An Open Notebook

Theology of Play


Jürgen Moltmann begins his Theology of Play (1970) by drawing upon the author of Über den Ursprung der Sprache (First Liberated Being in Creation). Since it was written in 1770, Moltmann poetically retraces the last two-hundred years.

He tells us though we have seen as least three European Revolutions, two World Wars, the Cold War, and all the events between, people today may know more about political misery than the past. But, we are far less aware of the joys of being human, the liberty and freedom of existence. 

Everyone, man, woman, young girl, young boy, has the innate desire within them for happiness. Burning, like an ember, or a flame. But conservative ethicists have often scared us from the joys of spontaneity—unburdened, jubilant laughter. This should not be. We all know from experience, the first actions of newly freed people are to sing, play, and rejoice!

Yet, the pharisaic question for many is, “How can we laugh when we know of the hells that persist in the world today?”

Well, let us visit our options. The first choice is to be a Stoic, “without fear, but without hope.” Or, you can be a Christian, “with hope when there is no hope.” When you play you are neither master nor servant (Gal. 3:28). You play with waves, and they play with you. You play with words to make lyrics, but ones which have a history, formed apart from your personal intellect. When we play with music, we play with tones and music-history that came before you. We are neither slave nor free. Christian theology has to be a theology of practice, meeting real needs, but a theology of play. 

Games, of every kind, only appear meaningful within themselves. But from the outside they appear purposeless. Have you ever considered someone who does not like a particular brand of sport? In-and-of themselves, games are an escape from the ordinary, which only make sense when you have swallowed their worth beforehand.

We have problems, however, when games are treated like as pure liberation. Increase in leisure time does not always lead to better opportunities for self-realization. When work is considered the ‘real’ world, we propagate the narrative that games are simply to rest and rejuvenate to go back to work again. The avenues of ‘joy’ which allows men to breathe freely merely compensate for joyless labor. 

In this view, games are just to go on ‘leave,’ as the military frames it. To ‘leave’ implies your real responsibilities is in the service, while the ‘game’ is to go back home. But, what if we considered our whole lives, including our work, as a form of play? Our craft, our calling. The free activity of all men, at all times, is to play.

Since the revolutions of the Enlightenment, French and American, many have tried to understand the significance of play in human life. And, we find in part, aesthetics could be considered a kind of liberation. But, play of certain kinds seems to be inherently tied to our sinful nature. Play is our purpose, but can be manipulated.

Carnivals are well-known to be the opiates of the masses. Concerts have turned into excuses for drugs and addiction. Gladiator rings once quenched the human thirst for blood. Games can be harmful as well as helpful, but they all seek some sort of liberation. The industrial man needs his nightly who-done-it mystery to experience the world vicariously–then, to rest and recuperate so he can go back to work.

Though its definition of the purpose of life is fantastic, “What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever,” the Westminster Catechism tends to confuse play with goals and aspirations. At the very least, insinuate it unintentionally. This is why John Piper’s amendment, self-claimed Christian Hedonism, is more appropriate. We seek to glorify God by glorifying him forever.

What is the purpose of life? It is to play.

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