Notions and practices of creativity have been central to the culture that has developed in the West in the period since the late eighteenth century. Often this involves invoking, reflecting, or applying aspects of Christian beliefs about divine creativity—as when Coleridge spoke of imagination as an echo in the finite mind of the great ‘I AM’ or Jacques Maritain declared the artist to be ‘an associate of God in the making of works of beauty’ who does not merely imitate God’s creation, ‘but continues it’. In the Coleridgean example, the ‘echo’ reverberates in all forms of human consciousness: perceiving anything at all involves a kind of secondary act of creation, but Coleridge, like Maritain, would see the supreme exemplification of this creative capacity in the figure of the ‘artist’ or ‘poet’, in which it is raised to the highest degree and the artists offer a blueprint for what we all can or could or perhaps even should be or become.
This is a view of the nature of art and artistic activity that is relatively novel and relatively local. Up until the threshold of modernity, those persons we call ‘artists’ were largely to be regarded as artisans or craftsmen. As Larry Shiner has pointed out in this study The Invention of Art: A Cultural History, it is perhaps a nice irony that whereas the Greeks have been regarded from the Renaissance onwards as exemplifying the ‘artistic genius of mankind’, the Greeks themselves ‘had no word for art’ in our modern sense. As Shiner comments: ‘What is strikingly absent in the ancient Greek view of the artisan/ artist is our modern emphasis on imagination, originality, and autonomy. In a general way, imagination and autonomy were appreciated as part of the craftsmanship of commissioned production for a purpose, but not in their emphatic modern sense. Although the achievements of Greek naturalism in painting and sculpture of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. were much admired, for the most part painters and sculptors were still viewed as manual workers, and Plutarch said that no talented young aristocrat upon seeing and admiring the famous Zeus of Phidias would want to be Phidias’. Although he makes a partial exception in the case of poetry, often regarded as more akin to prophecy than to some other ‘fine arts’ (as we would call them), even in this case ‘the typical Roman writer of poetry was either an aristocratic amateur or a dependent who lived from patronage’.
The Romantic cult of genius and the inflated valuation of artistic activity belong in the wider context of the general modern emphasis on autonomy, familiar in ethics, politics, and many other spheres of life. And just as ethics has witnessed conflicts between the claims of divine law and human autonomy, so art has seen confrontations between artist-creators and God-the-creator. Sometimes the artist becomes the privileged instance of and a standard-bearer for a more general revolt on the part of the would-be Man-God, as when Nietzsche, having pronounced the death of God and called upon human beings to a life of endless self-overcoming, also described this life as essentially artistic—a model he was as happy to apply to ethics and politics as to painting, writing, and making music. The artist was the supreme self-inventor who, having become free of the guilt-consciousness instilled by Christianity’s preachers of death, became the inventor of his own values, his own world, his own life.
This confrontation still reverberates in contemporary discussions of the relationship between art and religion, as evidenced by a recent collection of essays by the critic Peter Conrad, entitled Creation: Artists, Gods, and Origins. According to the fly-leaf, Conrad ‘describes the long illness and eventual demise of the Christian God, and shows how artists and scientists were ready and eager to take over a creative role that was once a heavenly prerogative.’ Conrad’s message (which, it should be said, is more a virtuoso exercise in the association of ideas than a piece of rigorous argument) is, on the whole, one of art supplanting religion or (as was the case with Nietzsche) returning behind Christianity to the mythology of the ancient world. He begins his story with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and appears to affirm the ‘Promethean’ implications of the story. It was, of course, Percy Shelley who declared poets to be ‘the unacknowledged legislators of mankind’, intended as a very deliberate counter to the view that human possibilities were prescribed by divine laws against which there was no appeal and Conrad also quotes Hazlitt’s comment on Shelley’s poetic ambition to be ‘the maker of his own poetry—out of nothing’.
But if one is looking to the religious tradition for insights to illuminate creativity, is Genesis 1 the sole or even the best place to begin? It may seem the most obvious point of reference, but that doesn’t of itself make it the best. My aim here is primarily to suggest that there is much, maybe more, to be gained from looking at issues of creativity and the making and reception of art in the light of central New Testament teachings on redemption in Christ.
