Theology is a process of the imagination.
This is not to say that theology deals with merely imaginary things (though theology in its broadest sense considers cultural myths and belief systems of all stripes). Rather, theology relies on our ability to imagine — to contemplate what cannot always be clearly perceived, and to envision some kind of meaning in a vast and perplexing universe.
Perhaps this reliance on the imagination is one reason why theology and the arts have been so interwoven throughout history. The tapestry of their connections has been traced by historians, teased apart by theologians, and inherited by artists across the generations. Theological ideas continue to be examined, explored, embraced, and rejected in art of all kinds, from dance and sculpture to film and video games.
Scholars working at the intersection of theology and the arts consider not only the ways in which religious ideas are expressed through art, but are increasingly asking what insights art has for theology. Theology and the arts are conversation partners, and the conversation does not merely flow in one direction. Even so, it is easy for academic theology to keep creative expression at arm’s length (and vice versa). The creative arts seem to be of a different realm from the academy, with every art form possessing its own characteristic conventions, methods, and role(s) in society.
Yet for all their formal distinctions, the boundaries between academic theology and artistic practice tend to be overstated. Theology and the arts intersect not simply because they sometimes share themes in common, or deal with aspects of human experience from their different perspectives. The creative process itself should be of interest to theologians, because it is just this process of engaging with the imagination that lies at the heart of theological thought.
Creative practice, however, is not restrained by academic convention or codified language. It can afford to be reckless, playful, or desperately earnest. The arts are equipped to embrace the complex emotionality of theological themes, and can inspire an emotional or spiritual response that defies articulation in conventional academic terms. Theology which emerges through the arts also points more clearly toward the body, since the role of the body is embedded in the physical processes of creativity. The movement involved in crafting and sculpting, or the centrality of the body in creating music and dance, remind us that our theological processes are likewise embodied.
Theology is not merely the work of academics; it is also to be found in the work of artists. The two can (and should) borrow freely from each other, exchanging ideas and integrating approaches for a fuller, more creative exploration of what it means to be human (or divine). It is the creative processes of both theology and the arts which the TheoArtistry collaborations endeavour to pursue.
Dr Rebekah Dyer is a researcher and creative practitioner who specialises in the role of the imagination in theological thought. She is the project co-ordinator for the TheoArtistry Student-Led Collaborations.