Sub-Creators in the Land of the Free

Part of a Symposium on Colin Redemer’s Intro to Made Like the Maker

Colin Redemer has done us a service in modernizing the text of Thomas Traherne’s Christian Ethics, but he has done us a greater service in his introductory essays to the individual volumes. His essay in Vol. II, Made Like the Maker, is especially valuable for directing us to insights of Traherne’s theological aesthetics and then developing their implications well beyond what Traherne himself attempted. The upshot is that every human being has a poetical vocation: made in the image of the God who creates by speaking beings into existence, we are called to create meaning within (and consonant with) the grander matrix of meaning the Father beget to us in his Son, the Logos. For Christians, the human life is to be a work of beauty comprehended within the greater beauty of God’s created order. As Redemer puts it, “In his poem we write our poem.”

This has profound implications for the Christian life, not just the life of the individual Christian, but for the life of the Church, and for the life of any society or nation that would call itself Christian. Because of her unique history, these implications are of special consequence to the United States, for they illuminate her history and highlight the essential role of theological aesthetics in healing her current pathologies. Below, I reflect on what it means for Americans to be “made like the Maker,” and how this should frame our evaluation of the unprecedented crisis unfolding at our southern border.

The destruction of America—of her people as a distinct people with a distinct character—has been accomplished by way of what sociologist Philip Rieff termed “deathworks.” Whether in the form of art, journalism, architecture, public policy, or anything else that shapes the story a society tells about itself, deathwork represents “an all-out assault upon something vital to the established culture.”

One of the most consequential American deathworks Rieff identifies is the “scourging” of Abraham Lincoln. Rieff has in mind Lincoln’s “removal from American mythology” through revisionist histories and the rescission of his birthday as a national holiday. Were Rieff still alive, he would recognize the 1619 Project as an especially ambitious erasure effort. “Lincoln is the last, and perhaps only, sacred messenger and figure of grace in U.S. history. His memory is a casualty of the war against sacred order and its embodiments. He has been wiped out, replaced by President’s Day. The displacement of Lincoln by such a vaguery, meaningless to most Americans, is part of the kulturkampf.

Lincoln’s legacy as a “minister of highest authority” is a threat to the negational project of modernity because it makes it impossible for present-day Americans to live as if they have no story except the story that they choose for themselves (to paraphrase Stanley Hauerwas). A faithful rendering of Lincoln’s life reorients us to the Christian faith, revealing it to be indispensable to a truly American identity. What’s more, it points us towards a more truly human existence, a fuller participation in being.

An examination of Lincoln’s speeches reminds us that Scripture supplied not only the shared idiom of the nation, but was the original source—and final justification—of the idea that “all men are created equal.” The doctrine of the Imago Dei, unique to Judaism and Christianity, provides the only coherent ground for the idea of human rights. Humans are not equal because of the dictates of positive law, but because they were created in the image of God and thus possess a divine dignity. “In their [the Founders’] enlightened belief,” Lincoln affirmed to an audience in Lewiston, Illinois on August 17, 1858, “nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.” The right of the people to rule, as Lincoln understood it, was conferred by God. Popular sovereignty was possible only insofar as human nature bore—and a sovereign people recognized that it bore—the rational dignity of its Maker. 

That rational dignity is expressed above all when we create. “Through his ‘artistic creativity’ man appears more than ever ‘in the image of God’,” writes Pope John Paul II in his Letter to Artists, “and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous ‘material’ of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him. With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of his own surpassing wisdom, calling him to share in his creative power.” We are makers because we were made in the image of the Maker. And we are most fully ourselves, most fully human and most fully divine, when through creative activity we participate in the very being of God. We are, as J.R.R. Tolkien put it, “sub-creators,” finite apprentices to the infinite Master Artist.

It follows that when we create poorly or cease to create at all—which is the inevitable terminus of the therapeutic society—our very humanity is impoverished. When we treat “the wondrous ‘material’” of our humanity ignobly, as mere raw material for the construction of arbitrarily chosen “identities,” we make ourselves into deathworks. And when we impede the ability of others to create, when we stifle imagination or dull sensitivity to beauty, we are effacing God’s image in others.

What can be said of that image? 

