Chad Carlson is Associate Professor of Kinesiology and Director of General Education at Hope College. He serves on the executive board of the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport, he co-directed the Second Global Congress on Sport and Christianity, and he is co-founder and co-director of SPORT. FAITH. LIFE. Carlson wrote Making March Madness about the history and origins of college basketball tournaments and has authored many book chapters and articles on the history and philosophy of play, games, and sport. Brian Bolt is Dean of Education and Head Men’s Golf Coach at Calvin University. Previously, he was chair of the Kinesiology Department in which he oversaw the Kinesiology academic program and the intercollegiate athletics program at Calvin, he served as co-chair of the Sport and Christianity Group that wrote the Declaration on Sport and Christianity, and he co-directed the Second Global Congress on Sport and Christianity. Bolt wrote Sport Faith Life and is co-director and co-founder of SPORT. FAITH. LIFE. Curtis Gruenler is Professor of English at Hope College and editor of the newsletter of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, the professional association of those interested in Rene Girard’s mimetic theory. He has written books and articles on medieval thought and literature, including its relationship to Christian theology. Gruenler’s award winning book, Piers Plowman and the Medieval Poetics of Enigma: Riddles, Rhetoric, and Theology, sheds light on why medieval Christian authors cultivated a certain sort of playful obscurity.
In late October of 2019, Calvin University and Hope College co-hosted the Second Global Congress on Sport and Christianity. More than 250 people from 25 countries and almost 40 states traveled to Calvin’s campus for the event, with another 4,500 locals on site for the public keynote address given by Tim Tebow. Attendees included athletes, coaches, physical educators, athletic directors, media members, pastors, ministry leaders, and scholars from disciplines as different as kinesiology, communication, English, sociology, business management, and theology. All attendees joined for conversation on the variety of intersections between sport, broadly conceived, and Christianity, with its many different faces.
Amid the 10 keynote addresses and 100 breakout session presentations were a small handful of papers on something fundamental to sport experiences—the phenomenon of play. If sports are games or game-like experiences of physical activity, we engage in them because they induce play or playfulness. If sports were not fundamentally playful and, relatedly, fun, they would cease to exist. The connection between sport and play, then, is obvious and deep. We participate in sport (we “play” sports, in common vernacular) because we often experience play when doing so. This connection was not lost on the scholars who presented on play.
From this small group of scholars came the idea for this special issue of the Christian Scholar’s Review. Play is fundamental to our sport experiences. Indeed, play is fundamental to many of our experiences in life, and it often infuses our hopes and dreams. Thus, the scholarship presented at the Second Global Congress on Sport and Christianity related to play encouraged us to explore the topic further. We are far from the first to do so, and we will not be the last. We are attempting to provide a unique angle, and the Christian Scholar’s Review readership constitutes a special audience for explorations that seek to connect the proliferation of play scholarship across the disciplines to particularly Christian concerns.
Play is central to the human experience. Neither age nor location nor time prevents or precludes play. We are all play-capable throughout our lives—from the moments of awe, wonder, and glory just like the Christ child to the moments of laughter and surprise just like Abraham and Sarah at the birth of their child near the end of their lives. Play can overtake us at seemingly any time and at seemingly any place. Play is ubiquitous.
Despite its salience, play is not an easy concept to define. Many scholars have noted it in their writings, and they have done so in different ways. Plato and Aristotle spoke of play as it relates to childhood. The term they use, paidia, has a strong etymological connection to their word for education, paideia. The latter word refers to the development of the child. Play, in that sense, is very much like the ideal process of educational systems. It’s how they exist: they grow, learn, and mature with innocence and, hopefully, joy. This connection led Bernard Suits, a philosopher of play and games who is cited in a few of this issue’s articles, to call himself a “paidiatrician.”1 How clever! How playful!
Play is much more than the activity of the child. Plato and Aristotle knew this, and so did the many scholars whose work stems from theirs. Many subsequent thinkers alluded to play, but only in passing and as it fit their greater ends. It wasn’t until Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga presented a series of lectures to the Warburg Institute in London in 1937 on play, linguistics, and culture, that anyone had systematized an intellectual exploration of the play phenomenon. These presentations caught the fancy of Huizinga’s audience, and he expanded it into a book the following year titled, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture.2 In Homo Ludens, a text cited in each of the articles in this issue, Huizinga made the case that play is the foundation of culture. In doing so, he encouraged further intellectual exploration of play.
In the years since, play scholarship has proliferated. The study of play has interested scholars from all across the academic gamut: education, philosophy, sociology, psychology, biology, cultural studies, fine art, history, and neuroscience, just to name a few. The pile of scholarly literature on play has grown from a molehill to a mountain over the last half century. In some ways, the fundamental nature of play makes it accessible as an experience to all scholars, relevant therefore in any discipline.
