Time and Chance | Theology | Sport

200803082112It’s been a huge day of sport in the UK. Depressingly the team I support got dumped out of a cup competition, and England were also beaten in a big rugby international by Scotland. But later on, Jonny’s team – who’ve had literally hundreds of millions of pounds spent on players since being bought by a Russian oligarch – were beaten by a tiny side from a league below them, and dumped out of the cup too.

Joy and sorrow. Adrenaline and depression. Highs and lows. Season after season. It never ends.

Prospect, the politics/culture/arts magazine I subscribe too have recently begun a monthly sports column, having argued that it was about time it enjoyed the same cultural weight as the performing arts, and to be judged by the normal standards of public life.

I have a good sporting rapport with lots of people within church circles, and Jonny and Jordon blog some sports too, but, as in cultural life, it is really ignored as a theological locus, unlike literature, music or art. I’m beginning to wonder why this is. Part of the trickster in me wonders if it’s just because the effete bookish types who ended up theologians were always the last to get picked for playground teams in school (though Camus had been a promising player). Perhaps it’s something deeper.

Mentions of sport in the Bible are few and far between. Paul talks a bit about running the race… but it’s hardly the taking part he thinks that counts. He races to win, not wanting to ‘run like a man running aimlessly… I beat my body and make it my slave.’ (1 Cor 9) We don’t see Jesus ever doing something so frivolous as take part in a game of anything. Was this because society had such little time for leisure? As a Roman, Paul would have been more used to the idea of a successful culture creating leisure time due to its riches, and thus giving time for sport, for playful shows of strength and skill.

Hard edges of the church have looked down on sport in the past, seeing it variously as too sensual, too close to passion. And yet many of the UK’s leading football teams can trace their roots back to evangelical men’s clubs and the ‘muscular Christianity’ they promoted to keep the working class out of trouble and pubs. Perhaps it’s harsh on those who gave so much to that work, but the hangover I’ve sensed seems to be a rather patronising attitude to sport: it’s good for you, it’ll probably keep you out of trouble, but it’s got nothing really to do with faith.

Which leaves me wondering why I’m passionate about it, or, more accurately, why I’ve allowed myself to become more passionate about it, in inverse proportion to my proximity to evangelicalism.

I wonder if the answer might be in Ecclesiasties 9, where the sage says:

I have seen something else under the sun:

The race is not to the swift

or the battle to the strong,

nor does food come to the wise

or wealth to the brilliant

or favor to the learned;

but time and chance happen to them all.

Time and chance. These are the twin curses of the sports fan: all victories are temporal. Each season has to be fought again from scratch each year, and past glories mean little. And, no matter what we might say, so much is down to chance. That ‘goal of the month’, that incredible shot, that goal – we can claim some great skill, but really we know that 99 times out of 100 it would not have come off, would have scuffed off a boot into the stands.

And this is where I think sport gives us a great theological grounding: the race is not to the swift. God does not play for us, does not ram the ball home and his riches do not guarantee victory. The highs and lows, the passing seasons, are part of this marathon. We must enjoy them, and yet, as all sports fans know, not ride hubris-high and expect some final victory. Not yet. Not in this advent, in this now and not yet…

So I think it’s about time sport was taken more seriously. I’m done with people patronising the passion, the partisanship, the emotional energy, longing for us to turn our minds to higher things. It’s about codes, about being bound to a team. They had a word for this binding, this commitment to something in Latin. Religare. That’s right. Sport is a religion. And, as such, informs faith. So, anyone want to bat some theology of sport around? Or it is just me convinced God is right into Man United? (Sorry, couldn’t resist 😉


PS – Nick Hornby, in his brilliant monthly column ‘What I’ve Been Reading’ talks about Ed Smith’s What Sport Tells Us About Life in this month’s Believer. Hilarious. And helpful encouragement that I’m not mad.

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8 responses to “Time and Chance | Theology | Sport”

  1. I think the very best moments in sports really are spiritually inspiring, although this aspect of sports pretty much goes unnoticed and unmentioned.

