At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant contended that struggle is the motive force of human civilization. Through his successors, especially Hegel, the somewhat oxymoronic idea of armed combat as the motor of civilization came to permeate German high culture and soon Western thinking as a whole. Evolutionism, the idea that fit and lasting species originate through success in competing for food and territory, is a vulgarized version of this high-German myth of creative struggle. This myth has proven tenacious, perhaps because it ties in with certain of our deepest intuitions, such as the sense of our human freedom.
In 1938, the Dutch scholar Johan Huizinga wrote a book called Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. He saw all too clearly where the Prussian adulation for armed combat was going. A few paragraphs added to the second edition, published in 1944 when he was imprisoned in a Nazi detention camp, indicate that he proposed his theory of homo ludens as an alternative, and an antidote, to the German Idealist theory of war as the root of civilization.
The great cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt had proposed in the previous century that ancient Greece was really great when it had real war and genuine warriors: From this it degenerated into a merely “agonal” civilization, with its Olympics and drama competitions, and finally ended in decadence. Against this account of the decline of warrior culture, Huizinga argued that Greece had not moved from battle to play, but that its culture had developed from the beginning in “play-like contest,” in “an almost childlike play-sense expressing itself in various play-forms . . . all rooted in ritual and productive of culture by allowing the innate human need of rhythm, harmony, change, alternation, contrast and climax, etc., to unfold in full richness.” Associated with this sense of play
is a spirit that strives for honor, dignity, superiority, and beauty. Magic and mystery, heroic longings, the foreshadowings of music, sculpture and logic all seek form and expression in noble play . . . In play, therefore, the antithetical and agonistic basis of civilization is given from the start, for play is older and more original than civilization.
Huizinga describes play as pretend combat, and as the source of culture, including its war-making dimensions, not its degeneration. Man is not the animal who best fights, and thus survives, but an animal who plays for the sheer joy of it, and thus thrives. He sees all cultural forms as emerging from such pretend struggles. For instance, poetry arises from riddling contests and mythology from mimetic, “danced out” (in Bellah’s words) enactments of conflicts. His alternative to the mythologizing of the survival-of-the-fittest idea is not to deny that struggle makes any contribution to the progress of culture, but rather to propose that unbloody struggle is the seed of all human sacramental ritual and cultural achievement.
I didn’t know much about the history of philosophy when I first read Homo Ludens as an undergraduate. I owe to Huizinga a mental picture of communal play as the exercise of freedom within a structure of law and form. That helped me to understand what a sacrament is and in particular what is the sacrifice of the Mass. And thus the book led me to begin to consider religion as an objective and public phenomenon. It might seem like a long step from play to the sacrifice of the Mass. But Huizinga quotes Plato, in the Laws: “Man is made God’s plaything, and that is the best part of him.” Plato continues, “Life must be lived as play, playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies, and win in the contest.”
Robert Bellah, in Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, pays his respects to this same passage from Plato, and affirms that Huizinga led him back to it. Religion in Human Evolution is, as it were, a more scientifically informed version of Homo Ludens. Bellah argues that play is among the elemental “core processes” that enabled the first human beings to become human. “Play is a new kind of capacity, with a very large potentiality of developing more capacities . . . some of them quite extraordinary.”
It was the evolved capacity for play that enabled our first ancestors then to evolve the capacity for symbolic speech and for ritual. They played games that led them to ornament themselves, “dance out” stories, and begin to use language symbolically. Each capacity emerged out of and was embedded in the earliest “core processes,” as Bellah calls them: first “self-domestication” or, effectively, familial love, and then, as a result, “a childhood free enough to create intricate and innovative forms of play.”
Religion in Human Evolution is important when countless scholars and popular writers describe every cultural phenomenon and pattern of human behavior in evolutionary terms because its account of an emergent humanity positively requires the exercise of freedom. This idea too goes right back to Homo Ludens, where Huizinga argues that “play only becomes possible . . . when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos.” As he puts it, “Child and animal play because they enjoy playing, and therein precisely lies their freedom.” Likewise, Bellah argues that play is the free generation of an “alternative reality” outside of the reality in which the struggle for existence is paramount. Unlike activities oriented toward survival, “play is something ‘done for its own sake.’” It is “spontaneous and voluntary” and “not a means to an end.”
Today everything from aesthetic beauty to romantic love gets translated into the conniving inventiveness of our selfish genes. In such a climate, Bellah’s book could intrigue young people and others as Homo Ludens intrigued me. And perhaps more so. Many want to understand the implications of modern biology for a larger view of the human person than selfish-gene theory and similar ideas provide. At the same time, we want to take human freedom seriously—including the radical freedom of living for the sake of the transcendent. In other words, we’re looking for accounts of religion that factor in evolution without being simplistically reductionist. Bellah’s book offers just such an account. He places religion within the story of human evolution while leaving open the question of whether it is a wholly natural phenomenon.
