Theology Through the Arts - The Broad Picture


TTA's primary aim is to discover and demonstrate ways in which the arts can contribute to Christian theology. In the process, it also seeks:

  • to find ways in which the arts can contribute to a sensitive and rigorous engagement of the Church with modern and postmodern culture
  • to generate, through the arts, new methods of Christian education for use in the Church and wider community

For the purposes of TTA and for this colloquium, theology can be taken to refer broadly to the disciplined thinking and re-thinking of the Christian Gospel, for the sake of fostering a wisdom that nourishes the life of the Church in its worship and mission to the world.

It entails the discovery and articulation of the dynamic self-giving of the triune God, a self-giving that climaxes in the life, death and resurrection of the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ and is known through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, contrary to what the phrase 'theology through the arts' might suggest, this project does not conceive theology to be concerned first of all with words and artefacts of our own making, but rather with a clear discernment by the Holy Spirit of the one Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Our task, therefore, is to be understood as a matter of attentiveness and faithful witness to this Word, and our purpose will be to consider how the 'spatial arts', for want of a better term, might contribute to this task.

Theology's first responsibility is always to God in his trinitarian self-disclosure as Father, Son and Spirit. There is no other Word to which Christians are finally answerable. Theology's task is to be attentive to that Word of God and to bear witness to it in all that it does. Theology Through the Arts therefore is not an attempt to introduce an accountability elsewhere, nor to have its responsibilities defined in some other way. What it does recognise however is that there are many ways to be attentive, all of them inadequate when considered humanly, but each made fruitful under the impact of God's grace. Theology through the arts, therefore, is an attempt to be attentive in new ways to the God in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

The interpretative activity of theology, which takes its bearings from a received Gospel and issues in a new 'word' in and for this time and place involves a process of both discovery and articulation in a complex interplay. TTA undertakes to explore the ways in which the arts can contribute to this process.

With regard to discovery, TTA is especially concerned to recover a sense of the potential of the arts as vehicles of disclosure. This 'heuristic' capacity of the arts has in the modern world frequently been downplayed or forgotten in favour of other functions of the arts (e.g. self-expression, entertainment).

With regard to articulation, TTA is concerned with the ways in which the arts can assist and enable an appropriate presentation of the Christian faith.

Different forms of 'theology through the arts'

The Director of TTA, Professor Jeremy Begbie, observes that various forms of theology through the arts have become clear over the last few years, and new forms will doubtless emerge. For the time being, the following basic forms, which can overlap extensively, may usefully be distinguished. Begbie explains further:

1. At the most straightforward level, there can be a focus on art that overtly engages theological matters - art with clear or relatively clear Christian content. Such art, of course, has been produced for as long as the Church has existed, the most obvious examples being in the context of worship and various forms of Christian communication.

2. Theological wisdom can be furthered also by attention to the characteristic ways in which an art-form is structured and operates. This approach can yield new and instructive metaphors for describing the theological task itself. For example - polyphony can be used as a way of speaking of the interweaving of different theological disciplines around a cantus firmus, improvisation as a way of elucidating the appropriation of tradition, etc.

3. The arts can serve the heightening of our sensibilities to the theological dimensions of cultural movements. One of the most sensitive and intriguing writings to appear along these lines recently is by Daniel Chua, in Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning. Though by no means a work with an overtly declared theological programme, the book can be read as an account of some of the strongest theological currents of modernity viewed from the perspective of the development of instrumental music and its apotheosis in the notion of 'absolute' music. Not only are the practices of music - including its theoretical disciplines - seen to be central in the construction of modernity, they are shown to have a powerful capacity to expose some of the most vigorous and far-reaching theological (and anti-theological) resonances of modernist thought and action.

4. The arts can be a means by which theological wisdom is promoted through the heightening of our sensibilities to a theological account of aspects of the human condition

5. Theological wisdom may be advanced also by a thorough engagement with the second-order disciplines of the arts

6. Art can serve the theological task by providing a 'negative print' of theological truth.

Art of this sort explores the 'underside' or 'reverse' side of a theological theme or locus. This is rather different from simply exposing a human 'need' for which the Christian message is the 'answer', and from attempts to generate a sense of 'negative transcendence' by exposing human emptiness without God. It is the exploration of the truths or doctrines themselves, but in terms of what they are not rather than what they are.

7. Not least, the arts can be a means of contributing to theological wisdom through the shaping and forming of the theologian.




University of Otago Theology and the Spatial Arts