In the first chapter of Genesis, God, having finished the work of creation and tasked man with ruling over the earth, “saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” Humans, bearing God’s image, account for the superlative “very good,” as opposed to all other created beings, which are simply “good.” Interestingly, the Septuagint translates the Hebrew using the Greek for “beautiful” (kalon) instead of “good” (agathon). Man, the image and likeness of God, is very beautiful—which is to say that God, in a very real sense, is Beauty. Thus the command to “be fruitful and multiply” implies the proliferation of beauty. 

Likewise, man’s truest dominion over the earth is expressed when he draws out, nourishes and embellishes its beauty. Enjoyment of new heights of beauty in turn inspires further creativity and care.

Beauty, like love, is a muse. The experience of beauty spurs us to create because the gifts of being excite our instinct for reciprocity. “It may be that one reason beautiful persons and things incite the desire to create is so that one can place something of reciprocally great beauty in the shared field of attention,” writes Elaine Scarry in On Beauty and Being Just. “No hyacinth clusters can give homely Socrates the beauty of Phaedrus, but the speeches Socrates composes for Phaedrus have the same outcome. When Dante composes poems in response to Beatrice’s beauty, it is as though he has bathed on the Phaeacian shore.”

Because it is ontologically impossible to give a return gift to being itself (as our own selves, our means of making, and whatever we make are always already being’s gifts to us), we reciprocate laterally, proliferating beauty by protecting and preserving beautiful beings or by creating new beauty—for other perceivers. “At the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering,” explains Scarry. When beauty decenters a person, “It is not just that she becomes ‘self-forgetful’ but that some more capacious mental act is possible: all the space formerly in the service of protecting, guarding, advancing the self (or its ‘prestige’) is now free to be in the service of something else.” However private our individual encounters with beauty, the consequences are social. Beauty propels us towards others to participate in being’s giving of gifts.

This has important implications for the United States in her capacity as a nation. By grounding the constitutional order on the Imago Dei, the Founders (however unknowingly) established a national duty to enjoy, defend and create beauty. As Americans, beauty is our birthright.

The follow-on implication has to do with the manner in which the Imago has committed America to express and mature in her beauty. 

In its Trinitarian rendering, the Imago Dei means that no human is complete unto him- or herself. As God exists in tripartite self-relation, so human nature qua human nature exists in relation to itself and to God. That is, we are human by virtue of our relationship with the other—other humans as well as God, who is infinitely other. “As God is Trinity,” writes David Bentley Hart, “in whom all difference is possessed as perfect peace and unity, the divine life might be described as infinite music, and creation too might be described as a music whose intervals, transitions, and phrases are embraced within God’s eternal, triune polyphony.” Because the image of God is prismated in myriad peoples, the cultivation of human beauty in its fullness requires the cooperation of those diverse peoples and nations who, by virtue of their differences, together echo the polyphony of the Godhead.

The oneness-in-difference of the Imago justifies the recognition of our rights and our duties to others and is the only coherent ground upon which one might gather a plurality of ethnically and ideologically diverse persons into a single people. St. Paul wrote in Ephesians that Christ, by his blood, had made Jews and Gentiles into one people and “broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility,” and again in Galatians that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 

To the Christian, the body of Christ is a living symbol of the peaceful unity of difference, and it provides the metaphysical grounds for a polity coherent enough to support a diverse population. To the extent that America was indeed founded as a Christian nation—that is, a political order uniquely fitted to a demos composed of members of Christ’s body—Christian pluralism must be understood as essential to our national character. Our founding generation may have been almost exclusively white European; but, regardless of whether they were aware of it, their Christian faith contained within itself an intrinsic openness to a multi-ethnic future.

Liberalism as it exists today, increasingly untethered from a vision of human dignity founded in the Imago Dei, is killing genuine pluralism. It is killing beauty. The denial of our unique creaturely existence as divine image-bearers necessarily leads to a paradoxical elevation and abrogation of individual rights as well as the abolition of social responsibility. The true ground of pluralism has always been Christian theology, which conceives the heart of reality to be irreducibly relational. An America that lacks a critical mass of practicing Christians is simply incapable of making something beautiful of its diverse population. Until and unless America reChristianizes, an open border can only be a deathwork.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Justin Lee

Justin Lee is associate editor at First Things, a former editor of Arc Digital, and has written for publications as varied as Vice, Spectator, The Independent, ZYZZYVA, New York Post, Religion and Ethics, and The American Mind. He holds a B.A. in Biblical Literature from Taylor University and an M.F.A. in fiction writing from the University of California, Irvine.

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