Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Paradoxical Dorothy Sayers

I was reading through an interesting chapter in Dorothy Sayers Mind of the Maker today entitled "The Love of the Creature." My sense that she contradicts herself in varied ways throughout her book only grew as I read, and by the end of the chapter had become a full and confusing paradox. And at what point does a paradox become nonsense? How does one assess the truth of a paradox?

She concludes this chapter with an interesting statement where she affirms that the human artist is to an extant analagous to the Creator who creates what is a part of Himself and yet what is also independent of him. The paradox, of course is, how can creation be a part of the Creator and at the same time be independent of Him? She writes,

All [of the artist's] efforts and desires reach out to that ideal creative archetype in whose unapproachable image he feels himself to be made, which can make a universe filled with free, conscious and co-operative wills; a part of his own personality and yet existing independently within the mind of the maker.

Perhaps she offers her own solution to this conundrum when she writes "within the mind of the maker." One might ask, then, what kind of independence this really is.

She provides the reader with an afterthought, following her chapter "The Love of the Creature." It has little to do with what I have just commented on, but I thought it was funny and uncharacteristicly biting in comparison to the rest of her book. Discussing the relationship between fantasy in childhood and creativity she writes,

Evidence of a habit of fantasy in a child is no proof of creative impulse: on the contrary. The child who relates his fantasied adventures as though they were fact is about as far removed from creativeness as he can possibly be; these dreamy little liars grow up (if into nothing worse) into the feeble little half-baked poets who are the irritation and despair of true makers.

Maybe she was just having a bad day.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Love and the Problem of Disproportion

W. H. Vanstone, in his book Love's Endeavor, Love's Expense, reflects, "I knew of the God without Whom no sparrow falls to the ground. I could conceive, as a logical or theological possibility, that my tree, like the sparrow, might be important to God. But always the problem arose of disproportion or incongruity. [...] It was one thing to believe that God created all things, but another to believe that this 'fag-end' of His creation could be important to Him."

He then recounts a story about two boys who were looking for something to do on their holiday break from school. The boys came to Vanstone, searching for ideas, and he suggested that they build a model of a certain piece of land using sticks, rocks, paint and whatever other materials the could find. Despite the boys initial lack of enthusiasm, they chose to take on the project, and Vanstone reflects on their progress in an illuminating way.

Although the project began without much excitement, it quickly became an obsession: they would work long hours and miss meal times. He notes how "the placing each stone and twig was a matter for careful discussion." Once something was placed on the model, a moment of waiting and seeing if it was 'right' followed. New possibilities would arise after the placement of each piece, as well as new difficulties.

Vanstone writes that "As the model grew and became of greater value, each step in its creation became of greater moment and was taken with greater intensity of care. Each item that was placed seemed to possess greater power to make or to mar. [...] The once contemptible sticks and stones now had a certain power over those who were using them -- a power to effect or negate the completion of that which was being made, and so to satisfy or frustrate those who were making it. The two boys became vulnerable in and through that which, out of virtually nothing, they had brought into being."

"As I watched this microcosm of creative activity, and as later I reflected upon it, three things gradually became evident to me. The first was that, in such activity, there was both working and waiting. One could say that the activity of creating included the passivity of waiting -- of waiting upon one's workmanship to see what emerged from it, and to see if that which emerged was 'right.' The second, which followed from the first, was that, in such activity, the creator gave to, or built into, his workmanship a certain power over himself. He gave to his workmanship that which, if it were not his workmanship, it would not possess -- a power to affect himself, to have value, significance, or importance for himself. The third, which followed from the second, was that in such activity disproportion between creator and workmanship, or between creator and material, was overcome by the gift of value. That which in itself was nothing was transformed, in the creative process, into a thing of value: as the work of a creator, it received a new status in relation to the creator. The incongruity between the great and small was overcome when the creativity of the great was expended in and upon the small."

"Therefore, through this simple incident, I was helped to see that awareness of the importance of any aspect of material reality may be awareness not of its relevance to human well-being but simply of its being the work of love: and that a sense of responsibility for it may be a sense of responsibility for a work of love."

See W. H. Vanstone, Love's Endeavor, Love's Expense, 30 - 34.

