A Proposed Meaning for Human Life

Using our Unique Powers of Conscious Creativity to Find Joyous Harmony in Diversity

Having now completed my allotted span of “three-score years and ten,” I’ve undertaken to create at least for my own satisfaction an answer to the query once posed by the main character in a popular 1966 British movie. Played by the actor Michael Caine, he asks himself plaintively, “What’s it all about, Alfie?” In old age, I ask myself the same question, though it is rooted in a far broader perspective than is Alfie’s questioning about his tawdry love life.

Before it’s too late, I want to try to establish for myself–perhaps in living proof of Freud’s theory regarding “sublimation” of the sexual instinct–a plausible conception of the meaning of human life as a whole: not only for my own life now well into its homestretch, but for the endless others that are still to be lived out. After considerable reflection, I think a good case for that meaning can be based on the evidence of nature itself, whose single function, at both the cosmic and biological levels, is a continual act of indiscriminate creation. It inheres ultimately, however, in the unique human capacity for conscious design, by which, unlike the forces of nature, it can bring mankind together in the joys of a collaborative creativity that, by continually producing harmony from diversity or disorder, adds genuine value to the world and meets real human needs.

No Designer God Is Shaping the Universe or Giving Meaning to Human Life

To open-minded people, it can no longer be a matter of dispute that the universe disclosed by science in ever greater detail and breadth is not the finished product of a comprehensive design originating in the mind of an omniscient creator. Logic surely suggests that an all-powerful Designer God capable of creating a universe from nothing would produce it as a finished orderly system dedicated to specific, probably moral and spiritual, ends. As modern cosmology has shown, however, cosmic creation is hardly orderly. The universe is full of phenomena like supernovas, black holes, and quasars that are supremely destructive and disruptive of any conceivable ends tied to a comprehensive design.

Creation at the cosmic level is, in fact, the ever-unfolding product of violent, uncontrolled forces whose effects are unpredictable. Although the forces are themselves governed by universal laws of physics and chemistry, they interact in ways that are both integrative and disintegrative, displaying an evident absence of creation to design. Over eons of time, however, the same forces have produced new cosmic bodies and structures of various types, forms, and sizes. Among them are systems of star-orbiting planets that feature a wide variety of environmental conditions. A small minority of those planets besides our own, science now believes, have the potential to give rise to, and support, living organisms, including in some cases even intelligent beings* like ourselves. [*Note: I use the term “intelligent beings” throughout this essay to mean beings whose consciousness is capable of self-awareness, abstract thought, and empathy or love for other people and all living things.]

Even within this highest order of life, however, just as in the case of cosmic creation, it is difficult to discern the handiwork of a Designer God. Considering mankind’s responsibility for the well-being of the planet and for all the living things that inhabit it, one would surely have expected such a God to invest his human agents with the guiding spark of true morality. Yet, if that quality denotes, as I think it must, a capacity to place the well-being of others at or above a concern for personal self-interest, I find it sorely missing. When one examines the conduct of business, institutional, and government leaders who have the greatest leverage in shaping the terms of life on our planet, very few will be found who instinctively deal with others on the basis of fairness, justice, empathy, and compassion.

It was, of course, Charles Darwin who, in the 19th century, made the scientific case that mankind is not the special creation of a Designer God, but the accidental end-product of the chance emergence of biological evolution on planet earth. As Darwin showed in his books On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, the very wide diversity of living species with which we are familiar, including our own species capable of self-awareness and abstract thinking, evolved from living creatures as simple as single-celled organisms.

Backed by abundant fossil evidence, Darwin demonstrated that biological evolution takes place through a process he called “natural selection.” In this process, random gene mutations in existing plants and animals produce physical changes in their descendents that can strengthen or weaken their ability to survive and reproduce in a given environment. In time, species that inherit favorable modifications gain numerical dominance in their population and, in cases where additional gene mutations compound that dominance over generations, can evolve into entirely new species well-fitted to thrive in their existing habitat. Such new creations are never permanent, however. The earth itself is continually subject to assaults by such destructive phenomena as volcanoes, weather calamities, asteroid strikes, or climate change that, whether radically and in a single blow, or over long expanses of time, inevitably alter any local habitat or regional environment. In such cases, surviving individual species are again subjected to the roulette wheel of natural selection to determine whether their kind will adapt to the new environment, find a home in a different one, or perish.

Because natural selection operates by trial-and-error, producing some modifications that lead to higher rates of survival and procreation, and others that lead to extinction, it offers the best possible means by which nature can manifest in the biological sphere the same continual act of creation for its own sake that occurs at the cosmic level. Just as the cosmic order is composed of an endless diversity of structures in space, including star-orbiting planets with different environments, so, as we see on planet earth, the process of natural selection generates a maximum multiplicity of living forms (i.e. species with different features and capabilities). In fact, since science now tells us that the universe will expand forever, we can conclude that, over infinite time, every imaginable environment and every conceivable living form will be produced.

