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Joe Hoover, S.J.February 10, 2023
Left: Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes reacts before the NFL AFC Championship playoff football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023, in Kansas City, Mo. Right: Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks Jalen Hurts kneels with running back Miles Sanders during the NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022, in Philadelphia.Left: Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes reacts before the NFL AFC Championship playoff football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File) Right: Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks Jalen Hurts (1) kneels with running back Miles Sanders (26) during the NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola, File)

In January 2000, the St. Louis Rams won the Super Bowl over the Tennessee Titans on a 73-yard touchdown pass by Kurt Warner to Isaac Bruce, and a last-second goal-line tackle by Mike Jones. I was watching the game with a crew of young Ivy League-types. When Warner proclaimed at the trophy ceremony, “Well, first things first, I gotta give the praise and glory to my Lord and Savior up above: thank you Jesus!” they found the native charm deep within to roundly scoff at Warner’s declaration.

(Have you ever heard a scoff? It sounds like, well, you know it when you hear it.)

As both a Christian and non-Ivy Leaguer, I mutedly scoffed at their scoffing.

But I wonder now: What precisely was the nature of their derision? Was it just your typical elite disdain for Jesus talk? Or was it in fact theologically grounded scoffing?

“Kurt, don’t you realize,” maybe they were implying, “that it is ludicrous for you to thank God for a victory that God did not, in fact, give you. The Lord did not make defensive stops and touchdown drives on your behalf. He merely gave you, plucky underdog, the ability to bring about such a victory. Do not thank Jesus for this title. Scoff.”

God does not care about a specific contest, who wins and who loses, just the state of our hearts and souls.

Sound theology, no? God does not take sides in athletic contests. He just wants everyone to be happy. (Which makes me wonder: Is it actually possible for the Creator of the human body to be happy with the existence of body-crushing tackle football?)

The world-champion hurdler Lolo Jones would, it seems, agree with the Yalies, et al. “Whether he wants to promote me or humble me, that is in his hands,” she once said in a TV interview. “I don’t think he cares about a certain game or race or performance, but he cares about the condition of our heart.”

A wise spiritual outlook. God does not care about a specific contest, who wins and who loses, just the state of our hearts and souls.

But consider the post-match theology of ultimate fighter Tyson Fury who, afterwinning a bout in Germany, declared that “my Lord, my rock, my salvation Jesus Christ gave me the glory tonight!” His proclamation while holding the belt is joyful, smiling, full-throated. He sounds like a sweaty prophet or king declaring fealty to a capricious deity from some mountaintop. God gave him the glory.

All of these and countless others in some way acknowledging, thanking, glorifying God or Jesus or the Man Upstairs for their victories and awards.

Is Tyson Fury on the Lolo Jones side, believing that God does not care about the outcome of a certain game or match, but nonetheless should be acknowledged? Or is he on the Kurt Warner side, evidently thanking the Lord for helping him win?

When golfer Bubba Watson won the 2012 Masters golf tournament, he gave his faith witness at the “green jacket” ceremony. “I’ve got to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” he says, his voice breaking.

If you knew Bubba Watson’s journey, you knew he was speaking in the halting rhythms of a man who had chopped his way through the dense underbrush of a God-free life, found the Lord, entwined his faith in Christ to a crushing long game and claimed victory at the Masters.

But was Watson theologically off base? Would he, too, be deserving of Ivy League scorn, for thanking Jesus for his victory? Or was he just thanking Jesus for the breath and bone and muscle and desire that put him on the golf course?

The Brazilian soccer player Kaká scores a goal and takes off his uniform to reveal a t-shirt that says, “I belong to Jesus.” Steph Curry at an MVP ceremony says of Jesus: “I’m his humble servant right now.” LeBron James on the Cavaliers’ title: “There’s nothing the man above don’t put you in new situations that you can’t handle.” Shawn Michael, Giannis Antekounmpo, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Tim Tebow (he perhaps the most notorious Christian athlete witnesser of all time. Tebow kneels in the endzone and legion kneel with him.) All of them and countless others in some way acknowledging, thanking, glorifying God or Jesus or the Man Upstairs for their victories and awards.

