TheoArtistry ‘beyond clarity’: Theology, Spirituality, and the Art of Irresolution

The TheoArtistry Student-Led Partnerships Project, run by the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts in 2018-19, represented a new development in the exploration of the intersection of art and theology. Designed and overseen by theologians Rebekah Dyer and Caleb Froelich, the project brought together practising artists and theologians in small groups, giving these partnerships the brief of testing out ‘creative approaches to theological research’. Whilst the groups were asked to establish ‘project goals’, the primary focus of the partnerships was the ‘process of utilising creative research methods’ rather than the outcome or final product. [1] As a theologian, I was joined by musician and classicist Emily Fleming and poet Hannah Palmatary in one such partnership that proved to be a revealing and rewarding collaboration. Over the course of the project, I was introduced to a new way of understanding the interplay of theology, spirituality, and artistry: a new dimension of ‘TheoArtistry’ which used art to celebrate impermanence, openness, and irresolution.

Previous projects aimed at investigating art-as-theology have often taken a different approach, drawing their inspiration from the specificity of Scripture and Christian tradition. The ground-breaking Theology through the Arts programme culminated in the Sounding the Depths festival in 2000, in which ‘pod groups’ of artists and Christian thinkers performed or exhibited artworks which emerged out of collaborations based on a ‘joint orientation to the triune God of Jesus Christ’. [2] Theologian Jeremey Begbie, instrumental in setting up this programme, has argued for the importance of tying investigations of theologically informed art to a ‘close exegesis of Scripture’ and to the ‘particularity’ of Christian belief in ‘a deity of a quite distinctive character’. [3] In his introduction to the Sounding the Depths project, he writes that it was precisely because of the specificity of this shared ‘theological orientation’ that the ‘arts seemed to flourish’ within the pod groups. [4] The resulting artworks testified to the value of this approach and demonstrated that close attention to the ‘peculiarities’ of a ‘scriptural imagination’ can facilitate and enrich artistic creation [5] and shed new light on theological and biblical traditions.

The TheoArtistry Composer’s Scheme, run by George Corbett for the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts in 2016-17, also sought to introduce artists – specifically composers – to the ‘creative inspiration that can come from an encounter with Scripture’. This project, like the subsequent TheoArtistry Poet’s Scheme (2018), was about ‘re-approaching the Scriptures through the imaginative possibilities of the arts’ and ‘finding new meanings and perspectives’ in those texts. However, in a departure from the framework used for Sounding the Depths, the collaborations between artists and theologians were not based on an ‘insistence on pre-emptive Christological criteria’, and they placed a greater emphasis on ‘the listener’s role in the co-construction of music’s significance’. [6] The impetus and focus for the collaboration was still supplied by biblical texts, but there was also an openness to perspectives from outside a traditional theological orientation as well as to the subjective, unpredictable nature of each individual’s response to the compositions.

Rather than trying to fix and protect an abstract definition of spirituality or delimit it using theological criteria, we allowed spirituality to remain a contested, contextual concept open to interpretation.

The TheoArtistry Student-Led Partnerships embraced this openness, moving further away from the particularity of Scripture and shared theological belief by outlining a framework in which ‘the themes, methods, and outcomes of the project are determined by the participants’. [7] In practice, this meant that the group of three I was working within was not united in a common commitment to any single faith or doctrine, and we brought together varied perspectives on religion and spirituality. The artistic project we embarked on could not be based on the flourishing of artistic practice sustained by a joint orientation to a distinctive deity. Instead, we began a search for shared interests, which led us into an artistic exploration of the relationship of physicality and spirituality. Working within the brief of ‘creative practice as a valuable form of engagement with theology (in the broadest sense)’, our collaboration sought to use poetry and music to illuminate the complexity and fluidity of this relationship, and the personal, experiential dimensions of physicality and spirituality. Rather than trying to fix and protect an abstract definition of spirituality or delimit it using theological criteria, we allowed spirituality to remain a contested, contextual concept open to interpretation. I saw the firm, familiar foundations of an ‘encounter with Scripture’ removed and replaced with a slippery, malleable collection of spiritual themes.

However, during the process of conceiving, forming, and reworking poetry and music which engaged with these themes, the positive qualities inherent in this indeterminacy became apparent. The ways my artistic partners worked revealed how imaginative, inventive freedom can work constructively with the hazy irresolution of these subjects. Using strikingly different yet compelling complementary forms, their compositions showed how – in an artist’s hands – spirituality and physicality can become rich, multifaceted areas of experience receptive to personal, unique experiences.

