Role-playing game systems increase in popularity year after year for many reasons, but one of the most attractive features of such games is the opportunity to advance in levels. Kill this many monsters, solve this many quests, gain this many experience points, and up a level you go, with greater strength, more magical powers, and greater resistance to attacks that might kill you.
I can remember, early in my career as a gamer, yearning after the elusive upper levels. I'd spend hours each week running a set of characters through Bard's Tale, thrilling each time the group gained another level. I was, and remain, willing to invest considerable time in whatever activities would move my avatar ever closer to epic levels of might and magic.
Developing characters in a fantastic world was an integral part of my personal maturation. When I think back to 4th grade, I can remember an awkward stage sitting on the floor in my parent's bedroom, phone cord stretched across the room, maps and rule books laid out around me on the carpet, regaling a friend with the details of the game. The friend on the other end of the line must have been particularly patient, because I think I talked for hours, literally, about the process for developing non-player characters that would populate dungeons. In my halting fashion, as a child less adept at social interaction than academic performance, the world of games allowed me to move along, slowly, in emotional intelligence, framed by the conversations of the games. Gaming was a safer way to be awkward.
A clear measurable path for progress really is magical. This is true not only in games, but in real life. Skill acquisition of any kind, though time-consuming and pain-staking, offers a set of unparalleled rewards. There is a visible and discernible change that makes all the effort worthwhile. Run this much, get this much faster, lose this much weight. Practice the piano, learn these scales, play Chopin.
Role-playing games are unique in that leveling up is unidirectional. There is no backsliding. Take your paladin to the 20th level, and she stays there. Perhaps this is the great satisfaction and joy of RPGs. We can be challenged while never set back. In this way, games decrease the risks of failure, and this is what satisfies. By comparison, if I stop running or practicing piano or speaking German, the skills slowly drift away.
Often, I wish growth in the Christian life were like gaming. Like a cleric whose access to the holy remains steady and deepens the higher he rises, channeling the energy of their deity with ever greater proficiency, I wish some days my own holiness were so clearly progressive. But it isn't. Most of the time, it is difficult to offer markers of how, from year to year, I grow in faith at all, and if I'm honest, I can offer more examples of backsliding than forward movement.
For example, recently I realized I am seldom in prayer. Since pastors commit themselves to a life of prayer, I have over the years implemented myriad ways to build prayer into my daily life. I have meditated. I have prayed the daily offices. I plan prayer runs. I go on retreat. Even just last year, I was praying regularly, daily, in a variety of ways.
This summer, it occurred to me that I rarely pray except professionally, as part of worship, or because council asks me to open our meeting with prayer. How is it possible, given the regular practices I've cultivated in my life, that I suddenly find myself, a 40-something Christian pastor, not praying. How can holiness go in reverse?
At least I am aware of the reversal. That's progress of a sort. It is as if the only power granted a pastor in real life is the power to see the world and the self increasingly for what it is, a murky and complex place through which glimpses of brilliant grace inexplicably shine. I know and trust that while I have not been praying, my friends and parishioners have, and Christ has continued to intercede before the Father even while I've been less than present myself in those prayers Christ lifts.
Although almost all of Christianity assumes some kind of progress in holiness, this progress is considerably more mixed than we like. Two steps forward, three steps back. Progress, for Christians, is growth in one area just sufficient enough to illuminate immaturity in some other area of the Christian life. Just about the time I congratulate myself for engaging in a particularly successful evangelism conversation at the coffee shop, I go home and get impatient with my family.
Some Christian traditions over the centuries, to be sure, have been more confident in their ability to measure growth in holiness. But the further proof of the folly of such confidence is the discernment of the wider Christian communion, who have always seen this over-confidence in self-aware holiness for what it truly is, a mark of immaturity and lack of spiritual grace.
As desirous as we are of holiness, and as desirable as clear growth can be, the truth of holiness in Christian tradition lies elsewhere. In fact, it rests not in measurable means, like leveling up. True holiness rests outside of us, in God.
Holiness is a God thing
A man runs up to Jesus and asks, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus pauses before answering to ask a question, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone" (Mark 10:18). The one man who might get a pass on being called good is the very one who deflects the title away from himself and back to God.
This is a catechetical moment, one worth our attention. If Jesus himself deflects goodness back to God, there must be something in the life of holiness that is focused not on our own holiness, but on the holiness of God.
John Webster, in one of the few recent booklength treatments of holiness, says as much. "Holiness is a predicate of the personal being, action and relation of the triune God, of God's concrete execution of [God's] simplicity; it is not a quality in abstraction, but an indicator of God's 'name'" (Webster 39). Jesus does not want "good" added to his name, because God alone is good, by nature of the name of God itself.
Theologically, everything related to holiness is grounded in the holiness of God. God is holiness and gives holiness. Holiness is established in the hearing of the promises and good news of the holiness of God. The end or purpose of holiness, if we are to pick up on a solid reformed insight, is the sanctifying of the holy name of God. Holiness is about God's own leveling up, as it were.
But in good classic Christian theology, there is never a God in Godself, God for Godself. The holiness of God is known in God's being for us. In fact, God is not God without being "for us." It is another name of God. So the holy God is holy precisely in being for the people God is actively making holy.
Gamers might think of a parallel concept in the gaming world, of power-leveling, where a lower level character advances more quickly through the assistance of a higher level character, who completes quests or defeats creatures impossible for lower level characters, but allows the lower leveler to vicariously receive experience points beyond their normal ability.
A few years ago, when I was studying World of Warcraft for a book I was writing on media and faith, a friend and long-time WoW gamer volunteered to walk me through parts of the WoW universe I would not have survived on my own as a low-level character. I partnered with him on a quest that included defeating a dragon. My ranger increased a couple of levels in that short time. As a result, I was then able to travel on my own to a great number of regions. By vicarously gaming with a friend, I gained strength, confidence, and freedom. My friend literally increased my capacity for life in the game.
