Scholar’s Compass: Creativity as Gift

leaf photoDavid Russell Mosley generously shared Advent and Christmas reflections with us in 2014. Today, he begins a three part series exploring how human creativity participates in God’s creativity, a subject he explores as a scholar of theology and writer of poetry. Tolkien fans will enjoy Mosley’s exploration of the idea of subcreation, articulated in Tolkien’s essay “On Faerie Stories.” Tolkien argued that human creativity is a gift from God to those made in His image, and that when a human writer imagines something, that writer is “sub creating,” crafting a fictional setting in a small and respectful imitation of God’s creative abilities. The idea that we in some way imitate and participate in God’s creative activity can apply to more than writing an epic, and Mosley explores some ways Christians can think about it in the fantasy genre and beyond. 


‘Of course, in human beings other than Christ there is no absolute co-incidence of the human will with the divine creative will; but nevertheless one can logically speak of a ‘participating’ in this creative will, where human action brings about something that is generically new, as in the case of a new sort of legal convention or a new sort of artistic idiom. But because the creative human being is ‘inspired’, and because she does not fully grasp or command the new thing she has brought about, there is no absolute creation here: the new thing invented is also ‘discovered’, given to the creator herself as a mysterious new potency.’ – John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order


John Milbank, for those already acquainted with his work, may not be amongst the first people to spring to one’s mind as a source for devotional contemplation. And yet, in this passage above, I find myself led to a truly devotional contemplation. Milbank describes an intimate relationship between the Creator and human creators. It is a divine-human relationship, and yet it is implicitly not the same as the divine-human relationship in Jesus Christ. We are Christians, little Christs, made in his image, participating in his Sonship through adoption. Yet this adoption not only allows us to become adopted Sons, deified by God’s grace. What’s even more truly in-credible (that is unbelievable) is that we humans, created in God’s Image, redeemed and deified by his Son and through his Spirit, can, in a way, add to Creation. Our creativity can make new things, things that did not exist in Creation, and might not if we weren’t there to create them. But, and this is key, even the Creation of new things is a gift given to us by God. Our very existence, and the fact that we are created in the image and likeness of God is itself a gift. As is our free will. But so are our creations. Milbank describes what seems to be common to most writers and poets, that their creations seem to be given to them. As if they did not fully originate from their own minds. This is because they are not. Our creations, however new, are still gifts, given to us by the Creator.

As a young theologian and sometimes poet, this reality is both inspiring and terrifying. The things I create, whether in theological narratives or poems or stories, are not wholly mine. Insofar as they are good, beautiful, and true they are gifts to me from God, they will be added to Creation as new things both from me and yet are given to me. This is the weight we bear as human beings redeemed and being deified by Christ. How can I bear this weight? This responsibility? What am I that You are mindful of me? Yet we are called to bear it. He is mindful of us. We can join the font of all existence in bringing new things into existence, yet not as a person of the Trinity, but through the Triune God. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s story “Leaf by Niggle,” Niggle is a painter who can never seem to finish his picture of a tree. In death, he finally sees his tree finished and real. He looks at it and says, “It’s a gift!” We can say with Niggle when we create, “It’s a gift!”


How might this notion of creativity affect your scholarship? How might this understanding of human creation change the way we interact with the creations of others?


God, Poet of the Cosmos, help us to remember that we are only creators because we participate in You Who is the True Creator. Thank you for the gift of our creations. It is incredible that You choose to work through us to introduce new things into Your Creation. Guide us to seek to create things that are good, beautiful, and true. Remind us that the things we create are gifts, they are not solely derived from us but are given to us from you. We pray this in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Further Reading

John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), 196.

J. R. R. Tolkien, “Leaf By Niggle,” The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine Books, 1966).


Image courtesy of francok35 at Pixabay:

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David Russell Mosley

David Russell Mosley has a PhD in theology from the University of Nottingham. His research interests include patristic and medieval theology, sacramentology, liturgy, poetry, fantasy (literature), Christology, Trinitarian theology, deification, economics and theology, ecology and theology, and other areas of Christian theology. He is husband to Lauren Mosley and is the father of twin boys, Theodore Nicholas George Mosley and Edwyn Arthur Russell Mosley. In his spare time, David loves to read and write poetry and fairy tales, drink craft beer, smoke pipe tobacco, takes his notes with pen and paper, write handwritten letters, and generally likes to live at a slower pace of life. David keeps up a blog called Letters from the Edge of Elfland. He is also the author of the forthcoming books On the Edge of Elfland, a faërie romance which will be published by Wipf and Stock publishers sometime late 2016 or early 2017; and Being Deified: Poetry and Fantasy on the Path to God which will be published by Fortress Press.

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    James W. Sire commented on February 5, 2015 Reply

    Everything about us, all our talents and abilities, are gifts. The scientist as a scientist has a gift and is at least a little bit like God. So is the lawyer, the business man, the economist, the dentist (ouch!), etc.

    If you cannot imagine Jesus the incarnate God doing what your are doing or are planning to do, it might be a good idea to consider another major or another career.

    Richard Edlin commented on February 5, 2015 Reply

    A fascinating article. Perhaps it also has relevance for the debate on plagiarism. Whilst not condoning stealing, I think that we as Christian academics have not gone back far enough in our thinking as we devise policies (or should I say copy secular institutions’ policies) on plagiarism. As this article suggests, God is the ultimate owner of all knowledge. As Christians the insights He has given us are not for our own aggrandisement, but for the building up of others. How does this perspective on the ownership of knowledge shape our understanding of plagiarism (and even perhaps, by extension, the dubious higher education notion of tenure)?

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