God’s Inaudible Mirth

by Joshua Clemmons

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Play is innate and ancient, even eternal. 

The place for play in human perfection was not lost on St. Thomas Aquinas, the genius theologian that has been converting intellects to faith for centuries.  He takes up Aristotle’s virtues and notes the virtue of eutrapelia, or wittiness, as a habit moderating our instinct to play.  The witty man is “pleasant through having a happy turn of mind, whereby he gives his words and deeds a cheerful turn: and inasmuch this virtue restrains a man from immoderate fun, it is comprised under modesty” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 168.2).   Furthermore, if one were to be burdensome to others, hindering their enjoyment, it would be a social vice, making one boorish or rude. 

For Aquinas, the usefulness of play is something like rest for the soul and is ordered to getting one back to the rigorous efforts of reason and contemplation – things that are peculiar to the rational animal.  This isn’t far from what we find in the current neuropsychological literature on play which has it that the pleasant, low stakes social interaction involved in play conduces to creativity and the exploration of various social roles.  It feeds higher cognitive functions, and one might say that it provides a kind of foresight, fostering practical reasoning.  Play is not contrary to serious thought but has a role in mediating it.

If play is something so central to our basic nature and reaches new heights in our ability to enter into higher order games, like wordplay and wit, even to the point that philosophers and theologians note the need to moderate it and order it according to virtue, then there is something deep to be said not only about the place of play in our social world but also in how we think of God.  With reverence I ask: Is God playful? 

Having revealed himself to us in the perfection of his Image in Christ, God takes to himself a full human nature which includes the play circuitry of a mammalian brain.  No Christian would want to say that Jesus was boorish or rude.  He did not lack eutrapelia.  In fact, he seems to have received critique on account of his being found in festivity rather than fasting (Matthew 9:14-15).  Surely, virtuous mirth and playfulness reflects something of God. 

The Bible’s wisdom literature is not silent on this front, even if a bit obscure, even coy – I dare say playful.  His wisdom is personified in Proverbs and has been a traditional reference to Christ, in both his divinity and humanity, and I find it provocative to read that, “When he fixed the foundations of earth, then was I [Wisdom] beside him as artisan; I was his delight day by day, playing before him all the while, playing over the whole of his earth, having my delight with human beings” (Proverbs 8:29-31). 

Is that what he is doing from all eternity and in creation?  Of course, the history of nature has been writ in tooth and claw, striking a tragic cord, but there is something of it that strikes me as comical.  Comedy and tragedy are genres that differ based on the ending, large in part, and we’ve not reached that yet.  Hope does make space for the comedian.  If the natural world and especially the human person made to God’s image and likeness are avenues that reflect God’s features, might we find something above and beyond the silent cosmos that resembles eternal laughter – an omnipresent playfulness amidst omnipotence? 

Jaak Panksepp,[i] the pioneer of “affective neuroscience” spent his career exploring the underlying neural mechanisms of emotions.  He has also been dubbed, affectionately, the “rat tickler,” since he researched joy and laughter in rats.  When tickled, rats laugh at an imperceptible high frequency.  In my experience, the thought of rat laughter can cause human laughter as well.  They laugh when they are tickled, and they laugh when they play.    

Joy in play is something that we rational animals share with the not so rational.  To that point, removing the neocortex in a hamster doesn’t notably affect his basic instinct to play, whereas damage to his more primordial limbic structures causes play to drop off.  This is ancient stuff.  Play is found not only in mammals, but in avian species, reptiles, and invertebrates and seems baked into the grammar of our own nature.  In studying mammalian play, Panksepp’s work shows pretty clearly that we’re neurologically hardwired to play, and if deprived of it, will have a greater urge to play in order to get back to homeostasis in respect to play.  It is something of a basic need. 

If certain hardwired behavioral strategies have survived the long march of evolution, it is because the strategy has been a winning one.  Evolutionary psychologists have discovered an explanatory goldmine in applying game theory to the evolution of behavior.  To put it perhaps in overly simple terms, it is thought that not only are species adaptive based on evolutionary mechanisms, but their behavioral strategies are selected for based on their ability to help a member of a species survive long enough to reproduce.  Winning tactics are passed on, either through social learning or some other kind of instinctual imprinting.  There are behavioral phenotypes, if you will. 

However, these “games” are high stakes and can only be called games in a loose sense.  If your strategy didn’t work, you either die or you lose your chance to pass your genes down the line.  Your behavioral method, at least over time, dies with you. 

Play has survived among many species and is something of a basic need, so it is not a stretch to think that the playful species have survived in part because of their playfulness.  But why?  Panksepp thinks that rough-and-tumble play in juvenile rats primes their skills for social competition and likely provides a virtual, low stakes development of a stable social hierarchy.  It seems that the low stakes gamification of social strategies allows for one member of a species to play out various scenarios and select for the most conducive without having to risk death or the loss of mating possibilities.  In all likelihood the evolution of behavior exponentially increased in its pace when play became a strategy.  It is a strategy that contains strategies.  The game of evolution has selected for games.   

We are not in a low stakes game in our relationship with God, however, but there is something comforting about thinking that he is not so worried about the ending – he can play over the earth.  If evolution is creation’s participation in God’s creative activity, then this movement toward gamification is a fascinating reflection that says much about the Divine Artist.  Below us, we find playful animals and laughter that we just can’t hear.  Perhaps there is something analogous in that which is above us.  G.K. Chesterton, in his classic Orthodoxy, speculates: 

“We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce.  We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels.  So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.” 

Dante was onto something using wordplay to describe theological realities under the auspice of divine comedy. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the mode of the Creator runs according to patterns unearthed by “game” theory since he is likely playing a kind of game.  But in his delight in human beings, perhaps those closest to him, those that trust him the most may enter into such a delight that is something akin to eternal playfulness. Grace perfects nature, no?  Surely, playfulness is perfect in glory.

May Peace be with us all.   


[i] See: S.M. Siviy, J. Panksepp, “In search of the neurobiological substrates for social playfulness in mammalian brains”, Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev., 35 (2011), pp. 1821-1830, 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2011.03.006.


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