My post this week is out of character for me, so please be patient and forgiving with my seemingly negative attitude for what begins with judgment ends with appreciation and grace. This week’s reading and writing led me down a very unexpected path, one that I hope, will also be an encouragement to my readers.
I have taught writing for many years and although I still have a lot to learn about this subject, I know that there are some basic principles that make for good writing. The best suggestions I have ever seen in this regard came from the pen of William Zinsser. Zinsser says that there are four elements of good writing: clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity. We must be clear with our meaning to our readers. We must say things in a concise manner. We must not attempt to not shoot over the heads of our readers. And, we must connect with our readers on a human level. Although Zinsser was referring primarily to popular literature, I think these principles should also apply to academic writing. Murray Jardine, the author of this week’s reading, The Making and Unmaking of Technological Society, did not appear to heed Zinsser’s advice. Suffice it to say that for me, this was overall an uncomfortable read. Jardine’s writing was at times confusing, rambling, complicated, and unrelateable. His writing got in the way of his thesis. His own voice seemed to water down his arguments, even though he continuously reminded his readers what he was “arguing.” Suffice it to say that this text was not my favorite reading the semester. However (and there is always a however), there were some good ideas in the text, and one of those was the notion that since humankind is created in the image of God, one of the attributes of being human is creativity. This is true. But unlike God, who is holy and who creates only “good things,” human creativity can sometimes be a dangerous quality to have, since humans have the capacity to create both good and evil. Humans are powerful. They are also free – free to create, free to destroy. History is filled with these stories of creation and destruction, and we must never forget these stories because our stories often become our realities.
A few years ago, I decided to join a class that was taught by a close friend. Although I was a teacher at the same college, I decided to join this class as a student. It was an amazing semester. I learned far more than I had expected. As I was a participant/student in this class, Dr. Plies included me in the presentation assignments. One of the assignments was reading an article and then doing a ten-minute presentation to the class on that article. The professor had handpicked the readings for his students. The article he gave me was written by a Russian philosopher names Nikolay Alexandrovich Berdyaev, someone I had never heard of before that day. I was excited to read the article because it was written by a Russian philosopher/theologian, and being Russian myself, I assumed that it would be an easy read. But I was wrong. The piece was dense. I had to read it again – and again – and again. Finally, after reading and reading, I had a breakthrough. In a nutshell, this article rocked my world. On the day of my ten-minute presentation, I was scared to death to share with a class full of students (my peers) and in front of one of the finest teachers I had ever known. But as I began to share, what I learned from Berdyaev came pouring out of me. It was as if time stood still. I found out later that I had gone for forty minutes. I don’t remember how the class received my piece; all I know is that something happened in me that day. It was one of the highlights of my teaching and learning career. I will never forget that day.
Of creativity, Berdyaev writes, “Creativeness always rises above reality. Imagination plays this part not only in art and in myth making but also in scientific discoveries.” This idea of imagination caught my attention. Berdyaev continues, “In moral life the power of creative imagination plays the part of talent. By the side of the self-contained moral world of laws and rules, to which nothing can be added, man builds, in imagination, a higher world, a free and beautiful world, lying beyond ordinary good and evil [italics mine]. And this is what gives beauty to life.” Ordinary good and evil? These bring beauty to life? I could understand the good part–but the evil part? What was Berdyaev trying to say? I had to dig deeper. Berdyaev then begins to talk about law and freedom, of perfection and of imagination:
Life can never be determined solely by law; men always imagine for themselves a different and better life, freer and more beautiful, and they realize those images. The Kingdom of God is the image of a full, perfect, beautiful, free, and divine life. Only law has nothing to do with imagination, or rather, it is limited to imagining compliance with, or violation of, its bequests. But the most perfect fulfillment of the law is not the same as the perfect life.
Imagination may also be a source of evil; there may be bad imagination and phantasms. Evil thoughts are an instance of bad imagination. Crimes are conceived in imagination. But imagination also brings about a better life. A man devoid of imagination is incapable of creative moral activity and a building of a better life. The very conception of a better life, towards which we ought to strive, is the result of creative imagination.
As I read these comments again this week, I was instantly drawn back to some of our early readings from the term. Creative social imaginings? Why not? Imagination is a huge part of our lives. But left to our own devices, our imaginations can also create evil, hurt, and destruction. So was it worth it to God that He took a risk on humankind by making them in His own image, even though He knew the limits of their creative capacities? I think this is an important question, one that is not often addressed. Berdyaev helped me to think this through. He says that it is not the law that will free us, even though the goal of the law is to stand in the way of evil. Berdyaev says that we must “transcend the morality of law.” But how? By “putting infinite creative energy in the place of commands, prohibitions, and taboos.” This might seem obvious, but it is not easy. How does one tap into this infinite creative energy? I think the first step is simply to acknowledge that God has actually given us such capacities.
