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Infinite Games

James Carse

     ... is a full time writer and traveler. A celebrated teacher, Carse taught the history and literature of religion at New York University for many years. He also hosted a television show on religion for CBS. A Mid-Westerner by birth, Jim Carse is a New Yorker in the very best sense of the word.

Excerpts3:21

Envision life as play and possibility. Instead winning and losing, what would happen if our objective was to keep life's relationships going? Instead of playing by the rules, what if we played with the rules? What if we moved from what James Carse calls "finite games" to "infinite" games, focused on engaging people rather than elevating winners and discarding losers, accepted that we are profoundly out of control, embraced life's unknowns with an eagerness for surprises?

Carse spent decades looking at how humans over the centuries and around the world have approached life. He taught the history and literature of religion at New York University. He also shared what he knew with a larger audience when he hosted a show on religion for CBS. Now he writes full time and travels with his wife. In rigorously studying the world's religions, Jim Carse has examined how our own Judeo-Christian tradition has had vast influence on every aspect of our intellect and imagination and continues to do so.

In the West, we have been shaped largely by the apocalyptic view of the world embraced by Christians and Muslims. Finite games. We believe we are in control, an idea reinforced in the 20th century by great ideologies (Marxism, fascism, capitalism) which were intent on controlling large numbers of people. We are trained against surprised, prepared to deal with everything that comes up.

As the world grows more complex and the unknowns grow, the dominance of finite games is diminishing, Carse believes. We would do well, he suggests, to look to another part of our tradition and others, the infinite part. Learn to be more open to life's mysteries. Go into today's wildernesses (personified by New York City, which he believes is a deeply spiritual place) open to surprise. Begin to see an on-going history, he says, and we will begin to find ways to keep that history alive.

These ideas and forces led Carse into his own infinite game. He has followed the ancient practice of the early Jesus Movement. It's the ancient Jewish tradition of the midrash, where you write one story to get the meaning of another. He combined two essential elements: his own disciplined attempt to learn what had already been said and done, and originality. Carse has written a Gospel, just as Jesus' followers did for the three centuries after Jesus died. Carse calls his The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple. And the Disciple is a woman.

Write your own Gospel, says Carse. Go down into the heart of the all-pervasive influence the Judeo-Christian tradition has had on every single one of us. Tell your own Jesus story. Bring the authority back to the reader, take it out of the hands of some kind of official body. Carse describes the very act of doing so as an act of great self enlightenment and a process that should never end. Sound familiar?

 


[This Program was recorded March 22, 1997 in New York City, U.S.]

Conversation 1

James Carse the explains differences between "finite games" and "infinite games" to Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. He gives examples of both. He uses marriage as potentially an adult example of an infinite game (both people are creatively engaged with each other, are open with each other and are in constant conversation) as compared to a finite game (where someone wins and someone loses). "Rules" are entirely differently in the two approaches.

Conversation 1 RealAudio7:23

Conversation 2

Another way to illustrate an infinite game is as a journey rather than a destination, demonstrated in the ancient religious traditions of Taoism. Carse describes the effect apocalyptic thinking (a finite game) has had in religion, ecology, and politics. He shows how hopeful it is when we change our habits of thinking to see the alternative approach -- an on-going history in which people are committed to keeping history alive (an infinite game.) He sees people moving away from ideology, citing Marxism and capitalism, and shows how Christians and Muslims are apocalyptic. He tells why he thinks todayâs increasing uncertainties are spurring increasingly open ended ways of thinking, more like the approach taken by Hindus and Jews. He voices his concern that academic institutions have an important role in synthesis as well as analysis, with a responsibility to communicate conclusions which is not always fully met.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:18

Conversation 3

Jim Carse thinks New York is an immensely spiritual place and explains why, pointing to its unique role in the arts. He points out that never before in the history of the earth has such a diverse human community lived together in peace, urging us to learn to keep our distinctiveness. He offers the secret of ancient the mystics who avoided radical dependence by always knowing where to find silence, and tells why silence is both vital and extremely difficult for humans who have great difficulty in truly listening. He explains why it is good that all of us, always, are literally out of control. He suggests that cities are the modern wilderness and describes why that is important to learning to deal with the unknown, to being open.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:25

Conversation 4

Professor Carse explaining why one must learn rules, not so that we can follow them, but to know where you can depart from them. He applauds originality and creativity, while championing disciplined attempts to learn what's already been said and done. He tells why taking risks is now a critical necessity. He answers Bill's question about what happens when a very good infinite game player faces a finite game player who cheats. Professor Carse shows how Paula's contention that most of the world's greatest people were "losers" is incorrect, rather they were playing a game different from what people thought. He describes death and life in an infinite game, then applies the finite and infinite idea to Jesus of Galilee. Professor Carse describes approximately 200 gospels written following Jesus' death. He tells how different historical versions of Jesus affect religious ideas, confident that the question, "Who was Jesus?" may be unanswerable. He tells how he revived the tradition of writing gospels.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:19

Conversation 5

The origins of Jim Carse's Gospel are in the extensive Jewish literature contemporary to Jesus, noting that even Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- the canonical Gospels -- each give a different picture of Jesus. Professor Carse tells why Gospels are a literary form unique to Christianity. He describes what he put into his Gospel and how he came to make those choices, reminding us that the earliest gospels could not have been eye witness accounts since the earliest ones were written at least 30 years after the death of Jesus. Professor Carse tells why he chose a woman to be the Beloved Disciple, and tells one of the parables he has Jesus deliver.

Conversation 1 RealAudio8:16
 

Conversation 6

James Carse describes how writing a Gospel affected him, how his idea of Jesus came out of decades of teaching and thinking. He tells how different the book would have been if heâd written it earlier. He challenges Christians and others to restore this ancient tradition of writing gospels. He urges people to take back the authority of the reader, take it out of the hands of some kind of official body. He describes the vastness of the influence the Judeo-Christian tradition has had on everyone in the West, and elsewhere. He relates infinite games to all that we do and might do.

Conversation 1 RealAudio7:15


Acknowledgements

Jim Carse and his wife welcomed us into their Greenwich Village apartment even before their furniture had arrived. We admire their flexibility.

Trisha Barron and Warren Kornblum always make New York special for us. We thank them for their support and encouragement.

Related Links:

The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple is published by HarperSanFranciscoFinite and Infinite Games:  a View of Life as Play and Possibility is published by Ballantine Books, a division of RandomHouse.

In 2008, James Carse published The Religious Case Against Belief which we discussed with him at his home in western Massachusettes. That book changed our view of "religion."

We view philosopher Frederick Ferré's work as being a fine match for Dr. Carse's views.  A summary of Dr. Ferré's work can be found in his three-volume series: Being and Value, Knowing and Value and Living and Value.

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