There is a rather well-known thirteenth century illuminated picture of God creating the world that is also reproduced in Conrad’s book. ‘God’ is recognizable as Jesus, equipped with compasses that are poised to divide the sublunary sphere into its various constituent parts. This identification hinges on Jesus being ‘the Word’ that was in the beginning with God and in and by which God worked the acts of creation (‘God said ...’ etc.). But the picture also reflects a basic Christian approach to what is generally called ‘the Old Testament’, namely, that it is to be understood strictly and exclusively in its relation to the New Testament and, more particularly, in terms of its testimony to Christ. According to the complex system of types and anti-types developed from the early Christian centuries onwards, Christ was already the essential subject of each and every Old Testament text, whether this was the kingship of David, the crossing of the Red Sea, the drunkenness of Noah or the Creation itself. Now this could and did lead to what we might consider to be merely fantastical interpretations, and the vast majority of them have now been discontinued as material for doctrinal reflection and development (the drunkenness of Noah being a case in point). However, there is both practical and theoretical merit in the basic idea, even if we cannot return to the over-simplistic (and sometimes almost mechanical) one-to-one correlation of Old Testament texts and Christian doctrines that late classical and medieval commentators developed.
For the chief aim of this older interpretative model (generally called ‘typology’) was that it sought to understand the Old Testament text in the light of Christ’s birth, death, resurrection and ascension. In the case of creation, this meant that what Christians knew of the redemption wrought in Christ provides a kind of interpretative key to the meaning of creation and not vice versa. Thus Paul could write of the experience of salvation that, when anyone comes to be in Christ there is a new creation and he described the process of redemption whereby God’s children find their glorious liberty as setting creation free from its bondage to decay so that it might become what it truly is, the ‘good’ creation that God made it to be ‘in the beginning’.
In Christian theology this means that the meaning of creation is not to be investigated by quasi- (or pseudo-) scientific or metaphysical speculations about origins, but is interpreted in the light of Christ and him crucified. This is the point at which the new creation is revealed, where ‘what we shall be’ is reflected in the face of Jesus Christ and, specifically, the Christ who lives in the memory of his suffering—as Christian pray in the Passsiontide hymn ‘turn thou thy face on me’ (thus ritually identifying themselves with the penitent thief to whom, in Christian art, the face of the dying Christ is always turned as he speaks the eschatological words of promise: ‘tonight you will be with me in paradise’). But if the Christian view of creation is localized to the event of the cross, this also allows for a certain re-thinking of creation as ‘out of nothing’.
Now it is obvious that the passion narrative presupposes a world and a history within which and within which alone it makes sense. Precisely for this reason, the Church decided rather early on that its proclamation of salvation in Christ needed to be embedded in the specific context provided by the Old Testament scriptures. The concrete historical content of the Christ event was meaningful only as reversing the Fall of Adam, only as the New Exodus, only as fulfilling the promise of a New Covenant. Alternative narrative frameworks such as Gnosticism and various speculations around Sibylline prophecies or mysterious verses in Virgil were for the most part rejected or marginalized. Instead, Israel, along with its history, its land, its cities, and its countryside, even its Mediterranean agriculture—the vine, the olive, and sheep-herding—entered into the very fabric of the Christian scheme of salvation. This scheme was never ‘world-less’ but always, from the beginning, was as it was only as embedded in just this world and no other.
As Christianity moved into other cultural environments, that specific worldly heritage could prove problematic. Hegel would ask, rhetorically, ‘Is Judah, then, the Teuton’s Fatherland’, and would re-contextualize the Christ-event in the crisis of Greco-Roman civilization, letting the Old Testament preparation for the gospel more or less fall by the wayside. But however we depict or conceive it, the Christian message requires some kind of context and therefore the ‘new creation’ in Christ cannot be ‘out of nothing’ in any literal cosmological sense. The new creation is not simply ‘creation’ but new creation or re-creation or a repetition. And yet it is also, in a sense, ‘out of nothing’. How is this? The key to answering this question, I suggest, is to look at aspects of the Christian doctrine of the Fall.