For me, our own planet offers still another validation that natural selection, not a Designer God, is the source of living things. It is the fact that mortality is a condition of life. Isn’t it highly unlikely that an all-powerful and omniscient—not to mention omni-benevolent–Designer God, capable of planning in advance every detail of creation, including the happiness of its sensate creatures, would not find a way to create optimal forms of living species, including an intelligent form, in numbers that could be sustained forever without bloodshed, decay, or death? Yet, it is a given of the natural world that no animals can survive and procreate without eating other living animals or plants, thereby depriving them of life. If this food stock were immune to death, not only would all animals be denied essential nutrition, but their unlimited accumulation in a given habitat would soon overwhelm available space. That would in turn limit or foreclose instinctual life behaviors, including those relating to procreation and the rearing of offspring, and force those with sufficient mobility to attempt migration to new habitats. The result would be a breakdown of the very process by which random gene mutations favorable to the survival and reproduction of organisms in a given environment are passed on to future generations. Because such a breakdown would put an end to physical variations within species and, over time, the possible production of new species, nature could no longer sustain, at the planetary level, its continual act of new creation.

If one accepts the evidence of science that nature’s inherent function, at the cosmic, planetary, and biological levels, is creation for its own sake, one must also conclude that no omniscient Intelligence stands behind it to direct its forces in accordance either with principles of design or an overarching moral purpose. The only conclusion we can logically draw is that nature functions at all levels to indiscriminately produce from existing structures the widest possible diversity of new physical forms. This is readily apparent to us thinking beings on planet earth, which is blessed with a natural environment favorable to life and has already hosted many millions of both familiar and exotic plant and animal species. That count would, of course, be even much higher if it included the many millions of other species that die out before they can be discovered, due to the throw of the dice involved in the success or failure of inherited genetic mutations. And, as has already been noted, a hypothetical count of all organic species that could develop in the entire universe over time would likely not only be astronomical, but infinite. Given the diverse atmospheric, geological, climatic, and weather conditions of life-supporting planets that science now believes exist, we can assume that living forms of all conceivable sizes, shapes, and capacities will emerge at some point, somewhere, including many species of beings capable of various levels of psychic awareness and abstract thinking.

Our Human Task, in All Spheres of Life, Is To Create Harmony from Diversity and Disorder

For humans and other intelligent beings that almost surely exist elsewhere in the universe, nature’s creation of an endless diversity of living forms may offer a vital clue in their search for meaning in life. That clue is vested in the fortuitous process of natural selection, which—assuming life exists on other planets–operates by the same rules everywhere in the universe. In addition to producing an endless variety of living forms, the process continually trends–though on a hit-and-miss basis over eons of time–to the creation of more complex organisms within given species and, in time, new species deriving from them, that are better fitted to survive, thrive, and procreate in an existing or changing environment. In this way, nature also functions to bring the needs of life as a whole into harmonious relationship with the various demands of the environment in which it finds itself.

The same function, it seems to me, is essential to the life-fulfillment of humans–though, for us, it is not governed by chance natural selection, but by conscious direction based on our unique human capacities for self-awareness, abstract reasoning, and empathy for fellow humans and other life forms. There is also an important added benefit in our human capacity for conscious creativity. Not only does it engender a sense of deep empathy for all living creatures who instinctively seek the same end; in many cases it requires constructive collaboration with other humans that can itself be a source of great joy.

We humans can find inspiration for this creativity in the kinds and depths of harmony achieved by nature’s surviving life forms through adaptation to often magnificent and challenging environments—which are themselves the harmonized products of undirected geological, climatic, biological, and other processes. It is up to human beings, and to other intelligent species wherever they may exist, to take a cue from such natural adaptations and consciously create the harmonies between themselves and their own social, economic, cultural, technological, and natural environments that can give them the physical security and joy they need to thrive in an otherwise heedless and silent universe. Such adaptation has, in fact, never been more urgent than it is now. In our own times, it has become obvious that mankind must rapidly and globally concert its efforts to achieve one order of harmony above all: the reconciliation of its industrial activity with the health of the natural environment. Lacking that harmony, continued warming of the earth–which scientists agree is caused significantly, if not totally, by the burning of fossil fuels–will soon lead to massive destruction of animal and plant habitats and human population centers.

Only if this peril is averted by advanced technological means and good-faith political bargaining can the human race experience enduring physical security and fully develop its unique capacity for the spiritual harmony that derives from empathy with other people, the appreciation of nature, and creative collaboration with other people. The same can be said of the perils of violence and war. Unless these are kept in check by creative pressures for peaceful conflict resolution and the design of a comprehensive global security system, they can also thwart humanity’s need for physical security and its potential for spiritual joy.

As chance products of the process of natural selection on planet earth, we humans have been made agents of an extended process of conscious creation. We are the only source of “intelligent design,” divine or natural, that we yet know of for sure. Just as nature fulfills itself in the timeless act of continual indiscriminate creation, so human beings must fulfill their powers of consciousness by designing methods and means that will help keep their creative spirit free from material dangers and drudgery, and in harmony with the creations both of nature and of differently gifted fellow humans. Of course, because mankind is composed of individual members who are in their bodily separateness both very limited in power and mortal, its mode of creation will be different from that of nature, which is a unitary source of unlimited power that is both universal and unending. In contrast to nature’s continual act of creation throughout the universe, human creative acts stem from inborn talents and insight unique to the individual person, and manifest themselves one by one in discreet forms over time. Yet, even as limited products of conscious design, human creations represent a crowning culmination to timeless natural creation, adding to it the spiritual dimensions of meaning, purpose, and joy.

