Does God care who wins the game? According to a recent survey, plenty of American fans think so. The Public Religion Research Institute found that a quarter of fans said that they had prayed to God for a favorable outcome to a game. Add in those who practice some personal ritual in the hope that it affects events on the field, and the percentage of fans who believe that supernatural forces play a part in sporting events comes to one-half. There is nothing weird about this. Throughout history and across cultures, people have believed that sport and the supernatural are intertwined. From the Greek Olympians to the muscular Christians, athletes and spectators have seen sport as a way to demonstrate piety and communicate with the divine.
Theologian Lincoln Harvey says this is wrong. The attempts to give our games a larger purpose–whether religious or political–undermine the foundation of what sport is. In his book, A Brief Theology of Sport (SMC Press, 2014), Lincoln proposes that the essence of playing and watching sport is rooted in the Christian teaching that humans are contingent creatures. God didn't have to create people. He wanted to. Humans are therefore unnecessary, in a cosmic sense. According to Lincoln, we should then view our games as a celebration–even a liturgy–of our unnecessary but meaningful existence. When we attach corporate logos, nationalist chest-thumping, and even church-outreach programs, we become spoilsports. Countering centuries of church teaching, which either condemned athletics or sought to use it as an instrument, Lincoln argues that sport should be celebrated–simply in itself.
Lincoln doesn't answer that other great theological question: Will there be golf in heaven? But he is confident that there will be a stadium.
And starting later this year, you'll be able to read the work of Lincoln Harvey and other recent New Books in Sports guests on the online journal The Allrounder. Visit the preview site for more on this new take on global sport.