In the Beginning, There Was Improvisation

| By Bruce Ellis Benson

Picture taken by photographer Joy Guion Bailey, the image above features musicians David Bailey and John White playing at the Baptist World Alliance Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii in December 2010.

The dominant—and generally acclaimed orthodox—view of divine creation is that Genesis chapter one depicts God as creating ex nihilo—out of nothing. Indeed, this has long been the dominant stance among Christian theologians. Yet, recently, the theologian Catherine Keller has argued forcefully against this view in her book Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming. Her goal is to deconstruct ex nihilo theology and return to what she terms the “forgotten chaos.” Writing as a feminist theologian, she claims that the ex nihilo account is a highly masculine one. In its place, Keller suggests a theology of becoming in which we rethink the very notion of beginning. In this respect, she is indebted to Edward Said, who distinguishes between “beginning” and “origin.” Whereas beginnings are “secular, humanly produced and ceaselessly re-examined,” origins are “divine, mythical and privileged.”To quote Keller, “what if we begin instead to read the Word from the vantage point of its own fecund multiplicity, its flux into flesh, its overflow?”2

Why is this issue so important? The German theologian Gerhard May is certainly right when he states: “church theology wants through the proposition creatio ex nihilo to express and safeguard the omnipotence and freedom of God acting in history.”3 At issue, then, are power and freedom. The God who can create ex nihilo is simply more powerful and free than the God who merely creates from that which already exists. How we interpret the first few verses of the book of Genesis depends very much upon what kind of God we think is being depicted here, and we are tempted to conclude that a truly powerful God has no need of existent matter.

But consider these opening verses from the book of Genesis:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day (Gen. 1:1-5, NRSV).

What exactly is God doing here? Further, what is this “beginning” [re’sit] and where does it begin? One can say this is a basic question regarding any kind of genesis: at what point can we say that something begins?

It is significant that the OED defines “genesis” as “the action of building up from simple or basic elements to more complex ones.”4 For something like that seems to be described here. The earth is described as “a formless void” and “darkness covered the face of the deep” [tohu vabohu, or “the depth in the dark”]. And then God creates [bara]. On this account, things are already “in medias res”—or “into the middle of affairs.” That is, there is already something going on and then God enters the picture. This is not to say that God was not “before all things,” only that that is not the point at which Genesis begins to tell the story. Here I want to consider the implications of these views for how we think of artistic creation: for it seems to me that our views regarding divine creation have affected the ways in which we think about how artists create. Conversely, perhaps we may also look to human creative practices to help us rethink some of God’s methods, patterns and intentions for His creation.

We might say that, historically, images of the artist’s work have alternated between something more like ex nihilocreation and something more like “out of something” accounts. On the one hand, Immanuel Kant gives us a picture of the artistic genius that sounds very much like the ex nihilo creator. According to Kant, “genius is a talent for producing something for which no determinate rule can be given . . . . hence the foremost property of genius must be originality.”You might say that the “rules” don’t apply to the genius, meaning that the Kantian artist is likewise free.6 As Kant puts it, “on this point everyone agrees: that genius must be considered the very opposite of a spirit of imitation.”7

Kant’s concept of genius gets even more interesting when he claims that “if an author owes a product to his genius, he himself does not know how he came by the ideas for it.”8 This clearly separates the genius artist from the scientist, at least for Kant. Whereas the genius artist has absolutely no idea of how she came up with her ideas, says Kant, a scientist like Newton can explain each of the steps that led him to his theory. So creating for the genius is a kind of mysterious process that even she does not understand, unlike Bach’s view in which it can be explained by the techniques of a craftsman who’s at the top of his game. To sum up Kant’s account: 1) true geniuses are original, 2) what they create is exemplary for everyone else, and 3) they are unable to explain how they created their masterpieces. Here we have a conception of the artist that is remarkably like that of the God who creates ex nihilo—an artist who is both powerful and free.

On the other hand, in contrast to Kant, we could posit what we might term creatio ex improvisatio—creation out of improvisation. Of course, on either view we can say that God is an improviser. For creation—however we define it—is precisely God setting in motion a reality of “ceaseless alterations” (to cite the theologian John Milbank).9 Thus, the very being of life is improvisatory—by which I mean that it is a mixture of both structure and contingency, of regularity and unpredictability, of constraint and possibility. Further, if God is indeed still at work in the world, then God is likewise part of that improvisatory movement. Living in such a reality means that we take part in that improvisatory movement in all that we do.

