“It isn’t what (the artist) says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes, with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity.”– William Carlos Williams
A colleague commented privately on my previous essay:
“The purpose of Education is not to create artists,” he wrote. “The purpose of Education is to serve God.”
The critique to my mind is a distinction without a difference. The creative act itself is service to God. But to rewind for a moment. Thankfully on this site we are liberated to speak of such topics. But how we speak of them makes all the difference.
Which somewhat leads to my response to my colleague. I have no problem speaking of service to God within circles of like context. Get outside these circles though and the word is hairy. If I’m not confronted by a dismissive atheist, I land in the lap of a True Believer, or a New Age squish. Either way, the word holds much different meaning for each of us.
Artists on the other hand we can all agree exist in some form or another. The term is less loaded, and has not been weighted with the same assumptions. I do not mean, though, to equate God and Artist. What I want to equate is the term Artist (and by extension creativity) with the phrase ‘in service of God.’ As defined by the underlying philosophy of this site, there is neither difference nor distinction.
Let me explain. In his more recent work, Ken Wilber beautifully distinguishes the ways in which the divine manifests. He calls it the 1,2,3 of God. In the most simple explanation, God shows up/exists as three pronouns: I, you/thou and it; or 1st, 2nd and 3rd ‘person’ if you prefer. As a 1st ‘person’ God is the immediate, eternal ‘I’, one without other. Think Buddha under the Bodhi tree, recognizing the ground of existence. As a 2nd ‘person’, God shows up as the transcendent ‘other’, approached only through devotion. The ‘thy will, not my will, be done’ of Christianity. In 3rd ‘person’, God shows up as physical existence, all manifest form. Through science we explore and discover the secret wonders of this world and beyond; the vast unfolding cosmic story and our place within it. Thomas Berry & Brian Swimme have been among the best at framing the modern mythology of this story.
On this site, we recognize these faces as essential and intricate to the principles of evolution and realization: God at once spilling out in reverent wonder moment to moment while always ‘being’ beyond form and sense: both immanent and transcendent. Immanence - or the spilling out as form - is itself the locus of creativity. Many philosophers throughout history have referred to this as eros.
Elizabeth Gilbert in this TED talk speaks about the origin of the chant ‘Ole! Ole!’ in Spanish bull fights. It has, she states, muslim roots (‘Allah! Allah!’) and is reserved as acknowledgement for works of great courage, skill and grace. It says, in essence, ‘I see God operating through you’.
Most of us, in the hard trial and error of life, have had these moments. When living spills so easily from us. Every movement and gesture feels right; the breath circulates smoothly through us, washing us up in play. What tend to result from these moments are creations of power and beauty. This is the artist at work, serving God. It’s within these states that we serve the better angels of our nature.
It’s also within these sustained states that great works are shaped. What may be changing today, and what I will argue, is that the consciousness around the act of creativity is gradually maturing. Or said another way, human beings are increasingly aware that we are, well, aware, and evolving. And increasingly capable of nurturing and receiving these moments of grace. We are gaining more ability to see the inspired acts of authenticity within each other, and within ourselves, that produce creative forms.
Awakening to Our Original Face(s)
“We are blind and live our blind lives out in blindness. Poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of angels” -- Williams again in his introduction to Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’.
In the ebb and flow of my own relationship to life, God, the mystery, there have been moments of nihilistic grief where the basic thrust of confusion has gone something like this:
‘What in hell is the point? We live and we die. Everything accomplished here goes to waste.’
Reading recently Elie Wiesel’s searing Pulitzer-winning book about his time in Auschwitz, I realized more strongly the God-sized hole punched through the psyche of the Jews, and really, an entire generation. A world empty, barren and hopeless, colored by gloom, punctuated by despair.
That the horrors of WWII led to a mass migration towards nihilism has been well-discussed. Less emphasized is how it accelerated our basic view of life as being framed exclusively around the individual. The ‘thou’ of 2rd person devotional deference to a higher, transcendental authority usurped by the wants and needs of the individual (a variation - albeit crude - on God/spirit in the 1st person), augmented by a fascination for and control of the physical world (a variation on God/spirit in the 3rd person).
This helped cultivate the framework for the modern sensibility: humans, alone, looking ‘at’ the universe as though we were somehow outside of it; parsing, uncovering, dissecting and ultimately innovating our way into the technological present where the speed and complexity of communication and invention exceeds our ability to grok its consequences. The machinery of this outlook has been well-documented on this site.
Which ultimately provided the framework for the post-modern sensibility: an entrenched individual narcissism suspicious of science, still hostile to transcendent authority, or any authority for that matter. (To be fair, the post-modern sensibility often appreciates and invokes both 1st and 3rd person variations of spirit but often only in rudimentary form, such as romanticizing native spirituality and preserving the natural world).
Which brings us squarely to a question: what is the post-postmodern sensibility in regards to creativity (which I am equating to ‘in service of God’)? Or said differently, what is a mature relationship to the three faces of God?
Glad you asked.
First, you may ask again, why creativity is itself service to God. To which I’d answer (for emphasis): the creative process in its many faces is the means whereby God is made manifest, through which we become more conscious of the truth of existence. We, as human beings, whatever we are, are expressions/imaginations of God in all three faces. When embodied and realized, aligned to the better angels of our nature, our lives are themselves artistic expressions of the creative impulse to become.
That momentarily dealt with, let’s move on to an answer, face by face.
