What if religions looked to art to understand spiritual calling? What if we examine the aesthetic dimension of theological education?
Dr. Aaron Rosen, director of The Henry Luce III Center for Art and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary is heading a research team including Dr. Devon Abts, Dr. Philip Francis and Dr. David Eagle in a project titled “The Art of Discernment: Aesthetic Understanding and Spiritual Calling in Theological Formation.” This research examines the ways art is used in theological education, and how seminary students’ sense of calling is instigated, transformed, and sustained by their encounters with art.
Rosen’s team takes a deep dive into the way art is integrated into theological education at several key centers—Wesley Theological Seminary’s Luce Center, Duke’s Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, and St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary’s Institute of Sacred Arts—and surveys many others. While these programs are varied and robust, the effects of including the arts in theological education is not yet well documented.
The Art of Discernment employs an ethnographic approach to collect and compare personal narratives of seminary students. Particular attention is paid to the role the arts play in spiritual calling. Many students tell of powerful encounters with art as central to initiating and sustaining their sense of purpose in ministry.
Often, art used in the context of worship and theological education suffers from being one dimensional, focusing primarily on beauty and excluding more complex or even controversial subjects. For this research, Dr. Rosen and his team are focused on art that leads viewers to deep, if sometimes murky waters. Focusing only on how art reflects the sublimity of creation, or offers spiritual comfort, risks simplifying spiritual experience, situated within a messy, contradictory world—the very world in which future clergy will go on to minister.
Dr. Rosen describes clergy, at their best, as “super-feelers,” experts in empathy. Rich encounters with art can help prepare students for this vocation. Art has a unique ability to instigate and sustain a sense of calling through the shifting demands of ministry in an unsettling time, which requires constant adaptation. Learning to appreciate the subtleties and nuances of art can help develop morally perceptive clergy leaders.
Art can speak to contemporary issues in surprising ways, allowing certain questions to rise to the surface in a given moment. In the midst of a global pandemic and renewed reckoning with racial justice, current events during the course of this research have often served as a reminder of the way that the arts reveal the spiritual dimension of complex issues. How we treat one another and the planet, for instance, are not only political concerns, they are theological problems. Clergy of today and tomorrow can benefit from the kind of embodied, committed looking that art engenders.