J.P. Guilford is a cognitive psychologist who researched subjects like the structure of intellect and creativity. Creativity is a fascinating aspect of psychology and while we know something about it, creativity still transcends the cognitive functions we explore. Being creative requires a number of things, but important to the process is freeing yourself from two cognitive traps. These cognitive traps are functional fixedness and mental sets. Functional fixedness involves the limitations we place on ourselves when using particular objects to accomplish particular tasks. A famous experiment demonstrating this was done by Duncker in 1945. Duncker gave participants a box of matches, candles, and thumb tacks and asked them to create a lamp from the objects that could be mounted on the wall and keep wax from dripping on the floor. He found the majority of his participants couldn’t come up with a solution. The solution was simple; you just empty the box of matches, tack it to the wall, and place the candle in it. Then, you light the candle. A simple solution, but one people struggled with because they believed the box of matches couldn’t be emptied and utilized as a candle holder, it was meant to hold the matches. Participants in the experiment were fixated on one way the box could be used. Creativity is impaired by this process and impacts all of us when it comes to doing things differently. Mental sets are like functional fixedness but instead of being fixated on the proper way to use an object they cause one to fixate on how a process must precede. How someone does things is limited to a small number of procedures limiting any alternative ways to achieve a goal. If you’ve ever worked with someone who says “We always do it that way” you’ve experienced someone stuck in a mental set.
J.P. Guilford’s work presents us with another aspect of creativity in regards to how we think. Guilford believes creativity is best served by something called divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is the ability to approach problems with an open-ended disposition involving a large number of potential solutions, some of which may or may not be correct. Problems best served by divergent thinking are those without one correct answer. Because creativity involves innovative thinking being able to have a divergent approach to problems allows individuals to utilize a vast array of ideas to solve the problem. Convergent thinking is the opposite of divergent thinking. With convergent thinking a solution to a specific problem has one correct solution. This type of thinking best serves problems like mathematical equations. At this point you’re asking yourself, “What does all of this have to do with spirituality?” Let me help you connect the dots.
In the book of Genesis God creates human beings and places them in a garden. Then, he instructs humanity to create with and cultivate the many gifts bestowed on them. One might argue being creative is at the heart of who we are. We’re creatures tasked by our maker to create and cultivate a world reflecting the goodness of God and the spirit of beauty. That’s why art is such a unique human activity. Human beings are at their core “sacred artists” not “problem solvers.” To be a creative artist is to use divergent thinking to find multiple ways to know, love, and serve our God and those he places in our lives. In many ways the world we live in is that corner of the garden God asks us to cultivate. Sin has placed a veil over our eyes and keeps us from seeing the raw materials provided in the garden. Where there is pain, brokenness, and hurt we should see soil, seed, and water. By creatively pouring ourselves into these situations we cultivate and create a more beautiful garden. However, when all we see are problems that can only be solved in one way we’re not utilizing our divergent thinking; we’re stuck in convergent thinking limiting the movement of the Spirit. Remember, Christ tells us people of the Spirit move as the wind moves (John 3:8). Sometimes this scripture is used to justify behavior without direction, but I think Christ is reminding us to be people of the Spirit means being people who think divergently. A person who thinks divergently thinks creatively, a necessity when one finds themselves in unfamiliar and uncomfortable places. In these unfamiliar places we need to think differently about what served us well in the past. Being a person moved by the spirit most assuredly causes us to live in ways we never imagined before.
A good example demonstrating how convergent thinking can get in the way of spiritual growth is found in how we approach scripture. Some individuals believe particular bible passages are only applicable in one specific way. They don’t allow the scriptures to speak to other facets of life or shed light into their experiences in ways never imagined. I am not advocating that truth is relative or that scripture doesn’t speak specifically to certain ideas and events. I am saying sometimes meditating on scripture enlightens us in ways never seen before. For that to happen we must allow the Spirit to move us to think divergently about the passages and the situations in which we find ourselves so we can be spiritually creative. As long as we’re not using a passage to justify anti-biblical behaviors allowing scripture to speak to us in a new way can be spiritually fulfilling.
Another way divergent thinking facilitates spiritual growth is when dealing with non-Christian material. I saw this with the release of the movie Noah written by by Darren Aronofsky, and Ari Handel. Many Christians struggled with this movie because it didn’t specifically address the biblical narrative as written in Genesis. Yet, those Christians who saw the movie and liked it say the manner in which the “unsaid” aspects of the story are “filled in” are quite creative. These “creative inserts” provide a new dialogue with biblical themes that deepen our spiritual understanding of God, the sin of humanity, and the redemptive acts our Lord continues to use to restore humanity to its original state of holiness. The key to this approach to non-Christian things is that where they don’t conflict with the revealed truths of scripture creativity can be used to broaden our experience of God.
I urge you to rediscover your spiritually divergent thinking. Become creators and cultivators of the world around you so you may come to understand God more deeply and broadly. Too often we think God can be solved like a problem with one specific answer. God is a deep mystery we can creatively explore. This exploration can take us to multiple places and allows us to enjoy the depth and beauty of the divine. If we try to solve the mystery of God we’re thinking too convergently. If we’re exploring the many ways he touches our lives, our divergent intellect opens up the good things God has in store for us.