Face of God: The Immortal ‘I’
Any seasoned meditator will report at least one ‘moment’ in their practice where the ground on which they live their solid life simply melts away. What ‘remains’ is an immeasurable emptiness underlining everything we take to be real. Within that void no other exists. There only is that void, infinite and unbreakable. From this stable awareness, shapes take form, live, move and have their being, but their ‘substance’ is only and obviously this void. A mature relationship to God in the 1st person begins with the stable awareness of an indivisible ground of being. Thoughts, emotions, events and time whirl around haphazardly but never touch or notice the space out of which they rise. A sensitivity and empathy develops in anyone so consumed in this ground, as one recognizes the beauty and fragility of sentient existence.
Face of God: The Transcendent ‘Thou’
Buddhism and other eastern philosophies became the rage of the post-modern sensibility who, yearning for meaning but gravitating away from traditional religions of devotion, sought freedom in individual forms of spirituality. The fatal mistake of the subsequent guru culture, in my personal opinion, has been an artificial certainty and self-importance that has morphed into the narcissism that defines the post-modern age.
While the recognition of the ground of being as described above is indeed absolute and wholly complete, there is a subtle, crucial distinction between knowing that it is and knowing why or what it is. Those who confuse the former for the latter seem, in my experience, to miss the obvious fact that the ground of being is a complete mystery, totally beyond any faculty to measure or understand. There is ‘something’ transcendent. No attempt to name it suffices. The only mature response is to kneel in surrender to this mystery. A knee that does not involuntarily buckle has not properly understood with requisite gravity or awe.
Such spontaneous genuflection is naked humility, a re-cognition that the forces that move life are beyond my ken. Faced with this truth, the most authentic gesture is devotion, surrender, and letting go of all assumptions into the mystery. Down the rabbit hole, if you will. Call this mystery God, or another word if you like.
Mother Teresa was once asked by a journalist what she says to God in prayer. Nothing, she responded, I listen. What does God say, asked the journalist. Nothing, he just listens. Before the journalist could respond, she continued, I don’t know how it’s possible, but it is.
Face of God: The Emergent ‘It’
From nothing came something. That’s the basic story of the big bang. Gases mixed and mingled to form solids that collaborated and begat life that eventually became conscious, able to know ‘itself’. This has taken roughly 14 billion years, and it’s about where we are right now, in this universe anyway. If that doesn’t sound amazing it’s the fault of the writer, not the facts.
There is a creative force of unimaginable power from which the physical universe has shaped and molded a coherent pattern. Human beings are a not insignificant product of this process. If, for no other reason, despite our numerous shortcomings, because we are awake to the process itself. And being awake, there is evidence that we can align to the creative impulse behind the miraculous design of the universe.
The Impulse to Evolve
“Clean is he a alone after whom stream the broken pieces of the city, flying apart at his approaches.” -- Williams one more time in an obscure and otherwise forgettable poem.
The awake, mature post-postmodern soul is a vehicle for the unitive expression of God’s three faces. This is eros waking up as the conscious, mysterious, emergent universe; agape cascading down as animate form. In time, God wants nothing more than to create. As conscious, surrendered vehicles, we become the instrument of that art.
In practice, this looks easier and more difficult than it sounds. Easier because the ground has been laid by sages past: practice self-immolation; engage in Epicurean delight with like souls; give your natural gifts in selfless service to the world. But more difficult given our present age and the past structures that bind: self-obsession and low tolerance for subtlety; hard-wired survival instincts; an habitual relationship to fear.
In this profound talk Wilber articulates the march of eros since the big bang. He describes it as the binding glue that holds and moves matter forward. The fundamental flaw in our Darwinian conception of evolution is that it is only a physical process. Being physical, we are reduced to explaining our circumstances as a product of chance. If we shift our conception of evolution to understand it as more an interior, invisible impulse, it becomes apparent that the act of creativity is intrinsic to existence. It’s been happening all along, eros winding, bending and pushing forward, conceiving new shapes, in an apparent attempt to wake up to itself. The exact opposite of chance. And what else does a great work of art do but wake us up to a part of ourselves that was dormant or forgotten or previously unimagined?
Wondrous as this may be, it’s impact is only fully felt when experienced bodily, in those same moments of grace I spoke about earlier. While artistic insight can awaken a state of wonder, it is generally temporary and fades over time. I am advocating for a rigorous human pedagogy ordered around creativity, grounded and in service to all three faces of God. Anything less can be helpful, but ultimately falls short of a full-throated post-postmodern recognition of our place and responsibility in and as the universe. In no uncertain terms, this is implicit thrust of every post on this website.
Within this imperative is a promise for a re-birth of religion more applicable and responsive to our age; a reordering of scientific understanding and potential; and a recalibration of what it means to be human. It is the largest context possible, with God as the explicit north pole.
And context matters. In science and business, we will often use a word like ‘innovation’. Today, innovation is a near-obsession as business and government attempt to gain competitive advantage. In this context, innovation (a more strictly masculine variation on creativity) serves power or profit. This can be relatively helpful, raising living conditions for the poor, or producing tools of convenience (and who isn’t dazzled by the pace of technology, or the implications of quantum physics). Innovation also serves human curiosity and our internal impetus for progress. But as a means to what end? Perhaps this is the wrong question, assuming an end is desirable. But this is an example of the creative impulse operating unconsciously, with an ordering principle of lower import more vulnerable to hijack by the devils of our nature. Vulnerable because the framework of our context determines the scope of our ambition which informs the nature of our actions.
For now, I’m consolidating the locus of this work into and as the archetype of the artist, who lives in authentic service to an understanding of God as immanent and evolving.
Real, lasting art is a soul matter, an etching on the very conditions of existence; a portal into wonder, beauty and wholeness with infinite variations of form and depth. It also edges the journey forward, illuminating more of the mystery. Every human being that wakes up beyond their own projection/assumption of reality becomes a unique and vivid expression of God’s will. In this context, I have no problem speaking about God, acting in service to God or living in anticipation of God’s light.