Catholics would feel the need to thank “the Triune God, including Jesus, through whom all things were made, and the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, as well as Mary, Joseph, all the angels and saints, and many statues.”

If pressed, I think most of these athletes would agree that God does not put the basketball in the hoop or golf ball in the hole. Rather, he gave them athletic ability and talent that they took and made something amazing with. Even Warner clarified his Super Bowl witness 18 years later when he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.

“Many felt that I was thanking him for orchestrating a Super Bowl win, or making my passes fly straighter, or causing my opponents to make more mistakes,” Warner said. “But those people had it all wrong.” (I’m looking at you, Ivy League types.) Instead, the quarterback said, his words were a way of expressing gratitude for all that Jesus had done for him throughout his life.

(For some reason, you don’t tend to hear Catholic athletes do a lot of post-game faith witness. Maybe because instead of simply thanking their “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” Catholics would feel the need to thank “the Triune God, including Jesus, through whom all things were made, and the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, as well as Mary, Joseph, all the angels and saints, and many statues,” the prospect of which just sounds exhausting, so they don’t even try.)

There are some athletes who, the way they talk about their faith, almost seem to render pointless the question of “did God win you the game?” Consider the response of N.B.A. power forward Kevin Durant when asked once after another dominant performance, “What goes into a streak like that, at the level you’ve been playing?”

“Thank God,” Durant says. “Jesus Christ.”

The woman interviewing him laughs (though not scoffing.) “You’ve got nothing to do with it?”

“No,” replies Durant, “it’s all him.”

Is it actually “bad theology” or shoddy spirituality to say God does in fact want one team to win over another? Is it?

Durant said this in the same way he might have said, “I’ve been practicing my jumper.” Mundane. “I’ve got new shoes.” Just the facts. No dramatics, fully embodied, this is the truth, ma’am: The Lord. As if to say, there is no part of my life that isn’t bound up with God; nothing I do that is not God-inspired. So, like, how does this theological question even matter? I’m with God, God is with me, period the end.

But then there are athletes like Lionel Messi, who at this year’s World Cup, clearly, directly and unapologetically troubled the whole equation of the “appropriate theological response,” to sports achievements. When Argentina defeated France in the greatest Cup final ever, Messi outright said God won the game for him.

“I wanted it very much,” Lionel said after the match. “I knew that God was going to give it to me. I had a premonition that it was going to be this way.”

And all theological protestations to the contrary (He just gave you the ability, Lionel; he doesn’t care about outcomes, take a cue from Lolo Jones) is it really so bad for Lionel Messi to say that God gave him the victory? To declare that, indeed, God in his own ineffable way did make Argentina’s passes straighter, let their penalty kicks find the net? Is it actually “bad theology” or shoddy spirituality to say God does in fact want one team to win over another? Is it?

Or, let me put that a different way: It is bad theology to say God cares who wins a game. Because God himself is a bad theologian. God does things on a daily basis that would get him thrown out of half a dozen theology grad schools and any number of seminaries. He upends every thesis statement, renders baffled anyone who thinks they have him figured out. God uses every last unholy person to change the world for the better; every tragic situation to shatter pain into grace. God is a deeply conservative liberal traditional progressive who is conservative. At the end of the day, God does not fit within intellectual terms prescribed by anyone—be they theologian or philosopher or strong-side tackle after a Peach Bowl victory.

Who are we to say God did not want Argentina to win, and moved in his own mysterious ways to make that happen? It is almost prideful, isn’t it, to say we know that God doesn’t care who wins a game. Who actually knows the mind of God? Who can capture fully what God is or is not doing? Who?

God is Holy Mystery, the Great Unknowable, totaliter aliter, totally other. He frankly does what he pleases and so be it. Warner, Lolo, Bubba, you, me, anyone: Once we have him pinned down, he curls out of our grasp, doing what he will. Maybe the Lord indeed hath given Argentina the Cup and Fury the belt, and Curry the M.V.P. and LeBron the title in the desert of Cleveland sports and blessed be the name of the Lord.

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