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The Christian at Play by Robert K. Johnston

Robert K. Johnston, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology and Culture, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena CA 91182. Prior to that he was Vice-President and Dean of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. This book was originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company in 1983. Prepared for Religion Online by Rev. Herbert F. Lowe.

Chapter Two: Play: A Matter of Definition

Up to this point, we have avoided most matters dealing with definition in order to first become acquainted with the possibilities and problems facing the player today. But questions of definition cannot be ignored if we are to have a meaningful discussion, even if answers are not readily forthcoming. As George Sheehan, a practicing cardiologist and the best-selling author of On Running comments: "Perhaps even more difficult than discovering play is defining it."1 Some of the confusion about play stems from ambiguities surrounding the use of the term play itself. The Random House Dictionary lists fifty-three meanings of play, not counting such idioms as "He made a play for my girl."2 The play of the wind, playing a role, playing an instrument, playing house, and love play only scratch the surface. Complicating the picture still further is the use of play to describe such non-play situations as the strategies of business, diplomacy, and war-"a range of activities," as Richard Burke suggests, "about as far from play as one can imagine."3 But our inability to define play clearly cannot be blamed on its extended usage or its misuse. The fundamental problem lies within play itself: to quote George Sheehan again, ". . . play is an attitude as well as an action."4

Is the tense businessman who takes out his frustrations on the tennis court a player, while the independently wealthy and carefree tennis player who turns professional is a worker? Probably not. But there is no clear-cut means available to make a decision without attempting an assessment of the varying and imprecise attitudes involved. A description of one's activity alone is insufficient to determine whether it is play. Exceptions for every "objective" standard can always be found. Games are play, for example, except for the coach of the team (usually) and perhaps for those who feel an overwhelming need to win. Plays are play, as Walter Ong observes, except for the playwright and perhaps some of the paying public.5 Moreover, while most would say that tennis and drama provide at least the occasion for play (even if some tennis players, for example, are not actually "playing"), the list of possible play activities is much broader than we often imagine, including much of life-more, in any case, than just tennis, reading, dancing, etc. Tom Sawyer provides a well known example. Recall that when Tom's aunt ordered him to paint the fence, Tom complained about the task. But when Tom fooled the other boys into thinking it was play, they even brought him their jackknives and tops for the "privilege" of painting a few boards. For his friends, fence-painting was play; for Tom, it was hard work.

In his seminal book on play, Homo Ludens, cultural historian Johan Huizinga states, "Play is a function of the living, but it is not susceptible of exact definition either logically, biologically, or aesthetically."6 Like the definitions of art or love or life, the definition of play proves illusive. The best support for Huizinga's hesitancy in attempting a precise definition of play is surely the recognized inadequacy of other efforts made to do so. Those who have defined the meaning of play have consistently been guilty of reducing it to something other than play in its fullness, an error we have already noted in those who would understand play as merely "free time."7 Others would view play as the discharge of surplus energy (Herbert Spencer, J.C. Friedrich von Schiller); or alternately as relaxation, as recuperation from exhaustion (G. T. W Patrick, Moritz Lazarus). Play is sometimes viewed as an instinct educator (Karl Groos); as a means of catharsis, a safety valve to vent emotions (Aristotle); as a creative modeling of situations that enables the player to better handle experience (Erik Erikson); as a means of resolving psychic conflict (Sigmund Freud), or, on the contrary, as activity not motivated by the need to resolve inner conflict (Robert Neale) 8

Rather than proceed with such definitions, it will prove more useful if we seek only to describe some of play's common features, attitudes, and consequences. These will provide a clear basis for commentary on the Christian value of such "play."

The Characteristics of Play

Real singing is a different breath. A breath for nothing. A wafting in a god. A wind.
Rainer Maria Rilke9

Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens contains the most widely used description of play:

Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside "ordinary" life as being "not serious," but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can, be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguises or other means.10

Countless other descriptions have been offered, however. Richard Burke, an Oakland University philosopher, discusses play in this way:

(A) few common features emerge: freedom from compulsion, completeness of the activity itself apart from its result, and a certain artificial or "pretend" quality which is unobservable and hard to pin down but which is nevertheless present, I think, in the organized games and performances of adults, and even in the random exuberance of the child. I would define "play," therefore, as activity which is free, complete in itself, and artificial or unrealistic. I might add that play is often governed by rules, either explicit (as in game) or implicit (there are rules of impersonation, for example) and that it often involves a test or contest.11

Child psychologist Jean Piaget believes that play has two primary features: it is done "for the pleasure of the activity [something Burke and Huizinga ignore] and without any effort at adaptation to achieve a definite end." Piaget believes the attitude of the child is what shows whether or not the child is playing, and he seeks to distinguish between "efforts to learn" and those activities which are "only a happy display of known actions."12 Robert Neale, Professor of Theology and Psychology at Union Seminary, agrees that attitude is crucial, believing play is distinguished by a sense of "adventure" as well as "by those elements of peace, freedom, delight, and illusion that occur in the modes of story and game."13

These examples indicate something of the range of thought concerning play. Rather than focus directly upon any one of these observers of play, however, let me venture my own description of it, a description that is informed both by these and by other students of play.

I would understand play as that activity which is freely and spontaneously entered into, but which, once begun, has its own design, its own rules or order, which must be followed so that the play activity may continue. The player is called into play by a potential co-player and/or play object, and while at play, treats other players and/or "playthings" as personal, creating with them a community that can be characterized by "I-Thou" rather than "1-It" relationships. This play has a new time (a playtime) and a new space (a playground) which function as "parentheses" in the life and world of the player. The concerns of everyday life come to a temporary standstill in the mind of the player; and the boundaries of his or her world are redefined. Play, to be play, must be entered into without outside purpose; it cannot be connected with a material interest or ulterior motive, for then the boundaries of the playground and the limits of the playtime are violated. But though play is an end in itself, it can nevertheless have several consequences. Chief among these are the joy and release, the personal fulfillment, the remembering of our common humanity, and the presentiment of the sacred, which the player sometimes experiences in and through the activity. One's participation in the adventure of playing, even given the risk of injury or defeat, finds resolution at the end of the experience, and one re-enters ongoing life in a new spirit of thanksgiving and celebration. The player is a changed individual because of the playtime, his or her life having been enlarged beyond the workaday world.

