The National Catholic Review
Getting closer to God through athletics

If a millennium from now someone were to examine the artifacts of our civilization, he or she would discover that in many places sports facilities were the largest and most prominent buildings. This discovery might lead to the conclusion that sports were one of the most powerful influences in our culture. And that conclusion would be correct.

Past civilizations left behind colossal cathedrals to glorify God because for them ultimate power resided in religion. We will leave behind colossal sport stadiums, because these are, for many, our cathedrals. Sport is our shared religion.

What power does sport manifest that has made it the “religion” of many contemporary people? To answer this question, we need to examine those powers that connect all human beings to their Creator and that express the essence of that Creator in daily life. I would like to examine five of these essential forces: breath manifests the original energy of the Creator; music expresses the energy of the Creator as sound; nature (or the created world) is the most extensive manifestation of the Creator that humans can experience; physical activities are the part of nature through which the energy of the Creator is manifested most intimately for human beings; through symbolic intellect human beings create forms to express their deepest knowledge to themselves and to each other.

Five Essential Forces

Sport may be the most powerful expression of these energies in the world today. Hence, the powerful hold of sport on human beings and the energy it evokes. Let us consider each of these forces in greater depth.

The energy that breath creates is the first and essential manifestation of the original creative energy of the Creator. Without breath, we could not survive for more than a few minutes. How human beings expend this energy shows powerfully how they live out the essence of their creation and their Creator.

Sport expresses this energy through the athletes and the fans who support the teams. The games and competitions showcase some of the most powerful and artful ways in which gifted human beings can use and experience this energy. In sport, athletes can experience the manifestation of the Creator’s energy most powerfully and intelligently by showing how they can overcome other players who share the same capacity.

The fans are connected to this energy through the imagery that the competition creates for them. So, for example, when their team wins, the fans feel powerful and important, even though they know they had nothing to do with the result. The team has become a higher expression of themselves. Through this identification, the fans’ lives are elevated to a higher symbolic level, on which the essential forces of creation are expressed. This connection can move then to feel closer to the original Creator. This accounts for sport’s power over the imaginations of the fans.

Another way that people experience the energy of the Creator is through music, which is the energy of the Creator as expressed in sound. The most material reaction to music is dance. Moving the physical body to music joins the breath of the Creator as expressed in music to the power of the human body to move. There is the obvious music that we hear, but there is also the deeper level expressed in the rhythm of creation that cannot be heard. In sport the athletes are “dancing” (moving in a ritualized fashion) to this hidden music of creation. There is a powerful essential rhythm to the games and competitions in which all participants are dancing.

Through viewing the competitions, the fans participate in this essential dance by feeling its hidden music. This “rhythm” at the heart of the game allows fans to experience the deeper rhythm of the Creator as expressed through the game. The power of this rhythm joins the players and the fans into a dance, through which they are connected and together experience the energy of the Creator. This energy can feel like ecstasy when players and fans experience the highest form of this dance in an artful play or victory.

Physical activities are another way in which the essential energy of the Creator is expressed in sport. During sporting events, the players are using their original energy expressed through running, throwing, catching, seeing and coordinating with one another in the most powerful and effective ways. Thus they show one another the higher possibilities of physical activities or functions. They have taken the capacity with which all humans are endowed and raised them to their highest physical potential. This is what inspires the fans and others. The players are accomplishing their highest potential, and the fans are experiencing this vicariously. This offers what most humans desire: the capacity for self-transcendence. Fans and their communities are no longer just themselves. They have become larger than themselves through identification with the players, the games and the community through this experience of the game.

Sport provides a real and symbolic means through which individual life potential can be realized and experienced. This experience of individual and communal self-transcendence is the deepest desire of human beings.

The last essential way human beings express the energy of the Creator in sport is through what are called “plays”—the choreography of the original energy into a coherent and beautiful pattern. A well-executed play is akin to the great art forms that express the harmony in creation. When observing such a play, it is as if we are examining a great work of art or literature, a ballet or a symphony. In all these works, the harmony of all creation and its relationship to the Creator are expressed. When participating in or watching sports, people are experiencing the essential harmony of great art that is hidden behind its diverse expressions.

Winning: Not the Only Thing

Sport expresses the unity and harmony of the Creator, but it also expresses the diversity of life experience through winning and losing. How does this affect its capacity to connect the created to the Creator? There are two levels of human experience in this regard: competition and cooperation. Humans are attracted to both. One certainly understands that competition is only a subset of a higher unity that includes both opposing parts.

Since humans are limited, they want to succeed in materialistic terms. This dynamic is why winning a football game is important to the players and the fans alike. However, all participants understand that the game cannot be played unless common rules, which make the game possible, are agreed upon. These rules require winners and losers. The rules also require penalties. So even if people want to win, they know they can only win in the context that makes the game possible.

Yet after the game is over and the winning and losing have been decided, most people find their ultimate enjoyment in having participated in the game. They would certainly like to win, but they know that playing the game is the most important thing because in the act of playing they experience the deep energies of the Creator and can connect to these energies. They can also connect to the supporters or fans of the other team because they recognize they are connected by the higher energy expressed in the game. The fans are passionate during the game, and they bond after it is over. The individual and communal identification with the team provides a vocabulary for deeper bonding through which people can talk to each other about their loyalties to their teams.

We need particular symbols to give unique expression to who we are as individual teams, cities or nations. But we also need ways to see how these symbols can be a means to relate to each other effectively. Sport provides this opportunity.

Perhaps the forces that draw us to sport can draw us back to religion, which, for many today, has become disconnected from the essential forces that connect us with our Creator. Perhaps religions can learn from sport: so many of the great expressions and themes of religion—prayer, sin, repentance, revival, salvation, community and eternity—can be examined through the metaphors and experiences that sport provides. By making these connections, the power of traditional religious activities and institutions can be renewed in more powerful ways that relate to the human experience in the world today.

Rabbi Martin Siegel, rabbi emeritus of the Columbia Jewish Congregation in Columbia, Md., is the author of Amen: The Diary of Rabbi Martin Siegel (World Publishing). He currently is working on a book entitled Renewing Religion Through Football.