Grace Is Play: Our Magazine Interview with Nimi Wariboko

Another free look at our Work and Play Issue. Take our word for it, though…it’s […]

Another free look at our Work and Play Issue. Take our word for it, though…it’s better in print

One of the great theological books we discovered last year was Nimi Wariboko’s The Pentecostal Principle, a book which unpacks how the Holy Spirit creates the capacity for new beginnings in human life and communities. He views true religion as play, because it goes beyond the instrumentalism (do this to achieve that) of the Law to make room for spontaneity. According to Wariboko, our ordinary world is constantly open to the Spirit’s disruption with new initiatives, feelings, experiences, communities, and patterns of thought. Recognizing the Spirit’s capacity to recast any assumption or situation, The Pentecostal Principle allows us to be humble in the face of future “potentialities,” since change of the status quo is always possible; at the same time, it facilitates an open-handed hope in the open-ended potentialities of human life. We had a chance to email with Dr. Wariboko and ask some questions that sprung from his book, namely, the relationship between God’s Law and God’s grace—and the work (or play) of the Holy Spirit in the Pentecostal understanding of Christian life.


In the “Religion as Play” chapter of The Pentecostal Principle, you describe a “playful relation to the law.” Would it be possible to unpack that phrase in everyday terms? What might someone’s lived experience of such a relation feel like? And is there a causal link in your view between the law being rendered inoperable and the ability to fulfill the law of love?

Dr. Wariboko:

Let me begin by thanking you for your keen interest in my work. Under grace we have a playful relation to the law, and this opens up a space where we can fulfill the demands of the law under the figure of the love. How does grace open up a playful relation to the law? The logic of grace is the logic of play. In its nature of purposelessness, play transcends the instrumental demands and constraints of the present given world in the direction of possibilities and not yet defined potentialities.


According to popular Pentecostal mindset, grace is an event, a disruptive one. God’s grace radically challenges and unsettles our human presumptions of self-sufficiency and self-complacency and warmly embraces and settles us in salvation, service, identification with Christ, and as beings indwelled by the Holy Spirit. Grace is the appearance of something new into creation, human life, the human condition—it breaks into the order of things. Grace as the evental movement of God, the Holy Spirit, is full of novelty, possibilities, and potentials. In the Pentecostal way of thinking, the ‘big,’ ‘serious’ purpose of grace is the freedom to play in salvation for freedom. Grace is characterized by play; no purpose at all. It is to exuberantly embrace the Holy Spirit as the spirit of play.

Now that we have a sense of the relationship between play and grace, let us concentrate on the “playful relation to the law.” To begin with, play deactivates the law and radicalizes saving grace. Under grace, the law is not abolished, but ‘deactivated,’ rendered inoperative. Under the power of God’s grace, the law is separated from its end of condemning us to eternal damnation, and it is also delinked from its power to induce the desire for transgression in us. Remember Paul’s language in Romans 7: The law is not gone, but grace opens it to a new possible use. It is no longer for condemnation and guilt, but for common love. The law shows us how to live and live well in our common existence; it is severed from its original instrumentality or purpose. It is in this nature of losing its purpose and by moving us to realize the moral imperative of our lives— the demand to become what God wants us to be—that it becomes like a play. This is what I mean by grace opening up a space for a playful relation to the law. In the language of salvation, play is the freedom of grace within the constraints of law as redefined.

On a daily basis there is a feeling of joy and freedom and expectation of surprises from the Holy Spirit. One also realizes that grace does not require a counter (reciprocal) service or work obligation. Especially, by rendering the law inoperative and yet empowering us to live the life-in-the-Spirit we can fulfill the expectation of love of God, love of fellow human beings, and love of all God’s creation. We respond to God or God’s law not out of fear of condemnation but out of love.


Are there any particular influences—either experiences of your own, or teachers, or authors that you read—that most inspired you to this kind of thinking about the law, the Spirit, and the nature of play?


When I got born-again, that is, when I became a Pentecostal in 1993, I worshipped in a Pentecostal church that was on Victoria Island, the lush upper class area of Lagos, Nigeria. This part of Lagos was also adjacent to a very poor neighborhood, Maroko. So the church was a mixture of the upper echelon and the lowest rung of Nigeria. The poor were in majority. I experienced grace as an irruption of God among people who were perpetually vulnerable to death because of poverty and excess weight of suffering. Yet worship among the poor was a form of play, an explosion of joy, a pure means. Grace was an excess, surplus power beyond the obligations of the law and the constricted possibilities of life in Maroko.


The work of Giorgio Agamben, Hannah Arendt, Paul Tillich, Mark C. Taylor, Jean-Luc Nancy, Alain Badiou, and other radical continental philosophers helped me to shape my pentecostal experience into serious scholarly thought that teased out the kind of fine connections between the law, the Spirit, and the play you see in the Pentecostal Principle. My teacher, Mark Lewis Taylor of Princeton Theological Seminary, fired up my love for continental philosophy and post-structuralist political theology that condition the methodology of the book. From Peter Paris I got the love for Aristotelian philosophy. By the way, these scholars are all non-Pentecostal.


For a predominantly Protestant, non-Pentecostal audience, what do you think would be the most valuable takeaways from a more Pentecostal worldview and practice?