Of course, a host of issues are related to such a description, issues that will be discussed in due course. What does it mean for an activity to be free? How can solitary play be personal? What of those who begin an activity purposefully but end up playing? Nonetheless, it should be apparent even at this preliminary juncture that the player is one who successfully holds in tension a variety of polarities. In what follows I will elaborate upon this theme along these lines: (1) although players do not escape the everyday world, which remains as a horizon or background to play, they accept a new set of time-and-space boundaries in order to play; (2) although people voluntarily choose to play, they do so in an attitude of receptivity, recognizing that in some sense they have also been invited to play; (3) there is a spontaneity in play (regardless of prior preparation), but never at the expense of play's forms or orderliness; and (4) though play is non-utilitarian-an end in itself-it nevertheless proves productive beyond its own boundaries. Such a description of play emphasizes the attitudes of the participants. Concluding this section on the characteristics of play will be a spelling-out of some of the implications of play's attitudinal locus.

I. Playgrounds and Playtimes

The world of play lives by forgetting,
-Rubem Alves 14

When the game is on between U.S.C. and U.C.L.A., time stops, world problems cease, and attention is riveted on the football field. There is, to be sure, a clock involved, but it has nothing to do with life's ongoing concerns. Similarly, the action occurs in a fixed place, the Los Angeles Coliseum, but the larger issues of city politics are irrelevant. Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of play is its new set of time-and-space boundaries. In play the "real" world is left behind; what is ordinarily relevant is momentarily suspended as life comes to a halt. As psychiatrist Jay Rohrlich says, ". . . there is no `time' in leisure; there is only the `present'. . . . Workers measure how quickly they achieve the result they desire. . . . What does it matter if you do your gardening or piano playing fast?"15

That play is a parenthesis in life has long been recognized. Plato, for example, calls the religious holiday an anapausa, a breathing spell.16 We see it in children's play where a new space and time are set apart for the duration of the play experience -- the back yard becoming a jungle or the Western prairie where the Indians and the cowboys are fighting. We see this in sports, where Roger Bannister's comment about his world-record race (he was the first to run the mile in under four minutes) has often been repeated by other runners: "The world seemed to stand still, or did not exist.... "17 And certainly this can be true of the play world of art, which, according to Gerardus Van der Leeuw, is a new "creation, a second world, with its own power."18 Sadler states:

In play an individual takes advantage of an opportunity to intensify and personalize his perception, to set the boundaries of his world, to forge an original space-rime, a personal world.... In play, one constructs his own space, providing himself with a field of freedom in which to experiment with meanings and to establish his identity. . . . Similarly in play one sets his own time, beyond the measurement of clocks and schedules.... Play time is not fragmented but whole; it is ecstatic time that opens up to the new.19


Play theorists have by and large agreed with Sadler, while recognizing that the issue is more complex than it at first seems. There is an "as-if-ness" to the play world; it is make-believe. This is true even for the young child. Piaget has observed, far example, that the two- to four-year-old child is aware that in a sense his ludic symbols are not real for others, and he makes no serious attempt to persuade the adult that they are. Rather, he calls the adult to suspend judgment and to enter wholeheartedly into his imaginary world.20 Similarly, the artist, as Roy Harvey Pearce has suggested, calls us to "willingly suspend our ordinary disbelief in imagined situations and accordingly assent to them." We are not to ask whether Star Wars could happen or whether Picasso's Guerrcica is realistic. Pearce labels this response "as-if assent."21

For the player, questions of "truth" are simply irrelevant. If, for reasons outside the play experience, larger issues intrude, the play world dissolves. It is for this reason that Johan Huizinga understands that play "lies outside morals, In itself it is neither good nor bad."22- A particularly graphic illustration of this point was the made-for-TV movie Playing for Time (1980), a film which raised a touchy question: How could Jewish women musicians play far Nazis in the concentration camps? The answer given in the film by the Jewish conductor is that music is beyond politics. The irony of the film was that Vanessa Redgrave, a sympathizer with the Palestine Liberation Organization, played the lead role of the French-Jewish cabaret singer, Fania Fenelon. Many believed such casting was an insult to the Jewish people, and boycotted the film. They could not agree with the conductor. For others, however, the film transcended such moral questions while it lasted. These viewers sat transfixed as Redgrave gave television one of its great performances.

Surprisingly, the traditional Sunday "blue laws" also illustrate the amorality of play. On the Sunday holiday, certain kinds of recreation were outlawed, and no violence (which necessarily involves the issue of morality) was supposed to be committed, not even by the criminal. Perhaps a more telling example is the standing ovation that was given two basketball players from North Carolina State University during a game of the 1972-73 season. On a technicality they were allowed to play in the game, even though marijuana had been found in their possession. The crowd was not supportive because they favored legalizing marijuana; they simply thought that such questions of ethics were inappropriate to the basketball arena. Here was a cause for rejoicing; the players had returned to strengthen the team.23

Along with the issue of morality might be mentioned the related matter of the non-compulsive character of play. Certainly this is implicit, if not explicit, in the preceding discussion. There should be no profit or material interest motivating the player, nor should play be seen as an attempt to resolve the conflict. This is the basic weakness of psychoanalytical theories of play, which are based on the premise that play compensates for the presence of conflict and releases tension. J. Bernard Gilmore's study of children at play has contradicted the popular notion that play is primarily a form of escape. He found that although seriously frustrated children are looking for ways to escape, they nevertheless demonstrate a significantly diminished capacity to play. For the same reasons, players who feel compelled to cheat dissolve their play worlds by bringing to bear issues from beyond the boundaries of their playground. If, for example, a player needs to have the dice turn up on a certain number and manipulates them to make that happen, he is "working" at his play. The cheater, even in solitaire, knows his play is inauthentic -- untrue to the play experience and to life itself.24

