Creation, Creativity and Creatureliness: the Wisdom of Finite Existence
Saturday 23rd April 2005A lecture by Dr Rowan Williams, delivered at a Study Day organised by the St Theosevia Centre for Christian Spirituality, Oxford.
Bishop Kallistos has already mentioned the significance in the 20th century of Father Sergei Bulgakov as one who elaborated a comprehensive theory of the wisdom of God as the key to understanding a whole range of theological issues, and indeed issues more than just theological. (If any issue is 'really more than theological'; perhaps I should say less than theological!)
But Father Bulgakov's thought has often seemed impenetrable to the casual Western reader, or even the not so casual Western reader, and the not so casual Eastern reader as well. It has seemed to be a piece of metaphysical elaboration without immediate relation to the heart of the gospel. It was a very distinguished and saintly Russian cleric who said that his first reaction on reading Father Bulgakov was, 'they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him'.
I hope in what I say, with due respect to that particularly saintly Russian, to suggest that this is an erroneous apprehension of Father Bulgakov, and that properly understood his account of holy wisdom opens up a way of thinking about – quite simply – life in Christ, life in the body of Christ, life in Christ's world, which gives us some remarkably challenging and resourceful ideas for coping with that bizarre environment in which we live called modernity.
But a word first of background and explanation about Father Bulgakov's theories. He stands in a long tradition of Russian speculation about the wisdom of God, a tradition whose greatest 19th advocate is Vladimir Soloviev for whom holy wisdom, Sophia, was a visionary presence, a kind of eternal feminine, permeating the world and accessible to human vision at certain times. Soloviev wrote about his own encounters with Sophia as kind of person. And at the very beginning of the 20th century, the great Father Pavel Florensky, perhaps the most formidable mind of his generation in Russia in almost any sphere, elaborated this further in a work under the title, The Pillar and Foundation of the Truth. He drew on liturgical and iconographical themes to sketch a vision of the universe permeated by wisdom, which has deep roots in certain aspects of orthodox theology, although it goes a good way beyond it in many other respects. But also it has roots in the neo-platonic and esoteric speculations of the 17th & 18th centuries in Europe, and reaches out its hands to a whole variety of disciplines and perspectives in the cultural and religious world.
Father Pavel was one of those who helped to draw the young Bulgakov, professional economist, Marxist, and aspirant politician into the life of the church. And it's not surprising that Father Bulgakov's early works are very deeply marked by Florensky's influence. But as Bulgakov himself matures as a thinker, other things begin to happen. And what I see most clearly in the evolution of Bulgakov's work is a drive towards a more comprehensively biblical and liturgical setting for this language of holy wisdom. Until in the great trilogy of his maturity we see, I would say, a Christian systematic theology oriented around the theme of holy wisdom, very largely purged of some of the ambivalent and perhaps unduly complex or even syncretistic aspects which you might find in Soloviev and in others.
But to try and crystallise exactly what is the heart of this vision of the world, you would have to say something like this. Holy wisdom, rather like the principle of 'logos' in the philosophy of Philo of Alexandria at the beginning of the Christian era, is what you might call the area of overlap between divine and created life. If you think of intersecting circles, holy wisdom is that point at which the realities meet, overlap, intersect, interpenetrate. Wisdom, in Bulgakov's mature thought is not some kind of extra person in God; he toys with that language as did Florensky, then he sensibly goes somewhere else with it. It is not an extra person but a quality of the divine life which, in an earlyish work, Bulgakov refers to as the love of loving. It is God's own being reflecting lovingly upon its own loveable-ness, and in that reflection and relation, opening itself out to the sharing of love beyond the divine being. Thus there is a quality of loving wisdom in the very heart of God's life; it is that quality which is then shaped in the heart of the world. The mode, the rhythm, call it what you will, of divine life, becomes the wellspring, the central energy of created life also.
So you can talk about 'uncreated' and 'created' wisdom for example, as Bulgakov often does. Wisdom in the life of God is that in which God thinks of all the things that he will love. In loving his own productive, generative, generous love, God loves all those ways in which that love can be realised in creation. From all eternity God is loving the possibilities of his own creativity, so all things are held together in that loving wisdom. And when the world is created, it is created in such a way that those eternal objects of God's loving wisdom become actualities – interacting with one another, relating to God in the finite realm. So in creation, wisdom means the pattern of hidden harmony, interaction, interpenetration between the life of all lives in the world.
