Without question, sport is popular. Millions play football, for example, and millions more watch live or on television. And cricket, golf, tennis, basketball, baseball and the like, all enjoy a similar following. People love sport.i But popularity is no measure for the Christian. Christians are instead called to think things through in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the task we have set ourselves in this short essay. Is sport compatible with a gospel-shaped life?
One way to approach an answer to this question is to listen to what Christians have said in the past.ii On doing so, we quickly discover that Christians have regularly been opposed to sport. At the Council of Arles in the early 4th century, for example, the assembled bishops judged that Christians should not be supporting the chariot races of their day. Anyone who did get involved was to be excluded from the life of the Church. And this decree did not come out the blue. For many years, theologians had been castigating contemporary sports. Novatian’s neat sound bite gets to the heart of the matter: idolatry is the mother of all games.iii
Evidence to support Novatian’s charge is easy to find. In the ancient world, it was often difficult to distinguish a sport from a religious activity.iv Sporting events tended to function as sacrificial rituals in which the community’s epic myths were narrated. The ancient ballgame of tlatchi is a case in point. This game was played for hundreds of years in Mesoamerica. Matches would be played in high-walled courts, with players attempting to manoeuvre a ball through a raised hoop as a way to recount the story of the sun and moon’s creation. Tlatchli was costly though. The defeated teams are thought to have lost their heads, with their spilt blood being offered up to the gods.
Admittedly, Tlatchli is an extreme example. But it does fit the overall pattern. The ancient Olympics, for example, were awash with blood, the majority of the event being taken up with animal sacrifice, only occasionally interrupted by a race or contest. Roman sport was little different. Roman spectacles were again sacred events, this time glorifying the eternal dominance of the Empire, with the Emperor judging both the living and the dead in a pompous display of power. Of course, the details in each case differ, but the general point remains: sport was a ceremonial ritual bound up with false worship. The early church was right to be suspicious.
Such suspicion runs like a thread through the church’s history. In the 13th century, for example, at the Council of Clermont, Pope Innocent banned Christians from participating in the popular jousting tournaments of the day. Preachers were soon describing jousters as martyrs of the Devil who were corrupted by the seven deadliest sins, and hell-bound for eternal torment. Later, in the 17th century, the English Puritans question the propriety of sport, many of them echoing John Bunyan, who testified to Jesus saving him from an early form of cricket.
But – with suspicions noted – a survey of Christian history also reveals numerous occasions in which the church’s opposition to sport waivers. In such instances, it appears that sport’s popularity undermines the church’s prohibitions, and – in face of such pressure – the church instead looks to harness sport to its own agenda (perhaps using jousting as a preparation for the Crusades, or equating an athletic work-ethic with holiness, as in the case of Muscular Christianity). But we never find a simple celebration of sport in and of itself. It is always a lesser means to a greater good. Therefore, as Shirl Hoffman concludes, if there is an overarching theme to the church’s stance:
[It] would be a tripartite one: a continuing ambivalence and uneasiness toward sport coupled with periodic efforts to banish it from the lives of believers; when this proved impossible, undertaking feeble attempts to control it; and, when the church was unable to control sport, overlaying it with Christian symbols and ceremonies, hoping to squeeze from it whatever gloss it might lend to its message and mission.v
Taken as a whole, therefore, history poses a question to the Christian: is sport compatible with the Christian life or is it inherently idolatrous? The question is worth asking. Contemporary sports retain, at least on the surface, a quasi-religious feel to them.vi Games may no longer be soaked in sacrifice, but – to take one example – the devotion of football fans, with their arms aloft, singing praises within the temple-like stadium, bears more than a passing resemblance to worship. The charge of idolatry may well stick.
But we should not judge too soon. There may be more to sport than meets the eye. Therefore, we should first think through the question a bit more. Thus, in the remainder of this essay, we will attempt to analyse sport in light of the Church’s teaching about God. Only then – when we have a good understanding of what sport is – will we judge how Christians should relate to it today.
