This is an essay about world-views. A person’s world-view is the way he or she interprets the world and responds to it; directly or indirectly, everything we do comes from this mindset. A world-view of quality will be comprehensive, coherent, balanced, and well connected with the realities of experience. There may be other desirables as well, but these four are enough to show that a respectable, serviceable world-view is not something that is dreamt up overnight – it takes a lot of observation, soul-searching and thought. With so many centuries of life experience and wisdom behind us, we might expect as a race to have reached some sophistication in this part of our being. But it’s not so, and we are struggling, many of us more confused it seems than people who lived centuries ago.
Creativism is the world-view I have developed for myself and want to share. It ties together elements of philosophy, religion and ethics, with a smattering of science thrown in. Having looked at many of the standard world-views on offer – religious, political and so on – I remain discontented with them all, yet persuaded that they all have something of value. Sometimes their value lies in the way they sit within a particular culture, as Hinduism for example sits within the cultures of the Indian sub-continent. Generally, however, it goes further than culture, and again Hinduism is an example, for this is a school of thought that has applications worldwide. My aim in the present essay is to briefly define creativism then to outline its main tenets in philosophy, religion and ethics respectively. I conclude with a statement drawing all these threads together and showing how a creativist outlook can benefit individual lives and the world as a whole.
As might be expected, the thinking in philosophy, religion and ethics is integrated, forming one cohesive whole, however I recognise there are many who would differ from me in regard to religion. Religion is something very personal. To those people I say don’t be concerned, for each strand of my thought is able to stand on its own merits. A person can set aside the religious argument but still accept the philosophy and/or ethics.
Creativism is a way of seeing the world that puts creation at the centre of everything. The word “creation” here is used broadly, describing not just how the universe came into being but rather the every day, every minute, every second process of change whereby new things happen. Sometimes there might be genuine novelty in the sense of a new being or thing arriving, like a new baby. At other times the creation might just be an enhancement of something that already exists, like the printing of a poster with clearer colour definition. It may even mean something as mundane as things rolling off a production line. So, the ideas of novelty and enhancement and continuity are fundamental to creation, as distinct from ideas like death and destruction and diminution and decay. Creation can be seen as either an act or a process, and I use these two words interchangeably.
CREATIVISM AND PHILOSOPHY
Threshold issues in philosophy
Philosophy has threshold discussions about reality itself, for example, what reality means, whether we are real or just appearances, and whether there is one reality or many. From here it proceeds to questions of knowing: what knowing means, whether knowing can ever be objective, and what is the relationship between our different portals of knowledge – the senses, reason, emotions and so on.
None of this is my concern here. For the sake of discussion I assume we are all more or less real but with infinite differences in perception. There are realities of fact and potential, realities of memory and imagination, realities conditioned by time and place and culture, and so on. At the same time, I think there is a core where most of us would agree. Most would agree that a man beating a child is one order of reality, whereas a man beating wheat is another.
In this discussion I’m also unconcerned about questions of knowing. Of course these things are important, for we need to be sure we are all operating on substantially the same base, but I take the position of the average person (at least in the West) who simply accepts certain things as given. I’m aware also that there are threshold issues raised by non-Western schools of philosophy, but for simplicity I put them aside and press ahead with the existential concerns that for most of us are the starting point.
Everything starts with existence
Everything starts with existence: what is it and why does anything exist? The same questions can be asked about life: what is life and why is there life? From there we can proceed to similar questions about human life. As with other topics like divinity or God, we tend to approach these questions through attributes rather than the core, for this is how we encounter and understand things. In the case of existence, we tend to encounter it first through the attribute of matter. This leads to the realisation (which some dispute) that existence may also exist in a realm apart from matter, for ideas have existence too. Another of the more fundamental attributes of existence is movement, which is fundamental also to creation. Thus existence and creation are linked, though exactly how we cannot say. Scientists attempt to answer the riddle of the chicken (existence) and the egg (creation), but the riddle remains just that – a riddle. So a starting point in philosophy, and indeed all branches of learning, may simply be to accept that we do not know. We do not know because as mere mortals, even with the advantage of inherited and widely accumulated knowledge and wisdom, we are bound by the limitations of being merely human. Returning to the second question of this paragraph, we have to answer exactly the same: we do not know why anything exists because we cannot know.
Existence has meaning through value
Existence by itself has no meaning. It is like a block of wood that simply is. Meaning comes when we introduce ideas of value; for example, a block of wood can be used in certain ways, or can be decorative, or can be indicative of something such as naturalness and strength. Value like everything else has been extended in multiple ways – everything it seems is subject to growth and increasing complexity – but there are some core ideas like good and bad that, however they may be interpreted, crop up all the time. Some thinkers deny the reality of these ideas, saying they are just products of the imagination and therefore not real. This has particular resonance when we come to discussion of good and evil, for while many assert that good is real, there are those who deny the existence of evil, saying for example it is merely perception or perhaps the absence of good. Creativism has a more robust view of these things. Creativism holds that existence of values in the mind (good/bad, good/evil, true/false and so on) is warrant enough for them to be treated as real.
It is not just the existence of opposites like good and bad that is important but how they relate to each other and how they play out in everyday life. Here the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism is helpful, for Taoism recognises that cosmic opposites flow in and out of each other. Good and bad are not identified as cosmic opposites, but this they are undoubtedly are, and it is clear that they operate in a symbiotic relationship.
