God and Man at Play

Creation is ongoing, spontaneous, and forever surprising


Faith Philosophy

Hugo Rahner, SJ, is the author of a classic work Man at Play. The central and staggering insight of Man at Play is that God is at play! How so?

Proverbs 8:27-31 gives us a starting point. From the beginning, Rahner points out, Divine Wisdom (Hochmah) has been “playing before the world-creating God.” Creation is God’s free gift; there is nothing of necessity in it — quite the opposite. Creation is ongoing, spontaneous, and forever surprising.

Einstein rightly says that God doesn’t play dice with the universe. That’s because God doesn’t play dice. Who in the world would suppose otherwise? He does, however, play magnificently with whole worlds, and He invites us to join him.

We ourselves, however feebly, come to know of this cosmic dance because we are made in God’s image and likeness. For this same reason, as free and intelligent creatures, we can be spontaneous in play and surprising even to ourselves. Like David, and the Hasidim, we can dance before the Lord.

Often, though, we dance poorly or miss the dance altogether. Why is this so? Is it that we regulate our lives so that we can’t find time for play even on a human level? If so, our stern and sour busyness soon enough trips us up. Or do we so evacuate our real lives that play collapses into “entertainment consumption”? If so, calculated distraction drives out genuine delight.

But wait, says an objector. If our Creator is the Lord of the Dance, can He also be the First Cause? There is a fairly short answer to this question (plus longer ones). We do well to think of cause, broadly understood, as derivation. Now the Lord of the Dance is, indeed, the derivation of the universe, of that which is. But causal derivation is not limited to causal determination. Much exists, of course, that is determined in the sense that, barring external impediments, causes necessarily bring about their effects. Yet much, and perhaps more than we suspect, is not so determined.

Human actions are not causally determined, however much determinists argue otherwise. Even the determinist’s arguments aim to give reasons rather than causes for determinism. In any case,  we are not alone in giving glory to God. All creation gives glory to God, starting from the sub-atomic level of quarks with their quirks. Giving this glory is consistent with the search for useful scientific generalizations. The splendidly surprising, after all, presumes a foundational order!

As Elizabeth Anscombe noted, our solar system is wonderfully hospitable to Newton’s mechanics. Whether the universe is equally in tune with determinist models is a different matter. John Henry Newman, in a day when physics seemed far simpler, urged us not to confuse order with causation. Yes, we experience ourselves as causal agents. But when we turn to all-encompassing and deterministic scientific laws, we move from experience to conjecture. It is a turn from careful argument to a “totalizing” hunch.

The takeaway? Let the Dance, with both metered measure and happy happenstance, go on!

(A final note: Cluny Press has just re-issued Man at Play, and we are again in debt to this new publisher.)


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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