Creation can be an ugly topic of conversation. It seems to bring out the worst in people – the most intolerant, one-eyed, angry diatribes about evolutionary processes, 4004BC and Archbishop Ussher. But talking about creation doesn’t need to be about Creation in the theistic sense of the word; there’s plenty more to say. Peter Conrad, in his extraordinary book, Creation: Artists, Gods and Origins (2007) takes the broadest possible approach to the topic. In a majestic narrative encompassing religion, music, poetry, philosophy, the history of science and current affairs, Conrad explores in exquisite detail the worlds of nature and the arts. His book is a pleasure to take up, revealing the widest of reading, viewing and listening histories, and is itself a miracle of one man’s creative impulse to read and write. How Conrad has managed to cover such an expansive field, I really cannot fathom. And yet, in the end, he has written a book that is just as opinionated and singular in perspective as any fundamentalist tract.
Creation, for Conrad, is ‘generative power that sometimes seems inexplicable’ (p9). It is the magic of the artist, the wonder of the inventor, the unexpected discovery of the scientists, the seemingly miraculous feats of the dancer. In summary, creation is something that describes the spirit of humanity. But, he argues, it is wrongly attributed to God.
He writes in his introduction: ‘This book is a celebration of art that doubles as a critique of religion’ (p7). Whereas the book celebrates the genius of human creativity, it also complains about and opposes any interpretation of human achievement or human understanding that reverts to the God hypothesis. In this book, God the Creator is the enemy – according to Conrad, the idea of a divine creator, especially the one expressed by the biblical book of Genesis, has held back a proper appreciation of humanity’s own creative spirit.
Conrad explores stories and images of creation across mainly European ancient and contemporary cultures. He employs the various creation accounts – myths, scientific narratives, sacred texts – to canvas the vast artistic endeavours of philosophers, painters, musicians and church figures. Using a very broad concept of ‘creation’, which encompasses making, generating, birthing, evolving, dancing, performing and even destroying, Conrad writes a cultural history with a particularly anti-theological shape. His thesis is that there is no divine creation from nothing, just human recreation from whatever is, and that the latter is the thing worth celebrating while the former is a childish notion that must be abandoned.
As is so often the case for theologically interested critics, the background issue in Conrad’s book is the problem of suffering and the threat of a jealous, judgemental God. In the opening chapter, Conrad offers the reader a choice: follow the God of the Hebrew Bible, who creates humanity and then ‘turns against them’, or accept the pagan view that the gods are experimenting and human beings are part of the experiment. In my understanding, it is a false dichotomy: the God of Israel is just as much an experimenter as Zeus or any of his counterparts. Yahweh places his ‘images’ into the Garden and lets them loose. But Yahweh is not cruel; it is his creatures who turn their backs on him, not the reverse. Conrad seems to be angry with the biblical God, but I suspect he hasn’t given this God a fair hearing. He expresses anger at God for giving Adam and Eve free will and then berating them for eating the forbidden fruits (p16). He writes, ‘the God of Genesis created men only to give himself the pleasure of tempting and ensnaring them’ (p27). But I struggle to construct such a malicious deity from the pages of my Bible. A more sustained reading of the Bible, moving from Genesis through to Revelation, will reveal a more satisfying picture of God and his relationship with the creation.