2. Individual Freedom and Loving Community

Freedom does not die in love;
it is born there.
William Sadler25

One must choose to play. He or she must turn aside from the confinements of ordinary concerns, the tensions of the workaday world, and affirm a different order of existence. Our present concept of Homo Faber ("Man, the Worker") has, as we have seen, inhibited this exercise of freedom, causing men and women to turn potentially playful experiences into attempts to escape tension, boredom, or fatigue, or into exercises geared at accomplishing something constructive. In the process, the "worker" has been unable to become a "player." Today we are beginning to reassert our awareness that enforced play is never authentic; voluntary consent and self-expression are basic to the play experience. J. C. Friedrich von Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man is a still-helpful, albeit extravagant, reading on the relation of play and freedom:

In the midst of the awful realm of powers, and of the sacred realm of laws, the aesthetic creative impulse is building unawares a third joyous realm of play and of appearance, in which it releases mankind from all the shackles of circumstance and frees him from everything that may be called constraint, whether physical or moral. ... To grant freedom by means of freedom is the fundamental law of this kingdom.26

The phrase "to grant freedom by means of freedom" is suggestive, for it implies that the freedom of play is not merely a "freedom from" but a "freedom for." Gabriel Vahanian believes that most leisure specialists have made the mistake of contenting themselves with asserting only the last half of this equation -- the "freedom from." In the process they have largely ignored that "freedom for" which would convert liberty to liberation and innocence to responsibility.27

The move from liberty to liberation and from innocence to responsibility is a complex one. It involves a person in the recognition that freedom is an expression not only of individuality but of community as well. Michelangelo recognized this aspect of play. He stated: "The best of artists never make a creation that is not hid already in the stone, in marble fixed, and yet the work is done by hand, which follows mind and meditation."28 The artist exercises his craft freely, without constraint, but always in harmony with what the stone calls forth.

There are parallels to Michelangelo's idea in Walter Ong's discussion of belief in literature. Ong distinguishes between belief as opinion (belief "that," which remains egocentric) and belief as faith (belief "in," which involves the reader in an "1-Thou" relationship). He suggests that the latter category is expressive of the communal nature of the literary experience. Literature does not communicate; it communes. Similarly, a reader of a novel or a poem does not analyze; he or she participates. For Ong, the essence of the literary experience is not the compiling of objects and facts (i.e., not the chiseling of a stone) but the interaction of invitation and response, truth being contained in the relationship. 29

The interactive process that Ong describes regarding the reading of literature is true of the play experience more generally. The boy who is throwing the football through the inner tube is "talking" to the football-recognizing in it a "personal" presence. The lovers in bed who seek to fulfill their play experience do so through a process of give-and-take, each offering the other the full integrity of his or her personhood. Without such interaction the experience is called rape.

The player must exist in concord with his or her co-players and play world. As Walter Kerr says,

Suppose, in a kind of contented abstinence, we were to refrain from trying to understand more of the landscape before us than the landscape cared to display for us, that we were willing to follow the bend of bough and straggle of gravel and tilt of pole wherever the bend and the straggle and the tilt chanced to take us, that we concerned ourselves not with pattern or profit or even pleasure but merely with watching like a token sentinel in safe country, that we gave our eyes a quiet carte blanche and permitted our minds to play at liberty over the face of an untouched terrain? Could that, then, be called the play of the mind?30

In play there is a widening of the field of vision so that the player "sees" life as it presents itself. Such receptivity, characteristic of all forms of play, has been described in many ways. The player :has what Goethe calls a "passive attentiveness," what Maslow has labeled "fusion knowledge," or a "caring objectivity." Buber's name-tag" is perhaps better known -- the "I-Thou" relation ship -- as is Gerard Manley Hopkins' term "inscape." Sadler labels this quality "a primary mode of attentiveness," while Marcel calls it more simply "presence." According to this description. there are no selfish, halfhearted, or disinterested players.

3. Spontaneity and Design

Play ... creates an order out of imagination and therefore out of freedom.

Rubem Alves31

The person who freely plays with loved ones (whether people or things) is prone to engage in very individual, spontaneous actions which might be thought foolish or risky in other contexts. There is a spontaneity and an abandon which characterizes such play. Any lover knows this. As we jump, skip, or swing through the air, as we tap our feet to the music or sing in the shower, our spirits soar. The viewer of art and the reader of a novel who surrender themselves to a new order of reality illustrate well both the validity of and the difficulties involved in such spontaneous freedom in the play experience. So does the father performing for his child, and the rugby player involved in a match. Though full of risk, such spontaneity opens a world of surprise. The father who makes comical faces to amuse his daughter may unintentionally cause her to cry, but he may also receive an unexpected hug. The rugby player is often injured, but the joy of a broken field-run cannot be duplicated. The reader of a novel must be open to the possibility that he or she will be a new person after reading the book, whether for good or for ill. So, too, the viewer of modern art.

Harvey Cox writes:

The spirit of festivity [play], like a muse, has a mind of its own. It can fail to show up even when elaborate preparations have been made, leaving us all feeling a little silly.... Still, sometimes preparation for festivity does pay off. As Sister Corita says, "If you ice a cake, light sparklers and sing, something celebrative may happen. "32

Spontaneity does not necessarily imply a lack of intention, as Cox's comment clearly suggests. The spontaneous freedom of a musical virtuoso comes as a result of and on the far side of hours of rigorous preparation. Similarly, the birthday party needs a cake baked beforehand. For the multiple experiences of play, there is no given sequence involved in turning from the larger world to a play world. The amount of planning or practice needed as the basis of play's spontaneity or -- the lack of preparation -- is totally dependent upon the complexity and form of the play world intended. The important thing is that at some point in all potentially playful experiences, the string between the player and his or her life-context must be cut. The structure of one's workaday world must be freely forsaken for another: that of the world of play.

