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Creativity and Religious Experience: An Investigation into the Relationship Between Several Measures

by Ann S. Clarke
Boston University


This dissertation will explore theoretically and investigate empirically the relationship between creativity and religious experience. Many religious traditions offer stories that imply a positive correlation between these two phenomena-stories of divine creativity bringing human beings into existence and into relationship with God or a god. These stories suggest the possibility of two corollaries: that human creativity, too, might enable us experience a connection with the divine; and, that connection with the divine might inspire human creativity.

This study will draw upon the theories of scholars of religion and of psychology as a background from which to launch an empirical study of the relationship between creativity and religious experience. Though theorists both in religious and in psychological studies have postulated a positive relation between creativity and religious experience, little work has been done to bring the findings of the two fields into dialogue with one another. The connection between creativity and religious experience is not only made in scholarly works-recent popular literature is also rife with books connecting creativity and religious experience. However, there is a paucity of studies that validate empirically either the scholarly or the popular theories with quantitative methods. This research project will present an interdisciplinary conversation about conceptions of the relationship of creativity and religious experience, and will proceed to carry out an empirical investigation to test this proposed relationship. It will conclude with a reevaluation of the extant theory, and with suggestions, depending on the results, for practical applications and proposals for further research. The project's empirical analysis, set within an interdisciplinary theoretical context, will extend the work done in both the theological and the psychological disciplines.

Scholars have looked at creativity, religious experience, and their relationship from a variety of perspectives. This study will draw particularly upon the work of scholars in the phenomenology and history of religions (e.g., Otto, Eliade, Underhill, Stace), process thinkers (e.g., Whitehead, Hartshorne, Wieman), William James, Donald W. Winnicott and other psychoanalytic theorists, and humanistic and social psychologists (e.g., Maslow, Csikzsentmihalyi, Davis, Amabile, Hood, Cowling, Pargament, and Batson). These perspectives give a context for understanding how creativity and religious experience might be related, underlie the working definitions used for creativity and religious experience in the present study, and provide the theoretical basis for the psychometric instruments used in the empirical investigation. Noting what is common to many different theories of creativity (Amabile, 1996; Rothenberg, 1990, 1998), for the purposes of this study, creativity is defined as the state or process of bringing into being some thing (or idea or way of acting) that is novel and valuable (at least to the creator). The focus here will be upon personal creativity, bringing the novel and valuable into being in our own lives and the lives of those around us. Motivational, personality, and biographical characteristics of personal creativity will be explored. In reference to religious experience, this study, following William James (1902), defines religious experience as deeply personal, involving the whole self, and making one feel at one with (or standing in relation to) that which the experiencer understands to be divine, spiritual, or ultimately real. In particular, this dissertation will explore two specific types of religious experience: 1) experience of sacredness, described by Pargament and Mahoney (2002, n.d.) as the experience of life or objects in life as manifesting spiritual character and significance, and 2) mystical experience, characterized by Hood (1995) as an "experience of unity beyond subject/object dichotomies."

Psychometric variables and tests that most closely correspond to the above definitions will be administered to 150-200 people from a variety of religious groups. The following scales will be used: Work Preference Inventory (Amabile et al., 1994); How Do You Think? (Davis, 1975); The Preference Inventory (Bull & Davis, 1982); Imagination Tutoring Scale (Doehring, Clarke, et al., n.d.); Sample of Creative Activities (adapted from Davis, 1998, and Torrance, 1962); The Mysticism Scale: Research Form D (Hood, 1975); Perceiving Sacredness Scale (Doehring, Clarke, et al., n.d.). In addition subjects will be asked to complete four open ended questions, and a demographics questionnaire. Statistical analyses will be performed with the collected data to test the hypothesis that a statistically significant relationship exists between these measures of creativity and of religious experience.

If a positive relationship between creativity and religious experience can be demonstrated through these methods, then the results can serve to ground religious experience (by connecting it with, though not reducing it to, other human experiences) for some who might dismiss religiosity as pertaining solely to a supernatural reality in which they do not believe. And it could also highlight, without supernaturalizing, the sacred dimension of creativity, thus elevating creativity for some who might see it as peripheral to theological and religious understanding. Creativity and religious experience are both important and distinctive human phenomena, and each has been identified as a mode of finding and making meaning, and an avenue for shaping the world. If related, perhaps they enhance and facilitate each other. Demonstrating this relationship could open new ways of accessing the divine and new ways of encouraging and understanding creativity.

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