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
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
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
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
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);