On Theological Method

I came across a couple of paragraphs in the forward of Love's Endeavor (by W. H. Vanstone)that seem to encapsulate Vanstone's theological method. I am wrestling with many of these ideas at the moment because they seem to fit, and yet do not fit, within the evangelical tradition of my upbringing. Without saying any more, I turn to H. A. Williams:

Theological truth is the truth of God's relationship with man and it is the fruit not of learning but of experience. In this sense all theology, properly so called, is written in blood. It is an attempt to communicate what has been discovered at great cost in the deepest places of the heart -- by sorrow and joy, frustration and fulfillment, defeat and victory, agony and ecstasy, tragedy and triumph. Theology, properly so called, is the record of a man's wrestling with God. Wounded in some way or other by the struggle the man will certainly be, but in the end he will obtain the blessing promised to those who endure.

The theologian in this respect is no different from the poet or the dramatist. All of them must write in blood. Yet what the theologian is called to do with his experience is different from what the poet or dramatist does. [...] Its center of interest is different in two ways. First, the theologian's primary concern must always be God's relationship with man, and any relationship a man may have with his fellow-men or the world he lives in must always be subsumed under the primary relationship with God. Secondly, the theologian has been nurtured by a tradition of belief and practice and all the time he must relate his insights to the tradition which has nurtured him. However first hand, and in that sense original, those insights may be, they cannot be entirely out of the blue. They have to connect in some way with insights already achieved.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Can God's Creative Work Mean More Than He Meant?

George MacDonald writes, “One difference between God’s work and man’s is, that while God’s work cannot mean more than he meant, man’s must mean more than he meant … A man may well himself discover truth in what he wrote; for he was dealing all the time with things that came from thoughts beyond his own.” (Macdonald, A Dish of Orts, 320 – 321)

What does it mean for a work of art to go beyond the author’s intentions? Is a work of art simply the product or embodiment of the artists thoughts, feelings, mental states unless otherwise inspired? Is the reason that artists are often curious or puzzled about their own creations that they have been inspired by something beyond them? Do we have here a case where the inexplicable is simply filled in by the divine?

To say that “God’s work cannot mean more than he meant” is deceptively simple. We feel, at a gut and intuitive level, that this is a fitting description of God’s creative powers. Surely if anyone can express himself perfectly it is God, right? And yet, if we dig too deeply, we find problems. If what God “meant” before creating is the same as what creation means, how can time and space have any relevance to the meaning of creation? Everything in the created world is essentially reducible to what God “meant.” In this view, the particularity of each created thing, as well as the history of creation, appears irrelevant to the meaning of creation. God’s activities in creation could be construed, therefore, as God’s continuing attempt to ensure that creation means what he initially meant. This suggests a relationship between God and his creation that is unilateral: God responds primarily to his initial desires for creation without taking into consideration changing situations within his creation.

To say instead that God’s work does mean more than he meant, opens up different possibilities. The most obvious way in which creation can mean more than God initially meant is that creation is capable of generating its own meaningfulness. The free response of human beings to God and his creation participates in God’s creative activity either advancing or obstructing God’s redemptive movement in history. This is not to say that humans bring about God’s redemption and the New Creation (which is the meaning toward which God’s creative activities are striving), but that humans participate in God’s redemption by moving along side Him. God welcomes human beings, as representatives of his grace within creation, based on trust rather than control. God’s creative activities are inherently risky because He chooses to create something ‘other’ than himself, and to be in collaboration with that ‘other’ to determine the final outcome of His creativity.

Describing God’s creativity as being in collaboration presents all sorts of theological problems. Is God’s sovereignty somehow limited over creation? Can God become the victim of His creation? How does one articulate the freedom of human beings? Does God learn about His creation as its meaning unfolds to Him? Can God be surprised? While these problems and questions are serious, it seems to me that they are the inevitable problems of defining a loving relationship between God and His creation. That God loves his creation is impossible to refute from a Christian perspective. And so the question becomes, what does it mean to love someone else? Surely part of loving someone else is recognizing that the beloved, as well as the lover, brings something genuine and original to the relationship. It is from the perspective of the love of God that questions about God’s creativity must be explored.