a new world

When I was a new Christian in my late teens, I attended a youth group meeting and the study imagined the human race having to leave earth and create a new world on another planet. We brainstormed what professions  would be necessary to begin again and I listened as lots of suggestions were made. After the list was quite long, the facilitator asked, is there anything else before we move on, and I asked “What about artists?”  The response was laughter “What do we need them for? What use are they?”

Since then I have spent my life asking that question,  and
have come to believe that the arts are an antidote for our highly polarized, image saturated, screen dominated society; are important for everyone and ought to part of our everyday life- not just in a gallery or museum, concert hall, or practiced by those who are talented.

Today we talk about  empathy, diversity, creativity, intelligence, resilience and mindfulness as being essential for restoring our personal, societal and environmental health; we go to workshops and courses that are supposed to teach us these skills; yet the methods humans have evolved to practice and give expression to these skills – the arts – are still considered optional.

When we practice the arts, we are using our analytical and emotional facilities, our imaginative and practical, our intellectual and our instinctual.  The arts explicitly utilise the creative process. No other human activity can teach us about creativity better than the arts, and when our minds process creativity through the arts, it is not just intellectually comprehended but also emotionally – it impacts our whole mind in such a way that we are then able to apply creative thinking in practical ways to every area of our lives.

Stanford Neuroscientist David Eagleman and composer Anthony Brandt are coauthors of the book The Runaway Species. They explain that what makes us human is exactly that we are able to be creative. Because of the development of our frontal lobe we can imaginatively stand back from time and space, take what already exists, bend it, break it and then blend it together in an original manner.

This is exactly the process that we see in Genesis chapter one: God is hovering over what is yet unformed. God separates: light from dark, land from sea, night from day, animal from vegetable… and it is in the relationship between those separations that all the diversity of life is established.

What this story teaches us is that death occurs when polarity ceases to be the method by which we are creative and extremes are no longer functioning as a means to inspire relationship, and instead become independent from the diversity that connects them.

The arts thrive in, and cultivate diversity. The arts teach us to keep our minds and society open and engaged with finding connections with what is different, perhaps even strange so that unity in diversity is possible. Peace is cultivated not by eliminating difference but by appreciating it. A society that rejects the arts has stopped seeing diversity as a positive, looks at the ‘other’ as someone to be feared, and perceives what is different as an aberration.

It was this closed mindset that was responsible for the bodily and cultural damages that European colonial expansion perpetrated upon the peoples of the ‘New World’ which in reality, was not new at all but a thriving land with its own peoples and cultures. It is no co-incidence that the era of colonization was the same that oversaw the demonization and desecration of sacred arts all over Europe, and that Columbus was set sailing across the ocean blue by the monarchy  that instituted the Spanish Inquisition. European settlement of the New World was birthed by an anti diversity, anti art version of religion combined with mercenary power and greed.

It is this very combination that is dominating and closing in on our world today.  A near sighted, rigid mindset is challenging the well being of our environment, the rights of first nations, of refugees, of the LGBTQ2 community, of women, of the sciences and of the arts, and cultivates  racism, polarization and extremism in our civil discourse. It despises the poor and distorts the gift of wealth into a greed that refuses to see the creation as an entity to be cherished, let alone acknowledging it as the revelation of God.

In our everyday discussions on social media about the Anthropocene,  I often see the idea that the changes in our climate today are natural, the logic being that somehow, if we humans are part of nature, then our  influence on the climate ought to be seen as another page in the history of the earth. I believe the opposite is true-  that it is the denial of ourselves as being part of nature that has resulted in what is causing harm to the world.

