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Like us, an unnecessary but meaningful creation

28 February 2014

Sport resonates with humanity's deepest identity as a creature of God, argues Lincoln Harvey

SPORT is unquestionably popular. Events such as the Winter Olympics are watched by millions across the world. But the reason for such popularity is much less obvious. Christians, however, can make sense of it because the doctrine of creation helps us to understand that sport is an expression of our deepest identity as creatures.

For many, sport will always remain a mystery. People struggle to understand why anyone would want to chase after a football on a cold day, or spoil a good walk with a game of golf. There seems to be no point in these activities. But the lack of an obvious rationale for sport is, in fact, its charm. We love sport because it serves no purpose. This is what sets it apart.

We must work, earn, cook, clean, commute, shop, pay our bills, and send those emails - an endless list of important activities, one thing after another. These activities are done for a reason. We work to pay our bills, for instance; we commute to get to work. In each case, the activity serves a purpose beyond itself. But sport is quite different. There is no ulterior motive.

In many respects, therefore, sport is gratuitous. There is no artefact being produced, and no crop being harvested. The game is simply the game, a radically self-contained event, a one-off.

This is why sport should not be set to serve a political agenda or commercial interest. External purposes such as these spoil the sport. Of course, we know that sport does have a number of side-effects. It is beneficial to health, for example, and it is good for socialising. But these things are secondary: a game is not for them. Sport is for nothing. It is radically free.

SPORT may be free, but it is not meaningless. Although it serves no purpose, a game has meaning within itself. To state the obvious: sports have goals, points, targets, and finishing lines, and it is these goals that give the activity its purpose.

But the purpose lies within the sport, not outside it. No player attempts to score a goal or hit a winning run because it lowers his or her cholesterol or earns him or her a pay rise. The players attempt to score because it is the purpose of the game they are playing.

It is the meaningful non-necessity of sport which resonates with our deepest identity as creatures. The Church teaches that God created the world out of nothing. This doctrine is relatively straightforward, although mistakes can be made about it.

We might be tempted to imagine "nothing" as a yearning in God - a deficit - a hollow, if you like. We can picture God all alone in eternity, feeling an emptiness inside himself that he simply has to fill. God therefore creates the world because he needs some company to fill the nothingness. But the Church has always rejected such claims. The Christian God is not lonely. There is no deficiency in him, no hollow, no "nothingness". He is the eternal fullness of Father, Son, and Spirit.

The Church therefore teaches that God is the love of the Three in relation, perfect and complete in himself. As a result, God's decision to create is driven neither by need nor by compulsion. It is a fundamentally free decision, a radically unnecessary act. It is pure grace.

THE graceful act of creation means that creatures are not necessary. We are not needed, so to speak - not serious, as Rowan Williams once put it.

Yet this liberating insight does not undermine the value and meaning of the unnecessary creature. God's decision is free, but it is not arbitrary, capricious, or coldly random. Instead, God makes us for a purpose, and this purpose is love. The creature is summoned into existence in order to share in the singular loving fellowship of the Three. Love is the valuable meaning of the unnecessary creature.

The Church teaches that the basic character of our shared identity is that we are unnecessary but meaningful, in that we are freely loved. It is this insight that provides the key to understanding why sport is so popular.

When people play sport, they are entering into a fundamentally unnecessary but meaningful activity. This activity echoes their deepest identity as unnecessary but meaningful creatures. This means that sport is providing us with an arena in which we can chime with ourselves at the deepest level. It is an event in which we can express our meaningful non-necessity.

Of course, there is much more that needs to be said on this, not least given the tragedy of the Fall. But the doctrine of creation should encourage Christians to celebrate sport.

The good news is that we are created by grace. The surprising news is that our gracefulness can be expressed on a football pitch or a golf course. Sport is where we can enjoy the reality of being an unnecessary but meaningful creature.

The Revd Dr Lincoln Harvey is Lecturer in Systematic Theology at St Mellitus College, in London, and the author of A Brief Theology of Sport (SCM Press, 2014); £19.99 (CT Bookshop offer: £15.99 until 7 March); 978-0-334-04418-5.

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