Creativity Is Essential to Both Personal Fulfillment and Human Solidarity

To my mind, human creativity is the necessary starting point both for personal fulfillment and for all levels of human cooperation, friendship, material progress, and spiritual joy. That conviction is rooted in the following beliefs:

We live in a physical and moral world of inherent opposites, never to be reliably or fully resolved by the push and pull of reason alone. As a counterforce, however, each person is born with a unique set of talents and powers of insight that transcend the dilemma of the opposites by accessing directly a genuine aspect of reality. These inborn capacities are projections of the same creative power by which nature shapes and sustains the universe. When tapped, they express themselves as do the rhythms and images in the heart of a poet, producing a construct of reality expressed in a particular material context that introduces an objective value into society and the world.

I also believe this: that, just as nature’s universal creative power, though undirected, tends to the production of cosmic and biological order, so our own innate talents and capacity for insight, when freely exercised, will coalesce with the creative powers exercised by other people, both within our own social group and in other groups. That combining of creative powers, all of which introduce objective value into the world, creates in turn a common good that necessarily meets genuine human physical and spiritual needs.

For the individual person, the human creative capacity to produce new concepts, tools, products, organizations, institutions, forms of art, and other constructions that have objective value for other people is indispensable to living a purposeful life. It is so, because only by exercising that capacity can individuals find an accepted role in society and the sense of social identity it imparts–which most of us recognize implicitly as the defining cornerstones of our life. Based on that understanding, however, I propose two qualifying ideas: First, the “social identity” I have in mind is genuine only to the extent that it is based on what might be termed meaningful group participation, not on the group-think and us-against-them perspectives formed by membership in, or allegiance to, interest-driven top-down organizations. In meaningful group attachments, the individual’s own creative powers help amplify the creative capacity of the group as a whole, with respect to both its own goals and its receptivity to the creative capacities of other groups. I also propose that it is only the products of inborn, and therefore genuine, creative powers that will necessarily carry the objective value needed to contribute to the satisfaction of real, not manufactured, human needs.

One additional point should be emphasized. Although meaningful group participation requires a blending of the individual’s own inborn talents and insight with those of others in the group, the adjustments must remain subordinate to the driving force of the individual’s own creative capacities. This is because–to repeat a point–only the inborn creative powers of each individual can yield genuine aspects of reality that, by their nature, tend to combine with the associated visions of others to produce a creative synthesis. The phenomenon calls to mind the instrumentalists in a jazz quintet. Each seeks simultaneously to give expression to his own creative powers and, by intuition, to also adapt them to the individual and integrated creativity of other members of the quintet and to emotional feedback from the listening audience.  The same dynamics are needed by businesses, governments, institutions, organizations, or professional groups to allow them both to develop internally and to play a meaningful role in society by interacting constructively with other groups.

Many Different Perspectives on the Nature of Human Life

Many thinkers with intellectual capacities far beyond my own have, of course, also reflected on the meaning of existence and the possibilities of human experience. None I have encountered has placed the same emphasis I am placing here on the primacy of human creativity, but, as a whole, they offer such a wide diversity of views that perhaps the most important new understanding one can take away from a study of their works is that any definitive answers to “What’s it all about?” are hopelessly elusive. Nevertheless, each of the great thinkers in the Western tradition alone, from Aristotle and Plato to Heidegger and Sartre, is well worth reading. Each adds from his own unique perspective yet another jewel to philosophy’s Indra’s Web. Each also, in faithfully bringing initial propositions full-circle to a logical conclusion, offers yet another remarkable demonstration of reasoning powers.

Based on my own most recent reading, I am these days especially enamored of Albert Camus, who strikes me as not only an important thinker but perhaps the greatest and most noble literary artist of the 20th-century. Camus’s focus was the “absurd” dissonance between the capacities of individuals to find satisfaction in the sensuous gifts of the physical world—for him, sun, sea, and a lover’s arms–and their simultaneous inescapable subordination to adverse contingencies and ultimate death. His answer to this painful dilemma was to assimilate it as a conscious reality and, as such, to consider it an insuperable but continually ennobling challenge to man’s moral courage.

The 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer took a more pessimistic view of human life, saying that all living things are made un-free by a universal Will that drives them continually to the single purpose of preserving their own existence. Even among the self-aware human race, Schopenhauer says, only a relatively few artists and saints can escape this compelling force. They do so by virtue of their capacity to perceive and exult in the essence of reality outside the press of time. All other humans, however, are never satisfied with the level of their material security, no matter how seemingly inviolable, and feel constantly compelled to take any means available to reinforce it. According to Schopenhauer, life for humanity in general is always struggle and never peace.

Do Jesus’s Words Prefigure the Liberation of Human Creativity?

