2. The Legacy of Interpreting Liturgy and Ritual as Play
2.1. Kant and Schiller: The Play of the Imagination
2.2. Guardini and Rahner: The Serious Play of Children
2.3. Huizinga and Fink: Primitive Ritual and Festival
2.4. Gadamer: Play and the Work of Art
3. The Ludic Presupposition in Contemporary Liturgical Theology
3.1. Liturgy as a Game
3.2. Liturgy as Drama
3.3. Liturgy as Gratuitous
4. Distinguishing the Phenomenon of Liturgy from That of Play
4.1. Seriousness and Mirth: What Is the Affectivity of Liturgical Engagement?
4.2. Rules and Moves in the Game: What Is the Structure of Liturgical Practice?
4.3. Mimesis and Gratuity: What Is the Aim of Liturgical “Performance”?
5. Conclusions: The Wesen of Liturgical Practice
Conflicts of Interest
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Kant distinguishes between form or figure (Gestalt) and play (Spiel). This can be a play of forms (as in dance) or of mere sensations (Empfindungen) (1790, pp. 85, 89). It is also worth noting that the communal sense (Gemeinsinn) is created by the free play of our cognitive powers (1790, p. 101).
The idea of purposiveness (Zweckmäßigkeit) is absolutely crucial to Kant’s discussion. In the case of the beautiful, an object of pleasure or desire has purposiveness without a clear vision of its purpose (Vorstellung eines Zwecks). Cf. the conclusion to the “third moment” of the explanation of the beautiful (1790, p. 99). The power of imagination is both free and underlies rules (1790, p. 105). That means that it must play in a purposive fashion (1790, p. 107). Kant distinguishes between (lower) aesthetic forms where play is arbitrary and the gaze quickly tires and higher forms of art where imagination engages in purposive play.
One should note that this playfulness of the experience of the beautiful is quite different from the seriousness at stake in the feeling of the sublime, elicited by wonder at the grandeur of nature rather than pleasure in the beautiful.
Kant explicitly appeals to the playing of games at a dinner party in this context (1790, p. 221), analyzing the affect of pleasure or even laughter created by such play (1790, p. 222).
The fullest discussion is in Letters 14 and 15, although the Spieltrieb is mentioned briefly in a couple later letters (e.g., Letters 26 & 27) as well.
This idea will reappear in a different way in Hugo Rahner’s treatment of play.
“Der Mensch soll mit der Schönheit nur spielen, und er soll nur mit der Schönheit spielen... er ist nur da ganz Mensch, wo er spielt” (1795, p. 238; emphases his). In a much later letter (Letter 26), Schiller will add to the Spieltrieb a Bildungstrieb, i.e., a drive to education/formation/cultivation; both deal with appearances (1795, p. 275).
Interestingly, Guardini warns in a note at the outset of the chapter on the “playfulness of the liturgy”: “In what follows the writer must beg the reader not to weigh isolated words or phrases. The matter under consideration is vague and intangible, and not easy to put into words. The writer can only be sure of not being misunderstood if the reader considers the chapter and the general train of thought as a whole” (1930, p. 85). Jonathan Lewis provides a summary of Guardini on play (Lewis 2010, pp. 30–32). He summarizes the main elements of play as being (1) without purpose, (2) creative, (3) natural, (4) communal, (5) active, and (6) joy-filled. He claims that all six apply equally to liturgy. He accuses anyone who thinks (or acts) otherwise of “liturgical abuse” (2010, pp. 31–32).
Many other thinkers refer to this passage. See below for further examples.
The final chapter argues that heaven/the eschaton is also characterized by dance.
That is certainly how he is read by commentators (cf. below).
One wonders whether all these men with their idyllic images of childhood have forgotten their own childhood and never actually interact with children.
