Sacred play

Pragmatism as a theory of meaning implies that texts, words and other symbols are consecrated by our use of them; the Holy Bible is Holy to those who read it as sacred story or divine guidance, and cannot be holy without those readers who live by its light.

One way to renew our remembrance of the actual relation between symbol and practice is to play with words, especially with scriptural words. Most genuine religious traditions include the practice of sacred wordplay; for instance, the Sufi tradition in Islam. ‘Indeed, one aspect of mystical language in Sufism that should never be overlooked is the tendency of the Arabs to play with words’ (Schimmel 1975, 13).

All the world’s a stage, and we all play our parts – this is the presentation of self in everyday life (Goffman 1959). Children learn to do this by ‘implicitly modeling the larger social structure’ in their play (Donald 1991, 174). Science too is a special kind of performance learned by emulation of mentors (Polanyi 1962). Prophecy and martyrdom have performance elements (Lawson 1998). From Huizinga’s Homo Ludens to Wittgenstein’s ‘language games,’ we clarify the deep structures of cultural forms by abstracting performances from those concerns which insist on ‘taking them seriously’ – which means subordinating them to extraneous purposes – and playing with forms that really matter.

Life is a game whose purpose is to discover the rules, which rules are always changing and always undiscoverable. For purposes of recreation, renewal and discovery, we play games of which the objects and rules are well and explicitly defined. Within these self-imposed limits, consensus is not a distant or unattainable goal but a present, pragmatic reality. Even competitive games are unplayable unless the opponents collaborate on applying the rules and pursuing the object of the game. True, like any artistic endeavor, such games can be used for entertainment, or used for external ends like fame or gain. But a game in its purity encloses its purpose and object: it is useless as the universe. To play with perfect concentration is to realize the use of the useless (Chuang Tzu).

Taking scripture seriously, dedicating and consecrating yourself as Ideal Reader, means committing yourself to play with the terms of the text until they tell the whole truth in which your whole life and practice can play a part.

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