Here’s another essay that’s getting published elsewhere soon… it grew out of a discussion I had with a great bunch of high-school actors in San Diego last year. But it also seems appropriate for this forum. So here ’tis:
Possibly the most oft-quoted line of the bible is the opening salvo, launching us into that confoundingly complex and conflicted book of Genesis. You know it – the magical, pregnant-with-possiblity phrase is in your head whether you are a devout Baptist or an avowed Atheist:
In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth
You may know it slightly differently. He may just create ‘the world’. There are different versions, anyway – the King James version prefers a singular Heaven (and I prefer the King James), but most modern editions like the plural. Minor details aside, it’s so simple, so familiar that you’ll always get the gist.
I could get into a discussion on the nature of the cosmos, the ineluctable advance of the Human organism toward discovery, the massive complexity and reach of the scientific project which is in a way a pure expression of Humanity’s human-ness… but that is all by the by. Creationist, Darwinist, Paleobotanist, Orthodontist – I don’t really care. What sings out to me in that astonishing claim is not the bit that, since Georgius Agricola began to age the earth, has been the center of such controversy. Fact or opinion, the origin of the Universe is a bit much for a small mind like mine to contemplate. But if you remove the specific and limiting what out of it all, if you kick the Object – that pesky, defining noun group at the end of the sentence – to the kerb, you end up with a simple statement of profound beauty:
In the beginning, God created.
The matter of what he created or how he created or how long it took is the concern of the rest of the sentence and the rest of Genesis: a tribal history, an attempt by an ancient culture to explain their surroundings and make sense of their history. Dwell, instead, in the sheer beauty of that simple, elegant, and profound notion: in the beginning, God created.
When I say it to myself it bounces around in my mind like a ping-pong ball on an uneven floor, or whirrrrs with the anticipatory glee of a silver ball racing around the banked sides of a Roulette wheel.
God, you see, could have done anything. God could have gone for a stroll, or taken a nap, or scratched her tummy, farted, and settled down on the sofa to watch an episode of Real Housewives. But instead, God did that thing that makes God, God. Creating. If God never created anything, there would be no Epsilon, Psi or Delta between the Alpha and Omega. God would be a beginning and end with no middle, just a timeless, formless Everything; indeed, without time and form God would really be a Nothing.
The essential nature of God is to create. That is the sole defining characteristic of Godliness. If God intervenes or doesn’t intervene in human lives, if God wears a fiery breastplate, hurls lightning bolts, has six arms – or if God has no form at all – it is the Creating that makes God so. Those who follow no religion, but consider themselves spiritual, will, for fear of mistakenly saluting the Divine with the wrong name, instead address their higher power as “Creator”, figuring that that is the only foolproof way of getting a prayer delivered through the Celestial postal service. Without Creation, God is meaningless.
Is money godlike? Is sport godlike? Are cars and houses and political parties and ideologies godlike? Absolutely not. Is Love godlike? I don’t know. Some sects believe in a loving god. Some believe in an angry one. And although love is a fairly good spur to creativity, in the end, Love is not a necessary component of God. I can imagine a god that has no love. The only necessary component of the Divine is Creation.
But what does that mean for us mortals, wandering around on this flat disc of earth, as it rests on giant pillars supported on the back of the Great Eternal Turtle, swimming blindly through the cosmos?
Well – it follows that to create, whether you are a believer or not, is to participate in the only divine and God-like act we humans are capable of. To err is human, sure. But so is forgiveness. It’s moral. Relative. Human. -As are other forms of creation: biological creation may be miraculous (or miraculous-seeming), but the gestation and excretion of life is no more god-like than the gestation and excretion of poop. The involuntary accumulation of biomass is organic, a biological fact shared by all mortals, be they humans or horses. In fact, biological reproduction is probably our LEAST godlike trait. The Christian God, for one, is so incapable of autogenesis that he had to delegate to a mortal woman the task of creating Him in human form.
REAL creation is both more simple, and vastly more complex, than that. To create is to partake in the most mystical activity – to actively and consciously make something that was previously unmade. The divinity is the same whether the end result is a French genius’ vast oil painting of a pond with waterlilies, or a child’s poorly glazed, lumpen coffee-cup made in an after school pottery class. One may be more aesthetically pleasing and more artistically daring and complex than the other, but both are expressions of the same divinity. Both are created. Both are Godlike.
The writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks beautifully about creativity. She appreciates the divinity of the act, goes so far as to almost have an animist view of creation: that songs and poems and paintings are already ‘out there’ in the universe, and need us as Artists to give them a chance to take form. And I love her view. I love her stories of Tom Waits talking to his songs, cajoling them, bribing them, threatening them into existence. I love the notion that people used to talk of having a genius (think: genie), not being a genius. And I have come to share her conclusions – that we do not own what we have made, that the created work has its own independent existence. She adds a layer of spirituality to this quest that complements the essential divinity of the act of creation itself.
But what does this mean? I’m getting all airy-fairy and talking about God farting for what?
Simple. If Art is divine. I’m saying that Artists are the highest priests of my faith. The simple act of whistling a made-up tune draws us into the presence of God. Even composing a filthy limerick is a pure form of worship.
Perhaps God made mankind as a vast mini-god project: that our whole purpose on this plane of existence is to make Art, to create, to combine our individual creative, godlike output with the godlike output of others, and that in so doing we are erecting a vast, gorgeous temple of mad, random beauty that is truly built in God’s likeness.
Go on, then. Create. Make something, write something, grab a book of poems from the shelf and read one aloud. Sing ‘Since U Been Gone’ at the top of your lungs. Perform. Build. Paint. Knit. These small acts of devotion are worth more than all the moral posturing, or liturgical tongue-wagging in the world. And in the darkest moments, when God or ‘god’ is absent from our lives, the act of creation brings divinity into the world.
I suppose I should finish with: