What is the nature (or “Wesen”) of the liturgical phenomenon? It has become immensely popular to describe liturgical or ritual practice as a kind of “holy play,” whether as metaphor, as productive analogy for pragmatic or theological purposes, or even as making an ontological claim about what liturgy “is” in its essence. The present article seeks to complicate the association of the phenomena of liturgy and of play. The first part traces the origins of the notion of play and the development of its application to ritual in the most influential sources from Kant to Gadamer. The second part highlights its prevalence in the contemporary discussion and elucidates how it is being used. The third part provides a phenomenological analysis to demonstrate important differences between the two phenomena and to question the contention that liturgy is a form of play. The final part tries to ascertain the broader practical and theological aims being served by the association of the two phenomena and—via a return to the question of the nature of the liturgical phenomenon in a more theological mode—suggests that these aims might be accomplished more productively in ways that avoid the downsides of identifying ritual or liturgy with play.
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