James P. Carse, now Professor Emeritus of history and literature of religion at NYU, published Finite and Infinite Games in 1986. The book’s spare 160 pages belie its significance. It is a masterpiece of clear, poetic and transformative thought, as Carse takes on the big question that faces us now and always: What are we doing and saying when we act and talk about things religious—or for that matter about life?
His answer—and this is impossibly oversimplified—is that we are playing games. To say even that little is misleading. The only way to appreciate the book and its power is to follow its 101 very brief sections end to end.
This was written at a time when the idea of religion as myth was enjoying renewed currency. It was not a new idea, but by the 1980s a generation of thinkers was trying to make intellectually honest sense of a conundrum: If religious narrative is merely myth, how can religious history have any value or substantial meaning, and how then can we be religious? It turned out in their view that it was not “merely” myth, but a matter that necessarily coexisted with, complemented and completed religion.
This continues to be something both hard for many to accept or wrap their heads around and equally hard to articulate. Carse articulates this better than anybody else has, and elevates the entire area to a platform for considering the whole of existence and life. If that sounds like hyperbole, please read the book and decide.
In the meantime, a wholly inadequate sample, given that many definitions and premises are missing:
THERE ARE at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite.
A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.
. . .
If it is true that myth provokes explanation, then it is also true that explanation’s ultimate design is to eliminate myth. It is not just that the availability of bells in churches and town halls of Europe makes it possible to forge new cannon; it is that the cannon are forged in order to silence the bells. This is the contradiction of finite play in its highest form: to play in such a way that all need for play is erased.
The loudspeaker, successfully muting all other voices and therefore all possibility of conversation, is not listened to at all, and for that reason loses its own voice and becomes mere noise. Whenever we succeed in being the only speaker, there is no speaker at all. Julius Caesar originally sought power in Rome because he loved to play the very dangerous style of politics common to the Republic; but he played the game so well that he destroyed all his opponents, making it impossible for him to find genuinely dangerous combat. He was unable to do the very thing for which he sought power. His word was now irresistible, and for that reason he could speak with no one, and his isolation was complete. “We might almost say this man was looking for an assassination” (Syme).
If we are to say that all explanation is meant to silence myth itself, then it will follow that whenever we find people deeply committed to explanation and ideology, whenever play takes on the seriousness of warfare, we will find persons troubled by myths they cannot forget they have forgotten. The myths that cannot be forgotten are those so resonant with the paradox of silence they become the source of our thinking, even our culture, and our civilization.
These are the myths we can easily discover and name, but whose meanings continually elude us, myths whose conversion to truth never quite fills the bells of their resonance with the sand of metaphysical interpretation. These are often exceedingly simple stories. Abraham is an example. Although only two children were born to Abraham in his long life, and one of those was illegitimate, he was promised that his descendants would be as numberless as the stars of the heavens. All three of the West’s major religions consider themselves children of Abraham, though each has often understood to be itself the only and final family of the patriarch, an understanding always threatened by the resounding phrase: numbered as the stars of the heavens. This is the myth of a future that always has a future; there is no closure in it. It is a myth of horizon.
The myth of the Buddha’s enlightenment has the same paradox in it, the same provocation to explanation but with as little possibility of settling the matter. It is the story of a mere mortal, completely without divine aid, undertaking successfully a spiritual quest for release from all forms of bondage, including the need to report this release to others. The perfect unspeakability of this event has given rise to an immense flow of literature in scores of languages that shows no signs of abating.
Perhaps the Christian myth has been the narrative most disturbing to the ideological mind. It is, like those of Abraham and the Buddha, a very simple tale: that of a god who listens by becoming one of us. It is a god “emptied” of divinity, who gave up all privilege of commanding speech and “dwelt among us,” coming “not to be served, but to serve,” “being all things to all persons.” But the worlds to which he came received him not. They no doubt preferred a god of magisterial utterance, a commanding idol, a theatrical likeness of their own finite designs. They did not expect an infinite listener who joyously took their unlikeness on himself, giving them their own voice through the silence of wonder, a healing and holy metaphor that leaves everything still to be said.
Those Christians who deafened themselves to the resonance of their own myth have driven their killing machines through the garden of history, but they did not kill the myth. The emptied divinity whom they have made into an Instrument of Vengeance continues to return as the Man of Sorrows bringing with him his unfinished story, and restoring the voices of the silenced.
The myth of Jesus is exemplary, but not necessary. No myth is necessary. There is no story that must be told. Stories do not have a truth that someone needs to reveal, or someone needs to hear. It is part of the myth of Jesus that it makes itself unnecessary; it is a narrative of the word becoming flesh, of language entering history; a narrative of the word becoming flesh and dying, of history entering language. Who listens to his myth cannot rise above history to utter timeless truths about it.
It is not necessary for infinite players to be Christians; indeed it is not possible for them to be Christians—seriously. Neither is it possible for them to be Buddhists, or Muslims, or atheists, or New Yorkers—seriously. All such titles can only be playful abstractions, mere performances for the sake of laughter.
Infinite players are not serious actors in any story, but the joyful poets of a story that continues to originate what they cannot finish.
There is but one infinite game.