Play is a deeply spiritual activity because play is primarily about community. The joy present between two that are playing together is a shared joy. It is neither the possession of one nor the other…
But let us ever praise him, and extol
His bounty, following our delightful task
To prune these growing Plants, and tend these Flow’rs,
Which were it toilsome, yet with thee were sweet.
—John Milton, Paradise Lost
Of course the world of work begins to become—threatens to become—our only world, to the exclusion of all else. The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.
—Josef Pieper, Our English Syllabus
Children at Play
As I was recently driving through the scenic backroads of the Kentucky bluegrass, my attention was suddenly mesmerized by a rag of romping, galloping colts. With swift but smooth endeavors, they challenged one another, each taking its turn to coast across the farmland, with such majesty and poise as would impress even a king. But the beauty of their frolicking was found in the serene certitude that they were doing exactly what they were made to do. In a manner of leisure not so unfamiliar to us and our own youth, these colts were simply enjoying the freedom of being alive, even more, they were enjoying the freedom of being alive together.
When we are born, once we establish security of life, we immediately turn to this insatiable desire for play, even more, the insatiable desire to play together. We see it in puppies, kittens, colts, and most definitely our own children. And if this repetitive pattern in the nature of our young is not a cunning trick, then I do not know what else it to mean than that we are fundamentally, at our very core, creatures of play.
For the child, mowing the lawn is not toilsome work, but wondrous recreation. Is this not what the Fisher-Price lawnmower embodies? The parent knows all too well that while they tire of every labor that they should deem to be “work”, the child tires of almost nothing; for the adult, work is not play, but for the child, play and work might as well be the same thing. And, so, as Adam names each and every living creature in Genesis 2, it just might be the case that he has the excitement of a child and not the weariness of an adult because the child relishes the opportunity to work, even calling this play, but the adult relishes the opportunity to play, if only he can manage to take a break from work.
In the cool but satisfying summer breeze of those first luminous, sunshiny days, you can almost imagine Adam and Eve skipping, hand-in-hand, playfully and carefree through the sublime wonderland that was the Garden of Eden. At first, they were only thrilled to be able to participate in the game. God, creation, humanity, all working together, playing together. But, then, upon stumbling upon the Tree of Adulthood, a roaring spirit was unleashed that demanded, “How come God always gets to pick the game!” It did not matter that the game was thoroughly enjoyable and could be repeated with glee for all of eternity. The question had now been posed, and prideful curiosity was now burning in their hearts. The freedom of play was suddenly replaced by the slaving exertion of competition. They bit into Adulthood and tasted the bitter taste of unquenchable vanity, and suddenly the games stopped, the fun ended, and war ensued.
Perhaps this theme of play, work, and competition is nowhere better discussed than in the novel The Lord of the Flies. As the story goes, a group of pre-adolescent children are marooned on an island by themselves after their plane crashes in the ocean. The children initially rally together, seeking to help one another survive, even forming different teams to hunt, gather, and build a fire and smoke signal. In the cooperative spirit of community, absent of competitive lust, the children, though struggling for survival, are adventurously at play. Supplied with an island for a playground, a lush environment of unexplored toys, and plenty of playmates, survival, for these children, is none other than a thrilling game.
All the while, these desperate children, without adult supervision, without the nurturing care of their parents, left to fend for themselves, the majority of them eventually succumb to the fruit of adulthood, as they turn on one another, even dividing themselves into separate, warring camps. The work of survival quickly turns from play into deadly chaos, as one of the more innocent of the children is murdered by the barbaric mob. Upon the final scene, a rescue team arrives on the beach, gazing upon a fire engulfing the whole of the island, finding the boys in a state of panic, chaos, and all-out-war. And, so the book ends with one of the boys trying to explain to their rescuers that it once had been different: “We were together then…”
As the story goes, we have sinned our way out of the playful, communal garden of childhood and into the divisive warzone of adulthood. Might it be that we have aged, not into maturity, but immaturity?
