An Essay on Creativity and The Spirit of Humanity

An Essay on Creativity


The Spirit of Humanity


Jay B Gaskill

In the Beginning

Modern creative communities are pretty much alienated from religion, except where religious institutions are patrons, and that is an uneasy partnership at best. The prevalent theologies don’t seem to know what to do with our creative activities, especially when they are “simply” fun. Our freely creative activities are divorced from our organized religious practices – the split is as strong as the separation of church and state.

But our life affirming creative activities and our various religious communities are natural allies — there is so much to gain from a spirit of mutual validation and support between these communities.

Why the religious resistance?

Bureaucratic structures are necessary on a mundane level, but they are the natural antagonists of the creative process.  Church bureaucracies are no exception.

The creative process is messy. Creativity withers and dies under a puritanical rule.

The arts are spiritual salvation points for the souls who’re lost in the desert of scientism. Many modern minds are locked into what I am calling the Soulless Machine Universe Paradigm.  The arts – especially poetry and music – often hold the key.

Our ability to apprehend and value esthetics, ethics and the numinous (the good, the beautiful and the holy) as features of reality (as opposed to mere psychological states) are part same suite of faculties wired into conscious being — another divine gift.

Surely there is a deep, vital and natural connection between all the human creative activities that further the “good”, the “beautiful” and the “true” (particularly as they promote and sustain human life, fruitful cooperation, empathy, and joy) and God’s ongoing loving attention. Because I thought that connection was intuitively obvious, imagine my surprise at just how little theological discussion that the miracle of human creativity has actually generated.

Who could read the poetry of the Jesuit Priest, G M. Hopkins, for example, and not actually hear the voice of the Holy Spirit? Especially I think of Gods Grandeur (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God, it will flame out, like shining from shook foil”) and Pied Beauty (Glory be to God for dappled things – for skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow”). And who could see the innocent creative play of a small child coloring and not see evidence of God’s grace.

But it appears that religion is still reluctant to embrace human creative activities.  I believe that this reluctance to embrace human creativity as a general good echoes a much older view.

This is an idea of a static universe, created once and for all based on – I think –a literal reading of the Creation narrative, instead of the allegorical, deeply informative metaphor that it is.  In effect this mindset became naively fixed on a single, massive exercise of Creation, the notion that in the Beginning there was one series of divine-ordered events, the flash creation of the humans, then fall of humanity.  The end of cosmological history became the beginning of the post-fall human narrative.  In this view, the role of creation was complete at a fixed point in time, except for the project of our redemption from the fall.  The notion of human fallenness has a valuable moral force because it captures our potential for evil as well as our predisposition for the good.  But this mindset had the unintended effect of marginalizing human creative activities in art and technology.  They become avocations only, activities to be admired and valued only as recreational diversions unless they operate within a narrowly bounded religious context.

I believe that Humor is a divine gift.  It represents a playful attitude towards the surprising and the unexpected.   Humor and creativity are natural allies.

Emergent Creativity

Think of birds who naturally organize their airborne flock patterns as if there were some overall coordinating avian traffic control officer.  Think of hurricanes, termite mounds (they can look like castles) and stock market patterns.  Think of those “Ahah!” moments when creative inspiration strikes, and a whole set of unconnected thoughts and impressions suddenly and unexpectedly fit together and something entirely new and wonderful is revealed.  All these are examples of higher order emerging from less organized systems – the phenomenon pf emergence, and we might say ‘creative emergence.”

Emergence describes the spontaneous, appearance of complex, stable order within interactive systems in a way that could not be anticipated by a straightforward examination of the constituent elements.

The discovery of the phenomenon of emergence as feature of natural processes was first observed by Aristotle and greatly developed in 20th and 21st studies of complex systems. Emergence provides a powerful key to understanding creative processes in the world. But it also gives us a striking theological insight into the involvement of the divine in the world’s ongoing development.  This insight works whether we focus on the divine agency as architect of original conditions of a universe in which life and humanity can emerge and flourish. This is, after all, a universe and a world wherein fecund generative designs are honored by the creator of all things.

The insight also works to explain manifestations of the divine creative presence in the here and now.