So how would this view of God translate into an account of artistic creation? If we take creatio ex improvisatioseriously, then artistic genesis always begins somewhere. Consider the following example. It was at a baseball game, when someone handed him a pair of binoculars, that Andrew Stanton suddenly got the idea for what the character WALL-E should look like. He spent the entire next inning looking at the binoculars backwards, twisting them this way and that to simulate various expressions of sadness and joy. Stanton, the director of the film WALL-E, had been thinking for years about the idea of lone robot left to clean up an uninhabitable earth, but it was only in that moment that he figured out how the animated robot should look.

Many artists will instinctively resonate with the process that Stanton went through. Some ideas come in a moment, but many aspects have to be worked out over days, weeks, months—even years. And those ideas don’t usually come by being isolated but by being connected: with other artists, the history of art, friends who inspire you, and the world of everyday life. Often what happens is that you see something—perhaps as mundane as a pair of binoculars—and you suddenly realize how it could be painted or reworked into something that’s both similar and different.

Such a conception of artistic creation is strikingly at odds with that of Kant. Yet I think it much better approximates how artistic production actually works. It is Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) who (in)famously insists that “life itself is essentially a process of appropriating . . . . ‘Exploitation’ does not belong to a corrupted or imperfect, primitive society: it belongs to the essence of being alive.”10 Certainly all art making is essentially appropriation. Indeed, it is so basic to artistic improvisation that the novelist Margaret Drabble (1939- ) boldly admits that “appropriation is what novelists do. Whatever we write is, knowingly or unknowingly, a borrowing. Nothing comes from nowhere.”11

The question, then, is simply: how much does any given piece of art depend upon another?

The answer is: it all depends. For appropriation and dependency represent a rather wide spectrum that has representatives all along the way. It shouldn’t be difficult to see that defining the role artists in terms of improvisation changes pretty much everything. If artists are indebted to one another, there can be no “lone” genius, disconnected from the community. Instead, we are all improvisers together, quoting one another, saying the same thing in different ways, and giving different perspectives on the same things. There is an ever-shifting balance between quotation and originality, between old and new, between you and me. Some of what I say is more “mine”; some is more “yours’; some is more “tradition.” Getting the exact ownership right may be only possible to a certain extent.

So how might this improvisatory understanding of human artistic creation give us insight into the way God created and continues to create? It may suggest that while God’s agency is not limited, God has nevertheless chosen to share that agency with the creation itself, including—in a particular but not exclusive way—the humans who bear His image. Along with God’s sovereignty, another point of the Genesis account seems to be about abundance, fruitfulness, interrelations and creative community (even Keller’s “fecund multiplicity”), rather than who gets a “divine copyright” on this or that species, or kind. And finally, reading the first chapters of Genesis as improvisation rather than ex nihilo creation might also help us newly recognize the presence of Christ in the text, as it prefigures both the way Jesus laid aside the power that was His alone by right of being God, and the way He imparted His freedom to the Church in its commission to carry on the re-creation of the world through the Spirit.


References & Credits

1. Edward Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985) xii-xiii.

2. Keller, Face of the Deep 19

3. Gerhard May, Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of “Creation out of Nothing” in Early Christian Thought, trans. A.S. Worrall (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994) 180.

4. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. s.v. “genesis.”

5. Critique of Judgment §46.

6. As the quotation from Kant makes clear, “genius is a talent” according to Kant. If we were to pursue this carefully defined conception of genius, then Kant’s view might be less problematic. However, elsewhere Kant speaks of the genius not as a talent but as a person (“the product of a genius . . . is an example that is meant not to be imitated, but to be followed by another genius,” Critique of Judgment §49). Moreover, I am less interested in explicating exactly what Kant thought and more on how Kant has normally been interpreted.

7. Ibid. §47. I should point out that Kant often uses phrases like “on this point everyone agrees” precisely when he is putting forth ideas on which everyone doesn’t agree.

8. Ibid. §46.

9. John Milbank, “’Postmodern Critical Augustinianism’: A Short Summa in Forty Two Responses to Unasked Questions,” in Modern Theology 7 (1991): 227.

10. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) §259.

11. Margaret Drabble, The Red Queen (Orlando: Harcourt, 2004) x.

About the Author

Bruce Ellis Benson

Bruce Ellis Benson is Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, and Executive Director of the Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology. Dr. Benson’s research interests include the "theological turn" in phenomenology and work at the intersection of continental philosophy and theology; hermeneutics and interpretation theory; and aesthetics, with special interest in the philosophy of music. He has written three monographs, the most recent of which is Pious Nietzsche: Decadence and Dionysian Faith, and is widely published in collections and journals. A more complete account of his training and education may be found here, and an expanded version of the ideas presented in this post were previously published here.