I’ve played sport for most of my life. As a child, I hoped to be a professional footballer. Somehow, I have ended up a theologian.
Mixing in theological circles, it would seem that young academics preferred a book in their hands to a ball at their feet. Many young theologians were reading Athanasius, Aquinas and Augustine, whilst I was reading Shoot magazine, playing Subbuteo, and practising free kicks in the garden. The hours spent playing football proved pretty much pointless.
Of course, many people think sport is pointless. They can’t understand why anyone would want to chase after a football on a cold winter’s day, or bother playing cricket in the blaze of the sun. All too often, people scoff: sport is a colossal waste of time. But there are, in fact, a number of ways to justify sport. It improves our health, for instance. It socialises us. It educates our instincts, and it allows us to discharge pent-up emotions. There are plenty of arguments identifying the usefulness of sport.vii But to my mind, none of them quite capture why we love sport. In fact, they are in danger of making sport much too serious. As I see it, those who scoff at sport are much closer to the truth. Anyone who fails to see the point of sport is actually seeing the point of sport. We love it precisely because there is no point!
Of course, we must not overlook the genuine benefits to sport. It can improve our health, foster cohesion, cultivate friendships and provide us with an emotional outlet. But these sorts of consequences are secondary. They are not, in fact, the reason for sport. As Peter Heinegg recognises, the reason for sport is more elusive. Commenting on American football, Heinegg concludes that it “makes no sense, pragmatically speaking. Certainly nothing could be more absurd than to hire a small army of godlike brutes, gifted with fantastic speed, strength, grace and coordination, to advance a leather ball down a gridiron.”viii
We can see Heinegg’s point if we consider how unproductive sport is. Leaving aside the question of professionalization, sport is different to work. When the final whistle blows, no vehicle rolls off the assembly line, and no crop gets harvested; neither is there a statute for a plinth, a painting for the wall or a book to keep on reading. Instead, as one philosopher points out, the game is a “waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money.”ix
The non-productive nature of sport is one of the reasons why it is so hard to find a reason for sport. If we look in on a game from the outside, it is impossible to see the point of the activity that is taking place. Kicking a football, hitting a cricket ball or catching a baseball serves no obvious purpose. But most of the other things we do are done for a reason. We catch a bus to get to work to do our job to earn our money to pay our bills to keep us fed and sheltered; working life serves an ulterior motive. But sport doesn’t. There is no ulterior motive to the action. In that sense, the game is quite unnecessary.
To put this in technical terms, sport is autotelic; it serves nothing outside itself. This is not to suggest that sport has no consequence. As already indicated, it does. But what we are saying is that these consequences are not the reason for the game. The game is self-enclosed, as it were. That is why people get uneasy when sport is set to serve an outside interest, such as money or a political agenda. We shouldn’t be playing sport simply to show that Nike trainers are great or Gillette razors shave close, or that fascism or communism is the best form of government. These ulterior motives spoil the game. A sport should be for nothing other than the sport.
But we must not misunderstand this. To say that sport has no point is not to say it is chaotic, capricious or without any meaning. It is, in fact, pretty obvious that sports do have meaning. They are ordered towards goals and targets, and these goals and targets give the activity its purpose. Footballers do not shoot because it lowers the blood pressure or earns them Air Miles. The player only shoots because scoring a goal is the purpose of the game. It is the point of playing. And the purpose lies within the game, not outside it.
All in all, therefore, the key insight to take forward into the next section is this: sport is an unnecessary but meaningful activity.
Having identified the unnecessary but meaningful nature of sport, we must now try to make sense of it theologically. Two doctrines need to be brought into focus: the Church’s doctrine of God, and the doctrine of creation.
Christians believe that creation has a beginning, whereas the one God doesn’t; he is eternal. This simple claim means that the one God’s creative action was not determined by any outside force, nor was it limited by the materials that were laying to hand. Simply put, nothing else was in existence to shape or compel God at the point of creation Instead, the one God acted sovereignly, free both in designing and executing his decision. Put in dogmatic terms, God created us ‘out of nothing’.x
Of course, the absence of an external force need not mean that God was free. Though there was no other God who forced him to do it – or any eternal building blocks that he had no choice but to use – we might still imagine some kind of inner compulsion within God. Maybe there was something like an itch that just had to be scratched, or a hole that just had to be filled? Maybe creation was irresistible?
