Friday, April 20, 2012

The Metaphysics of Subcreation

    In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers argued that because human beings are created in the image of the Creator God we are also creators.  We need to notice, she said, that the famous text, “Let us make man in our image . . .” (Genesis 1:26), occurs at the end of a creation story.  Genesis presents God as creator and then says that we are made in God’s image.
    J.R.R. Tolkien expressed a similar notion in his essay, “On Fairy Stories.”  Tolkien wrote that God was the creator par excellence, but human beings could engage in what he called “subcreation” when they wrote poems and stories.  Tolkien did not limit subcreation to literature.  His delightful story, “Leaf by Niggle,” tells of a painter of limited talent who was really only good at painting leaves.  Niggle wanted to paint landscape masterpieces, but in the end . . . Why should I spoil a wonderful story?  If you haven’t read “Leaf by Niggle” be sure to find it.
    Subcreation takes many forms, as varied as all the kinds of human “making”: cooking, dancing, gardening, building, singing, and so on.  To be creators—makers—is part of the vocation of human beings.  We are called to be creators . . . at least, that’s what Mark McLeod-Harrison and I say in our little book, Being at Home in the World.
    There are knotty questions here.  Just how far does the human ability to create extend?  Do we “make” the world not only by the things we write or build but also by the way we perceive and know the world?  What if two people do not understand the world in the same way?  Are they “making” different worlds?
    Ah, reader!  The danger you are in!  The deep ocean of philosophy surges below, and you are so near the cliff.  If you step a little farther you will be swimming in the metaphysics of subcreation.  Fortunately, I can point you to a lighthouse.  Mark McLeod-Harrison has written Make/Believing the World(s): Toward a Christian Ontological Pluralism.  As the title suggests, this book is hard-core philosophy; you’ll need your intellectual work clothes.
    Mark’s basic idea is this.  God actually, really truly, involves us in the creation of the world.  God makes the universe out of nothing, and God establishes the “ground rules,” as it were.  But God’s universe is not a static, done-all-at-once kind of thing.  God includes our making in his making.  Mark is particularly concerned with the way we make the world by knowing it: “irrealism claims that the world is how it is because human noetic feats make it so.”
   Mark’s critics say his “irrealism” implies relativism.  It is particularly unacceptable to Christians, they say.  Naturally, Mark demurs.  He stakes out a philosophical position in which human beings really do make different worlds—but all the worlds we make are part of the real universe made by God.
   I’ll dip no deeper into the philosophic ocean right now.  If you want to, you can dive in by reading Mark’s book.  I like it.  And I like the picture of the master Creator who draws us into the making of the world.

Make/Believing the World(s): Toward a Christian Ontological Pluralism is published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.  I’m confident you can find it at Amazon.

Being at Home in the World is published by Wipf & Stock Publishers, Eugene, Oregon.  Their website is found at

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