As America descends once again into the nightmare that is Superbowl weekend, resident aliens like myself scratch our heads and wonder what on earth is going on. So much hype about a game of catch. And then there is the way the commercials are puffed as the apex of comic genius. If they are so, it is surely a worrying sign that the finest creative minds are being used to produce two minute plugs for Budweiser.
The hype is predictable and no doubt there will be more people watching those commercials on Sunday evening than attending a worship service. This, combined with the vast amounts of money involved, the bombastic architecture of so many sports venues, and the fierce loyalties which teams attractloyalties which are no longer even geographically determinedleads to obvious claims that sport is a religion.
Yet sport is not a religion. It offers no redemption. It has no gods which need appeasing. If anything, when a game or season goes badly, it is the fans who need appeasing, and the players who must make atonement to them. Sport is rather (to use Pascal’s concept) a distraction.
So what? one might respond. In a world which is often a mix of boredoms and anxieties, a little distraction now and then is surely a good thing. Indeed it is, and I enjoy watching a rugby game as much as the next manthat is, as much as the next man from a rugby-playing nation. Yet when we look at the amounts of money invested in sport, at the depth of emotional investment people place in their teams, the modern sporting world is scarcely a little distraction now and then. It is a major economic reality, both for nations and for individuals. Why?
If Pascal’s analysis of the human condition is correct, sport is a distraction from the unbearable truths of our own existence: our mortality, our finitude, our accountability. It does not deal with humanity’s deepest existential problems. It simply helps us pretend they are not there. That is why there is so much money involved: We think it is worth the investment to pay a sports hero more than, say, the President, because the former does a more important job. To quote Pascal himself: “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things. Despite these afflictions, man wants to be happy, only wants to be happy, and cannot help wanting to be happy.But how shall he go about it? The best thing would be to make himself immortal, but as he cannot do that, he has decided to stop himself thinking about it.” That is where trivial distractions become significant.
When people prioritize sport and entertainment above all things, they do not replace one religion with another. They are merely finding creative ways of ignoring the realities which Christianity, and indeed our own awareness of our coming death, press upon us.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.