School of Religion

School of Religion

School of Religion

site header

Meet Dr. Brett Potter


By James Miller Director, Queen’s School of Religion

Where: Hot House Restaurant, Toronto
Menu: Vegetarian Cappelletti, Side Launch wheat ale
Background: Dr. Potter grew up in Toronto, studied film-making at York University, and then did a PhD on the modern Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar, at St. Michael’s College, Toronto.
Serendipitous Moment: Dr. Potter recently presented at a conference on the work of Ben Quash, a Christian theologian who was a friend of mine when we studied together at Cambridge University.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Brett Potter over lunch at the Hot House Restaurant, just across the street from my apartment in Toronto. We discussed the courses that he would be teaching next year at Queen’s, on Modern Christian Theology, and an introductory course to Christianity. One of the topics that came up for discussion is the distinction between “theology” and “religious studies” as ways of studying religion. Typically, the study of Christianity has taken place in theological colleges who have a mission of educating people within a faith tradition. On the other hand, the study of non-Western religions has typically taken place in departments of religious studies that have generally operated from a non-confessional perspective. It seemed to both of us that this distinction between “theology” and “religious studies” was not very helpful. On the one hand, many religious traditions beyond Christianity have significant theological traditions worth studying. On the other hand, as I have noted especially in China, there is great interest in the academic study of Christian theology by secular philosophers and historians. So from this point of view I’m very glad that Queen’s continues to offer courses in Christianity and Christian Theology that can be made available to undergraduates who are simply interested in studying religions, and religious ideas, for their own sake. Christian theology has had a deep impact on the history of ideas in the West and now does so across the globe.

After dessert our conversation turned to discussion of Dr. Potter’s specialization in the study of theology, art and aesthetics. It’s a mistake, he explained, to think of Christian theology as solely concerned with religious ideas about God or with theological ethics. In fact a significant area of modern Christian theology has been concerned with how ideas about God are materialized in art, sound, word, and image. Islamic art, for instance, forbids depictions of divine and human forms. For this reason it has focussed on patterns from nature and mathematics.

Geometric Design in Islamic Art / Metropolitan Museum of Art

On the other hand, the history of Western art is deeply bound up with the beautiful depiction of religious figures such as saints, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ. In fact one of the most important issues in Christian aesthetics has been the aesthetic complexity of depicting Jesus tortured and dying on the cross, or saints being martyred for their faith. In what sense should that kind of art be beautiful?

Saint Sebastian / Master of the Greenville Tondo, Italian, 1500–1510 / Princeton University Art Museum

To learn more about theological aesthetics, watch my friend Ben Quash’s lecture.

And if that’s too serious for you, watch Stephen Colbert explain the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity!

And finally, you can learn more about all our courses here.