Creativity vs. religion

Just thinking out loud here; no final conclusions in this post, but merely the beginnings of some thoughts….

I’ve been thinking about the role of creativity within religion. Generally speaking, religion seems to me to take on an essentially conservative role; e.g., religion conserves a set of values that a group holds dear, and passes them on to the next generation. Another way of putting this: a religious group is a community of memory, where the group conserves important memories. These memories can be greater memories — Christians conserve the memory of Jesus’ death and resurrection; Buddhists conserve the memory of Siddhartha Gautama’s decision to return to this life after achieving nirvana — or they can be lesser memories — my home church, First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, conserves the memory that many of its members fought in the Battle of Concord and Lexington, one of the early battles in the American Revolution.

And consisting as it does of groups and organizations that conserve memories, religion does not necessarily place a high value on creativity. I found this out personally when I went for my required psychological evaluation and career counseling while pursuing fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister. One evaluation instrument I filled out indicated that I placed a high value on creativity, and according to the psychologist who interpreted the test results for me, this was unusual in a minister; and it has certainly been true that one of my biggest challenges at having a job in religion is that I find it difficult to find sufficient outlet for creativity; which is one of the motivations behind this blog, and behind other creative endeavors in which I engage.

However, if religion is basically conservative and non-creative, it can provide a happy home for creativity. Many of the most creative works of European art during the Renaissance were supported by the Roman Catholic church. Stephen Hawking holds religious views that seem to tend towards fundamentalist humanism — his rigid disapproval of Christianity is in its own way just as conservative as the religion he disdains — yet he is perhaps the most creative scientists of his generation. King’s Chapel in Boston is one of the most conservative Unitarian Universalist congregations, yet for decades it employed Daniel Pinkham, a prolific and creative composer.

And what about the relationship between liberal religion and creativity? Liberal religion is more likely to accommodate itself to changes in society around it than traditional religion, although generally speaking liberal religion institutions seem to lag behind societal changes by a generation or so. So compared to traditional religion, liberal religion is less conservative. Yet I sometimes feel as though liberal religion is more stifling to creativity than is conservative religion; certainly liberal religion stifles entrepreneurial creativity; as for artistic creativity, with a few exceptions (Daniel Pinkham comes to mind) liberal religion doesn’t provide much in the way of either financial or institutional support.

As I say, I’m just thinking out loud here — I’d value your comments and criticisms.

One thought on “Creativity vs. religion”

  1. 7 recovered comments

    Amy says:
    January 21, 2011 at 3:36 pm
    Thought #1: there are so many kinds of creativity. Our services allow for a fairly high level of creativity, since the liturgy is (theoretically) flexible and heavily sermon-focused. Just yesterday I realized I was describing myself to myself as a “professional writer,” a phrase that startled me but is accurate; those of us who have preaching as a major part of our portfolio make our living by writing. I also find that teaching, curriculum development, and rites of passage open up a lot of space for creativity. Another kind of creativity, which is maybe not the kind they were referring to in those tests, is that involved in people-work like counseling, supervision and volunteer management.

    Thought #2: To enable creativity such as Pinkham’s, or Bach’s, or other artists in various media, takes a commitment of money. When religion has given rise to incredible creativity, it’s been because it has essentially been a patron of the arts. A few UU congregations see themselves in that role; most don’t.

    Jean says:
    January 21, 2011 at 4:41 pm
    Hi Dan –
    I am utterly convinced that one of the reasons you are creative, and I am, is our upbringing in the UU church in Concord. Sunday school was like magic — to me, anyway. I always felt as though I were being shown something new and fantastic about the world. Everything from those films about the workings of the body, to how the bell tower operated, to the wonderful day when Mom was our teacher (were you there that day?) and she had us hold shells to our ears and listen, and then we drew portraits of the shells. Then, as we grew older, the way ideas were presented in sermons were always challenging old ways of thinking, always offering new slants on life. Yes, we sang the same old hymns over and over, and the rituals were the same Sunday after Sunday, and the same old portraits of all those important white guys hung in the parish hall — but somehow the combination of profoundly new ways of looking at things *with* the rituals and common memories — this made me who I am now. I still care a great deal about the past, and what came before, and what is now; I also care just as much about making new things, creating new ways of thinking and being.

    I really credit First Parish for a lot of that. Okay, and Mom too, and Dad, and a wonderful school system. Sure. But First Parish and our family’s commitment to it over the years feels like a significant part of creating a creative way of living.

    Jean says:
    January 21, 2011 at 4:42 pm
    oh, PS

    I meant to sign off this way:

    Love, Jean

    Erp says:
    January 21, 2011 at 8:08 pm
    Religion may be conservative but religious stories/myths/symbols are good fertilizer for creativity even if some of the results provoke howls of blasphemy (e.g., recent removal of a video, “A Fire in My Belly,” by David Wojnarowicz, from a Smithsonian exhibit) and even if the artist is not a member of the religion he or she is drawing upon.

    Dan says:
    January 22, 2011 at 4:45 pm
    Amy @ 1 — Re: your second point — thank you for articulating that. Religion can be conservative, but also be a patron of the creative arts. (As for Unitarian Universalists being so cheap when it comes to patronizing the arts, I just don’t want to go there right now.)

    Jean @ 2 — I fully agree. And for me that suddenly clicks with another factoid — 85% of the kids who grow up as UUs don’t stay on as adults. Those of us who do religious education often wonder amongst ourselves whether we are raising our kids in an environment that is so different from adult UU church that our kids just can’t take the cognitive dissonance and leave. I had never thought of creativity as part of that; do you think it is? In other comments here, you’ve made it clear that you don’t consider yourself a UU any more — does creativity or the lack thereof in the adult religious community have something to do with that?

    Erp @ 4 — Good point. And somehow religion seems to provoke more creativity than, say, folk tales.

    Erp says:
    January 22, 2011 at 7:49 pm
    Other wells do exist, Shakespeare’s plays mined mostly non-religious sources (and are in turned mined), the Arthurian legends (or other historical legends), and so on. However most of these are specific to a language/culture while Christianity at least crosses language boundaries and has had 2,000 years to expand its mythos (Old Testament, New Testament, Saints lives, martyrs [including those created by Christian infighting], theological musings). Religion is also suppose to strike us to the depths of our emotions which the others aren’t (barring patriotic myths); this might encourage creativity (I wonder if we could set up an experiment).

    Jean says:
    January 23, 2011 at 4:34 pm
    Dan @ 5 — I suppose there is a link between creativity — the lack of it — in UU adult church that keeps me away. I hadn’t really framed it that way. Stepping into a UU adult church I felt — and I’ll be general here, not specific — a strong sense that I had to adhere to a certain way of thinking, talking, and being. It felt restrictive and coercive, hierarchical and bureacratic. Which runs completely counter to my experience as a UU kid.

    However, I was a kid. Right? I had whiffs of the politics going on in the adult church then, but didn’t care about it. As kids — little kids on up to high school — we focused on learning, playing, exploring. We did that within a fairly predictable structure, which made us comfortable, even as we tried out new things and ideas.

    I think that’s what I have taken away from UU kid church: make a comfortable and predictable structure (call it ritual if we need to), and withiin that, people can feel safe enough to do what can be the scary stuff of learning, playing, exploring, expanding, growing. That’s how I teach now, and it still works.

    Perhaps the problem is that as we become adults we want to do less of the scary stuff — learn, play, grow, etc. — and more of the easy stuff — create and maintain the structures. And somehow we delude ourselves into thinking that the *structures* are what’s important, that the structures will make the experience or the community work well.

    Not at all. The structure is the least of it. It’s what you do inside it that matters.

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