Pre-game ritual. Not a prayer. Need a miracle. Sporting mecca. Sacrifice play. Redemption story. Gotta have faith.
What do faith and sports have in common? Nothing – and yet everything, if you recognize the spiritual source material of the clichés above. Sports are a metaphor for life and, for many people, religion and life are intertwined. Consider these recent headlines:
- Cardinal-to-be dons Maple Leafs sweater at the Vatican
- Catholic Church promotes praying for Canadiens
- The gospel of Tim Tebow
- Gisele Bundchen: ‘Pray For Tom Brady’
Guy Nicholson: Faith Exchange panelists have convened to discuss the intersection of religion and sports. Thanks for joining us today, everyone – this is a lighter topic than some of our others; I hope we can have a little fun with it.
It happens all the time – an athlete or fan asks for divine intervention, or gives thanks for it. Do you nod or wince?
Peter Stockland: If it is divine intervention, I wince. After all, who knows what colour jersey God is wearing on any given Sunday? Or any given day, for that matter. But if it is for divine guidance, I say “God bless.” If we are people of faith, we should always be guided by God in all that we do: sports, business, even journalism.
Sheema Khan: I nod, simply because pleading to the divine (at moments of need or crisis) is simply human, no matter how trivial the matter may seem to others. Within the purvey of Islamic teachings, no need is too small, no matter is too trivial, to call on the Lord of all things (great and small).
Sports is an arena where we have so much invested, yet have so little control. This is the paradox, perhaps. And, maybe, just maybe, since we fans realize that we have so little control over the outcome, we call on a higher power to assist. It’s our brief recognition of utter helplessness.
Lorna Dueck: I nod, and then I scrutinize, worried that my next response will be to wince. What are the motives, what is the theology of the player sporting his faith? It takes courage to bend a knee, repeatedly, on a national stage; it opens you up to all kinds of examination.
Howard Voss-Altman: As a rabbi, I wince. As a fan, I wince. After all, what could be more trivial to the Creator, the Eternal One, than a hockey or football game?
And yet, as the only unscripted, truly “reality” entertainment in our culture, sports has, in many ways, superseded our culture and, in doing so, become our religion. As a dedicated New York Giants fan (for the past 42 years), I revel in the near-religious rituals that surround each match: the pre-game show at precisely the same time, the national anthem, the opening kickoff, the inevitable excitement of two teams engaging in physical battle and, most of all, the surprising nature of the game itself. We truly do not know the outcome of the game and, in that reality, we discover mystery and drama.
Lorna Dueck: Rabbi, since you were with the winning team this year and all four of my evangelical quarterbacks’ teams (Denver, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Green Bay) did not make the Super Bowl, I concede you have a point. I, too, wince if players are praying for victory, but if they are praying because the power of sport celebrity humbles them into wanting to deflect attention to their Creator, then I cheer. The prayers I admire are ones of thankfulness, submission and humility. I think there is more of that than asking for a win.
Howard Voss-Altman: Lorna, I certainly agree. However, I’ve always viewed the prayers from another point of view. Perhaps this is my rabbinic bias, but when I see players engaged in such prayer, I’ve wanted to believe that they are thanking God for their extraordinary size, speed, vision and agility. They have been blessed with talents that most of us can never even imagine, and I’ve always believed that most athletes – particularly the ones who visibly pray – are very grateful for what they have been given.
Peter Stockland: For the physical gifts, yes, Rabbi Voss-Altman, but I think also for the spiritual gift of being able to push beyond what even they as individuals believed they could do. And we must not forget that a huge part of sports is dealing with letdown – either from losing or from winning and then being reminded by daily life that what you just won has no practical meaning. Like faith, it is what you do because God gave it to you to do.