Aside from Huizinga, there are also studies by G. Bally, F. J. J. Buytendijk, R. Caillois, K. Gross, J. Heidemann, G. von Kujawa, A. Rüssel, H. Scheuerl, and P. Slade, all published in the space of roughly 15–20 years (from Buytendijk’s Wesen und Sinn des Spieles in 1934 to Scheuerl’s work in the fifties; Gross’s work is slightly earlier). Psychological studies in the early 20th century also often investigated the role of play, especially in childhood development studies (e.g., Piaget, Rüssel, Slade, Zullinger). Huizinga’s treatment has become the most famous and is the one cited by far the most frequently in theological treatments, so I focus on him as representative here.
Huizinga explicitly refers to Guardini in his treatment (1944, p. 19). Oddly, Huizinga argues that sexuality, including flirting, does not have anything to do with play, while ritual is all about play (e.g., 1944, p. 43).
He reiterates this multiple times: “The participants in the rite are convinced that the action actualizes and effects a definite beatification, brings about an order of things higher than that in which they customarily live. All the same this ‘actualization by representation’ still retains the formal characteristics of play in every respect” (1944, p. 14).
On the topic of the feast, see also Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture, which culminates in an analysis of the celebration of the feast (“the core of leisure”) as “the basis of worship,” which is thus the supreme activity of leisure (Pieper 1952, p. 65). While he does not employ the language of play in this context, his discussion of leisure parallels the claims made by others about play: its opposition to work, its freedom, its finding its use in itself rather than something beyond it, i.e., it is done for its own sake (1952, p. 72).
Most of his claims rely on Greek festivals: “The agon in Greek life, or the contest anywhere else in the world, bears all the formal characteristics of play, and as to its function belongs almost wholly to the sphere of the festival, which is the play-sphere” (1944, p. 31).
“From very early on, however, sacred and profane contests had taken such an enormous place in Greek social life and gained so momentous a value that people were no longer aware of their play-character” (1944, p. 31).
“Genuine play possesses besides its formal characteristics and its joyful mood, at least one further very essential feature, namely the consciousness, however latent, of ‘only pretending’” (1944, p. 22).
Given that both books (Fink’s and Gadamer’s) are published in the same year, neither author refers to the other in their treatment of play, but clearly this topic was “in the air,” so to speak (e.g., Caillois 1962). One should note that Fink makes some odd distinctions between philosophy and theology. He claims that it begins in religion but is now becoming secular or profane. His goal therefore is not a “phenomenology of play” but “a recognition of play as a key phenomenon of truly universal stature” (“Doch hier geht es gar nicht so sehr in erster Linie um die Erfassung einer Sache, nicht um eine ‘Phänomenologie’ des Spiels, sondern um die Welt-Bedeutsamkeit des Spiels, um die Erkenntnis des Spieles als eines Schlüsselphänomens von wahrhaft universalem Rang”) (1960, p. 54). See also his discussion of the symbolism of bread (1960, p. 152).
“Primitive cult has the character of play because it is first of all magic of masks” and participates in the demonic (1960, p. 181).
Interestingly, Fink thinks that contemporary liturgy is mere residue of ancient cult, having lost all its fire, hence become mere ashes of ancient ritual (1960, pp. 186–87).
Several unquestioned assumptions seem at work in many of the German thinkers: on the one hand that labor (associated with the lower classes) is less valuable than leisure activities (such as the higher classes can pursue and which were by many at the time considered the mark of “civilization” and “culture”), on the other hand that activities with utilitarian or pragmatic ends are of less value than those undertaken solely for their own sake (maybe unconsciously influenced by the idealist bent of much German philosophy). This is coupled with a paradoxical (romanticizing) elevation and simultaneous dismissal (as “superstituitous”) of “primitive” cultures.
Guardini similarly emphasizes the “seriousness” and “absorption” of the child’s play and of artistic creation (1930, p. 103).
Ricœur also stresses this in his analysis of Gadamer on play, which goes on to apply this notion of play to the move of appropriation in the mimetic interaction with the “world” of narrative (Ricoeur 1981, pp. 185–93).
“Setting off the playing field—just like setting off sacred precincts, as Huizinga rightly points out—sets off the sphere of play as a closed world, one without transition and mediation to the world of aims.” (1960, p. 107). Indeed, the religious act “rests absolutely within itself” and conveys a superior truth (1960, p. 112).
