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Religion at Play: A Manifesto

Author: Anders Droogers
Published By: Lutterworth Press (Cambridge)
ISBN: 978 0 7188 9396 5

Reviewed by Stephen Beasley-Murray.

Judging a book from its title, I assumed Religion at Play: a Manifesto (Lutterworth Press, Cambridge 2015; 167pp; £14; ISBN 978 0 7188 9396 5), would be written from the point of view of a 'deconstructionist', a person who holds to the philosophy of Jacques Derrida. Although French in origin, there is something British about this no-nonsense, down-to-earth, intellectually common sense approach to philosophy and religion. Not that Derrida was at all religious, but he saw in Judaism a spirituality or attitude we should emulate. One thinks of 'The Fiddler on the Roof'. The fiddler is playful, non-systematic, very human, trusting in a just God and, most importantly, a God who can be questioned even when the events of history seem to contradict this. Other religions make claims to reality, to 'one way' to heaven, and cajole its believers to take its myths as revelations.

The problem for Derrida is that, by the nature of language itself, no religion can give such certainties. No one can 'reach to the ground' of objective reality. There is only faith. Science in this regard is equally illusory and false to the human condition. All axioms are playful human creations. We must live one day at a time, trusting ourselves to make the best judgments in the light of what we know. The good news is that we can play together as one global human family, and – most wonderfully of all – join in 'Religion at Play' across the world.

Thinking it might be a simple matter to review Andre Droogers' book, I accepted the offer to write a review. However, although the guess I had about its contents put me in the right 'ball park' to understand this 'extended essay', I am in a quagmire of confusion as to whether there is any more to it than a weaving of words, like the weaving of the 'Emperors new clothes'.

An ambiguous title

The confusion is present in the title itself – Religion and Play – two words defined arduously and ambiguously throughout the book, but in a most unconvincing manner. As confusing as these two are, it equally applies to the 'bête noir' of his manifesto, 'the bordering religion'. Here, as in so much of the text, it is not that he does not offer some interesting insights, but that he uses too many dubious generalizations for which there are too many exceptions to provide meaningful inferences – too many twistings of words from their ordinary usage to offer meaningful conclusions, a 'double dutch' that is not anthropology, philosophy or any kind of helpful psychology of religion.

Droogers’ definition of ‘religion’

Let's look at his definition of religion, which seeks to sum up his 'discussion' on the nature of religion up to that point which, by his own admission, consists of 'wafts of sanctity’: “…religion is the set of ideas and practices, referring to a superhuman reality, that humans develop in compensation for their unsatisfactory experiences with both excessive reflection and larger wholes, enabling them to regain a sense of control over a reality that escapes their command."

Reality, by definition, is precisely what cannot be commanded. How we conceive of reality is the 'foundation stone' for how anyone lives – craziness is living otherwise. This is what generally distinguishes one religion from another (expressed often in creation myths), and for that matter, it distinguishes major philosophies one from another. Confucians, as do Kantian pietists, assume that the superhuman reality that is heaven (or goodness) is immanently present to us, a light that shines through our being and guides us in our reflections as humans seek to construct a 'Kingdom of God' on earth. Confucian belief came about, not by excessive reflection (hardly a human failing were it to be true), but in the struggle of bringing political peace to China in a time of civil war. Kant was an Evangelical Protestant seeking to ground the gospel upon the rock of reality as he understood it – a moral universe, not a physical one, in a thoroughly modern way. In the process, he up-ended the Western sense of reality (his 'Copernican Revolution’). He was not seeking to play with matters of faith, sin and salvation, and nor was he seeking 'compensation for unsatisfactory experiences'. Hong Kong Baptists naturally embrace Kant and Confucian discourse. Similarly, Droogers’ definition of religion says more about Droogers than the topic he seeks to elucidate.

Buddhism has its magical stories, and so, no doubt, do all religions, but they are not to be confused by them. Whether the Buddha existed or not, the religion addresses human suffering profoundly. It does the opposite of offering compensation for unsatisfactory experiences – it strips the veil off the illusions of those who want to run away from suffering. Whether we agree to its answer and its practices, it is not offering insights or a God that helps them gain control of reality – actually the opposite, it is about letting go, and most particularly of the fighting ego. When I taught a course in World Religions in Hong Kong, I invited representative advocates of differing religions to address my students. Interestingly, they all, without exception, began by saying that their religion was not really a religion – in the same way that, as a good evangelical, I was brought up to say about Christianity. We are not to be confused by the external or cultural appearances of faith to which the term refers. Droogers may understand this, but, despite his protestations to the contrary, he shows a belittlement and trivialization of religion that I have found only too characteristic of anthropologists, rather like the last anthropologist I met who sought to enlist me as a CIA agent, a trojan horse for the worst of Western Liberalism!

