The Adventure of Creativity


roger-bertschausenMany years ago I was working very late one Saturday night on a sermon. This particular sermon was about the mythological Jesus. The main point of the sermon was that I really don’t care whether there is a shred of historical truth in the story of Jesus. What I care about is that it’s a good story, and it contains truths about life—about how to live my life.

Here’s the scene: It’s ten or eleven at night, and I’ve got nothing—just a few fragments with nothing holding them together. There’s no clock, but I feel a clock ticking away anyway, each passing moment inching me closer to reaching for the panic button. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an image pops into my head. It’s an altar painting by Matthias Grunewald that I studied a dozen years earlier and heard Mark Belletini mention in a sermon more than a decade ago. Named the “Isenheim Altarpiece,” the piece dates back to the early 1500s. The crucifixion panel in the piece is one of those gruesome ones I generally don’t care for: fingers distended, limbs twisting, blood oozing from various wounds, and, maybe most hideous of all, festering lesions all over the crucified Jesus’ body. Another panel on the altarpiece paints an entirely different picture of Jesus: it depicts a beautiful, fully healed, radiant and joyous Risen Christ shooting up from the grave. Gone are the lesions. Gone is the pain. I have to say that this panel struck me initially as a little bit hokey.

But the interesting thing is that Grunewald painted the altarpiece for a hospital chapel. Many of the patients at that hospital suffered from a gruesome skin disease that produced the same kind of lesions Grunewald painted onto Jesus. Imagine the power of that painting for those patients: here’s their Lord, suffering just as they were suffering. And here he is healed! The patients experienced this Jesus not as a historical person locked in a distant place 1500 years earlier, but as a living presence right then and right there in the hospital. Jesus was a presence that acknowledged the horror of their disease, but also a sense of hope, a sense that they were all something more than their disease. This, I think as I sit there in my dining room, this is the timeless, mythological Jesus. With that image in my mind, the sermon instantly gels. I look around the dining room: Where did that come from?

A second story: At a recent congregational gathering, I invited participants to use art supplies we had assembled to create an image of the divine (or whatever was of ultimate concern to them). I’ll be honest (though I wasn’t honest initially with the class). I hate this kind of project. I have lots of voices whispering in my head: “You are not creative. You do not have an artistic bone in your body. Everybody is going to laugh at what you create. You can’t do this.” Call these voices the anti-Muses. So I figured as the leader of the class I’d make myself too busy to do the project. But the better angels of my nature whispered, “You better do this project, buddy.” So I took a deep breath and tried to open myself up to the creative process.

I decided to go up to the supply table without any preconceived notions about what I might try to create. I’d try to let the supplies and the possibilities speak to me. This was venturing into new, scary territory for me. I grabbed some playdough and some pipe cleaners and some shiny half marbles and returned to my seat.

rockAs I sat looking at the supplies, I thought about images of the divine that spoke to me. I found myself imagining a craggy tree seemingly growing out of a rock. I love seeing that little miracle in nature. It speaks to me of the divine—the unquenchable spirit of life, beautifully imperfect and tenacious which springs forth sometimes where you least expect it. The divine is grounded in this world, in the rocky earth. So the black playdough became the earth. Gold pipe cleaners became the tree trunk, green pipe cleaners the leaves. The shiny half marbles became the rocks. I created an image of the divine that I absolutely love. I can’t pretend it’s an artistic masterpiece—but it’s meaningful to me. As I sat looking at it, I thought, Where did that come from?

Here’s another story—this time not mine. This is the story of the people on earth who saved the wounded Apollo 13 spacecraft from what seemed like certain doom. As the movie depicted, after the spacecraft’s explosion, a bunch of NASA scientists and technicians sat down with all the contents they knew were onboard the spaceship. What they had to work with were things like duct tape and operating manuals. While the crew struggled to keep going on board the ship, the ground crew figured out what critical needs the astronauts had. And they figured out how the space crew could use what they had onboard to meet these critical needs. They tried one idea and concluded it didn’t work. They tried another, and another, and another. Eventually they figured it out. Together they figured it out.

