Individuality and Creativity: A Christian Perspective

Individuality and Creativity: A Christian Perspective

This is the second post in an article series on individuality. Read the first here. This post is for those curious about what individuality means in the Judeo-Christian perspective, even if you don’t subscribe to it.

 

“That’s so him.” “Totally something she’d do!” “Who would’ve thought of that?!” These acknowledgements of individuality—what makes you, you—are not foreign to us. The existence of individuality in the human experience is indisputable.

 

Where does our individuality come from?

 

Well, this is a worldview question, with answers as numerous as the beliefs that exist on Earth. This post is specifically about the Judeo-Christian perspective and its regard of mankind and individuality. Though you may not subscribe to it, I’m inviting you to empathize and gain an understanding of how those that do see individuality from their point of view.

 

Mankind as An Image of the Divine

 

In the Judeo-Christian worldview, a person’s individuality is anchored to the very subject the whole religious system is about: God. The subject of individuality is front and center in the grand opening of its sacred text.

 

Creation, the beginning of the world, opens the Hebrew Bible in the first chapter of Genesis. It’s a much-debated chapter, but let’s set debates aside for a moment and consider the text through the lens of creativity, to see the narrative in the light of a creative process.

 

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” it begins. The chapter narrates the creation of the world in six days, which builds up to the creation of mankind in the sixth. The text says,

 

Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

 

Mankind is patterned according to God’s image, which is intriguing, because God prohibits the making of images, explicitly stated in the Ten Commandments. Other biblical stories show that mankind is in danger of carving a rock, assembling wood, or creating buildings, even if they were initially made for God, and worshipping these things instead of God. The biblical prophets write against this over and over again. There was to be no idol worshipped in place of Him, because no one thing can adequately represent the fullness of His character and glory. Nothing is big enough to fully represent who He is. But, in mankind there is an exception.

 

In the collection of essays Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, rabbi Abraham J. Heschel writes,

 

“And yet there is something in the world that the Bible does regard as a symbol of God. It is not a temple or a tree, it is not a statue or a star. The one symbol of God is man, every man. God Himself created man in His image.”

 

A person, a human being, is viewed with very high regard, because he is an image of the divine.

 

“Human life is holy, holier even than the Scrolls of the Torah. Its holiness is not man’s achievement; it is a gift of God rather than something attained through merit. Man must therefore be treated with the honor due to a likeness representing the King of Kings.“

 

This image of the divine is not limited to one person, group, or nation. It is present in every single person.

 

“…not one man or one particular nation but all men and all nations are endowed with the likeness of God… the divine likeness is something all men share.”

 

This foundation is also the Judeo-Christian basis of the equality of all men, the anchor of justice and how we ought to treat one another.

 

“This is a conception of far-reaching importance to biblical piety. What it implies can hardly be summarized. Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for man. The fear you must feel of offending or hurting a human being must be as ultimate as your fear of God. An act of violence is an act of desecration. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.”

 

Power to Think and to Do

 

The concept mankind being an image of the divine is rich with meaning. One aspect of this is the capability to create, which is demonstrated by the Creator Himself. It is the capability to invent, to see beyond what is into what could be, and to work towards that destination one step at a time.

 

In the book Education, Ellen White writes:

 

“Every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator—individuality, power to think and to do.”

 

The power to think and transform that thought into reality is the most baffling and fascinating trait of humanity. It mirrors the divine pattern as told in the Creation narrative.

 

Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.”

 

First there’s a thought, then words. The words become reality. And God sees what happens and calls it good. Finally, He names what He has just made. What is this if not the core of a creative process?

 

White continues,

 

“The men in whom this power is developed are the men who bear responsibilities, who are leaders in enterprise, and who influence character. It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought. Instead of confining their study to that which men have said or written, let students be directed to the sources of truth, to the vast fields opened for research in nature and revelation. Let them contemplate the great facts of duty and destiny, and the mind will expand and strengthen. Instead of educated weaklings, institutions of learning may send forth men strong to think and to act, men who are masters and not slaves of circumstances, men who possess breadth of mind, clearness of thought, and the courage of their convictions.”

 

Those we admire, leaders of the world, makers and changers of society, display this power of individuality—to think and to act. They are thinkers for themselves, not reflectors of other people’s thoughts. They are masters of their circumstances.

 

creativity

 

Individuality and Creativity

 

In the last post, I emphasized that individuality is an asset in creative processes, in works that have no set to-do instructions, in the making of something new (as opposed to imitating an existing creation). Where there’s no other guide, individuality, your power to think and to do, is your only resource. Indeed, it is in these types of original work that individuality shines forth the most.

 

Consider this. When God chose to write His opening act, His first introduction to the world, His grand entrance, His chance for a first impression in the first chapter of the Bible, He chose a creative story, a narrative of Him engaging in creative work.

 

In that first chapter, God is the sole agent, the ultimate actor, and the decision maker. He stares at His blank canvas, a void and shapeless world, and He begins that journey of creating something new.

 

I wonder if this creative process is also a discovery, something like the times when we engage in creative endeavors and surprise ourselves at what comes out. Maybe there’s an elevated, divine version of this, because at the end of each creation day, God sees what He has done, pausing for a moment of reflection, evaluation, consideration, and says that it is good. It is almost as if He doesn’t completely know if it would turn out good, at least not as predictable as mass printing labels from a manufacturing process. The artist sees and is satisfied with what He has carved that day.

 

It is easy to take stories like these for granted, to miss the essence and mystery of the creative process. We take it for granted because when we read stories of how inventors create, we already see the results. Thus we think it’s inevitable, a classic case of hindsight bias. Of course the plane should look that way, it’s obvious! Whereas if we put ourselves in the shoes of the Wright brothers, going forward in time, experimenting and trying out designs, the final product could have taken a different shape amidst the thousands of decisions they had to make.