But what about Jesus, and his relevance to a possible better understanding of human life? Who was this pioneering prophet, or, at any rate, how was he represented by the gospel writers and what Good News did he impart?

I might comment first about an interesting discovery I made in a recent visit to a Barnes & Noble bookstore, where, by my own chance impulse, I took down from a shelf in the Religion section a recently published new edition of the Bible. On the back cover I read with interest the editors’ claims that the English text was a new translation of the ancient Hebrew and Greek, and included changes from earlier translations based on the latest linguistic scholarship. To see what differences such erudition might make, I turned to the resonant introductory passages of John’s gospel, which I’ve long considered a convenient sample of evolving English translations from the Greek.

The first four lines offered nothing new:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.

But then came differences I thought remarkable:

All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;

The last two lines were again unexceptionable.

the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.

The suggested new meanings lie in the words I’ve italicized above. Older translations have read “All things were made by him,” or “All things were made through him,” but clearly implied that they were actively made, not that they passively came to be. The difference is important, since the new construction, as we now know, correctly describes the actual process of natural creation: that all things, including living things in their multifarious forms, came to be over eons of time as the result of what seems to be an overarching ordering principle in creation—which, in Christian doctrine, is associated with the heavenly personhood of Jesus as the Logos, or Word.

Further, the new translation says that what [ultimately] came to be through the Word was life, which was the light of the human race. My own intuition suggests that what is meant here by “light” is human consciousness—in particular, self-awareness and the capacity for abstract thinking. At any rate, the new translation says again that this light [which is equated with “life”] came to be in conformity with the universal ordering principle, the Word. It does not say, as do earlier versions, that life [i.e. “the light”] was in him, in the Word, and that it was that life that was the light of men.

In brief, the new translation tells us that what ultimately came to be through the universal ordering principle, the Word, was life, and that that life is the “light”—which I interpret to be the consciousness–of the human race. The implication of John’s claim, in his terms, is that, while the Father Creator God poured out his hit-and-miss powers of cosmic and biological creation, his loving Son, the Word, served as a universal ordering principle by which that creation culminated on planet earth, over what we now know were many billions of years, in the form of a heightened consciousness in human beings that made it possible for them to think abstractly and live in loving harmony with the rest of creation. This is certainly an intriguing concept, since, from what we have learned from science about the unpredictability of cosmic creation and the fortuitous nature of biological evolution, the ultimate emergence in nature of living organisms, let alone human consciousness, seems to confound even the longest odds of mathematical probability.

But let’s look now too at the ministry of Jesus, the incarnate Word who walked the earth in Palestine 2000 years ago. What Good News, exactly, did this revolutionary prophet reveal, who is represented by John as the embodiment of a loving Universal Spirit in the form of a man? In his hybrid divine/human nature, Jesus is known variously as both “Son of God” and “Son of Man.” What does this dual nature imply? Can it possibly mean that the Universal Father Spirit, as Jesus understood God, is dependent on human beings (and perhaps also on intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe) to be his agents in bringing undirected natural creation to a meaningful culmination? I myself think that is precisely the symbolic meaning of the incarnation myth. And if that interpretation is right, we must also consider what culmination is envisioned. It may well be something close to the very end we’ve been discussing: namely, the bringing into joyous harmony–at a wide range of levels from interpersonal to global–the endless diversity of new ideas and material creations conceived and produced by imaginative and talented individuals who add objective value to the world.

I recognize that the arguments I’m developing in this paper, based in science and a humanistic, rather than religious, point of view, are certain to run up against heavy resistance from readers of a conservative mindset. Today’s Republican politicians in America, who insist on assessing current proposed legislation based on a strictly literal reading of the more than 200-year-old American Constitution, offer a good example of such a mindset. They have apparently little inclination or capacity to take the more reasonable and constructive approach of relating the legitimacy of current legislative proposals not to the literal wording, but to the spirit of Constitutional provisions as they may continue to apply to contemporary conditions.

In reading the Christian “gospels” (meaning “good news”), written nearly two millennia ago, one quickly perceives their authors’ genuine belief that Jesus was, in fact, the God-sent agent of man’s salvation. The gospel writers represent his words as teachings and claims he actually voiced and that embody transformational truths. At the same time, however, they represent as literal, and without contextual interpretation, many utterances attributed to Jesus that he himself in all likelihood intended to be understood as figurative. A good example is his claim, reported in John’s gospel, that “I am the bread of life…. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that if anyone eat of it he will not die.” It’s hard not to break down the literal meaning of this passage as follows: that the “bread of life” to which Jesus refers is an expanded consciousness he believes he has been charged to bring to the world that can be expressed as compassion or love for others; that “eating” this “bread” suggests a partaking of that greater consciousness; and that “he will not die” means that the believer who does partake of the bread will never in this life fail to experience compassion and love for others—a capacity that, for Jesus, seems intimately tied to the ultimate meaning of life.

