Creativity as a Religious Virtue

May 15, 2009 | 12 comments
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I usually place empathy at the top of my ladder of desirable religious virtues because I see its presence as the cause of most good and its absence as the cause of most bad. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more it seems that even empathy depends on yet another important quality: creativity.

After all, empathy requires imagination—more specifically the ability to imagine what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes. Among the ways atonement can be understood, the most helpful to me is as the supreme act of creative imagination: for while most of us probably only fully empathize with others when we’ve been through an experience very much like their own, an atoning Christ was somehow able to put himself fully in the shoes of even the most miserable creature simply by imagining himself there.

A good reason to foster the Arts (which Kent urged in several posts some time ago) is to help us all develop our own creative imaginations, stretching them into more at-oning shape. Through literature and film and painting and history we often are presented a chance to understand vicariously what it might feel like to be this person or that, or to be in this situation or that. Most of the time, again, vicarious experience isn’t enough for us, but maybe with enough practice it can come to be.

Of course creativity extends beyond the Arts, and beyond empathy, to touch just about every rung on the ladder of virtues. Yet the crucial role of creativity is not usually at the forefront of discussions about spirituality.

In fact we sometimes speak of creativity as if it’s optional, something nice to have but not required. Or we speak of it stereotypically, as something reserved for people in the Arts, or young children, or women, or gay men. Yet as Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, among others, has shown, creativity not only can be brought to even the most mundane activity, but ultimately determines the shape and meaning and benefit of any activity.

It’s not always easy to spot creativity. The nature of the task doesn’t guarantee it: a mechanic can be highly creative while a violinist can be highly mechanical.

The social psychologist Erich Fromm suggested, in his book Escape from Freedom, that the tell-tale mark of creativity is originality. But that doesn’t make creativity much easier to spot, because we spend so much effort avoiding originality, “escaping” it.

He explained: though we react strongly, even violently, when someone tries to take our freedom, we are often terrified once we have it, because it means we, not someone else, must choose. This realization often causes us to hand over our freedom (and thus creativity) to someone else.

This handing over brings some relief to the burdens of uncertainty and responsibility, but it also reduces or eliminates our originality, which to Fromm was the key to becoming a fully developed human.

By originality Fromm did not necessarily mean that we have to create something absolutely unique to us. Rather, he meant that an idea, shared or not with others, must feel original within us. We might learn about an idea from another source, but we develop that idea in such a way that it comes to be part of us, and, crucially, we take that idea and shape it in our particular fashion.

It’s not any easier to be original than it is to spot originality. A recent NPR segment featured a psychologist whose research argues that the vast majority of the decisions we make are subconscious or unconscious. In other words, not very original or creative.

On the one hand, this keeps our brains from being overloaded: by deciding as others have already decided, or as we’ve unconsciously decided in the past, we avoid angst at every turn. But on the other hand it means that we’re mostly not deciding consciously. Someone else, something else, is deciding for us.

Unconscious decision-making might be fine in certain situations, such as when we have to quickly act or react physically. But according to John Sanford’s The Kingdom Within the key to spiritual growth and adulthood is choosing consciously. For the more conscious we are, the more freely we have chosen and the more we have taken responsibility for our choices. If others choose for us, then they are essentially responsible for our decisions.

Again, there is a certain comfort in this, but a certain stunting of growth as well.

The need to choose, the virtue that can come through choosing, is also evident in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, in which a circle of Chinese scholars become so interested in the original Hebrew meaning of a phrase in the Old Testament usually translated as “Thou shalt” that they spend years studying the phrase. And they decide that the “Thou shalt” is in fact better translated as “Thou mayest.”

This of course is the heart of the story: that what makes a human noble is the “Thou mayest.” It’s also what makes us terrified, what makes us want to say, “will someone please just decide for me!” or, yes, simply tell me, “Thou shalt.”

The fundamental role of creativity and choice in spiritual growth is further evident in the Creation story, as one of God’s supreme acts was to impose his particular vision upon chaos.

It’s implied in D&C 58 regarding not being commanded in all things, or in Moses’ lament that he wished all the children of Israel were prophets so that they’d stop running to him for every decision.

It’s suggested in Jesus’ promise to his disciples that they would do even greater works than they had seen him do, a result which mere imitation would not achieve.

It’s suggested by Elder Oaks’ address to Young Adults in May 2005, when in Moses-like fashion he urged those seeking exceptions to his advice not to write him personally but take responsibility for themselves: “As a General Authority, I have the responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions. There are exceptions to some rules…Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility.”

Originality, creativity, consciousness, responsibility—all go hand in hand. All are crucial to growing to adulthood, to full personhood, to mature spirituality.

If creativity is as important as I’m suggesting, then it also seems important to foster the friendliest possible environment for it, in the Arts and in Life. Some level of creativity can certainly occur in a limited environment, or one that offers simply a binary choice—of choosing to obey or disobey, yes or no, A or B—but an environment that allows and even encourages us to develop our own solutions requires more, and would seem to lead to greater growth.

