Over the past couple of months I’ve been working my way through Der spielende Mensch (Man at Play), originally published in German in 1952, by the lesser known of the Rahner Brother. Hugo is the older brother of Karl Rahner and is perhaps better know for his work in Mariology. Pope Benedict XVI notes that the Marian title of “Mother of the Church” is derived from Hugo’s work on Ambrose. I was introduced to this book about a decade ago when I was in school and started reading it in the library but never finished reading it. I finally got a copy of the book so I was able to finish it, and this post is going to be like an overview of my thought on the whole book so it will be a bit long.
Often as we grow up we are told to “put away childish thing” and forget about play to focus on the serious things in life. However, this book takes a look at the role of play in the life of humankind. We start in the preface where Walter Ong, SJ talks about how work and play derive from the same source noting that the Latin word ludus translates to both school and play. This is where it begins as children are learning through play this method is used in several educational approaches. Ong continues that the best players in a game are professionals and their work is play this is similar to how the best workers are doing something where they can play around with things. Play at it’s core is imitation from children playing house and with dolls assuming the roles of parents to when you are becoming a teacher you get up in front of a class to present something. Sure most of the time when we think of play it is as a child playing outside or playing video games or our minds drift to the world of the arts. Ong suggests the play need to take play more seriously. We are the results of God’s play as it is the giving of life, first by creation and then by redemption.
Turning to the book, we start with an introduction which gives us the general idea of what is to come in the book. Rahner starts with looking at how we have understood play from the Early Church to the modern times with F.J. J. Buytendijk and Herman Hesse. Rahner begins with Thomas Aquinas, who devotes a whole section in his Summa Theologica (II. II. q 168. art 2-4) to play. In this section Aquinas mentions the Aristotelian concept of eutrapelia, which is the mean between boorishness and buffoonery to which we should all strive for or you could put it as is the nimbleness of mind which is an essential human ideal. Aristotle also says that “Recuperative rest and cheerful play seem to be necessary for life.” Aquinas puts this idea to the very heart of the Christian life.
Rahner divides the book into five chapters. The first looks at God at play Deus ludens from there he turns in chapter two to the playing of man Homo ludens The third chapter combines to two and look at the playing of the church which leads into the heavenly dance between the two in chapter four. Rahner concludes the book focusing on Eutrapelia which comes from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics which Aquinas also pulls from.
In God at Play we start with Plato’s idea that human kind is a plaything of God, which is the highest perfection of creation. Rahner then bring up the idea that the creation of the world and man happened though a divinely meaningful act was by no mean necessary. We serve not purpose for God other than being a plaything, and Rahner says that this is the best thing about us as it points us to make of ourselves the noblest game. Both Creation and incarnation are expression of God’s love and this love is a love that works in creative freedom wholly ungoverned by necessity or constraints
Turning to Man at play Rahner begins once again rooting ourselves in the Greek tradition with Plotinus, who called Man a living plaything and expressed that all things strive to the vision of God. Rahner continues we all imitate, as far as in us lies the quality of God’s own creative power. This idea is expressed very well by Stephen Schwartz in his musical Children of Eden where he wrote that “I am an echo of the eternal cry of Let there be” in the song Spark of Creation “The spark of creation, is flickering within me/ The spark of creation, is blazing in my blood/ A bit of the fire that lit up the stars/And breathed life into the mud, the first inspiration.” This brings us to two important aspects of Earthly life, firstly existence is a joyful thing and secondly it is also a tragic thing. This makes humankind “grave-merry”, a mingling of the light-hearted and the serious.
As we look at the playing of the Church Jesus is brought into this conversation, as God gave us Jesus and we can only respond to this with a love that is equally uncalculating and free. Rahner turns some Doctors of the Church, Gregory of Nazianzus who mentioned God’s playing that is in the incarnation when God became man in Jesus. This is a wonderful love-play hybrid and we all encounter this in different ways. As Thérèse of Lisieux desired to be nothing more than a toy, a little ball for the child Jesus, for a toy has no value a ball can be thrown on the ground and left or it can be treasured. This is where many get lost but it’s just echoing the call for “the little children to come to me.” The Church itself find itself in the actions of its members, we need to remember that we all the little Children that are being called no matter how old we are and we need to listen.
The next section we turn to the Heavenly Dance between the sacred and us. In fact there is a secret hidden at the core of play, that we hope for another life taking visible form in gesture. This is the longing for a vision of the divine and when we play is it a reaching out to this. Distilled one can say that play is dance. Scholars, philosophers and rhetoricians all seems fixated on this dance. Lucian of Samosata, wrote that “a man can only dance correctly and with beauty if he knows human nature and so is truly wise” he continues calling dance “the art of incarnating the spiritual and making visible the invisible.” Here is a deep concept that seems simple we must learn and grow to be able to be apart of the heavenly dance. The dance has been described through the ages like the stars as we are stardust or we are made of star stuff. Philo of Alexandria notes that God desires that the soul of the wise should be like heaven brought down to earth. Rahner then turns to the famed dancer from the Bible, David as he dance before the Lord with all of his might. To join in this dance isn’t to step up with our bodies but with our soul as well for dancing means changing the manner of our lives and bringing our body and soul into harmony.
We finally have gotten to the section on Eutrapelia, Aristotle’s golden mean between boorishness and buffoonery. Rahner calls this the forgotten virtue and talk about how Thomas Aquinas found this concept in Aristotle and it’s been stuck at the same point ever since in the moral theology. I find it easy to understand as it is a balance between the work and play is essential in all of our lives. Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics says that eutrapelia is play for the sake of seriousness and he also tells us of Anacharsis’s motto “Play in order that you may work” which seems like a radical idea even today when so many of us are so focused on the seriousness of life but it is great advice. There is also some discussion that there is a time and place for everything and we should keep this in mind. As we try to bring balance to the world through play.
I think what this really all boils down to is love. Sure it’s one of the major topic I talk about here but it is the most important thing that we can do in out lives. It goes back to that Great Commandment or the Golden Rule, you know as the Ancient Egyptian put it “That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.” As we enter this season of Lent let us all be inspired to bring eutrapelia back to the world and try to encounter the world with love first and foremost as well as being open to the call from the Lord to “Come to him like little children”.