Faith And Creativity

Only because the very mention of God is so loaded and puts so many people on edge, am I'm going to start this essay with the shortest primer ever on the world's longest subject: God.

God is not a spirit anymore than God is a carrot, a chunk of ice, or an airplane propeller. Nor is God ephemeral energy, a celestial being, a he or a she. Everything we can possibly imagine, no matter how small or how lofty, is merely a pre-created, already envisioned entity. God alone was not created; God is what's known as a first cause.

Think of it this way: God is the only creator and everything else —including seraphs, skim milk, and the Dewy Decimal System, are all creations. But what does this have to do with creativity?

There is something fundamentally different about the way God creates. We humans don’t make anything at all; we amalgamate. We take previously created stuff and change its form. When God creates it’s radically different. God’s technique (if you’ll allow me that expression) is to make something from nothing at all. If you can figure out how that’s done, you’ll really have something special on your hands.

Take David, Michelangelo’s most famous sculptural work. As magnificent as it is, Michelangelo didn’t create it; he merely shaped pre-existing materials into known forms. He took marble, chipped away at it and fashioned it into the likeness of a man. That is to say, he took pre-created stuff and crafted it into the shape and form of something that already existed. Of course Michelangelo possessed an incredible, undeniable genius, but in terms of true creation —creating something from nothing— which is how God creates, even his magnificent David didn’t come close.

The same is true for Mozart, who wrote his “Symphony No. 40 in G Minor” by taking pre-existing notes, reordering them. Then, through the use of different instruments with differing timbres, he and the orchestra which performed the symphony, reshaped pre-existing sound waves. Like Michelangelo, Mozart’s gift was beyond reckoning, but the music itself, the stuff of it; was not actually created by him, rather, it was —refashioned.

I used to play a game with my friends. “Name one thing that doesn’t exist,” I’d say. It seemed easy for most of them. I’d hear things like: “A eucalyptus tree that sings in Portuguese,” “an Elephant that can fly backwards by using its tail as a propeller,” “a head of hair where each strand sings songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific in perfect harmony”. While these were undeniably creative, none of them were things or ideas that hadn’t existed previously —at least in the strict sense. The things we think of as wildly imaginative, may well be that, but they are all, in essence, assemblages of pre-existing spare parts. It is impossible for a human being to imagine a truly unique idea or entity, much less to create it.

The works of inventors and poets or any artists for that matter, however profound, are in fact, amalgamations, rather than actual creations. But why is this important? Why is it necessary to bring God into a discussion about creativity?

Maintaining an understanding that humans are shape-changers, rather than true creators, provides for humility, and that sense of humility is the most propitious starting place for any creative endeavor. Humility is what affords us with the mental space where creative ideas can first arise. Without it, our minds are a mess. Think of humility as a cleansing breeze that clears away the twin disrupters of all creativity: arrogance and fear.

True humility takes two forms. In the first, the person who possesses it says, “No matter how great my work is, I understand that in no way can anything I accomplish compare with actual creation, which is God’s alone.” To think otherwise would be hubris.

And in the other instance, the truly humble person knows that the deep fears they sometimes have about bringing their work into the world, and which may ultimately thwart them from sharing their gifts with the world, are nothing more than hubris, as well.

It’s imperative that we are neither conceited nor fearful when we begin the work of taking our nascent ideas into the world. Both are states of mind that are injurious to creativity and they derive from the same source—a misconception that we as creators can do anything more than reconfigure what God has already set before us.

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