Early Christian theology turned not only to the Old Testament to provide a world and a history in which to contextualize the Christ-event, it also used the prevailing philosophical movements of the ancient world to help interpret that world and that history. Especially, that meant Platonism and, as is especially clear in Augustine, that included a certain understanding of Being and nothingness. In its absolutely simplest outline, this meant a correlation to the point of identification between God and Being and a representation of creation as the communication of Being to all possible beings. However, apart from God Himself, all other beings were marked by some deficiency in being—having an admixture of non-being, we may say—and were thus unable simply to be themselves by themselves or to sustain their own being without depending on others. The greater the admixture of non-being, the less beings are, until the point is reached at which existence simply ceases and there is pure flux without limit, pure relativity, and nothing comes into or passes out of being. Consequently, whilst Augustine insists that the fall came about through human freedom and was in a certain sense uncaused, he also suggests that there was a certain inevitability about it in that creatures are made ‘out of nothing’ and thereby have the possibility of falling away from God, back into the nothing, the non-existence out of which they were called into being. This thought is, of course, then taken up into what would be called the theory of evil as privation, that the nature of evil itself is not something positive but negative, namely, the lack of that measure of being that is appropriate to the kind of being it is. For human beings, the ultimate form of such non-being is, simply, death, and our being as being-towards-death is transmitted from generation to generation by sexual reproduction.
Modern theology seems to have abandoned much of the Augustinian count, and a case in point is the influential modern account of the Fall offered in Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous work The Concept of Anxiety. This would become a key text of twentieth century philosophy, when it was taken up into Heidegger’s analysis of human existence in Being and Time and from there was incorporated also into Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. In many respects The Concept of Anxiety is a profoundly anti-Augustinian text. This might seem surprising since Kierkegaard was by upbringing and theological education a Lutheran and Lutheranism itself had been profoundly shaped in its origins by the Augustinian account of the Fall and, indeed, the darker versions of that account. ‘Original sin’—or ‘hereditary sin’, as Luther’s German and Kierkegaard’s Danish have it—was an inescapable feature of human life, and freedom could only be regained by divine intervention from above. Yet Kierkegaard not only dismisses the mythical dimensions of the Fall story, making it clear that what he is concerned with is not the story of an event in prehistory but of what occurs in each human life, he also (as I read him) demolishes the core of the doctrine of hereditary sin, since (he argues) the loss of freedom can only ever be understood as a free act. Therefore, whilst a certain quantitative predisposition to sin might accumulate from generation to generation, that quantitative accumulation can never necessitate that you or I or our neighbour do actually ‘fall’.
Yet at one point Kierkegaard reveals a trace of the Augustinian inheritance, and this has to do with the relationship between freedom and nothingness. Kierkegaard describes the situation of the soul before the Fall as that of ‘dreaming innocence’. Do not be misled by the term ‘soul’: what is being described is a certain stage of human psychological development, prior to the arising of ego-consciousness and the corresponding consciousness of a world upon which the ego acts. Beyond its own dream world the future self has ‘nothing’. But, Kierkegaard asks, ‘what effect does nothing have? It begets anxiety. This is the profound secret of innocence, that it is at the same time anxiety. Dreamily, the spirit projects its own actuality, but this actuality is nothing, and innocence always sees this nothing outside itself’. In other words, every human life is—as Heidegger would add to the Kierkegaardian account—‘thrown’ towards a future that does not yet exist, thrown towards possibilities it does not yet understand and cannot yet realize. Its being human is inseparable from its future possibility to choose and to become who it will be, but this possibility does not yet exist for it and is ‘as nothing’. It can become what it is or is destined to be, only by creating itself out of nothing. But here’s the rub: nothing ‘begets anxiety’. Kierkegaard is far from attributing a causal link between ‘nothing’ and the Fall, since it is always possible that we do not swoon or succumb to vertigo in the face of nothing, but really do ‘become who we are’. Yet the sheer infinity of the nothing and the pure openness of the possibilities towards which life is thrown are unsettling and seem to threaten our need to have something rather than nothing, and even if the ‘something’ is a second-rate social identity offered at the bargain price of a more or less conscious conformism it is, after all, something and it makes us someone.