Thus play's spontaneity is not to be confused with a lack of preparation or intention, nor should its vitality be equated with the merely chaotic.33 For play is created by way of order, albeit an order which is freely embraced and which preserves the autonomy of the player. As Michael Novak points out in The Joy of Sports, "Observe toddlers at play, how they establish rules. This is water. This is land. You can't step on those. . . .' The spirit of play is the invention of rules. . . . The description of a fixed universe is the first and indispensable step of every free act."34 The player is someone who chooses a set of rules, an order, as a vehicle for the free expression of his or her joy, power, and spontaneity. The rules are important not for their own sake but for the sake of the play activity itself. Take away play's design, refuse to play "according to Hoyle" (the eighteenth-century author whose explication of the rules of the game has become the standard for players), and play loses it significance. Without such rules, "it's not cricket."

Turning to specific instances of play, we find a form exhibited in every case. Michael Novak recognizes that "baseball, basketball, and football-like tennis, soccer, hockey, and countless other sports-are constituted as possibilities by bounded universes. Their liberties spring from fixed limits."35 Anyone who has rushed the net in tennis to hit a successful shot, or stroked in a long putt, understands Novak's point. Having surrendered oneself to the rules and form of the game, one experiences, paradoxically, the full flush of freedom. A dance always has a form, as does a movie, a short story, a period of meditation, or a :child's imaginary world. Jean Piaget observes that children as young as nine months old go through a ritualization process that begins when they playfully return to a fixed, but freely chosen, series of movements. In this regard children are similar to athletes, who also accept for the purposes of their play arbitrary and fanciful rules. (Why, for example, should there be hurdles to be jumped in a race?) Johan Huizinga's description of the musical experience can serve as a paradigm for all discussion of play's orderliness:

Musical forms are in themselves play forms. Like play, music is based on the voluntary acceptance and strict application of a system of conventional rules -- time, tone, melody, harmony, etc. , . . It is essentially a game, a contract valid within circumscribed limits, serving no useful purpose but yielding pleasure, relaxation, and an elevation of spirit 36

4. Non-Utilitarian, Yet Productive

Play is more than its definitions. It is where you realize the supreme importance and the utter insignificance of what you are doing.
George Sheehan37

As we have observed, the player holds in tension a variety of polarities -- a new world and the older one, a sense of both freedom and community, a spontaneity that has order. To this list we must add another attribute: a non-instrumentality which is nevertheless productive. Harvey Cox captures this facet of play well when he describes festivity as ". . . a brief recess from history making" which nonetheless restores our vision to recreate history.38 "Phenomenologically, play is complete in itself," Richard Burke observes, "although it may serve other purposes as well. "39

The fact that play must be pursued for its own sake, regardless of its consequences, provides a criterion by which to judge the activity of professional sports players. The professional athlete is a player according to our description only so long as he or she finds the nature of the sport complete and satisfying apart from the money and fame. If such outside consequences come along in the process, that is all right, but they must not be the motivation or focus of the play activity. Similarly, the children who play often develop coordination and learn to socialize in the process, but this is incidental to their playtime. "Play may serve all kinds of subsidiary, instrumental functions." Lee Gibbs observes,

It has many biological, psychological, and cultural values.... Yet ultimately, like ritual, the purpose of play is in the play itself. If a person enters play only with useful, instrumental goals in mind, the activity ceases to be play. The most distinctive characteristic is that it is voluntary, spontaneous, a source of joy and amusement, an activity pursued exuberantly and fervently for its own sake .40


Unfortunately, many who are involved in sports have ceased :to play. Lyman Bostrock, the former Minnesota baseball player :who became a free agent and saw his salary rise from $20,000 :a $450,000 a year, slumped so badly the next baseball season ,that he asked not to be paid his first month's salary. Wayne Garland, another disappointment as a highly paid free-agent, expressed the problem well: "I think what happened to me was :that I was too anxious to prove to the fans I was worth the -money." But it is not only money that can abort the play activity. many factors can make a player take play too seriously. Fred :van Dyke, for example, describes his fellow surfers as men who are usually out to prove something:

Guys ride big waves for ego support, to compensate for something that is lacking in their lives. . . . Surfing should be fun. It's not fun.... Big-wave riders ... have to go out there to prove they're not afraid, to prove their masculinity 41

Children know about play what adults often do not. (We might say children's play remains un-adult-erated.) Recreation specialists tell us that children resist adopting those games which have been composed or professionally remodeled far some "moral" purpose. Along similar lines, Stanford psychologists Mark Lepper and David Greene, in a paper entitled "Turning Play into Work," report on two groups of preschool children who were tested on their continuing interest in a certain play activity. One group was told that if they performed the activity, they would be rewarded by being allowed to play with their favorite toys. The other group was promised no reward. At the end of the activity both groups were allowed to play with the special toys. Interestingly, two weeks later, when tests were given to measure the ongoing interest in the original play activity, those children who had expected a reward showed significantly less interest in the activity. Because their play had become goal-oriented, they overlooked its pleasures. The activity had become purposive; it was work, not play 42

While the player is motivated by and focuses on the serious enjoyment of play's intrinsic value, he or she discovers, paradoxically, that play has external value. A person engages in play for its own sake, but it can have multiple benefits: (1) a continuing sense of delight or joy, (2) an affirmation of one's united self, (3) the creation of common bonds with one's world, (4) the emancipation of one's spirit so that it moves outward toward the sacred, and (5) the relativization of one's workaday world.

Writing about the joy of sports, Michael Novak recalls the pleasure of following the exploits of George Blanda, a forty-three-year-old football player who passed and kicked his team, the Oakland Raiders, to victory week after week in 1970. His accomplishments were almost magical: "He touched something vulnerable in the breasts of millions ... for those who saw the actual deeds, their beauty spoke for themselves; their excellence pleased; something true shone out. The tales of Gawain and the Green Knight, The Song of Roland, The Exploits of Ivanhoe -- these are the ancient games in which human beings have for centuries found refreshment. "43 Basketball great Bill Bradley describes his joy in sports in this way:

What I'm addicted to are nights when something special happens on the court. . . . It is far more than a passing emotion. It is as if a lightning bolt strikes, bringing insight into an uncharted area of human experience.... It goes beyond the competition that brings goose pimples or the ecstasy of victory.... A back-door play that comes with perfect execution at a critical time charges the crowd but I sense an immediate transporting enthusiasm and a feeling that everything is in perfect balance.44

The delight experienced during play and remembered afterward is not limited to athletics. It is felt by the musician, the theatergoer, and the dancer. Moreover, this joy is not an isolated emotion, as Bradley's comment suggests. It is itself related to at least three other feelings arising during the playtime -- a sense of personal unity and wholeness, a gratefulness for the "common world" of the play community, and a recognition of life's fundamental sacredness.

