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Creatively theological: Student-Led Collaborations in review

With the turning of the academic year, the 2018/19 Student-Led Partnerships have drawn to a close. Here, we look back on the findings of the scheme as they emerged from each of our three partnerships.

The intention of this TheoArtistry scheme was ‘to develop creative methodologies in theological research.’ Our researchers were encouraged to focus on process over product to help them investigate what might be learned from the experience of working in creative collaboration. Each partnership found creative ways to ‘experiment and expand’ their theological approaches as the scheme unfolded.

Experimenting and expanding

Jenna, James and Michael brought multiple art forms to bear on their single, elusive theme: ‘wonder.’ They chose to work semi-independently on separate aspects of the project, and met to share ideas, artworks, and texts to uncover connections as a group. Working with different art forms and theoretical approaches enabled the partnership to synthesise a broad spectrum of ideas on wonder from a number of religious, philosophical, and experiential perspectives. Michael, Jenna, and James could then respond to the connections made within the discussions by each pursuing further insights through independent study and art-making. In this way, their collaboration developed its own reflective model in which each phase informed the next: ‘discuss, respond, pursue.’

The partnership grappled with the insufficiency of any of their approaches – artistic or theoretical – to fully grasp the nature of wonder. Yet they found glimpses of their subject in the very effort of their attempt. Their creative research drew them into a deeper appreciation of the interconnectivity of wonder with desire, hope, and longing. In turn, the artists of the group sought to capture these glimpses of wonder through visual art and photography – describing the process as like finding a ‘spark’ of wonder which might, one day, lead to a flare: more tangible still, but never fully graspable.

A kind of improvisation

Meanwhile, Hannah, Ewan, and Emily took up familiar ideas in new creative ways, transposing ideas from academic texts and existing poetry into art of their own. Given the breadth of their chosen topic – spirituality, creativity, and embodiment – they composed music and poetry to distill their findings into ideas that could be expressed to an audience. The group presented their research through a creative performance which integrated spirituality and the body in physical, as well as conceptual, terms.

The group described their creative research process as a kind of improvisation: using a combination of academic reading, art-making, and discussion, group members were able to improvise their methodology in response both to the subject matter and to each other’s suggestions and insights. Furthermore, their public performance enacted a ‘call and response’ between poetic texts and their own creative works.

Finally, Ewan, Emily, and Hannah broadened their collaboration to include their audience: after their presentation, they invited the audience to share their own perspectives on creativity and spirituality based on their embodied experience of the performance. The three researchers plan to conduct a final review of the audience responses to uncover further insights into the interconnectedness between spirituality, creativity, and the body.

Art as relational exchange

For Marjorie and Mariah, art-making became vehicles for autobiographical storytelling. Through their use of poetry and sketching, they situated their theology of ‘home and belonging’ first within their own history and perspective. From this awareness of their own lived experience, they could then pursue insights into the lived experience of others. Through their partnership, Marjorie and Mariah developed a relational methodology that utilised art to create reciprocal dialogue and self-disclosure. With this methodological foundation, their understanding of home and belonging could be construed in relational terms: centred around, but by no means limited to, the inherently personal dimensions of ‘home.’

The partnership’s engagement with poetry, in particular, revealed how the feeling of home is intimately connected to the physical senses. Their project tied together sensory affect, familial relationships, and a sense of place to ground the theological significance of home – and the loss of home. Mariah and Marjorie have taken forward these insights and approaches as part of their continued professional development, integrating their findings into further artistic and research projects beyond their partnership.

Conclusions, or: The Product of the Process

During the 2018/19 Student-Led Collaborations, each partnership followed the same critical framework designed to allow them to explore creative approaches to theology. Their artistically-engaged research was undertaken within a threefold structure which comprised a planning phase, a research phase, and an individual critical reflection. Nevertheless, each partnership quickly developed distinct approaches leading to unique project outcomes.

As student-led collaborations, the partnerships adopted methods of working to serve the needs and interests of group. Likewise, participants set their own intended outcomes according to their shared priorities. As their work was not subject to formal assessment, they were given freedom to experiment with designing and implementing creative research methodologies without any risk of ‘failure.’ This afforded them the opportunity to pay attention to those tensions, frustrations, and unresolved questions that so often accompany theological research without the fear that pursuing them would result only in ‘dead ends.’

The scheme’s process-orientated approach promoted critical self-reflection throughout the partnerships, enabling individuals to challenge themselves and each other within a supportive collaborative setting. Participants reflected that the scheme’s focus on process over product relieved the pressure they would ordinarily feel in both art-making and academic research. Exploring how research could be done, rather than striving for what it could achieve, opened directions (and means) of enquiry which participants had not anticipated. Their projects had room to evolve; as researchers, they could remain responsive to new ideas from within and beyond their own disciplines.

The focus on process formed the creative heart of the collaborations. Creativity was fostered not only through interactions with art and art-making, but through exploring theological ideas in relation to other people and interdisciplinary perspectives.

The collaborations point towards theological research as an inherently creative enterprise – one that teaches us as much in the process of doing theology as in our research’s final conclusions.

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