A Theology of Sports

Most of my friends know that, I’m an ardent Patriots fan. However, I was happy that Peyton Maning won his second Super Bowl before his retirement. I respect Peyton Manning because he is a consummate sportsman, and I believe those two things are related. Let me use him as an example to illustrate my theology of sports.

In his book, Manning, he writes (pp. 362-364):

Like my dad, I make it a point when I speak to groups to talk about priorities, and when it’s schoolkids, I rank those priorities as: faith, family, and education, then football. For me generally it had always been the big four: faith, family, friends, and football. And I tell all of them that as important as football is to me, it can never be higher than fourth. …

I committed my life to Christ [when I was thirteen], and that faith has been most important to me ever since. Some players get more vocal about it—the Reggie Whites, for example—and some point to Heaven after scoring a touchdown and praise God after games. I have no problem with that. But I don’t do it, and don’t think it makes me any less a Christian. I just want my actions to speak louder, and I don’t want to be more of a target for criticism than I already am. Somebody sees you drinking a beer, which I do, and they think, “Hmmmm, Peyton says he’s this, that, or the other, and there he is drinking alcohol. What’s that all about?” Christians drink beer. So do non-Christians. Christians also make mistakes, just as non-Christians do. My faith doesn’t make me perfect, it just makes me forgiven, and provides me the assurance I looked for half my life ago. …

How do I justify football in the context of “love your enemy?” I say to kids, well, football is most definitely a “collision sport,” and I can’t deny it jars your teeth and at the extreme can break your bones. But I’ve never seen it as a “violent game,” there are rules to prevent that, and I know I don’t have to hate anybody on the other side to play as hard as I can within the rules. I think you’d have to get inside my head to appreciate it, but I do love football. And, yes, I’d play it for nothing if that was the only way, even now when I’m no longer a child. I find no contradiction in football and my faith.

Ah, but do I “pray for victory?” No, except as a generic thing. I pray to keep both teams injury free, and personally, that I use whatever talent I have to the best of my ability. But I don’t think God really cares about who wins football games, except as winning might influence the character of some person or group. Besides. If the Colts were playing the Cowboys and I prayed for the Colts and Troy Aikman prayed for the Cowboys, wouldn’t that make it a standoff?

Why He Plays

First, Peyton confesses his childlike love for football, admitting that he’d “play it for nothing if that was the only way, even now when [he’s] no longer a child.” In other words, he doesn’t play football for the sake of something else, e.g. money, fame, or even a platform with which he could praise God and point people to him; he plays for the joy of football in and of itself. For him, football has intrinsic, and not merely instrumental, value.

This is in contrast to many Christians who defend sports saying that it’s a great way to promote health through exercise, as well as cultivate self-control, discipline, respect for authorities, teamwork, etc. Yes, sports is useful for those things, but it is also good in and of itself.

That’s because our recreation is rooted in God’s good creation. Man is created in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27), and that means he is to rule over creation as God’s representative. This is seen in the order of creation. In the first three days of creation, God creates kingdoms: light and darkness (Gen. 1:3-5), sky (Gen. 1:6-8), and the land and seas (Gen. 1:9-13), respectively. Then, during the next three days, he creates kings to occupy the corresponding kingdoms: sun, moon and the stars (Gen. 1:14-19), the birds and fish (Gen. 1:20-23), and land creatures (Gen. 1:24-25), respectively.

At the end of it all, as the pinnacle of his creation, God creates man as his royal representative (Gen. 1:26-28). And as such, man is blessed and commanded by God to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28). As God creates man in his “likeness,” man begets man in his “likeness” (Gen. 5:1-3). As God “rules,” so man is commanded to “rule” and “subdue” the earth (Gen. 1:28; cf. 2 Chr. 28:10; Neh. 5:5; Jer. 34:11, 16).

This divinely-instituted human subjection of nature is “culture,” which H. Richard Niebuhr defines as “the artificial, secondary environment which man superimposes on the natural.” Rocks are nature; walls are culture. River is nature; canal is culture. Noise is nature; music is culture. And man is charged with the royal responsibility of creating culture from God-given nature.

This, likewise, applies to the nature of man. If running is nature, racing is culture. If play is nature, sport is culture. Sports, therefore, is a fulfillment of the cultural mandate and has intrinsic value. It glorifies the Creator when we enjoy his good creation.

Creation is not utilitarian. God created not only trees that are “good for food,” but also those that are “pleasant to the sight” (Gen. 2:9) for our enjoyment. One fruit tree would have sufficed to satisfy our hunger, but God gave us hundreds to delight our senses (Gen. 2:15-16). Everyone could have been given an equal, basic athletic ability necessary for survival, but God created some men like Eric Liddell, the Olympic gold medalist who claimed, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure” (Chariots of Fire). He created men like Peyton Manning, who can throw a football 80 yards down the field with greater accuracy than I can manage within 10 yards. Manning uses his extraordinary talent to play the game for the sheer enjoyment of it, and there is something profoundly right and good about that.

How He Plays

Of course, not all human culture is good in and of itself. The gladiatorial games were also a sport, but certainly not a good one. As Jeremy Treat writes in his helpful article, “More Than A Game,” sports can go wrong in two ways. It can be “[twisted] into a bad thing (sin as immorality) or … [made into] an ultimate thing (sin as idolatry).”

In a sinful world, sports can degenerate into an arena for violence, cheating (performance-enhancing drugs, spygate, deflategate, etc.), greed, selfishness, and vanity. Manning appears to be aware of this, and reasons that there are “rules to prevent [violence]” in football. He steers clear of twisting football into an immoral sport, recognizing that he “[doesn]’t have to hate anybody on the other side to play as hard as [he] can within the rules.”

Sports can also become an idol when it is received, not as God’s good gift, but as his replacement or rival. So athletes as well as fans can find their identity and meaning in sports rather than in God. In the current “malaise of immanence,” as philosopher Charles Taylor describes our secular age, sports offers a religious experience—a glimpse of “transcendence.”

So Harold Abrahams, the foil to Eric Liddell in the movie Chariots of Fire, describes his reason for running, “I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my whole existence. But will I?” The answer, of course, is that he will not. Though he wins the race, he loses his soul, because he has turned a good thing into an ultimate thing. He has replaced the Creator with the creature, the Giver with the gift.

Manning well understands this when he writes that football can never be higher than his fourth priority, after faith, family, and friends. He lives by this when he refuses to pray for victory, but rather prays “to keep both teams injury free,” and admits, “I don’t think God really cares about who wins football games.”

Peyton Manning was a superb quarterback, but he was an even better sportsman, and the latter is unquestionably the greater accomplishment. Even in the way we watch and play our sports, let us be constrained by our love for God.

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