Chaos and Creation

Lately I’ve been reading Barbara C. Sproul’s Primal Myths, and enjoying her insight into creation stories from around the world. As she explains in her introduction, creation stories offer a glimpse of the infinite and unknowable by showing how that absolute reality permeates the world we know. The stories are concerned with the world we experience and its connection to the ground of all being, which lies beyond our experience. Creation myths express the spiritual truth that “the Holy is here as well as everywhere; it is now as well as always….The Holy is immanent as well as transcendent.”

There are many stories of beginnings, but I love those that show the world created out of the chaos that precedes all existence. The creator, standing outside of the categories of being and not-being, encounters a primordial sea of pure potential. From the abyss of unrealized possibilities the creator speaks a word, gives definition to an idea, and confers upon it existence. The creator fashions what has never been from the chaos of all that might be.

Sproul makes an interesting distinction between two kinds of chaos, one full of potential and the other a force for tearing down. A generative expression of chaos is very different from the forces of chaos that threaten to destroy. In Sproul’s words, the chaos that precedes creation “is a fruitful pre-order rather than a negative dis-order.” They’re probably related, but that’s another post.

The chaotic sea of potential is not something to resist; lingering there expands possibilities and allows a new vision to emerge. If we want to do something different from what we’ve done before, we can’t insist on putting thoughts and plans in order too quickly.

At the same time, to thrive we need structure that promotes health and well-being. We need enough order to support our basic needs, so that our attention can be freed to pursue what feeds the soul. A fruitful pre-order is necessary for creative work, but the chaos of disorder gets in the way.

I like to write early in the morning, before I do anything else. It’s a small-scale dip into the primordial chaos, when words carry news from another realm. I do that knowing that when I’m ready I can start the coffee brewing, turn on the computer, get breakfast, a shower, clean clothes, and move into the day.

But in the midst of my early-morning writing today, the power went out. No coffee. No internet. No hairdryer. No light in the bathroom. It made the morning a new challenge, requisitioning more attention than the usual routine requires. I set aside my work early to contend with the changed circumstances.

In a small way, this is an example of how disorder leaches energy from creative work. Establishing the rudiments of life requires effort in the best of circumstances, but without some kind of structure for support it’s hard to do more than get the basics covered.

There’s a limit to what I can control, and there’s only so much I can reasonably (or willingly) do to make life orderly. But I’m working to keep the distinction clear between the pre-order I need to encounter and the disorder that works against me.

What kind of relationship do you have with chaos?

The Moment of Creation

Lately I’ve been immersed in creation stories. These tales of the world’s beginning offer delightful images–from the universe on the back of a turtle to a spider’s weaving the world–unique and meaningful to the culture from which they emerge. They speak poetically of the meaning and value of life on earth, through the way they describe its origins.

Surprisingly often, they also share elements in common. Many stories begin with the loneliness and longing of the creator, and often involve wresting order out of chaos. Sound familiar? These themes echo through creation of any kind.

The ancient accounts of how the world was created hint at humanity’s deepest understanding of how something new comes into being. These rich stories offer brief sketches of the mystery of the creative process, and connect creativity to the source of life.

The story below is an example from the Hindu tradition. It’s part of the Nasadiya, or “There Was Nothing” hymn from the Rig Veda.

There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water bottomlessly deep? There was neither death nor immortality then. There was no distinguishing sign of night, nor of day. That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse. Other than that there was nothing beyond. Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that One arose through the power of heat.

Desire came upon that One in the beginning; that was the first seed of mind. Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom found the bond of existence in non-existence. Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers; there were powers. There was impulse beneath; there was giving-forth above.*

Creation is the work of the gods in these stories. When we echo this process in our own endeavors, we find that the human work of “little c” creation is also a monumental undertaking, if on a smaller scale. To bring something new into the world, we must transform the raw material we find within ourselves and in the world around us. Great effort and imagination is needed for the alchemy that changes experience into art. We need an infusion of divine energy to carry it out.

Beginning next week, I’ll be leading a workshop designed to gently lead artists of all kinds into their own creative process. Over a period of four weeks, we’ll look at how creation stories can inform the way we approach our work and encourage us in our creative efforts. We’ll allow the elements of the stories to move us into the work we long to do. The workshop is called Archetypes of Creation, and is offered through the Carnegie Center in Lexington, Kentucky.  I’d love for you to join us.

What in you is asking to be brought into the world?

*This story is quoted by J. F. Bierlein in Parallel Myths, p. 37-38. Ballantine Books, New York, 1994.