Yet for thousands of years Western Christian society was dependent upon the arts, and considered nature (the creation) as the ‘other Bible.’ The early church fathers described Jesus as the Good, the True and the Beautiful,  but – as Jaroslav Pelikan points out in his book Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in History and Culture- since the Reformation, Jesus as the Beautiful has been edited out of our theological and cultural understanding of the divine, so much so that today we are seeing the end result demonstrated in our society’s callousness toward the creation.

from Psalm 19 we hear:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
 They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

While all of the arts are vitally important, the visual arts have particular relevance for our relationship with creation. The language of nature is comprehended through texture, colour, shape, form, tone, size, space, rhythm,  movement- and this is also the language by which we understand visual art. When we learn visual language we are using our mother tongue, we are children in conversation with the creation and the creator.

I am pleased to have learned that scientists have been discovering that the visual arts are vital for our relationship with ourselves, with others, and with creation.

One study shares that a regular visual arts practice builds significantly more connections in a critical part of the brain called the default mode network, which is associated with a variety of functions, such as reflecting on one’s emotional state, empathy, and imagining the future. Not only was this important part of the brain strengthened by producing art, but the participants also became better able to cope with stress.

Another shares that visual arts training can cause dramatic changes in the brain, including strengthening of the “attention network,” a series of regions linked to general intelligence,” and evidence is growing that skills built practicing the arts can cross into other mental domains.

Science shares that those born with innate artistic ability literally perceive the world more accurately than non-artists, yet the ridiculously  encouraging thing is that a simple practice of drawing enables even those who are not artists develop their ability to visually comprehend the world.

We take for granted that when we want to learn more about creation it is science that teaches us best, yet it is easy to forget that it was the gift of observing life through drawing that allowed us to develop the sciences.

In a study from Australia which introduced students to using drawing in order to explore and justify their understandings in science, it was found that not only were they were more able to recognize, colour, texture and form, they were more motivated to learn; they learned to reason creatively, in a way distinct from, but complementary to reasoning through argumentation (talk about what the world needs now!)  And students found learning enjoyable. Russell Tyler, science educator at Deakin University in Waurn Ponds, Australia  put it this way: “We can have students exercising their creativity and imagination in order to learn the canonical knowledge of science. There is no need for it to be transmitted to students as dead knowledge.”

Consider the lilies of the field, Jesus says. What is it that he is wishing for us to consider? Does he want us to take samples and label each part, their stamens, their pistils, their petals, break down the chemistry of their fragrance?

It is not their beauty he wants us to take note of? Consider the beauty of these lilies, consider the glory of the stars (even better now that science has given us the Hubble Space Telescope) let them remind you that life is so much more than what you eat or what you drink or what you wear; God knows you need these things…but seek first the kingdom and all these shall be added to you. The arts remind us that there is more to life than being “useful, than simply surviving.” The arts are us, they are literally the manifestation of human beings as the image of God, of being co-creators.

Without vision it is not only the people who perish.  Today our minds, emotions, society and environment have fallen apart because we have sacrificed personal creativity to consumerism and our vision co-opted to the advertising and entertainment industry. Many of us are wondering how it is we are going to survive. But a new world is dawning, whether we like it or not. The question is will it bring forth life or destruction.

If we are to help a new world overcome the damages of a materialistic, commercial and colonial culture, the arts -particularly the visual arts- absolutely need to teach us to envision our world anew.  God created the world not from nothing – from the beginning we -and everything we know- were there in the darkness waiting to be called forth.

Even this darkness in which we are living today has the promise of light.

….’and it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘that I will pour forth my spirit on all human kind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young shall see visions, and your old shall dream dreams”

Even with all the awfulness we have allowed, we are still God’s children and we still have a tremendous amount of raw material with which to work healing into our world. Human beings are wired to be creative beings  participating in the growth of the world, not the destruction of it. To restore our world we need only to return to who we are.  Come let us dream and envision. We are God’s little children, we are creators. Our world is not over yet.

This talk was given at the Abbey Church Victoria BC, Canada on the 29th September 2019 the podcast can be found here.

The practice of drawing enables us to see more accurately. It is a practical application of mindfulness that develops attention, alleviates stress and promotes a sense of relationship with the world around us. Cornelia van Voorst, Jollity Farm Garden, Thetis Island, sketch book pages, 2014.