But this situation is heightened if we take into account that the world into which we are thrown is not a tabula rasa, that there is (as I have noted) a quantitative accumulation of ‘sin’, i.e., a socially embodied history of human beings not becoming who we have it in us to become, a history—or histories—of and a ready-made rationale for not being otherwise than we are expected to be; we are raised in cultures that burden us with expectations of becoming warriors, social climbers, deceivers, or just plain losers. Our models for what it is to be a good human being are vitiated and eroded by past failures of freedom. Kierkegaard argues that this situation cannot determine any given individual in an absolute sense, I may be otherwise, but it certainly makes the task more daunting as the nothingness that is our potential for freedom becomes a harbinger of our probable fall into some kind of inhumanity or other. In situations of trans-generational family dysfunctionality, communal conflict, and war, nothingness becomes a weight under which human beings can scarcely move; the void opens beneath us at every footstep.
There might be many examples from one or other art that we could draw on to illustrate this, but the one that perhaps encapsulates the human, philosophical, and artistic issues is Neil Jordan’s 1982 movie, Angel. Angel is in some respects a classic story of revenge. The film is set in Northern Ireland in the period of the troubles. The central character, Danny, known as ‘the Stan Getz of South Armagh’, is a sax player in a moderately successful showband who witnesses the murder of the band’s manager by a gang of racketeers after a gig at a local dance hall. One of the killers is wearing a surgical boot, and this enables Danny to track the gang down. Taking a machine-gun from their safe-house he sets out to kill them, one by one. As the story progresses, the theme of nothingness comes more and more to the fore. When Danny is leading one of the gang (George) away at gunpoint, George asks ‘Would you mind telling me who you are?’ to which Danny replies, ‘I’m nobody’. ‘And that’s nothing you’ve got stuck in my back,’ George replies—ironically, but, in a way, entirely truly. Shortly after Danny has killed George, he is taken by the police to the morgue and confronted with the dead body of one of his victims. The senior detective, Bloom, asks him, ‘What do you know, Danny?’ ‘Nothing.’ ‘I know nothing too. You’ve got to watch nothing. It can take hold of you. Be careful for those hands, Danny. You need them, don’t you?’ ‘I’m a musician.’ ‘If music be the food of love ... how does it go?’ ‘Play on.’ ‘You know, you can go places, Danny, where I couldn’t. Do you understand me? It’s a kind of poetic license.’
There is much to comment on in this exchange, but the main implication seems to be that the cycle of revenge, which really is born of ‘nothing’, because it is devoid of reason and purpose and far from adding anything to human reality merely tears away at it—this cycle of revenge can never entirely be settled by the objective methods of law and punishment. Only the artist, only the one with the poetic license can find his way to the heart of darkness. But, as the film shows, Danny (the artist) too needs redemption, he too is trapped in the nothing. One night, shortly after the encounter with Bloom, his girlfriend—aware that something is going on that Danny is not telling her about—turns away form him as he tries to kiss her. ‘I can’t,’ she says. ‘Why not?’ ‘You have to tell me first.’ ‘It’s nothing.’ ‘You’re lying.’ ‘It’s like a nothing you can feel. And it gets worse.’ It gets a lot worse, before, the cycle of killing over, Danny finds an anguished redemption in the ruins of the burnt-out dance hall where it all began. Over the charred ruins Danny’s signature rendition of the Londonderry Air, raw and poignant, plays out the end credits.
The phenomena of the cycle of revenge perfectly epitomize what Kierkegaard described as the ‘quantitative accumulation’ of sin: the development of a situation in relation to which the individual seems helpless, a ‘wheel of fire’ to which we are bound, a nothing we can feel, and into which all the things we could have been sink without trace. It is at the heart of the questions that all great tragedy proposes and, if we follow René Girard, at the base of all cultural practice and expression. Can we be redeemed from the burnt-out dance-halls that strew our collective and individual pasts? Can we find an art capable of relieving the monotony of violence, the binary mathematics of action and re-action, black-and-white, good-and-evil, and liberating us into a polychrome life-world of genuine richness and depth? Is it the case that ‘nothing comes of nothing’, as Lear angrily retorts, or can there be re-creation out of the nothing of history?
