David William Brown

David William Brown

Prof

  • KY16 9JU

    United Kingdom

Personal profile

Research overview

An earlier interest in interactions between theology and philosophy has now broadened out into one between theology and the wider culture, especially the arts. In my earlier career at Oxford (1976-90), I focused on the relationship with philosophy and this is reflected in my two major books from that period: The Divine Trinity (1985) and Continental Philosophy and Modern Theology (1987). However, thereafter with my appointment first to Durham in 1990 and subsequently to St Andrews in 2007 my interests widened to consideration of theology's relationship with the arts and culture more generally.

That interest is reflected in five books all published by Oxford University Press between 1999 and 2008. In the first two Tradition and Imagination (1999) and Discipleship and Imagination (2000) I explored the way in which the Christian understanding of biblical revelation has been affected by changes in the wider culture and in turn affected that wider culture. The history of art can provide some good examples, for instance in differing treatments across the centuries of the nativity or crucifixion of Christ. The later three then looked at religious experience and the way in which this might be mediated through the arts and culture. God and Enchantment of Place (2004) explored this primarily through landscape painting, geography and architecture, as well as, more briefly, in other neglected areas such as changing attitudes to garden design. God and Grace of Body (2007) examined attitudes to the body as well as music in all its forms (including pop music). Finally, God and Mystery in Words (2008) explored religious experience as mediated through drama and poetry and their expression in worship as liturgy and hymns.

However. a book published initially in French in 2010 La tradition kénotique dans la théologie britannique represented a return to more doctrinal and philosophical issues. An English version becomes available from Baylor University Press in 2011 under the title, Divine Humanity: Kenosis and the Construction of a Christian Theology. More details about its contents are provided in the next section.

Research interests

I have supervised quite a large number of doctorates to a successful conclusion. Some representative examples are provided on my personal website (as well as a more extended discussion of my research interests and publications (suitably enlivened by some pictorial illustrations!).

During the period 2008 to 2010 my research work focused on both the aspects indicated in the previous section. On relations between theology and the arts, a number of papers for conferences and contributions to edited volumes were produced such as: Christian theology and light; on religious symbolism and water; and on agnostic composers and religious insight in nineteenth century music. But the main focus was undoubtedly a conference in 2010 on my five OUP volumes organised by two former research students of mine who now hold academic posts in the United States. The conference attracted over a hundred participants and OUP have agreed to publish an expanded version of the proceedings under the title Theology, Aesthetics and Culture: Responses to David Brown, with a final concluding response from myself.

My continuing interest in the relations between doctrine and philosophy, on the other hand, is illustrated by a book published in late 2010 initially in French by Desclee as La tradition dans la théologie britannique. Commissioned by the recently retired Archbishop of Strasbourg, Joseph Doré, who had been a professor at the Institut Catholique, it explores a particular approach to the divinity of Christ known as kenotic christology. It first became popular in mid-nineteenth century Germany, then in Scotland and finally in England. One purpose of the research was purely historical: to identify the reasons why it became so popular at this time, and to articulate carefully its different versions. However, my intentions were not entirely historical. Although severely cirticised in the second half of the twentieth century, my aim has been to show that some versions at least are much more plausible than is currently acknowledged. Chapters 1 and 5-6 offer a defence of this particular type of approach, while chapters 3-5 explore the history of its modern advocacy from its German beginnings through Scottish and English advocates.

Future research

Although I continue to work on an number of commissioned essays for edited volumes and also in myself editing a major volume on Durham Cathedral, my main focus is now on developing my OUP project in a more systematic and philososophical direction. To that end I have signed a contract with Ashgate to produce a book on Imaginative Truth and Experience of God. This work will explore in a more analytic way the overlap between aesthetic and religious ideas, in particular attempting to establish more clearly how beauty and other aesthetic ideas might mediate experience of God. Those concerns reflect the last three of the OUP volumes. Once complete, a further volume on issues raised by the first two would then follow, in particular defending the notion of revelation that I developed there of this being mediated through tradition. The notion will be clarified partly through offering criteria for what might constitute a legitimate development or otherwise and partly through exposing what I see as the inadequacies in alternative accounts.

A distinguished array of fifteen speakers, mostly British but some from the United States, has already been invited by the two principal organisers, American academics Robert MacSwain and Taylor Worley. All have accepted, and the conference is due to run from the morning of Monday September the 6th to the evening of Wednesday the 9th. I am conscious that the main weakness of what I have written so far is insufficient attention to criteria, and so I would hope to use the run-up to the conference and a year thereafter in writing a further volume that could bring those loose ends together into a more coherent whole.

Industrial relevance

The major part of my research activities has been directed towards the relation between religion and the arts, both over the course of history and at the present time. The greater influence has been in the past, but even today that influence is much larger than is commonly noted. 

Such research has been, and can be, useful both to the churches and to wider society. In respect of the former, I have given numerous public lectures that have sometimes attracted very large audiences (600 or more) as well as offered more intimate discussions, including retreats. While living in England (until 2007), I also served on various bodies which were concerned to commission new works of art, most obviously perhaps at the Cathedral in Durham where I was responsible for three new stained glass windows and several major works of emboidery as well as one major painting (by Paula Rego). I also began the process of acquring a commissioned musical work from the composer James MacMillan.     

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