  2. Hey,
    Read an interesting article by Hauerwas lately that discusses the moral formation of individuals and communities. Although he talks more about ideas of craft and apprenticeship, it’s made me think again about the significance of sport in society. For him, it’s all about being teachable:
    “It is interesting in this respect to contrast this notion with modern democratic presuppositions. For as I noted above, the accounts of morality sponsored by democracy want to deny the necessity of a master. It is assumed that we each in and of ourselves have all we need to be moral. No master is necessary for us to become moral, for being moral is a condition that does not require initiation or training. That is why I often suggest that the most determinative moral formation most people have in our society is when they learn to play baseball, basketball, quilt, cook or learn to lay bricks. For such sports and crafts remain morally antidemocratic insofar as they require acknowledgment of authority based on a history of accomplishment.”

  3. Jessica

    Kester, you never cease to amaze me. Never, in a million years would I have made any connection between sports and spirituality. I applaud your bravado in attempting to tie the two together. Being a more arts oriented person, I don’t personally make the connection but I think there must be some truth to it in the spirit of that famous quote from Chariots of Fire “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” My theology begins to boil down to the fact that God created us for relationship with Him. Period. End of sentence. So, the next step in that line of logic is that we are each created with inherent gifts and talents and it gives God deep pleasure when we discover and engage those things. Whether that be sports, waiting tables, writing, plumbing, investment banking, etc. you get the picture.

  4. there is some interesting stuff on embodiment (confronting the problem of embodiment – julie cheville – international journal of qualitative studies in education vol 18 jan/feb 2005 amongst others)- that looks at ‘synergy’ of teamwork (in this case in basketball), that has a lot of resonance with all the research into children and spirituality – what david hay and rebecca nye call ‘relational consciousness’ and what others have called ‘reflexive consciousness’ – also i guess Mihály Csíkszentmihályi looking at the concept of ‘flow’ is akin to the ‘when i run i feel God’s pleasure’ kind of stuff – also the whole free running/Parkour thing has a philosophy which is very spiritual – personally i think there is a very strong connection between the practice of collaborative theology and playing together (in sports or arts or worship or any other context really)- mostly because i think that is how God as community, three in one, unity in diversity, is encountered when we gather together and share experience

  5. is it also something to do with the general reluctance to believe that our bodies really are involved in this whole religion/faith deal? It seems to be easier to believe that God is in cool arty worship ideas, than that God is there when you feel the great rush of pleasure when you achieve something with your body. (I love that scene in CHariots of Fire when Liddell says, “when I run, I feel his pleasure…” )

  6. I think you’re spot on here Maggi… I wonder if it could be pushed a little further too. Is it going too far to say that the artistic ideal, coming out of the leisure society of the wealthier classes has had a theme of Cartesian mind/body dualism: words and ideas will save us from our fallen bodies (bodies which, if fallen, can be treated poorly and subjected to wild excesses)? If so then has theology, as part of the ‘logos’ arts, neglected the body too?
    Most sports have always be caricatured as primitive pursuits, the grunting and sweating denigrated by the fairer artists as part of our old hunter-gatherer nature that needs leaving behind for more ethereal matters.
    Yet Jesus’ was a very physical gospel. We love the ‘words of Jesus in red’, but forget the physical demands of the walking, the heat, the cold. I’m currently reading Waterlog – ‘a swimmer’s journey through Britian’ – and there’s no doubting the connection between the physical exercise and the very spiritual meditations on British life.

  7. Kester, I’ve been thinking about this for a while so you are not alone. Doing the examen, I’ve found that often my consolation is to do with running, swimming or cycling, which can definitely be spiritual activities for me. I agree, Maggi, that generally we don’t have much of an understanding of how our bodies are connected to our faith, and yet how can we separate out body, mind and spirit? What happens to one, affects the others and there’s loads more work to be done here. I’d love to hear more about a theology/spirituality of sport. Christians have often used it as a means to an end, and I’m thinking about Christians in Sport here who seem to justify their involvement in sport by making it a tool for evangelism, or church football teams who join a local league and ‘witness’ by praying together before the match. Then how does the competitiveness of sport fit with kingdom theology that says the first shall be last and the last first?

  8. steve butler just did his MTh studies on embodiment and worship (published as the touching place – whole body participation in the worshippping community) – he talks a lot about the senses and the body in general as well as ritual and liturgy and ‘re-membering the body’ in worship – there are some really good examples of how traditional structures have tried to negate, even as you say, reviled the physical body – he makes a good theological arguement for engagement and embodiment which could be applied to any context – as for Jesus, i don’t know about sport in those days, but he was a carpenter – i think he had muscles !!