 

We already know how important the sun is when we read the fourth day of creation. The trees are already outside our windows when we read about the third day, so it does not occur to us that trees did not really have to work that way. Things didn’t have to work the way they do now, because the creator started with a blank canvas. Someone decided where to put the stars, the waters, the sky, and the eyes. They were design decisions, made by an individual with thoughts and intent, with power to accomplish them.

 

Most importantly, there was freedom. God had full freedom to choose how He would shape the world among numerous options. He could have chosen a million other combinations, just like a writer could start his book a thousand different ways, a painter beginning with a thousand different strokes. The shape that we see at the end is the culmination of a nonlinear process, the artist’s individuality, mind and heart at work, which is all hidden in that final painting.

 

It is no small matter that God’s grand entrance—a story of His creativity—is also humanity’s most baffling trait. Stories of human creativity and inventions inspire us. The creators of the world, the change-makers, are those who know how to mine their individuality.

 

Experiencing Creation

 

If mankind is made in God’s image, and the first thing He wants us to know about Himself is His creativity, then it must mean that He wants us to employ our individuality and creativity to its fullest measure. Could it be that in engaging in a creative process, we are mirroring divinity? Anyone who has engaged in creating something must know the magical wonder stored within the process, from inspiration to fruition. Could it be that Genesis 1 is an invitation for us to write our own creation stories?

 

Want more? See also Individuality: What Makes You, You, how genius work happens, and how to use individuality as the engine of learning.

 

Between Jerusalem and Athens

Between Jerusalem and Athens

Between Jerusalem and Athens is a 7-part essay series on worldviews.

 

Since last year, I’ve been thinking about meta-questions: What caused us to think in a certain way? Where did ideas—those I subscribe to and those I don’t understand—come from? What influenced the prevailing thoughts in a given society? What are their strengths and shortcomings?

 

You may say it’s an exercise of intellectual empathy, an attempt to understand others and myself, and to learn the vocabularies by which we can converse across different worldviews.

 

Between Jerusalem and Athens as a title represents this cross-cultural look at the world, which is probably more a reflection of me than of the world itself. Jerusalem and Athens are not to be interpreted as two ends of a spectrum—the ideas in this series of essay extend beyond these—but as an analog of the cultural blends that shape my thinking. Jerusalem is an analog of the East, although there are many versions of “East”, which influences me through my heritage, birthplace, faith, and early education. Athens is an analog of the West, the intellectual culture inherited from ancient Greece, in which my life and work are immersed. Between Jerusalem and Athens is also a tribute to Abraham J. Heschel, whose writings have opened up new horizons in the way I see faith and spirituality—a peek into the philosophy of Judaism.

 

The 7 essays in this series, split into 9 posts, are descriptions of the world through my lens. Looking around, I see a siloed world—academically, in the workplace, spiritually, personally, in public service, media—segmented based on certain artificial categorizations. In many cases, these categories and classes have helped us focus, analyze, and make much progress as a species. But they are not without downfalls, as the categorizations may turn into barriers, dividing people. These essays are my response to the strengths and weaknesses of this approach, and my quest to find solutions by exploring other worldviews.

 

When A Single Narrative Is Not Enough

On avoiding single-mindedness and telling a one-sided story. “The danger of a single narrative comes when it is accepted in pure disregard of other possible narratives, solely labeling something as good or bad without acknowledging the alternative.”

 

From the Equad to the World

On the silos of knowledge that prevent communication and collaborations across artificial barriers that are much needed to solve complex real world problems. This is a vote for multidisciplinary thinking, the widening of the scope of our thinking beyond conventional academic categorizations.

 

Engineering With Soul: A Spiritual Dimension to Work

On the separation between the mind, body, and soul—the components that make up our humanity—that causes an unfulfilling life. Addressing the need for a balanced development on all aspects of our being.

 

Wonder and Fear: Thinking Two Thoughts at Once

On the reality that two seemingly contradicting experiences can coexist at once. A precursor to the last essay below.

 

Asian and Western Minds, Part 1: Why They Differ

Asian and Western cultures are descendants of two different ancient philosophies, namely the ancient Chinese and Greek cultures, respectively. This essay is on the core principles of each culture and how they affect today’s societies.

 

Asian and Western Minds, Part 2: How They Differ

This post highlights the key findings of Richard Nisbett’s social psychology experiments, observations on how specifically Asian and Western minds differ.

 

A Child of East and West, Part 1

The chronicle of an Indonesian in America. This is the story of my upbringing in the East and my cultural experiences after moving to the West.

 

A Child of East and West, Part 2

Continuing the story with my life in the West and the re-discovery of the East.

 

Theoretical Dichotomies: When Either-Or Thinking Gets You Nowhere

When a paradigm categorizes things too much and has difficulties reconciling paradoxes. Real life is messier than theoretical analyses.


 

There is a book that I return to many times, titled Education by the insightful Ellen White. Its profound first paragraph never fails to strike me every time I read it, and it serves as inspiration for the essays above. It is an argument for a life of learning that is wide is scope, multidisciplinary, practical, and well integrated. This, to me, is the perfect way to end this series.

 

Our ideas of education take too narrow and too low a range. There is need of a broader scope, a higher aim. True education means more than the pursual of a certain course of study. It means more than a preparation for the life that now is. It has to do with the whole being, and with the whole period of existence possible to man. It is the harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers. It prepares the student for the joy of service in this world and for the higher joy of wider service in the world to come.

 

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