I admit it. I am not an athlete. I am ham fisted and physically illiterate. In school I was always one of the last chosen for a game of pick up football, and if a teammate was kind enough to throw me a pass I was likely to fumble the ball or run the wrong way, losing both the game and a possible friend.
Not only was I inept, but I couldn’t see the point. What was the point of a dozen men in short pants kicking a ball around a field not using their hands on purpose? I couldn’t see the point of six giants running back and forth on a court bouncing a ball while attempting to put it through a hoop that was too high, and I really couldn’t see the point of four men in plaid pants trying to hit a tiny ball into a hole in the ground hundreds of yards away using a fragile set of clubs.
What is the point of sports? When I quiz athletes on the question they grunt out a list of useful ideas. “The sporting industry generates jobs and income. Stadia and arenas are built. Tickets are sold. Television rights are sold. Stuff is advertised. Celebrities are made and fortunes are accumulated.” But I object. This economic benefit is a side effect, not the point of sport. The defenders of sports wax lyrical about the benefits to the young. “Sports build character” they argue. Sports help develop a team spirit, encourage self-sacrifice, promote an ethic of hard work, and teach children to deal with failure and success. But these virtues, like the economic virtues, are the result and not the point of sport. In fact, after musing on these matters, and reading an essay by Father Philosopher Schall, I have come to realize that sports have no point, and that is the point.
Sport is a form of play, and when we play we are doing something that has no other usefulness. Play is something humans do for its own sake, and it is no mistake that we use this word “play” in so many different ways. We play Monopoly or we play the marimba. We play hockey or we play Hamlet. We play the clarinet or soccer or a concerto or King Lear. All of these human enterprises—music, drama, sports (and we can add art and dance) are forms of play, and like children playing a happy game, we do them for their own sake. They have no other point.
This realization should strike all God’s children with wonder and delight for it is truly remarkable that we are at our human best when we are doing something useless. The dull utilitarian will be struck not with pleasure, but bewilderment. Why do human beings play? What is the point? Humans play, Father Schall argues, because they are created in the image of God. It follows therefore that God plays. In fact, because God is self-sufficient he has no need of being useful. Everything he does is for its own sake. He doesn’t need to earn a salary. He’s a gentleman of leisure. You could say all God does is play.
Play is creative, and as creatures it is part of being, in Tolkien’s terminology, sub-creators. Liturgists have observed that there is another human activity which is, like play, done purely for its own sake. Worship, like sport, is useless. Worship does not have, nor should it have, any practical purpose. This is why preachers and priests who insist that their religion be useful and relevant are missing the point.
When preachers preach nothing but a rehab and self-help gospel or priests prattle about nothing but feeding the hungry, accomplishing social justice, or making the world a better place they cease to be preachers and priests and become social workers. The prophets become profiteers—rather like the coach who thinks the main reason for sport is to get fit or the actor who is in it for the applause.
Worship (especially liturgical worship) is a freely entered, universal human activity. When we worship we are being truly and fully human. Like sport, worship is a form of play, and both—along with music, art, drama and dance—are useless activities whose only point is to prepare the human heart for the eternal playtime of heaven.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.