Excerpts from footnotes about play
in Vern Barnet's 2015 Thanks for Noticing.
2. Liturgy: “The soul must learn to abandon, at least in prayer, the restlessness of purposeful activity; it must learn to waste time for the sake of God, and to be prepared for the sacred game . . . without always . . . asking ‘why?’ and ‘wherefore?’. It must learn not to be continually yearning to do something, to attack something, to accomplish something useful, but to play the divinely ordained game of the liturgy in liberty and beauty and holy joy before God.” —Romano Guardini, 1935 The Spirit of the Liturgy, p181-184.
3. In some religious perspectives, all play is sacred because it recapitulates the purposeless mode in which the universe was created. This theme is found in many religions; in Hinduism, it is the doctrine of lila — the universe is god’s play. Though creatures may have intent and agenda, there is no ultimate purpose extrinsic to the cosmos itself. An infant plays not for a purpose, such as to learn or to explore, but simply for the intrinsic value of playing, as when Yahweh makes Leviathan simply for sport (Psalm 104:26). While play may have an evolutionary benefit, the infant does not intend an external benefit, but is already experiencing the reward contained in itself. The child’s notion of play is not completely obscured at the beginning of a baseball game when the umpire commands, “Play ball!”; he does not shout, “Work ball!” Even in children’s play, play may have rules which are absolute within the play, but cannot govern, or even apply, outside the play.
4. In these religions, sacrifice was of central
importance; indeed it is found in every religion; its root meaning from
Latin is to make sacred. What is sacred is an end in itself; hence sacrifice
is a form of play, not a means to some other purpose. Georges Bataille
(1897-1962) writes that “in sacrifice the offering is rescued of all utility”
in his Theory of Religion, 1989/
5. Play and game are multivalent terms in English; Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander in their 2013 Surfaces and Essences show how playing a role, playing the flute, playing the violin, playing soccer, playing basketball, and other uses require different words for play in Mandarin (p10-13); Ludwig Wittgenstein famously analyzed language games, Sprachspielen, as his 1953 Philosophical Investigations opens. While play may be natural, its freedom is usually not our ordinary mode.
6. In some religious perspectives, play is a form of grace, without purpose in gaining some extrinsic favor, reflecting the cosmos as the datum of pure love, without desire for reward beyond the love itself. The Sufi mystic Rabi‘a al–Adawiyya (8th Century) prayed beyond rewards and punishments: “O God, if I love you because I fear hell, then cast me forever into the fires of damnation. Or if I love you because I desire the bliss of paradise, then forever shut the door of heaven against me. But if I love you for your own sake, then let me ever gaze upon your eternal beauty.” A similar idea is found in Shibi (9th Century) who said, “He who loves God for His acts of Grace is a polytheist.”
7. Thomas Merton, 1961 New Seeds of Contemplation concludes with a chapter entitled, “The General Dance,” in which he writes of God’s play, p297, “For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. . . . For we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solem-nity to the winds and join in the general dance.”
8. God’s playful delight is to behold us, to know us as we are, beyond human moral criteria. Similarly, when we love without need, intention, agenda, compulsion, claim, judgment, or dependency, but simply love by noticing, by witnessing, by beholding, loving freely as God does, we become like God.
9. Game: “It’s a game. People who cheat just don’t know how to play. They treat a game as if it were serious. [Metalogue Partner:] But it is serious.” —Gregory Batson, 1972 Steps to an Ecology of the Mind, p14.
10. The Sanskrit term often used for God’s play is lila. Hinduism offers many examples; here are five. (1) The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I.iv.4 describes the creation of the cosmos from one Self (Viraj) who created a mate; they coupled, and as she hid as a cow, he became a bull, then she a mare, and so forth until the world was populated, down to the ant, and that Self was hidden in all that was created. We are thus playing hide-and-seek with ourselves. or rather with the Self. Compare this with George Herbert Mead’s distinction between play and game in the development of the social self; see his 1934 Mind, Self, and Society, edited by Charles W Morris. (2) The god Krishna, especially as a child, is a prankster. (3) The explicit accounts of Hinduism’s Krishna and Radha love-making, lila, are erotic, fueling the flesh to reach the divine. (4) Even in the Gita, the idea of freedom from extrinsic reward (the essence of play), dominates Krishna’s battlefield advice to Arjuna. (5) The god Shiva dances creation and destruction, a thing of sublime beauty and terror, to no purpose. Examples from other faiths would be redundant.
11. For us, “play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.” —Joseph Chilton Pearce, 1977/1992 Magical Child: Rediscovering Nature’s Plan for Our Children, p160
12. Perhaps deriving from N V Scarfe, 1962, and misattributed to Albert Einstein is a statement that rings true: “Play is the highest form of research.”
13. “The life instinct, or sexual instinct, dmands
activity of a kind that . . . can only be called play.” —Norman O
Brown, 1959 Life Against Death. “Playing means giving oneself temporary
freedom for duty and necessity, voluntarily taking risks and being excited
because one does not know the outcome; pretend-ing is self-conscious delight
in alternative possibilities
14. Composer John Cage (1912-1992), once a theology
student, put it succinctly: “The highest purpose is to have no purpose
16. Many scholars believe that play has been a key
mode in human evolution. Gregory Bateson, 1972 Steps to an Ecology of
Mind suggests that play itself may refer to things outside play and
thus helped to develop communication. Kant and Schiller, and John Dewey
and George Herbert Mead have discussed play; and Gordon Burghardt and others
have noticed that play involves freedom from the ordinary demands of ordinary
time. Ian Suttie, 1935 The Origins of Love and Hate argues that
play is the “mother of invention,” not as the proverb has it, necessity.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow describes an understanding of
this sense of freedom. Rituals can be such play.