July 1, 2003

Divine intervention

POST #    478

Divine intervention
By Gregg Easterbrook
Page 2 columnist

This week, former quarterback Frank Reich, architect of the two greatest comebacks in football annals -- the greatest college comeback, the University of Maryland from a 31-0 deficit to defeat the University of Miami; and the greatest pro comeback, Buffalo from a 35-3 deficit in the playoffs to defeat Houston -- dons a robe as head of the Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, N.C. Reich, a committed Christian and frequent speaker on religious issues, had enrolled with the intent of becoming ordained; now he's the boss. If the Reformed Theological Seminary is behind in any membership or fundraising goals, expect a big comeback!

The three-campus Reformed Theological Seminary is the academic branch of Reformed Protestant theology, which traces its origins to John Calvin, by way of the English Puritans and the Presbyterian movement. To be ordained by the Reformed Theological Seminary, you must affirm the Westminster Confession, a 1646 statement of mainly Calvinist belief that includes the notions of Biblical inerrancy, predestination, salvation by grace alone (good works won't save you) and of "the elect." This latter is the belief that before the creation of the universe, God determined which souls would go to heaven and which to hell and there is nothing anyone can do to change this. If you are born predestined for hell, that's where you will go, even if you live an exemplary life.

Some of the views Reich is embracing sound pretty silly to me. Predestination -- before the beginning of time, God foreordained that Buffalo would lose four consecutive Super Bowls? Of course, if you saw those games, it did look like a giant foot was stepping on the Bills the entire time.

But then, I also believe things that can sound pretty silly. For instance, as a churchgoing Christian, I believe Jesus was physically resurrected from the dead. There's not much point in being a Christian if you don't believe this -- as the apostle Paul wrote in First Corinthians, "If Christ has not been raised then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain" -- and I see a lot of points in being a Christian. I fully believe that on the most important morning in human history, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome, went to Jesus's tomb to anoint his body and there met an angel who casually told them, "He is risen, He is not here."

But a lot of people think that believing in the resurrection is silly, and I can't prove them wrong. And though the Reformed Theological Seminary asking ministers to vow a belief in predestination and an "elect" seems silly to me, I can't prove these things are wrong, either. For all I know, it was foreordained before the beginning of time that I would write this column. All faiths involve convictions that are chuckled at by those who hold other views.

Which brings us to the real question that ought to be raised when an athlete enters the ministry: Does God care about sporting events?

At the press conference following that greatest-ever 32-point comeback against the Oilers, Reich began by reciting the lyrics to the hymn "In Christ Alone:"

In every victory
let it be said of me:
My source of strength,
my source of hope
is Christ alone.

Needless to say, God didn't answer the beep for Reich and the Bills in Super Bowl XXV.
The following morning, appearing on the "Today" show, Reich called the 32-point comeback "a miracle." Last month, discussing that game, Reich told the Charlotte Observer that his victory "honored God's name." Generally, it has become common for athletes, interviewed after big games, to declare "the glory goes to God" or "all praise to Jesus" or "thanks be to God." For some, such sentiments are a way of expressing that they are grateful to God for making them strong or swift. But statements like these also imply that the divine is interested in the outcome of our little rituals involving balls and whistles. How should we take this?

First, the word "miracle." Sportscasters bat this around a lot -- halfcourt baskets are miracles, grand slams in the bottom of the ninth are miracles. There are even the Miracle Mets and a famed playoff game that ended on the Music City Miracle.

In theology, "miracle" carries two meaning -- an event transcending physical law, and the direct intervention of the divine on Earth. A basket from 50 feet, three hits by the same guy in the same inning (as occurred the other night), any such striking sports moment surely does not transcend physical law. These things may be unlikely, but that's a separate issue. Enough men and women playing enough games, and statistically, every once in a while something really unlikely will happen. True, people use "it's a miracle" as a figure of speech, not in the theological sense, because it's more fun than crying out, "That was highly improbable!" We like to think that miracles happen around us. As regards the overlap of sports and physical law, they do not.

Let me pause here to note that as a modern skeptic and Brookings Institution scholar, I believe that supernatural power actually exists and that scripture records its influence; more on that below. I just think miracles happen on subjects of greater importance than the Mets.

