“The Lord seized me by the collar. I fought and came up with all kinds of excuses, but God got the last word.”
Bishop Lennart Koskinen describes how he became a pastor, and the image you get is that of a defiant child - but it also says something about the relationship he has with God. It is close, alive and natural. Does a Bishop ever waver in his faith?
“In my faith in the church, yes,” Koskinen says, “in my faith in God – never. My spiritual experience is stronger than my material experience. I am more sure of the Lord, than I am of you sitting here with me.”
Koskinen is, as of 2003, Bishop of Visby episcopate and also the head of the Swedish Church abroad, since it falls under Visby episcopate. Born in Helsinki, Finland in 1944, he’s been a controversial, albeit fascinating, personality since he first made headlines through the airwaves in the 1970’s, as a host of a series of radio services, which he famously began with a cheerful “Good Morning, God!”
Nordstjernan sat down with Koskinen after a visit at the Swedish Church in New York.
“I can get upset at the Church for its double standards, its dogmatism and its views on homosexuality. When I was merely a priest, people didn’t listen to me. I say the same things now that I am a bishop – the difference is now people listen!”
Koskinen has eyes the color of robin’s eggs, speaks with a pleasant Finnish lilt and has a bearing that suggests wisdom and understanding. He doesn’t seem chastising either.
“We don’t do God any service by going to Church on Sundays,” Koskinen says when asked why he thinks so few Swedes are Churchgoers. “It’s for our own sake, we ought to go. Our daily life is so full of work, and it’s hard to do right at all times, we can easily get run down. In Church God serve us. By going there, we can get help.”
“Like when you need to fill you car with gas?” I ask.
“Yes, but in this case it’s more like spiritual gas,” Koskinen says with a smile. “Our faith is like our life, it has a rhythm. In Church we call it Vita Activa and Vita Contemplativa – active life and contemplative life. If you just breathe out – you’ll end up blue in your face. You need to breathe in, too. Which you can do in Church.”
What does he think the recipe is then, to get people to understand that the Church isn’t some old-fashioned notion, or Mass some tired ritual you must sit through – but instead a wellspring for the spirit?
“By making it happier and more accessible. We must allow ourselves to be a bit more childlike,” Koskinen answers.
This might sound vague or general, but anyone who has heard Koskinen preach knows this is a recipe he himself follows. There’s a lot of laughter from the congregation, as everyone listens attentively to him.
“Did Jesus have a sense of humor?” I ask.
“Of course he did! Just look at how he answered people! When the Pharisees try tricking him with the coin, for example. It’s obviously a trap. Either Jesus will place the authority of the emperor higher than that of God – which would be religious heresy. Or he’d deny the authority of the emperor, which would be civil treason. Instead Jesus answers: ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’ You must have humor to come up with something like that!”
I can’t help but ask Koskinen what he thinks about the last years’ intense public interest in The Da Vinci Code (the book and the film) and Grail studies in general, since they’ve created quite a stir in the religious community.
“I think we can learn from other traditions,” says Koskinen. “Jesus might have been married, and if that is the case then it doesn’t take away from Him being who He is. In fact, in those days, most men were married. It would’ve been stranger, from a historical viewpoint, if he hadn’t been married.”
Likewise Koskinen doesn’t see anything reprehensible in looking into other religions.
“In India,” he explains, “finding your own spiritual way is considered typical. Because we’re all different, some of us are more emotional, some more intellectual. Some of us are people of action. We all need different ways.”
It’s also toward the East Koskinen turns for his personal role-model.
“Of all the world’s religious leaders, Dalai Lama is the most amazing!” he exclaims. “I meet him from time to time and always learn something from him. In the Christian world, we don’t really have anyone his equal right now.”
Before working within the Swedish Church, Koskinen was an economist, and these days he also works as an ethics officer. He lectures on ethics, personal development, quality of life and relationships.