Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Have you ever tried making pottery? It’s an ancient craft—an art, really. I’ve never tried it, although I’ve heard it can be a truly spiritual experience. Remember that great, erotic scene in the movie Ghost as Demi Moore and Patrick Swayzee sit on either side of a spinning pottery wheel and mold a vase together. There’s something about the shaping of wet clay into something beautiful, and usable…
Of course, God is the master potter. That image of making pottery is one of the most powerful images for the creative process of God. The 8th Century B.C. prophet Isaiah repeatedly used the metaphor of God as the potter and people as the clay in God’s hands. At one point as Isaiah is wrestling with the mystery of God, and how impossible it is to get a grasp on God, he recognizes that even in the midst of all that mystery, God is real. Isaiah knows this because he knows he—Isaiah—is created. He did not create himself. If he did have the power to create himself—if he did have the power to give the gift of life to himself—he would just keep on doing so forever. But he does not have that power. Even as he struggles with all the problems of human existence, Isaiah writes, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter. We are all the work of your hands.”
The Apostle Paul believed in a loving and caring God, and believed God had become incarnate in Jesus Christ. But Paul was willing to wrestle with all the tough questions. Most of us can imagine something of what Paul must have gone through. “If God is so good and powerful, why do so many terrible things happen?” We’ve all heard this haven’t we? Let’s be honest. We’ve all thought this, haven’t we? And what is the answer? I’ll be honest, I don’t care all that much for Paul’s answer to the question. In his letter to the Romans, he says, “Who are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, Why have you made me like this? Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?”
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This isn’t the first time Paul and I have crossed theological swords! A lot of modern theologians have problems with Paul—especially women theologians. Modern women have such a difficult time agreeing to follow Paul’s advice to be quiet in church, and to graciously submit to the will of their husbands. I know when the minister who performed our wedding used the old-fashioned language and asked Leigh if she agreed to love, honor and obey me, I definitely held my breath as an awkward silence ensued. Just about when I was sure she was going smack him one and shout, “SAY WHAT?!?!”, she said “I do.” I’ve occasionally reminded her of that over the years, but she claims to have had her fingers crossed!
Of course, I’ve grown to love Paul, accepting the fact that he had this amazing, wonderful relationship with God through Jesus Christ. And when he’s talking about that relationship with God, it is inspiring. I have to separate that from those times when he is trying to keep order in the early church, using the social traditions of 1st Century Palestine to keep things running smoothly.
But that doesn’t let me off the hook with his words about the clay not complaining about the potter, does it? Because in this case, as he tells us to quit complaining about our lives—we are exactly the way God made us, clay in the hands of the master potter—I start having theological problems with my first century brother.
I’ve seen people trying to make pottery, and things don’t always turn out exactly according to plan, even for people who are quite accomplished at the craft. Sometimes, just when some master craftsman is putting the finishing touches on the vase, it just slumps over, and there is no choice but to pile the clay back together and start all over.
I wonder if that’s what happened with the dinosaurs? I wonder if they were the equivalent of a botched clay vase? Think about it. God creates this amazing universe, and in many ways gives the universe the power to create itself. John Polkinghorne, who is a rare combination—both a theologian and a physicist—says it is good that God created a universe capable of creating itself. After all, what is the alternative? A universe where we are all puppets, marching through life with each step choreographed by a God who is nothing more than a cosmic tyrant?
Surely God’s hands are gently and subtly shaping life on Earth, but I wonder what God thinks when, 60 or 70 million years ago, the realization strikes that there are dinosaurs all over the place—these amazing, huge creatures with tiny little brains. Maybe God thinks, I was hoping for some creatures who I could communicate with. I was hoping for some creatures that would look around at the universe and question why I made them. But these creatures do nothing but eat.
And sure enough, a well placed meteor collides with planet Earth, allowing God to try again. God allows the clay to fall back into a big lump, and begins all over with this “life on Earth” experiment. And a mere 60 million years later, success! Here we are, human beings, looking out at the world around us, wondering why we’re here, and searching for God, from the depths of our souls to the limits of the universe.
Okay, maybe it didn’t happen like that. The dinosaurs might well have had some worth that we don’t understand. And I suspect they did—they had worth to God, even if we can’t understand it. Surely everything has worth, in one way or another, even if we can’t always identify that worth.
My guess is that if I were to rummage through the boxes in your attic, I would discover the equivalent of a dinosaur, or a bent over and useless clay pot. It would probably be some piece of artwork your son or daughter brought home from kindergarten or first grade. Over the years it was moved from its cherished spot on the door of the refrigerator, or the fireplace mantle, to some box where, even as you moved from home to home, you just couldn’t part with it. And if you were to take it out of the box and show it to some rational neighbor, he would look at it and think, “That is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” And the fact is you couldn’t find a person in the world who would give you 50 cents for that drawing, or pencil holder, or paper weight, or whatever it is… which is fine, because you wouldn’t sell it for a thousand dollars.
I think God understands those works of art we have stored away in the attic. God sees worth in everything. One of the tenets of the Christian faith is that each and every human being is of invaluable worth, because each person is created in the image of God. Now, human beings may well be the crown of God’s creation, but let’s get serious. Created in the image of God? Gee, that’s a humble thing to think. And we hear it all the time. But what does it mean. What is it that makes a human being in the image of God?
