This is from the Biddy Tarot website:
“[In the Tarot deck] the Fool [or the jester] is numbered 0 – the number of unlimited potential – and so does not have a specific place in the sequence of the Tarot cards. The Fool can be placed either at the beginning of the Major Arcana or at the end. The Major Arcana is often considered the Fool’s journey through life and as such, he is ever present and therefore needs no number.
On the Fool Tarot card, a young man stands on the edge of a cliff, without a care in the world, as he sets out on a new adventure. He is gazing upwards toward the sky (and the Universe) and is seemingly unaware that he is about to skip off a precipice into the unknown. Over his shoulder rests a modest knapsack containing everything he needs – which isn’t much (let’s say he’s a minimalist). The white rose in his left hand represents his purity and innocence. And at his feet is a small white dog, representing loyalty and protection, that encourages him to charge forward and learn the lessons he came to learn. The mountains behind the Fool symbolize the challenges yet to come. They are forever present, but the Fool doesn’t care about them right now; he’s more focused on starting his expedition.”
Many of us associate the fool or the jester with humor, telling a joke for instance. American writer, E. B. White, wrote: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies.” I am not going to analyze what makes something funny and I promise no frogs will be injured during this sermon.
What I want to do is consider how freeing it is to play the fool. “Play” being the operative word. Let’s start with the definition of play that we will use today: Play is to engage in intrinsically motivated activities for recreation or enjoyment. Play is commonly associated with children and juvenile-level activities, but play occurs at all ages.
So what is it to play the fool? Well, the fool I am talking about is the free-spirited traveler, without a care in the world, setting out on a new adventure. They have open-eyed innocence and a willingness to learn. When was the last time you did that?
Well, we did that as we began this service today. We told a story together without knowing where it would go or how it would end, but willing to set off on this playful journey together. And with that willingness, a trust was extended that we’d be able to navigate the unknown successfully. We did that again when we participated in laughing yoga, assuming you set out on that adventure, as I invited you to be vulnerable, putting yourselves out there, doing something fun and silly.
Professor Emeritus of history and literature of religion at New York University James P. Carse, who wrote Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, would probably say that playing the fool is an infinite game. Not because it has to last forever, though perhaps it could. Carse says there are two kinds of games; finite and infinite. Monopoly, football, video games, and poker are finite games. Having a tea party for your teddy bears and dolls, playing hide and go seek, and pretending you are a chicken, laying 3 eggs in 3 laughs, then laughing with lots of excitement in your voice are infinite games. One infinite game I have seen lately on Facebook is people imitating famous works of art.
Think for a moment, what are some of the characteristics of finite games—monopoly, football, video games, poker? "opponent, externally defined, rules are set up so someone can win, rules don’t change." What are some of the characteristics of infinite games—pretending, imitating, imagining? "internally defined, don’t care when game begins, the purpose is to prevent the game from coming to an end, to keep everyone playing, rules can change to keep the play going." Carse says that the difference between finite and infinite play boils down to this: finite games are played for the purpose of winning and infinite games are played for the purpose of continuing to play. Finite games have a defined beginning and end; they end when someone wins. Infinite games could go on indefinitely, sometimes you can go in and out of playing them over a long period of time, perhaps even for a lifetime. For instance, you could pretend you are a laughing chicken again later today, next week, next year, refining your chicken laughing skills over a lifetime.
And finite games can be played within infinite games, but infinite games cannot be played within a finite game—or it is generally frowned on. For instance, you can play poker at a pretend tea party, but it would be unwise to find shapes of animals in clouds while playing soccer—my oldest son did this when he was 4 years old. Thus, he was not successful at soccer, but he was quite good at finding shapes in clouds.
One final thing about playing any game. Whoever plays, whatever the game, whether infinite or finite, plays freely, in other words it is internally motivated—this is the basic principle of play. You cannot be forced to play or it is not really play. Think about a gym class: you have to participate in it as part of your education. Let’s say the coach/teacher says you have to play basketball. There is a qualitative difference between the basketball game you are required to play in that gym class and the pick-up basketball game you may have played with your friends on your own time. Participation in one is a requirement; participation in the other was based on free choice. According to Carse only the pick-up game is really playing a game.
So let’s take all these ideas about games, play, and fooling around and consider how they relate to our personal spirituality and to religion. How do you go about deciding what you believe? And living those beliefs in the world? Is there any foolishness involved?
We are all exposed to a variety of beliefs, values, ethics, morals, ideas. How do we pick one or two or several and incorporate it or them into our belief system? Well, in a sense we play the fool, and make a game of it or play with it. We sample a belief, then we might play with it in our minds, perhaps imagining or visualizing what it would be like to incorporate that belief into our belief system. We might also play with that belief as we interact with others or the world. In other words, we can develop our personal beliefs/values/ethics/morals/ideas through an infinite game. This is not to say that everyone develops their beliefs this way; some people simply accept the belief system they inherited from their parents or from the church they grew up in or the culture that they live in, without much in the way of questioning or reflection. But, in a sense, the idea of playing with beliefs/values/ethics/morals/ideas could be thought of as uniquely Unitarian Universalist, because playing with these ideas give us the ability to not latch on to them blindly. Instead we play with them until we decide if or how they fit for us. That is how a fool does it. Dare I say that is how a Unitarian Universalist does it?