So, what about theology and religious studies? Or, more generally, what have Christians had to say about play? Beginning in the late 1960s, various theologians published a series of separate books on theology and play. In 1969, Robert E. Neale wrote In Praise of Play: A Psychology of Religion;3 in 1970, Sam Keen published To a Dancing God: Notes of a Spiritual Traveler4 and David L. Miller published Gods and Games: Toward a Theology of Play;5 and in 1972, Jürgen Moltmann wrote Theology of Play6 and Hugo Rahner wrote Man at Play.7 Ten years later, Robert K. Johnston built on these tomes, inserting his voice into the emerging sub-field’s discourse with The Christian At Play.8 Since this seminal period, Christian theologians and ministry leaders have seen play as a viable topic of exploration.
In this special issue, we’re continuing the multi-faceted discourse that has emerged over the past 50 years. We’re presenting scholarship on play that is less abstract than the treatises listed above. In many ways, this special issue could be titled, Play and…, because we’re discussing play in connection with other phenomena. This was the original intent of the scholars who presented at the Second Global Congress on Sport and Christianity. They sought to discuss play and sport. These articles build on those conversations and in doing so, have grown beyond and to some extent away from sport. Play and sport have a deep relationship, one that is worth exploration. The Journal of the Philosophy of Sport includes much discussion on this relationship, and on play in general. So does the American Journal of Play and the International Journal of Play. The articles in this special issue delve into relationships between play and other fundamental phenomena in our lives. They use sport at times as examples, but none focus on sport, per se. Rather, they address play and exercise, play and worship, play and literature, play and games, and play and work.
Curtis Gruenler’s article, “The Playfulness of Perfect Communion: Polarities in Dante’s Paradiso,” pulls together seemingly disparate voices into conversation on play that has implications for business, literature, sport, and eschatology alike. Gruenler regularly teaches about Dante, and he offers glimpses into his students’ perceptions as common initial views on the poet. What prevails is an unlikely sense of the ways sport and play promote community, as Dante envisions it. Gruenler builds on this connection, showing the importance of playfulness in reading Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the importance of playfulness and community in higher education. Dante may be a surprising place to start an essay on playfulness—after all, he is the one who painstakingly details the different levels of hell—but Gruenler reveals that playful and communal attitudes are essential to the progress of souls through Dante’s purgatory toward the fulfillment of these dimensions of humanity envisioned in his heaven.
Beyond Dante, Gruenler’s other interlocutors, to our knowledge, together present a novel approach to the study of play. James P. Carse, a historian of religion who wrote about finite and infinite games, René Girard, the theorist of desire and violence, and Barry Johnson, an organization development expert who wrote about polarity management, appear to be unlikely bedfellows for this conversation. Through these disparate voices, Gruenler offers a challenge to imagine Dante, supported by Carse and Johnson, in a way that enhances our understanding of community and the value of playfulness. And the implications of this argument are especially powerful for the ends of the Christian college.
Chad Carlson and Brian Bolt present arguments about playfulness and community that describe the connection between play and games. In their essay, “Grasshopper Theology: Games, Play, and the Ideal of Existence,” they heavily rely on philosopher Bernard Suits who wrote about games, play, and utopia using a purposely twisted moral view of Aesop’s famous grasshopper. Carlson and Bolt describe Suits’s novel approach to describing and valuing game play. There is more going on existentially and intellectually in games than meets the eye. Suits disclosed a great deal about game play, and Carlson and Bolt offer their analysis of the arguments.
When Suits argues that game play is the ideal of existence, Carlson and Bolt consider whether this claim is compatible with Christian views of good living and the eschaton. That is the heart of this essay: how can we understand Suits’s thesis that game playing is the ideal of existence within Christian theological conceptions and philosophy. Carlson and Bolt rely on writings from Blaise Pascal and Søren Kierkegaard’s Aesthete along with contemporary theologians Jürgen Moltmann, Lewis Smedes, and Brian Edgar to offer an appraisal of Suits’s thesis. Their analysis reveals the profundity of doing things that don’t existentially mat-ter, the benefit of striving when it is futile. Game playing offers vehicles by which we can engage in activity that matters because we say it does, even though, in the words of Moltmann, “it’s all for nothing.”9
Andrew Borror describes play and exercise or, more specifically, traditional gym culture. His article, “Playful Seriousness: The Quandary of Exercise in a Technological Age,” pulls together his shared interests and experiences in theology and exercise science. With current health statistics in the United States demonstrating that obesity and unhealthy lifestyles continue to increase, what role do exercise gyms play in our health and well-being? Traditional exercise routines done for health benefits—to lose weight, to increase cardiovascular health, to decrease the likelihood of cardiovascular disease—are often done un-playfully. Health clubs, gyms, and exercise centers often prioritize efficiency, alluring customers with technological exercise enhancements that promote individualism and materialism. Those who join these gyms, those who exercise regularly to maintain health benefits and avoid the dangers of sedentary living, often see physical activity—exercise—as simply an extension of work in their lives. It is one more thing they have to do each day on top of their jobs and domestic chores.