Droogers’ definition of ‘play’

If I am confused by his definition of religion, I am even more so by his definition of ‘play’. Droogers admits the difficulty of defining play, but nonetheless, this is his preferred definition: “To me, play is the human capacity to deal simultaneously and subjunctively with two or more ways of classifying reality." However, if I am playing war games, am I dealing simultaneously and subjunctively with two or more ways of classifying reality? When I am at the theatre, as Aristotle recommends, I enter into the 'play' as a player within the play. I test out my hypotheses or ideas about the way the world is as the story unfolds. The play becomes a cathartic experience and offers a safety valve for emotions in a safe place. Hopefully, I am wiser after I re-enter 'reality' when the play or film is over. In a sense, as Ortega y Gasset's philosophy argues, all of life is a play. Play is the creative task of making sense of our own very personal story. The power of the religious story is that it can be used, not for play, but for the redemption of our story. Jesus' use of hyperbole and parable is a playful form of rabbinic argument. As we make sense of our experiences, is it grace that wins the day? Is it power, guns and money that ultimately calls the tune? When I take part in interfaith activities, such as our local spectrum of spirituality, we are not dealing with classifications of reality. In the context of loving relationships, we learn to let go of our prejudices about other religions.

With students at the University of Texas, I would show parts of a film about the life of Archbishop Romero, in particular to see how we might make sense of some of his sermons from an inter-faith point of view, that of a Taoist, a Confucian, Marxist, Catholic and Capitalist Secularist. It entertains the students, but play is the wrong word. Romero preaches the gospel of Salvation History in a horrific time of terrorism and repression in El Salvador. The student is pushed to the limits of language, and few are not changed by the experience. It is not a feel good or fun time, but a visionary time. It is more like a Kierkegaard moment, one in which our souls are opened up to personal calling. We are entertaining ideas about reality, but that is what we call education - not a wink here and a wink there. It is why we offer PhD’s in Philosophy. When we step out on life, we have to walk on the waters of faith. Only the person who stays on the shore can call this play. Religion is not about play but, as the Buddha would say, stepping out of the boat of the Dharma and walking the talk. When all is play, everything is fantasy because anything goes. It reduces all to word games, so everything can be anything.

The definition of ‘bordering religion’

The most troubling definition in the book is his key term, 'bordering religion' that he calls us to renounce. His definition for bordering is "the tendency to treat the result of a group or a category’s meaning-making activities as exclusive and self-evident." The troubling nature of this definition is that the phenomenon he describes is precisely the problem of human culture, the subject of anthropology, which he then shifts onto religion. 'Bordering' is our human frailty that makes possible war and genocide. It is the sin of ethnocentrism – human egotism become a collective injustice. Like many species, humans have language, but humans get creative with it, creating the cyber world of concepts, the realm we call culture. It gives us our biological advantage for survival in the environment. Bordering is so important to social survival that treason (breaking faith with bordering) is a capital offence. Culture has its beauty and its liabilities. The study of Church history is replete with analyses of the sick relationship possible between faith and institutional religious structures of power, formal and informal. We need borders to stabilize meanings and we need to be out at the border to communicate with other groups effectively. The power play between the missionary and the bishop, the academic and the preacher is classic. My problem with Droogers’ understanding of 'bordering' is not that he is wrong, but that he adds nothing to the obvious. Are we to soften up the borders between faith and culture and so become like the Lutheran Church in the time of Hitler, desperately in need of a Confessional Church, or like Southern Baptists in the time of slavery? It may be that what the Church needs is a clearer sense of its exclusive and self-evident truths, to 'border up' so that it can become true to itself and thereby a redemptive force in society.

My own calling as a Christian is to be 'out at the border' where other religions (or none) meet. Born and brought up as a Baptist, having a missionary attitude to faith has not surprisingly shaped my whole life. 'When Christ ascended he also descended to fill the universe'. We bring this faith 'in Christ' wherever we go. As Wesley puts it, grace precedes all we do. At times the journey of faith puzzles us. In Revelation, the kings of the earth, as they enter the Kingdom of Heaven, bring in their train the best and purest that the nations of the earth have to offer, which must surely include their religion and their protests against religion. The story of faith is not a game, but a mountain climb, a vision of old fashioned 'Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven'.

Stephen Beasley-Murray

Now retired, Stephen has degrees in science and theology and also a PhD in philosophy of religion, and has taught in academic institutions in Hong Kong and the USA.

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You are reading Issue 66 of Ministry Today, published in March 2016.

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