Play blocks

A playful social being

In this article I shall be arguing the need to retrieve our playful being as a way of participating in a playful God. Against our hubris, social play emerges.

What directs our social being?

Classic social-Darwinism would dictate that we ought to compete over resources, calculate all our efforts, and do so even at the expense of the gradual extinction of the weak. One can posit that ‘survival of the fittest’ is not only a biological quip as much as it is a social one.

As a response, a Russian school spearheaded by Peter Kropotkin, countered that cooperating species tend to survive better than competitive one.

This second view was further attacked by what became known as the neo-Darwinism, the epitome of which was, I think, Richard Dawkin’s book: The Selfish Gene. If the older version of social-Darwinism saw nature as a marketplace where sellers were dead set to close the sale, this new wave of neo-Darwinists was outright full-on capitalism.

But in this violent business, social play emerges.

Turning back to Kropotkin, let us pause and reflect on what I believe would be the best summary of his understanding of play:

“We know at the present time that all animals, beginning with the ants, going on to the birds, and ending with the highest mammals, are fond of plays, wrestling, running after each other, trying to capture each other, teasing each other, and so on. And while many plays are, so to speak, a school for the proper behaviour of the young in mature life, there are others which, apart from their utilitarian purposes, are, together with dancing and singing, mere manifestations of an excess of forces—“the joy of life,” and a desire to communicate in some way or another with other individuals of the same or of other species—in short, a manifestation of sociability proper, which is a distinctive feature of all the animal world.”

Peter Kropotkin

In not so many words, Kropotkin is suggesting that one can exercise one’s capacity to the fullest extent only when they take pleasure in one’s own existence. Moreover, this pleasure is further enhanced when performed in a social context, considering we are social beings.

We are existentially playful

The existential call to play is further highlighted in Friedrich Schiller’s 1795 book On the Aesthetic Education of Man argued that “man (sic) plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a man,” “and he (sic) is only wholly a Man when he is playing.”

To confirm this idea one just needs to observe a newly born child. We crave play. As we grow older, we thirst play, and with any chance we get to play, we do our utmost to take it. Tom Boellstroff speaks of the information age as becoming “the gaming age, and thus […] gaming and its associated notions of play could become master metaphors for a range of human social relations.” Thus, we can speak of witnessing a fun revolution, which if we are to reflect on it theologically it is an invitation to become a ‘sacred time’:

One aspect of play [… is…] that play sets up a separate universe of discourse, with its own rules, which suspends, ‘for the duration’, the rules and general assumptions of the ‘serious’ world. [… In] playing, one is on a different time […] Joyful play appears to suspend, or bracket, the reality of our ‘living towards death’

Peter L. Berger

Rehashing Berger’s quote, play can be considered as transcendental. Theologian Hugo Rahner (not to be confused with his famous younger brother Karl Rahner) develops this idea and speaks of fun-playing as evoking religious symbolism where God becomes a player and the church as the community of play. More so, one can further speculate that pre-Fall, we were created playful beings, but due to our hubris we came to understand labour as void of play.

As we reflect back on how most of us lived our lockdown, most of us ought to say our mea culpa. God offered us a Sabbath period where we could have enjoyed some play-time. We failed to interpret this period as an invitation to slow down and re-orientate ourselves on who we were created to be and by Who (which is after all what the Sabbath is all about). Our concerns, at least most of us, where how to remain functional given the current circumstances. We failed to discern God’s voice within. We approached and lived this period with a work-ethic and our main concern remained a post-lapsarian understanding of work.

Modernity’s “deepest poverty is the inability of joy,” says Ratzinger, and I believe he can’t be any righter.

As we prepare to enter a new phase of COVID-living, let us remember to include play as part of our daily routine, for in play, we are participating in a playful God.

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