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Creativity, the Child of Despair

Journey of the Universe

Mary Evelyn Tucker will be a featured speaker at the Westar Institute's Spring 2016 national meeting.

The final third of Journey of the Universe doesn’t say anything about the environmental crisis that you don’t already know, but the authors’ conclusion is quite interesting and could even be described as the basis of a nature-based spirituality. I wrote a few days ago about their incredibly moving meditation on how living things experience value in the universe; today I’m plagued in response to my reading by questions of crisis, apocalypse, “end times.”

Maybe that’s a natural feeling on 9/11. I still remember the horror I felt that day when, stumbling into sunlight after hours of shepherding stunned patrons of the Willamette University library past a makeshift television, I was accosted by a newspaper boy who tried to sell me a grainy photo of a man suspended mid-fall before the burning towers. From there I made my way to the “safe zone,” WU’s central auditorium, and listened to a seemingly endless buzz of voices that couldn’t seem to speak past themselves. Honestly, I was shocked this morning to read in Frank Rich’s 2011 article, “I discovered that the farther west I got, the more my audiences questioned me as though I were a refugee from some flickering evening-news hot spot as distant and exotic as Beirut.” After all, I was as far West as I could get in the continental U.S., and we were all walking around like zombies for weeks. Did he miss our stop?

This is the part of the ecological story most of us know. In the late sixteenth to early seventeenth century, humankind underwent a transformation, from awestruck serfs in a mysterious universe into enterprising kings of a mechanized one. Following upon the discoveries of individuals like Galileo and Newton, human beings for the first time allowed themselves to believe that we “with our vast intelligence had only to determine the laws governing matter for us to gain control over the entire affair” (105). A few hundred years later, we’re suffering the consequences of believing we could dominate and manipulate the very ground of our being.

That has a lot more to do with 9/11 than I think we want to admit. Sometimes terrorist acts are described as “symbolic” in the sense that the violence comes with a message, usually to inspire fear. Doesn’t that just scream mechanistic thinking? It is as though we become—as once befell the planets—no longer gods but mere “dead balls of matter” available to the scrutiny of more penetrating beings (104). At the same time, a terrorist act remains in keeping with the vast working of the universe, if in a disturbing way. Such violent acts do make room—real physical space but also a vacancy in the brain—for something new.

I occasionally have conversations with Westar’s academic director, David Galston, about human beings’ obsession with crisis thinking. We can’t seem to motivate ourselves without a crisis to address. So I naturally wondered how Tucker & Swimme would handle the natural crisis language that emerges from talk of the environment today. Yes, they employ crisis language, but they also make sense of it in terms of the dynamics of the larger universe:

It is in the nature of the universe to move forward between great tensions, between dynamic opposing forces. If the creative energies in the heart of the universe succeeded so brilliantly in the past, we have reason to hope that such creativity will inspire and guide us into the future. (118)

This led me to wonder what can be learned by exploring this dynamic in other points of crisis. I wonder if 9/11 and other moments in today’s “age of terror” aren’t too close to home still, both chronologically and emotionally. For me at least, I can’t go there, not yet, so I turned briefly to the Great Depression instead.

Miles Orvell, professor of English and American studies at Temple University, has described the Great Depression as “one of the great creative periods of our time.” This might seem counterintuitive. Until the day she died, my grandma stored ten times as much food as she would ever need, a consequence of the hungry years she survived as a younger woman. Similar pangs no doubt run through your family history. But Orvell points out that “the period … birthed several new genres, such as the melodrama, which laid the foundation for today’s soap opera, and it brought the detective novel to fulfillment, with the heroic detective stoically dealing with corruption and the underside of life in cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.” More obvious acts of creation came in the form of New Deal programs. Dr Charlie Wildman of the University of Manchester offers similar stories of creativity on British soil during the Great Depression: new housing, new transportation lines, a major renovation to the Manchester library that “accommodated one million volumes and seated over 300 readers in the Great Hall, making it the largest after the reading room of the British library.” Such activities on both sides of the Atlantic were by no means restricted to physical works, either; they included programs in the arts. You see how we reach for symbolic language to modulate our despair.

I think what’s tough about this—what we hate about this—is that none of the creativity can guarantee our personal survival. Sure, crisis language equals “important” and “worth your time” in a world full of distractions. But nothing we do is a total fix. As any Buddhist will tell you, the universe with its beautiful, terrifying creative-destructive nature cares not whether your molecules remain arranged as you. It will never reject you, but it will completely and unrelentingly remake you.

I’m not arguing with Tucker and Swimme, at least I don’t think I am. I’m wondering aloud how I feel about seeing myself as a collusion of vast patterns instead of a unique and enduring monument (in a word: a soul).

Clockwork Dreams

Clockwork Dreams by artist Vernon Tan

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

This Passing World

Journey of the Universe

Mary Evelyn Tucker will be a featured speaker at the Westar Institute's Spring 2016 national meeting.

