Playing With God
There are times, I must confess, when I find it difficult to explain what kind of glue holds together the various and disparate projects I’ve worked on over the years. Of course, I know it’s foolish to try to impose an artificial unity on one’s works and days, but there are moments when I’m nagged by a recurring dichotomy. It’s like an old bone injury that flares up when the barometer changes. Perhaps that metaphor concedes too much, because I believe that there is an inner consistency in my work. I am always distressed when someone who appreciates one project I’m involved in has no time for another. Perhaps the most persistent dichotomy I’ve encountered lies on the divide between the books that my wife Suzanne and I have written on developing the moral and spiritual dimensions of a child’s heart and the publishing of Image. There are those who applaud our efforts in the areas of character education and the spirituality of children who cannot understand why we would publish a journal that occasionally features edgy art, paintings of nude bodies, four-letter words, and so on. Undoubtedly there are those who have the opposite problem; they may wonder, for example, why Image frequently carries interviews with, and essays by, writers of “children’s literature” (such as this issue’s interview with Donna Jo Napoli, Eileen and Jerry Spinelli).
What I find curious about these viewpoints is not merely that they reflect age-old generation gaps, or the perennial debate between art and morality, but that they seem to grow out of a diminished understanding of childhood. The conservatives who have spearheaded the “back to the virtues” movement are certainly providing a much-needed corrective to liberal notions about each child being free to choose his or her own values. But alas, many champions of morality seem to think that the good, the true, and the beautiful are monolithic entities that can simply be dumped into children’s heads with the right selection of didactic tales. If that were so, what need would we have of either art or morality in the first place? Good and evil don’t exist as Platonic ideas, but are, more often than not, entangled in the ambiguities of everyday life. That’s why so much of the best children’s literature is about the terrifying and dramatic quest on the part of the hero to sort out appearance from reality, to follow the trail of breadcrumbs through the dense and menacing forest back to the safety and security of home.
Censors on both left and right who have criticized the violence and harshness of the classic fairy tales talk in terms of preserving the innocence and wonder of children. But deep down I believe that what these censors fear is the play of imagination itself, the capacity that enables us to suspend disbelief–and moral judgment–for a time in order to sort reality out from appearance. To the modern puritan, imagination is a form of idle play that refuses to get on with the urgent work of moral and political character formation. But I would contend that the opposite is true: only when we play can we find the inner space needed to allow our deepest intuitions about the world to inform our reason.
Josef Pieper’s classic book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, while not about children per se, provides some illumination here. In it he argues that philosophy and theology are grounded in leisure, which offers a restorative retreat from the driving purposefulness of work. He cites with approval Thomas Aquinas’s belief that contemplation, the highest act of the human spirit, is akin to play. Later in the book, Pieper writes brilliantly about the idea of wonder itself, that capacity shared by children and philosophers alike. Pieper claims that wonder should not be sentimentalized into something saccharin and static. Rather, “wonder acts upon a man like a shock, he is ‘moved’ and ‘shaken,’ and in the dislocation that succeeds all that he had taken for granted as being natural or self-evident loses its compact solidity and obviousness; he is literally dislocated and no longer knows where he is.” According to Pieper, to wonder is “not to know fully.” This condition is not doubt but the awareness that truth is hidden, shrouded in mystery. Wonder may involve a state of not-knowing, but it does not end there; it is, Pieper insists, a process, an experience of being “on the way” toward the meaning at the heart of mystery.
In our new book, Circle of Grace: Praying with–and for–Your Children, we also stress the relationship between prayer and play. We mean no sacrilege by it. To say that prayer and the imagination are closely related is not to claim that prayer is merely speaking into the void. On the contrary, the words and rituals of prayer give us the space we need so that we can sound the depths of the mystery in which God is cloaked. If we approach prayer (or art or life) with the grim drivenness of the one-dimensional moralist, we will end in spiritual claustrophobia. Play can be solemn, as well as joyful, which is a reminder that neither prayer nor art should exclude the harsh, violent, or ambiguous realities that confront us every day. In our experience, children can withstand the shock and dislocation that wonder entails. Indeed, they need such multi-dimensional wonder as much as they need food and drink, light and love. And so I venture to hope that Image and our books about children are merely different ways of trying to become like children playing in the fields of the Lord.
Reprinted, with permission, from www.imagejournal.org, a journal of the arts and religion.
Gregory Wolfe is the editor of the Image Journal.