Creativity and the Life of Faith

July 31, 2017
Professor Stephanie Paulsell
Professor Stephanie Paulsell.

Stephanie Paulsell is the Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies. On July 30, she delivered the sermon during Sunday Services at Memorial Church. Below are her remarks.


One of the books we read in my summer school course this year was Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse. The novel explores the relationship between family life and national life by examining two days in the life of the Ramsay family—a day prior to the beginning of the first world war and a day following it—as well as the catastrophe that arose between those two days. Three of the characters Woolf develops in the novel are artists:  Mr. Carmichael, a poet; Lily Briscoe, a painter; and Mrs Ramsay, the kind of artist we don’t always recognize as an artist, one who is able to gather a disparate, uneasy group of people around a table for a meal and gradually compose them into a community that, briefly, makes “common cause” together. Mr. Carmichael works with words, Lily with color, shadow and form. But the elements of Mrs. Ramsay’s art are human beings themselves, and the spaces between them. Working with food and candlelight, conversation and the arrangement of fruit on a dish, she creates spaces where people can overcome, for a moment, the distances and silences that separate them. Her art will never hang in a museum or be published in a collection—it is ephemeral, and when her dinner party is over, and she turns to look at the now-empty table and the already-vanishing scene, it’s like watching a Buddhist monk sweep his arm across a colorful sand mandala that he had painstakingly assembled.

Virginia Woolf believed that “the whole world is a work of art” marked by moments of being that seem to partake, as Mrs. Ramsay puts it, “of eternity.” The author of the opening of the book of Genesis seems to have believed that, too. God is the artist in this gorgeous hymn to creation, speaking the world into being, defining the edges of earth and sky, creating a home for life in all its forms.

Because the first chapter of Genesis has been so thoroughly co-opted into cultural debates about science and religion, it’s easy to forget that it was not written as an argument against Darwin’s theory of evolution. This account of creation was written during a particular historical moment, most likely the Babylonian Exile. It was composed by an artist during a time of hopelessness and despair for a people who had been conquered and exiled.

What might the exiled people of Israel have heard in the verses Ben Schafer read aloud to us so beautifully this morning? Perhaps they would have heard that things could be otherwise. Perhaps they would have heard that change is possible; that something wholly new can happen. Chaos can be transformed into a habitable work of art, beloved by God, proclaimed good. As scholar Walter Brueggeman has noted, the God of the first chapter of Genesis does not say “There must be light,” but rather:  “let there be light.” God does not decree creation like an authoritarian ruler signing executive orders. God sets unpredictable, creative possibility loose in the world:  let there be light, let there be fish in the sea, let us make human beings in our own image.

This, of course, is one of the most arresting sentences in Genesis’ litany of creation for anyone who hears it—for the people of Israel in exile, for us in twenty-first century America. God made human beings in God’s own image. Even in exile, even in sorrow, even at our most abject, there is something about us that mirrors God back to God.

What is that something that marks our creation in God’s image? Surely it is more than we can know or explain. But if we are made in the image of the God who made the world, perhaps one answer can be found in the creative impulse that is so much a part of our humanity—whether we are poets like Mr. Carmichael, or painters like Lily Briscoe, or artists like Mrs. Ramsay, creating “the thing,” as she puts it, “that endures” from the impermanent stuff of our lives—the meals, the relationships, the arrangement of fruit on a dish. To be made in God’s image is have within us the capacity for creativity. And so when are making something--a poem, a marriage, a service of worship, a movement for justice, a community—we participate in God’s own creativity.

If human creativity is a mark of God’s image, then it is surely found at the heart of the life of faith. So often, when religion is discussed in our culture, it’s portrayed solely as a set of beliefs that we accept or reject rather than imaginative, creative work. But what is any faith if not something assembled from disparate elements—from scriptures, images, relationships, experiences—into something saturated with meaning?

In the gospel lesson this morning, Jesus shows us how this works by inviting us to exercise our religious imagination. He does this, as he does so much of his teaching, by telling a series of parables.

The kingdom of heaven, he says, is like a mustard seed, that starts out small and grows into a tree so large that birds build their nests in its branches.

