A Theology of Freedom and Play, and Intergenerational Relationships

By Donald Mader

Boylovers often describe their relationships--particularly their sexual relationships (should they engage in them, and many for various reasons do not)--as "playing around." While there are some indications from sexological research (Sandfort,
The Sexual Aspect of Pedophile Relations, Amsterdam, 1982, Chapt. 3.6) that in fact boylovers who are sexually active do adapt their sexuality to the rather more playful and experimental nature of the younger person's sexuality rather than pursuing penetrative "adult" practices, that is neither here nor there for what I want to examine here. Rather, I wish to follow up the way their claim might resonate with a topic which arose in "gay" theology as thinkers there sought to deal with the concept of a non-procreative sexuality, one without any demonstrable "purpose," by using the concept of "play."

As my starting point I would refer not to one of the recognized "gay" theologians, but to remarks by the late William Stringfellow, who, though homosexual himself, refused to take up the banner of "gay theology." Indeed, his refusal to do so was central to his theological perspective on the matter, namely that the theological issue was not homosexuality but "sexuality in any and all of its species"--to which he added, "as much as I can discern, sexuality is as extensive and diverse as human life itself...There are as many varieties of sexuality as there be human beings." Although his remarks on which I will be drawing here were addressed to a gay audience, this last would appear to be an invitation to those of other "deviant" sexualities to read his subsequent observations with relevance to themselves.

Stringfellow continued his address to the 1979 National Convention of Integrity, the American Episcopalian gay organization ("An Exhortation to Integrity," reprinted in
A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow, ed. W. Kellermann; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), by commending the consideration of sexuality "in the context of conversion"--namely that sexuality, "along with all else, suffers the death in Christ that inaugurates the new (or renewed) life in Christ."

This is a "dying" to self, and selfishness, to everything from which we derive our own worth (for instance, gender roles which may bring with them power and respect), and to every "distortion, confusion, brokenness, ambiguity and corruption" in ourselves. "But," he continues, "that death in Christ in which we are restored to new life does not involve the denial or suppression or repression of anything that we are as persons. It involves instead the renewal of our persons in the integrity of our own creation in the Word of God." In other words, we are not, as so generally maintained in the church (particularly, though not exclusively, with reference to sexuality which diverges from the statistical norm), saved
from our sexuality, by its being placed under bonds or eliminated, but saved in our sexuality (whether it be heterosexuality, homosexuality or any other sexuality), which, like every other aspect which makes up who we are, experiences renewal. Theologically, our sexuality, which is an essential part of who we are, must also be a part of our being called, renewed, and enabled to live in the fullness of our humanity.

Stringfellow's conclusion, which follows from this, is worth quoting in full: this new life in Christ means "that we have the exceptional freedom to be who we are and, thus, to welcome and affirm our sexuality as a gift, absolved from guilt or embarrassment or shame; to be liberated in our sexuality from self-indulgence or lust; to be free to love with wholeness as persons and to recognize and identify and embrace the same wholeness in others; to be freed to enjoy, to celebrate, to play, to have fun in our creation in relationship to others and to the rest of creation."

This linkage of freedom and play is also found in another reflection, "The Freedom to Play," by the therapist and theologian Dr. John J. McNeill (
Taking a Chance on God: Liberating Theology for Gays, Lesbians, and their Lovers, Families and Friends; Boston: Beacon, 1988, Chapter 13, pp. 111-120; for the conditions of play, see particularly pp. 116-119). There McNeill specifies three conditions for "play":

  1. Play must be understood as a basic human structure, irreducible to anything else. To be play an activity must be meaningful in itself and not related to a result which lies beyond the action itself. It must be totally meaningful here and now.
  2. Play always poses the question of the type of interpersonal relationship within which such activity takes place. That play has no goals beyond itself means that in play, individuals are able to be there fully for each other.
  3. Play can only exist to the extent that there is a sense of security felt by all taking part.

Continue to part 2

© 2001 Paraklesis

Email: paraklesis@cblf.org