The universal order
Given that we inhabit and have to respond to a whole universe, perhaps the next most obvious step is to consider how this universe is ordered. Assuming that there is indeed some sort of order, as there appears to be, we can answer this in a number of ways according to our personal perspective. A scientist might choose to see nature and its laws as the pre-eminent form of order. Cosmologist Max Tegmark has argued that the universe is actually a mathematical structure (https://space.mit.edu/home/tegmark/mathematical.html). Others of more philosophical bent might say it is a complex of abstract qualities like harmony and contrast, singular and diverse, complete and incomplete. As mere mortals, so to speak, inhabiting just one small part of the whole, we are hardly in a position to be definitive one way or another. The order which we are part of and which surrounds us and flows through us is just too immense to characterise with any degree of certainty. As a creativist my humble suggestion is a product of my background in philosophy and religion, namely that the universal order is quite simply truth, which is “what is.” This is a bit like the perplexing words attributed to God in Exodus 3:14, “I am that I am.” Truth is itself hard if not impossible to define, but in my lexicon it is that which is ultimately sound and reliable. As such, truth is balanced by love which – again impossible to define - is the ultimate leap of faith, the ultimate adventure.
The universal order, however we understand it, is the way the universe is constituted. As such, we have to assume it is essentially the same in all parts of the universe and throughout all the ages; in other words it is broadly consistent in both space and time. The same would have to be said of any other dimension we might care to mention, like exterior and interior. This does not mean that the universal order has to be fixed, but rather that the actual order and potential order somehow together remain the same. Clearly there was a huge difference between the early universe and that which followed when Earth and other planets formed; and similarly there was a huge difference on planet Earth when life first appeared. But then the pace of creation picked up, a perfect example of the concept of exponential growth where the change feeds off the ever-increasing multiplicity of possible combinations; and paradoxically we see through this growth how the initial state and end states – our present – are at bottom the same.
There is a fundamental unity that shines through all the multiplicity of existence. Pattern is everywhere, testament perhaps to the self-organising capability of the universe. The overall unity is bound together by harmonies while kept from collapsing in on itself by contrasts. At the same time the contrasts are held in balance. Altogether it is a construct of great beauty, like centripetal force equalling centrifugal force. Wholeness (diversity), harmony, contrast and balance: these describe the essential integrity of our universe. Creation occurs within this overall framework.
The inevitability of change
Nothing in life is fixed, though there are enduring laws and ever-recurring patterns. Change is perhaps the one aspect of life that is the most constant, and for this reason if no other, there is warrant for a philosophy based on change: or in the present case, a creativist philosophy that seeks to explain and evaluate change. Fairly obviously, the very structure of the universe – the yin and yang – makes change inevitable. Opposites affect each other: they either attract or repel. Either way, they stimulate the making of change. So like the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, we are forced to acknowledge change as part of the essence of all things.
Change occurs through a complex interrelationship of causal factors, some of which may seem unlikely. “I eat a persimmon and the teeth of a tinker in Tibet are set on edge,” said Robert Penn Warren in his novel All the King’s Me. (Harcourt Brace 1946). Causation is the subject of endless research and speculation in all sorts of fields, not only philosophy but also science, religion, economics and indeed every field of human endeavour. In all seriousness we cannot, even just in the one field of philosophy, reduce causation to just a few sentences. What counts in the present context is the relationship between causation and our world-view, and thence the relationship between causation and ethics or the way we conduct our lives.
The Buddhist principle of dependent arising, which includes karma, is one of the more important alternatives. According to this principle, everything arises in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions, however there are twelve links in a process which starts with causes in the last life that condition birth in this one. Volition or intention or will, which occurs early in the process, is affected by ignorance. Inevitably desire enters the picture, leading to more desire. At this point the chain moves into a darker phase, for we see now the start of attachment, which can be clinging or grasping, leading to all sorts of negative consequences. On the other hand there can be a move in an entirely different direction, as when attachment leads to continuation or a new level of existence altogether; in other words, attachment can lead to continued being or becoming.
Another concept that needs attention here is fate. Fate implies inevitability, and there is indeed a degree of inevitability in many if not most life outcomes. If a person gives way to ego or greed, we can expect temporary triumphs – wealth, power and the like - but these will give way to a permanent legacy of hatred, resentment, scorn. Our truth is what counts in the end, and if the truth is an ugly one, posterity will most likely judge that this has been a life ill lived. At the same time there is also a degree of uncertainty, for chance may, for example, produce a friendly and influential biographer who rose-tints the miscreant’s record. The bottom line is that fate, like chance, is not a reliable actor in the drama of our lives. It is arguably an illusion. We should not therefore pay it too much attention.
Change includes creation
There are many different types of change, but broadly they fit within two categories. Creation is the first, encompassing initiation, birth, continuation and enhancement, while the second category is the antithesis of these processes, that is, degradation, decay, destruction and death. As with yin and yang, both types of change are necessary and together they form an endless loop. People and things must die and depart the scene to make way for new people and things, who themselves must flourish and then fade. Thus change, like stability or non-change, is one of the main attributes of the universe, and change itself has attributes – birth and flourishing, decay and death.
