Reflections on ‘TheoArtistry: “Beyond Clarity”‘ by Ewan Bowlby

In the spring/summer semester of 2019, a quiet experiment in theology took place in St Andrews. Tucked away in a bright but bland meeting room, eight postgraduates gathered to form research partnerships, becoming (as it were) two ‘triads’ and a ‘duet’.[1] They would spend the rest of the academic year devising research projects that explored creative approaches to theological research. The experiment was called the ‘TheoArtistry Student-Led Collaborations’.

Ewan Bowlby signed up for the collaborations the day after the call for interest went out. There was no official reward for participating in this experiment: no course credit or completion certificate, no financial benefit or prize. The only incentives were those compelling forces of curiosity, relationality, and connection that so characterised Ewan’s life and work.

I had crossed paths with Ewan before: our time studying at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts had overlapped by a year or two, though I didn’t know him well. I was pleased to find his name on the sign-up list. In his expression of interest in the scheme, he explained:

…I am interested in the ways in which art can create spaces in which themes of death and suffering can be explored, and also how artworks can encapsulate messages of hope. I am also exploring the capacity for art to present different perspectives on time and transience, and the relationship between the temporal and eternal.

I would be open to exploring any of these themes in a collaboration, including from the perspective of a particular text or biblical passage. But I am also open to suggestions for alternative collaborations which an artist/creator might suggest, and wouldn’t want to simply impose my research interests onto whomever I was working with![2]

This last note expressed Ewan’s fundamental openness to others: to their ideas, perspectives, questions, and insights. Before he had even begun the collaborations, Ewan had intuitively encapsulated the heart of the project. The framework I had developed to facilitate the collaborations emphasised the contributions of all participants in shaping the group’s research agenda and methods. Particular members of a group might contribute chiefly through creative works and artistic skills, while others might utilise more conventional academic research methods. Both were to be regarded as valid and valuable approaches to theology.

In response to the sign-up form question, ‘Do you already have a partner in mind for this collaboration?’, Ewan replied: ‘I would be open to working with anyone!’

The idea behind the Student-Led Collaborations model was to explore how conventional research methods in critical analysis – such as finding and comprehending information in academic texts, identifying and evaluating arguments, and integrating scholarly sources and concepts into our own thinking – could work in harmony with creativity. More than that, that the two approaches could be mutually enriching, revealing things to each other that would otherwise lie beyond their ken.

Ewan deftly wove these themes into his 2019 Transpositions article, ‘TheoArtistry “Beyond Clarity”: Theology, Spirituality, And The Art Of Irresolution.’[3] The piece is part reflection and part critical analysis, both personal and deeply scholarly. When I first read it, I thought it was a great piece – but it was, in effect, a positive review of one of my first research projects as a newly-minted academic, and I was perhaps buoyed up more by relief that the Student-Led Collaborations had been well-received than the substance of Ewan’s writing. Reading it again, I appreciate his genuine and sustained engagement with the TheoArtistry model in reference to the broader field of Christian theology and the arts.

God Appears to Noah, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot, c. 1896-1902, The Jewish Museum, New York. https://thejewishmuseum.org/collection/26673-god-appears-to-noah.

Ewan’s sincere evaluation of the project’s goals and implications revealed how the open and inclusive framework of the Student-Led Collaborations – an openness which I had implemented simply to broaden the potential for creativity – presented an unintentional but stark challenge to the specificity of Christian theology. By situating the Student-Led Collaborations against the backdrop of its predecessors, he showed how this particular experiment in theology and the arts stood in tension with certain aspects of its own academic lineage. Ewan was not disturbed by this apparent conflict:

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.[4]

Reflecting on his own experience of doing theology in creative collaboration, Ewan was able to articulate the value he found in artistry and ambiguity. From his writing, it seems that these had – perhaps unexpectedly – became fruitful conditions for theological exploration. In a precursor to this Transpositions piece, Ewan composed a critical reflection for his TheoArtistry partnership with poet Hannah Palmatary and musician Emily Fleming. His summary of their group’s methodology enthusiastically met the challenge of creative and theological openness:

Whilst academic disciplines have often sought to impose clarity and objectivity on such indeterminacy, by tying spirituality to abstract definitions or predetermined criteria, our TheoArtistry collaboration has taken an alternative approach. We have used the freedom of artistic creation to work constructively with the vague, contextual qualities of spirituality, treating it as an open, pluriform concept receptive to personal, particular experiences. […] This will give the audience a rich, diverse range of perspectives, which can spark conversation, provoke unexpected thoughts and draw out unacknowledged feelings.[5]

The group’s goal was expansive, not least in its aim to draw others into theological discussion and spiritual reflection through those with whom they would share their creative work. As their final outcome for the project, Ewan, Hannah, and Emily chose to stage a performance of music and poetry that encapsulated the themes of embodiment, spirituality, and transformation they had explored together in their collaboration. Poignantly for Ewan, their performance ‘illuminated the strength and power of vagueness and impermanence.’[6]

In his reflections on methodology, Ewan conceptualised the theological frame of the group’s collaboration as both ‘indeterminate’ and ‘personal, particular.’ This is the powerful paradox of reaching out into a cloud of unknowing for what is both transcendent and immanent, hidden and revealed. The ‘vague, contextual qualities of spirituality’ without a definitive anchoring in the specificity of our belief might leave any of us grasping for a firmer foundation, but Ewan embraced the beauty of the unknown and what is to be learned there together.

[1] Rebekah Dyer, ‘Two triads and a duet’, TheoArtistry Student-Led Collaborations Blog (March 1, 2019), https://theoartistry.wordpress.com/2019/03/01/two-triads-and-a-duet/.

[2] Ewan Bowlby, unpublished correspondence (November 21, 2019).

[3] Ewan Bowlby, ‘TheoArtistry “Beyond Clarity”: Theology, Spirituality, and the Art of Irresolution’, Transpositions (September 27, 2019), https://www.transpositions.co.uk/theoartistry-beyond-clarity-theology-spirituality-and-the-art-of-irresolution/.

[4] Bowlby, ‘TheoArtistry “Beyond Clarity.”’

[5] Ewan Bowlby, ‘Spirituality in Creativity (Part 1)’, TheoArtistry Student-Led Collaborations Blog (May 2, 2019), https://theoartistry.wordpress.com/2019/05/02/spirituality-in-creativity-part1/.

[6] Bowlby, ‘TheoArtistry “Beyond Clarity.”’

Author

  • Dr Rebekah Dyer is a theologian and editor at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews. Through research projects such as ‘TheoArtistry’, Rebekah’s work seeks to illuminate theological concepts and structures through creative methodologies grounded in critical academic thought. Rebekah is an academic editor for the St Andrews Encyclopaedia of Theology.

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