A search for “liturgy” and “play” on the ATLA Religion Index yields a result of roughly a hundred articles. A couple of those are about using “play” as a pedagogical function for children’s church or catechesis (e.g., Sokol 1981), but the great majority concern themselves with the idea that liturgy itself is a form of play. It is also worth pointing out that many other liturgical treatments (both in liturgics and in contemporary liturgical theology) make briefer references to the parallel between play and liturgy or assume their identification as a presupposition without further elaboration. For one example, see Power (1984, p. 85). These kinds of references are ubiquitous in the literature. I have focused here on the fuller treatments that explicitly discuss the issue rather than simply assuming it as a given.
She relies heavily on Gelineau (“The Symbols of Christian Initiation”) who challenged churches to “play” with the symbols of their liturgies.
Dalmais also speaks of liturgy functioning as play (in Martimort 1987, p. 235). Similarly, Gallen (1973, p. 273) argues that play is at the very heart of ritual. Like others he grounds this in the verse from Proverbs where wisdom is playing before God and the idea that God himself plays (1973, p. 274), already expressed by Hugo Rahner. Ilyés (among many others) also refers to this (2009, p. 140).
He explicitly appeals to Gadamer in this context: “Following Simmel, one can regard choral evensong as a form of sociability, a playing at a game to effect its own transcendence, so that the social mechanism passes out of prominence to become unnoticed and insignified. Ultimately, the social seems to disappear altogether. As a form of play, choral evensong is a ritual game played with ontological significance, translating the ordinary into the realm of the extraordinary. Its form finds true expression in pursuing a task Gadamer has stipulated for play. This means finding its true perfection in being an art effecting ‘the transformation into structure’ of a holy ideal. Achieving this means that the form enters as play...” (1988, p. 361).
“Die Liturgiefeier ist bildhaft-dramatisches Geschehen, in das möglichst alle Feiernden als Spielende einbezogen werden sollen, weil gerade das Erleben ein wesentliches Element des sakramentalen Geschehens ist” (2005, p. 19).
Christine Schnusenberg interprets the Eucharist in terms of ancient theatre (Schnusenberg 2010).
“People have to be capable of playing with rites and symbols so that they can experience their meaning. The meaning of the liturgy is released by the game” (Speelman 2002, p. 214).
He employs Kantian language of purposiveness to work this out.
He does, however, also acknowledge several differences between theatre and liturgy (2009, pp. 42–43).
He also links it to freedom, appealing to Pannenberg and Moltmann in this context (2009, p. 141).
In fact, he argues that the observation of these rules is identical in both cases (2009, p. 145).
Indeed, he mentions in one breath “football, many children’s games, the liturgy of the Hours, the liturgy of the Word and the Eucharist” (2009, p. 147).
“None of that accomplishes anything or gets us anything.” (Westermeyer 1998, p. 198).
It is maybe also worth pointing out (as one of the reviewers did) that the theologians examined in this section are all operating within a Christian framework, predominantly Protestant and Roman Catholic, and are making claims about (Western) Christian liturgy. (I have yet to find an Orthodox liturgical theologian who embraces the play analogy or makes ontological claims about liturgy as play, although the language of mimesis is certainly employed by some). The phenomenological analysis in the next section will thus also focus on the experience of Christian liturgy (rather than ritual experience more broadly), although it will attempt to be sufficiently broad to account for Eastern Christian liturgical experience as well, especially given that liturgical experience is absolutely central to the Eastern Christian traditions.
I have tried to work out the broader phenomenological structures of liturgical experience, using the example of the Orthodox tradition, in my Welcoming Finitude (Gschwandtner 2019).
That is, it produces what in German is called an “Aha Erlebnis”; a “yes, that’s it” kind of response.
It should be noted that German uses only one term (Spiel) for these three terms or kinds of activities, while English has at least three. Some of the German arguments sound far more tenuous in English, because the etymological connection is less obvious (which may indicate that there are actually different phenomena at work).
That is why Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games,” for example, have ceased to be “play”; the only remotely playful element exists merely for the spectators. The same is true when riots occur at soccer games. A line is crossed once violence erupts.
