Play and Theology

Children PlayingPlay is a serious theological subject! Recently I have been thinking about play and its relationship to Christian theology, helped by conversations with Jerome Berryman and practitioners of Godly Play at the recent gathering of the North American Godly Play association in Toronto. Theologians have been paying attention to play for a long time. Aquinas and Augustine wrote about it centuries ago. More recently, in the mid-20th century, Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Play created a short-lived stir by reframing play as a crucial aspect of our humanity, connecting play to human freedom. Moltmann suggested, contrary to those who view play as a way to pacify people and draw their attention away from the serious theological business of social transformation, that play (like art) is a way to construct “counter-environments” and “anti-environments” to the status quo that give people the freedom to imagine new futures. Fear and worry keep human beings stuck on the ground, Moltmann says, while freedom begins when people act without fear. Play draws people into freedom. Moltmann’s thinking helps me make sense of how the Christian understanding of resurrection works to free people, to empower us to live differently in the world: when the very meaning of death has been changed, so that one need no longer be afraid of it as ultimate terror, then Christians are set free and empowered to act in world in bold and courageous ways, risking even death.

All that might sound a long way from play, especially in its associations with children and Godly Play classrooms–but it’s not such a far stretch to get from God “playing with” and re-imagining the meanings of human life and death through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the teaching of a way of life to children and other faith-novices that proclaims our freedom to live creatively and courageously in a world that constantly stinks of death. Moltmann in the early 1970’s asked, “How is it possible to play and laugh when people die in Vietnam?” Decades later we might similarly ask, “How is it possible to play and laugh when young men like Trayvon Martin, and elementary school students in Newtown, CT, and so many other unnamed young people in this country, die everyday as a result of gun violence?”  With Moltmann, I argue that we turn to play not as a way of turning away from or covering over the harsh realities of violence and struggle in our society, but as a way of practicing the resurrection life that lets us imagine alternative futures to these stories.