But the Church has never seen things this way. There was no irresistible compulsion within God, nor was there any deficiency that needed to be fixed. Christians instead believe that God is perfect in himself, complete and lacking nothing. That is to say, we believe in the Holy Trinity.
The Church’s doctrine of the Trinity identifies the way in which the one God is the eternal loving communion of three persons-in-relation, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is the way we describe – as best we can! – what it means to confess that God is love. But the doctrine of the Trinity also impacts the way we understand the act of creation. God did not need any company, nor did he need something to love, because God is eternally the fullness of love, the endless satisfaction of harmonious fellowship. Thus, we can say: the divine act of creation was radically free, completely unnecessary in light of who God is in himself.
The freedom of the triune God must be allowed to shape the way we think about the world he has made. If God makes the world freely ‘out of nothing’, then we are – by implication – saying that the world is not made out of God.xi God really created a creature, something different in being to himself. He did not trick himself, re-branding an aspect of his own being a ‘creature’ (when it was, in fact, divine). No. God summoned creation into existence and gave it a reality distinct from his own. In other words, we are neither nothing, nor are we divine; we are creaturely to the depths of our being. Rowan Williams has drawn out the key implication of this insight for us:
I think I will have to understand that… I'm not serious: God is serious; my condition is serious; sin is serious; the Cross is serious. But somehow, out of all this comes the miracle, the 'unbearable lightness of being' as you might say: the recognition that my reality rests 'like a feather on the breath of God'. It is because God speaks, because God loves and it is for no other reason. And if we want to know what it is to say that I am, the only answer is 'I am because of the love of God'. And when I seek to justify, defend or systematize what I am, I become 'serious'. I cease to be a feather on the breath of God and gravity draws me down into darkness.xii
Williams recognises that our existence is essentially non-serious. We are not overly burdened by some eternal necessity, a position in the grand scheme of things in which God depends on us – as if we are somehow filling a void, keeping him going, making eternity bearable for him. We are free from the burden of necessity. We only exist within the freedom of God. Put otherwise, our deepest identity as creatures is grace.
With this insight now in mind, we might be tempted to rush on ahead. But before we do so, we must first address a possible misunderstanding. The non-necessity of creation – the utterly free nature of the divine act – does not mean there was no purpose. Creation is not a random, haphazard, chaotic divine action, intrinsically capricious and un-thought through. If we were to see things like this, we would be on the brink of nihilism. But this is not what the Church teaches. Instead, as Rowan Williams puts it, Christians believe that creation exists “because God loves and it is for no other reason.”
In other words, the love of God is the purpose of the creature. We are invited into existence in order to share in the love of the Father for his Son in the Spirit. Though we may not be necessary, we are infinitely valued, endlessly loved from beginning to end. That is our purpose as creatures.
And so, with this caveat now in place, we have to hand a theological understanding of the being of the creature: We are unnecessary but meaningful. The task now is to see how our deepest identity connects with what we said earlier about sport.
In our earlier section on sport, we saw the way in which a game is unnecessary but meaningful. Now, through an analysis of the doctrine of creation, we have seen that the same can be said of us. As a result, our understanding of sport sits very comfortably alongside our understanding of creation. We can make a systematic link between the two.
The link runs as follows. When we play sport – or watch it – we are involved in an activity that is resonating with our deepest identity as creatures of the triune God. We are entering into a space in which we are freely expressing our nature in its most basic form. A game of football, for example, is a set aside sphere in which participants enjoy the unnecessary but meaningfully ordered nature of existence through an unnecessary but meaningfully ordered game of football. In short, football is a place where we can celebrate who we are in ourselves. That is the reality that lies at the heart of each sport.
