To be human is to be at play–to engage in acts that are purposeless, but meaningful. So argues Brendan McInerny, who is a 2016/17 Resident Scholar at the Collegeville Institute and Adjunct Professor at the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University. In this interview, Betsy Johnson-Miller asked Brendan about his work exploring a theology of play, one that offers a much-needed perspective on our activity in the world.
In our society, playing is usually seen as something kids or dogs do, and yet you argue that “we are most fully human when we engage in those acts that are ends in themselves.” Can you unpack what you mean by that?
In the first place, it may help to explain what I mean by “those acts that are ends in themselves.” I can rephrase that as “those acts that have no strict purpose.” This idea is perhaps easiest to understand in contrast to those acts that are a means to an end outside of themselves; they are “purposeful,” as the theologian Romano Guardini preferred. In the case of the latter, the activity in question is determined and measured by the ends aimed at. One judges the activity of car maintenance by the result of a functioning car. Taking a flight to another city is successful if the city is reached, and if in a timely manner, and so on.
Play is fundamentally different. Even if it has consequences beyond itself, play is not purposeful. It is not measured by external ends. Imagine the toddler running around her home, growling and roaring like a lion. To ask what the child’s purpose is as she runs around roaring like a lion is almost absurd. Her purpose is precisely to run around roaring like a lion. Her means are identical to her end.
If we accept this basic sense of play, we can begin to see how it extends beyond playing and games in the narrow sense. As one of the great play-theorists of the twentieth century puts it, play takes forms both “below” and “far above” the seriousness of everyday life, and can very often include seriousness. What the toddler or the ball player does is not so very different than what the artist (especially the dancer) does or the philosopher. Dancing, singing, rhyming, scribbling on paper, building towers with blocks–in the case of the child, these are rudimentary, but they are the basic ‘skills’ that can develop into the ‘highest’ forms of human art.
What is especially remarkable, once one begins looking for play is that, even if we can conceptually distinguish between play and “work,” we discover that play or its material, social “residue,” is everywhere. This residue is what we commonly call culture. Play and culture go hand in hand. Virtually nothing in our human existence can be totally reduced to utilitarian purposes. Look around you. That purposeful desk you’re sitting at was probably designed to be more than simply a platform to hold your things – its construction likely involved at least a minimal interest in being attractive, perhaps it even includes certain, unproductive, superfluous embellishments. Attractiveness, ornamentation, pleasure, and delight (and here we might recognize a kind of delight that is deeper than simple pleasantness) – these are the signatures of play, of a ‘wasteful’ purposelessness that imbues our lives. Even in the case of satisfying basic biological necessities – such as eating – we find this tendency to superfluity, toward purposelessness, toward playing. We cook our food with fire, enhance it with spices, combine and recombine with other ingredients, playing with the gifts of nature for our sustenance. Similarly, we tend to decorate the places we inhabit. This is the case even archaeologically – ancient cave paintings found in Chauvet, Lascaux, and the much likely earlier Bruniquel all show the primordial orientation toward playing.
What are some of the damaging or troubling ways we have thought about humans in Western culture in the past?
The great temptation, it seems to me, is the reduction of acts and things to the status of means. In some sense, the modern West became obsessed with means, methods, use, and purpose, to the neglect of meaning, inherent value, dignity. That is not to romanticize the pre-Modern West, but it is to say that something shifts in modernity. When the shift occurs is not entirely evident. Thinkers in the 17th century began viewing nature as an object to be mastered. And with the industrial and technological revolution of the 19th century, the sense that we can be the masters of nature – even human nature – is proven right, but as we know in retrospect this has not been entirely to our benefit. Totalitarianism is an extreme case of the dangers of a technological, utilitarian vision of the world. But we can also see it in what we call liberalism – here, in a classical sense, not a contemporary American one where reality is seen as a series of problems to be solved using various techniques – whether legal, technological, or economic. An end is in sight, all we need is the right data and the right tool and we can get there. This same attitude imbues virtually any institution of a large enough scale. We breathe this in the air of our white-collar offices, our universities, our farms, factories, hospitals, everywhere.
