Let me suggest that play is the essential and ultimate form of relationship with God. Unfortunately, our cultural presuppositions about play are ambivalent, to say the least, and the spiritual disconnect between play and church, or between play and spirituality, is generally quite comprehensive. For many the lightheartedness, the unpredictability and the fantasy of play appears to trivialize the spiritual life and there is a tendency to focus on alternative, more serious, dimensions of the religious endeavor, such as service, sacrifice, and commitment. But playfulness, properly understood I suggest, lies at the very heart of all spirituality and is critical for the whole of life.
A playful attitude is connected with the joy that is at the heart of a Spirit-filled life, and a certain playfulness in relation to other believers and to God is central to joy. The Apostle Paul described joy as part of “the fruit of the Spirit” and it anticipates the joy of being with Christ forever. And in that anticipatory sense it is interesting that Zechariah 8:5 describes the New Jerusalem as a city “filled with boys and girls playing”. The Lord Jesus said we should learn from children (Matthew 11:25) and it would be a good idea to consider both the future and present role of child-like (not childish) play in our relationship with God and with others.
It is a rare thing to find any sustained theological reflection upon the spiritual importance of a playful attitude but Hugo Rahner (1900–1968), in au unusual and detailed exposition, explored the Christian life entirely in terms of a playfulness that arises from the freedom of a God who plays. “Mere seriousness”, he argued, does not get down to the roots of things. Play is not trivial, indeed, only a playful way of living does justice to the seriousness of life. There is a sacred secret in play which is the hope for another form of life. All play arises from the human longing for the vision of the divine.
Just as in everyday life work without play makes one dull, in the Christian life service without a playful relationship with God leads to spiritual dullness. A playful spiritual life is one that emphasizes joy, delight, freedom, grace, and love. The spiritual life should be an adventure of faith involving all the characteristics of adventurous play: suspense and surprise, drama and danger, risk and reward, fun and freedom. Really, play is too good to be left to children! There is no time when we are as full of life as when we play! Play, or one might say, a playful attitude, is at the heart of religious experience. This is because play in the spiritual realm has the same qualities that play has at any time: itdoes not deal with what is, but rather with what could be. Play (and a playful spirituality) transcends immediate reality and takes one into another world. Play is the spontaneous expression of a free spirit, of something done purely and only because one wants to do it. There is no compulsion, for no one can be forced to play. And there are no ulterior motives in play—it is done only for its own sake. The one playing (or being spiritual) simply takes pleasure and delight in the playing.
Do not think that I am suggesting that doing a bit less work, and playing a few more games is the secret to a strong spiritual life! That runs the risk of trivializing the matter. No, the real order of things is precisely the reverse—that a rich spiritual life leads one to play, and to all that is involved in a playful attitude to life, including contentment in all situations, complete trust in God, the absence of worry and despair, and the presence of joy and happiness despite the problem of all kinds of pain.
A playful attitude is directly connected with contemplative prayer. In the very intense and philosophical Summa Theologica the influential (and otherwise somewhat dour) medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas recognized the spiritual benefits of a playful attitude both in life and in relationship to God. Indeed, rather than merely defending the concept he threw out a challenge to common thinking and asked whether it was not sinful not to play, and in considering the merits and pitfalls of play Aquinas was not only showing that play is an activity that has spiritual implications in the ordinary activities of life, he was, even more importantly, also deliberately laying the groundwork for a positive view of play as intrinsic to a life of contemplative prayer. A playful attitude in prayer enables us to both explore and enjoy our life with God. It is a joyful thing to appreciate that God wants to enjoy being in relationship with us, and to learn that a playful attitude enhances every aspect of our life and ministry. It can play a part in our growth in holiness and in understanding the nature of God more deeply.