This paper will explore the philosophy and theology of sports while glancing at the rise of athletic traditions within evangelical institutions of higher education, including the irony that some schools founded in part as a protest against intercollegiate competition are now best known for their championship caliber teams.
While a robust tradition of “muscular Christianity” developed in 19th England that soon spread to the United States, some Anabaptists, members of the holiness movements, and fundamentalists were deeply suspicious of athletics, especially in academic settings. Contemporary Christian colleges and universities within the United States almost uniformly endorse athletics, but those constituencies which shifted from anti- to pro-athletic stances usually did so as a part of their broader accommodations to the surrounding culture, rather than from thoughtfully developed justifications for taking such a radical turn.
Evangelicals are not the only segment of the larger population generally lacking in critical reflections about the theoretical basis for participation in sports. Although analogies between sports and life are a familiar trope at athletics banquets, Johan Huizinga, Paul Weiss, Avishai Margalit, and David Papineau are among the relatively few serious thinkers who have proposed detailed approaches to the philosophy of sport. While a growing literature now exists about religion and sports, and more specifically about Christianity and sports, most of it has come from reporters, coaches, educators, historians, sociologists, psychologists, or chaplains, with just the occasional philosopher or theologian weighing into the fray. How should evangelical philosophers and theologians contribute to this discussion? The present essay will make some preliminary suggestions, drawing upon a range of examples from across a variety of sports and athletic endeavors, including the fading cultural phenomenon of Hoosier Hysteria.
One of the more interesting theological suggestions, by Lincoln Harvey, is that sports do not exist primarily for the glory of God, somewhat contrary to the vision implicit in the statement attributed to Eric Liddell in “Chariots of Fire”: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” Or to the answer to the opening question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Or to a slogan of the Reformers, “soli Deo gloria.” Or to the motto of the Jesuits, “ad majorem Deo gloriam.” Rather, sports are a domain divinely set apart for human contingency—for human play, human creativity, human exultation, and human glory. Thus, this paper explores the intriguing notion that sports are better grounded in and have their legitimate end within theological anthropology, rather than within theology proper. This distinction may seem subtle, but it remains important and profound in its implications.