The work of a Christian scholar is bound to the questions of the Christian community, those questions that rise up from the “fear and trembling” by which all Christians work out their salvation and whose answers, however incomplete, form the basis of the account of the hope that is in us all. This means that every question of any member of the Christian community, no matter how mundane or simple it might seem to those of us who have suffered through Hegel’s Phenomenology or know the definition of hapax legomenon, is a potential demand upon Christian theology and those scholars who carry out its work. This also means, however, that every piece of academic jargon or turgid prose—yes, even that book so unnecessarily dense you wanted to heave it into the sea—is a potential source for spiritual encounter, since every clarification of doctrinal language is a clarification of the dimmed mirror view through which we now view the life of the Godhead of which we have only a foretaste.
Now, that might sound like a pretty sanctimonious beginning, but I say all of that to set up why I want to talk about sports and theology. In particular, why I think more Christian scholars should attend to sports not just as fans but as scholars.
Every Christian wonders at some point in their spiritual life about whether or not God is in control. Often this question arises in response to terrible suffering or to the question of whether or not we human beings really have free will. Just how in control can God be in the face of radical evil? Or how in control can God be if my actions and of those around me are not being manipulated by some higher power? Part of why I am so interested in the relationship between sport and theology is that sport offers a sort of testing ground for the traditional answers to these questions. Sports are a kind of “put your money where your mouth is” to academic theological explanations and, what is more, it is fertile ground for everyday Christians to be confronted with one of the central questions of the Christian life: “is God in control of even this?”
In a recent article published in Theology, I looked at one particularly innovative solution to this question. Lincoln Harvey, in his Brief Theology of Sport, is bold enough to take up traditional theological resources (a thoroughly orthodox theology of Creation) to argue that the answer to the question, “Does God control sports?” is simply, “No.” But this “no” is, in fact, a good thing! God’s letting go of control of the outcome of sporting events is not a sign that God isn’t entirely in control, it is rather that God has determined this area of life to be for us a “liturgical celebration of our contingency.”1 The point of sports, in other words, is not to try and find the secret signs of God’s control—like Tim Tebow’s stat line reading as several variations of “3:16”—but rather to celebrate the sheer “not-Godness,” if you will, of that which is not God, i.e. the Creation. Put a bit shorter, sports remind us that there is something that is not God and that we are right to love sports because that which is not God—that which God has gifted to us—is worth celebrating.
I find this proposal inspiring because it avoids a trite vision of sport that would see sport as some kind of sacramental vision of God’s providence. It is not that God picks the winners and losers that makes sport worth watching. It is because it is a kind of gift that allows us to celebrate our time here and now in a similar way that we sacramentally re-present the coming kingdom with each gathering of the Christian community. Sport becomes a kind of Eucharist of the world. And that makes this Episcopalian very excited.
But I am also suspicious of Harvey’s suggestion. To put it bluntly, I am not entirely sure sport is that unique. Why not art or gambling or, as was suggested by Peter Leithart in a review of Harvey’s book, ballet as celebrations of contingency of a similar quality?2 Harvey has argued in response that the distinctive thing about sport is that it offers you the chance to win or lose, which is distinct from artistic or otherwise aesthetic pursuits. It is this unnecessary but meaningful competitive aspect of sport that reflects a vital truth about who we are as utterly unnecessary but meaningful creations. God didn’t have to make us, but God made us for a specific and glorious purpose.3
Again, this is a much-needed fix to some of the ways that theologians can only see sport as worthy of engagement if it bears the secret presence of God. But I worry that it goes too far precisely on the primary ground that Harvey stakes out as his theological terrain—that is, a theology of creation. What I want to suggest, in closing, is that there is a theology of God, drawn from Kathryn Tanner’s landmark work Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity that might allow for both Harvey’s celebration of contingency and God’s full sovereignty over the contingent events of creation, but with one key caveat—we cannot know with absolute certainty the events that God controls.
Tanner argues for two key principles in her theology of creation: first, that God’s relationship with the world is fundamentally non-competitive and, second, that God is radically transcendent. The first means that when human beings try to do something within the finite creation they do not run up against a roadblock from the eternal realm in which God dwells. In so far as our actions align with God’s will we actually become more of our free selves than if we were out of sync with this eternal, divine action. It is the second principle that makes this non-competitive arrangement possible. It is only because God is not just another being among other created beings—not just a bigger and better actor within the finite plane—that God can allow for true creaturely freedom while also maintaining true divine providence over the course of the world.
In other words this should mean that we don’t have to sacrifice God’s providential control of what happens in sports for the sake of a liturgical celebration of contingency. Yet, Tanner complicates this when she writes:
To the extent that what happens in the world is good and for the good, the triune God is bringing those happenings to be in in that way as their creator, preserver, and director. This is, however, a kind of external correspondence; the creature’s action is only its own, not also God’s own, God’s action simply matching it on some other vertical plane by which the creature’s act is brought to be. Moreover, here where created happenings follow God’s will for them, they do so unconsciously, without knowingly and willingly doing so; this is a blind following. In both ways, God’s acting with creatures who also act diverges from the mode of trinitarian co-activity.4
So here is the dilemma in which we seem to be left. Could we say that God picked the winner of a particular football game? Sure. There is nothing about God’s relationship to the creation that would preclude such a statement. But the corollary to that statement would have to be that we declare this outcome to be good and good such that it is in keeping with the Triune God’s actions as creator, preserver, and defender of the good. To be able to declare that the University of Georgia beating the University of Alabama in football is in accord with the will of God (though, this UGA alum would gladly do so) is surely not anything a Christian scholar ought to be saying to any member of the Christian community. Thus, when asked if God is in control of who wins at sports we don’t have a particularly helpful answer. All we seem to be able to say is “maybe, but we can’t know for sure.” But that can be, for both scholars and laity alike, a spiritually productive answer in that is leads us to clarify what we want in an answer to the question of whether or not God is in control. The fun theological puzzle box that is the question “does God pick the winner of the Super Bowl?” directs us back, through its incomplete answer, to reflect more deeply upon that which is worth celebrating both as in keeping with God’s will and as in keeping with the beautiful and chaotic freedom that marks the humanity created in the Image of God.
For more about sport and Christianity in CSR see: https://christianscholars.com/every-good-and-perfect-gift-sport-and-society-in-the-twenty-first-century-a-review-essay/
- Lincoln Harvey, Brief Theology of Sport, xvi.
- Peter Leithart, “Theology of Sport,”First Things, June 20, 2014 https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/06/theology-of-sport.
- See Harvey, “Someone Must Lose: A Theology of Winning in Sport,” in Theologies of Failur, ed. Roberto Sirvent and Duncan Reyburn.
- Tanner, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, 44.