The kingdom of heaven is like the yeast a woman stirs into flour so that she can make bread.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, like a single, perfect pearl hidden in plain sight among other pearls.

The kingdom of heaven is a like a net that brings up from the sea every kind of fish.

There is, of course, a lot to learn from these parables. We learn that the kingdom of heaven does its secret work in hidden places. That it can be found in the ordinary stuff of life. That once it is added it cannot be subtracted. That it begins as something so small we can barely see it but grows large enough to be lived in or transforms into something nourishing enough to sustain our lives.

But we learn at least one more thing from the stories Jesus tells:  we learn that there is no one correct answer to the question of what the kingdom of heaven is like. That question has multiple answers, maybe even infinite ones.

By offering us a few of his, Jesus opens a space within which we might create our own parables. He invites us to look around, to see where the seeds of the kingdom of heaven might be waiting.

Maybe the kingdom of heaven is like a book that a student comes across by accident in the library and whose life changed by what she reads in it.

Maybe the kingdom of heaven is like a church that prepares a sanctuary for an undocumented woman and her children that draws people from all over the city into the privilege of accompanying them.

Maybe the kingdom of heaven is like a shared meal that dissolves, for a moment, the distances between us.

Maybe the kingdom of heaven is like a small act of resistance to cruelty that grows into a movement for change.

Maybe the kingdom of heaven is like a hymn sung by people far from home about a God who delights in creating something new, a hymn from which they draw hope.

Believing is often lifted up as the quintessential religious stance. But imagining is just as important as believing. Indeed, believing depends on our ability to imagine—to imagine a God we cannot see or to feel the claim on us, in this time and place, of words which are ancient and sometimes difficult to understand.

With his parables, Jesus reminds us that imagination is an irreplaceable dimension of the life of faith, a practice of the freedom of the glory of the children of God. His parables don’t offer a definition of God’s kingdom. They don’t answer the question of what the kingdom of God is. They answer the question of what the kingdom of God is like. In this cascade of images, Jesus is teaching us to cultivate, as the theologian David Tracy once called it, an analogical imagination. He invites us to think with things we can see and touch about things we can only imagine.

If imagination is at the heart of the theological work of faith, it is also at the heart of the ethical choices to which Jesus calls us. During the last brutal months of first world war, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that the willingness to kill must be a failure of the imagination—an inability to imagine another person’s life and what it might become. The imaginative work at the heart of the life of faith challenges us to cultivate our capacity to imagine lives other than our own—and to care about them enough to take them into account as we make choices about how we will live.

What is the kingdom of God like? It’s like a drop of indigo in white paint, a pinch of saffron in a pot of rice. It’s like a healing dose of medicine in a suffering body, a word of hope in the midst of fear. The kingdom of God is pervasive, transformative, creative. Once it has been added, it cannot be separated out.

After he has told several parables to his disciples, awakening their creativity with image after image, Jesus offers them a last teaching for the day. “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven,” he says, “is the like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

The painter Lily Briscoe, in To the Lighthouse, describes artists in very much the same way. “There might be lovers,” she thinks as she finishes her painting, “whose gift it was to choose out the elements of things and place them together and so, giving them a wholeness not theirs in life, make of some scene, or meeting of people (all now gone and separate), one of those globed compacted things over which thought lingers, and love plays.”

It’s hard to imagine a better description of the parables Jesus tells:  globed compacted things over which thought linger and love plays. He created them from what is new—the ordinary experiences of the people around him—and what is old—the ancient wisdom that he inherited and reinterpreted for his day and for ours. The artist Lily Briscoe imagines does the same—chooses out the elements of things new and old, past and present, living and dead—and creates something that invites both thought and love.

As satisfying as a well-made parable is, though, it is not an end in itself. As Jesus knew, the practice of cultivating enough imagination to create a parable about what God’s kingdom is like awakens our attention to the signs of it everywhere. Looking for the kingdom of God hidden in our midst, we may find it, and finding it, we may be changed by it, and changed, we may become like the yeast in the bread, the seed in the ground. We may grow into something we could not have foreseen. We may grow together into something that could only be born from the creative life of faith that renders hidden things visible and brings new ways of living into the world.