Jan 25 2012
The dusty paint-spattered basement of the Art Students League on West 57th Street in New York smells earthy, damp, metallic. On the first day of class, our teacher leads us to the huge garbage bins filled with dark gray clay. The advanced sculpture students haul out handfuls and hurry to their stations. But when we beginners plunge in our hands, it’s shocking. Wet and cold, the clay resists us, as though dragged down by suction. How will we make something out of this?
That sensation tingles on my skin as I think about January’s theme: Creation. So many creation myths begin with a god or gods who fashion humans from clay. I wonder: what did the gods feel when they first touched the clay? Surprise? Dismay? Pleasure? Inspiration?
The ancient Egyptian deity Khnum, god of the source of the Nile River, gathers silt and clay left behind by the Nile’s flooding. He sits at a potter’s wheel and shapes children. Imagine the clay spinning and spitting off the wheel as Khnum molds legs, arms, torso, the small column of the neck, the tiny delicate head. He will place these children fully formed into their mothers’ wombs.
The creator-god Juok lives on the western bank of the Nile, now Sudan. He travels all over the world, gathering different colors of earth, sand, clay to form white, red, brown, and black people. He makes them all legs at first so they can work. Then Juok adds arms for cultivating crops, then eyes for seeing and mouths for eating, and finally tongues and ears for dancing, singing, and shouting for joy.
For the Pangwe of Cameroon, God first makes a lizard of clay and sets it to soak in a pool, as though it needs marinating. A week later, he calls out for the human step forth—and sure enough, a person emerges. Talk about evolution!
In the Qur’an (37:11; 38:71-72), Allah forms a human being out of clay and then breathes Allah’s own spirit into the new creature, commanding the angels to bow down before the human. This particular theme—humans made of a wet, sticky, earthy substance inspired (literally, breathed into) by something divine—shows up again and again in creation myths.
But why do we 21st-century Unitarian Universalists revisit these myths? Your own responses say it all (see “In Our Own Voices” in this issue). Each creation myth has something unique to tell us about who we are, one of you says, so “which ones can help us find direction?” “We humans are called to be co-creators with all that is!” another shouts, and “we humans get to create the myths we need,” reminds another. (Come hear some brand-new myths in worship in early January!)
Where does creativity come from, and how can all of us, even if we’re not artists, live creatively? What does it mean to be creative in our relationships, our jobs, our classes, our social justice work, our approach to life every day? “We humans create ourselves,” one of you says. “So how do we put into motion our interests and hopes for the world?”
From clay, from the stuff of the earth, comes life, the myths claim, using metaphor to speak a fundamental truth: We are indeed children of this planet, our Mother Earth. The Earth, through its natural cycles of creation and destruction, sustains all life. But what are we humans doing to sustain or to destroy this Earth and her species? How can we be co-creators—allies—with Mother Earth? At FUCSJ, the Rights of Mother Earth group lifts up these pressing questions so that we may move into effective action. Please join us at our next meeting on January 22 (see the announcement later in this journal).
Back in my sculpture class years ago, our live model breathes, patiently holding her pose. I roll and mold the clay until at last a shape emerges, an S-shaped curve that captures my heart. The lines evolve and begin to tell a story: this creature has a setting, a mood, a life. She comes from another time, lying fearless on her old-fashioned divan. She comes from me but is not of me. I certainly wouldn’t call her an “inspired” or breathing creation! But the process of creation teaches me something about myself: I can plunge my hands in and begin to shape my life.
Come, my good people, the clay is waiting. Let’s plunge in!
With love and encouragement for this New Year,
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