Sundén, Hjalmar

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SUNDÉN, HJALMAR . Hjalmar Sundén (19081993) was a Swedish psychologist of religion. Sundén was born in Eksjö, Sweden, the son of a lieutenant-colonel and a homemaker. The peak of Sundén's academic career came late in life. He became a professor at the age of fifty-nine and retired eight years later, a much-appreciated mentor and friend to half a dozen postgraduates, some of whom became professors in the psychology of religion. Sundén remained active as a writer and speaker at symposia, enjoying great academic success during the last twenty-five years of his life. He died at the age of eighty-five.

Sundén was educated in Stockholm, at Norrmalm upper-secondary school and University College, obtaining his master of philosophy degree in 1930. He continued his studies at Uppsala, where he graduated from the Faculty of Theology. His rare gift for languageshe spoke German, French, and English fluentlymade it easy for him to learn Hebrew, ancient Greek, and Latin. After only two years of study he received his master's degree in theology in 1932. The following year he was ordained a priest in the Swedish Lutheran Church.

Sundén was given a personal chair in the psychology of religion at the University of Uppsala by special parliamentary decree in 1967, after having worked for years as a priest, a teacher of religion in secondary schools, a psychologist in the state police academy, a psychologist of religion at the University of Stockholm, and a docent in the history of religion, including the psychology of religion, at Uppsala. He was a brilliant speaker, in demand all over Sweden. His lecture tours gave him profound knowledge of the questions that concerned ordinary people. Far removed from scholastic exercises, he always had a deep empathy and respect for ordinary popular piety. This approach and insight proved to be decisive in his later research and academic career.

In his doctoral thesis on the philosopher Henri Bergson, La théorie bergsonienne de la religion (1940), Sundén critically reviewed the then-prevailing theories in relation to Bergson's two sources of morality and religion: one rooted in intelligence that also results in science and its static, mechanistic ideal, and the other based on intuition, finding expression in the free creativity of art and philosophy and the mystical experience of the saints. It was the latter that caught the eye of the future psychologist of religion and occupied his thoughts for the rest of his lifehis last article was on Teresa of Avila.

Sundén asked simple but profound questions. How is it that people experience existence as religious? Why is it that some people conceive of existence in terms of pure chance, some speak of the interplay of contingencies, while still others prefer to use the word fate ? Then there are those who perceive an intention in the experiential, contact with the "other" or "another." How is an experience of the world in religious terms psychologically possible?

The answers to these questions are to be found in Sundén's main contribution to the psychology of religion, his magnum opus Religionen och rollerna (Religion and roles, 1959). Here he elucidates his understanding of religious experience through role theory, which is based on the discovery that all sacred texts contain descriptions of pious people who have acted in relation to God or gods. The biblical tradition provides people with behavior and role models of how Christians have been in dialogue with God and experienced his presence. When reading the Psalms, people are inadvertently absorbed into the mythic figure of David, thereby finding themselves within a specific interactional system, the human role in relation to the divine partner, God. The thinking is: as God saved then, he will also do so now if people trust and rely on him. No matter how hopeless the situation may seem, the promises are eventually expected to be fulfilled.

Contrary to previous theories, Sundén argues that religious experience does not consist of specific feelings, nor is it independent of cultural tradition. It does not emerge from empty nothingness or from any inner mysterious psychic layer. It is rather a matter of perception, the process whereby sensory stimulation is translated into organized or meaningful experience: the intuitive recognition of an existential "truth." Learning is a decisive factor, providing un système aperceptif for the soul to be touched and moved by a personal living God. Religious experience is thus reproducible and not the subjective phenomenon to which some scholars have wanted to reduce it.

Sundén integrated the structural-analytic, the interactionist, and the perceptual analytical models from the major research traditions within the social sciences into a psychology of religion, and he based this on his profound knowledge of the history of religions and contemporary theories and methods. His great knowledge of religious texts, and his empathy for them, enabled him to fashion role theory into a powerful hermeneutical tool, especially for the psychological interpretation of autobiographies and other types of personal documents, such as diaries, journals, and letters.

Sundén has rightly been regarded as the founder of the psychology of religion in the Nordic countries. When his magnum opus was translated into German as Die Religion und die Rollen (1966), his ideas quickly found fertile soil in Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, as well as in the United States in the late 1980s. For many years Sundén chaired the International Association for the Psychology of Religion. His role theory has had the same influence among European psychologists of religion as Gordon Allport's religious-orientations theory had among American psy-chologists.


Hjalmar Sundén has written extensively on role theory, but the most elucidating of all his presentations still remains the first essay he ever wrote on the subject in his collection Sjuttiotredje psalmen och andra essäer (Psalm seventy-three and other essays; Stockholm, 1956). For those who cannot read Swedish, his article "Saint Augustine and the Psalter in the Light of Role-Psychology," published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 26, no. 3 (1987): 366412 (an issue dedicated entirely to Sundén's role theory), provides an eloquent substitute.

Holm, Nils G. "Role Theory and Religious Experience." In the Handbook of Religious Experience, edited by Ralph W. Hood, pp. 397420. Birmingham, Ala., 1995. This essay provides a thorough presentation of Sundén's role theory.

Holm, Nils G. "An Integrated Role Theory for the Psychology of Religion: Concepts and Perspectives." In The Psychology of Religion: Theoretical Approaches, edited by Bernard Spilka and Daniel N. McIntosh, pp. 7385. Boulder, Colo., 1997. In this essay, Holm elaborates Sundén's role theory towards an analysis of what he calls an "inner existence space."

Holm, Nils G., and J. A. Belzen, eds. Sundén's Role Theory: An Impetus to Contemporary Psychology of Religion. Åbo, Finland, 1995. Sundén's pupils collected their latest essays in the memory of their mentor and friend.

Källstad, Thorvald, ed. Psychological Studies on Religious Man. Uppsala, Sweden, 1978. Festschrift dedicated to Sundén on his seventieth birthday.

Sundén, Hjalmar. Religionen och rollerna. Stockholm, 1959. German: Die Religion und die Rollen: Ett psykologiskt studium av fromheten (Eine psychologische Untersuchung der Frömmigkeit ). Translated by Herman Müller and Suzanne Öhman. Berlin, 1966.

Wulff, David. Psychology of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Views. New York 1991.

RenÉ GothÓni (2005)