Conrad shows his hand in chapter 2, when he contrasts the Genesis account of creation with that in the Gnostic Gospel of Phillip (a third century text). In this text, God’s creation is flawed; God failed to create the good and permanent world he intended. Furthermore, the biblical God is seen as a skinflint – he creates a world with just his unadorned word, whereas Conrad prefers the notion that ‘the world was not spoken but sung into being’ (p67). This criticism is intriguing; it suggests that Conrad ‘reads’ the biblical God through the lens of some aesthetic elements of Christian practice that he finds distasteful or difficult or impoverished. He sets up a contrast between pagan bounty and Christian denial:
We are left with a choice between two versions of creation. On one side is the endless, self-replenishing nature of Hesiod, Lucretius and Ovid; on the other is a Christian society which arduously toils towards salvation, hoping to find redemption before it is uncreated by God’s second coming. (p66)
It was to oppose views such as Conrad’s that C.S. Lewis had Bacchus and Father Christmas turn up in the Narnia books! Christians need to remind our critics that the fullest Christian vision of creation and its future is far more like a feast, or like gift-giving at Christmas, than it is like some sort of trial or marathon. It is aesthetically delightful and exciting, not ascetic, uninspiring drudgery. And yet, so much of Christian practice has in fact been dour, bitter, boring and bland that I find it difficult to blame Conrad for reaching the conclusions he does.
Sexuality is often at the core of discussions of creativity. In the Judaeo- Christian vision of creation, God simply speaks the cosmos into existence. But in many other creation accounts, an act of congress is involved. In Hesiod’s Theogony (8th Century BC), the female Earth gives birth to her own future lover, the male Heaven, and then brings forth mountains and the sea – a very progenitive image of the work of creation. Conrad judges that this reveals a frigidity in the biblical account, as if the more erotic account of creation is an indication of a more sensual and aesthetic understanding of life itself. The sexual imagery is seen to be more fecund than the logo-centric Judaeo- Christian vision. However, an alternative reading is that the biblical account is in fact more readily attributed to the divine, since the God of the Bible behaves in a manner less like the gods of human creation (lustful, vengeful, abusive, narcissistic) and more like a good, beautiful and potent deity. In other words, the Bible’s God is more like God whereas the figures from mythology are more like human beings pretending to be gods!
But Conrad consistently belittles the biblical descriptions of God. I find the gently mocking tone of the book disturbing because it assumes that readers are well beyond all of this god-believing rubbish and ready to pass judgement on religious faith and religious texts rather than admire and appreciate them, or take them seriously.
Conrad also editorialises about the shape of art rather than arguing for a particular understanding of art and theology (this is a book of critical commentary, not theory). For example, he asserts that ‘Novels are atheistic, or at least agnostic’ (p220), a view at odds with not only the history of the novel (with its background in Protestant moral storytelling) but with much theorising about the Christian ‘shaping’ of the novel as a genre.1 It is as if Conrad has missed the discussion of religion and creativity going on among literary theorists over the past 40 years, something I find difficult to accept. Perhaps his understanding in this area is filtered through his own interest in late 19th and early 20th century modernism, such that he has taken little account of the contemporary works of George Steiner, Paul Fiddes, David Jasper, Trevor Hart, Rowan Williams, David Lyle Jeffrey or David Bentley Hart, just to name a few of the thought-leaders in the field of theological aesthetics and the Christian dimensions of the arts.
This book is a tract for, and a celebration of, a tradition that is passé in many circles – Romantic Humanism.2 Conrad has written a compelling and glorious account of human creativity, but has done so with polemical intentions. He wrote, at his own admission, to oppose the theistic view of the world. He concludes the book with a triumphant statement of his success:
The battle between creativity and a capitalized, sacrosanct Creation is one we are likely to win, if only because our rival has quit the competition. We create because the world was not created; we create even though, given the randomness of universal ends and beginnings, there may be no point in doing so … Once we believed that only gods knew how to mould worlds or to eradicate them. For good or ill, man is now his own god: both a worlds-builder and a destroyer of worlds. (pp583-4)
Conrad’s book is strongly elitist. For instance, the biblical God is seen as miserly for creating humanity as an afterthought and giving him the task of tilling the ground. But the god of Plato’s Timaeus gives humanity the task and gift of philosophising, of ordering the universe in our heads. Conrad admires Atlas, who is ‘holding up the heavens, and revolving the universe inside his head’ (p79). In other words, humans are great and ought to be treated as so by the gods, but Christianity treats them as mere creatures, and ‘fallen’ ones at that. Such is Conrad’s assessment, but what of those poor human souls who do not make the philosophical grade, or for whom the realm of ideas is secondary to survival (soil-tilling)? The ‘ordinary’ world and its ordinary inhabitants do not fare well in Conrad’s creative vision.