So, if, by chance, Adam played before he worked, or, if Adam played while he worked, and all of this features before tasting the fruit of sin, then it might not be an overstatement to suggest that play is, in fact, the most basic and foundational activity of life. Might it actually be that play is perhaps our first and most essential spiritual discipline?
The Nature of Play
I have always found it interesting that our dog Theo, while there seems to be nothing in life that exhilarates him more than going for a walk or hike, rarely ever ventures off by himself, even when given the freedom to do so with a plethora of acreage to explore. Yet, there isn’t a moment’s hesitation to explore when either my wife or I entreat him to accompany us. For Theo, a toy is worth a few moments of fun, but the most exciting toy of all is simply another life.
Play is a deeply spiritual activity because play is primarily about community. The joy present between two that are playing together is a shared joy. It is neither the possession of one nor the other. If we consider two children playing a simple game of tag, there is a shared excitement between the tagger and the taggee. Yet, that excitement becomes impossible when you remove one of the participants. This mutual giving and receiving of joy might actually be the best representation of genuine community in this life. For, in the moment of play, both members are simply appreciative of the presence of the other. Self-awareness, and even self-centeredness, are overcome by shared mission to enjoy one another.
Consider the example of two puppies engaged in playful wrestling. The object is neither to dominate nor to be dominated. For, the very moment that one conquers is the moment the fun stops. In this way, playful wrestling is not quite like sports, as it is not driven by competition. There are no winners or losers in playful wrestling, but only participants. But if the mission in playful wrestling is not to win, then what is it? Perhaps, as G.K. Chesterton quipped, in play, we discover the secret of life, which is found in “laughter and humility” (Heretics).
Play is contagious. Whether it is the pure vitality of a child playing hide-and-seek or the spirited tussling of puppies and kittens, the longing to join in is commanding. For, there is a certain freedom expressed in play of which no other activity in life seems to quite compare. The world and all its worries are never so distant as in that moment we engage one another in play. Our never-ending to-do list, our overtaxing burdens of work, our anxieties, our grievances, our illnesses are, in that magical occasion of recreation, carried away and replaced by a new world, where moth and rust do not destroy, where tears are not shed, where death no longer reigns, and where life to the full overcomes.
Play immerses us in that delightful world of humor and humility.
It might be worth noting that these two terms, “humor” and “humility”, derive from the same Latin cognate, “humus”, which means simply “of the earth”, that same earth from which humanity was birthed. Laughter, much like humility, reminds us of our given place in this universe, as both bring us back down to earth, literally, reminding us of our limits as created beings. But these limits are not cause for despair but for thanksgiving.
This is reminiscent of the story of Job, in which, in the midst of great anguish and suffering, he demands an answer for his unexplained torment. After chapters of dead-end discussions and suggestions from friends, God finally responds, “Brace yourself like a man” (Job 38:3; 40:7) before beginning to ask Job a series of impossible questions about the order and wildness of creation. The initial suggestion is that Job has overstepped his bounds as creature and sought to move into the realm of infinite knowledge of Creator. “Brace yourself like a man” must only be heard as putting Job in his place, quite literally, as created, not Creator.
Job takes comfort in being reminded that he is of the same stuff as the dirt, as this is not a slander of his existence but a reminder of his vocation as a human being, freeing him of the burden of reigning over the whole of existence, that is, freeing him from the vocation of God. There is solace in knowing that we need not understand the order of the entire universe. That task belongs to God alone.
Play, then, might just be the perfect balance of both humor and humility. Humor reminds us of our limits, of our follies, of our imperfections, of our created-ness, and it is in this moment that we actually take delight and contentment in such limits. Humility, as C.S. Lewis once noted is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less (Mere Christianity). And it is in play that we are immersed in a world in which we are fully set free from any burden beyond our vocation of being human and are, simultaneously, able to fully appreciate the presence of another, recognizing that we are of the same dirt, of the same tribe. And so, at the very root of true, childlike play is mutual love and genuine community.