Creation is both self-renewing and also self-changing; in other words, through the processes of creation we are able to continue to exist and in addition to grow and develop and become something new. Importantly too, creation is something not limited to humankind, for it is something that occurs across all parts of the universe. The significance of all this is firstly that ebb and flow are fixed as attributes of the universe, and we have to accept them as we accept our own mortality. Secondly, the fact that they are in some sort of relationship means that, notionally at least, the character of this relationship can be influenced. It may for example be lengthened or shortened or subjected to extraneous influences. Thirdly, we as participants in this cosmic drama have opportunities to be part of that influencing. In other words, we cannot change the fundamental facts of birth leading to death and death leading to birth, but we can contribute to the way this process occurs. We can, in short, add value, and if we are so minded, we can do so in positive ways. This is the essence of creativism. As is shown later, creativism seeks to draw on the natural processes of the universe to form a positive ethic. Along the way it proceeds through religion which gives that ethic much needed ballast.
The nature of creation
Creation is often assumed to be good, however strictly speaking this is fallacious. Like life itself, it is neither good nor bad: it simply “is.” Creation is no more than a scientific fact until we see in it some positive value (which we mostly do). We generally hold our own existence to be a positive thing and so attach positive value to the act of creation which has brought about this existence. By implication this thinking is transferred to all creation, whether we are talking about birth or occasions where the quality of life is enhanced. Thus even though creation may seem to be no more than a plain unvarnished fact of existence, it is generally deemed to be good.
Creation is defined broadly to include not only the multiplication of things but also changes in their character. In effect, creation can be qualitative as well as quantitative. This is how we can say that creation produces ever-increasing refinement of things as well as ever-increasing numbers and thus ever-increasing diversity. Why this is so is part of the twofold mystery: firstly the mystery that the universe exists and secondly the mystery that it exists in the form and with the energy that it does, with inbuilt tensions that make change, including creation, inevitable.
One of the most fundamental observations we can make about the universe is that it is a system, one that is finely balanced across all sorts of axes. Reference has already been made to some of these axes. It is, for example, both singular (a unity) and diverse, material and non-material, stable and dynamic, and so on. Everything, it seems, is matched by its opposite, so that there is a massive overall balance. This balance is itself part of a wider matching of opposites, for set against balance is imbalance (we might compare order and disorder). Quite possibly, in this vast assembly of contraries the one thing that has no opposite is the source itself, or what we call the divine. How though does all this bear on our understanding of creation? By a process of inductive reasoning I suggest that:
1. the universe is what it is through balance
2. the universe proceeds through creation
3. therefore creation must itself be a form of balance.
The most obvious participants in this balance, as far as I can tell, are firstly actuality and potential for change (which I have labelled together as truth) and secondly the desire and impetus for change, which I call will. This will begin with simple attraction and desire to bond and flows right through to other states like harmonious co-existence and cooperation and finally love.
Truth is determined universally and exists universally, for truth emanates directly from the source of our existence. The will, however, is individual. The will is the volition of each creature, each thing, and it necessarily is unstable and varying in contrast to the overall fixed order of truth which is stable (even though it may be perceived in different ways). Truth is unitary while will is relational.
How creation happens
Earlier in the story of this planet, change would seem to have been relatively slow. For example, Earth formed about 4.54 billion years ago, yet life did not appear until 3.5 billion years ago, and fish, the earliest vertebrates, did not evolve until 530 million years ago. We are now caught up in a change dynamic of such rapidity and fecundity and accompanying pressures that we have no choice but to understand what is going on and if possible why. In simple terms, creativism holds that every new event is the outcome of two things. Firstly, there is an actuality or potential within the universal order, and secondly there is a will to bring this actuality or potential to some new fruition. Put another way, there is a will that energises an already existing latency and brings it to life. Creation thus is a joining of the fixed and unfixed, rather like a genetic predisposition (which is fixed) acted upon by factors of chance (which are unfixed).
Proof of this concept is not possible, for it belongs rather in the realm of axiomatic truth or eminently persuasive eternal hypothesis. Examples, however, are useful. A very obvious one is the joining of two people in marriage. There are factors which make them more or less perfectly suited, but it is the will to give effect to these factors which constitutes the creative act. Another example is the greening of a leaf. All the right conditions for greening may be present – warmth, moisture, light and so on – but there has to be an internal energy that propels the leaf out of its nascent state of being merely a bud. At the most basic level of all, we see creation arising out of the propensity of atoms to join, the result being a molecule.
Creation occurs within limits
Notwithstanding the apparently limitless capabilities of creation, there are in fact limits. We are bounded by limits of space and time and maybe other dimensions that we don’t yet know or fully acknowledge. One of these dimensions may be our own inherent capabilities. Some thinkers like the supreme optimist Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man, Collins 1959) argue that we are gradually overcoming the limitation of capabilities; in Teilhard’s vision we are moving towards an Omega Point where we merge with a transcendent spiritual reality that is beyond limits. This may or may not be so: it is too far in the future to have any great meaning for us here and now. With our feet more firmly anchored in present reality, however, we can say that history so far – the processes of creation - has brought us to an advanced level of civilisation, a state which is with us but also an ever-receding horizon. We know that the processes of creation can move us towards a better world, but exactly what shape this world might take we do not know, and nor do we know the staging posts that would get us there or the story of the journey. The possibilities are endless. We have to face the probability of emerging new species, expansion into space, human extinction, and so on.
