Engaging Art as Religious Ritual

In this secular age, fewer people are engaging in religious ritual but many still seek spiritual experience.

ACU theologians Dr Lexi Eikelboom and Dr David Newheiser believe one answer to this dilemma may lie in the experience of creating or engaging with art.

They are the directors of a new research project Spiritual Understanding in a Secular Age: Engaging Art as Religious Ritual. The project aims to identify the similarities and differences between experiencing a religious ritual and creating or even viewing art. The researchers want to explore whether art gives people spiritual or transcendent experiences which are analogous to those experienced by people who engage in religious ritual. In an increasingly secular age, making or receiving artistic experiences may serve a similar function to attending mass or lighting Sabbath candles.

Unlike most projects about religion and art, which focus on the creation of art with religious themes or ritual purposes, Dr Eikelboom and Dr Newheiser are interested in art that does not have religious content. They hope to show that even painting a landscape or choreographing an abstract dance may produce cognitive effects and spiritual knowledge similar to the understandings produced by religious rituals.

The project has captured the interest of the Templeton Religion Trust, which is funding it through a US $$230,000 grant.

For Dr Eikelboom, who is a painter as well as an artist, the project combines her academic interest in religion with her own experience as an artist. She has experienced a kind of attention in creating art which was similarly meditative to religious practice.

 ‘When you spend hours or weeks or months devoted to a single image, there is something devotional about that, some kind of attentive practice that you don’t get in ordinary life where you are always flitting between things.”

For Dr Newheiser the project draws on his research in religion as experiential, rather than belief-focused. “I’m interested less in creed, in the dogmatic pronouncements of an ecclesiastic bureaucracy, and more what people who think of themselves as Christian or Muslim or Jewish actually do.”

The research involves two key elements – empirical study of performance art and a humanistic study of visual artists’ practices.

In the empirical study, psychologists Dr Miguel Farias and Dr Valerie van Mulukom, from Coventry University, UK, will use surveys and biological feedback to measure the experience of participants in a choreographed performance work. The psychologists will measure feelings of self‐transcendence, spiritual meaning‐making, affect, beta‐endorphins, and social bonding.

Dr Eikelboom and Dr Newheiser will lead the study of artists’ practices, which will involve interviews artists about their experiences of making art, observing them at work, and holding combined workshops for artists and scholars to identify similarities and differences between art-making and religious rituals.

The project will also harness the expertise of Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford Graham Ward and Melbourne-based artist, Sarah Tomasetti.

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