This is primarily why children are more free from the tiresome, burdening pains of overexertion: because, while they can enjoy a distraction of a toy, they are unable to fully enjoy the pleasures of life without others. So, children resort to imaginary friends to join them in their tea party when no other real-life companions are available. The child simply cannot imagine doing the work of making the tea, setting the table, and enjoying a cup by themselves. And because work and play have yet to be divorced, the child makes no distinction between the two.
Even when there is yet no one else to play, the wonderful world of the childlike imagination brings to life the inanimate objects of this world. Dinnerware assume the role of courteous and hospitable servants. Each and every doll takes on a unique personality as an animated dinner guest. The tea overflows, the hors d’oeuvres are both delicious and abundant, and most of all, the conversation is spirited and constant. A child cannot imagine play, or work, or anything else, without first imagining a community.
Play Versus Work
Yet, somewhere along the way, we were deceived into believing that our play was wholly dependent upon our toys. Toy stores, rather than being seen as a wonderful world of socially, creative activity between two or more people, have instead been transformed into a smorgasbord of options for isolated distraction. And while the child may be thrilled to play with the toy by themselves, they are even more thrilled to play with the toy in the presence of another. Indeed, the very words, “Watch me, Daddy!” ought to remind us that the toys that our children find most exhilarating are us.
In the cult classic Big starring a young Tom Hanks, a twelve-year-old boy has his body magically transformed into a thirty-year-old man. As the story progresses, unable to return home for fear that he will be taken for an imposter, the boy eventually gets a job working at a major toy manufacturer. After impressing some of the adults with his insights as to what makes certain toys better than others, he crosses paths with the CEO, who then takes him to visit the company’s New York City toy store. The owner, though agonizing over the vision and direction of his company, is then offered a reminder of why he ever got into the business to begin with, as both he and the grown-up boy share in the mutual joy of playing “Chopsticks” on a giant piano.
The overworked, overexerted owner of the toy company forgets, even if but for one moment, his worries, as he re-enters that wide-eyed moment of childhood and recalls the true beauty of life, which is found in the very activity in which they are engaging, communal play. The roles, are, however, reversed as the boy, who was initially attached to his best friend, the two of them always at play, eventually adjusts to the busy, private, grueling world of an adult workaholic. The film ends with him recanting his adulthood and wishing to only be a kid again. Might it be that the aptly named movie Big is asking whether childhood is “more grown up” than adulthood?
While the Protestant ethic has long been bent on work, it has failed to account for the fact that work, when divorced from play, brings death. Cain and Abel were tasked with the jobs of “worker” and “keeper” (Gen. 4:2), which, not at all coincidentally, are the same vocations offered to humanity upon their creation:
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it (Gen 2:15).
Also, not coincidentally, humanity is made up of the same dirt that God invites them to “work” and “keep”. What could easily be missed in this is that to “work” and “keep” the dirt, that is, to care for the stuff of the garden, is, likewise, an invitation to care for one another. So, when Cain kills Abel and slyly retorts at God “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9; my emphasis), as if to suggest that he is after all a “worker” of the garden, not a “keeper” of the flock, as his brother was, the intended rhetorical response is: “Yes, you are certainly your brother’s keeper! For to ‘work’ the dirt, is tend to the very substance of your own existence” (Not to be missed in all of this is that the reason the blood is crying out upon Abel’s death is further evidence that the dirt and humanity are of the same tribe). Apparently missing this crucial concept, Cain has assumed work at the expense of community. Or, more precisely, Cain has divorced work from play.
As this narrative borrows directly from the language of Genesis 2, we can see the reverse of Cain and Abel’s situation in Adam and Eve. While Cain assumed that he could “work” the dirt, all by himself, without giving care of or need for his brother, Adam partners first with other animals (who are also made of the same dirt), and then with Eve (who is “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”). Recall that humanity had been created for the same tasks as Cain and Abel, to “work” and to “keep”. Yet, in Genesis 2, it is explicit in the actions of God, that no one person could accomplish this alone. As Adam, Eve, and the animals all share in the working and keeping of the garden, the conclusion is that work, like play, is a communal activity.