Yet, except for the parables in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which were by tradition accepted as allegorical of spiritual meaning, none of the gospel reports represents any of his utterances–which were rooted in an early oral tradition—as figurative expressions of moral or spiritual truths that have direct relevance to the challenges of daily human life. The same is true of the accounts of Jesus’s life that are used to provide a framework for his teachings and claims. Salient features of those accounts include his birth from a virgin; many supernatural healings; powers to produce bread, wine, and fish at will; raising of the dead; his own resurrection; and his ascendance to heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father. All of these episodes associate Jesus with a variety of supernatural events consistent with deific status, and set the groundwork for the eventual church doctrine of his coequal status as a member of the Triune Godhead.

In our own time, a pervading secular spirit has begun to diminish such face-value acceptance of mythical narratives and belief in supernatural phenomena. In terms of the Christian faith, this is demonstrated, for instance, even with respect to such a central point as Jesus’s relationship to God, which is now considered by many to be not ontological, but that of an inspired human prophet. It is true that mainstream Christian churches continue to interpret in a literal way Jesus’s statement in John’s gospel that “I and the Father are one.” And, more broadly, traditional churches continue to accept established Christian doctrine regarding the Holy Trinity, which is believed to encompass in the essential unity of One True God the three persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In orthodox belief, each of the three persons plays a distinct role: God the Father is seen as the power behind creation. God the Son is viewed both as the ordering principle in creation and, in his human form, as Jesus the Christ, man’s redeemer. The Holy Spirit, who is thought to embody the love between the Father and Son, is believed to have descended to earth following Jesus’s ascension to heaven, where, as the Paraclete, he maintains a spiritual presence in the souls of Christian believers. Finally, seen as a unity, the Christian God is believed to be both the author and sustainer of the universe, and the guide, helper, and redeemer of those on earth who believe in him.

Yet, these days, informal conversation relating to the Christian faith makes it evident that increasing numbers of Christian church-goers, though continuing to offer lip-service to the orthodox creed, are finding it more and more difficult to believe that God Himself walked the earth two-thousand years ago as a seemingly self-evident human being. They are far more inclined to understand the phrase “I and the Father are one” as a figurative declaration of Jesus’s unity of purpose with a power he believed to be the source of universal love. Such a symbolic interpretation can, in fact, offer meanings that are not only more believable, but, in the view of many, also more profound. It can suggest, for example, that Jesus’s claimed unity of purpose with the source of universal love makes his words and life choices as a man the right model for all people to emulate; or that, because he is in spiritual unity with that source, he can introduce it to the world in his own person, thereby directly imparting to human beings the highest power in the universe with which to transform their lives for the better.

Similarly, the inroads of science have sharply diminished a once common belief in the supernatural. Particularly in Western Europe and North America, the New Testament accounts of Jesus’s miracles and his salvific mission on earth are viewed more and more as a myth to be understood symbolically. Today, among many, if not most, nominal Christians in those places, Jesus is no longer acknowledged as the Son of God sent by the Father to redeem, and ultimately rule, a helpless, sin-ridden human race. Rather, he is perceived as a true “Son of Man,” who during his ministry gave prophetic voice in the Sermon on the Mount and other missionary preaching to a number of revolutionary and transformational moral, ethical, and spiritual principles. Four that readily come to my own mind include: “I am come that they [Jesus’s followers] might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” “He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do because I go unto my Father.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” All of these injunctions, as I will attempt to show shortly, are subject to secular interpretations that can have important practical significance.

For two-thousand years, these and other words of Jesus have resonated with Christians around the world–particularly, perhaps, in Bible study and as themes for church sermons. Today, however, in a far more secular time, it is the prophetic wisdom of Jesus that has the greatest relevance, especially for many Americans who feel under siege by the deceits in daily life of American society and culture. Our nation today, contrary to Jesus’s plea that we love our neighbor, has become to all appearances, from the top down, a huckster society. The news media shill for the government, and the government, think tanks, and advertisers shill for corporations. Congressmen push snake oil in political debate, knowing that the other party will never buy it and help sanction it by legislation, but that it will go over big with faithful campaign donors and the constituents back home. Taking a cue from the actions of the powerful, much of the population hopes to follow in the same track and, in some way, win at least “fifteen minutes of fame.”

The country’s culture mirrors these trends. The run-away train of American imperialism carries leaders from all segments of the American military/industrial/political complex who are ready to patronize nations that do our bidding and reflexively demonize those that demand the right to go their own way. Commercialism runs rampant every day: in the endless stream of in-your-face TV ads for products we don’t need; in the cartoon quality of political attack ads; and in cable TV news coverage, such as the political gossip and shallow horse-race analysis of national election campaigns that is aimed at little more than swelling viewer counts for the benefit of corporate sponsors. At the people level, America is in significant part a fear-driven, gun-crazy culture, as shown by both its high level and fervent defense of gun ownership, its cavalier support for war, its repeated episodes of mass killings, and the bodies of black youths on ghetto streets, felled either by other socially disaffected black youths or, often, by scared, racist, or overzealous police officers. A revealing clue to this decadence, as President Obama himself once intimated to his regret, is that a significant portion of our population does in fact find whatever sense of social identity it has in an overly elastic interpretation of the Constitutional right to bear arms and an overly literal reading of the Old Testament of the Bible.

