As I've been walking through my books on technology lately, I've periodically run into the phrase "co-creation". I'm not entirely sure where this phrase comes from, but I've heard it associated with Philip Hefner and his work on a theology of technology. It's showed up in other places like this post from pomomusings, and this dissertation from John J. Hardt.
I haven't yet read anything by Hefner (though I'm confident I'll be doing so), but my very initial take is that co-creation is the wrong description for how our work fits in with God's work. Whether you're a Calvinist, an Arminian or a Pelagian, clearly there's some sense in which we cooperate with God. The real issue is how we describe that cooperation and how appropriate and helpful those descriptions are. The image suggested by "co-creation" is that we are somehow standing next to God, on more-or-less the same terms, and helping God in His work. (I'm not sure that this is the direction Hefner takes it, but it seems implied by the prefix.) From my theological perspective, that image leads in exactly the wrong direction. Indeed, it seems awkwardly close to the sort of "secular theologies" that I've never bothered to take seriously, because, well, they're so damned silly. Among other things, the image of "co-creation" fails to distinguish between the Hebrew words ברא (bara') and אשה ('asah): the first is used in the Old Testament exclusively for the divine ex nihilo and is used only with a divine subject; the second is closer to "forming", and can be used with either a divine or a human subject. To co-create seems almost pantheistic: it implies that God is dependent on human action, and when He acts, His actions are in some fashion parallel or coordinate with ours, rather than on a totally different level.
My preference is for the term "subcreation", which has its origins in J. R. R. Tolkien's writings. He describes it, for instance, in his essay "On Fairy-Stories":
[When an author creates a believable world] what really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful 'sub-creator'. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is 'true': it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. (p. 60)
The idea that a human could be a "subcreator" was exceedingly important to Tolkien, and significantly influenced his understanding of the relationship between God and human culture. In his poem "Mythopoeia" (addressed to a still unconverted C. S. Lewis), Tolkien writes:
Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
And keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
Through whom is splintered from a single White
To many hues, and endlessly combined
In living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
With Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
And sowed the seeds of dragons – 'twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
We make still by the law in which we're made.
In other words, because human beings are created in the image of a Creator, they have the right and the desire to create "Secondary Worlds", worlds which exist first in our minds and then in our art. We have used this right sometimes badly and sometimes well, but either way, it remains our birthright: "We make still by the law in which we're made." Even in Paradise, when the Iron Crown has been disenthroned:
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
And poets shall have flames upon their head,
And harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
There each shall choose for ever from the All.
It is (fallen and unfallen) human nature to make, to create things. But any human act of creation (אשה) takes place using delegated authority, it takes place under God, not alongside God.
This leads to two key differences between Tokien's idea of "subcreation" and my understanding of how "cocreation" has been interpreted.
The first is that subcreation "chooses for ever from the All". In other words, humans can never create ex nihilo. Even in Paradise, we will create by selecting and choosing from "the All", from God. Just as the fairy-tale creator selects images and themes from "the Great Cauldron of Story" ("On Fair Stories", p. 54), so all human creation is, at some level, only a rearrangement of existing material or existing ideas. Both our right to create, and the materials of our creation, are provided by God. We do not stand next to God and create, but work under him, under his authority. Nor is what we create at the same level as God's creation. His work is to create the Primary World; to the extent that our work approaches creation and not merely formation, our right and responsibility is to create Secondary Worlds.
The second difference turns on the distinction Tolkien makes between Magic and Enchantment. Magic, Tolkien says, is based on the desire for power and control: it is "self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician." As Lewis puts it in The Abolition of Man, "For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious – such as digging up and mutilating the dead" (p. 84). It is Magic in this sense which, I think Tolkien would say, sits behind the "cocreational" justification of technology. In contrast, the true mark of subcreation is Enchantment, which is about desire and not control. "In this world it is for men unsatisfiable, and so imperishable. Uncorrupted it does not seek delusion, nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves" (p. 74).