Theology and the Beautiful Game

Having been immersed in the World Cup, the soccer (or football) tournament that takes place every four years, I have been reminded again and again why I love this sport. Unlike sports such as American football, baseball, and even basketball, soccer has a peculiar fluidity to it. To play the game requires preparation and skill that becomes manifest in 90 minutes, as players react, create, recover without the benefit of timeouts or lofty press-box coaches.

But watching so many games back to back to back (no, I did not get much work done in those openings weeks) I was struck by just how apt the phrase, “The Beautiful Game” is, as well as how it describes the task of theologians (and all Christians).

The phrase “Beautiful Game” betrays a tenuous balance of aesthetics and utilitarianism (as far as a game can have utility.) But in this balance there is not only concern that games are won or lost, but a deep concern for how they are won. Were the games won through sheer force or simple kicks that relied only on speed to catch up to the ball? Were the games approached by a brute negativity that simply determined to thwart the opposing team’s creativity and fluidity, in hopes of salvaging a tie or a fluke goal on a corner kick?

Ideally, “the Beautiful Game” is played with creativity and passion, but not merely for the sake of beauty alone. Quick passes or a perfectly struck free kick are not museum pieces intended to be viewed. These movements, skills, insights of body and mind have intention, a purpose, and thus the tension. What is the significance of beautiful play if the game is not won? What is the value of a win if it was won by simply thwarting the creativity and fluidity of an opposing side?

It is here that I have come to find a deep connection with the theological task. No, I do not want to suggest that theology has anything to do with “winning,” but I do think that theologians struggle with a tension of beauty and utility. Our work reflects upon the beauty of God and God’s world. And yet our reflections are not intended for museums or library shelves. Ideally our work as theologians has a purpose, a utility. Our use is to draw those who believe into a deeper encounter with God, to imagine the world as God’s and what that might mean for our lives together.

This task is not exercised within the unlimited imagination of the artist, but inside of particular places, with an “opposing team” working against our purposes. In this way, no game, no book, no article or prayer is ever the same, but is always expressing some aspect of God’s beauty anew, layering upon the expressions of faith and love that have preceded us. We theologians then are caught in a perpetual tension seeking to express the beauty of God and the world within the confines of the real, the particular, the everyday.

When we do our job well we flash glimpses of this beauty, brief moments that seem to remain shadows in your gaze for minutes after. But leading up to these moments and following these moments are our attempts to string a few passes together, to listen to one another, discern the particularities of the world around us until another moment of beauty breaks in through us.

These moments are not judged solely upon their effectiveness, whether we score or don’t, but these moments are also never apart from the attempt to “win” (I use this term with much fear and trepidation), or to put it slightly differently, our efforts are never distant from the attempt to do work for God’s kingdom, to plant seeds that will not perish, but will grow.

I am sure other sports express virtues of the theological task in their own ways. While watching the World Cup I have been reminded of just how wonderful my vocation and calling is. While some may see my work as a waste of time or boring, I simply continue to run and pass, to read and write hoping for both beauty and purpose in these little things, and that these might, somehow lead to something beautiful.

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