At least for me, one of the most sobering and reflective passages of scriptures is Romans 1:18-21, where Paul begins discussing the theme of the fallen nature of all mankind as follows: “ For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” There are many ways to take this passage, but I would like to discuss this particular passage as it relates to the subject of creativity.
One of the fascinating developments one comes to when one reads a great deal of literature about creativity is that questions of morality and legitimacy are never far from the surface. Many people who write about creativity, whether they are art historians working on PBS specials on art from prehistory to today, or whether they are psychologists who want to praise the creativity of undirected and unintelligent fictive processes of biological evolution, have a deep unwillingness to accept that which has been revealed about God through creation. There is a tendency for people to want to wiggle out of any recognition of divine creation whatsoever (which has certainly encouraged those who want to believe in naturalistic processes of progressive evolution), and an equal tendency to want to celebrate human creativity without giving honor to what human creativity imitates. This deep unwillingness to really address key aspects of creation has a variety of consequences. Among those consequences, lamentably, is an inability for many people to really understand the scope and origins of human creativity, because one cannot understand human beings as creators without having some understanding of human beings as a creation.
The process of creation inevitably reveals something about the nature and character of the Creator. It does not always reveal things that we want to be revealed about us, but when we create something we always leave some aspect of our creative and moral DNA behind us that allows those who recognize and critique the creation to gain some understanding about us. As Paul states in his letter to the Roman brethren, what may be known about God is manifest in us because God shows it to us, and the invisible attributes of God are clearly seen when we understand the things that He has made. And the same is true of us. Our invisible attributes are revealed through the things that we make. If, for example, we have a particular bias towards (or against) creating particular types of art and literature, what we choose to create and choose not to create has a lot to do about ourselves. The approach we take to our creations, the structures we use, the moral worldview of our works will speak about our own lives and our own perspective. For example, long before I had begun to confront the unpleasant repercussions of rape and incest in my own early childhood, I found that my writings from at least my early teenage years reflected on these matters in some fashion. Regardless of whether I was ready to wrestle with those issues myself, my creative behaviors forced those issues to the forefront, allowing a reasonably alert person who had read these works to recognize that these subjects were indeed personally a big deal for me, as they are for many other writers with similar personal histories to my own.
In many cases, creation is an act of communication and an act of communion between the creator and those who partake in the creation. If I visit a friend’s house and the friend cooks a meal, and that friend remembers the tastes of those who are eating together, one can tell that this particular person has a great deal of sensitivity and likes others to share in as much as possible of what is being cooked. Creators often tailor their creations to the particular interests of a particular audience, whether that is an editor or publisher, or to a close friend or loved one, or to what one knows about a larger public that one is creating for. Works of art and literature often speak to common longings for love and intimacy or for dignity or honor, or for the freedom of self-expression and the way that we often struggle against the constraints and limitations we feel under. And yet it is those constraints that allow us the structure we need in many cases to create. We are under constraints of time, we have limited resources, and these limits, rather than imprisoning us, often free us to come up with elegant solutions to problems. Even where constraints are very severe, they can often allow us to overcome those creations in the service of the well-being of those we care about, allowing us to communicate our love through good cooking, or our shared love of beauty through beautiful art.
It is all the more striking that creation is such a revelation of our own nature given that many creative people are rather shy and awkward, to a very high degree. In order to be creative in general, we have to have an internal world where we are able to take from the elements we see in the world around them and recombine in them in novel fashion. This requires a certain ability to reflect on others and to privately work on problems within ourselves, whether we are consciously aware of it or not, and this capacity for reflection and internalization will necessarily give us some sort of space and distance from the world around us. We will not simply be taking in but responding to it, sometimes critically, finding niches that are not being filled and filling them, finding problems that need to be addressed and solving them with our God-given resources. That presence of distance between ourselves and the world around us will likely make us somewhat eccentric and odd to others, especially to the extent that they recognize the way we come at solutions in an unconventional or unusual fashion or that we have interests that are uncommon and a desire to focus our attention and expertise on that which is often neglected or overlooked. Simply by working out our own creativity we will likely make it difficult for others to truly understand us even where we may be friendly and likable people underneath it all.
And yet, if our creations are to have any sort of lasting value and achievement, those creations must be appreciated by others. If we are too far ahead of our time, there will not be anyone who will be able to build upon our insights or even understand what we are about. If we are only of our own time, then what we create will not have lasting value because it will only speak to our own age and not have anything to say about those who come afterwards and who will think and reflect in different ways than we and our contemporaries have. But if we are able to speak to our generation, but from a different perspective, albeit one that can be recognized, then it is possible for us (though by no means certain) to create that which will be able to speak to others because they will be able to recognize its difference from what was being said by others in our time. We will be able to reveal ourselves and our distance from the world around us and also be part of the conversations that take place between different generations and different cultures and different perspectives where our common humanity but immense diversity of thought and habit can be revealed. Whether what we reveal is something we and others are willing to accept, and to what extent will it come under divine judgment, is something that can only be known after the fact.