As a theologian, artist and ethicist, I work in the space where ethics and aesthetics converge in public life. I examine ethical systems based on aesthetic constructions: imagery, visions, narratives, models and metaphors; I also examine aesthetic constructions that reveal or rely on religious and theological bases. My work as a scholar is to synthesize work in the separate, but interconnected fields of theology, ethics, and aesthetics and construct theologies of culture from them.
My current project is to determine the way that ethical and aesthetic constructions inform and shape each other. How does this interrelation demonstrate itself in the built environment? How do religious, spiritual, or otherwise defined "sacred spaces" function as both aesthetic interventions and ethical statements about the identity of those who construct and dwell in them and their relation to the larger publics of society?
I base my work on a praxis model of theology that has been informed by African-American and feminist activism. The praxis model of contextual theology does not focus solely on reinterpreting a universal gospel message into local modes of language and practice or listening to the existing culture to see where the gospel already exists. Instead, the praxis model focuses on discerning the meaning of social change and contributing to its course of action.
Theologian Stephen Bevans describes the central insight of the praxis model:
…Theology is done not simply by providing relevant expressions of Christian faith but also by commitment to Christian action. But even more than this, theology is understood as the product of these two aspects of Christian life [expression and action]. The praxis model employs a method that 'in its most profound sense is understood as the unity of knowledge as activity and knowledge as content.' It is reflected-upon action and acted-upon reflection—both rolled into one. *This type of engagement is a way of knowing and living truth; it is a model of thinking. It is based on the idea that engagement is a source of knowledge better than belief in someone else's authority or even personally appropriated knowledge. The idea is that we know best when reason is coupled with and challenged by our action, making us subjects, not just objects, in the historical process of our time and place.
My theological stance on engagement has led me to examine the role of religious and aesthetic expression in civic engagement. There are many ways in which people participate in civic, community, and political life and, in so doing, express their engaged citizenship. From proactively becoming better informed to participating in public forums on issues, from volunteering to voting, from community organizing to political advocacy, the defining characteristic of active civic engagement is the commitment to participate and contribute to the improvement of one's neighborhood, community, and nation. These forms of engagement often rely on visions of the past, present, and future – that is, ethical and aesthetic constructions. My particular interest is analyzing from a theological perspective is the way institutions –people groups, faith communities, norms, and schools of thought-- shape the built environments in which they dwell. Influenced by Baptist tradition, I often emphasize the role of the local church; I therefore explore the ways "the local church is not just in a place or of a place; [but] it finds its identity in being for the particular place it finds itself in."** I do not limit my work to Baptist scholarship, however. I draw from diverse traditions and fields of study to assess and critique architectural and urban spaces as reflections of the theological and spiritual experiences therein contained.
* Stephan B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, ed. Robert J. Schreiter, Revised and Expanded Edition ed., Faith and Cultures Series (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2002).