To create is to make something that didn’t exist before. To renew is to restore something that already exists to its original state. The interrelationship of creation and renewal is the subject of this post.
The Renaissance and the Reformation were the founding renewal projects of what would become the Modern Age. The Renaissance sought to restore the art and the philosophy of classical Greece and Rome; the Reformation, to restore the Church to its Biblical and first-century roots. Both movements saw something wrong with the status quo, something static and distorted in medievalism. The West wanted to release the long-suppressed urge for change and progress. Both the Renaissance and the Reformation sought to recapture the vitality of a prior golden age. Still, neither the Renaissance artists nor the Reformers sought to embed themselves in the past. Instead, they brought insights from the past forward into the present in order to generate forward momentum toward the future.
Five hundred years later, renewal carries more of a sense of alienation from the future, a feeling that modernity’s relentless forward momentum is running out of control, carrying us somewhere we don’t want to go. This time the gaze into the deep past bears an unmistakable savor of nostalgia. We seek to recapture a time before the valorization of change and progress, but also before the rigidity and stagnation settled in – a time when stability and tradition enfolded the community in its secure embrace.
For some the spirit of renewal means experimenting with the old forms and structures, retrofitting the present with attachments retrieved from the deep past. There’s a Borges short story about a writer who recreated portions of Don Quixote word for word, exactly like the original. But he wasn’t just copying the old text; he was rewriting it. The “new” Quixote meant something so different three centuries after Cervantes’ time that the critics regarded it as an entirely new work, perhaps even more remarkable than the original.
For many the spirit of renewal also means stripping away undesirable accretions that have accumulated over the centuries, thereby restoring the world and mankind to an original virtuous state. The Greens, those busy people who want to “simplify their lives,” those uptight people who want to recover their “inner child,” those libertarians who would recover Aristotelian or Stoic virtues as foundational to a society of free individuals, those Christians who want to interpret the world from a first-century point of view, even those evolutionists who would strip away the layers of culture that alienate us from our natural instincts – there are plenty of programs for “decorrupting” the individual and the community, thereby restoring them to an earlier virtuous state. It’s not clear whether this desire to recover the innocence of a prior golden age reflects the devaluing of progress characteristic of postmodernism or the latest manifestation of Romanticism.
Let’s say that man lost his innocence and the imago Dei in the Garden and that fallen man has been progressively corrupting the world ever since. Doesn’t it imply that human creation is the cause of corruption? Let’s say that the goal of renewal is to restore everything to its pre-Fall pristine condition: human nature, human society, the natural world. Doesn’t it imply the need to renounce human innovation and its fruits, to reverse the course of human cultural history?
A lot seems to depend on what renewal is heading toward. If God completed his good Creation long ago, if since then man hasn’t added anything to the Creation, if man has done nothing but detract from the Creation’s original goodness – then what does renewal seek to accomplish? And what of man’s corruption: is it characterized by the desire to compete with God, to be a creator like God, to replace God’s creation with the creations of man? What then does a renewed man do in the world?
One proposal (as elaborated at considerable length over on the right side of this blog) is that the imago Dei manifests itself primarily as a God-like ability to create. By implication, a corrupt imago means a corruption in human creativity, resulting in a corruption of the cumulative works of human creation; i.e., of culture. Again by implication, a renewed imago means the renewal of human creativity and the consequent renewal of human culture.
According to this interpretation, renewing the Creation points not to the undoing of human endeavor but to its restoration. Instead of decreating the man-made world, renewing the Creation means reclaiming the original glory of human creativity. Renewal also means decorrupting man’s cumulative creation over the millennia, which is human culture in all its forms: language, art, science, government, philosophy, economics.
In a word, renewing the Creation would mean renewing the spirit of creation.