A third excerpt from my Ekklesia Project plenary address entitled: “And God Said: Creation, Word-Care, and the Care of the World.”

We’re used to describing the creation of the world as divine “work.” After all, God took a rest on the seventh day. We extrapolate from this to fashion an understanding of—and a rationale for—our own rhythms of work and rest. Moreover, we often associate human creativity with work. There’s a reason that a great musical composition is sometimes called an opus, from the Latin for “work”: more often than not it is a product of intense labor, rigorous and exacting for mind and body.

But there’s also a sense that creativity is a form of play and that God’s own creative work is playful. Of course, Christians historically have been suspicious of play. It’s the Protestant work ethic, after all. For Augustine, you may remember, conversion to Christianity meant conversion from a life of play. But I suspect that Augustine rejected not the kind of playfulness under consideration here but rather enjoyment of the wrong things.  

When theologians talk about the creation of the world, they often describe it in terms of an overflow of Trinitarian love. As Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas has argued, “Love is not an emanation or ‘property’ of the substance of God . . . but is constitutive of God’s substance, i.e. it is that which makes God what He is, the one God.”[1] This love—the supreme ontological predicate, as Zizioulas puts it[2]—overspills its bounds, so to speak, such that the act of creation is the outflowing of the triune God’s inexhaustible love. The love of the holy Trinity cannot be contained and the cosmos is born.

Central to the Christian doctrine of Creation is the idea that, for God, there is no compulsion to create—God’s love is already complete within the mutual self-giving of the persons of Trinity. God lacks nothing; God needs nothing. And it is this reality which makes Creation something of a playful enterprise. This overflow of divine love that brings the world into being is sheer gratuity, a gift that flows outward from the inner life of God. It is given freely, generously, and—we might say—playfully.

To risk a crude, anthropomorphism here, it’s as if God flung the stars into the vast heavens—a gesture of pure whimsy and joy. The second creation story in Genesis is suggestive of a God who wants to play with what he has created. When the Psalmist says to and of God, “you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind” (Psalm 104:3b), we understand that the poetry is metaphorical but it just sounds fun. G.K. Chesterton famously imagined the act of creation as God at play. Pondering a field of daisies Chesterton envisioned God, having created one daisy, delighting in it and saying to himself, “Do it again! Do it again!”[3]

When we think of play in the human realm we often misidentify it as aimless frivolity. (There are times, of course, when aimless frivolity is called for but that’s not exactly what we’re after here). Consider the philosophy of Maria Montessori who turned the categories of work and play inside out with her studied observation that children at play are doing the work they’ve been given to do—the “methodical, purposeful, deep work of establishing patterns in the body and mind that will serve as templates for all further learning”[4]—and that uptight, workaholic adults might have something to learn from this.

Or consider the phenomenon of improvisation in jazz, theatre, or dance. There’s a playfulness to this practice, an openness and generosity to one’s partner or partners that glimpses—if only briefly—the playfulness of divine self-giving. It’s not haphazard but it is joyful. Musician and writer Stephen Nachmanovitch suggests that the improvisation that occurs in art is the same creativity—what he calls “free play”—that can happen in the most ordinary of activities.[5]

Play is rooted in creatureliness, physicality. From a biblical point of view, it is the sheer delight in the goodness of being alive, of being a beloved creature of a generous God, “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14). It comes from learning to live thankful lives. It is freedom from the over-earnestness that stifles spontaneity and joy. It requires the habits of friendship—we can’t really play alone—that allow us to receive the gift of another in our lives for no calculated end other than that of delighting in their physical presence. And perhaps play is also a kind of training in virtue since playfulness is a quality we often recognize in people who practice generosity, patience, gentleness, peaceableness.  

What might all of this have to do with wordplay? In her recent book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre suggests that “play comes from loving life, and play with words comes from loving language.”[6] And we love language, I would suggest, when we are at home in it, when we have enough familiarity and facility to play with it and to be delighted and surprised by what such play might produce.

McEntyre notes that the sixteenth century French writer Montaigne is credited with coining the term “essay” for the brief thought pieces he wrote. “His writing,” says McEntyre, “has the delightful exuberance of someone who went through life saying, in effect, like E. M. Forster, ‘How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?’”[7] Stanley Hauerwas has explored this idea in his writing, most recently in his memoir, Hannah’s Child,[8] reminding us that even theological writing—maybe especially theological writing—is an exercise in being surprised (and changed) by playing with words.   

But to “play with words” within the traditions of theology and liturgy is not to strive for innovation. The theologian or liturgist, as Stanley has also taught us, is not charged with the task of originality, but with that of fidelity to a living tradition that has some parameters, to a language with rules of speech. There are things we know we can’t say—like, for instance, “that majestic mountain over there is God”—but such limits are not limitations. Rather, they are, as Wendell Berry observes, “inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning.”[9] That is, such limits make art and beauty possible. The received wisdom of the Christian tradition is an enclosure of sorts but it’s still a big room to play in.

I think of Marilynne Robinson’s marvelous novel, Gilead, as an example of the kind of rich play with language that makes art out of so little raw material and elegance out of textbook orthodoxy. Who knew Calvinism could be so beautiful? The setting of Gilead couldn’t be more prosaic—a dusty Iowa town in the 1950s—but Robinson is a skilled player with words (and a more than competent theologian). In a narrative of minimal action, she brings new life to old words and ideas, taking your breath away with startling insights on topics like baptism, blessing, and the work of human hands. Robinson shows us that to be stewards of the gift of language is to live in grace . . .

. . . The genius of Marilynne Robinson aside, theological wordplay involves risk and, as McEntyre puts it, “consent to the possibility of failure.”[10] It also requires trust. “It is to trust in the truth that we are saved, loved, and perfectly safe, and so we are free to play around a little.”[11] In sermons, prayers, poems, blogs—even scholarly writing—we can loosen up a little and approach the holy work of bearing witness with our words as the serious play it is. It seems we must do this if we are going to reckon honestly with the Church’s failures, its capitulation to the powers, its inability to speak its own language fluently and persuasively. In as playful a poem as I know of, Wendell Berry gives us a needed word of encouragement:

Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable.
Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.[12]

[1] John Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985), p. 46 (italics in original).

[2] Zizioulas, Being as Communion, p. 47 (Italics in original).

[3] G.K. Chesteron, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, reprint edition, 1995), p. 66.

[4] Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 189.

[5] Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1990).

[6] McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, p. 191.

[7] McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, p. 191.

[8] Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010).

[9] Wendell Berry, Faustian Economics, Harpers’s Magazine (May, 2008), italics in original. http://harpers.org/archive/2008/05/0082022

[10] McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, p. 194.

[11] McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, p. 195.

[12] Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC30/Berry.htm