Which brings us back to the cross. The new creation to which Christian theology bears witness, the new creation brought about in and by ‘Christ and him crucified’, is not a new creation out of an absolute cosmic or metaphysical nothing. It is a new creation of a world and a history that has been degraded and diminished by suffering, violence, and every possible manifestation of sin, it is precisely the transformation of the nothing that has eroded and eaten away at our world and our history and, as such, is also healing, restorative, regenerative, re-creational. It is the reversal of the quantitative accumulation of nothingness that has so long overwhelmed our individual and collective aspirations for something better.
This way of looking at it seems to me to address a problem with the high Romantic view of creativity modelled on Genesis 1 and which ascribes to the artists a kind of power that puts them on course for a direct confrontation with God. As an example of this high romantic view in practice, Conrad cites the trailer Orson Welles made for Citizen Kane. This begins in darkness, until a disembodied voice calls for ‘Light’, whereupon a shaft of light divides the darkness. ‘Sound’—and a microphone swings into view, steadied by a hand that reaches out from the right of the picture and settles in a posture echoing that of God in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Into the microphone a still hidden Welles narrates the trailer, ‘an all-seeing autocrat who prefers to remain unseen, a creator who pervades his creation and yet is teasingly absent from it’, as Conrad puts it.
With or without Christian or religious presuppositions, such a model of artistic creativity seems to be prone to the charge of hubris. Such artist-creators are not only virtually super-human (as Nietzsche predicted) but also at risk of becoming in-human (as Thomas Mann depicted in his Doktor Faustus, an account of the life of Adrian Leverkühn, the German composer who, in abandoning the ideals of humanism, sank to the level of the sub-human and, in doing so, became an allegory for the fate of contemporary Germany itself). The artist-creator may find his exemplars and apologists in Leonardo and Michelangelo, in Shakespeare’s Prospero, in the philosophy of a Fichte, the poetic creed of a Shelley, and the prophecies of the philosopher-poet Nietzsche, and he may seem almost to be realized in such extraordinarily genial figures as Welles himself or, perhaps most god-like of all twentieth century artists, Picasso. Yet such figures and the kind of works associated with them actually represent only a small part of human beings’ artistic creativity, and are they, in the event, what we most value? Is there not, after all, a certain inhumanity in Leonardo compared with his less masterful but ultimately more gracious contemporary Boticelli, and much as we admire Michelangelo’s titanic David, does it move us to the same depths as his own flawed and death-haunted Pietà? Does Prospero offer more insight into the human condition than Shakespeare’s own Poor Tom or our times’ Primo Levi? Do Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky really know less than Nietzsche, merely because they refuse to dissociate themselves from the continuing afflictions in which human lives are entangled? Is mastery greater than healing or power than suffering? Is it greater to save a life that has become habituated to self-destructive tendencies or to forget about such complications and invent a new world in which such awkward creatures don’t exist? And there are other issues: Conrad himself, whilst broadly preferring artistic and mythological models of creativity to theological examples, contrasts the kind of poetic ideology espoused by Shelley with Mary Shelley’s female insights into ‘the messy organic business of engendering’, a more complex and less absolute process.
There is, of course, much more to be said about each of these examples, for and against, but I offer them merely as indicative of how thinking about creativity in the light of the cross might engage ideas of creativity as they are seen in some characteristic figures of modern art. And note that, as opposed to notions of artistic creativity that take Genesis 1 as their prototype, there would seem to be no intrinsic conflict between divine and human in working to comfort, heal, restore and give hope to suffering human beings fallen or always on the edge of falling into nothingness. What matters here is not who gets the credit for creating ‘in the beginning’ but becoming committed to the grace and work of re-creation.
I have been suggesting that Christian theologizing about creativity would do better to be oriented by the passion narrative than by Genesis 1. A primary reason for this is that Genesis narrative enacts a rhetoric of power that allows for only one winner. Yet it could be argued that the problem with Genesis 1 is not simply its valorization of absolute power, but the gesture of exclusiveness with which it is accompanied in theological discourse (not how often Christian theology has insisted on the distinctiveness of the Christian ex nihilo and on its importance). But it could be objected that my move from monotheism to incarnation does not overcome Christian exclusivism but may even intensify it. That might be the lesson of the effect of the theology of Karl Barth on 20th century Christian thought: that whilst it broke the deadlock of a certain version of abstract theism, it ended in a kind of dogmatism that cut Christian proclamation off from the human realities to which that proclamation was addressed and to which it sought to offer the transforming power of faith.