And one more word about these basic issues: it's out of this that there arises Bulgakov's distinctive contribution to the understanding of Jesus Christ, in whom (as you can perhaps see from this outline) uncreated and created wisdom come together. In Jesus Christ there is the perfection of created life, in him all the harmonies of the universe converge, 'in him all things cohere', in St Paul's words and this is possible because he is also and eternally the Word of God in whom the intelligence and love of the Father are realised. But more of that in a moment.
That in somewhat abstract terms is an outline of 'sophiology'. What it doesn't tells us is how it makes a difference to our self understanding and our understanding of God in a huge range of different contexts. And that's why I've said I would like to argue that Bulgakov, perhaps more than any other of the great theologians of holy wisdom in the Russian tradition, is crystallising something crucial to faith, not simply speculating.
He is challenging us to find a way of understanding two related things, which are indeed central to the Christian enterprise. He is challenging us first to understand how God and the world are related in a continuity which is also an unfathomable difference. And Bulgakov, like many Christian theologians, would say that the greatest errors of Christian theology come when Christian theologians become preoccupied with either the continuity or the difference, in such a way that they cannot understand how grace works. But the second issue, related to that, is more specific to our humanity. So it is not only about understanding God and the world in continuity and difference, it's also about understanding ourselves as being in the image of God – understanding the particular, the unique calling of human beings in the universe like this, made by a God like this.
Some of this may be illuminated if we wind back our theological history a little bit to the fourth century, in particular to a remark of St Athanasius in one of his treaties, Against the Arians, where he says (almost in passing) that if God were not eternally the generator of the Son, the Word, we couldn't understand how God could be creator. It is an observation of huge importance which, I think, lies at the root of the tradition that I'm trying to reflect on. Creation is not necessary to God, God can get along perfectly well being God without creation. But, if you can put it in a slightly trivialising way, it is not at all surprising that God is the creator, that God is eternally one who generates what is other, who eternally makes different his own life in the outpouring and exchange of the life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – that tells us that in the heart of God there is what you might call the energy of difference, an outpouring of life into otherness. If God were not like that we could not understand creation; or rather we might understand creation in a completely misleading way. We might understand it as the product of an arbitrary divine will. We might understand in the deist way which many did in the 18th century – a God whose power is expressed in making a universe in which he has no living investment. But creation as the carrier of wisdom, creation as a 'participant' in some sense in the divine life, makes sense when we understand our God as a God who makes himself other, who is in a relation of loving difference. So creation is, you might say, the sort of thing God does. Creation is a free outpouring of what God is; but that free outpouring makes sense because God simply is the Father of the Son, the breather of the Spirit from all eternity. What is natural to God as God in being trinity is then freely and willingly shared in the act of creation.
So as we grasp the unity in difference of the Father and the Son, something comes into focus for us about the nature of creation itself. I turn here to one or two remarks from one of the works of Bulgakov's maturity, his great work, The Lamb of God: On the Divine Humanity.
The trinitarian God who is love is in his wisdom creator, in virtue of that very fact about his nature. In no sense does he become so at a given moment in time when the creation of the world begins. The world's creation has a beginning from the world's point of view, not from God's. What in God is eternal is manifest for creation in time. In this respect a certain translation from one language to another is indispensable. Creation translates into time and limit and history the eternal fact of God.
Now in that work on the Lamb of God, Bulgakov offers some very searching reflections indeed about the nature of God's self giving. And after a longish historical introduction on the doctrine of Christ, he begins his substantive and creative theological discussion by concentrating on this theme of the divine self giving. Here Bulgakov speaks of kenosis, that fundamental theological concept, the self-emptying of God. Eternally, says Bulgakov, God the Father empties himself out in the generation of God the Son. Eternally God the Father decides to be only for the Son. And that eternal self emptying in the generating of the Son, again gives us a clue to the nature of creation. Before the Word of God empties himself to take on human flesh, the trinity is involved in a self-emptying act in shaping the world. That the world should be is for God (so to speak) to withdraw but not to be absent. It is for God to let be a world with its own freedom, its own integrity. The God who creates a world of freedom, a world that is itself, is a kenotic God, a self-giving, a self-emptying God whose being is for the other. And as we understand this in the eternal life of the Father, the Son and the Spirit, we understand how it is in creation.
