Telling a story for the sake of telling a story or doing a silly putty meditation is what James P. Carse (Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility) calls an infinite game. Having a tea party for your teddy bears and dolls, playing hide and go seek, and pretending you are a kitten are also infinite games. Carse says there are two kinds of games; there are finite and infinite games. Most board games like Monopoly or Risk, as well as games like Football or Basketball are finite games.
Think for a moment, what are some of the characteristics of finite games—monopoly, football, even games like poker or spades? (there is an opponent, cannot be played alone, externally defined, rules are set up so someone can win, rules don’t change; finite game players play within boundaries…) What are some of the characteristics of infinite games—tea parties for stuffed animals, playing hide and go seek, and pretending you are a kitten? (can be alone or with others, internally defined, don’t care when game begins, the only purpose is to prevent the game from coming to an end, to keep everyone playing, rules can change to keep the play going; infinite game players play without boundaries…) 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, which is an infinite game, while playing soccer—my oldest son did this when he was 4 years old. Needless to say he did not go on to become a world class soccer player. 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 play or pretend you are an astronaut again later today or next week or while you are driving to work. Having lived here in Miami for almost 2 years now, I am pretty sure that many drivers in Miami are only playing the infinite game of driving, because they certainly are not following any of the driving laws that exist.
One final thing about playing any game. Whoever plays, whatever the game, whether infinite or finite, plays freely—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 may have been required to take as part of your high school or college education. Let’s say it was basketball, for this example. There is a qualitative difference between the basketball game you play in gym class and the pick-up basketball game you may have played with your friends on your own time. Participation in one was 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 and play 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?
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 who we are? Well, in a sense we 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 have that belief. 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. But the idea of playing with beliefs/values/ethics/morals/ideas gives 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.
As many of you know I am a Buddhist, Panentheist, Humanist, Unitarian Universalist. I suspect many of you would have difficulty describing your spirituality with one word. And I have to say the labels that I use are gently playful rather than deadly serious, because I am not 100% Buddhist—instead I played with some Buddhist ideas and practices until I found 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, knowing that these beliefs, practices, and ideas work for me now, but I am open to new beliefs, practices, and ideas, as my life evolves.
I have also played with prayer. The prayer I use today includes starting with various names for divinity, whichever comes to mind, then affirming the many blessings—good things that have happened—in my life, then offering lovingkindness and healing to all those who are experiencing suffering, both to those I know personally and then to anyone in the world who is suffering. How I pray has changed over my life, from saying prescribed prayers like the “Our Father” to not feeling that prayer held any meaning for me, to trying on types of prayers from different religions and different authors—I particularly like prayers written by Unitarian Theodore Parker who, at least in my mind, playfully describes the divine in many natural ways including “Oh thou Infinite One, who dwellest not only in temples made with hands, but art a perpetual presence, living and moving and having thy being in every star that flowers above, and every flower that flames beneath.”
And sometimes we decide we want to participate in this spiritual game or play with others as we consider our beliefs/values/ethics/morals/ideas. Infinite play in community for the purpose of spirituality is religion. Many UUs intentionally embrace spirituality as an infinite game. They 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 playing with beliefs and ideas. This religion has gone from two different Christian religions: Unitarianism-with its core tenets being that Jesus was human and there is no such thing as a Trinitarian god-- and Universalism—with its core tenets being that there is no hell and everyone is destined for heaven. Over time UUism became more humanistic, focusing on how we live our lives in the here and now, to now being a more pluralistic religion with values rather than beliefs forming its foundation. Often you will hear in this church that revelation is not sealed; our beliefs are not static; or that we are physical, mental, emotional and spiritual beings who are always in process. We can be playful and we can be very serious about our beliefs, but we are always respectful of each other's beliefs in this community, or at least we aspire to be, because we know that we are all in process and all of us have a hard time using one single label to describe our beliefs. 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 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. [Religion] is but one infinite game.”
One of the experiences that solidified that I am a Unitarian Universalist was when I attended a discussion group, not unlike the Decentering Whiteness Book Club or the Indigenous Peoples History of the United States Study Group we have here in this congregation. I sat in a classroom at First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church in Fort Worth, Texas with around 15 others members of the church. A television sat in one corner with a VHS player attached. 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 the first Star Wars movie and then we had a serious and playful discussion of the theological implications of the film. Sometimes the discussion became quite heated, like when someone wondered out loud if C3PO was a necessary character. 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— when someone said, "there is no such thing as the force", but always there was someone in the group to stop the discussion to remind us of our of covenant: it is better to be compassionate 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 that covenant I learned all those years ago: being compassionate 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. I am sure that you have experienced something like this when you are being playful with someone, saying something that that hurt them when you didn’t mean to. During an infinite game when something is said or done with playful intent but comes across as hurtful or marginalizing or minimizing, let’s be ready to stop the game, express what hurt, then forgive one another and begin the game again in love.
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. As we continue to play with one another, we are also honoring each other’s worth and dignity, respecting each other’s beliefs, encouraging each other to grow spiritually and ethically, and affirming each other’s responsible searching for truth and meaning. 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 be curious, be creative, be playful, open yourself to the possibility that you might change, and be prepared to grow in ways that you might not expect. Namaste.