I cannot think of a spiritual tradition that does not embrace creativity and creative expression. Even in spiritual traditions that focus on simplicity, or asceticism, or that mistrust the artist as being too touchy-feely – even in these traditions, there are expressions of creativity that are embraced. It may be in music, the cooking of a meal for a community member in need (yes, this is both spiritual and creative), in something as simple as the arranging of flowers for a place of worship, or in the craftsmanship of unadorned furniture. Often, extreme functionality possesses an inherent and simple beauty. And, the lack of adornment does not equal to a lack of creativity. Frequently it is the limitations that are either internally or externally placed upon our creativity that bring out the most innovation. (Like the Shaker tilting chair, which may be very simple, but is none the less very creative.)
“Don’t make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.”
It is not a coincidence that some of the most amazing art and creations have been inspired by our awe of the divine. Human spirituality causes us to seek out meaning for our lives in things larger than ourselves. Things so large and mysterious that we cannot fully express them in words (although some people’s creativity make them shockingly good at attempting it). And, when things cannot be expressed in words, we use images and forms to evoke what we cannot say.
Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” likes to talk about creativity in magical terms as something that comes to us from outside ourselves. As if we actually have an external muse who whispers genius in our ear. Scientifically, it is probably safe to say this is not the case. And yet, as Gilbert attests, that is very much how creative inspiration feels. And, when we talk about our creativity springing from our spirituality, it feels even more true. We feel a connection to something else out there and new ideas and images spring to mind.
For some reason many spiritual traditions, despite the fact that they contain and encourage creativity in certain ways, fail to to recognize that they do this or will even look down on creative expression as being somehow less real or respectable than logical argument for expressing faith. However, I believe both can be made richer through their integration. And, it seems that historically, people of faith have agreed. Think of the cathedrals, the mosaics, the temples and prayer shawls along with countless other buildings and objects, that have expressed peoples interaction with their various faiths over time and the care and artistry that went into making them. It seems that these days we often opt for functionality more than beauty. And, I have this tendency just as much as anyone else. Perhaps more so. If pragmatism were terminal, I’d have been gone long ago. But, practical does not have to mean un-creative. Useful doesn’t need to equal un-artistic. And faith doesn’t need to equal logical argument alone.