This also enables us to make other kinds of distinctions: Certainly mimes or theatre can send subtle political messages, but to the extent that they remain art and have not yet become politics, such implications remain playful. When they cease to be playful, it ceases to be theatre and has become propaganda.
Again, I want to be clear that these are not theological (or anthropological/”scientific”) claims, but a phenomenological description of the structures of manifestation of liturgical experience in comparison with the experience of play.
Don Saliers, however, does argue for the importance of “hilarity” in worship (1994a, p. 41).
This is particularly obvious in Schmemann’s analyses of liturgy, which are permeated with an emphasis on joy (a prominent theme in both 1973 and 1987). He also repeatedly insists that its symbolic nature actually means that it participates in the real, despite current misunderstandings of symbol as indicating the opposite.
It should be noted that affectivity for phenomenology is not merely emotion, but refers to broader and more fundamental dispositions, what Heidegger terms Befindlichkeit, i.e., the very condition for emotions and moods, inasmuch as all our dispositions and ways of being in the world are always already “colored” in affective fashion.
One only has to look around in the average parish on a Sunday morning to realize that this sort of attentiveness or absorption is not always present in liturgy. More importantly, that does not mean that liturgy ceases to function. While a game may not work if the players are not fully devoted to it, liturgy can work on its participants, even when they are not fully conscious of or completely attentive to it.
That is to say, maybe “pedagogical” imagery would ultimately be more useful than “athletic” or “playful” imagery. In a quite different sense, James Smith applies the idea of pedagogical formation to liturgy and even draws a parallel to playing war games that shape subjects’ dispositions such that they are willing to sacrifice their lives in battle (Smith 2013, pp. 16–20, 138–39). While this does indeed say something important about how bodies, affects, and dispositions are formed, one should be careful with loaded metaphors.
The moves do have a high stake in something like gambling, but those are quite different stakes: those of obsessions or addiction that maybe distinguish gambling from other playing in an essential fashion. The specific nature of the moves certainly does matter in performance or drama, which may point to an important distinction between children’s play or games on the one hand and “a play” in the sense of theatrical or musical performance on the other. When play crosses over into performance the moves are more weighty, not as easily replaceable, and often judged by their beauty or grace, although in that latter case the judge or spectator is no longer involved in the game.
Here I am obviously speaking of more “traditional” liturgy or at least stable forms of liturgy (such as in main-line Protestant, in Roman Catholic, and in Orthodox contexts). Some of the arguments about spontaneity and freedom laid out above (e.g., Walton, Wainwright, and others) clearly presume a more free-form style of worship, as in many evangelical or charismatic Protestant worship experiences, although even there the practices can usually not simply be changed arbitrarily and are governed by certain recognizable formats that permit the people to participate.
Sometimes the idea of “language games” is, in fact, applied to these other activities. Yet, if everything becomes a type of game, does the analogy or metaphor still carry sufficient meaning?
In this respect it is telling that Guardini added a chapter on the seriousness of liturgy after the chapter on its playfulness to later editions of his book, which clearly indicates some concern that the emphasis on play might somehow trivialize liturgy.
Taft rightly says: “What ordinary people in ordinary parishes need is familiarity, sameness, the stability of a ritual tradition that can be achieved only by repetition, and that will not tolerate change every time the pastor reads a new article. The only way people are going to perceive liturgy as their own, and therefore participate in it, is when they know what is going to happen next” (1997, p. 297). Such protest can, of course, also occur when rules for certain sports are changed. Maybe in that case the commitment to the sport has become a kind of ritual commitment. (While this article focuses on whether the language of play is appropriate for liturgy, it would be interesting to examine to what extent ritual language might be appropriate for certain kinds of games. There is certainly a “ritual” dimension to many popular sports. Some of these parallels have been examined in ritual studies, but to explore them further would go beyond the bounds of this paper.)
To cite Taft again: “When liturgy professionals talk about spontaneity, they mean their spontaneity, not the community’s. The only way to secure the congregation’s appropriation of worship is to celebrate the order of worship that is theirs, and not lay on their already weary shoulders a spontaneity trip in which they have had no part” (1997, p. 298; emphasis his). Clearly, the extent to which liturgy can shift or the “rules” have to be observed strictly depends on the particular liturgical tradition under examination. Orthodox worshipers have been known to object even when typos are corrected in the service books.