And, so, when Adam and Eve bite into the fruit of adulthood, play and work become divided as Adam is told that his “work” will now entail painful exertion (Does this suggest that work was only enjoyable and not toilsome before the Fall?). This division of work and play is then rehearsed in the very next chapter, as Cain kills Abel, and he is literally cursed from the ground, a division that mimic’s Adam’s curse. What had once been an enjoyable, communal activity, to sustain and bring forth life, working the ground now becomes a painful, exerting, laboring, even deadly endeavor. Work, divorced from play, divorced from true community, brings death.
Play Versus Entertainment
But it might be objected that even adults, in addition to children, in our western culture, are often at play. After all, we welcome frequent distractions of entertainment, both at work and home, being mesmerized by the unlimited, even imaginary, world of Facebook, among other things. And from handheld screens to 60’ screens, we amuse our instinct of curiosity, passing an entire weekend without end of entertaining sitcoms, sports, and movies. Or, if one should rather prefer to engage those nearly extinct virtues of bravery and fortitude, once reserved for the most noble of humanity, such savory excitement is but a joystick and a game console away. From movie theaters to malls; from screens on-the-go to entertaining enterprises everywhere, are we not, in fact, a society always at play?
But, as should already be evident by now, a society always entertained is not necessarily a society always at play. The greatest source of most of what we call entertainment is not found in communal interaction, but rather in isolated distraction. Perhaps it is conceivably worthwhile that a group of friends would sit down to view a movie. But it seems, to me, more conceivably worthwhile that a group of friends would sit down to view one another. Play, at its core, must involve at least two lives, but entertainment requires only two objects. The question is whether the vast majority of what we call entertainment today could simply be done riding solo. And for those who immediately respond that watching a movie with friends is certainly more enjoyable than watching a movie alone, this only serves to further advance the point. Community is not an accidental property of play. Community is the essential property of play. Yet, our toys today need only one person to enjoy them. In this case, our so-called culture of entertainment is, in a very real sense, fundamentally opposed and divorced from true play.
“Watch me, Daddy!” becomes “Watch this.” Only, it is no longer the child pleading enthusiastically to the dad, but, rather, it is the dad, pleading desperately to the child, as he plops them down in front of the screen. And, so, the bonding of child to the parent is replaced with the bonding of child to the screen; interaction between friends is replaced with interaction with objects; face-to-face conversation between immediate lovers is replaced with digital conversation between remote acquaintances; and, finally, confrontation with neighbors is replaced with…a privacy fence.
Of course, I do consider that it must be a strange picture when our pets, laying at our feet wishing for nothing more than our attention, watch us gather with our friends only for each of us to stare intently for hours at a screen. This is, of course, the image of idolatry itself. For, here we sit, marveling in awe at the work of our own hands, exchanging the eternal image of the Creator, found in the image of the person next to us, for the image of the created, literally, an image on an artificial screen.
Yet, as man’s best friend, Fido, serves to remind us, whether it is the squirrel racing across the power line, or the neighbor’s cat braving the road that it ought to less travel, the mere presence of another living creature is far more exhilarating and deserving of attention than our favorite inanimate toy.
Perhaps it takes the mature mind of a child to remind adults of our own immaturity. The child loves first, and judges later. The mere fact that someone belongs to the human race is reason enough for the child to see someone worthy of love and play. And, so, a child sees each person, just as they understand themselves, as one with the unending capacity for play, wonder, and zest for life. This is why, for children, a human can never be a monster, precisely because they are human. That monsters could be humans and humans, monsters, these are only tales that grown-ups could believe in. For the child is deeply fascinated by the phenomenon and intrigue of another human being. The grown-up, however, sees nothing particularly special.
