundation for the cross-scientific research project STAY HOME.

The project will investigate what happens in the home as a physical, digitalised, socially and existential fundament in the situation of the coronavirus crisis. The focus is on mapping out the possibilities and risks the coronavirus crisis has partly demonstrated and partly created.

The project has contributors from architecture, family history, technology studies and theology, all seeking answers to the question of how the functioning and character of the home are affected by the crisis. Lessons learned will contribute to the planning of the future home.