In his book Religion and Leisure in America, Robert Lee states: "Leisure is the growing time of the human spirit. Leisure provides the occasion for learning and freedom, for growth and expression, for rest and restoration, for rediscovering life in its entirety."45 In this statement Lee recognizes a second consequence of play, although he comes close to overburdening play in the process. As Jürgen Moltmann warns, "Don't turn play into a total ideology. Don't be a kill-joy (Spielverderber)."46 Lee's point is that play does quicken our sense of possibility and stimulate our imagination, making us in the process more fully human. A second consequence of play is that players become totally involved physically, emotionally, and mentally; they play only in the wholeness of their being. George Sheehan writes about experiencing this sense of involvement when he runs:

There are times ... I come home from running a race in Central Park, when I don't know who won or where I finished or what time I ran. My family wonders then why I went. Why I spent the day coming and going and endured that cruel hour on those rolling hills. I have no logical answer. I simply know that for that hour I was whole and true and living at the top of my powers. That hour was life intensified.47

Sheehan is not the only one who describes running in these terms. Runners often speak of breaking through a "wall" of pain and experiencing a commingling of body and spirit, an intimate ecstasy in which one senses a fundamental harmony in life.

A third quality of play is its capacity to create strong bonds between people. The intersubjectivity-the "interplay," or communion, so common in play -- serves to re-create for the participant a sense of his or her common world. Johan Huizinga draws upon this fact, as he finds the element of play basic to all cultures. He believes culture must be viewed sub specie ludi, . he says, "Law and order, commerce and profit, craft and . poetry, wisdom and science, all are rooted in the primaeval soi1 of play." By this Huizinga does not mean to equate culture and play but only to suggest that "in its earliest phases culture has the play-character, that it proceeds in the shape and mold of play."48 Although Huizinga is a bit extravagant, his general direction is unquestionably correct. As Gabriel Vahanian states: "Indeed, authentic leisure can only remind us of the task of being human. It can only help us remember our humanity."49 In the comic strip Peanuts, Snoopy recognizes this fact. In one cartoon he is first pictured dancing alone and exclaiming, "To live is to dance!" But after he joins Lucy and dances with her, he concludes, "To dance is to live !"50

Walter Kerr alludes to a fourth possible consequence of one's play activity when he writes of the awareness that can result from play:

It is a knowledge that breeds affection, what Conrad called "the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation." It renews our pleasure in the universe. More than that. As our being touches other being, and lets it flow into us, we are mysteriously aware that our own being has been increased. . . . Something like recreation runs in us like a tide."51

A similar sentiment is expressed by Roger Bannister, the first runner to break the record for the four-minute mile. He tells of running along the beach as a boy and being overcome by sheer joy::

I was startled, and frightened, by the tremendous excitement that so few steps could create. . . . The earth -seemed almost to move with me.... No longer conscious of my movement, I discovered a new unity with nature. I had found a new source of power and beauty, a source I never dreamt existed.-52

While Kerr and Bannister do not speak explicitly in religious terms, others have forthrightly labeled such "mysterious" experiences "sacred" in character. Thus Harvey Cox believes that play provides an opening to a region that is real but hard "to discern and whose name is less definite," that region beyond the horizon of consciousness we call history. According to Cox, there is a sense of awe, intuition, and ecstasy that opens up the player to what Mircea Eliade calls "cosmos" and Teilhard de Chardin has named the "divine milieu."53

Gerardus Van der Leeuw expresses a similar conviction when he writes about drama. He believes that drama is sometimes capable of expressing the holy. "Here we can find a religious aspect," he says. "A man who reaches the background of life, its ultimate basis, comes upon a boundary. Broadening and deepening, the sudden experiences of life as a unity bring with them the suspicion of holiness." About dance, Van der Leeuw says, "The dance is the discovery of movement external to man, but which first gives him his true, actual movement. In the dance shines the recognition of God, himself, moving and thereby moving the world." About music, Van der Leeuw suggests, "The inclination to the absolute, which is called silence," is the sacred extremity of music.54 What Van der Leeuw describes has been expressed in a more down-to-earth way on a poster: "The `consecrated spot' cannot be distinguished from the playground."55 And vice versa. We are also reminded of Johan Huizinga's belief that in play "man's consciousness that he is embedded in a sacred order of things finds its first, highest and holiest expression. "56

It is not only students of culture like Van der Leeuw and Huizinga who have found in play a possible sacred dimension. Theologians have also commented upon this. Harvey Cox is one; Karl Barth is another. In discussing Mozart's genius, Barth says he thinks Mozart's music has a religious dimension -- "a childlike knowledge of the center of all things-including the knowledge of their beginning and their end."57 Karl Rahner links the playful with the transcendent in a similar way. He states: "For the greater his [the player's] freedom [mental and physical] with regard to the objective world, the stronger can and should be his transcendental experience of his dependence on the absoluteness of God."58

And lest one imagine a hypothetical hierarchy in play in which the arts retain this ability to mediate the presence of the divine while such "lower" forms of play as athletics remain puerile, let me again quote Michael Novak:

I love it when the other side is winning and there are only moments left; I love it when it would be reasonable to be reconciled to defeat, but one will not, cannot; I love it when a last set of calculated, reckless, free, and impassioned efforts is crowned with success. When I see others play that way, I am full of admiration, of gratitude. That is the way I believe the human race should live. When human beings actually accomplish it, it is for me as if the intentions of the Creator were suddenly limpid before our eyes: as though into the fiery heart of the Creator we had momentary insight.59


This is the recognition that Harry Angstrom has in Updike's novel Rabbit, Run, after he lofts a perfect golf shot.60 This, too, is a moment of Grace -- a childlike knowledge of the center of all things.

