Play as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe

In his Religion in Human Evolution, Robert Bellah speculates that religion could only have developed among a species that knew how to play.  Play is, on a surface reading of things, unnecessary and excessive-to-survival. And yet the astute might recognize a sort of playfulness traced throughout all the “merely necessary” things. We are summoned to the necessary through the desirable. The acts of eating and mating, in good circumstances, are mediated through some degree of play (which ordinarily give these acts an air of lightheartedness). Perhaps God suggests something to us in these patterns. Perhaps man’s greatest urge for man’s greatest need (God Himself) is not un-mediated through the phenomenon of play. 

The home is perhaps the best place to see the broader principle. Most of us intuitively grasp that no healthy home can lack a dimension of the playful and the light-hearted. Especially in early life, play is the very grammar of existence. It never disappears but is only built upon as we mature. Even the formal actions of Presbytery, and the negotiations of Congress, are suffused with play. We see the formal results, but fail to bear witness to the amount of snickering and knee-slapping that proves the soil out of which negotiation grows. Play never disappears and remains part of the ethos of a good environment and healthy community. It seems that God has made a world  in which life is mediated through play.  

Perhaps all of this helps us hear Christ say “My yoke is easy, my burden is light.” Moreover, He says that we must become children to enter the kingdom of God. And indeed, it is a remarkably common theme among the wise and the elderly that the greatest maturity involves very conscious re-connection with the primal and raw hopes of the child. Analogously, what stands behind the spiritual genius of someone like C.S. Lewis is a vision of God Himself that is conceived in the grammar of play. This is not uncommon in evangelical literature, but the results are often shallow and merely sentimental. The impression one gets from Lewis is more complex. Like a good father, God can be severe with His children when He needs to be – and we are the sorts of children that require this more than we think. But also like a good Father (He gave us the image, after all), we should not imagine the face of God to be less than playful with His creatures. As Michael Ward has shown in Planet Narnia, Lewis played a trick on his readers in the Narnia series. Perhaps Lewis saw this sort of “hiding in plain sight” in the very rhetoric of creation.  That is to say, there is a playful dimension to reality itself. Just as Lewis is playful precisely as author, perhaps we can say that creation, history, and providence are all play of a sort (at least in part). “Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.” 

Human beings, after all, are dialogical animals. We become ourselves through many acts and through a long process of maturation. The fall complicates all of this, of course, but it doesn’t eradicate it. Nevertheless, obscured for the hard-hearted, the unbelieving, and the cynical is that the being of the light-hearted and the festive remain prior to the being of the severe. For Jesus and for Paul, the immediate and perpetual carings of divine providence are always already greater than our ailments, and always the profoundest source of creaturely gratitude. And yet it is precisely these that the hard-hearted, cynical, and self-obsessed can never see. This is a piece of why we must become like children to trust. The fall makes our creational home an environment within which distrust is apparently justified. But just as death must subsist on life, and sin on the righteous – just as evil is parasitical on created good – so tragedy is a parasite on comedy. Redemption is God’s art of instrumentalizing what was meant for evil into an even more excellent good than would have otherwise been possible. “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” Whatever we do, God has always already outplayed us.

One might say that both our initial conversion, and our continuing conversion, are learning to yield to God’s outplaying of us. Made for friendship with God, we are irreducibly in negotiation with God – and in conversion no less. Conversion is often experienced as being out-played by God. Those most famous of conversions (Saul of Tarsus, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis) are all full of irony of the sort that comes from defeat at the hands of a more powerful friend. And as we grow in grace, one of the great temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil is that it is all drudgery after all. Is it not all work and labor to pray, to read Scripture, to go to church, to lead your family, to be content with one wife, to believe all things, to be limited, etc? Part of growing in grace is to realize the play of it all. Faithfulness in our Christian duties is not first a matter of white-knuckling our way into godliness. It is rather to receive these concrete providences themselves as our nourishment, those good gifts of God which conscript us into the comedy. No attack of the devil can compete with a reverent heart at rest in the lightness of God’s cosmic celebration. And a child at rest in the heart of its father is precisely the child that can learn to work the hardest, to endure the most, and to become the most competent. The New Testament is paved with athletic metaphors as it pertains to godliness, and yet what is athletic training but a mode of play? The father of lies persuades the world that the way of Christ is the death of play. But the Christian, bearing a light yoke, begins to see that the whole show is a comedy after all.


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