Where did they get that ingenuity? Where did it come from?

Process theology asserts that we co-create the world with the divine. God is the force pulling us forward. God is the force encouraging us to be good and whole people. God is love. But we make decisions and we take actions. God doesn’t do those things for us. God doesn’t make us do those things. We do these things, perhaps encouraged and influenced by God. Or not. We are playmates with God. Our shared playground is the world.

So, in the process view, everything we do helps create or shape the world. Each of our individual lives is one giant creative exercise. With each step forward, we create something. Sometimes it’s beautiful. Sometimes it’s not. But each moment of life, each step forward, is a creative moment. This is what process theology means when it says we “co-create” the world.

The implication of this understanding is that all of us are creative. If you’re alive, you’re creative. Even if you can’t draw a stick figure or rhyme a line. Even if you are tone deaf and dance like you have two left feet. Telling myself I wasn’t creative was a lie. We are all creative.

Another implication of this belief is that creativity is not limited to the arts. The Apollo 13 ground crew’s efforts to figure out how they could get the ship safely home was every bit as infused with creative opportunity as my work  at the craft supply table. Life presents us with one creative possibility after another.

But where does all that creativity come from? The ancient Greeks had an answer: creativity comes from the Muses. The goddesses who are the Muses come up to you, whisper in your ear, or they whisper from inside you. They are the source of creativity in Greek mythology.

Did the Greeks mean that creativity literally comes from the Muses? I don’t think so. At least that’s not how I interpret their explanation. The whispering Muse just provides a picture of where creativity comes from. It’s an image, a metaphor. It portrays what it feels like when a creative idea pops into our consciousness. I didn’t feel like a Muse burst into my dining room and whispered “Isenheim Altarpiece” in my ear as I panicked about my sermon. But it did feel like the image popped into my consciousness from somewhere outside of me, or very deep within me. Picturing a Muse whispering the idea into my ear is a good image of what happened.

So though the Muses explanation is not literally true, it captures certain truths about the creative process. One significant truth for me is that creativity comes from something beyond just me. There is some alchemy of brain and experience and wisdom that adds up to more than me. There is something, well, divine about creativity—not divine like the controlling God of orthodoxy zapping it into me, but divine in the Process Theology sense of God as the Call Forward.

You never quite know when the Muse will arrive. I don’t think there’s anything I can do to compel the Muse to appear. But I do think there are things I can do to invite the Muse to visit. I can slow down and be quiet and connect with nature. Slowing down and finding peace and quiet seems to pretty consistently invite the Muse to visit. It creates in me a sense of openness and receptivity. Sometimes I wonder if the Muse isn’t there far more often than I realize, but I’m just too busy or pre-occupied to hear her whispers.

Another thing that helps me invite the Muse is letting go of the self-judgments and doubts. Those mantras I reflexively started chanting when faced with the art project do not invite in the Muse. They put up walls against her. What works best for me is to gently notice these mantras.  Heaping more self-recrimination on and declaring, “What a loser I am for having these thoughts that I’m a creative Neanderthal,” doesn’t help. Instead, I need to notice the presence of such thoughts without judgment, and then politely but firmly ask them to leave.

Of course, when it comes to inviting in the Muse, different things work for different people. Slowing down and being quiet might be helpful for you. But the Muse might be more likely to visit when you are active or using your hands. Different things work at different times. Solitude can help invite the Muse in. But sometimes—like with the NASA ground crew struggling to save the Apollo 13 astronauts—it’s being with people that helps invite the Muse.

Our co-creation with the divine is a complicated, unpredictable and utterly unavoidable task. There is no way to know when the Muses will show up, or what they will say. But it is our job to listen, and to offer our creative best to this world we create together.

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