At the level of the individual, death is another conundrum. Again, there is an optimistic strain of thought that sees us going beyond the limits of present existence and inhabiting some sort of afterlife. According to this view, the limit of time is conquered, and the conquest is achieved through the other dimension I mentioned earlier – the interior dimension, or human capability, or human effort, or the exercise of virtue, or deep spirituality. The dimension of space is also potentially challenged by some thinkers, specifically those who think there may be parallel lives. These people believe in the existence of souls which can be manifest in more than one body or more than one plane of existence. The creativist response to these ideas is the same: they are speculations only and of limited value in determining how we live our lives. Plainly, the idea of life after death – Heaven, Hell, Paradise, Nirvana and so on – can be a powerful spur to virtue and a source of hope, but whether it has a solid foundation in reality is another matter.
The possibility of a higher order of reality
Speculations about afterlife lead inevitably to questions about the possibility of a higher order of reality, or what we call the divine. The apparent limitlessness of creation encourages us to think beyond the usual dimensions of existence - space and time, abstract and concrete and so on. Simultaneously our awareness of our own limitations has propelled us into a state of mind whereby we assume there is something beyond us that is without limitations. We assume but cannot know for sure, for as mere humans we are too small to have full knowledge of all that is.
The sense of a greater reality – what one might call a supernatural reality – is so strong within us that it has to be faced squarely and analysed with the utmost seriousness. On this sense has been founded all the edifices of religion and spirituality, collectively a massive part of the human experience. Philosophers are divided on this matter for all sorts of reasons. Some like Thomas Aquinas have argued that creation is evidence for the existence of a deity. In contrast, the Samkhya school of Indian philosophy says an unchanging God cannot be the source of an ever-changing world; God, they say, is only a metaphysical construct occasioned by circumstances. There are numerous other takes on this overall problem, too many to be canvassed here. Creativism has a view which is outlined in the next section. This view is not based on reason alone but also on intuition, for religious conviction wherever it occurs is more than pure reason. Religion acknowledges philosophy as important but not all-important.
This raises in passing the subject of creativism as a tool in bridging gaps between disciplines of thought. Its overriding concern with creation, or how things happen, enables it to have a seat at any table. And because it is an integrated set of ideas, it can be a useful tool in analysis of difficult subjects like the one now to be considered: whether or not there is warrant for religious faith of any kind, and if there is, how this might be played out in everyday life.
CREATIVISM AND RELIGION
Threshold issues in religion
Religion tries to make sense of both the positives and negatives of life by reframing them, putting them in a larger context, one which recognises that existence may have deeper dimensions beyond the obvious. However, such an ambitious approach brings special problems. The most obvious is that, having established some concept of divinity, a religious person then has to establish positions between this supernatural space and the here and now. This may mean radical changes to ordinary everyday thinking. An example is death, which is no longer just a matter of slipping into a grave but now a springboard to some kind of afterlife, a strange imaginary world of its own.
Religion is also difficult because it encompasses both reason and feeling, from complex metaphysics to basic emotions arising through the grass roots of everyday experience. However, this does not have to compromise the integrity of the whole. A person can believe on purely rational grounds that there is a greater dimension to existence than the material and also have an intuition – a faith - that this is beneficial. Faith can be an odd mix of reason and feeling but it is not on that account to be scorned. It has to be treated with some circumspection, yet it is perfectly justifiable when we enter the realm of the unknown and unprovable. Theoretical physics likewise journeys into the unprovable, and by and large we non-physicists accept that this spaceship sort of thought is something that is at least potentially worthwhile.
A third problem of religion is one of language or meaning. I have spoken about ideas like truth and love as philosophical constructs, but in religion we encounter them at a different level altogether. Here we are talking about things in their purest state, their ideal state beyond the reach of everyday life; and it is an immense challenge to grasp the meanings at this level. What exactly is pure truth and what is pure love? This sort of questioning brings us into the realm of the transcendental, an uncomfortable place to be in. To understand pure truth, pure love, pure spirit or pure anything we have to look at the extremities of experience, for example the love that makes a person die for others and the truth that such self-sacrifice is sometimes the only way that advances can be made. These are things we may be able to grasp intellectually but not with our whole being.
The ultimate mystery
Religion starts with humility, acceptance of our cosmic smallness, our innate limitations. We wake each day in a universe of such majesty that it is hard to comprehend. Creation is at the heart of this majesty. To borrow Richard Dawkins’s words for evolution, it is the greatest show on Earth. Our universe as a whole is such a miracle as to defy explanation in any ordinary terms. Something extraordinary therefore has to be contemplated, namely the possibility that we have a transcendent source of some kind. This is an argument that has been worked over for centuries but never resolved - because it cannot be resolved! Pure reason can take us so far in this kind of discussion but by definition it is confined – it is, so to speak, Earthbound. It is unable to account for things that seem impossible. Reason can be used to support an argument that the miracles of creation – the finely tuned organisation and balance - are nothing but science, but the miracles are too many and too extreme. Cosmologist Paul Davies has covered this territory very well in his book Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life (Houghton Mifflin 2007). This is not to dismiss out of hand all the scientific arguments, for within the terms of their own discipline they do a masterly job in helping us understand how things might have happened (and continue to happen). But with all their genius they are unable to explain the full scale and complexity of creation or the prevalence of paradox - for paradox is everywhere. The universe confronts us simultaneously with unimaginable beauty and unspeakable horror; it is simultaneously predictable and random; it moves within space and time while transcending them both; and so on.