And what Bulgakov is hinting at in these pages, what is developed in the long and very beautiful argument of that great work, is that the understanding of divine wisdom is inseparable from the understanding of divine self giving. If we want to understand wisdom we have to understand self giving, self surrender. In theological shorthand, wisdom is kenotic; to live in wisdom is to live in and by this energy of dispossession and outpouring. And that's why wisdom for the mature Bulgakov is not any kind of quasi-personality but what I earlier called the tone, the quality, the mode of God's very being as shared, as outpoured and returned in love; the eternal active life that is God, which is the love of love; the love of what self-emptying makes possible, given, returned, circulating eternally between Father, Son and Spirit. Creation can come to a full share within its finite terms in the life and the liberty of God because God lovingly 'withdraws'. Creation participates in God because God makes space for it. And here Bulgakov draws on the very rich heritage of Jewish as well as Christian mysticism; some of you will be familiar with the language of divine withdrawal as one of the fundamental themes in Jewish mysticism of the late Middle Ages and the 17th & 18th centuries.
Creation then is to be understood as that which is other than God and yet in being other than God is exactly what God desires, because God desires to give and realise his love in what is other. That eternal pattern of the Father, the Son and the Spirit is translated, to use Bulgakov's terms, into the relation of God and creation. And because that creative act is essentially an act of self-forgetting, self-giving, self-sharing, creation becomes itself when it lives into the reality of self-giving, self-sharing.
And so I make my first link from creation to creativity. The human calling to share the love and the liberty of God has to be in this perspective a calling to 'let be'. The paradox of real human creativity is that it is not the flexing of our human, our created will, the flexing of our muscles as you might say, the imposing of order, the dredging of up of something new out of the depths of our interiority, our creativity is most fully and freely expressed as humans when we, as artists, stand back and let be. How many artists have written about this aspect of the creative enterprise? That it is so far from being an exercise of will, much more an exercise of the most extraordinarily concentrated suspension of will, so that something is allowed to happen. The really creative work is a happening, it is the depth of the world occurring where the artist is because the artist has somehow exercised that asceticism of setting aside preferences and purposes and all the rest of it, so that something occurs. Many years ago I used to meet regularly with a rather formidable Canadian sculptor who wanted to talk about what he was doing. And he would say passionately again and again, 'will has nothing to do with it'. I must let it happen. Because the paradox is that 'letting it happen' for any artist is a hugely laborious business; it's not a recipe for sitting back. But that is simply to say the creative artist is doing a kenotic job; allowing the rhythm of the deepest reality to become transparent in your acts, your imagination, requires a real discipline of self-forgetting. And of course that's why in Bulgakov's own writing, particularly in some of his earlier writing, there's a very deep connection between the creativity, the human creativity that goes into art, and the human creativity that goes into the building of society. Creativity and justice you might say, belong together for Bulgakov.
If I may take you once again to some of his own writing, he speaks in an early work about art in these terms:
Does art not save, does it not alleviate the anguish of existence on this earth? Does it do no more than a muse? Must it and should it be no more than an entertainment that has no power to change anything? It is possible for products of the arts to be admired and loved in their own right, but this only has the effect of making the chains vile existence more palpable, and it is impossible to love these products with a living human affection.
So every creative act strives to attain an absolute status; it longs to create a world of beauty to triumph over chaos and convert it to order. But what does it actually say or convert? The artist, even if the greatest artistic attainments are granted him, has all the greater a sense of unsatisfactoriness or frustration as a creative personality to endure. Creativity is a stony path where the weight of the cross is laid on the shoulders of Simon of Cyrene whether he wills it or no.
Bulgakov is saying there, and says it in many other places, that art can never be content with producing a beauty that is just there to be looked at. Art wants the world to change and in its uncovering of the 'sophianic', the wisdom directed depths of the world, it does indeed make it possible for the world to change. But it does so fully only alongside those other activities of creativity in our human relationships and our society which bring to light the moral and spiritual depths of wisdom. So beauty is not just about art and if Dostoyevsky said, "Beauty will save the world," – a favourite quotation of Bulgakov's – he didn't just mean that it was nicer to have nice things around. There's a real transformative and revolutionary element here about that great act of self-dispossession which in the artist or in the fighter for justice allows truth, reality to come to light.
This interests me very deeply, not least because I've been working recently on some of the ideas of Bulgakov's contemporary Jacques Maritain, the French Catholic philosopher, who in the 20's was writing about art and faith in some very searching ways. One of Maritain's greatest themes was that the artist seeks the good of what is made – not the good of himself or herself, but the good of what is made. The artist seeks to make something that is itself, not just the conversion of something 'in here' to something 'out there', but something that has a life, an integrity of its own. And that is the challenge, the agony at times, of real art, not the passion for self expression, but something completely other than that, a passion that there be something that is itself. And Maritain has a series of reflections on what this implies for the understanding of art when it truly is about letting something other be. I think there are many links to be explored between what Maritain has to say about art and what Bulgakov says about it, noting also that both of them share the same conviction that art cannot be separated from the quest for justice, that the passion, the 'sophianic', wisdom rooted passion, to undercover the truth of the world leads you to seek justice and reconciliation as part of the search for beauty.
