Sport: a short theological reflection
Viewing figures over the coming months will prove that sport is popular. With Wimbledon Tennis, the UEFA European Championship, Test cricket, and the Olympics on the horizon, many of us will be glued to the box.
But it’s not immediately obvious why? On the face of it, sport looks pretty pointless. It’s not as if it does anything, with some product sliding off the conveyor belt or a precious mineral being unearthed. Of course, sport itself has become something of a commodity, with the corporate profit-seekers trampling over court and pitch. But the average fan hates all that. Who needs to be reminded of a credit card or fizzy drink when they are watching a match? Sport is not meant to be used in that way, anymore than it’s meant to be harnessed to some political bandwagon and used for propaganda purposes. Sport is an end in itself, and shouldn’t be spoilt. And the church should remember that.
Of course, from another angle, sport does have a point, and it also has goals and targets. But these purposes are all intrinsic to the game. The batsman doesn’t score a winning run because it makes them fitter, nor because it earns them a living. They do it because that’s the point of cricket, effectively giving the game its meaning – all other consequences are secondary. And so, if we keep all this in mind, we can say that sport is an unnecessary yet meaningful activity. And that’s why we love it.
We love sport because its unnecessary yet meaningful nature echoes our deepest identity. We too are unnecessary yet meaningful. That’s because God didn’t need to create us, as if he was contractually obliged to make this world. Nor was there some internal deficiency that compelled him to do it, as if he were alone and in need of some company. The Christian knows that the one God eternally keeps his own company, with the Father, Son and Spirit mutually bestowing and receiving identity in relationship. The triune God is utterly fulfilled, and so, when he acts, he does so freely. Otherwise put, we are unnecessary.
But though we’re unnecessary, we’re certainly not meaningless. The church believes that God summoned the creature into existence for a purpose, for endless fellowship with himself. And that is to say, the meaning of the creature is love.
We can already see how the unnecessary yet meaningful nature of the creature maps neatly onto the unnecessary yet meaningful nature of sport. The correspondence between the two suggests that when we play or watch sport, we’re reverberating with our deepest identity, entering a ritual in which we can celebrate our created being by expressing our created nature. That’s why we love it. It captures who we are. And that’s certainly a message the church can proclaim as we enjoy this coming summer of sport.
Lincoln Harvey is Assistant Dean and Lecturer in Systematic Theology at St Mellitus College in London. He is the author of A Brief Theology of Sport published by SCM Press.