Wednesday, September 7, 2011

How do we create?

In a recent conversation about God’s creation of the universe the statement “We (meaning us humans) don’t create” was made. It surprised me and didn’t feel right but I felt that to argue against it I had very little solid statements. After all "create" is a woolly term.
You click on “Create” to start a new Word document but is creating a file really creation? If so is it the Microsoft program doing the actual creating?  I would consider that the most mundane definition. Yet is that all there is to human creation as well – a programmed response? Or is there something else – the capacity to bring forth genuinely new possibilities?
What about when sand in a dust storm creates a swirling pattern? Is that the height of creation? The more I learn about uncertainty in physics the more I realise this is a different sort of creation to that of a classic linear program but it’s still not intelligent. What does intelligent mean though? Is there such a thing as creativity that is guided by intelligence? Or is intelligence itself guided (even chaotically determined) by a dumb creativity? Is intelligence just the swirl in the sand storm?
Originally this essay was a polemic against a certain understanding of humans as non-creative or as “bad” creators. In this understanding the only good creative acts of humanity occur when we become animated by a divine other. The classic story is that of the Muses. In other versions it is the Christian Holy Spirit. In yet other versions it is a life force that runs through us and the planet.
My greatest concern with this way of thinking is all the horrible burden of divinely inspired dross that we have to deal with because of it. If I write a self-help book that is considered God-inspired (or Angel channelled etc) how much harder is it for people to challenge my advice. If the only way for my advice to be worthwhile enough to publish is to attribute it to a divine other, then I am always bound to create (or rather not create!) this kind of unstoppable force.  It seems more honest and more accountable to acknowledge the author in the room; myself.
Still without a Muse or God (or for that matter a Devil) separate from myself how do I create? Where do the new things that seem to issue from me (or through me) come from? If creation is the province of the divine, then is it perhaps necessary to consider the “divine-within” to explain it?
There is a vein of Christian theology which can be tapped to describe this human divinity. Much has been made of the idea that we are “created in the image of God” particularly in terms of our creative capacity. Alfred Whitehead (Process Theology) and Paul Tillich are two very prominent theologians who might be worth reading in this regard. Alas I gave away my Paul Tillich text recently - only now seeing his relevance. That’s often the way with the books that sit on my shelf for years. 
There are also a range of theologies outside of Christianity which present the divine realm as essentially incomplete without humanity to shake it up. That afternoon television classic “Monkey Magic” illustrates how in Perfect Land Buddhism a stagnant celestial bureaucracy exists under the perfect Buddha spirit. It is as important that Monkeys irrepressible manner kicks over the norms of heaven as it is that their attitudes are reformed by Buddha spirit. Personally I always identified with Monkey in this fashion. In atleast some forms of Buddhism and Hindusim I would be free to, as there is no separation between ourself and demigods and Gods. The divine is not other at all.
The Khabbalah, a Jewish mysticism that has paralleled both temple and rabbinical Judaism, contains a theology built around the incompleteness of God. This is an incompleteness that is resolved in Christianity by the relational Trinity. In the Kaballah however it is humanity’s relationship with God that completes us both. (Sort of. I’m no expert on this and would appreciate correction.) In Khabbalism for God’s creative work to be enacted there is an absolute need for us to embrace our creative role. In this schema we are purpose built to create and God relies on us completing this purpose.
“New Age” philosophies tend to be deeply concerned with enabling human creativity. This is possibly because of their suitedness to the post-industrial economies that sponsor them and the importance of creativity in those economies. It is also possibly because the New Age is defined by a demand for utility by the individual “seeker”. To the extent that New Age philosophies borrow Hindu and Khabbalistic ideas they tend to emphasise a human divinity. To the extent that they borrow from Gnosticism instead they tend to accentuate the divine-other as a source for human creativity. Certainly this question is huge in the New Age literature but it is hardly answered consistently.
My own formulation of how I create is complicated. I do believe that original “stuff” can emerge from me. I don’t think I am ever a doorway to a divine force though. I guess I never think of my creations as being divine. Somehow I consider them both ordinary and yet new and spontaneous. In fact it seems to me to be the ordinary way of things to be creative. That's life.
I don’t know how I can evaluate whether what I create is dross or gold however. I think that’s impossible in an abstract fashion. Living is the real on-going test of my ideas. I guess that means my creations are never really “good” or “bad” merely useful or not. This further reduces any expectation of a divine source.
I also think that the classic image of the creative human is a very atypical one. They are idealised as alone on a mountain receiving that flash of inspiration or conjuring truth ex nihilo. I think it’s more ordinary to create with ones’ peers and from ones’ culture. Further I celebrate such a process. I have always preferred rhetoric over other art forms precisely because its quality is produced through its audience and never without them. There is something therefore about the usual image of individual creativity whether by God through us or by us, which excludes me.
When I consider the greatest creations of humanity such as writing itself these obviously don’t belong to any one individual. In an on-going fashion we continue to create writing and what it means. That’s what blogs are. When this sort of creation is the subject in question it again reduces the expectation of a divine source. There is something of the swirling sand in the dust storm about it after all.
In the same way I also don’t understand the opposite image of God the sole creator. As with any rhetorician, the quality of creation is produced through its audience and never without them. Actually if your medium is Life then audience participation goes off the chart.  If you’re creating life of course you’re co-creating with life because of just what life means. It’s more than a little like roleplaying dungeons and dragons. Sure,the dungeon master has all the maps and has devised a series of events but its the decisions of the characters which makes the story. So if you ask the question from the other side – If God creates how do we join in? – I come closer to a Khabbalistic answer to the question.
My kid just asked me “What are you writing, Dad?”
I replied “A difficult question. How do we create things?”
She thought about it and then stated as if obvious, “With our hands.”
“Yes”, I continued, “But where do our ideas come from before our hands?”
“Our heads,” said my daughter.
“Yes, but where do our ideas come from before our heads?”
My daughter was momentarily stumped. She actually said “A challenge,” before adding “Our eyes.”
She wasn’t entirely sure though. What would you have told her?