Where is play in all of this, Borror asks? In what ways does the absence of playfulness in traditional exercise or gym culture make it susceptible to critique? Where might theological arguments help us navigate the value of “going to the gym” or exercising? Borror describes traditional views of exercise as work and exercise as play, two different postures toward “working out,” before exploring the implications of technology on our mindset toward exercise. How does technology affect our receptivity toward the experience of exercising? Borror cautions us against three temptations that serve to undermine the experience of the given body—the body as a gift—in exercise.
dvait Praturi provides a cross-cultural examination of play in worship in his article, “Playing Straight into God’s Hands: A Comparative Study of the Hindu and Christian Understandings of Play.” Praturi, a Christian ministry leader based in Mumbai, offers theological principles underscoring his work building Christian churches among Indians. He offers a unique lens into worship, stemming from the relationship between Christian conceptions of play and a similar Hindu concept of a phenomenon called lila. Lila has a variety of descriptions, just like the concept of play, the most relevant of which has to do with human performative dance or drama re-enactments of ancient Hindu stories. Theologies of lila help support Christian theologies of play as understood within worship experiences—theologies and liturgies that promote inter-religious dialogue and thereby present new ministry expressions for Christian practitioners.
Praturi suggests a Trinitarian-Pneumatological approach to this cross-cultural conversation, encouraging commonalities in normally separate understandings of divine delight, divine presence, and human flourishing. In this way, the author argues, “similarities are affirmed, differences are identified, and convictions are reinforced.”
How can the concept of lila, with its physically expressive basis, inform and support Christian liturgy as play and Christian views on the telos of play? Praturi offers theoretical and experiential suggestions for the value of inter-religious dialogue in both directions, using the comparison of lila and play as a basis for demonstrating the benefits of such an endeavor. In doing so, he invites us to consider creating playgrounds of hospitality.
As a concluding essay, Christian Scholar’s Review editor Margaret Diddams, an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, discusses the relationship between play and work. Her article, “Good Work, Done Well for the Right Reasons and with an End in Mind: Playing at Work,” offers a novel look at two phenomena—work and play—that are often seen as opposites, reciprocally or inversely related. Diddams suggests a different kind of relationship between the two phenomena, one of greater overlap. Huizinga, Josef Pieper, and Moltmann, the author notes, offer a corrective view of the relationship between work and play—play is the antidote to the cultural problems associated with idolatry of work. Aristotle and John Calvin offer an instrumental view of the relationship—play is in the service of work, which is in the service of leisure or God, respectively. And, more recently, Abraham Heschel, Leland Ryken, and Robert Johnston all offer complementarian views of the relationship in that work and play are both part of God’s plan and neither is reducible to the value of the other.
Diddams offers a new model—one of integration which supports overlapping experiences of work and play. The basis of this model is promoting the value of playing while at work, or playing at one’s work, but there is much greater depth behind. Indeed, Diddams argues that “play should not be an escape from work but a prescription for work.” Thus, the title, “Good work, done well,” which is no mere remedy to the monotony of our workaday lives. Instead, Diddams solidifies her arguments within Christian visions of the eschaton. Good work, done well provides ultimate meaning found within God’s redemptive purposes.
This concluding essay affirms what the other essays imply: Conceptions of play connect to deeper Christian theologies of the eschaton, ultimate meaning, God’s purpose, and human flourishing. In other words, this issue isn’t just child’s play. The study of play is no mere walk in the park, the intellectual equivalent of hopscotch. And it isn’t reducible to sport, even though inferences and connections between sport and play offer deep insight. Instead, the topic of play has implications for the very ends that drive Christian thought and behavior. And when studied in a playful manner that supports openness, community, and receptivity, it becomes good work, done well.
Cite this article
- Bernard Suits, “Words on Play,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 4 (1977): 117.
- The original Dutch edition was published as Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: Proeve Ener Bepaling Van Het Spelelement Der Cultuur (Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff, 1938).
- Robert E. Neale, In Praise of Play: A Psychology of Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).
- Sam Keen, To a Dancing God: Notes of a Spiritual Traveler (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).
- David L. Miller, Gods and Games: Toward a Theology of Play (New York: The World Publishing Co., 1970).
- Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Play (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).
- Hugo Rahner, Man at Play (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972).
- Robert K. Johnston, The Christian at Play (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publish-ing Co., 1983).
- Jürgen Moltmann, “The First Liberated Men in Creation,” in Theology of Play, eds. Jürgen Moltmann, Robert E. Neale, Sam Keen, David LeRoy Miller (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 33.