Exploring the Creative

Creative is a word most often associated with making something that never existed before, such as painting, music, sculpture, or some other aspect of the fine arts. A “creative” in the business world is usually a graphic designer or writer. It seems to me that creative, however, applies to so much more than that. So, I looked up the definition in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online.  One of the definitions said creative is “having the quality of something created rather than imitated; imaginative.” Brene Brown has said, “We are creative beings. We are by nature creative.”

Types or Styles of Creative Thinking

As I was researching the term creative, I ran across linear and creative or lateral thinking. Linear thinking moves an idea that we have chosen forward and I’ve learned how to do that very well and it is the skill that makes me a great project manager and has given me the reputation of someone who “gets things done”.

I remember reading Ayn Rand in my late twenties when individualism and linear thinking was the norm. She promoted the idea that the mundane and everyday type of work was meaningless and creating new things was worthwhile. The women’s movement fought very hard against the idea that women’s work was associated with the mundane and men’s work was the meaningful and creative. Looking back it feels like we were turning ourselves into men rather than creating equality which would have equal participation in the ordinary maintenance of life as well as the creative.

The description of the creative or lateral thinking process seems to describe the way I work, think and navigate the world right now. Lateral, sometimes called sideways thinking, is about following leads towards a goal that may not be known at the time.  The example given was of a reporter asking who, what, when, where, how and continuing to move towards the end result of a story. The story is revealed as the reporting continues to gather information.

This is a lot like listening to the Holy Spirit and paying attention to the experiential as guides as the story of the next phase of my life unfolds. It’s a lot of trial and error, noticing the pieces that bring joy and the ones that don’t. Being practical about taking care of the necessities of living as well as being present with others as they move through and to their own stories. It requires listening and empathy to understand what is really happening around you. It is letting your imagination free to see possibilities, options and patterns that reveal what is possible. It requires analytical skills, and some linear thinking, to make a decision and a plan to reach what you have decided is the goal.

But what if the creative thinking is the goal? What if the continual moving forward and experimenting with the “next right thing” is the plan?

As I continued researching creativity, I looked up circular thinking which I’ve always associated with non-productive hashing and re-hashing of an idea. I found an article which connected circular thinking with the circles and cycles of life itself. Celestial systems, tides, phases of the moon were examples. Villages and cities were created in the round. In Atlanta, we have built a circle around the city and marriages are celebrated with the exchange of a circle of metal. Circular thinking is relational, describing our circle of friends, our tribe. It’s the way of thinking of who the author described as Mother Nature. Not straight lines at all but feminine, embracing and in tune with the rhythms of life and our bodies. It’s something to think about as metaphor for this next phase of my life.

Linear, lateral or circular thinking. Less striving to move forward and more attuned to my own and other people’s embodiment in the world. Perhaps, it’s some of all of these types. Thinking and discerning when to use them is the key to being creative.

About “The Journey”

I have loved to read since I was a little girl. However, writing is a more recent love. During my years in seminary, I discovered that I loved researching topics I wanted to learn more about and putting words together in ways that expressed what I had learned. By learning to be present in every moment, I discovered the joy of reflecting on life around and within me.

Also, during that time, I embraced seeing the world with non-duality. I realized that most everything had a “both/and” that must be seen and held in tension. That creative tension, seen in God, Me, my Neighbors, and all creation, opens up the world to wonder and awe.

Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

– James Baldwin

It’s not enough to merely notice. I agree with James Baldwin. Once we see injustice or harm, will we allow compassion and mercy to arise? Will we slow down and take the time to feel our own and other people’s feelings? Can we ask, “Tell me more?” Will we give our full attention to what is occurring? For me, these are the key questions that help love begin to flow.

Then the question, for me, becomes, “What is mine to do?” I grew up in the era that proclaimed that women could, and should, be all things. I believed Helen Reddy. But that was wishful thinking on my part. It took several significant, unfixable incidents in my life for me to begin to accept what is. Some things just are. There are other things that someone else is better suited to handle than me. Some things I am suited to do, but the timing isn’t right. I’m on a journey now to build a life that includes caring for myself in preparation for the moment when I’ve listened and discerned that it is the time; this is the thing I can do to make a difference.