The analogy works, but not well, because the holiness of the Christian community that participates in the holiness of God truly participates, in that the community receives the name of God itself in its holiness. In Christian theology, we do not become "like" God. We are gathered up into God's very self. That is holiness. The comparison, if there is one to gaming, would be that I would no longer just be a gamer in the game, but would become part of the game-design team. Leveling up, I would have the chance to write the very game I was playing, co-creator in the diving gaming.
So is there growth?
All of this leaves us, on the practical level, wondering whether there is growth in holiness, and if there is, what it looks like. Clearly, if the holiness of God draws near to us because of who God is, we need to be able to speak of growth in the holiness that God gives.
For example, John Webster asserts, "We need to understand that theological thinking about holiness is itself an exercise of holiness" (8). For Webster, a primary aspect of holiness is "an increase in concentration: the focusing of the mind, will and affections on the holy God and his ways with us" (105). We can be at least somewhat confident that growth in holiness looks like growth in awareness of the holiness of God.
One aspect of God's holiness is its illumination of our sin. So another mark of holiness in our lives is our awareness of how far we are from holiness, how far we are from God. God's holiness, and our awareness of it, shines light on our distance from it. God is God, and we are not.
I have this suspicion that this related in some ways to Tolkien's concept of sub-creation. Although we cannot live up to the holiness of God, we have had extended to us a role within the creation and sub-creators of God's good creation.
That being said, we immediately circle back around to the truth that the very God who we are not is the God who is for us and with us and will not without us. This is why theologians have, over time, developed in various ways a notion that our growth in grace, if it is to be described at all, may best be described as a holiness that happens again and again, once for all, and more and more.
Again and again, because we continually fall away from it, slide back into ways of life quite distant from the holy life, and so must, day after day, return to the holiness so graciously extended. This is the wisdom of Martin Luther in the small catechism, who teaches about baptism that we are to daily drown and die to sin and daily rise as a new person in God in Christ.
Once for all, inasmuch as Christians frequently emphasize the unique place of Christ's death and resurrection in the economy of salvation, Christ's taking on the sin of the whole world in order that we might be made into the holy people of God.
More and more, and here is the most difficult move, because we truly have seen living examples of faithful folks who have grown so deeply into the grace of God and rested in it, that the very holiness of God imbued their lives with particular holiness and grace. We call these holy ones saints, and for good reason. By the grace of God, and in mysterious ways, they really did level up. The path was unique and perhaps unrepeatable, but this in no way detracts from their attractiveness as examples of holiness.
The Geography of Holiness
|St. Symeon the Stylite|
There is one last thing. Holiness is about God, God's goodness, God's grace, God's love, God's care. Our own holiness we tend to consider in terms of behavior or demeanor. Yet there is an unremarked geography of holiness worth our attention. Holiness is, more than we realize, an aspect of where we are. Holiness is embodied. Consider the Stylites, whose holiness was directly correlated to the strangeness of their retreat. Or the anchorites, whose particular practice of holiness tethered them to holy structures. Even God's holiness has an unavoidable spatial dimension. The more God is holy, the more God is up. Perhaps in our quest for progress in holiness, we have failed to notice that holiness is a place. Holiness is a space, a set-apartness, proximity to divinity. It's just that in the quantum era, we don't know where we are anymore, or what "where" is.
Intriguingly, we are living in the renaissance of table-top gaming, which means game parlors are proliferating and even chain stores like Barnes & Noble are filling up with card board creations. All over, little game stores are popping up, typically shelved with a hodge-podge of gamer paraphernalia, and the ubiquitous stacks of three-ring binders filled with the king of Collectible Card Games, Magic: The Gathering. But essential to all game stores are the tables, cheap folding tables and chairs, sometimes sturdier wood structures readied for war games. Gamers seem not to demand fancy spaces. They'll camp out in any old place. But they do need to be together, and they do need each other. It takes players to play a game. The sacred space evoked in gaming has very little to do with vaulted ceilings or fancy frames, but instead is facilitated in the holy hospitality of shared imagination. Like any playroom, the mess is acceptable if it facilitates jouissance.
So let me offer a proposal, one that may not satisfy all, and certainly will confuse cartographers. The place of holiness is the neighbor, in particular the neighbors in neighborhood at play. Making holiness about a place, and the place being the neighbor, might give us some additional resources for reconsidering all our conversations about growth. Unlike avatars in RPGs, who approach almost all non-player characters they encounter simply as utilitarian resources to be benignly exploited for their own leveling up, our own leveling up is accomplished expressly and completely in the freedom we receive from the holy God to be holy, and wholly, in our neighbor.
As an adult gamer, I have begun to play around, on the side, with indie and meta-games. Traditional roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinders are spectacular in that they have a predictable structure in which the imagination can run wild. A game master leads a group of players through a session they have designed. The session focuses exploration in a pre-planned scenario, often with a map of the city or dungeon to be explored, puzzles to solve and monsters to defeat. Some game-developers, inspired by the traditional role-playing games invented and popularized by Gary Gygax have imagined alternative gaming systems, less linear, less spatial. In the end, these are all like varying monastic orders, sets of rules to cultivate sacred community.
For a time, especially at the stage of initiation, or during the novitiate, growth in holiness takes the form of attending to the rules. Most gamers go through a long apprenticeship, time spent gaming in order to learn the rules of the game. Even long-time gamers periodically exit the play itself to discuss the finer points of the rules, even to debate them. But all the rules, all the structure, is assembled in order to facilitate the game itself. The rules invite a community of players to forget themselves and lose themselves in the game. The game rolls them up into something higher, something greater, something divine.