Religious rituals as creative play for adults?

June 23, 2008 | By | Reply More

I’m currently reading a new book by Susan Linn, The Case for Make-Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World (2008).

The main point of the book is that modern parents tend to over-schedule their children and otherwise deprive them of time for creative play.  For instance, many parents are letting their children get addicted to two-dimensional screens (television and computer screens) and many of us are inundating our children with toys that deprive them of creative play, toys that “aren’t designed with the goal of engaging children for years, or even months.  They are designed to sell.”  The net result is that creative play “is in danger of extinction.”

Why is this loss of time for creative play important?  Because children use play to cope with “the greatest of human challenges, including life-threatening illness, death and loss.”  Play is much more than momentary fun.  It is “a fundamental component of living a meaningful life and essential to mental health.”  Linn was motivated to write her book to encourage readers to ensure that their children are given ample opportunities for creative play.

It seems as though Linn’s subject matter, creative play, might also extend to adults in a critically important way.  Such application would have the potential for shedding light on religious rituals.  Although Linn’s book doesn’t dwell on this possibility, it is certainly acknowledged.

Linn speaks of the transitional objects of childhood, the blankets, bears and other “cuddlies” that are crucial for a child’s comfort.  Sometimes they “seem to be even more important than actual parents because children cannot bear to be parted from them.” As Lynn observes, children invest these objects with “special meaning.”  Such objects help children feel safe.  The children “create the blanket’s meaning.”  Furthermore, the power of these transitional objects flourish “because adult caretakers accept the importance of their significance to the young owners.”  (75)

The phenomenon of transitional objects is nearly universal.  Such objects “live at the intersection of inner experience and outer reality.”  Lynn notes that as children grow up, these transitional objects “fade in importance.”  At the same time, however,

the psychological space they occupy remains and [it’s] in that space that creative play takes place.  Our childhood experience of what D.W. Winnicott calls “transitional space” as children affords us access as adults to a rich panoply of experiences that are neither wholly internal nor wholly external, but somehow both.  Religious and patriotic symbols, like a cross, a star of David, or a flag, for instance, have meaning beyond their physical properties that vary depending on your experience.

Though the growing children eventually put their stuffed animals away, these animals “teach” the children symbolic meaning.

What remains, for the rest of our lives, is the capacity to experience a kind of psychological space that is simultaneously internal and external, real and not real, me and not me–a transitional space.  In that space, once occupied by beloved transitional objects, people continue to assign personal, powerful meaning to objects from the outer world and to mold and shape these objects to give tangible shape to dreams, ideas and fantasies.  [I]n play, not unlike artists, we express real feelings by using ideas or objects that are symbols of real objects.

Based on Winnicott’s account of transitional objects, Lynn concludes that “we play in the service of a dream.” (80)

It doesn’t take much imagination to see religious and governmental rituals as extensions of the creative play of childhood. The objects of a ritual can be seen as a “transitional objects” that bridge the gap between often times disturbing real-life experiences and one’s hopes and fantasies.

I’m not claiming that all religious believers engage in rituals because they are in some way “infantile” or as a conscious attempt to extend childhood play into their adult lives; rather, they might be (unconsciously) extending the important benefits of childhood play into their adult lives.

I believe that people are “religious” for numerous reasons, and many “religious” people are not much into rituals.  On the other hand, it would seem as though the creative play of childhood could enable children to engage in religious or civic rituals. Or, at least, the lack of creative play as children might cause adults to struggle to understand religious and civic rituals.

The objects of  adult rituals  might serve to bridge the gap between what actually exists in the world of adults and the things for which  religious adults hope and dream.

I’m not finished with Susan Linn’s book yet.  I’ll be looking to see whether she comments further on this potential adult application of the function of creative play.  I would also be interested in knowing whether adults who get lots of time for creative play as children are more (or less) likely to feel fulfilled when participating in religious and civic rituals.


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Category: American Culture, Art, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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