Creative Theology

04-Abraham-Janssens-Cephalus-and-Procris-1610-20

by Randall S. Frederick

It’s always hard to get somebody to see something that’s never been done before. It’s a big problem, because there’s no precedent for you to base a judgment on. People  have to have a leap of faith, and trying to convince people to have a leap of faith – especially people that may be accountant or about to invest in something – it’s extremely difficult because their imaginations don’t soar the way creative people do.
George Lucas, Disneyland: Secrets, Stories, and Magic (2007)

One of the things I’ve noticed is the inability of religious adherents to think critically, constructively and creatively. Coming out of the gate, saying this will perhaps color the rest of this essay and I find this tragic as well as inescapable. Much has been made of the current generation finding itself between two cultures – in the midst of a “cultural shift” as it were. Our parents, or the ‘older’ generation seem to be volleying shots across the bow as if we were not raised in their homes, pews, and schools. But as we look to our younger siblings, we are perplexed at why new musical artists are pushing the boundaries of excess. Did Miley need to masturbate in her last video? Is Adventure Time the best animated storytellers can do? Who are we and where are we going? While many may read my opening sentence in a negative way, as though I am tipping my hand to say “Oh, those parents of ours, they just don’t understand!” or even the inverse, “Will our siblings respect anything and focus their energies toward believing in anything except themselves and the latest fad?” there exists a rather positive hope that yes, we may. But it will require our collective energies – past, present, and future.

My science-fiction friends might reference Dr. Who here, and how there comes certain crises in the infinite loop of experience which require more than one Time Lord to untangle our Gordian Knot. Put another way, what I have come to believe after working with, for, in, around, and among religious communities in the last two decades is that we have to be flexible but also hold on to our core. This takes on so many different faces and phases that it becomes a juggling exercise in futility. To ask creatives to take “the old path” guarantees laughter. “The old way? Are you mad? And become like those old dodgers? Don’t you know that if their way worked, we’d still be doing it? Haha! Oh come off it and tell us another one!” And to ask the old guard to try a new thing is to be met with dour grimaces – “We’ve never done it that way. And let me tell you, if it was good enough when I was a kid, it’s good enough now.”

At the base of these responses is privilege. We believe that our way is best. In fact, psychologically we have to. If we believed what we were doing was truly wrong, we wouldn’t do it. That is, if I truly believe that something is wrong, I will come up with a dozen ways that is is “wrong” and enumerate them alphabetically before you can say Jack Rabbit. Think of how many examples immediately fall into this. I am sitting here, at a coffee shop in Los Angeles, and tell you

  • You should cut off your right index finger. That’s a good decision.
  • We should pollute more. It actually helps the environment.
  • Creating a graphic novel with illustrations of Allah is a safe decision.

you’re probably already objecting to at least one of these. They seem like mad ideas in their own ways – and perhaps for good reason. Even if I were to add new conditions to these, you might still object. If I were to say, “Cutting off your right index finger is the only way to save the rest of your hand,” you would object and look for options which reinforce your predetermined belief that keeping your right index finger is the better choice. The only resolution is when there are, in fact, no other options left and your finger is either cut off, or you die. Once you believe something is “right,” I will never get you to go another direction – even to your death.

Christopher Nolan’s Inception was spot-on in this way. It was a paradox which film theorists will likely be debating for years to come. In short, the premise of the film is that you cannot simply plant an idea. You must convince someone it is their idea. ‘Architects’ of the imagination come to realize that you cannot simply tell someone that something is right or wrong; they must become convinced of it for themselves. An idea must become your idea for it to have value to you. Even now, I could suggest that helping children become educated is a noble endeavor. But until you have a child, or become a teacher, this statement has no intellectual currency for you because it does not apply to you. It is not, in the end, a personalized idea.

But before I go off on some philosophical side road of chicken-or-egg / idea-or-thinker conundrum, I want to focus myself. These are abstract ideas, coloring the palette of the imagination but not quite touching on theology and the realm of the cosmological just yet. My point so far has been to lay a framework to bring us to a realization that creativity and the imagination do not really exist as ‘things’ which can be obtained. They are uniquely signature – I can tell you that today I made soup. I can even tell you that the soup had chicken in it, or describe the odoriferous steam coming off of the pot which flavored my apartment with the warm memory of home and good times. But what causes your mouth to salivate, what causes your mind to locate ‘chicken’ and ‘soup’ is not my description, but a complex interworking of the imagination.