The good of the economy is raised above all other goods and our own dignity only consists in our ability to consume or to provide something to consume. We have replaced the deep notions of the end of human life – happiness, bliss – with a flimsy vision of middle class comfort.
How do those visions affect our relationship with the divine?
Why should play become a fundamental consideration of human existence and of theology?
Considering play for human existence helps us to realize what makes our lives most meaningful. As I said, the temptation exists to reduce ourselves and the world to instruments, tools to fulfill some task. But, of course, we hope we retain the knowledge that ‘what matters most’ in our lives does not fit this at all. Our loved ones – precisely by being loved – are never just instruments for us and all those activities we do out of love are not simply some means to some other end. They carry a weight “purpose” doesn’t measure.
To defend play pushes against the deadening of our ability to appreciate the best in life. Too often play is explained as fulfilling a kind of psychological purpose. It is ‘practice’ for ‘real’ life. Or a needed release of energy – an energy that could be destructive otherwise (never mind how destructive child’s play can be). Play is really not very good at achieving the supposed purpose. It is horribly inefficient and might as well fall by the wayside.
Theology can benefit from this line of thinking in a number of ways. First, attentiveness to play in its various forms might reconnect theology to its roots – in particular, liturgy, which entails ritual, but also poetry, music, even dance and in most churches plastic arts as well. The soil of theology is a kind of purposeless, bodily action, an action the ends of which are fulfilled in the doing – and doing again and again over time. This is incredibly important. It changes the presumed context of theology from, say, the classroom to the gathered liturgical assembly. With play, we are not trapped in abstract mental spaces, dealing in vapor. We are rather talking about flesh and blood human beings.
Finally, theology, to the frustration of many students, does not provide definitive answers. It is always an exercise in futility because the mystery it contemplates cannot be translated into a ‘discourse of mastery and control’. It does not provide information that we can metaphorically put in our mental pockets to use to solve some later problem. Certainly, theology can at times give insights into various issues, but the insight does not exhaust theology. One cannot really say: “I do theology in order to…” just as I cannot really say “I love in order to….” The moment you say these words with full seriousness, you have ceased to do theology or to love and have slipped into some other territory. Theology, in other words, is play. Serious play, perhaps, but play nonetheless.
How does play relate specifically to Trinitarian theology?
Without a theological account, play is profoundly ambiguous. Plato made the claim that our best part was in being the playthings of the gods and our happiness consisted in a life of play. His fictional interlocutors immediately object to the claim and we are probably inclined to object as well. There is something offensive to us about being a plaything, to imagine that our deepest cares and worries are really not very important at all. We want to be taken seriously.
Trinitarian theology helps to give greater insight and meaning to the play of existence. I take my lead from Thomas Aquinas who argued that the reason why God revealed to human beings his trinitarian life was so that we might better know the nature of reality. Thomas says that because God is triune we can know that God creates utterly freely and that God does so out of the infinity of his love. The world, therefore, is not an object of purpose or necessity for God. It does not satisfy some sort of externally or internally imposed need on God’s part. It is exclusively the object of gratuitous love. Put otherwise, creation as a whole is because of divine playing – and this playing is one of love. Our own playing, our own refusal to reduce our acts to strict biological or utilitarian purpose, to waste time and energy in superfluity, is a sign of being made in the image and likeness of God.
Further, because it flows from a fount of gratuitous divine love – a love which has no final explanation according to why or wherefore, – creation is charged with mystery, with grandeur. The playground or field in which our play occurs exists with its own integrity, its own web of relationships, which themselves rest on a primordial relation to the Creator. A theology of play can, perhaps, reorient ourselves not only to what is best in our lives, but also what is to be valued in creation.