Nature Shows Us a Better Way

Surely, the millions of Americans who feel besieged by these repressive trends, and the many more who seek to escape their actual effects, would welcome a “creativity revolution” that could significantly upgrade the motivations and values that currently drive our society. In helping to achieve that change, they might find a starting point in the words of the early 20th-century French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, who urged that sculptors design their works so as “de faire ressortir les grandes lignes de la nature”: “to make stand out the main lines of nature.” That principle applies not only to the design of sculptures or any other creations in the fine arts. In an extended sense, it also applies to the design of anything of practical value in the real world—from more empathetic approaches to teaching young children; to cars powered by non-polluting energy sources and engineered for maximum reliability and safety of performance; to wind farms and solar panels for power generation that is both economical and clean.

In all cases, mankind’s conscious creation should reflect nature’s unconscious creation, which, though fortuitous, tends always, in its main lines, to a more perfect harmony between the needs of its multifarious life forms and the environment they inhabit. By following nature’s model, humans would necessarily make use of their own inborn talents and insight, either by themselves or in concert with other individuals, to develop new organizing concepts or create new materials, tools, products, foods, housing, facilities, and other constructions that add objective value to the world and meet the real needs of people. Such a course would also change the meaning of work from a culturally-driven pursuit of personal or corporate competitive advantage to a self-motivated personal or collaborative pursuit of meaningful creation, opening the way to empathetic, rather than merely transactional, relations with other people.

For me, the statements of Jesus I’ve already quoted can be directly related to the pursuit of those ends. His declaration that “I am come that they [Jesus’s followers] might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly,” raises the question, What does Jesus mean in this statement by “life”? Understood in the context of the “creativity” theme elaborated in this essay, it might be fairly interpreted to mean the consciously directed creativity that separates man from nature, as evidenced by the historically unique and impactful parables, teachings, and utterances of Jesus himself. And what is meant by a more “abundant” life? Again, it suggests to me a living of life in which people, most in concert with others and a few artists privately, make use of their inborn insight and talents to freely produce new creations that add objective value to the world and meet the real needs of people.

The more abundant life that Jesus speaks of—in a time when no provisions were made by ruling powers for enhancing the general welfare–is represented in its scriptural context as a spiritual gift from his Father. The following pronouncement also involves a gift from the Father: “He that believeth on me,” Jesus says, “the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do because I go unto my Father.” I interpret this statement, first, to mean that those who appreciate the revolutionary creativity of Jesus’s own insights regarding the importance of love and of one’s own sense of truth can by that inspiration do works that are comparable to his. But, what about the greater works that believers in Jesus will do when he has returned to his Father?

According to New Testament scholars, Jesus’s unspoken but implied literal meaning is that his followers’ “greater works” will then be possible because the Holy Spirit, descending from heaven, will take his place by living within them, thereby continually instilling in their own earth-bound nature a direct source of spiritual empowerment. The entire quoted pronouncement, however, also makes figurative sense in the context of the emphasis on human creativity developed in this essay. Isn’t it possible that the “greater works” Jesus’s followers will do by means of their spiritual empowerment will be works that surpass Jesus’s own compassionate functions of healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and giving hope to the despairing? Might not his followers now be empowered to make full, loving use of their inborn insight and talents? If so, they would be prepared to serve two different purposes of conscious design that could help lay the foundation for a secular kingdom of joy: namely, to create things that add objective value to the world and meet the real needs of people; and, in whatever ways are needed, to help liberate the creative capacities of others.

Finally, in the context of liberating the creative instinct, might not Jesus’s command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” be interpreted as an injunction to promote and uphold for other people the same right you claim for yourself to develop and give expression to your inborn talents? That command, in turn, is echoed by the injunction to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” which would seem to advance the ethical principle that no individual should be less willing to help others make real their “God-given potential” than he hopes others are willing to do for himself.

Creativity in the Workplace

The capacity of the human race and possibly other intelligent beings in the universe to develop concepts and to consciously plan, design, and produce life-enhancing constructions of various kinds is ironically the crowning work of undirected cosmic forces, planetary environmental dynamics, and the random gene mutations that underlie biological evolution. Mankind’s capacity for conscious creative design therefore constitutes a gift of the highest consequence—which, in turn, poses the very real challenge of making good use of it.

In that connection, it is important to keep in mind that the term “creativity,” as it is used in this essay, is not limited to artists of various kinds, some of whom produce inspirational works of genius that have enduring impact; it refers instead to the impulse all humans have to give expression in a meaningful way to the creative potential they perceive within themselves. Most people, I believe, can fulfill that impulse most consistently by working with others to help solve problems in the workplace. But to make that possibility real, the workplace itself–by which I mean any locus of operations in any enterprise, from a farm, to a tool shop, to a doctor’s office, to Congress–must be consciously designed to provide two fundamental supports: namely, maximum latitude for the input of individual talents and insight, and a means by which those assets can be collaborated with the talents and insight of others to achieve a specified goal.