In simple terms, through creation and other change processes we are faced with a mystery that forces us to think outside the box, contemplating an indefinable source of some kind – or maybe all kinds – transcending everything else our ingenuity has dreamt up. This is the ultimate challenge to human understanding. Most importantly, if we accept the idea of such a source we have to accept too the fundamental premise that we as humans are and always will be unable to tie it down, saying it is this thing or that thing. It appears (my italics indicate my level of confidence) to transcend all known dimensions like time and space, to be in all, to flow through all. Some even say it is all. It follows that this source is the progenitor of creation itself – the creator of creation itself, perhaps, or the magnificently fertile source from which creation emanates, because that is its unquenchable nature.
Creativism is careful here not to align itself with any of the standard approaches of religion, claiming that our mysterious source is God or Allah or Brahman or any of the others. Even Hinduism, possibly the most all-embracing in its view of the divine, cannot totally avoid ascribing some of its own value to Brahman. We may apprehend it through these values but it comprehends all.
The ultimate at work
Before proceeding further, it is worthwhile pausing to consider briefly how mainstream religions deal with the problem of understanding the divine. More broadly still there are questions about the religious approach to living as a whole.
While creativism makes creation its main focus, there are others who say religion starts with the hardships of life. Either it accommodates its followers to the difficulties of living in the present or it prepares the way for something better in the future. If we obey holy writ, so the argument runs, we may achieve happiness and prosperity in our present life (I say present because of the widespread assumption that life is not only pre-death but post-death as well). The prosperity gospel of modern Christianity is an example; Judaism also has a leaning in this direction. But together with this there is the idea of salvation. Humankind, so it is thought, is separated from the bliss to which it aspires and therefore needs divine grace or guidance to help it along. In a world where the present day is often cruel and personal conduct is acknowledged to be poor, this salvation narrative has a lot of appeal, even though it is not supported by evidence.
Another of the mainsprings of religion is the idea of power or authority, that is, that the divine is all-powerful and therefore has the capability to do everything that humans cannot. The divine can enforce all commands and right all wrongs. Through this comes the assumption that earthly power is legitimised by power from on high. Kings and presidents rule by God’s grace and their own authority takes on a semi-divine aura; equally, priests rule because they believe themselves sanctioned to do so by God, and when they rule badly it is no different, for God has put them there and they must therefore be right. Such notions are hard to dislodge and even the faithful accept them because the faithful have been brainwashed to do so. The simple answer to all this is twofold: power is only one dimension of the divine – there are many others – and in any case, those other dimensions are reflected in more life-affirming notions like loving and caring for people and serving the common good rather than oneself. The damage done by the emphasis on power as first attribute of the divine cannot be understated. It is widespread across the planet.
A third mainspring of religion is the idea that gods mediate between us and the testing points of our life. These testing points can be transitions like the transition to adulthood or marriage or death. They can also be situations where an external force like an invader or natural disaster upsets the established order. Gods can help in these situations because they are taken to be progenitors of everything on Earth. In the theology of creativism there is the one god which is the source of all and this source is the origin of everything that is, both the established order and whatever might be upsetting this order. If therefore we want to invoke divine protection or favour of some kind, we might have to think again.
A transcendent force for good
At the most basic level, creativism acknowledges that everything we are part of has a source that is beyond the bounds of ordinary existence. Secondly, there is no warrant for claiming of this source any particular attributes for it is the one source of all attributes, those we like and those we don’t like. It is a force for good by way of creative advance, equally though it is a force for things we consider to be bad. So much is this so that it is in real terms beyond our knowing. We cannot comprehend the existence of such a polymorph: instead we are forced to accept apprehending parts of it. And as I have explained above, we often choose the wrong parts, for example power.
None of this need stop us from searching the great mystery for some part of it that we can relate to as transcendent force for good. In fact this is a perfectly normal human impulse and we have been following it for centuries, indeed ever since the institution of religion was born. I choose this language to emphasise a very important point, that is, the divinity which has (apparently) spawned the universe is primal, preceding all else, however the religions which honour this divinity are manmade, as are the particular gods which are their focus. The Christian God is a creation of humankind, and for all its magnificence (omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence and all the rest) it is still just a front for the greater divinity which I call the source. The same is true of other religions. Christian theologian Paul Tillich was broadly right when he spoke of the God above God, or the divinity which is the ground of being – and thus the original divinity from whom all lesser deities, even the principal deities of mainstream religions, draw their existence.
When people through the ages have dreamt up the gods to whom they submit themselves, they have given preponderance to gods who embody, so to speak, notions of goodness. Some religions have shown more sophistication, notably Hinduism and the religion of ancient Greece where a range of gods represent varieties of experience - Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver) and Shiva (destroyer) being three of the best developed examples. By and large, though, gods are on the side of their people. They may hold dark powers which they occasionally exercise, like the Hebrew God who drove his wayward people into exile, but their overriding face is one of benevolence, for this is what we humans want. Thus we perceive a universal force for good that underlies all creation and does so with the collaboration of individual will. The will being free to do as it pleases, sometimes outcomes are not good; but this is a matter for another discussion.
Different people have their own names for the perceived forces of light and dark at play throughout the world. I refer customarily to Providence as the benevolent aspect of the source, and its opposite number I call the Pit, or that which constantly draws us in and drags us down. The Pit is no less part of the overall source of our being than Providence. In most discourse with Christians I equate my Providence with their God. Of course, Providence and the Pit, like God and Satan (or yin and yang), are a binary classification which is altogether too simple. Real life is far more complex. However, talking in these terms is a convenient way of getting a handle on things. Computer science starts from a similar binary classification, for computer science achieves its magic through endless combinations of the numbers 0 and 1. This binary coding manages to capture not only all the shades of grey in life but also the shades of lavender, purple, red, blue and so on. So from a very simple starting point, if we keep our thinking supple, we can see how each situation in life has multiple elements of both Providence and the Pit. Indeed, if we concentrate our minds for a second, we can also see situations in which Providence proceeds from the Pit, and indeed vice versa.
