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In his helpful review of my recent work, Peter J. Leithart raises two important questions about the constructive argument advanced in A Brief Theology of Sport. I am grateful to Leithart for engaging with my work, and value the insightful nature of his comments. Nonetheless, a short response to his critique seems appropriate. It falls here in two parts.

1. Sport is intrinsically competitive

Leithart asks why sport, and not ballet, is a liturgy of creaturely contingency. The answer to his question is relatively straightforward. We need note an important distinction between the two activities: sport is intrinsically competitive; ballet is not.

As I argue in my book, sport is a regulated form of physical play that is specifically designed to produce both winners and losers. Of course, some sporting contests do end up in frustrating ties or sterile dead-heats, but this outcome is never the aim of the game. The players instead want to score more goals than their opponents, to run quicker and jump higher than their rivals, or to win the next tackle or block the next shot. At each and every moment—and also overall—the aim of the game is to win. But things are different with ballet. Ballet is not competitive in this way. It is instead a graceful dance with its own precise steps, regulated gestures, and modeled poses, which combine to create an elegant movement of flowing beauty. Of course, ballet can be made competitive. We need only imagine a panel of judges awarding points on a televised show, or an audition for the leading part in a forthcoming production. But competition is not intrinsic to ballet in the way that it is with sport. It is instead imposed on it from outside. And that’s the vital difference between the two.

My argument, therefore, is simple. As intrinsically competitive, sport is a liturgy of our contingency because it necessarily captures our ontological profile as creatures who are summoned into existence “out of nothing.” In the liturgy of the game, the winners face the summons to live, whilst the losers turn towards the desolate nothingness out of which God calls us. Only together, in the dynamically-tensed pairing of winning and losing, does the game provide a liturgical snapshot of our contingency as the sporting liturgy tracks our created trajectory.

Because both winning and losing are vital components of the liturgical action, we might think that losing is as enjoyable as winning. But this would be a mistake. We know in Jesus Christ that life, not nothingness, has the first and last word, and that is why we prefer victory; winning is our future, so to speak, whilst losing is a backwards glance into the impossibility of nothingness. But, by pairing winning and losing in this way, we can see why close sporting contests are better than one-sided victories (although Arsenal beating Tottenham is the exception to this rule). Our favorite games always hang in the balance, being settled by a last minute goal, a photo-finish, a tie-break, that sort of thing. In effect, these close contests allow the participants to be strung together between life and nothingness for the maximum time, with everyone gripped by the tensed reverberation of their creaturely contingency. Of course, any game, however one-sided it may finish, has a degree of tension within it, never immediately settled and always starting with the possibility of victory. But the close sporting contests still exemplify what we love most about sport: sport enables us to resonate with our creaturely contingency together.

2. Sport and the light hand of God

Leithart also thinks that I give too much autonomy to sport, thereby placing it somewhat oddly outside creation. This is because I stress the autotelic nature of sport, thereby distinguishing it from other areas of our life, which leads me to ask whether God himself relates to this liturgy differently. Does God create a space in which the creature can face inwards, so to speak, bouncing up against its own non-serious-yet-meaningful nature alone? Leithart contends that my way of putting things denies our God-directedness as creatures. Given this charge, some clarification is required.

The Church believes that God summons creation into existence out of nothing. God the Father, through the Son and Spirit, holds the creation in existence at every given moment, sustaining, preserving, and guiding it towards its eschatological fulfilment in Christ. Within this triune economy, however, there is something to which God relates as God, and this something is neither God nornothing. It is a distinct reality: the creature.

In the account I offer, this creaturely reality is shown to be unnecessary-yet-meaningful because God freely summons it into existence for the purpose of love. With this twofold character in view, I argue that our identity is expressed in playful activity because play—like us—is unnecessary yet meaningful. If the metaphysics are laid bare, we might describe the human being as the human plaything, a human happening, a dynamic event which is non-serious yet purposeful in character. This insight is the basis on which I argue that sport is a liturgical event in which we ritually bounce up against our substantial integrity as playful creatures.

Of course, the playful creature is also set to work by God. It is directed towards its projected end, being commissioned to tend and keep the garden, a task that finds its fulfilment in the garden-city of Revelation. This overarching project remains under God’s providential guidance throughout, in that he enables the creature—through the Son and Spirit—to bring its labour to its true end, which is worship. That’s one of the reasons why the Church offers bread and wine, and not grain and grape, in its liturgy. It is not nature neat, so to speak, but the consecrated “work of human hands” that we present to the Father as Eucharistic reality. All of which is to say: Worship is the true end of our Sabbath-shaped work.

But within this God-directed movement towards worship, we still celebrate the genuine integrity of the playful creature in itself. Of course, God sustains and preserves it at all times; that goes without saying (though I did still say it in the book). The question is whether God himself relates to the creature differently within the liturgy of sport, somehow withdrawing his providential hand to ensure the creature’s integrity is celebrated in the radically autotelic nature of this event.

This question does not seem that odd to me. Of course, we cannot deny that God is omnipresent, but we can question whether that presence is flat, so to speak. Incarnation, Pentecost, and the return of Christ, for instance, as well as the consummated form of his presence at the End, invite an account of rich variety-in-presence. And, of course, Christians have dared to identify intensities of presence elsewhere: God speaks through prophets, anoints kings, and heals miraculously on occasion, with thin spaces, sacred spaces and all manner of sacramental spaces being regularly identified. In such accounts, God’s omnipresence is far from uniform. It is perhaps better—as so often the case with the triune God—to speak of unity and distinction here.

A variegated description of divine presence refuses to reduce providential action to causality alone—the uniform feature of presence—but looks to accommodate a rich account of divine purpose simultaneously within that one act. At times God directs his creation with a strong providential hand, so to speak, at other times with a lighter touch. But holding tight and letting go are both equally divine within the one sovereign act.

And if that is so, we can complement an account of God’s occasionally intensified presence with its opposite. Are there not times where God steps back, so to speak, maintaining only the lightest of touch to allow that which he is creating, sustaining, and guiding, to momentarily resonate in its substantial actuality as neither God nor nothing? Or—to highjack the image Leithart uses—is the triune God much more balletic than an account of uniform presence would suggest? Does God himself move somewhat playfully, sometimes close, sometimes far, but always present in his variegated step? If so, perhaps God is the point where ballet and sport overlap as God renders the playful sporting liturgy the most secular of human pursuits. That is the conclusion I reach in my book.

Lincoln Harvey is Lecturer in Systematic Theology at St Mellitus College in London, UK, and author of A Brief Theology of Sport (SCM Press/Cascade Books, 2014). 

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