Weekly Edgework #80 - January 9, 2006

The Problem of Fun

Ikotsali expected the standing bird to fly away in search of food, but the bird stayed near the nest for a while, as if having a conversation with its mate on the nest. Then it strutted toward the shore until it faced the spot where Ikotsali hid. For a short breath Ikotsali thought the bird might attack him as it leapt into the air, but instead of darting at him with its long bill ready to snap, the whooping crane whirled in mid-air and flapped its wings, although it had no intention to fly. Instead it repeated the movement again and again, adding twists and turns, wing movements and the occasional cry. Ikotsali wanted to laugh…All alone the big white bird danced, unaware of Ikotsali’s staring eyes. The crane was not dancing for its mate on the nest – its mate was facing the other way. The crane danced all alone, for itself, just for fun! (Tatsea, Armin Wiebe, p. 52)

Much has been written about the problem of pain and suffering. Less has been written about the problem of fun. At least I have not found much in my own perusal of philosophical and theological literature.

The presence of pain and suffering is considered to be a problem because it seems to argue against the existence of God. The line of reasoning goes something like this: “If God is good and all-powerful, why does he allow so much suffering to happen in the world? Since he seems to be doing little to alleviate suffering it is doubtful that he even exists. If a good, all-powerful God existed he would surely put an end to suffering.” Perhaps more than any other controversy, this one has turned many thoughtful people into agnostics or even atheists. Indeed, this is a difficult problem for theists to ponder. I have written about it at some length myself in a sermon titled, “Praying in a Broken World.”

But, for a change, I would like to reflect on the problem of fun. This is not really a problem for someone who believes in God, although I know some Christians who apparently see fun as a problem to be avoided at all costs. They feel that fun is a distraction from a godly life of discipleship. It needs to be shunned completely or at least minimized lest it draw us away from God. To them fun is a veneer behind which hides all manner of evil. For me this is far too gloomy a worldview for Christians to subscribe to.

In reality the presence of fun is a problem for those who don’t believe in God. If one subscribes to the notion that everything that exists does so by pure chance and natural evolutionary processes, how do you explain the presence of fun? How did fun get injected into a world in which survival of species is the name of the game? I suppose it could be argued that those within any given species best able to survive were those who had “discovered” fun as a type of tonic for good health. That killjoys had a harder time putting up with a harsh environment and slowly died out. But that point of view seems even harder to accept than a belief in God in the context of pain and suffering.

For me, the presence of fun points in the direction of God. It really only is a major problem for those who see no place for God in our universe. The burden rests upon them to explain the origin and purpose of fun in a world of pure chance. I find it easier to believe that fun originated in God’s sense of humor than in primordial processes discovered by certain species to help them survive.

This way of looking at things runs parallel to the idea G. K. Chesterton described in the early twentieth century as the problem of beauty. What role does the presence of exquisite beauty play, he asked, in the world of coincidence? In his recent book, Rational Mysticism: Dispatches From the Border Between Science and Spirituality, John Horgan, follows Chesterton’s line of reasoning by asking how fun could have emerged fortuitously. Beauty and fun are ideas far too creative to have emerged by accident. So it seems to me that acknowledging the presence of God goes some distance toward solving the problem of fun.

But that leaves us with the problem that some people who do believe in God have a problem with fun. Along my journey of indoctrination I have repeatedly bumped up against the concept held by well-meaning Christians that fun is suspect. That it is an invention of the Devil – a sin, by means of which we are lured into destruction.

I have come to mistrust this interpretation of things. The Devil is not a creator, only a distorter. If he uses our God-given abilities to have fun to lead us into sin he is only showing how uncreative he is. Sin is always and only a distortion of God’s good creation – a perversion of the way things were meant to be. In a fallen world, our God-given appetites and abilities can give way to the principalities and powers that seek to separate us from God. The remedy for this situation, however, is not to cut off our God-given capacities at the knees. Rather it is to redeem all that we were meant to be from the twisted wreckage of human experience.

One thing that needs redemption in our midst is fun. Like the whooping crane, we were meant to enjoy life just for the fun of it. It doesn’t need to fit into some long-term strategy for making the world a better place. It just needs to “be” – as God intended it to “be.” So if you see me dancing in my living room as you drive by my house, don’t be too concerned. I am practicing a lesson given to me by one of God’s creatures, the whooping crane.