October 22, 2020

The joy of humans at play

Hopscotch, Duverger

Hopscotch, Duverger

Theology Week
Part 4: The joy of humans at play

Previous posts:
Part 1: Some problems with “theology” itself
Part 2: Premises of a “bodily” theology
Part 3: The God, not of foundations but of new things

• • •

I was with him as someone he could trust.
For me, every day was pure delight,
as I played in his presence all the time,.
playing everywhere on his earth,
and delighting to be with humankind.

• Proverbs 8:30-31, Complete Jewish Bible

In his book, The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art, Luke Timothy Johnson begins to develop his thesis that the living God reveals himself in and through human bodies by starting in, what was to me, a surprising place: “The Body at Play.” And while he admits that the Bible itself has little to say about the subject, at least directly or specifically, nevertheless, I think Johnson is perceptive to start here, for human play is “one of the most common, ordinary, and yet remarkable — and revealing — of human activities.”

The human body at play is thus the perfect test for the thesis of this book. If theology can only build on the words of Scripture, then nothing at all theologically important can be thought of or spoken about an activity that is both fundamental to human existence in every known culture, and finds expression in multiple and complex ways. But if theology has to do first of all with what God is up to in the world, and what God is up to is disclosed first of all in the activities of human bodies, then the human activity of play must be regarded as potentially of the greatest significance for theological reflection.

I have an idea that some of you, reading this, might be puzzled or even scoff at the idea that we can learn anything about God or the meaning of life through meditating on humans at play. What in the world does this have to do with theology? 

Well, listen to what Luke Timothy Johnson says:

As with the other short essays that make up the second part of this book, this set of reflections on the body at play is meant to be suggestive rather than exhaustive. It would betray the entire argument I am advancing to pretend to “close the book” on any aspect of human embodiedness. My point throughout is to encourage a certain way of observing real life for the signs of God’s self-disclosure, in the conviction that theologians must learn to think inductively.

This chapter (and those that follow) then, is about helping us see life anew, to see, as it were, its “sacramental” character — God revealed in the common experiences of life in the body and in this world. To encourage this, Johnson shares some of his own observations about the pervasive human activity of “play.”

Following Johan Huizinga, Johnson describes play as “purposeless but meaningful activity.” This distinguishes “play” from “work.” We play simply to play, but we work in order to accomplish something else.

Play shows itself to be meaningful to us by the fact that we make sure it follows rules. The rules serve as boundaries, dividing play off from other spheres of activity and creating, as it were, an alternative world in which we play. The more we master these rules and enter in to the world of the game, the more spontaneous and free we are able to act.

Johnson explains why play is so refreshing: “Play is so deeply satisfying — and even relaxing for both body and spirit — just because it distinctively engages both body and spirit in rhythmic and coordinated movement. It is thus ‘meaningful’ because, in a way not matched in ordinary time and space devoted to work, it gives a sense of being part of something larger within which the presence and activity of our body and spirit is an essential part.”

This “sense of being part of something larger” at its best can be called “transcendence,” asserts Luke Timothy Johnson. And in playful activities, this sense comes in the midst of freely playing. If we were to engage in play in order to achieve the feeling of transcendence, then our play would lose its “purposeless” character and become “work.”

At this point, the author pauses to consider what these things might teach us:

  • The pervasiveness of play throughout the world suggests that playful activities are deeply pleasurable and meaningful to all human beings.
  • The way we play shows that structure and freedom are not opposed to each other.
  • Human willingness to participate with intensity and concentration in made-up worlds of play shows that we long for something beyond survival.
  • Play, often engaged in with other humans, shows that it also allows us to participate and appreciate being in a larger “body” than our own individual bodies.
  • Play opens us up to experiences of “transcendence” in which “spirit leaps beyond the confines of the individual body and enters into the larger sphere of body-spirit interactions that constitute play.”

These observations remind me of C.S. Lewis’s words about “Joy,” which he himself experienced in reading and in child’s play, and sometimes from out of nowhere. In a letter he once described it like this: “It jumps under one’s ribs and tickles down one’s back and makes one forget meals and keeps one (delightedly) sleepless o’ nights.” He distinguished Joy from mere “happiness” or “pleasure,” though it has elements of both. He noted how we can be disappointed, for example, when we expect Joy from listening to a piece of music and instead it delivers only pleasure. For Lewis, Joy “was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, ‘in another dimension.'”

Of course, when discussing “play” here, we are not just talking about participating in children’s games. All human beings, children and adults alike, have the impulse to play. Luke Timothy Johnson talks about how participating in the arts reveals humans at play. He also has an extremely insightful section about how liturgy and religious ritual is, in effect, believers participating in playful activity. All the things above that characterize play — its pervasiveness among human cultures, its structure and freedom, its “made-up” world within sanctuaries, its corporate nature, and its experiences of transcendence — likewise characterize what people are doing when they worship.