Participants in play can be opened outward in two directions. Through their play experience they can be granted a vision both of the re-creation of "man" (individually and communally) and of that sacred ground in which humankind is rooted. According to Gerardus Van der Leeuw, "The game points beyond itself: downward, to the simple, ordinary rhythm of life; upward, to the highest forms of existence."61 Unfortunately, such a transcendent awareness is absent from much of contemporary life in America. The absolute claims of our technological age and the imperialistic pressure of our work have conspired to produce what someone has called "the tyranny of the immediate." Our world has taken on a reduced size. Nevertheless, play is one way out of this dilemma, a possible first step in the contemporary person's pilgrimage from bondage to freedom. But play serves this purpose only incidentally and ex post facto, presenting by its very existence the possibility of a different social order. Play "provides an alternative," suggests Cox, "to either cowed submission or empty nihilism."62 Players know themselves to be more real than the system; their captivity is less real than their play world. Such relativization of one's workaday world is a fifth and final consequence of the play experience.

If a person is not able to play, he is easily bewitched or possessed by his own seriousness or the seriousness of another. Inhumanity is the result. Play breaks through such barriers and thus serves as a prologue to and/or a check upon a life of freedom. Rubem Alves, a third-world theologian, clearly sees this as a consequence of play. Responding to criticism that play is "kid's business," he argues instead for the prophetic and political meaning of play.63 He believes that our society has become oppressive and repressive, and that we need to let go of many of the rules imposed upon our lives. The time for creative imagination has arrived. Magic, play, and utopian dreams are the foundation for his future community of faith.64

By way of summary, then, I am suggesting that play is important for the continued well-being of people, individually and collectively. Play relativizes our "over-seriousness" toward life, filling us with a spirit of joy and delight that carries over into all aspects of our existence. This attitude is based in and fosters the tacit recognition of a restored humanity that senses its rootedness in life's fundamental sacredness. Play has, in short, an external value that reaches far beyond the boundary of the play world. But this is the case only when the player "forgets" play's consequences and focuses solely upon the intrinsic value of the play. The authentic player knows that play's value is contained by the playtime and the playground. As John Cage writes:

A purposeful purposelessness and purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life.
Not an attempt to bring order out of chaos, not to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up
the very life we are living .65


The Boundaries of Play

It is a sin to eat inferior ice cream.
Eric Gill66

In his preface to Hugo Rahner's Man at Play, Walter Ong makes an observation typical of commentators on play: "The world of play is the world of freedom itself-of activity for its own sake, of spontaneity, of pure realization." Ong is atypical, however, in his pointing out that work, too, "is an expression of freedom and joy" when authentically pursued.67 Ong rightly understands that it is false to draw a distinction between play as individual, free, and spontaneous, and work as collective, intentional, and ordered. Both the worker and the player bring to their worlds the social and the private, the ordered and the spontaneous, the free participation and the destined response. This understanding of the general human shape of play provides us with a final criterion with which to delimit play's boundaries.

Unlike many who currently write on the subject, 1 want in light of the above discussion to distinguish the play of humans from the "play" of animals. Recreationalist Charles Brightbill is too inclusive in describing play as "the free, pleasurable, immediate, and natural expression of animals."68 So, too, is Walter Kerr, who believes that animals first discovered play and left it to man as a legacy.69 What I have been arguing is that the activity I have described as play requires an attitude uniquely human. 'I'he cat playing with a rubber ball seems to be playing, but its consciousness is different from that of the human player. Further exploration of the attitudes of animals is necessary here, and the lines of demarcation blur, but the "play" of animals seems best understood as instinctive, almost automatic movement rather than play. Play, I am suggesting, belongs not merely to the phenomenal world but to the intelligent world. It is not "a general organic activity, but a specifically human one," as Ernst Cassirer argues.70

Play's attitudinal locus helps define not only the border between animal and human "play," but also a second boundary -- that between authentic and inauthentic play. Play is neither escapism nor melancholic resignation. It is neither obsessive nor merely empty, mechanical ritual. Much of what is commonly labeled "play" fits into these categories, however, and must be understood as not being play at all. In his book In Praise of Play, Robert Neale discusses in detail these perversions of play: when peace is "inaction"; when freedom is bondage to one need in our psyche which is dominant; when delight is turned into a work agenda; when illusion is maintained at the expense of other needs and is a form of mental illness; when the story is believed, the time limits ignored, and pretending becomes pretension; when a game is played at the expense of others, breaking the rules; when the risk of adventure is perverted and the gamble removed or fatalistically accepted; or when play is done in secret. In these cases the "player" is not really playing at all?71 Most gambling and most magic can thus be viewed as inauthentic play -- play that is deficient because of the attitude of the player. When Walter Kerr quotes Eric Gill, he offers a less obvious example. Gill believed that it was a sin to eat inferior ice cream. "Mr. Gill was right," suggests Kerr, "and his rightness has nothing to do with calories or ordinary human perversity. . . . To eat ice cream that displeases is to engage in an act which denies its own nature…."72

Johan Huizinga is similarly concerned with recognizing the bastardization of play. Much "which to a superficial eye [has] all the appearance of play and might be taken for permanent play tendencies ... [is], in point of fact, nothing of the sort." He calls such inauthentic play "puerilism," the blend of adolescence and barbarity. Trivial recreation, crude sensationalism, gregariousness, intolerant sectarian clubs-these are all examples of puerilism, according to Huizinga. Writing during the Nazi build-up to World War II, Huizinga concluded: "According to our definition of play, puerilism is to be distinguished from playfulness. . . . The spectacle of a society rapidly goose-stepping into helotry is, for some, the dawn of the millennium. We believe them to be in error."73 Here, surely, is Huizinga's hidden agenda for writing Homo Ludens. Given his contemporary world, in which the elements of play were being perverted and misused for totalitarian ends, he called his contemporaries back to an awareness of play authentically conceived. Without a conscious disruption of ongoing events and a recognition of the inutility of play, without a combination of order and spontaneity, freedom and love, what seems on the surface to be play is merely a false semblance of it.