But suddenly mind overwhelmed by sense
You hear eternity in present tense—
The tree toads singing in the shallow pond,
Singing and dreaming of tall trees beyond.
—Robert Hillyer, “Hylidae”

Ecology is becoming increasingly dear to me as a subject. Nature formed a crucial lens in my complete re-reading of Paul’s letters last July, and led me to express dissatisfaction with Paul’s assumption that the natural decay of the world was directly related to moral decay, so much so that to Paul it invited cosmic war. This world is corrupt, so the standard Christian story goes, and even a radical reading of Paul retained that perspective. I just don’t buy into that.

In what sense is human morality to be associated with the natural processes of decay and destruction? New life comes from old life, as Paul also says, but we don’t have to agree with him that the old life was evil.

I found out not too long ago that Mary Evelyn Tucker of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology will be headlining Westar Institute’s Spring 2015 national meeting in Santa Rosa, California. Tucker was kind enough to send me a copy of her little book of meditations called Journey of the Universe, coauthored with Brian Thomas Swimme. Most of the meditations are only a page or two long, on topics that straddle the scientific and spiritual, such as the birth of stars, nuclei and bonding, timing and creativity. Tucker and Swimme observe that from the very beginning, destruction goes hand in hand with creativity in the universe, and that of course this finds expression in human lives as well:

There is a deep ambiguity threaded throughout [human bonds] that may result not simply in communion but also in collapse. But isn’t this also the nature of the universe—both dangerous and inviting? How do we discover ourselves in forces that are simultaneously fearful and attractive? How do we live amidst shimmering disequilibrium? One thing seems certain: the universe, navigating between extremes, presses ever further into creative intensities. (31–32)

The language of intent and desire threads through these meditations, and it left me worrying and wondering. Can the universe be said to intend or desire anything? I suppose we can say “yes,” on the grounds that we human beings, who are tiny bits of universe, certainly feel both intent and desire, as do many other living things around us. Would I be arrogant if I suggest we are just anthropomorphizing the universe when we use the language of intent? After all, we inherited all we are from the universe, and not the other way around, so it may be equally fair to argue that we inherited desire from our mother element. At the very least, I’d rather say that there is no grand Intender (“God”), only that intent is more like a wave of water, local and dispersible. Tucker and Swimme seem to agree, in that they describe this desire as “preconscious,” implying that it does not belong to a single, knowing entity.

This is important to me because morality turns on intention and desire, which together invite or demand obligation. “Did you mean to hurt me, or was it just an accident? What sort of society do you want or hope for? What should we do about it?” We can’t exit the universe’s cycle of decay, destruction, and creation—we know that now. Tucker and Swimme are simply observing that desire is a “mover” of that cycle, and as such it drives us to assign value to only the very smallest slivers of the universe, on a scale we can comprehend. For instance, after describing the courtship behaviors of a male bowerbird, spider, and peacock, they write:

What is true of each of these males? Why does he throw himself into such activity, all of it costly and some of it life-threatening?

He is seeking to convey his deepest truth—that he finds her valuable. Life has shaped his mind in a particular fashion. He cannot see all the value in the universe, but he can see hers, and it might as well be infinite, for nothing matters in comparison. His great passion is to organize his life around the work of wooing her, of impressing her, of changing himself in whatever way he can so that she will look at him in admiration and will utter in her own wordless way the longed for magic contained in that one word, “Yes.” (74)

How lovely especially here is the observation that we cannot observe all value in the universe, but that we reach instead for our own muse to that fuller context in our smaller, passing world. The whole may only be touched through a precious single instance of value. To live means in some way to give oneself (up) to a value.

Here the moral dimension becomes more apparent to me. If desire and bringing forth of value themselves constitute life, then morality is defined as the pattern by which it is achieved. Morality isn’t about cleansing or purging the corrupt world but rather about drawing value from the rich matter of the world. And it’s not a single ultimate value, such as God, but some value that drives morality. It’s also not any arbitrary value but a particular value that belongs to a greater constellation of values, what philosophers for many generations have called the Good. I find it incredibly moving that Tucker and Swinne suggest that a particular value is not something abstract, like honesty, but rather an individual life, a beloved. We don’t invent value, we discover it naturally from what exists, even if only in hints, hopes and yes, instincts.

Moon, Yew Trees at  Stow-on-the-Wold

These two Yew Trees, which flank the door to the Church of St. Edward in Stow-on-the-Wold, England, planted sometime in the 18th century, were probably survivors of an avenue of trees that led to the door of the church. They now appear to grow from the building itself. Photo by Beth Moon.

This makes morality sound like an elaborate expression of survival of the fittest (I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest as much). But I think it goes deeper than that. Consider: All living things are capable of perceiving value in the universe, unique to its own context but at the same time not arbitrary because it emerges from a greater whole. Sure, living things often seem to operate out of instinct more than anything else, usually to produce offspring, but obligation at some point can become love. At Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire there’s a famous church door held up not by stone pillars but by a pair of living Yew trees. Love is like that, a sort of happenstance that becomes structurally necessary. It was fated to take that form only in the sense that its form was possible in the material of the place.

What I’m trying to say is that “should,” the voice of morality, retains a degree of freedom when it both emerges from and upholds a value that matters deeply to you and to me. We all have varying degrees of that freedom in the sense of which values we may perceive, from the simplistic reproductive urge of a single-celled organism to the longings that produced Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Nevertheless, morality becomes a means of expressing what is personal about the deep and abiding patterns of the natural universe.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.