A Subcreator’s Manifesto

That there is within man an inherent desire to to create is undeniable – one only needs to witness a child with a box of lego or an adult with a restaurant napkin to confirm this fact.

The problem is that our natural impulses, along with everything else in the world, are not clean, shiny, and undamaged. The problem is that we drove the truck into a telephone pole on the way over to the yard so that, right out of the box, nobody is born with reliable instincts. We see this when a noble impulse to lead ends in tyranny; we see this when a legitimate longing for pleasure ends in abuse; we see this when an understandable desire towards friendship ends in possessive suspicion.

And yes, we see this when a compelling urge to innovate ends in dysphoria, absurdity, and idolatry. I put forward then, that subcreators (which includes anyone who isn’t the prime Creator) bent on creating must first gird up the loins of their impulses with humility.

This begins with acknowledging the reality of what already exists. Or, as an older man still radiant with joy once put it – “Humility submits to God’s willed reality and makes the effort to conform its ideas to truth.”

If we can put aside for a moment the popularity of a subjectively willed reality, I think we would find this statement full of beefy nourishment. Negatively, it means that our ideas are not automatically valid by virtue of their being our ideas; and especially not so if those ideas fail to jive with what objectively exists.

Think of rocks. Rocks are collections of minerals held together by a cement-like mineral matrix. They are heavy, unyielding, and notoriously resistant to the feelings of others. You cannot unthink a rock. A rock will remain a rock even if you’d prefer it were a bowl of cheerios. You can either humble yourself to walk around the rock, or attempt to deny the rock and walk straight into it. I will leave it to the reader’s gracious intellect to decide which way is the more progressive.

Positively then, a humble subcreator, before even attempting the work of forming ideas, begins with the acknowledgment that he is not a potent Spirit hovering over a formless void. He is not an alchemist, breathing into being what once was not, but rather a gem cutter. A gem cutter has not been entrusted with the task of creation, but only with honing, adorning, and beautifying what already exists so it’s innate wonder is easier for others to see.

Now at first glance this crude realism might appear to be suffocatingly restrictive. That, I can only assume, was at least in the minds of those educators who deemed that the merits of project-based, “discovery learning” far exceeded that of good ol’ fashioned structured instruction. But far from impeding our ability to create and innovate, I believe it is only as we are educated in accord with the way things really are, that we are liberated to direct our energies towards legitimate, useful pursuits.

It means that the the inhabitants of a house can skip the tiresome process of trying to determine the function and purpose of their house – ‘Do we drive it?’ ‘Eat it?’ ‘Dress it up and take it out for dinner?’ – and move right onto the act of living in it. Only as they accept the “house-ness” of the house will they then have the energy to paint it, hang mirrors, and set a welcome gargoyle by the front door.  

How does this relate to creation and innovation? Here’s C.S. Lewis on the point specifically as it concerns writing, but it can easily be applied more broadly:  

“An author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal beauty and wisdom.”

It was said of Lewis that everything he wrote and thought fit into truth as beautifully as an old shoe, and I believe the principle behind such a wonderfully quaint analogy we would do well to take to heart. If a gorilla’s hairy foot won’t fit into a lady’s glass slipper, the most reasonable solution is not to carve up the gorilla’s foot until it fits, but to acknowledge that nature never intended gorilla’s to wear slippers. The best response is simply to admire the beauty that glass slippers contribute to a lady’s foot, just as we admire the gorilla’s – fur? – as it enhances the primate’s “gorilla-ness.”

So yes, go forth humble subcreators – live in the world, study it, perfect your art to the very edges of it’s possibility; but do so in the freedom – oh the freedom! – of knowing that creation ex nihilo has already been achieved in a manner more spectacular and wonderful than we could have ever conceived of.

Wonder, worship, and adorn.


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