The 1972 Munich Olympics provide us a model by which to observe the differentiation between authentic and inauthentic play. The Olympics were meant to be a paradigm of play activity. For these Games, a playtime was set aside and a special playing field was built. In theory they were organized as a parenthesis in life, devoid of political consideration.74 For this reason, when the Arab terrorists struck within the Olympic Village, the playing field was not immediately open to the German military. Although the compound was on German soil, it was thought of as a world community for those two weeks. Within the Games there was a strict adherence to the rules. Thus Rich Demont, who won the 400-meter freestyle swim race, was disqualified when it was discovered that he had traces of a drug used for asthma in his system. Because drugs can give a player outside control, can allow the player to manipulate the play experience, drug use -- even use not intended to improve performance -- is illegal. In the 1972 Games there was a sense of risk and adventure; most lost in their events, in fact. But in another sense all those who played succeeded. The joy and excitement generated by the experience, the sense of commonality with fellow players from around the world, the opportunity to participate freely with one's entire being -- this gave all the players a new outlook on their everyday world. Or so the script read in advance.

In reality, the terrorism in Munich infringed upon the Olympic play world and prematurely ended the Games. True, the Games continued on, obscenely, in form, but they were no longer a parenthesis in life. In the face of the ultimate-death-play ceased to be. Thus, what people remember about the 1972 Games is not the joyful community but the horror of the massacre of the Israeli team. Moreover, regardless of the killings, much of what should have been play was not. The Olympics became a political arena. African athletes threatened a boycott. East German athletes were only the most extreme examples among many who were at the Games because a series of tests and special treatment had pointed them joylessly toward it. Duane Bobick, the American boxer, seemed intent only on impressing the world so that his professional contract would be more lucrative. The morality of politics (or the lack of it) and the reality of the workaday world intruded into the play world of the Munich Olympics. Unfortunately, the spirit of play was lost in the shuffle..75

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from prison shortly before his death, addressed his godson, Dietrich Bethge, on the occasion of the infant's baptism, which he could not witness: "Music, as your parents understand and practice it, will help to dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibility, and in times of care and sorrow will keep a ground-base of joy alive in you."76 Bonhoeffer's advice is analogous to the conclusions in this chapter. In these times of stress-in a society pressured on all sides, moving toward its breaking point-play can purify our sensibility, make us open again to the gifts of God's goodness which surround us. Furthermore, play can open us up to understand life's rhythms and limits, dissolving some of the perplexity of things-even death itself. Finally, play can keep that gracious "ground-base of joy" alive in all of us, and so prepare us for, and help sustain us within, our ongoing life of faith.




1. George Sheehan, "Play," American Way, 10 (July 1977), 33.

2. Random House Dictionary of the American Language (New York: Random House, 1967), quoted in Richard Burke, " `Work' and `Play,' " Ethics, 82 (October 1971), 33.

3. Burke, " `Work' and `Play,' " p. 35. Cf. Eric Berne, Games People Play (New York: Grove Press, 1964); and Adam Smith (pseudonym), The Money Game (New York: Dell, 1969).

4. Sheehan, "Play," p. 33.

5. Walter J. Ong, Pref., Man at Play, by Hugo Rahner (New York: Herder & Herder, 1967), pp. ix-xi.

6. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), p.7.

7. See Chapter One.

8. For a discussion of selected theories of play, see Robert E. Neale, In Praise of Play (New York: Harper & Row, 1969),pp . 19-41; David L. Miller, Gods and Games: Toward a Theology of Play (New York: World, 1970), pp. 17-94.

9. Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus (New York: Norton, 1942),1,3.

10. Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p. 13.

11. Burke, " `Work' and `Play,' " pp. 37-38.

12. Jean Piaget, Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood, trans. C. Gattegno and F. M. Hodgson (New York: Norton, The Norton Library, 1962), pp. 92-93.

13. Neale, In Praise of Play, p. 97.

14. Rubem A. Alves, Tomorrow's Child: Imagination, Creativity, and the Rebirth of Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 98.

15. Jay B. Rohrlich, Work and Love: The Crucial Balance (New York: Summit Books, 1980), p. 72.

16. Plato, quoted in Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965), p. 6.

17. Roger Bannister, The Four Minute Mile (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1957), p. 213.

18. Gerardus Van der Leeuw, Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art, trans. David E. Green (New York: Abingdon Press, 1963), p. 280.

19. William A. Sadler, Jr., "Creative Existence: Play as a Pathway to Personal Freedom and Community," Humanitas, 5 (Spring 1969), 74.

20. Piaget, Play, Dreams and Imitation, p. 168; cf. Alves, Tomorrow's Chide, p. 89.

21. Roy Harvey Pearce, "Historicism Once More," The Kenyon Review, 20 (Autumn 1958), 566; quoted in Giles B. Gunn, "Introduction: Literature and its Relation to Religion," in Literature and Religion, ed. Giles B. Gunn, Harper Forum Books, ed. Martin E. Marty (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 24.

22. Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p. 213; cf. Walter Kerr, who, in his typically colorful style, makes this same point in The Decline of Pleasure (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962), p. 239: "Our starving man apart, how much `simple contemplation of its outward qualities' is likely to be given to a landscape or perhaps to the face of a pretty girl by a man who, though far from starving, has admitted into his mind the merest possibility of subdividing the landscape or seducing the girl? Even a very mild toying with the prospects of goodness -- both the subdivision and the seduction have obvious goodness (or lack of it) about them -- compromises the moment, rules out the pleasure that had nothing to do with profit." Cf. Michael Novak, The Joy of Sports (New York: Basic Books, 1976), pp. 278-280.

23. Thomas Langford, "Reclaiming the Human Spirit," lecture presented at the Divinity School of Duke University, Durham, N.C., February 17, 1972.

24. For a novel that forcefully portrays a player who becomes so consumed by a game that he must cheat in order to maintain his sanity, see Robert Coover, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.: J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (New York: New American Library, Signet Books, 1968).

25. William A. Sadler, Jr., "Play: A Basic Human Structure Involving Love and Freedom," Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, 6 (Fall 1966), 243.

