Thursday, April 26, 2007

Burning Man and Play Theology

One of the more interesting research and reflection points for me in the writing of my masters thesis on Burning Man was where I engaged in a process of critical reflection on what insights this intentional community and festival might have for the Christian church in America. In order to reflect appropriately I adopted an approach informed by the work of sociologist Peter Berger in his book A Rumor of Angels (first published in 1969 and expanded in 1990). Berger said that he wanted “to show how the intellectual tools of the social sciences, which had contributed greatly to the loss of credibility of religion, could be turned on the very ideas that had discredited supernatural views of the world.” He described this as a sociologically-informed process of theologizing, “a very rough sketch of an approach to theologizing that began with ordinary human experience, more specifically with elements of that experience that point toward a reality beyond the ordinary.” This involved an inductive approach, informed by anthropology as well as sociology, which resulted in a “search for "signals of transcendence" in order to "transcendentalize secularity." By these signals of transcendence Berger meant “phenomena that are to be found within the domain of our ‘natural’ reality but that appear to point beyond that reality.”

One of the signals of transcendence specifically mentioned by Berger is the "argument from play." Although very few Catholic or Protestant theologians have written on festivity and fantasy, some have written on the related concept of play. David Miller is one such writer, and his work provides a concise overview and some helpful considerations as to the relationship between Christianity and play. He refers to human beings in the context of religious play as homo ludens, or humanity at play, a concept which compliments Harvey Cox’s reference to human beings as homo festivus and homo fantasia. As he considers theology in relation to play he states:

"It is one thing to use “play” and “game” terminology to construct academic theories about nature, the social order, and the self, but it is an altogether different matter to speak of religious matters, indeed, of the gods and God himself, in these terms. It may seem to some even blasphemous. Of course, it is true that some contemporary studies of religion which have adopted the game/play metaphor are far from orthodox in their viewpoint. But what may seem surprising to some is the quite blatant fact that the greatest number and the finest quality of “game” and “play” theologies have been written by very orthodox scholars who themselves stand squarely in the front doors of the religious traditions they are interpreting"

Miller also includes a discussion of the origin and history of ideas about games and play, and their connection to religious thought. He points to its continuing existence in religion through the metaphor of the child at play and says this is applied not only to conceptions of an Edenic paradise, “but also to Utopia and the Day of the Coming of God’s Kingdom. Doctrines of eschatology as well as doctrines of creation found the metaphor of play appropriate.” He then provides examples to support this in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures through Zechariah 8:3-5, and mentions that “[o]n at least two occasions the Gospels credit Jesus as comparing the Kingdom of God with children and their game and play."

Miller then moves to a discussion of a theologia ludens, or a theology of play, and he refers to an example of it developed by Jesuit scholar Hugo Rahner wherein “the interpretation of traditional religion as play – would view God as a player, man as a player, the church as the community of play, [and] salvation (both now and in the life to come) as play.”

In his continuing discussion of concepts of work and play in the West, particularly in light of the Protestant work ethic, Miller states that,

"The church of the Western tradition lives in that period after the Fall into a life of labor as its Scripture in fact indicates. But the same church has not been able to anticipate the heavenly Kingdom, to which its Scriptures also refer, a Kingdom of the Spirit which, like paradise before the Fall, is pictured as a spirited life of play, where play is not laborious, as work is, but labor is playful just as games are.”

I would like to draw the reader’s attention to two areas for further consideration from the discussion above. First, the Protestant work ethic, while important, must also be balanced against other important theological considerations, such as the significance of play. Second, in the discussion above play is mentioned theologically in connection with two primary areas of theology, both as an expression of the Kingdom of God, and as an expression of creativity by those in that Kingdom community. Both aspects of play theology are important, but for the purpose of direct connection to Burning Man and Christian reflection I will focus on play and its connection to creativity.

Rahner connects human play to the activities of God himself. He says, “we cannot truly grasp the secret of Homo ludens, unless we first, in all reverence, consider the matter of Deus ludens, God the Creator who, one might say, as part of a gigantic game called the world of atoms and spirits into being.”

Another theologian, Krondorfer, also connects human play with God as creator and human co-creativity:

"In contrast to more traditional (non-play) theologies which have interpreted Eve’s and Adam’s transgression as a paradigm of humanity’s inherent sinfulness, play theological generally favours the notion of co-creatorship which is warranted in the biblical proclamation to make humans in God’s image (Gen. 1:26). Human creativity, play theology presumes, is good because it is imitative of God’s creation."

The connection between human play and God’s creativity is significant for consideration of play as it is manifest at Burning Man. Theologians need not abandon the notion that something is dreadfully wrong with human beings as recorded in the biblical story and as evidenced by humanity’s devastating actions against themselves, nature, and Creator, but this aspect of the biblical narrative might be held in tension in contrast with the notion of co-creatorship so that a theology of play as an aspect of creativity of the imago Dei can be explored.

Of course, my thesis goes into more depth on explaining these issues, and in providing suggestions as to how the church might reflect and experiment with play as an expression of worship and human creativity, but these thoughts might be enough to get some creative juices flowing in my readers. Is it possible that a festival in the middle of the Nevada desert provides important lessons for the church?


Andii said...

I'm really glad someone's doing this John. I'm really convinced we need to do this particularly since reading Pat Kane's "Play Ethic" (
I'm keen to be able to follow this up myself (I had considered trying to do some work on it myself but had no real opportunity). I'd love to have references for the books you cite ... David Miller's particularly.

Also wondered whether you'd come across Homo Ludens by Johan H Huizinga?

John W. Morehead said...

Andi, thanks for the encouraging comments. I think this is an extremely important area for Christians to explore and I wondered whether the post would generate any comments.

I have not read Kane's book or seen Huizinga's.

As to my sources cited in my post and those I interact with in my thesis, see below. In addition, this is an especially interesting area when connected to studies in festival and folk performance. How might this be reconnected to the church's sacred calendar of celebrations as an expression of creativity, the imago Dei, the Kingdom, and worship?:

Cox, Harvey. 1969. The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Feasting and Festivity. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers.

Krondorfer, Bjorn. 1993. “Play Theology as Discourses of Disguise,” Journal of Literature & Theology 7/4 (December): 365-380.

Miller, David. 1970. Gods and Games. New York and Cleveland: The World Publishing Company.

Miller, David. 1971. “Theology and Play Studies: An Overview.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 39/1: 349-354.

Rahner, Hugo. 1967. Man at Play. New York, NY: Herder and Herder.

Anonymous said...

More grist for my mill!

Homo ludens - I love it.

One of the most damaging dualisms we suffer from in the west is that between work and play.

To see that most sacred of all acts - Creation - as Play, I see as bold, but quite justified. I mean, do we really think the "Great CEO" was making a move for profit and cosmic domination when he said "Let there be light"? No he wanted someone to love and dance with.

Unknown said...

This is really interesting stuff, thanks for providing your references. I also wondered if your thesis is complete and/or available to download.
I think a lot about this stuff (but in a pretty unacademic context) but I believe it's so important as part of our understanding of who we are as 21st Century Christians.

Be good to know if I could read it. Thanks!

John W. Morehead said...

My thesis is available and complete for anyone who'd like to read it. Send me an email and I'd be happy to send you a copy.