Learning Difficulties and Theological Aesthetics

Christian theology is tasked with gaining knowledge and understanding of things which fall outside of the limits of ordinary discourse and conventional logic. The New Testament demands that believers change their minds in order to see the world anew in the light of Christ (e.g. Romans 12:2, Acts 9:9-19), thus responding to the redemption and recapitulation of creation wrought on the Cross. Alister McGrath draws attention to the significance of the biblical concept of metanoia in relation to this scriptural injunction, suggesting that this technical term frames repentance as ‘a process of spiritual and intellectual re-orientation’ that ‘mandates an imaginative realignment’. [1] This radical restructuring responds to the tension between limited, human ways of thinking and knowing and the higher, holy realities which the Incarnation brought into the midst of our everyday existences – a tension which C. S. Lewis described as the conflict between ‘glib and shallow rationalism’ and ‘a many islanded sea of poetry and myth’. [2] It exposed theological truths ‘too important and complex to be reduced to cold logical analysis’, which require the ‘imaginative language’ of poetry, artistry, and metaphor to be appreciated and apprehended. [3] Creative, unorthodox imagery and ideas became vital to the project of theological enquiry, as tools which allow us to break free from the confines of habitual reasoning and routine conversation.

It is relatively simple to set out this requirement for ‘imaginative re-alignment’, drawing attention to the need for new forms of creativity it necessitates. What is often more challenging is acting upon it by fashioning truly novel, insightful representations of theological realities. Originality for originality’s sake is relatively easy to find in the world of ‘poetry and myth’, but finding a new way of capturing a particular theological idea is far harder. Reflecting sacred mysteries such as timelessness and paradox in artistic forms in a manner which is new, revelatory, and comprehensible is a daunting task to undertake. The temptation to revert to safer, more familiar ground, incorporating known quantities like words and religious iconography can be hard to resist.

One avenue which theological aesthetics could explore is to involve those people within our society for whom ‘ordinary’ ways of speaking, acting, or perceiving already seem irrelevant and nonsensical. Within Western society in recent years there has been a semantic shift toward describing people with learning difficulties as ‘differently abled’, rather than disabled or mentally handicapped. Whilst this is a complicated, controversial development that is not always accepted by those it applies to, [4] it is important insofar as it can draw attention to the valuable variety and innovative perspectives that differences in neurological architecture can create. Especially relevant here are the ways in which difficulties surrounding conventional communication and familiar forms of expression can encourage people to invent new, unique means of making themselves heard and understood. Tools such as colour, shape, imagery, and texture take on a greater significance as alternative means of capturing and conveying thoughts and ideas. Intellectual disabilities such as frontotemporal dementia (FTD) which alter circuits in the brain can lead to greater emphasis on right posterior brain movements and artistic creativity, as patients respond to symptoms like ‘trouble finding words’ by allowing ‘colours, sound, touch and space’ to be ‘intertwined in novel ways’. [5] Or, visual artist Anna Berry describes how her autism gives her an ‘experience of the world’ that is ‘very different to a neuro-typical one’, enabling her to produce sculptures which ‘explore issues surrounding reality and experience’, thus challenging and reshaping the way viewers understand the very ‘nature of reality’. [6]

Theologians searching for ways of capturing theological truths which are beyond words and call for ‘intellectual re-orientation’ could look to these forms of creative, meaningful wordlessness for inspiration. There is a paradox which echoes throughout the Christian theological tradition of writing about what words cannot do: literature advertising its own limitations. Dante’s Commedia is full of protestations about the inadequacy of human language to speak about the ineffable yet is – as Dante was aware – a piece of writing itself. The rhetoric of Dante’s vision of the Godhead ‘repeatedly emphasizes the inadequacy of the poet’s words in recording any ultimate experience of divinity’. [7] The writing of mystical theologians such as Pseudo-Dionysius uses phrases like the ‘Radiance of the Divine Darkness’ with a similar sense of irony, [8] acknowledging the limitations of their descriptions even as they write them. Drawing those who do not have the option of falling back upon words and speech into this conversation could challenge and enrich the theological interplay of language and speechlessness. Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community network for people with intellectual disabilities, writes that spending time in these communities taught him that ‘each of us has an instrument to bring to the vast orchestra of humanity’, as those who cannot grasp ‘abstract, rational language cut off from affectivity’ taught him about other ways of accessing truth and meaning. [9] Examining theological paradoxes like timelessness and incarnation with someone for whom abstract concepts of time or ontology are already confusing impositions could open new types of imaginative enquiry, effecting the kind of intellectual re-orientation involved in true metanoia.

Clearly, this process would be far from straightforward. Trying to bring together careful, reasoned theology with unconventional, creative alterity would inevitably prove to be complicated, frustrating, and fraught with risk. The individuality and specific needs and abilities of those involved would cause practical complications which this article does not pretend to be able to predict or resolve. However, there seems to be no reason to treat these as intractable obstacles to progress. The TheoArtistry project, run by ITIA, has established several different models for collaboration between theologians and creatives from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds, illustrating what becomes possible through conversation and co-creation. Future projects in ITIA or elsewhere could bring together TheoArtistry and the work of theologians like Vanier or John Swinton with those who are differently abled, using each individual’s unique ‘instrument’ to expand the imaginative repertoire of those seeking to reflect the Divine through artistic expression.



[1] Alister E. McGrath, Re-imagining Nature: the Promise of a Christian Natural Theology (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 48.

[2] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (1955; repr., London: Collins, 2012), 197.

[3] McGrath, Re-imagining Nature, 56.

[4] Simi Linton, Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 8-33.

[5] Sandra Blakeslee, ‘A Disease that Allowed Torrents of Creativity’, New York Times, 8 April, 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/09/health/09iht-08brai.11822515.html.

[6] Violet Fenn, ‘These 10 artists prove autism is no barrier to creativity’, Metro, 21 April, 2018, https://metro.co.uk/2018/04/21/these-10-artists-prove-autism-is-no-barrier-to-creativity-7446895/.

[7] Robin Kirkpatrick, commentary to Paradiso, by Dante (London: Penguin, 2005), 470.

[8] Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology (Surrey: Shrine of Wisdom, 1949), 9.

[9] Jean Vanier, Becoming Human (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1999), 14, 92.


  • Ewan is a doctoral student at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) in St Andrews, under the supervision of George Corbett (ITIA) and John Swinton (University of Aberdeen). He is researching ways of using popular artworks (novels, films, and television series) to design new forms of art therapy which provide emotional, psychological and spiritual care for cancer patients. This involves using fictional narratives, characters, and imagery to reflect and reframe patients' experiences of living with cancer, helping them to understand and articulate the effect of cancer on their lives. He is developing the impact of his research through an ongoing collaboration with several Scottish centres run by the Maggie's cancer care charity. Other interests include theological engagement with popular culture, the relationship between theology and humour, and the use of narrative form for theological expression.

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