Then there's the second sense of the word miracle, the one that implies divine intervention. Frank Reich has said that "God controls all outcomes for His purposes," which would include the outcomes of sporting events. Assume for the sake of argument that there might be a divine purpose, hidden from us, in having the Lakers beat the Kings in the playoffs on that improbable last-second long-range three last season, or in any sports outcome. Here we're in sticky territory in terms of theology, because if God really does control all outcomes, then God dictates that evil occur, that the innocent be killed by bombs and diseases and so on.

Music City Miracle? Don't tell the special teams coach that.
Whether Christians should believe that God controls earthly events is a complex topic; at the end of this column I'll recommend a brilliant book that devotes 100 pages to the pros and cons of the argument. Short version: if God is actually in control of sports events, the human prospect is in far worse shape than previously feared. Consider that just a few weeks after looking so marvelous in the 32-point comeback game, Frank Reich looked awful in the Super Bowl, committing five turnovers as the Bills were blown off the field by Dallas. So what divine message to humanity was encoded in that sequence of events? Beats me. If God actually intervenes in football games to send us sports-encoded messages that we can't understand, woe be unto us.

Next is the notion that performance in sport gives honor to God. People who say this usually have good intent; they are trying to set a good example for the positive effects that faith can have in a person's life. George W. Bush tells anyone who will listen that he was once a pretty crummy guy, until Jesus took his hand and gave him the strength to face things about himself he was too weak to face alone. If faith caused George W. Bush to change from crummy guy to decent man -- personally, let's leave politics out of this -- then honor is given to God, and people should know.

But this is delicate, especially in the superficial context of the sports interview. Maybe faith made Reich a better athlete or Bush a better person, but forces that have nothing to do with higher power can make you a better athlete or a better person, too. There are some terrific athletes who are unprincipled, contemptible human beings; Nautilus machines and Nike shoes made them better athletes, not God. At the same time there are some saintly, soulful human beings who believe in no divinity; ethical philosophy made them better people. To praise God when things go well for you does not necessary mean much, since things might just as easily go poorly for you, or might go well without any involvement of the divine.

Praising God for success in sports can be not only grating but a form of self-flattery. When an athlete says, in effect, "God helped me catch that touchdown pass," he's saying that in a world of poverty, inequality and war, higher powers thought his touchdown catch so vastly important that God intervened on Earth to make sure that both feet came down inbounds, while doing nothing to prevent slaughter in Africa or the Middle East. Though meant to suggest humility, praising God for success in sports often becomes a form of vanity: God wanted me to catch that pass! When I hear athletes imply that this is what the divine is like, I think: No thanks.

Finally, does God show favor or disapproval by causing us to perform well or poorly in sports? Maybe, but it seems unlikely. Could Frank Reich really have been a fine, admirable human being worthy of God's favor on Jan. 3, 1993, day of the 35-3 comeback, and then have become a despicable person deserving of divine retribution by Jan. 31, 1993, day of Reich's embarrassment in the Super Bowl? It seems a lot more likely he just had a really good outing in one game and a really bad outing in another.

God has a lot to do with our lives and hopes; God has nothing to do with who wins games, or throws or catches touchdowns. God is neither honored by good performances nor dishonored by poor ones. It's just sports, a very minor concern compared to faith, a major concern.

Credentials note: according to statisticians at the Elias Sports Bureau, I'm the only current ESPN writer who has published a book on Christian theology. Sadly it just went out of print, though most libraries have it; and according to Amazon.com, first editions are selling for $70 and up, which came as a surprise to me. If you're dying to acquire a copy, e-mail me and I'll sell you one for the cover price.

Among other things, this book maintains that accounts of resurrection or walking on water should not put any rationalist off from faith, since who can say what is possible from the standpoint of higher knowledge? Rationalists of previous centuries would have considered the Boeing 747 forbidden by physical law, or declared reports of heart transplants to be absurd superstition. Claims of supernatural events are the easy part of faith to get your head around, as history is full of things that appear supernatural from one perspective and explicable from another. The hard part of faith to get your head around is believing God exists. The rest is arguments over the details.

Posted by tien mao in Sports at 7:25 PM

 

 

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