Editor’s note: To help Christian sportspeople navigate these uncertain times, we will be publishing a series of posts focused on what it looks like to “Run The Race Well” in a time of coronavirus and quarantine. We will be getting contributions from a variety of perspectives: theologians, philosophers, athletes, coaches, mental health professionals, seminary students, and more. This post comes from Mike Austin, a philosophy professor who writes frequently on the subject of Christian virtue and sport.
Faith is central to the life of those who seek to truly follow Jesus. As the author of Hebrews puts it: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
Many Christians over the centuries have seen sport as something that is at best a distraction from growing in our faith. At worst, it actually undermines it. Both of these claims can in fact be true. We can become so obsessed with sport as athletes, coaches, or fans, that it does distract us from seeking God. At a certain point this can undermine our faith, if we let the negative aspects of sport creep into our souls: pride, greed, callousness, even hatred.
But this is not the whole story. And it doesn’t need to be a part of our story. What if I told you that sport can help us grow in our faith? I think it can, if we are intentional about it.[i]
Many Christians have thought of faith not as mere belief, but as a virtue. Faith is seen as a theological virtue, because its immediate end or goal is union with God. With this in mind, we can define the virtue of faith as “entrusting oneself to God.”[ii] Faith as a virtue includes belief, but it goes beyond it as well. More than merely believing that God exists, faith relates us to God in a deep and transformative way. It is revealed by our obedience to God, an obedience that comes from the heart. By faith, we die to ourselves, and live to God. By faith, we imitate his unselfish love in our daily lives. Thankfully, given the fact that our faith is often weak, our obedience lacking, and our hearts still partially corrupt, we are also given much grace by our loving God.
What does any of this have to do with sport? There is a lot that could be said here, but one crucial way that sport and faith are related is this: we can cultivate the virtue of faith in the context of sport.
How might this work? Athletes must learn to entrust themselves to their teammates and coaches, if they and their team are going to reach their full potential. We can think of this as athletic faith.
Consider the role of the playmaker in soccer. Though he appears to be past his prime, Mesut Ozil is one of the best in recent years. When Ozil left Real Madrid for Arsenal, Cristiano Ronaldo said “The sale of Ozil is very bad news for me. He was the player who best knew my moves in front of goal. I’m angry about Ozil leaving.”[iii]
Ronaldo had faith that Ozil would help him score goals. And this faith was well-placed, because of a certain kind of faith that Ozil himself has made a focal point of his career on the pitch. “I am just the guy who passes the ball when someone’s in a better position.” Ozil has said.[iv] Ronaldo trusted Ozil to deliver him the ball in the right place and at the right time; Ozil trusted Ronaldo to put the ball into the back of the net. Their connection demonstrates athletic faith in action.
None of this is directly connected to faith in God. But it is potentially very useful to think about how it could help foster such faith, or strengthen it in someone who already has it. If an athlete is in the habit of entrusting herself to her teammates, of having faith in them, this could help pave the way for her to entrust her entire self to God. For the athlete who is already a Christian, her faith in God may be strengthened by her faith in others during competition. In both of these cases, acknowledging and living out one’s dependence on teammates can help to acknowledge and live out one’s dependence on God.
There is obviously no guarantee that athletic faith will create or strengthen our faith in God. But it can do so, if we reflect on it and translate the lessons of our sport to our souls.
Our current situation has made our dependence on others clearer than ever. We are experiencing our need for other people, and for God, in new and deeper ways. Once we are back on the field, the court, and the track, we’ll enjoy playing with our teammates and putting our faith in them as never before. We’ll be grateful for the opportunity to be with them, playing the sports we love.
Let’s take these lessons about faith with us and continue to cultivate faith in our teammates and coaches, and our faith in God. This will help us experience the joy that sport brings in deeper ways. It will also deepen the joy we have in union with God, both on and off the field of play.
[i] Much of what follows is drawn from my “Sport for the Sake of the Soul,” Sport, Ethics and Philosophy 12 (2018): 20-29.
[ii] Moser, Paul. “Faith,” in Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, edited by M. Austin and R. Geivett (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012): 13–29.
About the author: Mike Austin is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University. He writes frequently on the subject of Christian virtue and spirituality in the context of sports. He is also a high school soccer coach and has served as a collaborator and consultant with the Faith & Sport Institute. You can follow him on Twitter.