Creativity in the created world becomes then a mirror of God's nature. Not in a general rather vague way (God is the creator and human beings are quite creative too) but because God's self-forgetting in creation is the model for our own discovery of reality in self-loss and self-denial the denial of the selfish will in the artist's work, the denial of a crude individualism in the social realm. Labour and creativity in human relations are as much an act of holy wisdom as is the artistic enterprise and as much a kenotic matter, a 'being for the other'. Bulgakov was thinking about this very early on, as early as 1912 when he published his book on the philosophy of economy. Any student of economics picking up that book expecting to find detailed discussions of markets and surplus values would have had a nasty shock, because it's mostly about God and ethics and justice and things like that – which economists are (strangely) not interested in a lot of the time.
But of course the implication of that for our situation in the modern world is quite challenging. It means that campaigning about debt or fair trade is creative, it is an exercise of what our humanity is called to, it is the kenotic and sophianic search for a justice which is beautiful, a justice which uncovers what the world fundamentally is; a world of interdependence and interaction, a world in which self-forgetting brings joy, common, shared joy. And very often Christians have somehow failed to get across any idea that ethics, whether individual ethics or social ethics, is about joy. Those two words which you may not habitually associate – ethics and joy; but that is a theological failure, because the search for justice is very profoundly a journey into joy. If it's true that this is what the world is, if it's true that the nature of our participation in the life of God is a participation in God's self-forgetting bliss, then, our work for a society in which people have the freedom and the dignity to give themselves to each other in love, is as creative as any other act we undertake.
Bulgakov doesn't elaborate this at great length, but there's actually quite a lot of work to be done on what ethics would look like in the context of a doctrine of holy wisdom like this. And those great thinkers who in the last 15 or so years have begun to shift Christian ethics towards a different, church-related model are moving in precisely this direction. Whether it's Alistair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, John Millbank or Vigen Guroian (himself an Armenian Christian) – all of these writers in their different ways seem to be to be saying that ethics is to be understood only in the context of the body of Christ. We are not talking about duties and rules, nor are we talking about the freedom of self-expression. When we talk about ethics we are talking about the realisation of wisdom – not human prudence, but the self-sacrificing wisdom of God which is the heart of all reality, and the centre of all life.
If we were then to think of ethics in that context we would perhaps begin to see more clearly the sense in which we can speak of the church as a place where creation is itself. Often that seems rather counter intuitive; to say the church is the future of creation, the church is what humanity is about, the church is the promise of fulfilment – matches only a little unevenly with the reality of many Christian communities that we know and love. And yet the church as the place where matter is transformed into divine gift, the church as a place where persons exist and exist only in communion, in mutuality, in an utter being there for each other, in that sense what can we say but that the church is indeed the future of creation. The church is where creation is itself, the church is where wisdom is realised.
The day to day realities of the church may take some time to catch up with this vision. It has always been so, we shouldn't expect it to be otherwise. But what else is going on in the church but wisdom? Here the things of the world, the bread and the wine at the Lord's table, become unequivocally, unreservedly the vehicles of divine gift; the stuff of this world becomes soaked through with the self giving of God because the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, given into the hands of Jesus, become imbued with his sophianic life, his life as the life of self-giving wisdom. Given into his hands and then received from his hands, they become the carriers of wisdom into our own lives. And as that life is given back to us in Christ, the life of the community becomes the life of wisdom realised, because in that moment when we are the body of Christ as we have received the body of Christ, each of us is uniquely and gloriously there for all others. The moment when we receive the elements of Holy Communion is the moment when we are endowed with the capacity for self giving, being for the other in the way that only each one of us can be. That is why as we come back from the receiving of Holy Communion, we ought to be awed and amazed at the people next to us in church – because they are imbued with divine gift. And rather as in the conversation between St Seraphim and Motovilov, each of them could say to us 'Your face too is alight with the love of God'. That's the sense in which the church is where wisdom is and where every church community worth the name is struggling, feebly and patchily and very unsuccessfully to be a place where wisdom is visible, matter transformed into divine gift, persons existing in communion. That's the background against which we ought to be talking about ethics as ecclesial, ethics as a church matter and ethics as a matter of joy.
