As a student working on a doctorate in the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) at St. Andrews University, I am sometimes asked to describe – and sometimes defend – the purpose of the programme, often against claims of faddishness, lack of scholarly or philosophical rigour, or questionable job marketability. People involved in relatively new and interdisciplinary programs of study often find themselves in similar positions. Perhaps more significantly are the questions of vocation viability; how is this programme able to help me serve the purposes of God more effectively?
In answer to these questions, there are several ways to describe and promote a programme like ITIA. In my perspective, it is important to articulate its theological mission, emphasising the role such a programme plays in the advancement of a particular mode of theological discourse. This is a mode of discourse that validates both the discursive and imaginative modes of thinking, living and speaking about the divine and the Christian life.
In a remarkable recent study, Roland Bleiker documents the small but growing “aesthetic turn” taking place in the realm of the study of international politics. Aesthetics and diplomacy? Art and foreign policy? Bleiker writes,
One of the key challenges ahead consists of legitimizing a greater variety of approaches to the study of world politics. Aesthetics is an important and necessary addition to our interpretative repertoire. To pinpoint the exact nature of this contribution is not easy, but it can probably be captured best by terms such as creativity and imagination. Aesthetic sources can offer us alternative insights into international relations; a type of reflective understanding that emerges not from systematically applying the technical skills of analysis which prevail in the social sciences, but from cultivating a more open-ended level of sensibility about the political. (Aesthetics and World Politics, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
Simply substitute political with theological terminology and I think Bleiker provides a vivid description of the growing role of the arts and aesthetics in theological studies. Besides legitimizing creativity and imagination, the inclusion of aesthetics and the arts in theological studies provides an expansion of diverse forms of reasoning. In short, this considers art a form of theology, a way of understanding God and his world.
At ITIA, we often discuss how the arts are more than illustrative in their function, but rather interpretive and constructive. If considered as a form of rhetoric, then the arts are simply another means by which religious matters are discussed and articulated, avenues of access to the biblical story and the substance of doctrine. As a means of interrogation, however, the arts probe a whole series of enquiries: What does God’s glory look like? How does physical space encourage or inhibit the sense of holiness? What does it mean that when God’s prophets use poetic forms? These and similar questions are areas of enquiry for which the arts and the study of the arts are uniquely suitable.
Finally, ITIA is forging new insights into theologically grounded analyses and assessments of art, culture and public life. In his book, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (Routledge, 2004), art historian James Elkins despairs of the state of dialogue between the art world and practiced religion: “It is impossible to talk seriously about religion and at the same time address art in an informed and intelligent manner: but it is also irresponsible not to keep trying.” The work my colleagues do in ITIA takes up this challenge. Mediating this breach of discourse is a work of public theology, central to my own research and experience in the ITIA program. As someone who has staked his professional career on the relevance and importance of the arts for theology, it is always good to remember why a place like the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts exists.
James McCullough is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. His research explores the relationship between works of visual art and spiritual formation. He lives on a farm near St Andrews with his wife and four children.