Meaningful Creativity
Sam Trumbore | May 02, 2016

Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed walk into a bar to compare their histories, experiences and beliefs. Moses orders wine, Jesus orders water and turns it into wine, Mohammed orders Nabeez (his favorite drink made from soaking raisins and dates) and the Buddha drinks whatever is put in his glass with equanimity and gratitude. They are amazed by the modern world and the religious traditions created to honor and preserve their missions and messages. “So much change, so much growth of knowledge, interfaith dialogue, and scientific understanding,” they marvel. But what really blows their minds is what they see on one of the screens. There is the picture from the Hubbell Space Telescope of one the oldest galaxy thought to be created when the universe was only a billion years old.

What do they say to each other given what they see and hear doesn’t match up with their cosmologies?

This imaginary conversation would be really helpful given Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam are all founded on obsolete cosmologies. Yet their antiquated views of creation and its purpose still strongly influence the religious traditions, values and beliefs of the religions founded in their names.

One theologian who has updated the ancient thinking of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is mathematician Alfred North Whitehead. His thinking and writing evolving and developing during the time Albert Einstein was changing the world’s perception of space and time with his theories of relativity. Creativity has a special place in Whitehead’s thought.

It is beyond my scope here to explain his theory of creativity and how he relates it to how he understands space and time. (His theories are right on the edge of my understanding as it is!)

A key idea, however, is the centrality of creativity as an absolute principle of existence. Everything that exists from rocks and lichen, to daffodils and daisies, to rodents and monkeys and humans, has the capacity for what he calls, “novelty.” Nothing from the sub-atomic particle to the biggest mountain is absolutely determined. Each has some degree of freedom to choose that cannot be completely constrained with causal or mechanistic laws. That freedom may be as small for a rock, for example, as when a radioactive isotope in it decays (which cannot be precisely predicted). Or it could be as significant as the choice of kindness rather than aggression by a monkey.

Most importantly, creativity and freedom are not absolute.  They are limited, often severely limited by the structures in which they exists. But those constraints, severe as they may be, do not eliminate the possibility of creativity and novelty.

Having creativity as a freedom available to me, even though it might be constrained, sometimes severely constrained, I find very liberating and meaningful.

There is something awful about how evolution has shaped our minds. We are biased toward paying more attention to negative inputs and tend to discount the positive inputs. This makes sense from a survivalist perspective. Threats are far more important than delights. The latter we enjoy. The former can get us killed. So when we take that negative biasing and look into the future, we are programmed to see more limits than possibilities.

Whitehead’s ideas about creativity and novelty are wonderful counterbalances to the narrowing of our expectations and imagination. Our potential for novelty is often far greater than our imaginations will permit. Our willingness to be open to the creative urge that appears in an unguarded moment can disrupt our expectations.

We live in an intensely creative time with monthly, even weekly advances in science and technology. The changes in understanding of culture, ethnicity, race and gender keep me constantly learning and growing. Climate change is happening dramatically faster than the expectations of researchers. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like there are solid places to stand that will not shift under our feet. The buzz word in Silicon Valley is disruptive change.

Whether fast or slow, change is always happening. But would we have it any other way? Hell, for me, would be being stuck with the way things are for an eternity.

Let us be grateful for change because change implies novelty and creativity. Rather than passive pawns of the Gods, we are absolutely free to participate in the ongoing creativity of which we are a part. Our presence leaves a mark on the universe that is beyond measure.

May we choose those marks wisely.