Individual ideas about goodness differ, and societies as a whole may differ in their ideas of goodness. One way or another, however, it seems we all need a gold standard of goodness to help us through life, someone or something we can attach ourselves to as provider of sustenance, guidance, succour, absolution or whatever. We also need a faith that this person or thing is capable of delivering and will be always there for us, no matter what desperate hole we fall into. In addition we need an emotional connection with this person or thing, for a connection that is purely rational will fall short when we get into extremes of experience. When we are desperately ill or impoverished, or enraptured by love or some personal achievement, we reach not for an abstract idea of God but a God-being we can talk to and emote with. And finally, we need this connection by way of ordinary things from everyday life – rituals, artefacts, forms of language, elements of nature and so on – for these things are the means by which we sustain a spiritual life. They help keep alive the sense that we are not alone in this life: we are almost by magic connected with all that is and has been and will be. Our existence is not rootless or absurd or merely accidental, as some have claimed it to be.
The absolute imperative to be good
A spiritual life is not easy to define, but one sure mark of its presence is the decision that the divine occupies a place of pre-eminence in one’s life. Here, it is not how we conceive of the divine that is so important but rather how we relate to it. This I call the “extra imperative” to be good. By this I mean two things. Firstly, a person is good not only because it is ethically right in human terms to do so – the conclusion of humanism – but also because there is a perceived requirement by the divine. Thus we are enjoined not only to perform the basic function of continuing life – procreating – but also to do so in a way that enduringly adds value to life. Secondly, it is only by doing so that we can enhance our own existence. This enhancement takes different forms. At the very least it is the personal sense of a job well done, a life well spent. Most likely there is also a heightened accommodation to life, perhaps a sense of personal renewal or elevation. This can include a mystic sense of identification with someone holy who has gone before, like a saint or ancestor, or even with a holy place. Finally the imperative to be good can be linked with a benefit in afterlife. Some believe in afterlife, others do not – this is a personal choice – however the fact remains that it is still an important part of religious faith. Thus the “extra imperative” to be good that spirituality brings is many layered and rich with many possibilities.
The distinctive character of creativist spirituality
Spirituality can mean many things; it is notoriously difficult to define. Typically it means things like prayer, communal worship, community service, evangelisation, sacred ritual, and mysticism. There is noisy spirituality and quiet, self-promoting and self-effacing, seriously intellectual and seriously simplistic, universalist and culture-specific, and so on. What then distinguishes creativist spirituality from others? Quite simply it is spirituality which seeks creative outcomes through commitment to truth and love. With such a broad definition we can see that creativism has a presence in all sorts of faith traditions. If I am asked to name a particular example of creativism, one I like to cite is the concept of convivenza which was promoted by Pope John XXIII in his bringing together of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Biographer and Catholic priest Bernard R. Bonnot (https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/409/article/blessed-johns-call) explains convivenza thus:
Literally it means “living together,” coexistence. But it suggests more: “real coordination and integration, a fraternity of love,” community rather than mere society, communion rather than mere community. Convivenza evokes intimacy, not just togetherness.
Convivenza has some similarity to the African idea of ubuntu, in which we find our fulfilment as individuals through devotion to community. If we are all equal, it follows we have a duty to care for others as for ourselves; in fact, we are fully human only when we exercise all our capabilities of truth (discernment, understanding and so on) in conjunction with our capabilities for loving. And it is when this occurs that life is enhanced as best it can be and we fulfil the potential that we receive from our source, our divinity, our God.
It often seems that it is humanism rather than religion that has set the pace in moving us all towards a more civil society. Arguably, however, this humanism has been informed by religion, being inspired by its ethic of goodness. The abolition of the slave trade in Britain is an interesting case and somewhat representative, for the Church of England was for many years complicit in the trade and only changed at the urging of lesser branches of Christian faith and devout Christian individuals like William Wilberforce. Today (and perhaps at all times) the world’s problems are so pressing that leadership has to come wherever it arises. But religions unquestionably have a duty to be in the forefront of change, leading us on to more enlightened practices and ways of thinking. In this context the vision of convivenza and ubuntu comes to the fore.
Expanding the reach of religion
We have come a long way from the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, the first interfaith event of its kind, which was spurned by the then Archbishop of Canterbury and condemned by the Pope as “promiscuous.” Katherine Marshall in her 2015 essay on this and subsequent organisations (https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/essays/the-parliament-of-the-world-s-religions-1893-and-1993) traces the rise of collaborative action drawing faith communities, once divided, together. She says:
The challenges of plural societies and the complex roles of religion in daily lives, in social cohesion of communities, of national politics, and international relations have taken on new dimensions. Interreligious cooperation has come to be seen as fundamental to peace, human security, and prosperity in the increasingly complex and often fractious world.
Faith communities, like nations and other types of human enterprise, have finally found solid grounds for unity. It started seemingly with curiosity and an openness of mind which caused them to seek truth outside their own tradition. This combined with generosity of spirit and a recognition that collaboration could advance their own goals, especially their efforts to create a better society. More recently, the rise of secularism and anti-religious feeling meant they could also lean on each other for moral support. The rationale is both simple and compelling:
divinity may be perceived in different ways but is nonetheless the source of all that is good
this happens through ethical principles which are substantially the same across the globe
collaborative action based on these ethical principles is bound to produce a common good
the ethical principles are also a bridge to the secular world and its decision makers, including governments.