As some of you know I am a Buddhist, Panentheist, Humanist, Unitarian Universalist. I suspect if I were to ask many of you, you also would have difficulty describing your spirituality with one word. And I have to say these foolish labels that I use are gently playful rather than deadly serious, because I am not 100% of any of them. For instance trying to describe the percent Buddhist I am would not serve me well—instead I play with some Buddhist ideas and practices and I find the ideas and practices that fit for me. In the infinite game of being a Buddhist, I practice Zazen Meditation, mental non-attachment, and lovingkindness for all beings with commitment and reverence, knowing that these practices work for me now, but I am open to new beliefs, ideas, practices as my life evolves. I am really playing the fool, aren’t I.
And I’ve decided I want to participate in this spiritual game or play with others as I consider my beliefs/values/ethics/morals/ideas—in my case I do this in Unitarian Universalist congregations. You see, Infinite play in community for the purpose of spirituality is religion.(repeat) As you might guess this takes a fair amount of trust in those I am playing with and some willingness on my part to be vulnerable with them. Many Unitarian Universalists intentionally embrace spirituality as an infinite game, though they probably do not call it that; heck they might even reject the idea of spirituality as a game. Unitarian Universalists try on various beliefs/values/ethics/morals/ideas in a community that affirms a responsible search for truth and meaning. Our heritage is one of change and openness to—you might say, playing with--beliefs and ideas. This religion has evolved from two different Christian religions, Unitarians--who believed that Jesus was human--and Universalists–who believed that there is no hell and everyone is destined for heaven—to a more humanistic religion focusing on how we live our lives in the here and now, to a more pluralistic religion with values rather than beliefs forming its foundation.
Often I will say that Unitarian Universalists affirm that revelation is not sealed; our beliefs are not static; or I’ll say that we are physical, mental, emotional and spiritual beings who are always in process. Carse says of religious play: “The myth[s] of Jesus [Buddha, Mohammed are] exemplary, but not necessary. No myth is necessary. There is no story that must be told. Stories do not have truth that someone needs to reveal, or someone needs to hear. It is not necessary for infinite players to be Christians. Indeed, it is not possible for them to be Christians—seriously. Neither is it possible for them to be Buddhists, or Muslims, or atheists or [Unitarian Universalists]—seriously. All such titles can only be playful abstractions...Infinite players are not serious actors in any story, but the joyful poets of a story that continues to originate what they cannot finish. [let me say that again] [Religion] is but one infinite game.” And my friends we might be fools to play that game. And isn’t that wonderful?
One of the experiences that solidified that I am a Unitarian Universalist happened when I attended a discussion group back at my first UU church, First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church, Fort Worth, Texas. There were around 15 people in the group. A television sat in one corner with a VHS player attached. I know I am dating myself. The leader of the group pushed the tape in the player and it began: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...." Yes, we were watching Star Wars and then we had a serious and playful discussion of the theological implications of the film. Weren’t we all fools to do this? Sometimes the discussion became quite heated. There was a time or two in our “Star Wars” discussion I wondered if someone was crossing the line, was beginning to be a little aggressive or disrespectful, but always there was someone in the group to stop the discussion to remind us of our of covenant: it is better to be kind than to be right. At the end of the discussion about the spiritual messages in “Star Wars” we all got up thanked one another for joining in the discussion, shook hands or hugged, and left with positive feelings in our hearts.
This infinite game we call religion can be very serious at times, as people express their thoughts and feelings about spirituality, ethics, ritual, beliefs. So as a rule for infinite play, I try to remember what I learned all those years ago being kind is more important than being right as I play. I believe that it is important for us to respect the seriousness of each other’s beliefs while also being willing to be playful with one another as well. This is not always easy to do. Our intention may be playful, but the impact of something that is said or done may hurt someone who is present. There’s a difference between playfulness and sarcasm. There’s difference between shared playfulness and using humor to hurt. I have to tell you the last time I preached about play and games and spirituality and religion, some people did not take my thoughts in a playful way. I was a fool to think they would. My intent was to offer them a time to play the fool but the impact was defensiveness and anger. I am sure that you have experienced something like this when you are being playful with someone, saying something that hurt them when you didn’t mean to. During an infinite game, even the infinite game of Unitarian Universalism, when something is said or done with playful intent it can come across as hurtful or marginalizing or minimizing. When that happens, let’s be ready to stop the game, express what hurt, acknowledge our role in the hurt, then forgive one another and begin the game again in love. That is the way of a noble fool.
How will this time of quarantine impact our play with one another? Might it impact our willingness to be vulnerable and trust one another in our community? I am not sure, but if it does, then our play will suffer and our emotional and spiritual growth will be impeded. I do believe that we will need to be gentle with one another as we return to physical community. Compassionately playing with one another.
And how will physical distancing and isolation affect our play outside the congregation? So often I have heard that a Unitarian Universalist church is an oasis of safety from a world where people can’t be themselves, can’t play freely. But my friends, if we are only an oasis to play in, trusting and vulnerable just with each other, then we are learning nothing from our play. Some people after this time of distancing may have to have forgotten how to be in trusting vulnerable relationships with one another, how to show respect, compassion, inherent worth and dignity toward one another. We may be called to play with others outside our congregation to help them re-connect with life.
As Unitarian Universalists we are doing something incredible here, something that is sometimes extremely difficult and yet wonderfully rewarding and enriching to our lives. We are participating in an infinite game with one another. And taking what we learn here out into the world to play with others. Self-help author Debbie Ford wrote: “Your soul is infinitely creative. It is alive and expansive in nature. It is curious and playful, changing with the tides of time.” As you and we participate in this infinite game of spirituality and religion, I invite you to be the fool, curious, creative, playful, open to the possibility that you might change, or that you might change others. Be prepared, my foolish friends, to grow in ways that you might not expect.