Much more needs to be said about this, however. That is because – to recall our first section of the essay – Christians have regularly opposed sport on the basis that idolatry is the mother of all games. Given what we have just argued, how are we to understand the church’s negative view of sport in the past?
The key doctrine here is the Fall. Our created nature is corrupted. No part of our life is unpolluted by sin. This includes sport. But how does sin affect it? One feature of the narrative in Genesis is that we are tempted to ‘be as Gods’ (Gen 3.5). In succumbing to this temptation, the creature rebels against its noble status as creature, instead seeking to take the place of God. Now, if this is a feature of our sinful nature, then sport – as a celebration of our nature – will become disfigured in a particular way. Rather than being a place in which we enjoy the freedom of our meaningful non-necessity as creatures, it becomes an arena of idolatry – an arena of self-congratulatory narcissism. In other words, fallen sport becomes a form of idolatrous self-worship. Therefore, the church is right to remain on guard.
But given the account offered here, we can see that sport – like our vocation to work and to worship – is written into the very fabric of our created being. It is not a function of the Fall. This means that, though sport is corrupted, it is also redeemable. Shirl Hoffmann has done some interesting work in this area. He has attempted to re-imagine the 'killer instinct' of competition – which he sees as a distortion of relationship – and instead offer an account of playing with, rather than against. Speculating on an imaginary match, he asks: why not make it ‘Grace’ with ‘Humility’, rather than ‘First Baptists’ against ‘First Methodists’?xiii
Of course, an awful lot more needs to be said on this matter. Elsewhere – in my book, A Brief Theology of Sport – I have gone to some lengths to examine the relationship between sport and creation, offering a revisionary account of competition and rules, and covering subjects such as war and celebrity culture, as well as the gendered nature of sport and its relation to Christian worship and mission.xiv But what we have seen here – within the limits of this short essay – is the possibility of connecting sport to our deepest identity. Though sport may well be corrupted, it does provide us with a way to celebrate the reality of being unnecessary-but-meaningful creatures of the triune God. If we can keep this in mind – and remain on guard against idolatry – Christians can truly celebrate sport, and also explain to others why it is so popular despite serving no purpose outside itself.
This essay is a taster of Lincoln Harvey's book A Brief Theology of Sport (SCM Press, 2014).
i See estimated numbers of people playing different sports at: http://www.sportengland.org/research/active_people_survey/active_people_survey_3.aspx (accessed 24/2/2011)
ii See account in Shirl James Hoffman, Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010), 23-98.
iii For this, see Allen Guttmann, Sports: The First Five Millennia (Amherst and Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004) , p.33
iv For historical links between early sports and religion, see Guttmann, Sport , pp. 39-49.
v Hoffman, Good Game, p.48.
vi See Joseph L. Price, ‘An American Apotheosis: Sports as Popular Religion’, in Bruce David Forbes and Jeffery H. Mahan (eds) Religion and Popular Culture in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 201-218.
vii For helpful summary of such accounts, see Robert K. Johnston, The Christian at Play (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), p.32.
viii Peter Heinegg, ‘Philosophy of Football’ in Christian Century Vol. 91, Number 43 (December 18, 1974), p.1198.
ix Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games, trans. Meyer Barash (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), p.6.
x “We believe that God needs no preexistent thing or any help in order to create, nor is creation any sort of necessary emanation from the divine substance. God creates freely ‘out of nothing.’” Catechism of the Catholic Church, 296.
xi This is one of the main themes of Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical And Systematic Study (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1998).
xii Williams, Rowan. Not Being Serious: Thomas Merton and Karl Barth. 2008. Available at: http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/1205/not-being-serious-thomas-merton-and-karl-barth (accessed 28/3/14).
xiii Hoffmann, Good Game, pp.145-65, 289.
xiv Lincoln Harvey, A Brief Theology of Sport (London: SCM Press, 2014)
Lincoln Harvey is Lecturer in Systematic Theology at St Mellitus College in London, England. He edited The Theology of Colin Gunton (T & T Clark, 2012) and is author of A Brief Theology of Sport (SCM Press, 2014).