Furthermore, any wicked side of human creativity is downplayed if ‘greatness’ is involved. Conrad appreciates the writing of the Marquis de Sade as a means of moving beyond biblical good and evil, and taking the notion of materiality to its rational conclusion: ‘Sex, rescued from biological utility, has become a mode of aesthetic play’ (p249). Although Conrad keeps some critical distance from the atrocious acts depicted in Sade’s writings, he nevertheless accepts the argument that the human ‘recreation’ of our environment, including freedom of sexual expression, is to be admired and he finds it hard to acknowledge the idea that God created a world with certain ‘limitations’, or a certain moral shape. However, Conrad is aware that many of the artistic explorations of sexuality he cites are transgressive, that is, they are self-consciously exceeding the limits that society or nature or some other authority places on sexual behaviour and expression. He quotes Michel Foucault, claiming that ‘sex is not a fatality; it’s a possibility for creative life’, but then wryly adds that Foucault died later that year from AIDS-related illness (p533).
Discussing the recent Australian controversy surrounding a Bill Henson exhibition containing photographic images of naked girls, the novelist David Malouf reminded viewers that ‘an interest in the arts does not necessarily make people more humane’3. The artist is no saint, but Conrad wants to maintain for him the Romantic era role of priest, mediating experience to us and questioning the boundaries we have placed upon that experience: ‘The proper business of art is to question nature and to quarrel with its strict, inflexible economy’ (p535). Art, on this view, helps to redefine what it is to be human. An alternative view might be that art is in fact part of nature, but nature is not the inflexible and fixed thing that Conrad supposes. Rather, nature is itself becoming something new. This is more in line with the biblical vision of the future of the universe. Art imitates nature, ‘not as a one-shot deal but as a process culminating in a new creation’.4
Conrad has written a grand but blinkered cultural account of Creation. The grandeur of the Christian vision is not less worthy than the humanistic vision Conrad offers, but is in fact greater and more free. It includes a very high place for human creativity, but gives a stronger sense of purpose, history and ethics. It allows human creativity to be free, but not undirected or pointless or wasted. It enables human loving and caring and it offers goodness as morally preferable to evil rather than merely an aesthetic choice. There is another cultural history of Creation to be written, one that does not take as its guiding thesis the ‘uncreating’ of the biblical deity. There is a history of Creation that celebrates the place of God the loving Creator in not only the causing and superintending of the physical world, but also in nurturing the imago Dei – the created human being – as he or she goes about marvelling at this world, adding to it and rearranging it with works of art, science, engineering and medicine. Furthermore, there is a story of Creation that is not finished, and goes on in the lives of human creators, who long for the New Creation of which Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour. ©
Greg Clarke is the Director of the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX) in North Sydney and the Macquarie Christian Studies Institute (MCSI) at Macquarie University, Sydney.
E N D N O T E S
1 See, for example: i. Kermode, Frank (1966). The Sense of an Ending. Wiley-Blackwell. ii. Watts, Ian (1957). The Rise of the Novel. University of California Press. iii. Frye, Northrop (1982). The Great Code. Harvest/HBJ Book. iv. Fiddes, Paul (2000). The Promised End: Eschatology in Theology and Literature. Blackwell Publishers. v. Fisch, Harold (1998). New Stories for Old: Biblical Patterns in the Novel. Palgrave Macmillan.
2 It is noteworthy that Romantic Humanism describes well the vision for humanity offered by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion.
3 Malouf, David (2008). Eros part of our humanity. In The Australian. www.theaustralian.news.com.au/ story/0,25197,23878759-26063,00.html.
4 Monti, Anthony (2003). A Natural Theology of the Arts: Imprint of the Spirit. Ashgate Press, Aldershot, p169.
Comments will be approved before showing up.