Writing helps me process what I see, to pay attention, and discern. You’ll also find book reviews and reflections about things I’m thinking or wondering about that are going on in the world. My prayer is that something resonates with you and is helpful along your journey.

Non-violent Communication For Abundant Life

I recently participated in a circle of worship where we were contemplating the question, “Where is God in the swirling of fear and antagonism we see in communities, politics and churches?” Several people were suffering as they contemplated the upcoming vote in the Methodist church on full acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community into the life of the church. One of the readings was a portion of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” The following are his words that keep resounding in my mind as I contemplate practicing non-violent communication going forward.

. . . I have looked at her beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlay of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over again I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? . . . “

“Letter from the Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr.

I keep asking myself, “What does my life say about the kind of person I am and what does it say about what I believe about God?” I spent many years trying to divest myself of a vision of God that was oppressive and judgmental, promoting an atmosphere of “them” against “us”.  I realized that in order to love someone else, I must know them.  I needed to start with my relationship with God and self in order to love others. My guiding scripture for this journey is:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ . . .”

Matthew 22: 37-40 (The Message)

My understanding of who God is has expanded and broadened as I have studied at Columbia Theological Seminary. The image of Trinity as a relationship of flowing of connection and love between the Creator, the Logos, and the Spirit is beginning to heal the effects of the old image of hierarchical coercion and submission. I believe God created the world and people as an expression of creativity and desire for relationship with and between all things. As I’ve read the re-imagining of Biblical texts by the mystic, feminist, womanist, and liberation theologians, I’m seeing a new vision of the many ways God is at work in the world.

The religion of my childhood was focused on correcting external behavior and I never learned to listen to what was occurring within myself. Simply working on “fixing” behavior proved to be exhausting and in the long run a wasted effort. Transformation of the heart by the love and grace of God continues to reveal a better way of life. My expanding image of God is causing a greater awareness of the interconnected relationship between my mind, body and spirit. My exploration of Buddhist thought has helped me find practical actions that help me separate from my thoughts and be more compassionate to myself, to feel what I feel. 

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg felt that the principles of non-violent communication was a way of life, of expressing our spiritual connection with God. He promoted the use of empathy, honesty, presence to feelings and attention to needs as expression of the Divine. However, needs are not something I have experience identifying. His thoughts on needs made me wonder if it is possible that Philippians 4:19 is referring to all the basic needs of each person.

You can be sure that God will take care of everything you need, his generosity exceeding even yours in the glory that pours from Jesus. 

Philippians 4:19 (The Message)

Does my God provide the resources I need to live in creativity and relationship with God and all that is? Could NVC become a spiritual practice that reflects who I believe God is and help me to continue the work of Matthew 22? There is much to internalize, however, to make this process become a way of life. I must continue to learn how use the stillness of meditation to quiet my thoughts and allow myself to feel what is going on in my body, heart and mind and reveal my needs. 

I recently had an experience in a work setting that required reflecting on the feelings lists for quite a while. I was able to finally uncover some of the feelings that were less comfortable to acknowledge. And needs! That took even longer to uncover. I had to really work to keep my internal conversation away from what I wanted other people to do. I spent time thinking empathetically about what the other people’s points of view and what their needs might be. As I spent time processing the NVC steps I noticed the reactivity and heightened feelings beginning to subside opening up the space for needs to emerge. Coming to a specific request was even harder as one of my needs seemed likely to conflict with their needs. The process helped me think through what was “mine” to request in this situation and to find my boundaries.

 Could non-violent communication be part of the way to finding abundant life for all people that Jesus offered?

I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.

John 10:10 (The Message)

What difference will it make in the broader world if I can allow God to continue to transform my heart with God’s loving presence and care about myself and others the way in which God cares for us? God’s needs, our own needs and the needs of our neighbors are interconnected, a reflection of the relationship within the Trinity.  I cannot, at this point in time, think too much about the application of non-violent communication for transforming hearts and resulting behavior within the organization of church. But, when I think of the members of the universal church with whom I interact on a daily basis, I know my life and theirs can be more life giving. Wherever this path is leading, I can incorporate non-violent communication into my spiritual practices to increase the possibility of knowing and loving God, myself and my neighbor.