This is why students learn and grow more from essay exams than from multiple-choice exams, even though they tend to prefer the latter. And this is why, in my view, the progression of life suggested in temple rites begins with the binary choice of obedience or disobedience and culminates with the open-ended choices of full agency.

In other words, if Fromm is right, we’re not so much born with “free agency” as working our whole lives to attain it, and to accept the creativity and responsibility that go with it.

This view may well be the prejudice of someone raised in “free agency” culture. That was the theme of the Mormon culture in which I grew up anyway. In fact it’s the only doctrine I can recall from my childhood. Which tells me that I didn’t listen much, or (surely more likely) that the topic was repeated a lot, just as obedience has been repeated a lot for kids of the past thirty years or so.

The decline of the emphasis on free agency perhaps stemmed from a fear that the doctrine might be misunderstood to sanction all sorts of behavior, or to lead people to thinking there are no consequence for their actions—to be creative in bad ways.

But true creativity doesn’t seek non-conformity or libertinism as its goal, as Emerson’s famous quote is sometimes used to suggest (“whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist”). For being a nonconformist can itself be simply a binary choice, a condition defined by someone or something else rather than from within. Rather (and I think this is what Emerson meant), when we’re all truly creative, some amount of nonconformity is simply inevitable, for we’re all different in some respect.

The myriad elements we have in common with each other, including 99-point-whatever percent of our DNA and a belief in spiritual kinship, should motivate us to get along with each other, and will surely result in our creating some very similar ideas or things. But the most crucial part within us may be that small difference where our deepest originality (and probably greatest non-conformity) lies, which brings us to maturity and enables us to make our particular contribution to life.

Obviously it’s risky to foster creativity. It can manifest itself in awful, even evil ways, too well-known to have to be listed here. But it’s the very riskiness of it, and the conscious acceptance of responsibility for how we exercise our creativity, that allows full growth.

12 Responses to Creativity as a Religious Virtue

  1. Rolf on May 15, 2009 at 9:26 am

    I totally agree with this–at BYU my stake president was a music professor who wrote some beautiful pieces performed in conferences meant to try to predict the emotions of, say, Mormon at the moment of writing “Oh ye fair ones”, and they were beautiful pieces that truly heightened my sensitivity to prophets as people with complex emotions. I think this was only possible because of the empathy of the president himself, which was, I believe, heightened by his creativity.

    In any institutional pushing of the arts to heighten empathy, though, it seems like there must be a warning against and attempt to hedge the effect of the narcissism and inflated self-importance that all-too-often (unfortunately) accompanies artistic creation/performance. With that caveat/advisory, though, I think it’s a great idea–especially at the primary educational level, where musical instruction is all about teaching the basics that can lead to creativity, and no-one has reached the prima donna point by then yet.

  2. norm on May 15, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    Alma 32:27

    “But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your FACULTIES, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than adesire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words”

    Mosiah 29:14

    “And even I myself have labored with all the power and FACULTIES which I have possessed, to teach you the commandments of God, and to establish peace throughout the land, that there should be no wars nor contentions, no stealing, nor plundering, nor murdering, nor any manner of iniquity”

    Like our other faculties, creativity is important in religious seeking and practice. We tend to settle into using one or two of our faculties (sensation, reason, memory, imagination, etc.) to the exclusion of others. Many of us could spiritually benefit from awaking and arousing our underdeveloped faculties, rather than being spiritually one-dimensional.

  3. DavidH on May 15, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    President Uchtdorf included creativity as an attribute to be sought after in his talk last October in general relief society. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Happiness, Your Heritage,” Ensign, Nov 2008, 117–20

  4. Hunter on May 16, 2009 at 1:53 am

    I used to sort of roll my eyes whenever I would hear someone preach about how “creating” is God’s most important attribute. I’ve mostly heard it from artists who, I felt, were being a little too self-congratulatory. But then, after paying more attention to the hard work it is to make choices while creating something out of nothing (whether it be a memo, or a new piece of music, etc.), I have found new appreciation for this divine and difficult attribute. (And now you’ve got me thinking about creativity in terms of human relationships, too.)

    I’m still trying to get my head around the idea of creativity as a sort of empathy. But I loved this great post. Thanks.

  5. Craig H. on May 16, 2009 at 2:09 am

    Thanks for comments all.

    Rolf, narcissism can happen in just about any endeavor, I suppose, not merely the Arts. And I wouldn’t want that to be the main emphasis in discussions of the Arts: it would be like discussions of knowledge always end up focusing on not being proud, etc., so that the virtues of knowledge are shoved to the background.

    Norm, I agree that one-dimensionality isn’t desirable, but I don’t see how imagination can be boxed off from other virtues; part of my point was how omnipresent it might be.

    DavidH, I liked that talk too, but note the setting for it…Relief Society. Any such talks in Priesthood for instance?

    Hunter, I used to think this as well, and thought it merely an effort to bolster the status of Artists, but the older I get the more I see the need for imagination in everyday living, and again my point is to show its unmissable role in spirituality, rather than it being regarded as a nice ornament.