There are a number of examples such as Religions for Peace, the World Council of Churches, and at the individual level the Charter for Compassion. Another prime example is the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which according to its website was created to cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions. Its vision is a just, peaceful, and sustainable world where:
religious and spiritual communities live in harmony and contribute to a better world from their riches of wisdom and compassion
religious and cultural fears and hatreds are replaced with understanding and respect
people everywhere come to know and care for their neighbours
the richness of human and religious diversity is woven into the fabric of communal, civil, societal and global life
the world’s most powerful and influential institutions move beyond narrow self-interest to realize common good
the Earth and all life are cherished, protected, healed and restored
all people commit to living out their highest values and aspirations.
The Parliament of the World’s Religions is not merely a talkfest, for it has an array of practical initiatives around the world in areas like climate change, countering war, hate and violence, social justice and the dignity of women. Without question, this is creativism at work.
CREATIVISM AND ETHICS
Threshold issues in ethics
Ethics is the set of ideas we use for deciding how to live; more precisely, ideas about who we are, where we fit in the cosmos, how we relate to others, how we make use of the opportunities we’re given, and so on. It is regarded primarily as a branch of philosophy but is also part of religion, for a follower of divinity is bound to live in accordance with the meaning of that divinity. The alternative to religious ethics is secular ethics which includes humanism, secularism and freethinking. It is possible for ethics to be both faith based and reason based, and creativism makes this claim of itself.
Self-evidently, life is filled with a neverending series of creations, actions or processes that drive us all on, constantly changing us, hopefully for the better most of the time. If we assume that ethics is somehow about making life good or better, whatever “good” or “better” might mean, we can easily see that it is also about the way we manage all of these mini acts or processes of creation.
Goodness as rule for living
Creativist ethics asks as its baseline proposition that we live in a way that aligns with creation as the good which is at the centre of all life. The focus on goodness is not unusual in normative ethics though there are individuals whose outlook on life is hate-filled or determinedly greedy and self-centred, and they too have an ethic, a Me First ethic. Creativism takes its inspiration from the time-honoured emphasis on virtue taught by the ancient Greeks. This is not to say that it is exclusively a form of virtue ethics. As is demonstrated below in the section on creativist ethics in practice, there is also an element of deontology here, that is, application of rules to particular situations. This is where the idea of creation as good enters the frame. Creation is good either when it introduces new life or enhances the quality of existing life; and neither new life nor enhancement of life can occur without some act or process of creation.
Some might say, and with reason, that any system of ethics is likely to be life-enhancing and therefore ipso facto aligned with ongoing creation. At this point we are challenged to question our concept of life enhancement. Even hedonism, properly understood, has a basis that we might call moral, for it seeks to maximise pleasure and minimise pain, both of which are ideas consistent with creation. We therefore have to dig deeper into the meaning of goodness in relation to conduct of life.
What goodness means
Whole books have been written on goodness, but for me it is the creation or flourishing of life or whatever produces these outcomes. For example, goodness lies in the birth of a baby, the flowering of a plant, the design of a road, the shelter offered to a refugee, the appreciation of a work of art – the list is endless, right down to the minutiae of molecules and their interactions. Creation when linked with flourishing is not just a matter of mechanics of some kind; it is laden with value, namely the creation of something “good” or “better.” Whatever judgements we might make about individual acts of creation, for example the forming of a political party or the construction of a carpark, they do not detract from the overall proposition that life and its creation are fundamentally good. The evidence for this proposition is that we all choose to keep living even when things happen that we don’t like.
None of this is clearcut and yet we desperately want it to be. Inevitably goodness and its opposites – evil and suffering – are intermixed: such is the complexity of life. If then we are uncertain as to whether something is good or not, we have to look at circumstances, including motivation. It may be – and often is the case – that something is good for some but bad for others. A land grant for new settlers may be good for them but bad for indigenous or traditional owners. By and large, however, we can say that goodness is present when a creative outcome is present and it arises from an intersection of truth and goodwill.
Goodness as truth and love
Broadly, in ethics, goodness has two primary constituents: truth and love, or truth and goodwill. These can each be seen as a family comprising a range of elements. In this context truth is adherence to the highest standard of behaviour, which is generally something that crosses cultural and historical divides. Thus we can say that truth includes things like honesty, impartiality, fairness, conscientiousness, and taking for oneself only what one really needs. Love or goodwill means qualities like respect, empathy, sympathy, compassion, generosity, kindness, and loyalty.
The consequence of this line of thinking is that any test of goodness has to include both of these primary constituents. So if we say that something is a good way to live, or the best way to live, it must demonstrate truth in the terms I have indicated above, and equally it must demonstrate truth or goodwill. An ethic which is self-centred or acquisitive could not be considered. By the same token, an ethic which demonstrates high degrees of truth and love must ipso facto be a good ethic. A further point to note is that where there is truth, love is present as well, and vice versa. The two are logically bound together in an overall orientation towards goodness.