26. J. C. Friedrich von Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, trans. Reginald Snell (London: n.p., 1954), p. 137, quoted in Herbert Read, The Redemption of the Robot: My Encounter with Education through Art (New York: Trident Press, 1966).

27. Gabriel Vahanian, "Utopia as Ethic of Leisure," Humanitas, 8 (November 1972), 349.

28. Michelangelo Buonarroti, Sonnets and Madrigals of Michelangelo Buonarroti; quoted in Van der Leeuw, Sacred and Profane Beauty, p. 265.

29. Walter J. Ong, "Voice as Summons for Belief: Literature, Faith, and the Divided Self," in Literature and Religion, pp. 68-86.

30. Kerr, The Decline of Pleasure, p. 188.

31. Alves, Tomorrow's Child, p. 93.

32. Harvey Cox, The Feast of Fools (New York: Harper & Row, Colophon Books, 1969), p. 108.

33. This fact has often been obscured by those writing about play. Karl Rahner, for example, states: "The leisure of the Muse is free fall, the unplanned and unpredictable, confident surrender to the uncontrollable forces of existence, waiting for the irruption of the incalculable gift, the reception of grace, the aimless but meaningless hour" (Theological Investigations, trans. Kevin Smith [Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1966], IV 379). On the other hand, critics of play such as Northrop Frye have recognized that "the quality that Italian critics called Sprezzatura and that Hoby's translation of Castiglione calls `recklessness,' the sense of buoyancy or release [is] that [which] accompanies perfect discipline, when we can no longer know the dancer from the dance" (Anatomy of Criticism [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957], pp. 93-94).

34. Novak, The Joy of Sports, p. 224.

35. Ibid., p. 225.

36. Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p. 188. Igor Stravinsky, in his Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons (New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1959), pp. 66-68, writes of the terror he feels at the thought that perhaps everything is permissible. In this situation the seven notes of the scale and its chromatic intervals provide him refuge against the threat of anomie. He says, "What delivers me from the anguish into which an unrestricted freedom plunges me is the fact that I am always able to turn immediately to the concrete things that are here in question.... My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action."

37. Sheehan, "Play," p. 33.

38. Cox, The Feast of Fools, pp. 46-47.

39. Burke, " `Work' and `Play,' " p. 39.

40. Lee W. Gibbs, "Ritual, Play and Transcendent Mystery," paper presented to the American Academy of Religion, Midwestern Sectional Meeting, Chicago, Ill., February 17, 1973, p. 4.

41. Fred van Dyke, quoted in G. Rogin, "An Odd Sport ... and an Unusual Champion," Sports Illustrated, October 18, 1965, p. 104

42. Mark Lepper and David Greene, "Turning Play into Work," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31 (1975), 479-486.

43. Novak, The Joy of Sports, p. 32.

44. Bill Bradley, Life on the Run (New York: Bantam Books, 1976), p. 236.

45. Robert Lee, Religion and Leisure in America (New York: Abingdon Press, 1964), p. 35.

46. Jürgen Maltmann, Theology of Play, trans. Reinhard Ulrich (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 112.

47. Sheehan, "Play," p. 33.

48. Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p. 5; cf. Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Random House, 1964).

49. Vahanian, "Utopia as Ethic of Leisure," p. 352.

50. Charles M. Schulz, "Peanuts," quoted in Robert L. Short, The Gospel According to Peanuts (Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1964), p. 112.

51. Kerr, The Decline of Pleasure, p. 223.

52. Bannister, The Four Minute Mile, pp. 11-12; cf. pp. 213-214.

53. Cox, The Feast of Fools, pp. 27-47.

54. Van der Leeuw, Sacred and Profane Beauty, pp. 104, 74, 259; cf. Joseph D. McLelland, The Clown and the Crocodile (Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1970), pp. 71-76.

55. Judith Savard, Full Circle, Our Second Edition (New York: Full Circle Association, n.d.), n. pag.

56. Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p. 17.

57. Karl Barth, "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart," in Religion and Culture: Essays in Honor of Paul Tillich, ed. Walter Leibrecht (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), p. 62. Cf. Donald E. Demaray, "Wolf gang Amadeus Mozart: A Man Through Whom God Sings," The Asbury Seminarian, 37 (Spring 1982), 15-19.

58. Rahner, Theological Investigations, IV 384.

59. Novak, The Joy of Sports, p. 151.

60. John Updike, Rabbit, Run (Greenwich, Ct.: Fawcett Books, 1960), pp. 112-113; cf. John Updike, "Is There Life after Golf?", New Yorker, July 29, 1972, pp. 76-78.

61. Van der Leeuw, Sacred and Profane Beauty, p. 112.

62. Cox, The Feast of Fools, p. 186.

63. Rubem Alves, "More on Play," Christianity and Crisis, March 6, 1972,p 45.

64. Alves, Tomorrow's Child.

65. John Cage, quoted in Mary Keelan, Full Circle Playbook (n.p.: Full Circle Association, 1970), p. 40.

66. Eric Gill, quoted in Kerr, The Decline of Pleasure, p. 277.

67. Ong, Pref., Man at Play, pp. ix-xi

68. Charles K. Brightbili, The Challenge of Leisure (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1960), p. 7, quoted in Vahanian, "Utopia as Ethic of Leisure," p. 350.

69. Kerr, The Decline of Pleasure, p. 220.

70. Ernst Cassirer, Essays on Man (New York: n.p., 1953), n.p., quoted in Lawrence Meredith, The Sensuous Christian (New York: Association Press, 1972), p. 160. Cf. Cox, The Feast of Fools, p. 7.

71. Neale, In Praise of Play, pp. 70-82..

72. Kerr, The Decline of Pleasure, p. 278.

73. Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p. 206.

74. Cf. "The Olympic Landscape," AIA Journal, 58 (August 1972), 20-21.

75. Red Smith, "Show Goes On," The Chronicle (Duke University), New York Times News Service, September 7, 1972, p. 11; Heywood Hale Broun, "The 1984 Olympics," Newsweek, March 5, 1973, p. 13.

76. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, rev. ed., ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1967), p. 155.



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