Creative processes in nature and in human culture operate in a zone at the edge of chaos.  If everything were absolutely predetermined by rigid mechanical laws, there would be not room for creative innovation or human choice.  If there were total chaos, there would be no secure, preserved order, no basis for retaining the fruits of creation.  An Anglican-theologian, the former physicist, Sir John Polkinghorne, writes of the need for theology to supplement creation ex nihilo with creatio continua.   Polkinghorne defines the latter as “…the sequential emergence of new possibilities not previously realized, as when life emerged from inanimate matter, consciousness from life, and hominid consciousness from animal consciousness (from his Theology in the Context of Science, p 110, citing P. Clayton’s, Mind and Emergence).

Polkinghorne often repeats the observation of his theologian colleague, Arthur Peackocke – also a scientist – to the effect that “the history of creation is not to be seen as the performance of a fixed score already written in eternity, but an unfolding improvisation in which creatures and their God both participate.”

I am personally persuaded that music, as a communication medium, can carry the language of God without words.  This thesis is partly corroborated by some fascinating biographical pieces of evidence, linking Freud and bin Laden.[1]

Once we accept that the universe, this world, and humanity itself are part of an unfinished project and that the divine presence suffuses and gently influences all of creation in real time, then the processes of creative emergence take on an entirely new cast.

The phenomenon of emergence in nature – including human nature – is God’s paintbrush.

In the largest sense, life itself is an emergent property of the medium of a life-calibrated universe, and conscious being is an emergent property of evolving life forms and creativity is an emergent property of conscious being.  The theology of ongoing creativity is straightforward: It appears that God has chosen to employ emergence, among other tools, and us, to the extent we are able to do God’s work, which includes our creative acts.

I should note that creative includes procreative and re-creative, among its other benign forms.

A human artist creates a beautiful picture by using a novel combination of color and form; a composer works with a pallet of notes and sonorities.  The creative work emerges from the constituent elements – as the sculpture emerges from the stone.  Surely, benign, life-affirming creative inspiration is a holy activity, because there is a loving God in the moment of creation.

Creativity has been carefully channeled, marginalized and occasionally suppressed by various religious traditions and communities over the centuries because of its individualistic character, its disruptive effects, its association with decadence and because of its tendency to distract one from the “truly important.”

Of course there are dangers associated with creativity – it is essentially the same category of dangers associated with the gift of fire and human volition itself.

There are other issues as well.

When someone who is deeply suffering is sharply brought to our attention, the very enjoyment of life (especially as our lives are enhanced or inspired by the life affirming art-forms) is often seen as a guilty indulgence.  Since someone somewhere is always suffering, the celebration of life through art can always be seen as a guilty indulgence.

When we protect children’s innocence, this frequently means that we protect them from disturbing contact with all the suffering in the world so that they can safely and without undue guilt enjoy their fleeting childhood years.

But this same notion of “guilty pleasures”, when taken too seriously and too widely applied, has several side effects, all of them bad, at least in my world view.  Three immediately come to mind:

The open celebration of life affirming art and beauty, as a value in itself, without formal religious trappings, is excluded from the formal religious sphere in favor of explicitly religious art forms. And those dark, “instructive” pieces of art designed to bring us into closer awareness of suffering are endorsed, adopted and openly admired.   Please understand – I’m emphatically not against religious art forms or instructive naturalism as art, but I do believe that the exclusion to which I referred has done something unintentionally harmful.

The creative art communities tend to be alienated from the religious ones in a sort of mirror image of the way that many puritan sects were alienated from the rampant beauty of old Catholicism, rejected as idolatry but also as simply “decadent”.  From time to time, a religious figure will bless a secular undertaking, especially one that served the poor.

When has a major religious figure blessed a rampantly beautiful display of art the purpose of which is the “mere” human enjoyment of life?

The other creative communities, thinking of technological creativity in general and Silicon Valley in particular, have gone beyond mere alienation.  After all, alienation implies a moral disagreement, which in turn implies a morality.  No, the technological creative communities are arriving at a state of indifference.  This is not trivial, because their moral and esthetic alienation have similar consequences.

Art, particularly as it represents beauty and points to something greater than gross materialism, is a pathway from the arid reaches of a dead universe uninhabited by God.

The misuse of art forms for anti-life purposes, like the malogens that infect the post-modern info-swamp, are the dark consequences of the alienation of the artistic, creative communities, and illustrate that creation needs its moral context as much as we living creatures need air and water.

Scientists have been able to directly observe ongoing creative processes in nature, and detect the broad traces of earlier creative processes over the history of the universe.  Social historians, anthropologists and other scholars of the human condition are now able to track a whole series of creative developments in the human condition over the last 50,000 years, from fire and civilized cooperation through the advent of concert music and common worship.
Creative eruptions occur from time to time in the social order.  During these transitional pivot moments, darkness opportunistically converges.