The unfortunate truth in all of this is that the vast majority of us have been sold on the miracle of science and technology, while neglecting to consider that life is the original, and still the most glorious miracle of creation. We are far more fascinated by what man has created than we ever are of the mind of the man that created, just as we tend to be far more intrigued by creation than the Mind behind creation. And, so, instead of entering reality, where community is the foundation of all play and all work, we are ever-progressing into a world void of reality, void of community, void of true play, where artificial interaction is simulated through our screens and gadgets, even more, where basic human collaboration is no longer necessary.
The substance of true worship is understood in terms of sacrificial giving and community. We freely offer ourselves, especially when it is not for our gain. For this is precisely what enemy love requires. But more precisely, it is that Great Self-Emptying of the Divine which marks true worship. This Eternal Gift, the Self-Giving of God to his creatures could never be the result of a hard-fought, laborious lifetime of work. The sacrifice that is our gain can but only be received, without even a drop of our own sweat. And so we freely receive God, through which, we freely receive one another.
But we have exchanged sacrificial giving and community for the principles of utility and individualism. Whatever is useful and productive, whatever helps each of us achieve independence from one another, these are the driving forces of our society. And, yet, the most peculiar outcome of a society built on such ideals is that we are at once always at work, always productive, and, yet, likewise, always wasting time, always seeking the next diversion. We are simultaneously exhausted and bored. The result thus far is an over-worked, over-stressed, perpetually distracted, lonely, depressed, desperate culture.
Delight Versus Utility
Of course, Milton did counsel us generations ago that this concept of “divide and conquer” would be our destruction. While the task of tending to the chores of the garden appears to be nothing but enjoyable when working together, things take a dramatic shift when Eve considers that the principles of utility and efficiency might just trump the principle of delight. She reasons with Adam:
Let us divide our labours…
For while so near each other thus all day
Our task we choose, what wonder if so near
Looks intervene and smiles, or object new
Casual discourse draw on, which intermits
Our day’s work brought to little.
Adam rightly objects:
For not to irksome toil, but to delight
He made us, and delight to Reason join’d.
But though Adam considers that delight in work rather than efficiency of production is more foundational to the meaning of human existence, he eventually indulges his wife’s desire. As the Fall immediately ensues, Milton might be offering an interpretation that contends that humanity’s original sin results from the twin pillars of our contemporary age: Independence and Utility.
We cannot ever truly be at play because it is, simply put, not useful. It is, as one commentator called it, a “royal waste of time”. Yet, the unity of creation in that original Garden, and the hope that one day we should arrive at that “new” marriage between Heaven and Earth, when there will be no more tears, no more pain, no more death, it is this original vision of creation and this final vision of creation that serves to remind us that our primary calling in this life is to waste time, to waste it together in wonderful, marvelous, communal play. As Josef Pieper quietly warned us:
The vacancy left by absence of worship is filled by mere killing of time and by boredom, which is directly related to inability to enjoy leisure; for one can only be bored if the spiritual power to be leisurely has been lost (Leisure: The Basis of Culture).
And, perhaps the saddest reality is that it is not only we adults who are losing this “spiritual power to be leisurely”, but we are quickly training up our youngest of children in the art of boredom, such that they will thrive in a world of constant distraction and isolated individualism and be incapable of delighting in communal play.
With their unlimited and unrestricted access to the latest, greatest gadgets and toys that never offer a single moment of silence and never demand a single moment of community, that wonderful world of the child’s imagination, so powerful that it can create whole new worlds, worlds of animated community, worlds of delightful joy, worlds where there are no tears or pain or even death, yes, that wonderful world of the child’s imagination will eventually die off and be replaced by beastly machinations of incessant, uncontrollable, slaving indulgence, indulgence which cannot imagine a world beyond the immediate moment.