The Pentecostal understanding of grace is something I expect a non-Pentecostal audience to eventually appreciate and fully adopt. God’s grace is not only about the beneficial actions of God toward God’s creation, transforming human beings into God’s subjects or into obedient subjects of the state, but also about providing an alternative vision to the existing order of things. Grace is both constructive and disruptive. Pentecostals consider the born-again experience as an event of grace, which compels them to proclaim themselves as the subjects of God who are open to divine surprises, to alternative visions. Grace initiates and sustains them into the Pentecostal principle, which is the capacity to begin, the capacity to initiate something new amid ongoing social automatism. Grace opens up what the law tends to close off.


Would you mind elaborating a little bit on how the law closes off possibilities, and grace/play opens them up? And are there any particular examples of this dynamic—in social, political, or personal spheres—that come to mind?


In every society there are three sets of possibilities: (a) one that is open to all individuals; (b) another that is available to only a few and the rest are excluded, and (c) the universe of possibilities which are yet to be fulfilled or not available to all persons and institutions. The law acts to bring the range of possibilities to manageable proportion and distribute them into the three sets.

There are included and excluded possibilities in every existing state of affairs. It is the law that defines the boundaries of these three sets, what is possible and what is impossible. The law is the power that regulates possibilities and access to them. It is the law that tells members of a community what works within a given framework of relations. God’s grace has the power of exception, which can act to stop, suspend, reopen, or open the enjoyment of certain possibilities. Sometimes, grace can transcend laws or boundaries from within them, such that potentialities are actualized not in spite of the restrictions of the law but through them. This is like a player mastering the rules of a game, and then initiating news skills to overcome obstacles. Every invention, every innovation, every revolution, and every scientific breakthrough has always been about extending the boundaries of the possible, making what was impossible once to become possible.


There was a time in the United States when the laws (as acts of legislature, nomos and ethos, symbolic structures that regulate practices and representations, or specific regimes of interpretations of the Bible/Christianity, and so on) precluded blacks from riding in same train coach with whites. But the civil rights movement, which is a form of kairos—an inbreaking, disruptive force of the grace in society—changed all that. The recent killings of black men with impunity that juries or the judicial system celebrate show that justice is still an excluded possibility or privilege to most blacks or other minority groups. There is a need for new movement to open up possibilities that are excluded to minorities, to the poor (white, black, brown), and to other oppressed groups.


It seems like in contemporary society, at least American society, there’s such a strong attachment to our abilities and ‘potential.’ In your book you quote Giorgio Agamben, from Nudities:

Separated from his impotentiality, deprived of the experience of what he cannot do, today’s man believes himself capable of everything, and so he repeats his jovial ‘no problem,’ and his irresponsible ‘I can do it,’ precisely when he should instead realize that he has been consigned in unheard of measure to forces and processes over which he has lost all control. He has become blind not to his capacities but to his incapacities, not to what he can do but to what he cannot, or can not, do.

What social, or especially religious, forces do you think might underlie this tendency toward hubris today?


Thank you for asking this very important question. The majority of Americans are interested in the potential to-do, but there is also the potential to not-do, what is called impotentiality. There comes a time in life when in order to resist an unjust system or to keep our soul we need to focus on this potential to not-do. Modern democracies or late capitalism not only separate citizens from what they can do but also, and more importantly, from the power to not do, from what they can not do. Everyone is seduced, cajoled, and driven to offer the flexibility that the market demands. Most of us have lost the capacity not to be flexible.

The eager readiness of today’s woman to repeat ‘I can do it’ indicates that she has actually been commandeered by the fierce free market system, which does not allow her to preserve any freedom that can undo the prevailing order in her incessant acts of selling her labor power, buying stuff with the proceeds, and guarding her ever-slipping economic security. Today, man’s boastful ‘I can do it,’ that is, his potential to-do in late capitalism, has become an echo chamber of the freedom to do what he pleases with his property in the marketplace, and it resonates with the freedom to recklessly use the earth’s resources for profit. This hubris is the pathetic arrogance of a man whose soul has been captured and reformatted by late capitalism for its profit. I explain this phenomenon in detail in my recent book, Economics in Spirit and Truth: A Moral Philosophy of Finance.


Would you mind speaking briefly about how your insights in this book might relate to suffering, whether spiritual privation, grief, the ‘cruciform’ shape of Christian life, or any other areas?


One of the points I made in the book is that the Pentecostal principle draws us toward building new communal structures of relationship to counter domination, injustice, and suffering. The principle is about hope, the hope of a new beginning made possible by the triune God, by the Holy Spirit working to sustain and repair our world of surplus suffering. I also stated that Pentecostal ethics involves some prophetic passion. It is prophetic to show solidarity with oppressed and suffering people, and to allow anguish over such to nourish both our spiritual lives and intellectual work. Pentecostal social ethics also involves a serious social analysis of societal structures that sustain suffering, and seeks solutions on how to overcome them.

As I have explained earlier in this interview and in the last chapter of The Pentecostal Principle, it is my experience of surplus suffering in Nigeria that provoked my thoughts on how things can begin again, on the human capacity to begin afresh even in the midst of suffering. The chapter on “Religion as Play” shows the close connection between Easter and Pentecost; Pentecost is built on the foundation of resurrection. The Pentecostal principle flows from the event of resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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