Reflections on the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts

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.

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  • James McCullough is a graduate of ITIA, completing a PhD in 2013 under the supervision of David Brown. He is the author of Sense and Spirituality: The Arts and Spiritual Formation (Cascade, 2015), and more recently, with Philip Krill, Life in the Trinity: The Mystery of God and Human Deification (Wipf & Stock, 2022). He currently teaches theology, literature and music appreciation in the Archdiocese of St Louis.

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  1. says: dave perry

    Thanks for this James; creativity and imagination seem to me to be at the heart of our experience of God and the visual arts surely have a crucial part to play as we seek to engage missionally with our very visual culture. If only I lived closer to St Andrews!

  2. says: Cole Matson

    As someone who is insistent upon the relevance and importance of theology for the arts, I’m right there with you, and appreciate this post.

    As an aside, I just called the admissions office today to confirm that my application to join the ITIA this autumn has been received, so I should hear in 6-8 weeks whether I’ll be moving up to St Andrews!

  3. says: James McCullough

    I appreicate both Dave’s and Cole’s responses. It’s great to know people “out there” are reading our posts. I would want to say to Dave that I cme here last year from New Jersey, so don’t let geography excert undue influence. And I remember meeting Cole at the David Brown conference here in September. I still have you card! It will be great having you here with us.

  4. says: Kevin Taylor

    I appreciate the passion behind this post, but I have to disagree about art being a form of theology.

    I think eliding art and theology together gets into dangerous ground, where one becomes instrumentalized for the other: art that illustrates theology, or theology that gives material for art. I think it’s better to see them as two separate areas of human creativity, two different worlds, each with its own rules, designs, history, and so on.

    This is why most all theology is written in a certain manner: discursive, argumentative, conceptual, and so on, while literature uses setting, characters, chronology, and so on. They can converse and have shared interests, but each is a separate world unto itself.

    So I want to encourage the discussion, while keeping the path thorny and ambiguous.

  5. says: Jayme Koerselman

    I have just started to read the forum out of interest and exploring possible further studies. I too appreciated the passion and risk that James is talking about in studying a relatively new program trying to integrate two important things. In response to Kevin’s statements, I can understand some of the concerns around theology’s method of communication being different than that of artistic expression but I still wonder about the term instrumentalized. Aren’t both theology and art (with a theological expression) still joined by the focus of the conversation which is the Creator. To me, theology has always been about the study of God and communicating something of what our relationship with Him evokes. I believe both discursive, argumentitive, poetic, and visual communication can do this and adds to the picture of a whole. Poetic desriptions sometimes do what discursive descriptions cannot and vice versa. After all, Scripture itself often is not presented in a discursive, argumentitive or conceptual way but is primarily narrative with characters, setting, and so on. I am in no way saying we should get rid of the primary way “formal theology” is communicated but instead maybe asking for the definition of the word theology to be considered and expanded.

  6. says: James McCullough

    There are few things as gratifying for a writer than to know he’s being read. It is even more so when it seems that what he’s written has provoked others to think about and respond to what’s been written. For this I am grateful to both Kevin and Jayme.

    Kevin in a succinct manner articulates the critical viewpoint on the contemporary arts and theology research that I think hovers around much of what is said and done in ITIA. If I understand Kevin correctly, he maintains that theology and the arts repersent two different types of discourse (even if the subject matter is shared), and that for both to function effectively should be kept separate, lest one be subordinated to the other and the intengrity of that form of discourse be diminished. In many ways this is THE question that ITIA and related programs exist to address.

    My brief and insufficient response to this great question would probably revolve around whether theology in Kevin’s viewpoint isn’t being reduced to what might be just one of its dimensions. Kevin’s perspective seems to highlight theology as “philosophy of God,” which in some ways it is, and in so being is a helpful and necesssary part of the Chrsitian community’s reflection on life before God in this world. But is it just that, or does it function in such strictly “discursive” ways?

    Kevin also gets at another major point of discussion in ITIA, namely whether the arts simply function, descriptively and/or prescriptively, to illustrate doctrinal or theological data, as opposed to actively construct theological reflection.

    At this point I’m hoping others might join in this discussion, so I’ll withold from much further comment, except for this. When I read Kevin’s comment, my immediate thought was, “Given the definition of theology proposed here, does the Bible function as a “form of theology”? If it does, than I think it holds a significant model for understanding the relationship between theology and the arts, and art as theology. After all, the Bible is made up of different forms of discourse, and much of it poetic in form, not to mention artful displays of rhetoric, prose narrative, and symbolism.

    But I’m hoping others might make some helpful contributions.

    Again, much thanks to Kevin and Jayme.

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