Again, the degree and form this participation takes in a given liturgy depends to a large extent on the particular liturgical tradition or expression under examination. The kinds of participation evangelical or charismatic worshippers expect in their worship services are quite different from those in Orthodox liturgies. Yet, even the most apparently “passive” liturgy (e.g., one in which those up front perform everything and the congregation primarily watches or one performed in a foreign language that the congregation does not understand) expects that it is somehow appropriated by its participants, that their coming to it becomes meaningful for them, such that their lives are affected and changed.
The Orthodox liturgy famously exhorts (in the “Cherubic Hymn” in which the eucharistic gifts are brought to the altar) to “lay aside all earthly cares.” But this is not a suspension of life, not a severance from our identity, but instead a shift in focus: instead of being preoccupied with their concerns and worries the participants are called to focus on God’s action. Yet, the litanies and petitions are constantly concerned with the “cares of life” and certainly the ritual practices of confession in many tradition assume that one’s identity and actions are fundamentally at stake. What would it mean to “play” at confession or to “perform” it as drama?
Can it really be said of liturgy that the “real subject” of liturgy is the liturgy and not those who participate in it, as Gadamer does for play?
This is also why it is deeply problematic to film liturgy or move it online, where it becomes wholly spectacle and “participation” is reduced to passive watching on screen. Here it has become mere appearance that no longer participates in the reality of the liturgical act. Liturgy requires the participation of bodies (in the plural and the fully corporeal); it cannot function if it is merely observed.
I have tried to work these parallels out more fully in my “Mimesis or Metamorphosis: Liturgical Practice and its Philosophical Background” (Gschwandtner 2017).
It does not seem right to say, as Gadamer does for tragedy, that liturgy constitutes a “closed circle of meaning that of itself resists all penetration and interference” (1960, p. 126). Most obviously in prayers and homilies, but also in other ways, liturgy is open to penetration and even “interference" from the “reality outside” of the ritual. And liturgical acts like ordination or marriage have legal validity outside the church doors.
This is probably a less important point, but it seems to me that liturgy is unlike the work of art also in that it does not produce a “work” in quite the way in which much art does. Liturgy itself is work, but it does not produce a finished work that might be admired—and in that sense it may well be experienced as closer to labor than to play. It is work that always has to be undertaken anew. Liturgy is never finished in the way in which a work of art can be completed. Although certain kinds of art, like music, surely always have to be performed anew in order to be experienced as works (in the performance), even in those cases the work of art has a quasi-finished nature in the score or in previous performances or even recordings of such performances. We surely must perform Beethoven’s 9th Symphony over and over, play it again, but these are “interpretations” or “incarnations” of the completed work in a way that is different from the “instantiations” of liturgy. Liturgy would not exist without these instantiations, the symphony would (e.g., many of Bach’s works were for lost for years and not played or even remembered. Yet, when they were found and interest in his work revived, the works could be played again, because they were “there” in the score to at least some extent). The Anglican Book of Common Prayer or the Roman Missal or the Orthodox Typikon is not equivalent to a musical score or the text of a play. They are sets of instructions to make liturgy happen, not works of art to be contemplated or admired on their own terms. Nor are these texts quite the liturgy itself in the way in which the text of Hamlet is the play, even though it is certainly instantiated fully only in a staging of Hamlet. (Admittedly, this might be different for Romanos’ kontakia or the Syriac liturgical poems, which seem slightly closer to the staging of a play or even a concert performance and also have more elements of “spectacle,” inasmuch as they were actually “performed” by liturgical actors for an audience, albeit during liturgy. Andrew Walker White argues strenuously that the service of the furnaces is not a play, has nothing to do with theatre, and does not function mimetically . This seems wrong-headed; although they are not the same, there is certainly overlap and this service does clearly have mimetic and even theatrical elements.)