Christian Ethics at the Boundary by Karen Guth

Book Review:

Our culture seems obsessed with pointing out and using difference as a divisive and wall-building mechanism. The effects are felt in the most casual conversations about music and movie preferences, as well as more intense discussions about theological issues which recently affected the polity within one of the largest Protestant denominations to political concerns around the globe. In the academic world of theology and ethics, many scholars take positions within historical ideological camps or interpret them for today’s world. In her book, Christian Ethics at the Boundary, Karen Guth demonstrates that an engagement with multiple voices at the boundaries of where their opinions differ can be used constructively and creatively to find new avenues of ethical interaction between and within the church and the world.

Guth’s methodology for engaging diverse ethical and theological voices is based on the methodology of “community of argument” outlined by Kathryn Tanner in her book, Theories of Culture. Tanner’s process focuses on the participants undertaking an interpretative and investigative stance during the discussion that is not focused on coming to an agreement or any particular outcome (Guth, 23). Constructive use of Tanner’s process, as understood by Guth, hinges on acknowledgement of a “common search for truth,” regard for the integrity and power of the work each person is undertaking and the desire to address the “challenges of our communal moral life (Guth,5).”

Guth’s focus in this book is to engage the boundary of witness, realist and feminist and womanist ethical theological thought primarily focusing on the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, Howard Yoder and Martin Luther King, Jr. While she understands the benefits of naming and categorizing for self-identification and clarification of one’s own point of view, she recognizes that some perspective and nuance may be lost when a scholar’s writing is categorized with a broad brush (Guth, 26). By listening to the criticisms against and the less acknowledged strands of Niebuhr’s (realist) and Yoder’s (witness) writing alongside feminist and womanist scholars, Guth is interested in identifying new ground for the extension of the work of all three points of view (Guth, 7-8).

Reinhold Neibuhr
Karl Barth and Reinhold Neibuhr began the discussion of the witness versus realist approach as they attempted to guide the theological response of the church to the political changes caused by World Wars I and II. Barth emphasized a “radical difference between the world of God and the world of humans.” Barth was concerned about the emphasis on human experience to understand God and the efforts to align the political and economic world with God’s will.  He felt that Christians should make their focus on internal world of the church (Guth, 35). He felt that Christians should align their personal identity with the church (Guth, 37) which is distinctive from and acts as God’s witness to the world (Guth, 9).

Howard Yoder
Howard Yoder is best known as a pacifist who advocated for not participating in the military and was concerned that the Christian witness remain pure instead of seeking justice in the world. Guth interprets Yoder as identifying the “state” or nation with the “world” (Guth, 121) because of his witness stance for nonresistant love (Guth 113). Yoder was not trying to say that the church was good and the world was bad but that the church has a different purpose than the world, different beliefs about the destiny of mankind and the lordship of God over everything (Guth 121). Yoder believed that the public awareness of that the church doing things in a way that is different than the culture contributes to cultural change (Guth, 129) and that feminist and womanist thought is contributing to that witness (Guth, 29).

Niebuhr disagreed with Barth and believed that the truths of the church provided the guidance for moral action by Christians in their life in the world (Guth, 35). He placed great emphasis on personal experience being as important as revelation and scripture (Guth, 85) and saw sin primarily as the pride of not recognizing our lack of control of human destiny (Guth, 77).  He emphasized that Christian beliefs and practices were invaluable resources for finding ways to resolve political and economic problems (Guth, 10). Robin Lovin continued the work of realism in Christian ethics by outlining three “realisms – political, theological and moral” in Niebuhr’s writing. He pushes Niebhur’s acknowledgement of the “reality of nation-states” to include the influence of “religious movements and trans-national corporations.” Today’s application of Christian theology, in his mind, needed to include these new realities in political thinking (Guth, 45). Lovin included both public and private life as contexts requiring moral responsibility (Guth, 46). He acknowledged that each of these contexts will attempt to protect the integrity of its boundaries when interacting with the other contexts but these multiple contexts will need to communicate and collaborate for the greater good (Guth, 47).

