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No sooner do I lay down Robert Ellis’s The Games People Play (which I’ve discussed here, here, and here) than Lincoln Harvey’s A Brief Theology of Sport arrives in the mail. Long invisible, theology of sport is suddenly a growth industry.

Inevitably, the two books cover similar ground. Both sum up the patristic criticisms of sport, both talk about Puritanism, both highlight the role of Victorian Muscular Christianity in the reconciliation of religion and sport. Theologically, both focus on creation, though in intriguingly different ways.

Ellis is duly cautious about the dangers of contemporary sports, but Harvey’s criticism is sharper. He warns that “sport is corrupted, not just by win-at-all-costs competitive realities of cheating and doping, but also by the cults of prowess, misplaced glory and shimmering celebrity.” He sees a temptation to idolatry lurking in the powerful attractions of sports. He condemns professionalized sports as a corruption: “The professional sportsperson is simply an actor or a prostitute. Either way, they are not a player.”

A central difference is the way the authors connect sports to the Christian doctrine of creation. In games, Ellis says, we imitate God by creating a rule-governed world: “The game is its own world, and boundaries are created or observed (that fence is out of bounds, this corner is the hospital ward) and the freedom of play is exercised within these boundaries.” Sports, with their “bureaucratized” rules, are more genuinely creaturely than mere play, “because sports players do not set their own boundaries even though they push at them constantly.” For Ellis, we play because we are made in the image of a playful Creator.

Borrowing from William James, Ellis tabulates the varieties of sporting experience. Players describe sports as rejuvenating or regenerating. Sports are deeply communal, like religious rituals. A player can have something resembling the self-forgetfulness of mystical experience, as he so fully enters the flow of the game that he becomes indistinguishable from it. Sports can thus provide what Peter Berger calls “signals of transcendence” in a secularized world.

Harvey recognizes a “family resemblance” between sports and worship, but he thinks of them as complementary opposites. In liturgy, God comes close in order to “inhabit the liturgical action, becoming truly present with the creature.” Sports involves the opposite movement, God’s withdraw from the field of play, “enabling the creature to be somehow at a distance in its own integrity.” Both advent and withdrawal are implicated in the doctrine of creation: God makes and inhabits his world, but the world is contingent, unnecessary, un-serious (though meaningful), because God leaves creation space to be itself. Worship is the liturgy of God’s presence; sports are the liturgy of divine absence, a celebration of creaturely contingency. Sport, as a result, “is not for God. Itissimply the graceful creature.”

The effort to discover a moral or mystical dimension in sports undermines the very thing that makes a game a game—its utterly “autotelic” character. “Worship does not quite define everything,” Harvey argues. “Sport is understood to be the only thing that is not worship. Or, to make the point the other way around: everything we do in our life serves our worship, except our sport. Sport is only for sport. It is the one thing that is not directed to the glory of God. That is what sets it apart.”

This is an odd conclusion, partly for an obvious reason: It puts sports outside rather than within creaturely existence, since creaturely existence is classically understood to be entirely directed toward God. In celebrating creatureliness, Harvey removes sport from the God-directedness that is constitutive of creatureliness. It’s odd too because Harvey applies his point narrowly to sports. Why is music-making not autotelic in just the way that sport is? Why is ballet not a liturgy of contingency from which God withdraws to order to take his place among the spectators?

On the whole, I think Ellis is better able than Harvey to explain the power of both participating in and watching sports. Neither, however, is entirely satisfying: Ellis blurs religion and sports, while Harvey, in an effort to avoid that danger, grants too much autonomy to sports. Yet the appearance of these two intelligent, provocative books gives hope that sport, a massively important facet of modern civilization, is finally receiving the serious theological attention it deserves.

Peter J. Leithart is president of Trinity House. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.

(Read Lincoln Harvey’s response here)

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