At the same time, the creative goal itself must be consistent with a purpose already emphasized: that it introduce new objective value into society or the world that, by its nature, helps meet real human needs. To that end, I believe, our democratically elected federal government can play a key role: first, by formally establishing important needs in society that remain unmet; and second, by providing incentives to related industries or other institutions to pursue the technological or other advances required to meet them. With this as a creative challenge, an entire American army of thinkers, researchers, planners, managers, engineers, and computer programmers can come together to let their creativity blossom and produce the best possible solutions.

In industrial applications, hands-on machine operators could find themselves in exciting new roles on self-directed modular parts production teams, perhaps similar to those pioneered by Saturn Corporation in the 1990s. At Saturn, the production teams were given considerable latitude for on-the-spot problem-solving, in-process programming and tooling changes, and quality improvements; in addition, all team members were enrolled in annual obligatory employee training programs to promote cross-module operating flexibility. This creative freedom added objective value to existing manufacturing operations by, among other benefits, cutting manufacturing costs and improving the performance and reliability of resulting products. In addition, because creativity-based modular production teams are considerably more agile than standard production practices using independent machine operators, they are also well-suited to provide fast, cost-effective solutions for such possible new challenges as ultra-fine tolerance limits in machining parts critical to the responsiveness of new autonomous vehicles.

Though the prospect of a creativity “revolution” in American industry and institutions is only a vision at present—perhaps, even, only my vision–a widespread transition from top-down profit-based, to bottom-up creative, production practices could well play a vital role in more rapid achievement of needed improvements in American society. Here’s just a small sampling of things we could and should do:

  • Replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources.
  • Repair and rebuild America’s decaying physical infrastructure.
  • Develop inter-urban high-speed trains and enhanced public transportation in cities.
  • Shoot for medical breakthroughs, including new, more effective, antibiotics and therapies for longer life at higher levels of health.
  • Find effective methods for peaceful conflict resolution that would make almost all killing and war-making indefensible.
  • Develop new industrial technologies and tools to help produce more quickly and cheaply a wide variety of products that provide increased utility, better performance, and greater reliability.
  • Create more independent and informative news media.
  • Promote more culturally edifying music, dance, theater, film, and other performing arts.
  • Propose new ideas for improving the functioning, quality, or products of government; politics; agriculture; architecture; environmental protection; medicine; nutrition; police/community relations; education; transportation; public power, gas, and water utilities; recreation centers; and the teaching of  the natural sciences and liberal arts.

All these improvements would bring joy to their creators and lessen drudgery, reduce pain, increase convenience, raise the quality of life, or provide inspiration for those whose lives are touched by them.

Summing Things Up

We human beings are the most successful product of biological evolution on earth, and also the only species capable of abstract thought and comprehensive planning. In the absence of any evidence of a superintending power in the universe, this gives us the rare capacity to create the necessary conditions for our own happiness. We have, in fact, the responsibility to do so. As a rare thinking species, we are a crowning jewel of natural creation, with the ability to attain heights of joy in life that far transcend the satisfactions of mere survival experienced by other animal species that may be lucky enough, due to a chance shuffling of genes in their ancestors, to successfully adapt to their habitat.

I strongly believe that, for our species, the key to a joyful life is to make use of our inborn insight and talents to produce, in creative interplay with others, products of all kinds—from organizational concepts, to wind farms, to art—that add objective value to human experience and meet real human needs. Such creativity is instrumental to a host of benefits. To name just a few:

  • It fulfills the unique personal potential of individuals and gives them a necessary sense of social identity—which, to no small social benefit, prevents inevitable levels of personal frustration from ballooning into anti-social behavior.
  • It brings groups of creative individuals together to delight in one another’s achievements. Just recall the TV pictures you’ve seen of NASA scientists getting word of and celebrating the completion of a successful launch.
  • It can lead reliably to solutions of technical, social, and environmental problems that can cause various levels of inconvenience, trouble, or pain, and disrupt the very focus on constructive creativity that is the key to human happiness.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, relations with other humans based on creative interplay can replace competitive rivalries at all levels—from personal to international–with mutual respect, bringing together a diversity of backgrounds and material interests in spiritual harmony. The Olympic Games offer an apt example of this, and serve as perhaps my own best metaphor for the central sense I have of a “Creativity Revolution.”

I myself have no doubt that the revolutionary transition from a social/economic/political system based on material self-interest and top-down regimentation to one that prioritizes individual creative self-expression would represent another giant step forward for mankind. It would make possible both an increased capacity for personal fulfillment and a higher quality of interpersonal relations. Moreover, the products resulting from creative collaboration would for the first time meet the high ethical standards inherent in the biological process of natural selection, which allows only those species to survive that have come into harmony with the diverse elements of their environment. Because the process of collaborative design also seeks to create harmony from diverse elements, it can never lead to such destructive technologies as mountaintop strip mining or the “fracking” process used to extract natural gas from protected recesses in the earth. Nor can it lead to the endless rash of perversely intriguing TV commercials designed to exploit for profit the readiness of a morally bankrupt audience to be titillated by illusions of sex and power.

