A Letter to Alan


Some Highlights of Norwegian History


As in all other countries under a monarchy, Norway's "choice" of church followed the religious and political choice of the monarch. From King Olav Haraldsson the Holy (died 1030) the church was Roman Catholic, but not without conflicts. The new religion was introduced more by the help of the sword as by the “Word”. But that was not exactly atypical for the time. The close merger between politics and religion caused the civil war between the Bagler (bagall = bishop's rod) and the Birkebeiner ("Birchlegs”). The Bagler was the church’s party, and the Birkebeiner were the King’s men during the 12th century struggle for the throne. The Birkebeiner (Birchlegs) got that name because they were so poor that they had to use birch bark for leggings to protect them from the bitter winter cold . It was the lay people who served the King in this stride.

Knud Bergslien's famous oil painting shows two Birkebeiner, Skjervald Skrukka and Torstein Skjevla carrying to safety the baby who would be King Haakon. But as in most interpretive portrayals, these Birkebeiner look too well-dressed.




It was, and still is an abhorrent scenario for a Nordmann (Norwegian) for a foreign authority to dictate anything in a conflict between national interests and the hierarchy. King Sverre Sigurdsson, who was a learned man (rather rare for kings those days) and also ordained priest before he got the throne, directly opposed the pope in 1179, even using the church's own theological arguments in the dispute, particularly Gratian’s Decorum. His defiance of Rome is mentioned in the 2nd stanza of our national anthem from 1864, . But it still took about 350 years before King Christiern III of Denmark-Norway abolished the roman catolic church in 1536, and decided to convert to prostestantism. One positive side effect of the king’s decision was that farmlands were confiscated from the roman catholic church for the benefit of the King and were also partly sold or distributed to the farmers. Norway has always had free farmers; big landowners with tenants were rare in this country whose arable land is only 3% of its total land area. This event was relatively peaceful, except for some bishops had to "leave this dimension" permanently because they were too keen on defending their earthly possessions. It was necessary to take away some other clergymen too, one way or another.... . In other words: No big deal !!!

As a result of the "Enlightenment Era" in Europe during the 18th century, we were also blessed with the new "potatopriests". As there was no university in Norway then, one had to go to either Copenhagen, or farther south to Germany and Netherlands, even France. These theologians brought home knowledge and news in science and politics, and also a new crop that meant salvation from hunger—the potato. Many of these priests spent more time in the pulpit on the Sundays talking about how to grow potatoes than to preach from Bible, hence the name "Potetprest” (potatopriest). His Majesty in Copenhagen also urged his clerical civil servants to promote the growing of the potato in Norway, which proved its worth in the 1812 British blockade of the sea between Denmark and Norway when the peope were forced to bake bread with more ground treebark than flour in order to survive.

In 1796, the Conventikel Plackard was opposed by the lay preacher Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771-1824) who started the pietist movement in Norway. For the piestists, it is a sin to be lazy, and it it is not enough to "believe" to get through the various difficulties of life. One has to work also and be productive and honour God through hard, honest work. Norway was a harsh country to live in those days—the climate was rough, and wars made things even worse. Hans Nielsen Hauge, this industrious lay preacher , who also was directly practical, helped people make a living during the harsh times of war, especially on the countryside, in addition to spread the gospel. He was literally knitting and singing, even making new psalms, while he was walking from village to village. No waste of time there, not for a minute.

The consequence for Hauge was, of course, several years in prison for violating the Conventikel Plackard, and his health was physically broken. Eventually he was set free. The Napoleonic wars had reached Denmark-Norway, and the British Navy was blocking the food supplies route from Denmark, and the starvation was at the door, especially in the coastal areas. The Governor in Christiania (Oslo) knew about Hans Nilesen Hauge's practical capabilities ( "You are indeed capable of more than just saying your Pater Noster, Hans Nielsen" it was uttered with admiration and respect from one of the higher civil servants during his trial). Hans Nielsen Hauge was then sent around to the coastal villages in order help the villagers survive by establishing new enterprises and trades, and to develop better methods for feeding themselves. But this time, it was with the blessing of the Crown! This was indeed the start of what we today call the volontary organizations—religious or non-religoius, social and political—that have all contributed to the development of the nation, during times of peace and war. The "theocratic touch" in the governance had started to fade.

OK, Alan, you asked a simple question, and got some compressed excerpts of our history. But religion has been a part of politics, and also sometimes still an element of national identification; whether is is good or bad depends on who is deciding what—the people or the clergy. The religiuos rights and freedom are stated in the Constitution , and the "command line" has been clear since 1580: God >> Jesus >>> King >>> bishops >> priests, and then all the rest of us. As you can see, there is no seat available for "the bishop of Rome" aka the pope. And this has assured us a social and political development within a national frame. The state church has and will always come with its advice and criticicism regarding morals and ethics, but that is also a part of the development. The law is the same for "King Solomon as well as Jörgen Hatter" as we say here, and the abusive priest is guaranteed the same nice view from inside the bars as any other criminal.

The reasons are to be found in the several hundred years of development. In the old days it was "good latin" to claim that political power was instituted by God, unchangeable and eternal; hence, religion and politics were merged—kings seeking support from the church and vice versa; religion was taught to the illiterate masses in latin, a language that people did not understand and the priest was undisputed in his explanation of the "word". But the political system has changed, the old theocratic system could no longe dictated, as the people have created the democratic system, people are no longer illiterate and can read the Bible themselves, the Constitution and the national laws , newspapers, whatever, and can make choices according to their own belief and understanding. The information era (Internet, film, mass media) do not allow dirty "secrets" to be hidden, not for long anyway. Of course, info-channels can also be tweaked and work the other way, but in a society where the education system has the final aim to produce independent and critical individuals, the political, social and religious perception and actions among the "grassroot" will be different from that of the old days. One asks questions, and that is poison for the self appointed keepers of the "eternal truths" that are seldom older than the perception during the Middle Ages, when one thought that the earth should remain flat forever.

I don't think that the organized humanists will be dominant in the future, even if there is a split between state and church (both politicians and the church are still pondering on this question) and not in any way "replacing" the state church, but the humanist values will be stronger and be better defined in legislation as well as in the basis for the education, and the supporters will be found inside many of the churches as well as in Humanetisk Forbund (Human Ethical Association). Dogmas don't grow well in neither soil nor soul here. But there will always be some who will read the Bible itself, contemplating the content, and abstaining from empty, meaningless rituals that even the Bible has warning about. A religious belief without knowledge of its content is organized nonsense, and can at its best be classified as mumbo jumbo. So who knows how many of the couch potatoes during Easter are really "tuning in" on what Rose calls the First Principle, by me called The Great Mathematician, by others JHWH, Allah or just simply God. And that is both well and good, as long as one doesn't forget that we are living here and now, a dimension one cannot believe oneself away from.

But as one of the sergeants always used to say at the recruit school: "Whatever you do, always keep one foot on the ground.....".

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