Art, Imagination and Theology

This blog post is part of the 'Theology & Art' project

by Sander Vloebergs

In my previous blog posts (This Sister now cries out to us, When Mother became Mary, A Composition of Compassion) I explored the possibilities of an artistic theology which I would intuitively describe as a dialogue between the artistic process of creating art on the one hand, and theological reflection on the other. In preparation for the upcoming Anthropos conference ‘Relation, Vulnerability, Love: Theological Anthropology in the Twenty First Century’ I decided to elaborate on the idea of an artistic theology and its methods. In this blog I will briefly reflect upon the artistic relation between the vulnerable human (and creation more broadly) and the loving Creator by engaging the work of Maureen O’Connell (who will participate as respondent at the conference) on the one hand and with the work of Barbara Newman who has been studying medieval imaginative theology. Her work on medieval imagination and spirituality has been an important source of inspiration in my own project. Both projects bring theology and art (imagination) in relation, but do so in interestingly different ways.

Murals as ‘living theology from below’

In her book If These Walls Could Talk. Community Muralism and the Beauty of Justice (2012) Maureen O’Connell analyzed the theological, aesthetic and ethical implications of murals in Philadelphia. She focuses on the artistic and communal process (the event, as David Tracy would call it) of making murals in a context of oppression and injustice. Creating murals is a means for empowerment, resistance and hope. The artists create a multilayered ‘sacred’ space that contradicts the politics of oppression and challenges the viewers’ indifference. The murals are a figurative and literal locus of theological reflection, embodied religious practices and serve as a touchstone for moral conversion and action. The beauty of the art combines the aesthetic reaction and the ethical response.

By studying the murals and their aesthetic-ethical-theological influence on/in the context, O’Connell tries to discover a living theology, a “theology from below”. She describes the theology from below as follows:

 Characteristics of any systematic theology “from below” – Christology, ecclesiology, and anthropology – include a distinct emphasis on the organic and dynamic rather than the authoritative and immutable nature of religious belief and theological reflection. Belowness attends to the collective experiential wisdom of persons in concrete context rather than appeals to external authorities or universal truths. (p. 13)

The murals tell the story of people: their hopes for a better future, their longing for justice and their wish for liberation and salvation. The story of the mural interrupts the ongoing process of oppression. Art creates a safe haven, a sacred space where God’s salvific presence becomes tangible.

The artistic construction of the sacred space relies on imagination. According to O’Connell the imagination provides the primary means to encounter and be in relationship with a God who cannot be fully understood and grasped by human reason.

Imagination is central to Christian anthropology. It is the capability through which we accept our inherent dignity that comes with being made in the image of a widely imaginative and creative God; through it we express our freedom or our ability to build purposeful lives and to enter into meaningful and life-giving relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God. (p. 72)

The artist is a guide in the world of imagination. He/she reveals what might be and empowers us to dream of a different future. He/she gives us a vision, offers us the imagination

to liberate us from the paralysis of being overwhelmed by the immensity of our social problems and unleashes a desire to become something more than we are or to participate in something greater than ourselves that can shake up our passivity. (p. 73)

Maureen O’Connell's analysis of the murals is very inspiring. Particularly important is the attention she pays to the role imagination in the process of art-making and theological reflection. Nevertheless, I would like to complement her contribution to the interesting debate about art and theology in two ways. First, whereas O’Connell still focuses on art from an outsider’s perspective, I’m exploring an insider perspective. She is an observer who engages in a dialogue with artistic communities. She retells the stories of their murals. I would like to tell the story from within my own creative work. Second, I’m a white male theologian who cannot claim to be oppressed, who is not confronted with social injustice in his personal context. My context of art-making is completely different from the context of the Philadelphian murals. Still I feel I have to deal with another kind of paralysis. I would call it the existential void that ‘terrorizes’ my own context (although this void could also appear in a context of oppression). I believe that this existential void is related to the feeling of ethical powerlessness. There seems to be an emptiness where there were dreams before. It haunts us and silences us. There is no dream left to fight for. [*]

Medieval imaginative theology as ‘theology from within’


We are in desperate need for imagination, for images and the sacred power of art that makes us dream again. In this part I explore the role of imagination and its importance for contemporary theology. But I do so through a focus on medieval imaginative theology (and in later blogs more specifically on the visionary theology of Hadewijch, a Flemish mystic). As I see it, medieval imaginative theology could be a useful complement to the socially-engaged art theory of O’Connell, precisely because it focuses our attention on the inner life while O’Connell’s art-based ‘theology from below’ explores the ethical-aesthetic dynamics in society and contemporary culture. It would be a major mistake to oppose these two approaches to artistic theology. Inner experience demands an outflow, an expression, a performance in everyday reality. Our social/ethical experiences influence our inner life, they ask for reflection and enrich our spirituality and/or artistic process. They are both sides of the same coin, as medieval spirituality was well aware (actio-contemplatio).

Barbara Newman uses the concept of imaginative theology to describe a medieval method that aims to assist believers in their quest to find and to talk about/with God. This medieval practice helps me to make sense of my own artistic-theological experience and allows me to frame it within the larger mystical movement that took place in late medieval western Christianity.

Barbara Newman in her book God and the Goddesses. Vision, Poetry and Belief in the Middle Ages (2003), describes imaginative theology as follows: “The imaginative theologian, like the poet, works with images and believes, with Christine de Pizan, that ‘the road of the imagination… reveals the face of God to whoever follows it to the end” (p. 297). She argues that imaginative theology is an important medieval mode of theological writing next to the scholastic, monastic, mystic and pastoral mode. It is often overlooked by medievalists who are mainly interested in the scholastic tradition.In this theological method, images are both the source of theological reflection and the means by which theology is communicated. The aim of this method is to enable both writer and reader to visualize, conceptualize, and interact with emissaries of the Divine. Newman shows in her research how theological abstract ideas gain concrete form because they are personified by theologians(/artists) using images, more in particular, by imagining them as goddesses.

This kind of theology is not so much an objective recollection of theological dogma’s knitted together by rational reasoning – rather it is an active imagining, an artistic process of creating images drawing from personal experience and from the mnemonic space of imagination. Practicing this kind of theology takes the shape of writing a play, a choreography, where ideas are performed. These ideas are enlisted in one’s own imagination, taken up within one’s own inner self, rather than studied from an academic distance. Rather, picture this method as an attempt to access an exchange of imaged ideas, written down or visualized or performed; as traveling through an imaginative landscape; as becoming a vessel through which theological images/ideas incarnate.

A Short Initial Personal Reflection

My artistic process makes my theology personal, tactile and a matter of imagination. I experienced that the artist becomes a vessel through which an artistic incarnational movement reshapes creation. I would describe the artistic process as an incarnational movement as the words of the theological reflection become flesh, they engrave divine images in matter. Creating art is an intimate encounter between theological knowledge and my own lived experience. Art makes theological speculation suddenly very personal. To create art, you have to sacrifice your own being, expose your own lived experience which is the source for artistic expression. To express theological knowledge trough the medium of art means revealing your own inner self, your own personal poetic work of imaging/imagining the relation with God. To me, this form of theology - speaking about and to God – draws from a personal and experiential source which is the inner person of the artist. By engaging in this personal adventure to recollect dreams and to re-enchant creation with art and vision, we can find a stepping stone towards an antidote to the existential void that paralyses our context.  


[*] I will elaborate on this feeling and how it relates to my artwork in an upcoming blog.