He also notes, however, that like everything else, playful activity can be distorted and corrupted. When “art” becomes commercialized, for example, or put to use for purposes other than creating art itself, it becomes a form of work that does not elevate us as pure art does. Likewise, when games become “sports” driven by money and corporate interests, we inevitably lose something of the “joy” available to us in the game. And what of those things which many have done to corrupt worship?

This chapter has given me joy. In the end, I think Luke Timothy Johnson asks precisely the right (theological) question:

…perhaps play also tells us something about the kind of human activity that is, as a reflection of God, most properly human. Is the deep satisfaction or contentment that humans tend to experience in play — the combination of rest and action, of contemplation and action found intensely in art and worship — an indication of when humans are most fully human?


  1. Wonderful. Sociologist Peter Berger includes the ability to play, sometimes even in the face of imminent death, on his list of what he calls signals of transcendence; that is, signals that the world is not a closed system ending in death and oblivion, but an edifice with open doors leading in and out.

  2. “When all seems to be dead, signs of the resurrection suddenly spring up.
    It is an irresistible force.” (from ‘Evangelii Gaudium’, the Joy of the Gospel)


  3. My Aunt Yvonne’s garden was filled with little painted bird houses set up on poles (from the hands of my Uncle Sam’s carpentry) . . . the combination of luscious lawn, full green trees, flowers of every type and color, and the singing birds . . . all this made a sacred space, the place was a prayer itself
    . . . some memories are sacramentals . . . Auntie Yvonne’s Garden will always be my ‘go to’ place for sheer joy

    “Morning has broken like the first morning
    Blackbird has spoken like the first bird
    Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
    Praise for them springing fresh from the word

    Sweet the rain’s new fall sunlit from heaven
    Like the first dewfall on the first grass
    Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
    Sprung in completeness where His feet pass

    Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
    Born of the one light, Eden saw play
    Praise with elation, praise every morning
    God’s recreation of the new day

    Morning has broken like the first morning
    Blackbird has spoken like the first bird
    Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
    Praise for them springing fresh from the word

    • Eckhart Trolle says

      I always remember this as

      “Morning has broken, like the first morning
      “Khomeini has spoken his holy decree
      “All pious Moslems should buy them a shotgun
      “And kill Salman Rushdie for blasphemy, tada dum, dada da da da dum”

      • Snarky as this is, there’s a point here – fundamentalists of whatever stripe are notoriously bad about accepting, or engaging in, play

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          “There can be no laughter in Islam.”
          — Ayatollah Khomeini

        • That was one of the elements of the book “The Kite Runner.” Taliban came in and said, “No more play.”

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Only “AL’LAH! AL’LAH! AL’LAH!”

          • Rick – well, they *do* control the opium and heroin trade in much of Afghanistan… what they do vs. what they force oghers to fo (or not) are very fiffereny, I’m thinking.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        That is an old tradition in SF fandom called “Filking”.

        Weird Al Yankovic built a career on it.

    • Just as an FYI. Cat Stevens did not write morning has broken but only recorded it.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        The tune and half of those lyrics come from a VERY old Irish hymn called “Shield of St Patrick”. Old as in traced back well before the 10th Century/

        • thank you, HUG

          I’m for acknowledging sources. Before CAT Stevens became a Muslim, I don’t know what his faith was, but that song evokes a joy in the presence of God’s creation for me. As far as the ‘snark’ and subsequent comments about the Islamic faith, as a Catholic, I respect people of different faiths who are people of good will. I know that our American Islamic citizens have been severely targeted and profiled, and I cannot accept that this is ‘who we are’ as American people that we would do this to our own. Our citizens of different faiths deserve our respect and support. It is in that light that ‘I Stand With Ahmed’, the Texas teenager who was arrested and hand-cuffed when he brought his invention to school to show his science teacher who ‘thought it was a bomb’. I despise Islamophobia. We are better than that in this country. It’s time we fought back against the ‘snark’ and acknowledged our support of our own people of good will who are being persecuted.

        • Not quite… it’s a Scottish tune called “Bunessan.”Lyrics by Eleanor Farjeon, 1st published in 1931. The tune has been used for other religious songs.

  4. We’ve mentioned Thomas Howard here a few times. In his classes, he used to talk about some of these themes—of “play” as an important part of life, that much of what we do, including ritual, liturgy, weddings and funerals, is a form of “play.” Setting the table, arranging flowers, is a form of play. It’s one of the things that distinguishes us from the animals. Dogs, he maintained, do not hold weddings. Although they may grieve, dogs do not hold funerals. [side note: the discovery recently of ritual burial of earlier humans speaks to this].

    Howard is also an authority on C.S. Lewis, whom Mike cited above. I’m sure there’s a connection.

    • I dunno, Ted. Animals play, even though a lot of their play is an adaptation of survival skills. And many animals do grieve, in ways that humans can see and, to a degree, understand. I know of many rabbits who lost a bonded mate and became seriously depressed (there’s no other word for it), and elephants take a long time to seemingly mourn a dead comrade, then go back to the bones of the dead and touch tme – for a long time – with their trunks. They do this in groups.

      Those are just two examples. I think the elephant behaviors seem ritualistic for sure, but of course, we can’t get inside their heads and know how they perceive what they’re doing.

      • True, but we, alone of God’s creatures, know that death will come to us, as well; I have often wondered how we cope with this knowledge, this awful burden. In my more cynical moments, I think all religion is an attempt to face the inevitable but most of the time I truly believe that the God who created us, even in a world that contains death, is the God who has given us hope that there is something more; such is His love for us.

        • Scott, let’s just say that I’m nowhere near as sure about that as you are, since we have no real way to communicate about such issues with any other species. We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface regarding animal cognition, ditto for close study of how the communicate with others of their own species.

          Empirically, we *ddon’t * “know” that this is/is not true, though i guess we all have our own takes on what we believe about the subject. I would have agreed with you at one time, but can’t any longer.

      • Right, and I would take the play of animals as further evidence for Johnson’s thesis about we can derive a sense of the creator from observations of the creation. The fact that play is not only a human phenomenon supports his thesis.

    • Sometimes my critters attend the funeral and burial of their housemate, sometimes not. When I buried my cat who was capable of bringing the whole household to a halt if she was lying in the way because she had the habit of lashing out unexpectedly, both dogs and the other cat attended the burial. Not sure if they recognized the kittie’s dysfunction based in fear and trauma, or if they just wanted to see her put under ground.

      Somewhere in memory the story of burying a chimpanzee matriarch at some kind of reserve on the people side of the fence with all the other wild chimpanzees in attendance on the other side of the fence. Also the story of the old goat who took it on himself to lead an old horse who had gone blind out to his pasture every day, then bring him back to the barn. When the horse finally died out in the pasture, the goat went up and sniffed, turned and went back to his own life, his task completed, his friend departed.

      A sad story of a little girl who made best friends with one of those departed spirits who get caught in between worlds, what often is called a ghost, a girl the earth girl’s age, and the earth girl was all the love and stability she had. The father let it go for quite awhile thinking it just a passing phase of childhood fantasy, but after becoming convinced that it was somehow real and being fearful for his daughter, he drove the poor orphan spirit out of the house. Not out of meanness, but ignorance and fear. Two little girls both left bereft and lonely. I still send up prayers for them whenever I think about it.

  5. Human willingness to participate with intensity and concentration in made-up worlds of play shows that we long for something beyond survival.

    Roll for initiative. 😉

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    “The Joy of Humans at Play” and “Wretched Urgency” do NOT go together.

    Neither does “The Joy of Humans at Play” and “Perfectly Parsed Theology/Purity of Ideology”.

  7. How sad that imagination has become a bad word for adults. It’s either evil imaginings or childish imagination. Either way it’s to be avoided. All play is based on imaging. Johnny is really a cop and I am a robber. This little army man is really shooting a gun. Barbie has met the love of her life and will live happily ever after. The ability of children to see the world that is beyond the physical feature staring them in the face sounds like a very adult phenomenon called faith. “Oh but they’re just making it up.” Not so. They are seeing a bigger reality and they are seeing the future. They are, without self consciousness, without worry of getting it right, seamlessly embracing the various realities that are and will be in some varied form presenting themselves in their lives. Imagination must always be based on empirical realities, no matter how wild. No one can imagine what eye has not seen or ear has not heard. The raw material of imagination is always concrete but from there it soars into every possibility. Unless we become like children we will not see the kingdom. This is without question one feature of that childlike nature that Jesus was pointing to. It’s ok to say things to ourselves like, ” I’ve got a ten o’clock with Jeremiah in the guest house and he gets a little uppity if you’re late” and then find ten minutes to sit down and carry out that conversation. Oddly enough, the Jeremiahs sometimes talk back and we begin seeing our future. Imagination morphs into communion without us even knowing it. That is the power of imagination.

    • P.s. I can hear someone saying, ” You had me until Jeremiah started talking back.” To that I would say this: it is quite logical that within the communion of saints we would intuit the presence, even vaguely, of that cloud of witnesses with whom we are one when through imagination we have entered into a state of receptivity and openess of spirit. Also childlike features without which it is unlikely we will ‘hear’ anything. I think it was Paul’s openess at heart that made it possible for him to see that which he saw. Sure it can be a slippery slope but so too can be getting out of bed.

      • “Sure it can be a slippery slope but so too can be getting out of bed.”

        That’s very good, I hadn’t considered that before. Not the Jeremiah part, which I take for granted as necessary for growing up whole, but the getting out of bed part. It is indeed a slippery slope, and I think I may be able to handle it a little better now with that conscious recognition, thank you.

        I planted trees seasonally all over the Pacific Northwest on steep mountainsides for 20 years. It was literally working on a slippery slope. We wore special caulked boots same as loggers to keep our footing. Like old fashioned hob nails, pronounced “corks”. Few people could handle the work and it was far too extreme for a tree planting machine such as you might use in the South on flatter ground. I think I’ll try putting on my corks in my mind when getting out of bed in the morning on especially rough days and see how that goes. Hopefully I can make them more comfortable than the physical ones.

        Where a lot of people make their mistake is in thinking of imagination as unreal, pretend, of little value compared to what’s “real”. It is the ability to see an unseen reality with the mind, a highly developed sense or skill that children usually have driven out of them into atrophy. Nikola Tesla developed his astounding inventions entirely in his mind just as if he was using a physical lab or workshop but without the mess or expense. He’s still considered a wacko by most.

        • Thanks for your thoughts Charles. 🙂
          There’s no question this stuff fits into the wacko category. I think that’s why Jesus had to make a point of becoming like children. It is driven out of us by the culture. I know it all sounds crazy but there really is something true and joyous there.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Ah, Tesla.
          Fully Intuitive (and Eidetic) genius and RL inspiration for the trope of the Mad Scientist.
          AC current transmission, the Alternator, broadcast power, Tesla coil, SETI radio signals narrowcast at Mars, no-moving-parts turbine engine, and particle accelerators. Invented radio but got ripped off by Marconi. Ripped off & swindled big-time by Edison.

          Blew out the entire Colorado Springs power grid with a pulsed electrical charge (building up power through constructive resonance with the entire earth) after lighting up every light bulb in fifty miles. Just to see if he could do it (resonate the earth and amplify the broadcast power, not blow every circuit & generator in the entire county).

    • The chapter in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy , The Ethics of Elfland , is a delightful essay and speaks to this childlike quality. He says the things he believes most then and the things he believes most now are fairy tales; they seem to be the entirely reasonable things.

    • Burro [Mule] says

      I am curious to see if anyone has engaged Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s work on the imagination. I have only given it a glancing nod, having seen it referred to in the writings of Owen Barfield, who considered it the most important part of his literary output. Coleridge’s work, in as far as I can follow it, goes way, way beyond the idea of the imagination-as-whimsy which is well-nigh universal in Enlightenment precincts.

      Please, somebody has to know something about this. I can tell it’s important but the learning curve is almost 90 degrees going right into Coleridge’s primary sources. Even Barfield’s What Coleridge Said is pretty dense.

      • Byron once asked Coleridge to “explain his explanation”. Coleridge’s major critical work, the Biographia Literaria, is pretty stiff reading although brilliant undoubtedly.

        Here is the condensed version. Coleridge distinguished between “imagination” and “fancy”. “Fancy” is the functional process of the mind; reason, sensory perception, memory. “Imagination” is the creative faculty that unites us with nature and ultimate reality. Coleridge distinguished between “primary imagination” and “secondary imagination”. “Primary” is the unconscious aspect of imagination that we all share by virtue of being human. It is the sense of connectedness we feel and perceive; our link to the preconditions of our own existence. “Secondary” is the creative conscious aspect of the imagination best exemplified for Coleridge by art and poetry. “Primary imagination” is possessed by all. “Secondary imagination” is possessed by the artistic genius (especially the Romantic artistic genius).

        “Fancy” is craft. “Imagination” is art. Both are necessary but “imagination” is the highest best part of us that allows us to penetrate to the heart of things.

        Does that help?

  8. Here at the First and Last Church of Full Pentateuch Christians, we believe God created play for his glory and it’s best enjoyed in it’s intended purpose: in the loving marriage between a man and a woman. Play is beautiful! All other play is outside of God’s original intent and purpose for play, and should be discouraged, because it could lead to fun.

    Fun post!

  9. this is an example of the Church ‘at play’ that I really love . . . a celebration of life that is REALLY inclusive: 🙂

    animals, people of all faiths, or just people who love, and a celebration of all of God’s creation . . . St. Francis’ spirit seems to be meaningful universally and this kind of inclusive Y’all Come event is so rich in joy and good will and such a colorful expression of what the Church does best: Joyful Proclamation of Blessing . . . ‘everyone welcome’ extra limbs, no limbs, fur, feathers, all races, the full family of creation in all its diversity is celebrated . . . flowers, music, dancing, procession, and appreciation and thanksgiving . . . nothing is taken for granted, no one is ‘not good enough’ and that loving humility is what generates the awesome grace and joy of such a day 🙂