J.R.R. Tolkien has offered us one of the more discerning examples of such a heavenly, leisurely community in his series The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Consider the unlikely hero of the narrative. While Tolkien had at his disposal the opportunity to choose from amongst the powerful wizards, and the warrior elves, the valiant dwarves, and even the mighty human kings, he prefers rather to center upon the humble, small-in-stature, defenseless hobbit, who possesses no particular power except the power of simple living and genuine, relational love. It is this diminutive, physically powerless character who Tolkien tasks with guarding and even conquering the most daunting force in all of middle earth, the Ring.
And while the hobbit might lack the special possession of brute strength, it must be said that he is still, in fact, the most peculiar of Tolkien’s characters. For the hobbit, life is not bent on over-productivity, power, fame, or accumulation of stuff. They want nothing to do with the world of war and political domination that occurs with regularity outside of its little shire. They are not tempted by the extravagances of luxury and excess. Rather the hobbit community is especially predicated on relationships, on fun and laughter, on simplicity of living, community, and mutual love. They have no need for the superfluous goods of power, prestige, and pride because they are wholly content in the abundance of genuine, loving community.
Conor Sweeney, of John Paul II Institute, comments:
In all of this, they are not, as we might say today, “goal- or product-oriented,”…They do not quantify and measure their existence with mission statements, programs, project outlines, plans, schemes, policy meetings, productivity reports, rallies, opinion polls, or marketing campaigns. They have the most minimal of political structures. Everything about them resists a bureaucratic or calculative mindset, any desire to be somewhere else, something else, or someone else. Nothing about them is fast or hasty. Rather, everything about their lives is slow, ordered by a rhythm transcending our own capitalist ethic of productivity and efficiency. Rather than fundamentally transforming the world around them by way of technology and force, they instead adapt to and allow themselves to be shaped by their environment (“How to Evangelize like a Hobbit, not like Sauron” in Ethika Politika).
In other words, the foundational ethic for the hobbit is not one of work, but one of play. Community takes priority over efficiency. Mutual sacrifice for the sake of bettering and participating in community is far more valuable than discovering one’s unique and independent existence. The hobbit is, for all “impractical” purposes, just as appreciative of its neighbor as it is of itself. Identity is not found in the individual, but in the mode of playful community. In the Shire, play and work are one and the same, as they are all shared activities. Quality has overcome quantity.
But it is precisely for this reason that we cannot assume this to be an underdog story. When presented with the task of disposing of the ring, that is, when presented with the calling of who ought to be the very person to touch the most dangerous, most powerful, perhaps even the most evil element in all of the world, the hobbit is not merely an accidental nominee, but is exactly the person who is most suited to the task.
Because the hobbit has been so shaped by a story of Play and Community rather than the more common story of Work and Independence, it is he who is least likely to be led astray, to be allured by the influence of the ring. And it is for this reason that the hobbit, the only one who does not rely upon physical power, is, contrary to reason, the most powerful creature in The Lord of the Rings. For where wizardry dazzles and sword and spear wreak terror, it is only in humility and humor that evil itself is conquered. Because the hobbit’s primary discipline is play, it is he alone who is able to overcome what no one else can even touch.
As it concerns the Gospel of Christ, the hobbit is, as it were, the most likely of heroes. In the Cross, God reminds us of his true power, so unrivaled, so fierce, for God is the only person strong enough to exult in true humility, the only One able to stoop so low, the only One able to utterly humiliate himself, if only to restore Community. And though no one has ever been more thoroughly exiled from creation than our Incarnated Creator, somehow, the laborious tears of Christ have been turned into the laughter and redemption of humanity. For the Cross, by the mysterious power of Divine Humility and the ironic twist of Eternal Humor, has conquered the evil of history.
Christ has assumed the independence and utility that we sought but could not, for good reason, attain. No one has been more alone than in that moment of dereliction. No one has accomplished a more formidably efficient work than the salvation of all of creation. And, yet, independence and utility were put to death on the Cross, in exchange for an offer, a gift, of delightful play. This gift can be gained neither through dividing nor through conquering. It is rather in the form of a Christmas present, as it can only be unwrapped and then joyfully indulged.
