Towards A Theology Of Creation In Thomas Merton’s Writings

While the subject of the theology of Creation is far too large a one to tackle in the course of a modest piece of writing like this, it is worthwhile at least to write some about it and about where the theology of creation relates to the larger questions of creativity as a whole.  Specifically, I would today like to comment on some of the writings of Thomas Merton, that late but still influential Benedictine monk.  In particular, I would like to examine two of his essays, “Theology Of Creativity” and “Answers On Art And Freedom,” both of which collected in The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, the hardcover book published by New Directions, on pages 355-370 and 375-380 respectively.  I found, much to my surprise, that Merton had come to some similar insights about the writings of and praise of creativity that I had, and that it was worthwhile to discuss the religious and moral context of creativity as it exists in our contemporary culture, as he has something worth saying about it.

In writing about creativity, Merton notes that it is all-encompassing, including the glib and superficial rush towards the conventional and the vulgar, and also involves a great deal of discussion about that which is destructive (like innovation in military technology) or immoral and manipulative (like various techniques in salesmanship).  The also notes the problematic concern of meaning and the way that creativity has been separated from even humanistic (to say nothing of biblical and moral) standards of behavior and the way that a great deal of what is called creativity is merely a destructive hostility to that which already exists, and a focus on that which is broken rather than that which is whole.  These tendencies have only continued to be more notable in the time after Merton’s death in 1968.  Indeed, Merton is also right to note that creativity has often become a mere cliche, a label to put on that which is the result of frustration that does not grasp that genuine creation does not involve the frustrated and neurotic response to the inability to express oneself freely and positively, although a great deal of that which is viewed as creative is instead frustrated and neurotic.

Indeed, Merton’s insight goes even deeper than this, pointing to the reality that a great deal of that which is labeled as creative is in fact deeply demonic, where a hostility to contemporary society leads someone to deliberately cultivate what is viewed as genius and that a hatred of conventional reality and its restrictions is the proper way to explore artistic freedom, and sort of demonic behavior tends to make someone viewed as prophet by other people who are cultural elites who share the knee-jerk hostility to conventional morality and conventional attitudes, some of which is actually in defense of godly virtue.  Moreover, this fallen view of creativity, which denies the way that genuine creation is in imitation of our Creator who formed us, seeks a debased form of immorality in which art history or the history of technology serves to immortalize those whose creations influenced the course of history and later creators.  Rather than having our creativity serve to reach out to our Creator and Lord, it all too often is a sign of the despair of alienation that marks our rebellion against God and our separation from others whose conventions and attitudes and morality we despise.

Indeed, in his answers on art and freedom, Merton notes that the insistence on the contemporary artist on freedom from conventional artistic and moral standards of any kind and his (or her) insistence on being taken seriously as an artist is itself a self-contradiction, since the desire to be taken seriously hinders the spontaneous creativity that is being celebrated and demanded of the artist.  When we seek to create that which is novel because novelty is the only recognized standard of creativity, we create something that is inauthentic because it betrays motives other than revealing to the outside world that which is inside of us, to the extent that anyone else cares about that which is inside of us.  It is just as inauthentic to deliberately make one’s creation hostile to commercialism or the standards of a cultural elite as it is to deliberately prostitute oneself or one’s art for commercial gain or elite patronage.  By creating from that which is inside of us, our friends and enemies will be revealed easily enough as it is.  In a world where we chafe against our responsibilities to God and man, the absolute freedom claimed by the artist is elusive and often self-contradictory.

It is perhaps uncharitable to note that these self-contradictions apply to Merton’s own writing and approach to art as well.  Like many people, Merton was able to recognize the insight that artists opposed to his Catholic humanism were engaged in the self-contradictory task of praising a God-given gift of creativity that had been perverted to immoral and ungodly ends while simultaneously denying and rejecting the God that gave that gift.  Yet this recognition of the lack of freedom and authenticity of a knee-jerk hostility to conventional morality also applied to Merton’s own knee-jerk hostility to contemporary American culture and that which he judged as being conservative.  One sees the same self-contradictory attitude in that of many people whose hostility to what they view as a corrupt society leads them to reject everything about it, to leave one ditch and to fall into the other.  In a world as full of competing and distinct mixtures of good and evil as our own, the only proper response that can be had by those who wish to affirm a biblical standard of behavior or a consistently moral standard of behavior of any kind is to hold these options in a shared ambivalence, where we wholeheartedly reject that which is evil about them while not forgetting or neglecting that which is good about them.  In doing so, we may find ourselves alienated from the world around us, but our response is authentically mixed feelings to that which is of mixed value, containing some of what is to be celebrated, some of what is to be refined, and some of what is to be rejected.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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3 Responses to Towards A Theology Of Creation In Thomas Merton’s Writings

  1. Pingback: An Introduction To The On Creativity Project | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Catharine Martin says:

    The culture present at the end of Merton’s life was indeed a contradiction itself. The established system was indeed conservative with a huge counter-culture of extreme liberalism sweeping the country. 1968 was a particularly violent year, with the deaths of MLK, Jr. and RFK, and the riots during the Republican National Convention. Each side was vehemently rejecting everything about the other. We see this same culture clash today and, as you stated, there is no room for middle ground.

    Perfect politics is no politics because the middle ground is compromise. Christians don’t follow the donkey or the elephant; we follow the Lamb. He, our Creator, culls the good from the evil for, as you again stated, human nature is a mixture of both. We can’t, on our own, see the Light.

    • That is precisely right. To be sure, the laws and ways of God have political implications, but at the same time human beings and human systems are going to inevitably be a mixture of good and evil and thus will fall short of that divine standard.

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