One, admittedly speculative, way past this impasse is found in the writings of the great Russian religious philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev. In his 1908 work The Meaning of Creativity, Berdyaev directly contests the view that the designation of God as ‘Creator’ obstructs human beings’ discovery, exploration and practice of their own creative possibilities. On the contrary, precisely because God is Creator and human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, the creativity of human beings must be a basic datum of Christian anthropology. Rather than the zero sum game played out in debates between Nietzschean Romantics and Christian dogmatists it is not the case that the more creativity and freedom there is on the one side, the less there must be on the other. Instead, the greater the creativity and freedom on one side, the more there will be on the other. The cycle of reciprocity is expansive, and each ‘side’ bears the interests of the other. In living creatively, I am assisting in the fulfilment of the divine will for creation: in affirming the creativity of God, I am affirming the creative potential of humanity.
In a further step, Berdyaev suggests that our own human experiences of creativity and freedom therefore offer a genuine analogy into what divine creativity itself means. With some help from the mystical tradition, especially Boehme and Eckhart, Berdyaev explains that divine creativity is not a simple matter of absolute ‘Fiat!’, but that God himself is engaged in a process of self-creation: that there is a kind of nothingness or abyss within the divine life, and that God ‘becomes’ Creator by self-creation out of this nothing. God is only ‘Light’ by transfiguring the darkness of his own pre-divine depths. Furthermore, this process of divine self-creation is not conceived by Berdyaev as something occurring temporally ‘before’ the world, but is understood as revealed within and through the interdependence of divine and human. In other words, it is precisely in and through the creative transformation of suffering and the creative contestation of the history of nothingness that is exemplified in the passion narrative and encountered in innumerable instances of creative living that God ‘becomes’ Creator. Although possibly unaware of Berdyaev, a not dissimilar vision is encountered in the novels and spiritual writings of Nikos Kazantzakis. In his best-known work, The Last Temptation of Christ, we see just this inversion: that instead of a ‘perfect’ Christ arriving in the world to save it from itself, Christ becomes Christ through all the madness, physical suffering and human betrayal that he experiences. When Christ is also understood—as Kazantzakis understood him—as representing universal human possibilities, we may also say that, through Christ human beings become ‘Saviours of God’, perhaps Kazantzakis’ most provocative phrase but one that (despite his excommunication from the Orthodox Church) has a properly theological meaning. Again, we do not need to be forced into an either/or, but are at liberty to understand this in terms of an expansive reciprocal process, as divine creativity calls forth human creativity that calls forth divine creativity ... ad infinitum, or, better, until we experience the breakthrough to the dimension of ultimacy, to the eschatological reality that does not bring history to an end but makes history possible, to the re-creation of the image and likeness of God amongst striving, suffering, culpable human beings, to the end that is our beginning.
 J. Maritain, Art and Scholasticism (London: Sheed and Ward, 1933), p. 63.
 L. Shiner, The Invention of Art. A Cultural History (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2001), p. 23.
 Ibid., p. 24.
 P. Conrad, Creation. Artists, Gods & Origins (London: Thames and Hudson, 2007).
 Ibid., p. 13.
 Ibid., p. 28.
 One of the problematic aspects of this Christocentric approach to scripture was its association with tropes of anti-Semitism. In re-affirming a Christocentric approach, I am not doing so in order to legitimate an analogous Christian colonization of the Jewish Scriptures. Although Christian and Jewish communities both claim grounding in the Hebrew Scriptures, there is an important sense in which these are not, in fact, the ‘same’ text. Furthermore, the Jewish community has developed its own models of interpreting these texts that offer their own solutions to what many modern readers encounter as the ‘scandalous’ aspects of these ancient writings. For example, the Jewish tradition has been far more tolerant of divergent readings, allowing texts to bear multiple meanings in a manner not reducible to the Christocentric hierarchy of Christian allegorical interpretation.
 S. Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 41.
 Conrad, op. cit., p. 14.
 For further discussion of the commonalities between Berdyaev and Kazantzakis, see Lewis Owens, ‘Metacommunism: Kazantzakis, Berdyaev and the “New Middle Age” in Slavic and East European Journal Vol. 45, no. 3 (2001), pp. 431-50.