Setting works by poets ranging from Mary Oliver to Gerard Manley Hopkins to music, Emily sought to ‘give the voices of these various poets new dimensions of melody and rhythm’, thereby illustrating how words could be reframed by the music and drawn into deeper meanings and resonances. [8] The tonalities and patterns of her compositions moved between familiar, folkish tunes and unexpected, challenging moments, incarnating this interplay of voices and perspectives in music. Hannah’s poetry also unearthed surprising depths of meaning amidst ordinary, routine rhythms, adding ‘foreign’ and ‘exciting’ dimensions to descriptions of the physical shapes of quotidian life. Her words revealed how poetry can be a ‘multifaceted’ medium which combines ‘reliance on our sensuous, bodily experiences’ with ‘something not as tangible’. [9] Details of relatable, physical experiences like the joyful banality of a sneeze became part of a spirituality of familiarity founded on personal, human moments of embodied existence. These two artistic elements coalesced in a performance which served as a journey through such moments, and which fashioned a sense of the spiritual out of dialogue and development, fluctuating between particularity and generality, clarity and obscurity.

The processes and performance of this TheoArtistry project tested out how theology, spirituality, and artistry together can play a role in rediscovering the wonder of everyday human bodies and lives.

The process of creating and performing these works revealed a sense of the value of these fluctuations – an awareness of the positive qualities of imprecision and transience. Where previous iterations of the art-as-theology idea focussed on scriptural specificity, this musical, poetic journey drifted in and out of the boundaries of the Christian tradition, picking out thematic continuities and spiritual resonances which connected this tradition with the wider world of human experience. Considering the links between spiritual welfare and physical health, and the importance of the language of spirituality in care practices, theologian John Swinton writes that ‘the vagueness and lack of clarity around the term spirituality is actually a strength that has powerful political, social, and clinical implications’. In an essay entitled ‘Moving Beyond Clarity’, he contends that this vagueness can ‘counterbalance the distorting tendencies of specificity’ and ‘help theorists to see much more than they otherwise might’. [10] By setting a spiritual search in embodied, artistic mediums which could contain a range of personal experiences and distinct voices, Emily and Hannah illuminated the strength and power of vagueness and impermanence, allowing the audience to ‘see much more than they otherwise might’. Swinton observes that, in a modern Western society which seems to be distancing itself from the particularities of religious dogma, the language of spirituality can ‘recapture those dimensions of human experience that were once expressed in religious language’. [11] The processes and performance of this TheoArtistry project tested out how theology, spirituality, and artistry together can play a role in rediscovering the wonder of everyday human bodies and lives. It explored the idea that music and poetry could open up transitory, shifting areas of humanity in which several voices could speak or sing in different ways about a shared sense of spiritual depth.

This raised the possibility of a new approach to doing theology through the arts, one based around a search for common themes and shared experiences rather than an encounter with Scripture. Christian texts and thinkers remained a vital part of the collaboration creation, but they featured as one voice among many rather than as a foundational first principle. Whilst there is often a tendency to treat the field of theological aesthetics as an ongoing struggle between the uncertain openness of spiritual searching and the grounded definiteness of Christology and Scripture, it is also possible to see these as complementary alternatives to be held in constructive tension. Artistry can bring together the Christian tradition with a broader, more diffuse spirituality, cutting through the ‘distorting tendencies of specificity’ which can obscure the relevance of theological themes to the wider expanses of human experience. Theological focus can allow art to ‘flourish’, but it is not the case that ‘to evade this kind of particularity can only lead to confusion and misunderstanding’, [12] as Emily and Hannah demonstrated in their artistic celebration of spirituality ‘beyond clarity’.

 


[1] Rebekah Dyer and Caleb Froelich, ‘TheoArtistry Student-Led Partnerships’ (unpublished manuscript).

[2] Jeremy Begbie, introduction to Sounding the Depths: Theology Through the Arts, ed. Jeremy Begbie (London: SCM Press, 2002), 11.

[3] Begbie, Redeeming Transcendence in the Arts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 78, 184-5.

[4] Begbie, introduction to Sounding the Depths, 11.

[5] Begbie, Redeeming Transcendence, 185.

[6] George Corbett, ‘TheoArtistry, and a Contemporary Perspective on Composing Sacred Choral Music’, Religions 9, no. 1 (January 2018): 2, 9-11.

[7] Dyer and Froelich, ‘TheoArtistry’.

[8] Emily Fleming, programme notes for the ‘Spirituality in Creativity’ performance (unpublished manuscript).

[9] Hannah Palmatary, programme notes to ‘Spirituality in Creativity’ (unpublished manuscript).

[10] John Swinton and Stephen Pattison, ‘Moving Beyond Clarity’, Nursing Philosophy 11 no. 4 (2010), 226-33.

[11] Ibid., 232.

[12] Begbie, Redeeming Transcendence, 184-5.

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