And, so, we must return to our childhood to restore our joy…
“Our Father who art in Heaven…” There is a certain childlike sentiment to the Lord’s Prayer. It may not be accidental that we address our Father, as if the tone is that of a dependent child beseeching the help of the one who brought him into this world. Indeed, the requests of this prayer, when approached from this perspective might appear to have the logic of an adult, but there is little doubt it demonstrates the dependency of a child.
“Give us our daily bread…” might as well be a request from a nursing infant, as the indication is that, without the aid of the Parent, the one who provides sustenance, one is not even able to provide their own nourishment.
“Forgive us our trespasses…” The most intriguing thought of this assertion is that the adult would hardly have anyone to ask forgiveness for on a daily basis. Indeed, if the adult has grieved anyone regularly, it is none other than a self-grievance, as the adult does not imagine themselves under the authority of anything but their own self-will. But the child learns the regular pattern of “I’m sorry”, as if it is one of the most fundamentally repeated lessons of language and rearing. Any grievance the child commits, even if it is seemingly a self-grievance, is, likewise, if not more so, a grievance against the parent.
A simple glance upon the whole of the Prayer reveals nothing of the independent, self-sufficient adult of modernity. Rather, the Lord’s Prayer is quite assuredly a child’s plea to their Maker, Provider, Instructor, and Protector. We cannot be true to such a prayer if we do not approach it with childlike faith. It is, then, not coincidental that the Gospels emphasize the person of Christ in the language “Son of God”. Undoubtedly this has Divine ramifications, but might it also not mean what the words clearly indicate, a Child? That the incarnate Word of Creation was enfleshed in a baby could indicate more than we sometimes realize. Perhaps Jesus’ childhood is actually central to his witness. At twelve, he was teaching in his Father’s house, and in his thirties he was still doing the same thing. Of course, he wasn’t living in his parents’ basement, but he never seemed to abandon the dependency of childhood. After all a Son of God is, as far as I can see, still Someone’s Child.
Or take Jesus’ words for it:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19, NIV translation).
Yes, a son, or, a child, often only mimics what they see their parents doing. This is simply how a child develops. The adult relishes the freedom of independence, when they are finally able to head off to the university and become their own person, doing their own things, thinking their own thoughts, and, ultimately, not mimicking their parents. But the child relishes the opportunity to work alongside the parent, to work like they work, to play like they play, to do what they do. And so, the Son mimics the Father. Indeed, the Son cannot mimic that which he has not witnessed his Father doing, for the Son learns everything he knows from watching the Father.
And it is a departure from childhood that dooms Adam and Eve. The thirst for self-sufficiency and independence ushers them into adulthood. But this is not a joyous occasion of maturation. As a young calf cut off from its mother, so now Death could be the only result of children cut off from their Parent. It is not so much that they are simply disobedient, but, more so, Adam and Eve have revoked their status as children, as if they are no longer in need of a Provider. They desire to wander off on their own, into the irrational and immature world of independent adulthood. The result is that their new-found adulthood is painful, exerting, and, as time will tell, lonely.
All of this seems to suggest that there must be a certain logic in Jesus’ declaration that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to children (Matt. 19:14). Only an adult can imagine a heaven more predicated on stuff than on community. But children know that there is no lasting play without playmates.
And, so, if we should ever wish to understand our own nature, let us look no further than to the One whose image we reflect:
The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children when they find that game or joke they specially enjoy…They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy).
A shorter version of this essay was originally published for The Circe Institute (May 2017).
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Book IV, Lines 436-439. New York: New American Library, 1968.
 Pieper, Josef. Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Trans. Alexander Dru. New York: Pantheon Books,1952.
 Paradise Lost. Book IX, Line 214-224
 Paradise Lost. Book IX, Line 242-243
Editor’s note: The featured image is by Alexander Dummer from Pexels.