The God Who Plays: A Playful Approach to Theology and Spirituality
Play is pervasive. It is a quintessential creaturely activity that is observed and experienced in virtually all human cultures. Play pokes through and manifests itself in so many different forms of life that, if Christians fail to think about play, it means eliminating or subtracting a significant swath of human behavior from theological reflection. Brian Edgar, in The God Who Plays, sees a deep connection between play and Christian thought and living. Thus, Edgar sets out to reflect on the enduring problem that the Church has perennially struggled with and faced whenever engaging cultural matters in order to discern how to be in the world but not of it. Edgar asks, “[W]hat, indeed, does theology or the Christian life have to (sic) with having fun or playing?” (ix).
Though his evidence and interlocuters include many of the standard play theorists and theological sources when building his argument, Edgar reverses the traditional method or hermeneutic for making Christianly sense of everyday life or cultural activities such as play. Rather than interpret play from theology, Edgar interprets Christian doctrine and Christian living “in the light of the concept of play and having a playful attitude” (x). That means, his answer to the perennial question of what theology and play have to do with another does not follow the traditional “theology of play” approach but “a playful theology” approach (x). His method of doing theology considers such a direction, because he assumes a playful stance or attitude as fundamental to our relationship with God. Edgar boldly claims that “play is the essential and ultimate form of relationship with God” (ix, 1). The God Who Plays, in nine chapters, advances from two of Edgar’s previous books with the first on a theology of the Trinity and then a theology of friendship with this book rounding out his discussion, since play is a central activity of friends and mutually all three topics emphasize God’s grace as God’s way of intimacy with humankind.
Edgar begins his argument by bringing the seriousness of play into contact with Christ. He makes this strong first move so that he can deconstruct a multitude of wrong perceptions and presuppositions about play that preclude Christians from seeing how play is critical to our spirituality and essential to our relationship with God. Consequently, he considers the implications of play for two other areas of life; namely, how Christians eschatologically interpret the world they live in today and how we do community as the church. The employment of these three foci help to organize his exposition of other doctrines and they heuristically serve his project for how we ought to understand who God is and who we are in light of playfulness, delight, and joy.
To travel the road of doctrine carefully without turning life either into all play and no work or the opposite of all work and no play, Edgar recovers “the forgotten virtue” of eutrapelia from Thomas Aquinas in chapter one and revisits it again in chapter five with his interaction between Hugo Rahner and G. K. Chesterton, where he makes a case for how the mode of doing theology itself should follow from the ethos of play itself, resulting in playful theology. Eutrapelia “describes the balanced attitude that involves an appropriate level of playfulness” between work, duty, service, and sacrifice of ministry and play, fun, joy and pleasure of worship (5). For Edgar, eutrapelia functions as a hinge virtue (eutrapelia; from the Greek eutrapélos, meaning well-turned) upon which everyday life rests or turns, but it also reveals an attitude that is central to religious experience with play’s essence intrinsic to contemplative prayer, for in both activities they “are undertaken purely for their own sake” and “done solely for pleasure” (11). Edgar further builds on Aquinas’ thought to establish how the eternal playfulness, as depicted in Proverbs 8, between Christ, the Wisdom of God, and God at the original creation and what will be disclosed in the eschaton, regarding divine playfulness and how God himself engages with his people in the new heaven and earth, theologically prepares the ground for how play is not only fundamental to the divine life, but also how God’s people think about and spiritually relate to God in prayer. Edgar claims “prayer is a form of play” (13.)
The paradigm and practice of play guides Edgar throughout the book to search for and discover analogies between the attitude and stance of play and other activities and spiritual identities or ways of being such as worship and being child-like, respectively. For example, the call of the gospel to become like little children opens the kingdom of God to an “as if” way of imagining our faith. That means, the kingdom of God possesses the “as if” quality of games, for God creates and invites his people into a new world reality that operates according to its own logic and rules. In order to live successfully in this world, Jesus teaches that we must learn from the example of children who humbly depend on others and receive life as a gift. Edgar perceptively notes that, although the “as if” nature of our faith is akin to the nature of games themselves, there is one important difference. Christians believe the alternate reality of the kingdom of God is a game that is actually real—in ordinary games there is a separateness and illusory aspect that ends when the game stops, for when we leave the structure and zone of play time, we re-enter standard clock time in the real world. Edgar concludes that the biblical construction of faith commits God’s people to a new form of life in God as empowered by the Spirit’s presence with Christian living and practices contributing towards and “actually making real the kingdom of God in the present” (24).
The strength of Edgar’s thesis lies in how he goes beyond understanding and mining the fruit of play as a mere metaphor, since he actually sits in, values, and specifies the lived experience of play itself, which he does especially well, when comparing worship to play (chapter 3), when examining how play is essential to human development, particularly spiritual formation (chapter 4), when repeating many of the theories of play (chapter 5), when dissecting the relationship between work, rest, and play (chapter 6) so that in our play we appreciate the aesthetic dimensions and delights of both work and rest, when exegeting the sensual and physical aspects of play as forms of love (chapter 7), and when unraveling the complex relationship between play and pain as resolved in the doctrine of redemption (chapter 8). Edgar also adds helpful pedagogical exercises and questions to conclude each chapter that push for further exploration and application of the main claims and concepts. They also prove useful for one’s own spiritual formation, class discussions, and an excellent means of assessing whether students, scholars, and teachers are actually engaging in actual practices of play related to a chapter’s themes.
Edgar’s thesis could have been supported by considering play as one of many basic goods that constitute our humanity. A number of Catholic philosophers such as John Finnis and Germain Grisez have shown how play as an essential or determinative good follows from who we are as creations of God, and thus, as embodied agents, when we play, it constitutes in part what it means to be a flourishing human being, since play is an innate capacity given by God. When play is construed this way it gives further philosophical and theological warrant for Edgar’s thesis concerning play as essential to who we are and our relationship with God, and it guards against instrumentalizing play, which Edgar vehemently agrees with as observed throughout his book when discussing the value of play is its own reward. It also demonstrates that play as an intrinsic good fulfills substantive aspects of all humans, since basic goods are shared by men and women, all ages, populations, and races. One of the problems with play is that historically the power dynamics, interests, and dominant voices of social class, race, and gender often privileged and permitted only certain groups to enjoy play, and therefore excluded and cancelled the free exercise of play as a fundamental good of all human beings. A basic goods approach connects the doctrines of creation and eschatology, so that all humans know that God intended for them to know, be included and experience play freely in relation to God and fellow image-bearers from start to finish. Edgar’s final chapter beautifully emphasizes how play in this present world points to and participates in the play of the future kingdom, which, if play is a basic good, the collective joys and plethora of other aspects of play are key to our and others’ own flourishing both now and in the future.
Overall, The God Who Plays makes a solid contribution to the burgeoning study of and approaches to thinking theologically about play. Edgar’s biblical exposition of select passages both in the Old and New Testament, along with a steady fountain of different disciplines’ account of play, which includes prominent voices from the Christian tradition (such as Aquinas, Augustine, Bonhoeffer, Calvin, Luther, Moltmann, Rahner, and Wesley), enriches how we live and what we can learn about ourselves, ecclesial life, and God as we fully and freely enter into the practice of play as an essential aspect of our friendship with God.