  1. Hey Tony.
    The distinction between God as creator and us as creative is important.
    We do create. But we create with resources that God has created for us. Our creation is also limited by the limits that God has created (laws of physics, our mortality etc.). It is like the dust storm in some ways. I think God looks at the swirling sand with great delight as a randomly beautiful creation appears before him. He did not craft the swirling edge of the storm there and then, but he created the dust and the wind and the natural forces of gravity and air pressure that allow such a creation to come into being. You could very truly say that the wind is a "co-creator" with God, but you would be foolish to lose perspective and say they are therefore equal.
    God created us. We did not create him.
    God created what we create with and so he created our potential and our limitations. At any time God has the ability and the right to remove all that potential whenever he wishes.
    In Acts 17, Paul gives a speech to the wise and creative Atheneans saying, "Acts 17:24-28 (NIV)
    "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being."

    I sometimes get the impression that you think if God exists then he does only as a fellow being in the universe. Maybe he's stronger or bigger than us, but he's simply another being. Someone you may meet when you die and have a friendly chat over a coffee discussing your different plans for the universe as co-creators.

    This is a very preferable view of God to the God Jesus came to reconcile us with, because your view of God you really have no obligation to. He is a God who can sin against you just as much as you can sin against him. He may be bigger, but you are on the grand scheme of things, equals. This God is a wonderful creation that can be interacted with or ignored as easily as an action figure. In the end, you create God in your image.

    This is a danger that I fall into all the time actually. I would much prefer the smorgasbord God that has the qualities that I particularily can easily swallow. But God keeps reminding me that he wants me to see and relate to him as he truly is.

  2. It's difficult to say where creativity comes from. I'd like to say God, but to attribute some of the dirty, smutty ideas I've had to Him may constitute blasphemy; and yet I'm loathe to attribute some of the nobler, more honourable ideas I've had to the Devil (though having said that, the Devil is a cunning bastard and a master of disguise). A lot of my creative endeavours have been inspired by women I was infatuated with at the time, yet with one exception they had no actual active input.

    I guess a classic case study which may or may not support your argument is the composition of the Beatles classic "Yesterday". It is attributed to Lennon-McCartney, though John Lennon freely admitted he had no part whatsoever in the creation of it, attributing it entirely to Paul McCartney. Paul himself says the tune literally came to him in a dream; all he did was add words to it.

  3. Thanks Kev for your acknowledgment of the difficulty of the question. You sound as mystified as me. I'm still pondering it and still perplexed. I note you wrote something on this in your blog. People should check it out.(click on his user name)

    Simon, I don't really get where your coming from. The only comment I made which might be construed as suggesting a small picture of God is that we are needed for God to complete their creation. I think I'm clear that this is a consequence of the art-form (life) and NOT the size of the artist
    Also you intrigue me with the notion that God isn't another being. I would be very interested in hearing what the alternative to that is. Paul Tillich (Christian theologian) talks about just such a "God above" as distinct from a god-being but he got derided as a pantheist in his time (unfairly). I would have thought you'd have no truck with him tho.
    Tillich also believed in the importance of the incarnation for making this God above as accessable and intimate as Jesus. I'm surprised you don't think I could have a cuppa with him. It seems very much his style actually.(breaking bread, water into wine, lunch with tax collecters). Isn't Jesus what God is supposed to look like? Who is this scary other God we must look past Jesus to see?
    Also I have no idea what equal with god might mean. Obviously two qualitatively different things are not equal. To stress that their not however implies that one is greater than the other. Ie. God is ten "me"s
    And yet you apply that thinking to me, saying I think God is a bigger me? To be clear is god incomparable to humanity or not?
    (The hypothetical picture of god I play with most often is one to which we are incomparable. This obviously means neither bigger or smaller.)
    I almost get the sense your just saying the whole question is a little cheeky just for using creation to describe what we do. I hope that isn't the case.

  4. You're welcome Tony, and thank you for the plug (and of course this entry).

  5. Interesting post. I dont have much knowledge in khabbalism per se, but as a kid who grew up in a traditional Jewish environment, i can confidently say that any notion of the incompleteness of God is tantamount to heresy. However, in the aspect which you are discussing, the creative aspects of god is actually the base focus of the entire khabbalah. The actual point of creation is called the "ein sof" (never-ending), and the traditional veiwpoint is that nothing can ever be said about this all-mighty power. We exist as part of the creative emantations from the holy source, and therefore naturally are responsible for our own development within the conscioussness sphere where we are placed. It stands to reason that the only thing impossible for god to create is an individual thinker, for no one can create one but one. We are not completing a "hole" in god, rather we are part of the process of its development. Picture a puzzle with constantly compressing focus, each delving within to create its own reality in the shared mind, with the veiwpoint outwards growing as per the detailment of its lens. Each individual perception creates its own personality, its own self, with the summation of all the little points concentrated into the all-encompassing eye, the infinite possiblities of the holy one acted out in a journey of life bringing the abstract to a hard reality to be processed by the beings alive. check out my blog post "God is One, A Concept To Unravel".