Berdyaev then goes on to talk about beauty, time, the anxiety of future, and the “ethics of creativity.” On pages 424 and 425 he then makes three claims. The first, “Every creative act which we perform in relation to other people – and act of love, of pity, of help, of peacemaking – not only has a future but is eternal.” The second, “Grace acts with liberty and cannot act upon anything else. A slavish mind cannot receive grace and grace cannot affect it.” And the third, “Creativeness is the gracious force which makes free will really free, free from fear, from the law, from inner dividedness.” These claims took me back to readings from the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Romans, but in a new and fresh way. Then, Berdyaev drives home his major point. I would like to quote the author here since my own paraphrase would not do it justice (I asked you to be patient with me).
The paradox of good and evil – the fundamental paradox of ethics – is that the good presupposes the existence of evil and requires that it should be tolerated. This is what the Creator does in allowing the existence of evil. Hence, absolute perfection, absolute order and rationality, may prove to be an evil, a greater evil than the imperfect, unorganized, irrational life which admits of a certain freedom of evil. Absolute good which is incompatible with the existence of evil is possible in the Kingdom of God, when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and God will be all in all. But outside the Divine Kingdom of grace, freedom, and love, absolute good which does not allow the existence of evil is always tyranny, the kingdom of the Grand Inquisitor and the Antichrist. Ethics must recognize this once and for all. So long as there exists a distinction between good and evil, there must inevitably be a struggle, a conflict between opposing principles, and resistance, i.e., exercise of human freedom. Absolute good and perfection outside the Kingdom of God turns man into an automaton of virtue, i.e., really abolishes moral life, since moral life is impossible without spiritual freedom.
Hence our attitude of evil must be twofold: we must be tolerant of it as the Creator is tolerant, and we must mercilessly struggle against it. There is no escaping from this paradox, for it is in freedom and of the very fact of a distinction between good and evil. Ethics is bound to be paradoxical because it has its source in the Fall. The good must be realized, but it has a bad origin. The only thing that is really fine about it is the recollection of the beauty of Paradise. Is the struggle waged in the name of the good in this world an expression of the true life, the “first life”? And how can “first life,” life in itself, be attained? We may say with certainty that love is life in itself, and so is creativeness, and so is the contemplation of the spiritual world. But this life in itself is absent from a considerable part of our legalistic morality, from physiological processes, from politics, and from civilization. “First life,” or life in itself, is to be found only in firsthand, free moral acts and judgments. It is absent from moral acts which are determined by social environment, heredity, public opinion, party doctrines – i.e., it is absent from a great part of our moral life. True life is only to be found in moral acts in so far as they are creative. Automatic fulfillment of the moral law is not life. Life is always an expansion, a gain. It is present in firsthand aesthetic perceptions and judgments and is a creatively artistic attitude to the world, but not in aesthetic snobbishness.
Finally, Berdyaev closes his piece with the following claim: “Theologians have not sufficiently understood that freedom should not be forced, repressed, and burdened with commands and prohibitions. Rather, it ought to be enlightened, transfigured, and strengthened through the power of grace.” So how does all of this apply to our lives?
We are creative creatures. Jardine and Berdyaev agree on this point. But Berdyaev takes this creativity and turns it into freedom. He indicates that it is our greatest strength and should be the focus of our lives in a sinful world and in our sinful selves. Our connection with creativity is a direct connection with God. And rather than spending our time in legalistic wrestling matches with evil, we should be creating a world that is reminiscent of Paradise. All around me I see Christians caught up in grumbling, in dissatisfaction, in anger, in self-centeredness, and in frustration. But I also see others who have chosen to use their creative imaginations to build a better world – in spite of the inherent evil in the world. Perhaps it is time that we heed the call back to “faithful presence,” to “social imaginings,” to “good religion,” and to optimistic and creative spirituality.
“And God saw all that He had made (created) and said that it was very good.”
I would like to close with the three questions I posed to the class on the day of my Berdyaev presentation. Perhaps these questions will take you deeper in your own thinking on the Berdyaev commentary.
1. How are you like God? What good things can you create with your imagination?
2. Why do we worry about the future? Can I change the future? How?
3. Can I understand good without having an understanding of evil? Should we get rid of all evil or is evil a “necessary evil” in our lives?
 Murray Jardine. The Making and Unmaking of Technological Society: How Christianity Can Save Modernity from Itself (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004) 234.
 Nikolay Alexandrovich Berdyaev, The Part of Imagination in the Moral Life. (In The Destiny of Man, 1931) 419.
 Ibid., 420.
 Ibid., 421.
 Ibid., 423.
 Ibid., 425, 426.
 Ibid., 427.