Creation and Creativity

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This is an excerpt from Creation and New Creation by Theology of Work Project Biblical Studies Editor Sean McDonough. Notes have been omitted. This excerpt originally appeared in the Oikonomia Network March 2018 online newsletter. Thanks to Dr. McDonough and the Oikonomia Network for permission to post it here.

Whatever the precise meaning of the “image” language might be, it is clear that humanity plays a critical role in the furthering of God’s creation project: while the language of “co-creation” might be too strong, J. R. R. Tolkien’s “sub-creation” captures the same truth in humbler terms. Portrayals of primal paradise often overlook the dynamism inherent in God’s command, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” While Genesis 1 does present a serene unfolding of God’s creation by his word, the completion of the creative vision involves a struggle against residual wildness.

The strong phrase “subdue the earth” is echoed in the language of the conquest narratives (note the use of the same Hebrew verb in e.g. Num. 32:22; Josh. 18:1) and suggests that even before the invocation of the curse the world would offer some kind of resistance to humanity’s putative efforts at order. The language has met with criticism in modern times, since it suggests an inescapably violent and oppressive relationship between humanity and nature. It is true that the word has militaristic connotations in the Hebrew bible. It is possible, and even likely, that the connection is deliberate: Adam’s story foreshadows that of Israel in important ways (the exile motif being the most prominent), and it may be that Adam’s need to push back against a recalcitrant world is meant to parallel Israel’s need to struggle against their hostile neighbors. In neither case will order come cheaply.

That humanity’s relation to the earth involves a degree of battling would hardly surprise Ancient Near Eastern readers of the text. It is one thing to admire the beauty of a lion from afar and call for its preservation; it is another if said lion is carrying off your livestock or your children. That being said, the broader picture of the earlier chapters of Genesis hardly endorses an all-out war of humanity against the rest of creation. Adam’s naming of the animals implies a friendly dominion in the hands of one who is equally created from the dust of the earth. (Vegetarians have long pointed out that both humans and animals are in the beginning given only plant life for food, and thus argue that flesh-eating is a result of the fall.) All things, including humanity, are under God and exist to serve his purposes. Thus while the word “subdue” itself can only with difficulty be rendered as something like “steward,” the broader theological currents of Genesis do endorse the idea of friendly dominion or stewardship.

The practice of the Sabbath wove the ongoing movement of the creation project into the fabric of Israel’s workweek. The connection is evident in Exodus 20:8–11…While part of the rationale for the Sabbath is to remember that all things come from God, the mirroring of the creation week suggests that humanity contributes to the effoliation of the creation through its weekly labor. In Deuteronomy 5:15, meanwhile, the Sabbath is grounded in God’s acts of deliverance…The connection between creation and redemption is familiar by now; we need only add that the Israelite who liberates his household (including his animals) from work on the Sabbath furthers the liberating, recreative plan of God himself.

Ordinary human labor is an integral part of the “continuous creation” of the world. Psalm 104 is routinely regarded as the Scripture’s supreme paean to the beauties of nature, but note how work fits seamlessly into the psalmist’s portrait:

The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises, they get them away
and lie down in their dens.
Man goes forth to his work
and to his labor until the evening (Ps. 104:21–23).

Theodoret of Cyrus is one of many theologians who sees in human creative labor an expression of what it means to be in the image of God: “In imitation of the Creator, man also creates houses, walls, cities, harbors, ships, dockyards, chariots, and countless other things, including likenesses of heaven, representations of the sun, moon, and stars, and images of people and brute beasts. Nonetheless, the difference in creating is infinite.” Eriugena takes an even more expansive view of human creation, arguing that reason is itself a kind of art.

The curse on Adam, of course, strikes directly at his labor, such that what might have been a delightful cultivation of the earth often becomes drudgery. We need not restrict ourselves to the canon to make the point: Virgil’s words in the Georgics, labor omnia vicit (“toil conquers all”), have been taken as a clarion call to the glories of hard work, but in context they are part of a nuanced account of work that functions almost as a poetic commentary on Genesis 1-3…

Especially relevant for our purposes are the so-called “creative arts,” wherein humans self-consciously mirror the divine work of creation. In his landmark essay, “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien was particularly concerned to vindicate his endeavors in creating fantasy literature. He does so with great theological finesse. Creativity in general stems from our creation in the image of God: “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” But an artist like Tolkien is attempting not only to enrich the created world, but to produce a fully realized secondary world:

What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.

Tolkien is well aware of the perils attendant upon making a secondary world in this fashion, though he deems them no greater than the perils of fabricating false gods in the realms of politics and economics. Sub-creation is worth the risk, because it helps people return to the primary world with a fresh perspective. More than that, good fairy stories can lead the reader towards God’s own story of creation and recreation…

Bulgakov writes in very similar terms. He puts “the gift of aesthetic appreciation” as one of three “gifts” granted to humankind created in God’s image. But humanity is not simply to appreciate what God has made: “Because he has been created in the image of God he is called to create”…

In keeping with the dynamic conception of the logoi in Maximus, however, the artist is not simply re-imagining the original idea along slightly more abstracted lines. Genuine art is a kind of prophetic act, a declaration of the essence of a thing which will be fully realized in the eschaton: “Things are transfigured and made luminous by beauty; they become the revelation of their own abstract meaning. And this revelation through beauty of the things of the earth is the work of art. The world, as it has been given to us, has remained as it were covered by an outward shell through which art penetrates, as if foreseeing the coming transfiguration of the world.” The image of transfiguration is carefully chosen: just as the Mount of Transfiguration revealed both the essence of Jesus and his coming glory, so art reaches out to the roots of things in God’s wisdom, and in so doing gives us a glimpse of their eternal destiny in the presence of God.

Finally, humanity is to mirror God in the world through ethical excellence. Israel was called to live in obedience to God’s commandments as a witness to the glory of God for the surrounding nations:

Keep them and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day? (Deut. 4:6–8)

Jesus makes the same point in his comment in the Sermon on the Mount about believers being a “city on a hill.” What is most striking is that Jesus’ commands hearken back to the original design of creation. To take the most obvious example, Jesus asserts that Moses permitted divorce as a concession to the hard-heartedness of the people. The messianic community is to be marked out by its adherence to God’s primal purposes (Matt. 19:3–9)…

The advent of the eschaton in the ministry of Jesus opens up the possibility for God’s people to fulfil his creative design for humanity.