The Breath of God

All creatures look to you
to give them their food at the proper time.
When you give it to them,
they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
they are satisfied with good things.
When you hide your face,
they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to the dust.
When you send your Spirit,
they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground.

—Psalm 104:27-30 (NIV)

There's a pattern to the universe I keep noticing in various incarnations, a pattern I call "the breath of God". It's the interplay of birth and death, innovation and criticism, gathering and scattering, growing and shrinking, that ultimately works toward an increasingly beautiful Creation.

The basic idea is that the creative process - whether on the micro-scale of a human brain or the macro-scale of nature and God, has two fundamental phases or steps: the growing phase, and the culling phase. The growing phase is when explosive innovation happens. The culling phase is when the best new ideas succeed, and the rest are destroyed or fade away.

Some sightings of the breath of God in the wild:

  1. Evolution. In general living things try to produce as much offspring as possible. But only a portion of a creature's descendants will live to reproduce further. Some are "selected" to reproduce, while others are "selected" to die, pruning the great family tree. In many cases survival may be dumb luck, but in the long run, the "fittest" innovations thrive, resulting in more specialized (and arguably, more interesting) creatures, from honeybees to mushrooms to seaweed.

    Interestingly, evolution also goes through phases on a macro scale: periods of wild genetic innovation, and periods of mass extinction. The extinction of the dinosaurs (the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event) paved the way for mammals to rapidly diversify.

    The evolutionary process creates beauty by producing ever more intricate, specific, and interdependent beings. Not only does it create beauty (as when the first flowers appeared about 100 million years ago) - it also creates beings capable of beholding beauty (as when the first eyes appeared about 540 million years ago).

  2. Human creativity. Creativity has two fundamental components: the wild, free-thinking, brainstorming, drafting process; and the editing, critiquing, deleting, revising process. One is useless without the other: without an internal critic, we can't tell the good ideas from the bad, making it all just noise. And without uninhibited out-of-the-box thinking, we have nothing new.

  3. Mania and melancholy. Bipolar disorder is an extreme case, but everybody experiences mood swings that are qualitatively the same: upswings of confidence, creativity, and productivity; and downswings of fear, self-judgment, and lethargy. In moderation, these mood swings can actually ground us, while at the same time improving our emotional and intellectual elasticity. Courage opens our minds to new opportunities, while fear keeps us from danger, helping us survive. The rhythm of the two, in balance, lets us thrive.

  4. Infatuation and heartbreak. (This is closely related to mania and melancholy.) A wave of infatuation over a potential love interest helps you see past his/her flaws and entertain the idea of a future together. Ultimately, though, a wave of heartbreak will come along and erode away any crush or relationship unfit to weather it. It's no fun in the short term, but in the long term it serves to clear the way for a more beautiful, sustainable relationship.

For me the most interesting and difficult realization in seeing "the breath of God" is that the painful processes are necessary - maybe even good. If life and death are inseparable - two sides of the same coin - then what kind of universe do we live in, and what kind of God would make it that way? Why would a God of the greatest power, greatest love, and greatest widsom create a place where light arrives through darkness?

For Darwin, the brutality of evolution meant God could not be both all-powerful and all-loving. As for me, I think it fits with the rest of the Christian story: life gives way to death, but death gives way to life. The new creatures springing forth from the rotted dead reveal that the story is not a tragedy, but a comedy.

The path into the light seems dark,
the path forward seems to go back,
the direct path seems long,
true power seems weak,
true purity seems tarnished,
true steadfastness seems changeable,
true clarity seems obscure,
the greatest art seems unsophisticated,
the greatest love seems indifferent,
the greatest wisdom seems childish.

—The Tao Te Ching, ch. 41

And what does this suggest for how to live day-to-day? That question may never be fully answerable, but for now I can find this lesson, at least: If I want love, I must open myself to heartache. If I want courage, I must open myself to fear. If I want creativity, I must open myself to criticism. And if I want life - abundant and joyful - I must open myself to death. When I cling to one side of the great wheel, I may keep the wheel from turning. But the turning - the impermanence and fluidity and change - that's what life is.

"For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it."

—Matthew 16:25 (NIV)