Guth notes that feminists and womanists have been ignored by and avoid engagement with realist and witness thought for very good reasons. Guth states that feminists and womanists see no difference between internal (witness) and external (realist) political action but direct their emphasis on determining where the power lies and its effect (Guth, 58). She points out the feminist and womanist concern for the impact of truth claims on those who are marginalized (Guth, 78). Feminists and womanists emphasize the effect of theological language, doctrine and practices as a force that shapes cultural norms and determines moral action by individuals and groups. Feminists and womanists also question the universality of Niebuhr’s definition of sin as pride or a self that is too individualized and autonomous and highlight its inaccuracy for women who more often relational and lack self-esteem (Guth, 78). 

Martin Luther King Jr.
Guth also looks critically at the theology of Martin Luther King, Jr, who she feels has been largely ignored as a conversation partner by realists, witness and feminist and womanist theologians. His theology stands across and between realism and witness points of view. He joins realists in publicly engaging with the “triple evils” of the world, racism, materialism and militarism. His emphasis on the formation work of the church within individua lives aligns him with witness theologians (Guth, 17).

King’s understanding of nonviolent resistance and “willingness to accept violence, if necessary” is seen by Guth as drawing on historically Christian martyrdom to express how he thinks about political action (Guth, 154). While King appealed to African-Americans to recognize their personhood in God and possessing the power to choose sacrifice, feminists and womanists assert that his definition of agape love as willingness to sacrifice self was counter-productive for women (Guth, 169-170). Feminists and Womanists characterize the cross as voluntary suffering for a just cause not as sacrificial suffering which can disempower women to take action against their suffering (Guth, 162).

Guth notes that love was a central theme in King’s theology around Christian non-violence (Guth, 154) and that this can be related to the feminist and womanist view of agape love that is mutual, each taking and giving love (Guth, 171). He also utilized the metaphor of family and friendship to describe the relational and mutually dependent relationship between individuals as motivation for political action (Guth, 173). For feminists and womanists, this resonates with the understanding of community as centrally important to the “deepening and extension of communal life (Guth, 174).

In addition to theological differences, feminists and womanists find it difficult to engage with theologians that have expressed through their personal actions or writing their sexism. It is suspected that Niebuhr’s wife Ursula was his unacknowledged coauthor and did not acknowledge the work of black women’s theological work in Harlem that was going on during his time. Even though Yoder characterizes Jesus as a feminist and promotes “gender egalitarianism” he has been called out for sexual violence against women (Guth, 21). King, ignoring the realities of sexism against black women in his writing, was known to disregard the equality of black women within his organization and in his personal life (Guth 22).

So what?
What good comes from challenging various viewpoints to listen for nuance and find threads of agreement that can be developed? To Guth, what comes from these discussions at the boundaries of differing thought are “gifts and resources” that can be used to broaden and deepen the body of work to “address complex moral problems (Guth, 5).” She wants to use the discussion of these particular theologians as an example of how Tanner’s “culture of argument” can be used productively to engage in work on larger issues (Guth, 6). We can follow King’s example and refuse to land in any one theological stance but work with other “creatively maladjusted ethicists (Guth 185-186)” to redefine the political role of the church in a way that uses agape love to create and sustain communities that are a “synthesis of love and justice (Guth, 183).”  By seeing love as creative capacity we can participate with God in “creative activity (Guth, 175)” to address the calling of the church as witness to God’s love and care as well as take action to create change towards “the beloved community.”

For each of us studying theology and ethics and living in our many and varied contexts, we are called to listen to those who have perspectives and beliefs that may differ from our own. When we utilize the approach of Kathyrn Tanner’s culture of disagreement, we increase the odds of finding points of agreement, as well as disagreement, that may enlarge our understanding of the issue and provide creative new directions of discovery. We can commit to becoming the “beloved community” even as we engage our differences “without succumbing to divisiveness that betrays the integrity and power of our work (Guth, 5).”