  6. Carine on May 16, 2009 at 5:09 am

    Craig, I have been waiting for this post a long time. You brilliantly describe my feelings about creativity, esthetics and Heavenly Father’s involvement in this. We can get all poetic about this subject over a creative dinner.

  7. Craig H. on May 16, 2009 at 6:01 am

    Thanks Carine. I wanted to add about the Arts that if they were approached more as an arena for vicarious experience, I wonder how this would affect discussions over such topics as R-rated movies? These are often discouraged in the context of the need to choose wholesome “entertainment.” But if the Arts were regarded as being primarily about understanding experience, especially actual experience of others, then it necessarily will include some unpleasant and difficult and challenging things, and this might be seen as a desirable and important thing to do. For what is more wholesome, in the literal sense of that word, than doing that?

  8. Wm Jas on May 16, 2009 at 9:29 am

    Your title — creativity as a specifically religious virtue — caught me off guard, since “religion” so often means obedience, deference to authority, acceptance of a received tradition. I completely agree with you, though, that creativity is indispensable when it comes to empathy and complex moral decisions, and religious people would do well to cultivate it.

    I’m reminded of Joseph Smith’s “you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me” — which could be applied to the process of living morally just as aptly as to that of receiving revelation.

  9. Craig H. on May 16, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Wm Jas, I guess that’s exactly why I wrote the piece, to raise in part the question of what religiosity means. I agree that the way you characterize it is the way it has often, but not always, been characterized. I’m wondering whether it’s the most helpful or most desirable way.

  10. Wm Jas on May 16, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    Craig, except for the few people who actually found their own religions from scratch, religion necessarily means accepting received ideas. It means accepting that the collective wisdom of a religious community and tradition will probably get you closer to the true and the good than would anything you could come up with on your own. Orthodoxy is in some ways the opposite of creativity.

    In some ways, but not in every way. As the great Tannaitic rabbis, perhaps more than anyone else, have demonstrated, it’s quite possible to soar to breathtaking heights of creativity within the context of interpreting a received tradition. As you wrote, an idea need not be unique or original in order to be “creative” in a psychological sense. I’m reminded of Bruce R. McConkie’s famous speech in which he insists that when he quotes scripture he is using his own words. “True it is that they were first proclaimed by others,” he says, “but they are now mine”

    Still, I think there will always be a certain tension between creativity and religion. When the second commandment, outranking “Thou shalt not kill,” is about not making graven images, that should be a hint.

    Nor is creativity always conducive to morality. The fact is, virtue can be boring (think of Tolkien’s Saruman opting to be “many-coloured” rather than plain white), which is why the most enduring literary characters (Falstaff, Hamlet, King David) are morally dubious figures almost to a man. The more creative one’s temperament, the greater may be the temptation to lead an “interesting” life rather than a strictly moral one. This is one of the main themes of Iris Murdoch’s novels — that often we just get too interested in our own unique personalities and the drama of our lives, and it interferes with our ability to do the right thing.

  11. Craig H. on May 17, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    Wm Jas, interesting points. I have a few quibbles. No one founds a religion from scratch, not really, as all are connected to some previous model(s). Moreover, we all (religious or not) accept (graciously or not) “received ideas,” including in whatever culture or family we’re born into. I agree it’s not a good idea simply to reject those ideas, because they’re obviously the product of much testing and thought, but I’m not convinced that the point is to discover what’s received and stop there, or that all of it is necessarily right for you, or that it necessarily covers everything that will arise in your life. You’ve got to test them, and find new ones as well. The Tannaitic rabbi example is a good one.

    As for tension between creativity and religion—I guess I’m questioning whether the two are necessarily distinct. It depends on how you define either one, and I’ve tried to define creativity within the umbrella of religion. Obviously creativity per se is neither good nor bad, and can be used for either, but the point is that it’s crucial, in my mind, for good. There will always be tension between the individual and the institution, but that isn’t necessarily bad, because as with the Tannaitic rabbis tension can lead to great creativity. The choice you suggest between leading an interesting life and a moral life is also dubious to me, and also depends on how you define either term. Is Murdoch maybe arguing against narcissism rather than individuality, which to me are not the same thing? The best sort of individuality isn’t self-centered, but self- and other-centered at the same time: love your neighbor as yourself implies equal importance, not one above the other.

  12. Wm Jas on May 17, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    Good points, Craig.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that creativity — or attachment to one’s own creativity — is often a close cousin to pride.

    Again, Iris Murdoch’s novels come to mind. “We aren’t conventional people,” her well-meaning intellectual protagonists keep reminding themselves, and when some moral dilemma confronts them, they try to come up with some creative, “enlightened” solution in keeping with their own special genius, rather than going with the obvious course of action (somehow déclassé in its simplicity) that any child could see is right.

    Of course I’m not trying to say that creativity is a bad thing, or (as Blake famously said with reference to Milton) that all true poets are of the devil’s party, but neither do I think it can be considered an absolute virtue.

    (I agree, by the way, that everyone accepts received ideas. But I think one is likely to adhere to them more closely — or at least more consciously — if they are thought to be of supernatural origin.)