However, for many religions, imagination is a threat. God is found in a finite number of places – sacred texts, love of a spouse, the laughter of a child, or a sunset. But isn’t it interesting the way that we deputize the simple among us as the best theologians? That is – isn’t it curious how we say, “Well, my child said the funniest thing this week. She said ‘this must be what God is like’ when I hugged her. Isn’t she so smart?” But if a grown adult were to say the same thing – “I hugged someone and that felt like God” – all kinds of alarms would be raised. Do you mean to tell me God can be found in a hug? How preposterous! God is an Almighty and Impersonal Presence of Energy. How dare you reduce God to a hug! By locating a finite God that fits into our doctrines and creeds, and rejecting the possibility of “a new thing,” are we to forever worship a God who has just passed by, a God who we see only after the fact, a God who we can only glimpse the hindquarters of, or is there a possibility that we might ‘run ahead of God’ and do something right for a change?

There exists then, some sort of disconnect between the creative ability that comes naturally to children who do not yet understand the concrete rules and doctrines of daily life, and the rigid dogma of adulthood. We are raised to believe that God is not creative because, through lack of use, our own imaginations are ever waning. With the loss of creativity, so too we lose God. Or at least ourselves.

Or do we?

The most aged theologians I know are so assured that God can be found in tripartite doctrinal statements, creeds, and chained-together scriptures. We know, for instance, that Jesus was a human born of Mary, but we also know he was eternal because John 1 says so. These are things we can be sure of, and they are not up for debate. Or, as another example, we know for certain that

It is an empirical observation that men without a strong and lasting faith in a Supreme Being are less capable, less ethical and less valuable to themselves and society….A man without an abiding faith is, by observation alone, more of a thing than a man.

This too is a thing we can be are of, and is not up for debate. And lest there be any question, we have empirical observation, science, on our side. Only a fool would think, feel, or believe otherwise. Presented with a mountain of evidence, we are encouraged to stay within the playpens of our mind and never question, challenge, or delight in ‘running ahead’ of God. Of co-creating. Of running the risk of getting it right. For, after all, the risk of divine anger is too much. Since Adam or even Prometheus, we have been taught to stay within the boundaries set for us because to trespass them is to guarantee failure.

Or does it?

What of the Christian philosopher St. Paul’s conviction that unbelievers – those who are “without a strong and lasting faith in a Supreme Being” – not only can but do show evidence of capability, a strong sense of ethics, and prove themselves to be of robust value to both themselves and their society? Or what of the Jewish patriarch Abraham’s conviction that God was not many, but was one? Maionides writes in Misneh Torah: Laws Concerning Idolatry that

No sooner was [Abraham] weaned — and he was but a small child — that his mind began to seek and wonder: How do the heavenly bodies orbit without a moving force? Who moves them? They cannot move themselves! Immersed amongst the foolish idol-worshippers of Ur Casdim, he had no one to teach him anything; his father, mother and countrymen, and he amongst them, all worshipped idols. But his heart sought, and came to know that there is one G-d… who created all and that in all existence there is none other than Him. He came to know that the entire world erred…

At the age of forty, Abraham recognized his Creator… He began to debate with the people of Ur Casdim… He smashed the idols, and began to teach the people that it is only fitting to serve the one G-d… He continued to call in a great voice to the world, teaching them that there is one G-d for the entire universe, and that He alone is it fitting to serve. He carried his call from city to city and from kingdom to kingdom… Many gathered to ask about his words, and he would explain to each according to his understanding until he had shown him the path of truth. Thousands and then tens of thousands joined him…and he implanted this great principle in their heart and wrote many books on it. After Abraham’s passing,Isaac, and then Jacob, continued his work, until Jacob’s descendents, and those who joined them, formed a nation that knew G-d.

Though it is important to distinguish Maimonides from textual analysis (i.e. the Hebrew scriptures seem to lead the reader to believe Abraham was a monotheist, but there is no explicit concept of ‘monotheism’ until God visits Moses at Sinai), what we see here is a pillar of Judaism proposing, in effect, that Abraham had enough imagination to see the world, the cosmos, and the nature of ‘God’ in a way that was very different from his contemporaries. To say that G-d was an individual entity, that creation was made by one divine being, and what is more that all of the other ‘gods’ were pretenders to the throne required a high degree of imaginative insight.

Traditionally, the “imaginative insight” that I refer to here has been called “revelation” or some other variation of a divine visit. God shares knowledge with the adherent, and in turn this person is considered a prophet, a title we reserve only for those who hear from & speak to the Supreme Being. But, taken from the angle that I am coming from here, Abraham’s belief in a single deity proved to be an evolutionary leap forward for theological insight. Jews, Christians, and Muslims look to “our father Abraham” as a pillar of the faith because this insight proved to be such a decisive break from oriental religion. It set a precedent by which all religions are judged. Those religions, be they humanist or folk in practice, are validated by the standard Abraham set. And, we must always remember, Abraham was one of the few who dared to challenge God on anything.

Are we convinced that the “books are closed”, that God has stopped speaking, and that there are no imaginative qualities left to be had?

I say again, but only for dramatic emphasis, that one of the things I’ve noticed in my time with religious communities is the inability to think critically, constructively and creatively.

Cont. pt. II

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