Religion is a Game

Religion is a game.  I do not mean this in any kind of a reductionist or derogatory sense (e.g., “Catholicism is just a game—play by the rules (the Ten Commandments, the sacraments) and you win.”)  I mean it in a deep sense; religions are systems that, if understood and interpreted correctly within context, can provide us with the means of personal development and transformation.  There are tools, rules of discipline, and boons of hope and encouragement.  Some of these elements can even be transferred to other religions, just as elements of some games can be added to other games.  But we cannot just borrow the pleasant things from each religion, no more than we should adopt just the self-sacrificing practices.  We need to adopt one of them games wholeheartedly (customizing it within reason), or else create a balanced and complete mixture of needed elements from many religions, or we can create our own religion— which would be reinventing the wheel, so to speak.

Just as Wittgenstein illuminated language as a “game” that we play, so too is religion.  Languages are games that are very different in their look, their sound, their feel, and their rules, but they are all games that, when played, generate meaning for their players, meaning within the games themselves and meaning in relation to the world “out there” to which they refer.  No language can perfectly refer to the world out there, but the inner coherence of the whole allows it to refer to the world as a whole in some useful and meaningful way.  Religions, too, are games.  Each has its own look, sound, and feel; each generates meaning within itself for its players; each generates meaning in relation to some reality “out there,” whether natural or supernatural.  Just as with languages, people can have more than one religion.  But, just as with languages, people must keep the games somewhat separate.  One can intermittently insert a word or phrase or even borrow a grammatical idea; however, just as one can only speak one language at a time, so too can one play only one religion at a time.

This insight into religion as game came to me when I attended an Episcopal mass in the St. Joseph of Arimethea chapel in the belly of the Washington National Cathedral.  I had been to mass at the cathedral and had never been much moved by it.  However, a friend of mine invited me to attend the mass in the chapel one Sunday to hear her sermon.  This mass moved me greatly, and for many reasons:  It was in the crypt of the Cathedral, a crypt containing two special people (the bodies of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan).  It was just the kind of place early Christians practiced their rituals in secret.  It was candlelit, dark but warm, circular, with amphitheatre-like steps leading down from all sides into the alter area.  The backdrop was a massive fresco of Joseph retrieving Jesus’ body, the whole thing glowing in its golden palette.  It was underneath the Cathedral, in the belly, the ground, inside of Mother Earth.  Emerging from the mass into the crisp spring air was like being reborn again from the womb, similar to the experience Native Americans create with their sweatlodge ritual.

One can imagine the ambience, the feeling, the meaning of such an experience, and even the reasons why it might have been preferable to the magnificent, awesome, light-filled, airy experience of the main nave.  But none of those reasons, none of that meaning, none of the specialness of that crypt would have been possible without the existence of the gigantic structure on top of it.  The chapel simply could not exist without the cathedral.  Nor the cathedral without the chapel.  They are integral parts of the game I was playing, the game called Christianity, in which I preferred to play the apophatic, underground, contemplative rebel.

This is how we create access-points to religious meaning.  I recognize that the same meditative state can be entered through Roman Catholic rosary beads, Islamic prayer beads, Tibetan meditation beads.  It is the repetitive motion and chanting that creates the space needed for contemplation.  But I cannot just hand my kid a string of glass beads and tell her to rub them until she is awakened.  We need the context of the “Hail Mary’s,” of the immaculate conception, of the story of Jesus’ conception and birth, of Mary’s assumption into heaven.  Or the context of the ninety-nine names of Allah.  Or of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  The access points are not easily identified in thin-air (although I am quite sure the Divine leads people to such invisible access points quite often).  It is helpful to have signposts.  It is helpful to know where the game is being played.

Again, in Christianity:  There is one level of meaning that is created in a Methodist church that breaks bread together, somewhat informally, one Sunday a month.  There is another level of meaning created by the weekly ritual of the Episcopal mass, culminating in the breaking and sharing of bread by all.  There is still another level of meaning created by the Roman Catholic mass that demands that only those who have attended a year-long First Communion class may partake of the bread at the end of mass.  And still another level of meaning for one who has grown up the Catholic way and who is therefore touched and humbled by the liberal sharing of bread at the Methodist service.  Meaning, meaning, and more meaning, all created by these games we play.

Students have been fond of asking me, “Why do you choose to be Catholic?  How can you choose to be Catholic, when you have learned about and practiced all of these great religions?  How can you settle for Catholicism when you at the same time affirm the truth of these other religions and even practice Buddhist meditation, Hindu Yoga, Native American sweatlodge?”  My answer is always this:  All of these religions are games.  Each of them has its own inner logic, and each of them approaches the truth.  None of them is perfect, just like no language can perfectly describe the world.  Each of them provides a road map to the truth, but you need to pick one.  “Why can’t we just pick and choose what you like from each of them, like you do?” they ask.

My reply is that I do not just pick and choose what I like.  I do select practices and beliefs from other traditions that augment my spirituality, but I believe that we should still pick one main thing to follow, one main game to play.  Why?  Because this will help to protect us from picking just the things that are easy, just the things that are agreeable.  It will also protect some of us from focusing too much on the self-denying things, from overdosing on an ascetic path in an attempt to reach our goal (too) quickly.  I do not yet trust myself to select a balanced set of practices, rituals, and beliefs!  Each religion is a different road map to the same place.  Each has different mountains to climb and valleys to rest in and rivers to cross.  We cannot just take the valleys from each religion, and leave out the mountains.  We need to play the whole game.  So, being forced to choose one game out of many, I chose the one that was the most comfortable, the one that I grew up with.  I do liberally borrow from the other games.  And I do recognize that they are all “just” games.  But not so much “just.”  The reality which they approximate, which they imitate, is not “just” anything.  It is all.

I encourage everyone to explore all the different games we can play, to make a commitment to one of them, and to customize this game in the ways that are most helpful to one’s spiritual, psychological, and physical health.  Play this game with all of your heart, mind, body and soul.  But, at the end of the day, know that it is just a game.  Shake hands with your teammates and with your opponents, for they are opponents no longer.  The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon, as a Zen master once said.

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