First, we should probably consider what it does not mean, namely, that we look like God. If we think that God is some physical being with feet, hands, eyes, ears, and all the other physiological elements that make us human beings, well, our spiritual development has been frozen at somewhere around age five. It is safe to say that the God to whom Jesus prayed—the God in whom we live, and move, and have our being—does not even remotely resemble the cartoonish bearded man on a cloud implanted in our minds by childhood fantasies. And when we think that way, we are creating God in our image. We are inventing a God that does not exist and making him look just like us.
But we are created in God’s image, and not the other way around. There are many ways of thinking about this, but the way that makes the most sense to me is simple. We are created in the image of God because we ourselves have the ability to create with love. God is our loving creator, and we are capable of being loving creators. Not on the same scale as God, of course, but still, we human beings can do something no other creature can do. We can look upon the world with love, we can care about what we see, and we can creatively shape the world with our love.
Physically, the animal that is a modern human has been around about one hundred thirty thousand years. When archeologists and anthropologists look back at our ancestors, they ask, “When did these animals—these beings—become human beings?” And the answer for most is that they became human beings about seventy thousand years ago. It was then, in the caves of Africa near the shores of the Indian Ocean, that our ancestors began to create art. It is then that they became distinctive from every other type of creature the world had ever known, because their creativity suddenly moved beyond mere instinct.
Creativity. It is the place where the divine and the human meet. That’s why making pottery can be such a spiritual experience. One minute there is nothing but a useless lump of clay, and the next minute there is something beautiful. One minute there is chaos, and the next minute order.
Nobody has spent more time and energy studying and writing about creativity, and the link creativity forms between God and humanity, than a theologian named Matthew Fox. Matthew Fox started writing in the 1960’s, and at that time he was a controversial Catholic priest. Fox is most famous for his belief that the Christian faith took a terrible wrong turn very early on. In fact, Fox says that ever since Christianity accepted the idea of “Original Sin” with the writings of St. Augustine in the 5th Century, the church has followed the wrong path.
Now, you may be thinking that sounds like a strange thing for a Catholic priest to say. And the Vatican agrees with you. In fact, in 1989, the Catholic Church officially “silenced” Matthew Fox, meaning he literally went a full year without writing or speaking. Obviously they were pretty upset with him. And when the year was over, and officials from the church anxiously waited to see if he would recant all of his heretical views once the year was over, he said, “Now, as I was saying…”
The Vatican was not amused. Finally, in 1995, he was dismissed from the Franciscan Order. He became an Episcopal priest, started the School of Creation Spirituality, and today provides cutting edge spiritual education to ministers from all over the world. The degrees they receive from his school, by the way, are respected by spiritual people from all walks of life, but are not recognized by the Association of Theological Schools, which is the accrediting institution for schools of theology.
The last time I checked, Matthew Fox has written 23 books, including one called “Creativity—Where the Divine and Human Meet.” Fox insists that if we do not find ways to be creative, we are not being fully human. The ideal situation is to have a job, a vocation, in which one can be creative. But if a person is not blessed with that opportunity, he or she must find some other creative outlet. It is in creating that we transcend the limitations life puts on us.
Fox cites the words of the great composer Leonard Bernstein as he reflected on the creative process: “I sit for long nights all by myself and don’t have a thought in my head. I’m dry. I’m blocked, or so it seems. I sit at the piano and just improvise—strum some chords or try a sequence of notes. And then, suddenly, I find one that hits, that suggest something else… This is the most exciting moment that can happen in an artist’s life… I am grateful for that gift, for those moments, just as I am terribly depressed by the moments in between when nothing happens. But eventually those two strands will come together, a spark will fly, and I’ll be off, sailing, my ego gone. I won’t know my name. I won’t know what time it is. Then, I am a composer.”
I think most of us get a least a glimmer of that feeling if we open ourselves to creative opportunities. We don’t have to write symphonies for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to know that feeling. It can be something as simple as baking a pie. It can be coming up with an idea to make the workplace operate more efficiently. It can be planting and arranging flowers in the back yard.
We don’t have to be creative geniuses to be creative. But I agree with Matthew Fox that in order to be fully human, we must find ways to be creative. Because we are called into being by the creative forces of the universe, and we are the creatures God has created who are capable of shaping this universe with our creativity. And that is good news and bad news. Because the same creative power that allows us to split the atom for energy allows us to use that technology to build unthinkably evil weapons. And the same creative power that allows us to use our vocal cords to sing a hymn in church on Sunday morning gives us the ability to curse our neighbors and bring hatred into the world. The same creative power that can shape a lump of clay into a beautiful vase can point a gun at another human being and pull the trigger.
Psychologist Carl Rogers was not a religious person, and he would not use the word “God” to describe his understanding of the universe. But once, in a letter to the famous theologian Paul Tillich, Carl Rogers wrote of the powers within the universe, of the creative forces that move the universe forward, and how he felt in touch with these forces when he was able to embrace his creativity in ways that helped others and improved the world. Rogers wrote, “I feel as though I am in tune with the forces of the universe; that forces are operating through me in regard to this helping relationship.”
I don’t know what Paul Tillich wrote in return to Carl Rogers’ letter, but I expect it had something to do with the relationship between God and creativity. I imagine he told him that embracing that creative force within himself was the closest he would come to embracing God, and that if the God he had previously rejected was the bearded old man on some cloud, it is good that he had rejected that God.
The Christian faith needs to free itself of childhood illusions. God is that force that kept working within Carl Rogers’ life, calling him forward, creatively addressing the problems of the world. I imagine Paul Tillich told Carl Rogers, “Of course you are creatively working to make the world a better place. How could you help yourself? After all, you are created in the image of God. In fact, I will pay you the highest compliment I could possibly pay any creature in the universe. You, my friend, are a human being.”