A Brief Theology of Sport (London: SCM Press, 2014)
Sport is incredibly popular – but why? In this slim and stimulating volume, Lincoln Harvey, Lecturer in Systematic Theology at St Mellitus College and an Arsenal supporter, argues that the reason for sport’s ongoing popularity is simply because it resonates with the core of human identity. ‘In short,’ Harvey writes, ‘sport is a liturgy of our contingency.’ (p. 94). It’s an attractive and compelling position.
A Brief Theology of Sport is divided into two sections. The first section, ‘Historical Soundings’, consists of five chapters and mainly offers an overview of the place of sport in society and its relation to religion within certain historical periods. Historically speaking, sport and religion are both universal and intertwined, even to the extent that in some ages sports functioned ritualistically or as mythical re-enactment for particular peoples. Sport’s apparent link to paganism was a concern for the Church, and Harvey uses this first section largely to document the Church’s ambivalence towards sport. While it recognised sport’s popularity, and while it used sporting illustrations to promote its mission, on the whole the Church opposed sport, its hold over people, and its propensity for encouraging idolatry or faithlessness to Christ. Harvey’s absorbing account of the Church’s use of and opposition to sport’s ongoing popularity gives sufficient reason for his reader to believe that sport may well be more fundamental to human existence than previously thought.
The question, of course, is why this is the case. Harvey’s second section, ‘Analytic Soundings’, is given over to developing a properly theological understanding of sport. In this section, Harvey suggests that, as a form of play, sport is an expression of human freedom, and each particular sport has its own internal but contingent rules governing the way it is played:
There is no reason why the outfield players [in a football match] cannot use their hands, other than the simple reason that it is not part of the freely determined contingent meaning that is football. But to play soccer, they must abide by this rule. It forms part of the point of the game. (p. 67, italics original).
Play, and so sport, is autotelic; it has its own purpose; it is ‘radically unnecessary but internally meaningful.’ (p. 69).
At this point, Harvey connects the contingent nature of sport to the Christian doctrine of creation. This latter teaches that creation, and humans within it, need not exist but do so only because the triune God has freely chosen to create something that is not God. Creation – and within it, humanity – is unnecessary; but despite its radical contingency, creation is still meaningful, because God in Christ loves it. Thus there is a very real sense in which play and sport resonate with human identity, with what it means to be human. Harvey explains that ‘when we play – unnecessarily but meaningfully – we are living out our deepest identity as unnecessary but meaningful creatures. Simply put, we reverberate with ourselves. We chime with our being.’ (p. 84).
Given this, Harvey contends, sport will always be popular and have a place in society, and so any attempt by the Church to oppose it or to use it for its mission will likely end up corrupting sport in some way. Harvey is also keen to ensure that sport is not simply to be interpreted as a form of worship, for ‘worship is worship and sport is sport; the two should not be confused.’ (p. 93). Liturgical worship celebrates the creature’s relationship with God, and sport is the liturgical celebration of the creature’s relationship with itself. In worship, God
steps forward, so to speak, to inhabit the liturgical action. . . In sport, however, the opposite is the case. God instead steps back. . . In effect, in worship, God transcends the difference [between God and the creature]. In sport, God establishes the difference. He is in one. He is out of the other. (p. 95).
This means that, for Harvey, sport is unique among human activity, in so far as it is the only human activity that exists for its own sake. It is the only human activity that cannot truly be construed as worship, for its object is not God but the creature.
Harvey’s thesis is fascinating and convincing. Despite the brevity of each chapter (and, for me, chapter five on ‘Sport, Puritans and Muscular Christians’ covered too much ground too quickly), Harvey has provided a thoughtful and lucid example of a theology of sport. Moreover, it should be noted that what Harvey offers is not merely an account of sport onto the end of which theology is tacked; the propositions put forward in A Brief Theology of Sport are drawn from theological convictions about the nature of the world and the nature of the triune Creator. Those familiar with the writings of Colin Gunton and Robert Jenson will recognise how these two have influenced and inspired Harvey’s own theology (especially in chapter seven, ‘Towards a Christian Theology of Sport’, which contains one of the finest accounts of the Christian doctrine of creation I have ever read). On the negative side, while Harvey’s writing style is generally a pleasure to read, I was continually distracted by the large number of en-dashes used for parenthetical remarks. Also, I cannot help but wonder if the book’s two sections should have been integrated more fully. While the second section appeared to build on sport’s enduring status, which was charted throughout the opening chapters, there was little else in the analytical section that for me necessitated reading the historical one. Finally, I suppose that what Harvey says about the autotelic nature of sport could be applied to other human activities or enterprises as well, or, to put it another way, that sport cannot completely avoid an orientation towards God. This means that sport, as unnecessary-yet-meaningful play, continues to function as the liturgical celebration of creaturely contingency, but within a priestly framework where all of creation, including creaturely contingency, is offered to God.
These three criticisms are, of course, minor, and they should not prevent the reader from appreciating what Harvey has achieved here: not only a brief, but a genuinely theological, theology of sport.