A good example of this is the difference between listening to religious music composed for worship versus listening to it within the setting of a concert or on a recording at home. It may be beautiful and even moving, but it is a different kind of experience than the use of music within the liturgy. Flanagan is sharply critical of this: “No longer does one have to wait to hear a Hayden mass. One can play it with ease, instantly, and anywhere, on a CD player, or a video, in a way that makes no demands that might unsettle with a reciprocal gaze. We do not permit the sacred object to ask a question. The CD player asks little except to be switched on. It respects privacy without staring back in a way that makes uncomfortable obligations. A gin and tonic can be had while stretched out on the sofa, giving the Sanctus an uplifting effect. One can recline secure in the knoweldge that no manners are violated in this civil right to private listening to sacred music with no holy strings attached” (1991, p. 333).
A reviewer pointed out—quite rightly—that this is also true for some types of play. Surely both children’s play and many types of sports form moral character. So maybe here there is actually a parallel that is to some extent denied by the literature that makes the association. The question is, of course, whether this parallel is sufficiently strong to justify considering the liturgical phenomenon as a phenomenon of play and whether the “moral” aim of sports or children’s play is like that of liturgy.
In fact, moralizing plays or explicitly political “art” are often considered propaganda and thought to be of less aesthetic value than art that does not have such clear pedagogical or political aims.
Although he primarily treats it as an analogy, he ultimately makes the more fundamental ontological claim that liturgy is play (1983, p. 302).
This can obviously be only the most cursory overview, not a full discussion. In each case I have selected what the respective theologian suggests or explicitly argues is the most fundamental or essential nature of the liturgical phenomenon.
Joyce Ann Zimmerman similarly thinks of liturgy as a privileged “way to live our conscious being’s commitment to God, not only as a cultic occasion but as the primary dimension of Christian faith” (Zimmerman 1988, p. 197).
In his Models of the Eucharist, he says: “Succinctly put, liturgy is both a means and an end. It is a means of integrating the various aspects of our lives, with all our strengths, weaknesses, successes, failures, possibilities, and limitations. We bring our real lives to the enactment of the mystery of faith so that our faith in God can guide the way we deal with all that makes life a challenge.” (Irwin 2005, p. 296).
Similarly, in a different context he says: “Put simply, worship of God is the entire Christian life, and thus the entire mission of the church in the world. Liturgy is the symbolic, ritual activity of the assembled church. It gives believers an explicit sense, a tangible presence, of the God hidden in their daily lives, as well as something of the specific content, through proclaiming and responding to Sacred Scripture, of what this ongoing human encounter with the divine is like. In the church’s liturgy believers glorify God by participating more deeply in God’s vision for the world and their place in it through word and sacrament” (Morrill 2009, p. 6).
To cite one more philosopher in the Reformed tradition: Nicholas Wolterstorff claims that “Christians do not enact the liturg in order to placate God, they do not enact the liturgy in order to keep themselves in God’s good graces... they do not enact the liturgy in order to center themselves” but instead “assemble to worship God” which means that liturgy is a “Godward” movement that consists in “awed, reverential, and grateful adoration of God” (Wolterstorff 2015, pp. 26, 38).
Graham Hughes argues that worship rituals enable “the facilitation of access to the group’s God, and the disclosure of that deity’s character in such a way that an appropriate response is elicited. Any attempt to give an account of the ‘meaning’ or ‘meanings’ generated within such an assembly must be capable of comprehending this dimension” (Hughes 2003, p. 41). He draws on hermeneutic and semiotic theories to explore such meaning in worship, stressing especially the ways in which worship must intersect with the horizon of the contemporary person for otherwise it would remain meaningless. He concludes that “liturgical meaning is effected at the extremity of what we can manage to comprehend as human beings. Worship is a journey ‘to the edge of chaos’. It is something liminal, standing on the borderline of finitude and the infinite. It is both the terror and the ecstasy of coming to the edge of ourselves” (2003, p. 257). Following the work of Victor Turner, language of liminality is frequently employed by liturgical theologians.
This has been worked out far more fully in my Reading Religious Ritual with Ricoeur (Gschwandtner 2021).
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