The principle of “harmony in diversity” is an essential feature of all genuine human creation. Every work of art reflects this principle, in conveying both the artist’s vision, and its own unity of impression, through the harmonious arrangement of the many elements composing it. The same principle, moreover, governs not only art in its traditional forms—music, dance, literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, etc.–but even incidental art, such as that often displayed in athletics.

Beyond their visceral attractions, sporting events at the highest level exhibit in their own right the magnificent effects of making harmony from diversity, often resolving the inherent drama of conflict with extraordinary grace and beauty. Any TV sports fan will cite such events as among his own most elevated moments. Just imagine the possibilities: The walk-off home run with two outs in the ninth that arcs majestically from the night sky into the farthest reaches of the upper deck. The pressured last-second three-point shot in basketball that catches nothing but string for the win. The last-second breakaway in hockey that completes an unlikely comeback with a winning goal. Or the Achilles-like quarterback in football, fighting free from a posse of tacklers to gain a moment’s footing in open space, from which he hits his man in the end-zone for the winning touchdown. In all these cases, an artist athlete, by the grace of his own talents, overcomes a host of opposing forces to create the singular beauty of a triumphant end.

At the more prosaic level of solving problems in society, the economy, or international relations, one might not unreasonably hope that experts in high places, backed by a plethora of technological, political, institutional, and information resources, might achieve similar triumphs. But the difficulties involved in the real world are far more refractory than those encountered in the arts or athletics. Imagine what it will take in terms of creative ideas, technological innovation, political persuasion, and administrative planning to overcome the vast resistance of wide-ranging economic and geopolitical interests, and bring human industrial activity into harmony with the realities of the earth’s changing climate.

Arresting global climate change will require its own “collaborative creativity,” in which everyone gets on board with new ideas and tools to help bring conflicting interests into harmony with an overriding goal. But such efforts are also morally and spiritually transformational for those who participate in them. They provide not only the personal satisfaction that comes from tapping one’s own best insight and talents to help solve problems, but also the excitement and joy of combining those contributions with the creative outputs of others.

So far on our conflicted planet, such a sense of unity with other humans, and perhaps through it, too, with the rest of nature, has only been hinted at. The day may come, however, when the liberated consciousness of humans can experience a rapture that is yet unimagined. I have in mind possible close encounters on far-away star systems with intelligent alien races and their creations. The creatures and plant life we would come to know there might well defy our sense of natural forms, but we would surely perceive that the intelligent beings among them are moved by the same creative urge that moves us. They too will want to explore through the creations of others what elements were brought to functional unity from the diverse conditions of their social, technological, and natural environments. Together, perhaps, we could celebrate an even more joyous harmony in diversity with such strange beings than any we or they have yet known.

In the end, of course, death must put an end to such ethereal possibilities for all intelligent beings. But for those who have engaged their own inborn insight and talents to bring new value to the world, it will have no sting. Such authentic creativity makes it apparent that personal redemption and fulfillment are not to be found in an imagined deity’s promised gift of personal immortality, but in conscious extensions of the unplanned works of the non-conscious creative power of nature itself. By pursuing conscious creation from the wellspring of nature in our own individuality, we humans would no longer perceive “life” as simply a finite period of individual existence–a perspective which, as Camus tells us, is made absurd by the enervating anticipation and experience of continual adverse contingencies and ultimate death. Instead, we would perceive our own life as the outgrowth of a never-ending act of natural creation throughout the universe. Our own role in that life is to consciously produce–in addition to the many products needed to sustain human life at a comfortable physical level—new concepts, tools, facilities, institutions, works of art, and various other constructions that promote the joy of harmony with other humans and love for all living things. Since life in these terms is understood as a transpersonal power, and not our own accidental duration of personal existence, we naturally perceive our share of it as a fortuitous gift and our brief participation in it as our only reward.

For humans with this perspective, dim, largely despondent, hopes for personal immortality are overridden by the affirmative joys of a manifestly real and fulfilling role in the universe. Such humans do not fear death, because their vitality is undiminished by a continual effort to deflect the many threats to self-preservation. Instead, they look forward to new opportunities to express their own creativity in ways that harmonize with the creative inputs of others. With this change in perspective from the personal to the communal, they also rapidly come to terms with accepting death as a necessary condition of life. They take it as self-evident that, because thinking patterns in old people tend to ossify in the same way as their bodies, new creative harmonies can only be achieved by a cycling of human generations that allows the agile minds of the young to continually bring fresh ideas to the fore. For the human race as a whole, whose history we know, the shift from an overriding concern with survival to the headlong pursuit of joyous creativity would, if accepted, of course, be transformative. After some 6,000 years of civilization, it would finally lift us from the misery that has been our common lot to the exhilaration of continual new adventure.

July 30, 2017

Bob Anschuetz is a retired college English teacher and industrial writer who remains actively committed to the progressive political values of economic fairness, social justice, and global community. In retirement, he has continued his work as a writer and manuscript copy editor, and also furthered a lifelong love of learning as a student of political science and philosophy, as a volunteer discussion-group leader on a variety of topics, and as a literacy tutor. Read other articles by Bob.