The opposite of goodness
The direct antithesis of creativist ethics is dedicating our lives to self-interest. This drives us down the paths of ego and greed, which are error. Being error, they are in the short run doomed to failure, though they may inadvertently lead to something better. Other paths that run counter to creation are fear and apathy. An exception favoured by some like the economist Adam Smith is ethical egoism, where enlightened pursuit of self-interest is thought to lead to benefit for society as a whole, because people who take this line work hard to benefit themselves and in so doing create benefit for the whole. This argument, however, is deeply flawed, if only because self-interest is likely to take only a narrow view of the options which may be pursued. Truth and love exist in an almost infinite variety of forms, however we limit ourselves from experiencing this variety when we allow ourselves to be governed by mere self-interest instead of a community of interest.
If creativism is pro-life, its antithesis surely is destructionism which destroys or degrades life. In war there is mass destruction mandated by governments, but now in pandemic we have found this democratised as individual people resist vaccination, mask wearing, lockdowns and other measures designed to protect life. There is a fundamental truth that whatever we can do we will; and of course other life forms are the same. We each have to make a choice for ourselves. In a perfect world this choice would be fully informed by awareness of the costs and benefits and risks involved – what it really means to be vaccinated, what degrees of suffering might ensue, who amongst our family and friends might be affected and how severely, and so on. Even then, there are those who will pursue a destructive path, for that is their mindset.
Creativist ethics in practice
When we speak about truth and love as pathways to good, creative outcomes, we mean potentially many things. Truth, for example, means constantly seeking and upholding truth, while love means embarking on the risk of embracing otherness or novelty. A logical extension of this ethic is commitment to the ideals of equality, freedom and service to others. Truth forces us to the conclusion that we are all born essentially equal and that there is therefore no justification for anyone to be in any sense deprived of liberty or the opportunity to pursue their dreams in freedom. To the extent that equality and freedom are denied to other people, we have a duty to help them, in other words to commit ourselves to service – looking after our own interests and those of others equally.
Creativist ethics can be applied in private or in the public sphere, such is their essential simplicity. The administration of justice provides an example from the public sphere. I quote here from one of my earlier articles (https://www.banishingboundaries.com/blog/a-creativist-philosophy-of-justice):
Common to all just outcomes is the establishment of truth, which requires a dedicated pursuit of wholeness, harmony and balance. Secondly, there must be an exercise of principle based on goodwill - goodwill which can take many forms, from presumption of innocence or good intent to sentencing with mercy. Thirdly, there must be a resolution by way of ongoing action that preserves, protects and enhances ongoing life. An outcome which perpetuates marginalisation is in no way a just outcome.
Justice being such a contentious matter, it becomes clear from this statement how a creativist approach might make a difference to current policies where there are mindsets of being tough on crime, not wasting money on being nice to criminals, and so on. There is ample research to show that more positive approaches like diversion, sentencing circles and rehabilitation are more cost-effective and thus better public policy, however research needs to be supported by ethics, and this is one instance where creativism can help.
Climate change is another field where creativist ethics have particular application. Creativism is not merely humanist for it embraces everything, including the non-human, that is involved in creation. One of the hard issues is the amount of aid that should go to Pacific island and other nations directly under threat from rising sea levels. Plainly the international efforts to contain global warming are not working fast enough and the seas are continuing to rise: this is the truth of the matter. Also true is the capacity of richer nations to pay. What is lacking is will, driven presumably by domestic politics and concerns about increasing foreign aid (even though foreign aid as a whole has been falling). A truly ethical response by the global community would be to take creative measures immediately to accommodate the people of these nations, saving lives, livelihoods, and whole societies and cultures. For public policy and private philanthropic action to be led by ethics is no bad thing.
Creativism engenders a set of behaviours that are profoundly life-affirming. Firstly there is humility based on awareness of our extreme smallness in the overall scheme of things and the fact that we are mere agents of something much larger – Providence itself. Humility breeds patience and also a preparedness to deal constructively with others. Secondly there is truth, or the hard-nosed acceptance of life as it really is, putting aside misguided concepts that come from isms of the past. In truth, for example, we can accept the necessity of evil and suffering as precursors of good; we can accept too the presence of chance in our lives, part of the cosmic uncertainty of outcomes that surrounds us all. Truth also is something to be sought and affirmed, for truth is central to all existence, as fundamental as the universal order or nature itself. Thirdly, if we are committed to truth, we are also appreciative of all beings and all forms of existence that inhabit this planet, for we recognise them as essential parts of the whole, all striving to be free and to live as best they can. With this recognition we are committed too to the wellbeing of all, and so we are attentive to others, respectful, kind and loving: in short, we do whatever we can to make this a gentler world, one where ego and power and possession are no longer the dominant modes of thought, but rather connection, cooperation and collaboration. A creativist outlook is ultimately one of peace – peace built on a robust, honest, warmhearted embrace of life, not a sad and defeated retreat from it.
A creativist vision for the world
All this is entirely consistent with the creativist vision for the world. We have here an approach to living that is solid, based on an integrated philosophy, ethic and faith. Through philosophy we have a worldview, a rigorous reading of the way the world works; through ethics we have a set of principles on how the world should work; and through faith we have the depth of commitment to carry these ethics through to fruition. There is a sadness in that the dedicated collaborative work done by faith communities is not well recognised or appreciated by the secular world: religion has a bad press these days. But if we return to our philosophical roots we will see there is an answer to this challenge, for bad things typically set the stage for good things to follow. And the creativist ethic has as its third key principle the determined exercise of will, of commitment, perseverance and courage: in short, all that is necessary to give real effect to the other two principles of truth and love.