Major Creative Events in History

The Moses-engendered Creative Outbreak [2000 BCE =/- 800]

The establishment of ethically-founded monotheism (a single deity, the source and author of the moral law) was an emergent creative outbreak within tribal polytheism.  The timeframe is impossible difficult fix with any accuracy, but could have taken place within centuries of the Jewish Exodus from their Egyptian captivity around 1312 BCE.

The Athenian Creative Outbreak – [500 BCE – 300 CE]

This was a creative reformation within urban paganism.  The Golden Age of Athens, taken as a whole, represented a huge creative leap in philosophy, mathematics, history, the study of politics, logic, ethics and the beginnings of natural science.

The Christian Creative Outbreak – [25 -350 CE]

This was a creative transformation within Judaism that brought the Torah – in its highest form – to the Western world and helped form Western Civilization.  The echoes and permutations continue into the modern.  The question of the day is whether this creative force will continue in the new millennium.

The Medieval Information-Diffusion Explosion [1400-1600+]

A cluster of creative developments in Europe, including the use of paper and printing technology multiplied literacy, broke the priestly and royal monopoly of the written word, spreading access to information exponentially with profound and lasting effects, including the stimulation of creative thinking and innovation in the arts and sciences through the modern period.

The European Renaissance [1260 – 1640]

This was an powerful emergent creative outbreak in the arts, philosophy and the sciences, the effects of which are still being felt. The renaissance was the seedbed for the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment [1650-1799]

The democratization of information and the recovery the techniques and prestige of reason sparked a series of social and political readjustments that are still under way, leading to the French and American Revolutions, the dissolution of monarchical power structures and many ongoing developments.

The Cyber-Information Explosion [1950- ]

For the first time, the boundary between merely technological innovations, artistic and scientific advances has become completely fluid.  Creativity is seen as an broadband innovative activity embracing art, technology, science and exploration.  The pending question is whether this process will disconnect from the moral order.

Concluding Observations

It is worth emphasizing that Christianity, itself was a creative eruption within Judaism.  Among its effect over the ensuing centuries:  Dethroning the creation-hostile bureaucracies of Rome and the great-wheel pessimistic metaphysics of the East, opening a pathway for the emergence of optimistic, creative civilizations.

So we return to the theology questions, inspired by the need to reconnect creative communities with the larger moral alignment, the spiritual-religious dimension of experience, and to kindle a specifically theological respect for human creative endeavors in all their benign forms.

The theology of creativity is not complicated at all, because it is so experiential and incarnational. Perhaps this was the great gift of the Celtic influence on the developing Christian sensibility.

Human creative play is inherently holy, as long as it is infused with love. The theology flows from a few very fundamental ideas, simply put.  God created humans in the divine image.  That meant, at a minimum, that we were purposely endowed with the capacity for creative powers. To claim otherwise would imply that God accidentally endowed us with this gift or that somehow we stole the power to create from God.

We were created as imperfect realizations of God’s image, remaining subordinate to God’s moral law, though free to err. In other words we were created as children who were expected to grow in both creativity and moral sensibility.

It follows that our gift of the power to create is to be used in coherence with God’s beneficent purposes. When we use our creative powers in that way, we are engaged in an inherently holy activity. We were not created with instant insights into our own nature.  As we have learned more about ourselves, we have discovered the deep connections between our play and creative activities. That connection was put there by our Creator. When the Holy Spirit animates our play and creativity, these things are holy.


First Published on The Policy Think Site and The i2i Blog

Copyright © 2012 by Jay B Gaskill, Attorney at Law

Forwards, links and quotations with attribution are welcome and encouraged.

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[1] Dr. Armond Nicholi descrives Freud as hating music.  Another source says that Freud described himself as being ‘ganz unmusikalisch’ (totally unmusical) Despite his much-protested resistance, he could enjoy certain operas and he used musical metaphors in the context of theory and therapy. Freud seemed to feel uneasy without a guide from the more rational part. To be emotionally moved by something without knowing what was moving him or why, was an intrinsically anxious experience. The operas he listened were ‘conversational’ and ‘narrative’ forms of music, which is theorized, provided him with some kind of ‘cognitive control’ over the affective impact of the musical sounds.  Note also that (Wiki source) Bin Laden opposed music on “religious” grounds.

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