Whatever one thinks of the details of his argument, Bellah is surely pointing us in the right direction. Freedom is an obstacle to reductionist naturalism: We know as a kind of experiential first principle that we are free. Freedom is a datum in the light of which we know all else about ourselves. Play is an expression of this freedom. Bellah contends that freedom as expressed in play, playful freedom, steps outside functional evolutionary competition. People can refuse to be persuaded that human beings play just for the fun of it. But it is powerful evidence in favor of his view that we take so much pleasure in the exercise of playful freedom, strongly suggesting that such freedom is a fulfillment of human nature. So I would say that he is on the right track in seeing ritual as an exercise of playful freedom.
Bellah doesn’t go all the way with Plato’s Laws. If he had, he might have developed a richer idea of freedom. Plato thinks that men and women play because we were made to do so by the gods. Playing is not just an escape from material determination or a rest from the daily evolutionary struggle. It is more, even, than the creation of alternative realities, like Bilbo’s riddles, in which to take joy. If Plato is right, playing is the fulfillment of our human nature, what we were made by the gods to do. But Bellah is content with the Kantian conception of freedom as freedom from determination or strife, whereas a Platonist would want to press on to the idea of freedom as freedom for the fulfillment of our natures as “playthings” of the divine. If one aims to defeat evolutionism from within, one has to go all the way with Plato, as I think Huizinga did.
Even though Bellah limits himself to a narrow and Kantian conception of freedom, reflecting, perhaps, the limitations of the modern way of thinking that shapes our philosophical imaginations, his account of religion as the exercise of free playfulness should be given due credit and taken further. The only time I ever saw Richard Dawkins reduced to stuttering silence was when an Irish philosopher repeatedly asked him about human freedom. Dawkins was left saying “I don’t care about freedom,” because he could not deny that these human DNA carriers experience it. Without any other presuppositions, every person in the audience knew he experienced the exercise of freedom.
Christian theologians, myself included, can get very angry with moderns for defining the term “freedom” in the wrong way. This can lead us to forget what an explosive datum freedom is, in and of itself, no matter how well- or ill-defined it is by our dominant philosophical assumptions. As shown by the Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom, a little vagueness about the precise meaning of freedom goes a long way in exposing common ground between Christians and non-believers.
Perhaps the most fundamental affirmation of freedom comes in Bellah’s idea of “conserved core processes.” This concept allows us to identify structures or patterns internal to organisms that exercise ongoing influence over the evolutionary process. The implications are dramatic: “Instead of lumbering robots, organisms are actors in the process of evolution.” In other words, as a species, we exercise some influence over our own development. As he puts it, “We are embedded in a very deep biological . . . history. That history does not determine us, because organisms from the very beginning, and increasingly with each new capacity, have influenced their own fate.”
In addition to introducing freedom in the story of our humanity, Bellah also offends against a materialist orthodoxy because he draws on Lamarck’s idea that acquired tendencies can be inherited, which means that culture isn’t epiphenomenal to the evolution of homo sapiens, but is in fact a constituent part. Scientists may think he is skating on thin ice here. But human beings are the only animals who can create traditions, and who are to an extent created by traditions, perhaps even at a deep, biological level.
So again, with his cultural Lamarckianism, Bellah is articulating the principles of a cultural anthropology based on the premise that human beings are free. To the extent that we create and are created by traditions, there is an element of free self-creation integral to what it means to be human. Human evolution must, to an extent, be in human hands, and in human minds. To an extent: Certainly human beings are not plastic to be engineered in any way we choose.
However controversial among evolutionary scientists, something like Lamarckianism is theologically unavoidable, for it is a presupposition of the Christian doctrine of the Fall. If we assume that original sin is not passed on precisely genetically, but is transmitted from generation to generation, one has to say that human beings are free to alter human nature, and to do so in a radical way. In Principles of Catholic Theology, Joseph Ratzinger writes that “the origin of ‘humanity’ coincides in time with the origin of man’s capacity for tradition.”
On that basis, “Original sin, then, would mean this: The humanum is rooted in tradition, to the beginnings of which there belongs, above all, the ability to hear the Other (whom we call God). . . . From the start, not only this ability to hear and this actual hearing but also sin were constitutive in the formation of subjects in whom tradition would inhere—a kind of formation that is itself constitutive of mankind per se.”
And one need not say that damage to human nature is the only way in which human beings can cause their nature to evolve. We are capable of transmitting developments for good as well as evil. The gospel is a tradition that Christ promises will become constitutive of our humanity. We have the freedom to transmit the living Word, and we do so by allowing ourselves to be formed by it so deeply that it becomes constitutive of us.
It’s quite impossible, of course, for an orthodox Christian theologian to buy into Bellah’s narrative taken as a whole. In their essays, Paul Griffiths and Thomas Joseph White explain why that is so. But his anthropology of freedom is important and should be assimilated into a Christian anthropology. Christian theologians need to situate the biblical narrative in relation to the evolutionary narrative about the origins and ends of humanity. And I think that, to the extent that his anthropology puts creative freedom at the heart of human nature, Christian theologians can make use of Bellah’s narrative.
Francesca Aran Murphy is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.