So we come finally to the celebration of creatureliness. Arguably what is going on in the work of redemption is, as St Irenaeus first put it, the reversal of Adam's mistake. Adam's resentment at not being God is transfigured by Christ into the free acceptance of not being God. That's what Philippians chapter 2 is all about. The one who is in the form of God delights to be no longer in the form of God but in the form of a slave, and in that slave form of humanity, joining in our unfreedom, our suffering, our tensions and our struggles, the finite created form of humanity is glorified from within. Adam resents not being God and so Satan has leverage upon him: 'You shall be as gods,' says Satan to Adam, knowing that the essence of our fallenness is resentment at being creatures (just as the essence of the fall of Satan himself, in church tradition, is the refusal to worship). So Jesus, in not clinging to the form of God but accepting the humility of the incarnation and the death of the cross, restores the glory of creatureliness. The incarnation affirms that creation is good, not that it is nice or beautiful, but that it is good because it is in this relationship of loving dependence on the self-giving of God. And the mystery that we seek to understand when we think about redemption is that restoring of the glory of creatureliness can only be done by one who isn't simply a bit of creation – the Word in whom creation hangs together, in whom alone is that full freedom which can accept the otherness, the suffering, the death of the created order and fill it with life. 'He who ascended, is it not he who also descended?' (Eph 4:9)
So we in Christ rejoice at not being God. We ought to give thanks daily to God that we are not God and that God is God; we give thanks to God for God's great glory. And the secret is that only in that rejoicing that we are not God do we come to share the divine life in the way we are made to do – the paradox that only by our completely not wanting to be God can the divine life take root in us.
Discipleship in the body of Christ is in one sense simply a matter of constantly battling to be a creature, battling against all those instincts in us which make us want to be God or make us want to be what we think God is. There, of course, is the catch. And that's why discipleship challenges at every level those unrealities which distort humanity, which distort creatureliness. That's why discipleship challenges those enterprises in our world and our culture which feed the illusion that actually we could be God if we tried hard enough.
What are those things about? Well you many find them in the deep unease so many in our culture feel about ageing and dying. You find it in our denials of death. You find it in our passion for absolute security, our desire never to be at risk. You may find it in a defence programme, you may find it in the technological exploitation of the environment. At level after level, our temptation is to deny that we are finite. And when I read, as sadly I sometimes do in discussions of our environmental crisis, that we can be confident technology will find a way, my blood runs cold, because I hear in that the refusal of real creatureliness. 'These limits are temporary, our skills will find a way, we shall at some point be able to get to the stage where we are safe'. And the gospel tells us you never on earth get to a place where you are safe; but you will get to a place where you are blissful and united with your Father in heaven. In the immortal words of C S Lewis, 'he's not a tame lion, you know'.
The outworking then of created wisdom, created Sophia, is this joyful embrace of being created, of not being God, the acceptance that we shall die, that we are fragile, that we are fallible. And it is 'here on this lowly ground', in John Donne's phrase, that we come into contact with the transfiguring, transformative life of the eternal God. Creation, creativity, creatureliness – you see perhaps the connections that I'm trying to draw out between those three clusters of ideas. When we understand what it is for God to create and how that is rooted in his trinitarian being, characterised by holy wisdom, then we begin to understand how creativity works in our world. And as we understand how creativity works, how it is always bound up with love, with that bracketing of the self to be for the other, that will for the good of what is made and so on, then we see that our holiness is not the denial but the acceptance of being creatures – made possible in that great central mystery of the creator himself becoming a creature, uncreated love working through the created humanity that is Jesus of Nazareth so that created mortal life is touched and glorified.
To me the value and virtue of language about holy wisdom, the 'sophiological' vision of Father Bulgakov and others, is that there are actually very few models or metaphors that really hold these three things together – creation, creativity, creatureliness. These desperately need to be held together for the integrity and transforming strength of our Christian language. Sophia, holy wisdom becomes the line between God's nature and ours. It makes sense of the idea of universal 'kenotic' energy, the universal urge in creation to that self emptying love. It makes sense above all of Christ as the point where created and uncreated meet in such as way that everything is changed by the meeting. So, granted all the difficulties, granted all the challenges that someone like Father Bulgakov places before us in understanding a highly sophisticated and intensely convoluted metaphysical model, perhaps we should bring it back repeatedly to this simple centre: Christian faith is about God and the world in continuity and difference; Christian faith is about the image of God in humanity and how it is restored and re-energised. To speak of holy wisdom in this context is to speak about all these things and it is to give ourselves not simply an intellectual agenda but one that is spiritual and creative, and public and political too – all inseparably linked together as we seek to work with and for God in a world which God wills to share his joy, which God has made to share his joy.
© Rowan Williams 2005