Human Creativity and Conspiracy Theory

I’ve written previously about the tendency of conspiracy theories to take too high a view of human potential. Many conspiracy theories depend on multi-generational secret global coordination that’s just not possible with for humans to pull off. The biblical worldview paints the successes of sin and power as temporary and illusory. Sooner or later everything falls apart as the inevitable destructiveness and selfishness of sin brings even the best diabolical schemes toppling down.

But there is another kind of conspiracy theory, one which takes too low a view of human nature. In this kind of apocalyptic theory, everything collapses. “Get some land in the mountains, stockpile food, and get a gun” is one earnest encouragement I received from another Christian some years ago. “The global food supply is right about to collapse. For your family’s sake, you need to be ready.” The brother who encouraged me to do this was no nut-job living in some kind of bunker. He was the manager of the coffeeshop where my wife worked and himself preparing to be on an international church planting team. Needless to say, his dire predictions a decade ago were wrong.

In that conversation I remember pushing back on several fronts. First, church history informs us that Christians largely stayed and served when calamity befell cities, often giving their lives to serve plague victims and thereby earning an incredible reputation for their faith. They did not run to the hills en masse with their families and weapons in tow (though fleeing can of course sometimes be a faithful option). Second, my friend’s dire warnings did not seem to take into account the incredible creativity, ingenuity, and adaptability that humans have for survival, profit, and system-creation.

I have lived in some extreme places and have visited others. Many of my coworkers have lived in even more extreme places than I have. One of the surprises of visiting these kind of areas? Life keeps on humming. People manage to eat, to have homes and jobs, to have systems of transportation and communication, and to have collective governance and defense. I’m not saying that life in places like failed states, conflict zones, or poverty-stricken areas is easy. But I am saying that humans are remarkably resilient and creative. If one structure collapses, five others rise up to fill the void almost overnight. And someone has figured out how to monetize it. Just look at the ways the world is currently innovating. We are living in a global pandemic, after all.

I live in an area of Central Asia that has experienced an incredible amount of conflict over the last couple hundred years. All of my local friends have incredible trauma in their background. Yet some of our local systems are more efficient and affordable than what we can get in the US. Here’s a brief list:

Fresh bread daily from local neighborhood bakeries, ten small steaming-hot loaves for a dollar

Simple, pay-as-you-go mobile phone systems. Buy a card at a neighborhood shop with credit on it, load it on your phone, no complicated contracts or fine print.

Neighborhood fruit and veggie trucks. These trucks are loaded up with fresh produce and make the rounds through every neighborhood, selling fresh and affordable fruits and veggies and announcing their arrival via loudspeakers.

Taxis and buses. Get anywhere in the city via taxi for $3 or take a bus on established routes for $0.20.

Pharmacy delivery. Stuck at home under a Covid-19 quarantine? No problem, local pharmacies will take your order via Facebook messenger and send a delivery man (for free) to your house with your needed meds.

Womens Saving Clubs. Having a hard time actually saving money for that new appliance? Join a group of 12 local women where everyone contributes $100 a month and when it’s your turn once a year you get “paid” your saved $1200.

You see, though we live in a place that raises eyebrows among outsiders and frightens off volunteers, locals manage to have some pretty efficient and creative systems for technically living in a war zone. I just learned this week that we have a new local service which will deliver flowers, novels, or locally-tailored men’s formal wear to your front door. Not bad, Central Asia, not bad at all.

To those who are given to the global-system-collapse conspiracies, I would encourage them to take a deeper view of history and a wider view of the current world. Yes, big collapses have happened. The transition from the Bronze Age economy to the Iron Age was devastating as everyone’s stockpiled bronze suddenly lost its value. Later, in the middle ages, global cooling caused crop failures on a massive scale, leading to widespread famine. The Great Depression one hundred years ago was real. It’s not the existence of crises like this I take issue with, but with the implied extent. The assumption is that a post-apocalyptic world will result, when history just doesn’t bear that out. Humans are too resourceful for that.

I believe this creativity and resourcefulness is rooted in our creation in the image of God and in the creation mandate.

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

And God blessed them. 
And God said to them, 
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, 
and have dominion over the fish of the sea 
and over the birds of the heavens 
and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28 ESV)

Humanity’s incredible ingenuity and ability to bounce back and build societies comes from being created in the image of God. We can’t help but create, even when we don’t mean to. It’s in our very DNA. As we were commissioned to do in the beginning, we bring order in small ways to the rest of creation. Yes, all of this has been affected by the fall and our attempts at re-creation and bringing order are marred, transient, and imperfect. They are infected now with greed and a thousand other sins. And yet the image of God must have been so powerful in its unblemished form that it continues to shine forth even in the darkest parts of the globe and following the biggest calamities.

Why don’t I give much time of day to the global collapse conspiracy theories? It’s not because I have so much faith in humanity. I believe in total depravity. Rather, it’s because I have such faith in the remnant image of God within humanity. Even with our brokenness, we are an awfully creative bunch.

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Logicians Go Mad Before Poets Do

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess players do… Perhaps the strongest case of all is this: that only one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine… He was damned by John Calvin… Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion… The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits… The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason… Materialists and madmen never have doubts… Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have the mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity.

G.K. Chesteron, Orthodoxy

This is a fascinating quote on so many levels. Eat around the bones when it comes to the anti-Calvin bit. The overall point holds true. And agreeing with that point, I wouldn’t say it was Calvin that damned Cowper, but that there is danger in approaching a revealed mystery such as predestination too much like a logician and not enough like a poet. Perhaps this is why so much of scripture is poetry. We are given truths about God that are too great to be fully understood by the human mind. But they can be truly understood in part, as through a mirror dimly. And metaphor, simile, analogy, poetry – these are wonderful tools we have been given by which to better understand God and his creation… without going insane in the process.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash