The Power of Play

Playfulness is Next to Godliness

Most people have heard the old phrase, “Cleanliness is next to godliness”, but I would like to coin a new phrase: Playfulness is next to godliness. And I believe this second phrase is closer to the truth.

And believe it or not, I’m not the only one who thinks playfulness is next to godliness. I’ve been teaching a philosophy of play class this semester. One of the books we read was Man at Play by Jesuit Priest Hugo Rahner.

Man at Play, Hugo Rahner

Rahner follows in a long line of philosophers and theologians who, believe it or not, argue that play isn’t just necessary for a good human existence; it is somehow at the core of what it means to be a human being.

In the early 20th century, Dutch historian Johann Huizinga wrote a book titled Homo Ludens, playing man. This title is fascinating because it reminds us of the phrases homo sapiens (wise human) and homo faber (tool-making or working human). In the past, people have bequeathed such appellations on humans to note what is most essential about human identity.

Perhaps it is their intellectual abilities. Or perhaps it is their tool-making abilities, people surmise. But Huizinga suggests that play was most essential to human identity, and Rahner agrees with him.

Homo Ludens, by Johann Huizinga

What could this mean that play is essential to human identity? Rahner notes that human beings are a curious mixture of spirit and body, and both are essential to his human experience. Play magically joins the two in a way that leaves us feeling whole and happy. Rahner writes,

Play is a human activity which engages of necessity both soul and body. It is the expression of an inward spiritual skill, successfully realized with the aid of physically visible gesture, audible sound, and tangible matter. As such it is precisely the process whereby the spirit ‘plays itself’ into the of which it is a part.[1]

It is through play Rahner notes, that we achieved our much longed-for “free, unfettered, eager harmony between body and soul”.[2] Most of us have felt this beautiful “free, unfettered, eager harmony” during play at some point in our life.

This is why play makes us feel so powerful as little children. When we climb trees, pretend we are Superman or Wonder Woman, catch frogs, or run as fast as we can, we enact our most cherished dreams. We see our inner world magically materialize into the outer world.

 Or as my friend Kevin M. Johnson says,

[playfulness is a] type of knowing that is outside of thinking but allows us to see the whole. It is embodied. It encourages relationship of our body to all other bodies. And it is here we play ourselves back into the world rather than cut ourselves off in the moment of thinking as we usually do in our jobs, schools, buildings etc.[3]

These explanations help us better understand why play is essential to human identity, as Rahner claims it is. But Rahner goes even further and suggests that when we play, it is then that we are most God-like or divine. How can such a claim be true?

Rahner notes that God’s creation of the world was play, in that it was meaningful and joyful but not necessary.[4] In this claim, Rahner echoes the ancient philosopher Plotinus who wrote that God “creates joyous multiplicity; it never ceases, but continues without pause to call into being lovely, well-formed, living playthings”.[5]

The Philosopher Plotinus, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

And Plotinus, in these thoughts, echoes writings in the Old Testament, specifically Proverbs 8:27-31, which speaks of the wisdom that created the world as playing before God. In this verse, Wisdom (often considered the Holy Spirit in these passages) says,

When he prepared the heavens, I was present: when with a certain law and compass he enclosed the depths: When he established the sky above, and poised the fountains of waters. When he compassed the sea with its bounds, and set a law to the waters that they should not pass their limits: when he balanced the foundations of the earth; I was with him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing[6] before him at all times; Playing in the world . . .

It is this verse, and ideas through classical and historical Christian thought, that inspires Rather to claim that God is Deus vere ludens—the God who truly plays. Therefore, humans, created in God’s image,  must be homo ludens—playing man.[7]

“Trapeze Artists in Circus”, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

How beautiful to contemplate: Playfulness is next to godliness.

But such a claim does not suggest that we must turn play into a chore—one more thing we must do to be good. No, indeed. Rather, I think of this claim as an invitation and an adventure.

Sometimes people suggest that to be truly good, we must must work hard all the time, controlling and managing all our life down to its most minute details. Perhaps we want ourselves and our life To Behave.

When we get into this mode of existence, everything we do becomes for the sake of something else. For example, all our actions become for the sake of whipping ourselves into shape, controlling ourselves, proving we are good, making the cut, proving we are better than others. Such attitudes lead to rigidity, separation, and despair. Oddly enough, the more we pursue perfection, it seems, the less we have it.

But when we view life as an invitation to play, our actions becomes autotelic–for their own sake. We infuse our life with attitudes of curiosity, wonder, joy, and creativity. And we reach out to connect with other people and the world around us. This almost always fosters positive personal growth, love, and wisdom. Such attributes are truly divine. And perhaps this is why Jesus said the kingdom of God belongs to children—the master players.[8]

So, it seems, truly, that playfulness is next to godliness.

Drawing and Painting by Shelly P. Johnson

By the way, you might also like to read these posts on the subject of playfulness: Aristotle on Eutrapelia, the Virtue of Playfulness and Playfulness and Performance  and Play as a Contemplative Practice.



[1] Rahner, Hugo. Man at Play.  pg. 7

[2] Ibid. pg. 8

[3] See the bottom of this post for Kevin’s ideas: Aristotle on Eutrapelia, the Virtue of Playfulness

[4] Rahner, chapter. 1

[5]  Ibid, pg. 21.

[6] Emphasis mine.

[7] Rahner, pg. 30.

[8] Luke 18:16 (NIV).

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