“This loss of limits entailed a certain loss of identity: “My vocation ebbed. I felt uncalled.” It was, ironically, the removal of limits, and the creation of an artificial space unstained by the natural limitations of place, that doomed his tennis career by stripping him of his unique talent—the creativity to thrive within boundaries. And this was, for Wallace, his “initiation into true adult sadness.” To grow up was to become unbound—a sort of tyranny of freedom.
If Wallace’s memoir probes what it means to be human, using the particularity of sport as a lens to focus the question, Andrew Edgar’s 2012 article “Sport as Liturgy” works in a similar way, albeit in a very different genre. Edgar leans heavily on theologian Catherine Pickstock’s identification of the “failure of modernism” as the “refusal of liturgy” and the production, in its place, of an “anti-liturgy liturgy” that trains individuals to live in a world devoid of transcendence.6 That is to say, the very shape of life in modernity—the things we do without thinking, because we have always done them, and without which it would be impossible to function in society—imprisons us and blinds us to the possibility of transcendence. When Sunday, for instance, becomes merely another day for work and consumption, and a child grows up in a world in which this is normal, the anti-liturgy liturgy of modernity has done its work. Because normal activities are no longer halted, the rhythm of time marches on without disruption. This dissolves the boundary between sacred and secular time, leaving no time for transcendent worship. In modernity, we become liturgically closed in, flattened down, and hollowed out.
In particular, Edgar traces how this same flattening of liturgical structures, and therefore of ontological horizons, has occurred in modern sport. In contrast to the Olympic Games and the ancient Mesoamerican ballgame, which have origins that are fundamentally religious in nature, modern sports can no longer be defined by their participation in transcendent realities.7 Whereas ancient games, or what Edgar calls “Ur-Sport,” participated in the myths of the gods, either as “liturgical offerings” to the gods (e.g., in the Olympics) or as dramatic reenactment of human/divine encounter (e.g., in the Mesoamerican ballgame), modern sports do not appeal to, or self-consciously participate in, anything beyond themselves…
Ancient games, as part of the liturgical structuring of society, appealed to and participated in something beyond themselves. Modern sports no longer participate in transcendence; meaning is internal to the game itself, explicable only by appeal to invented rules. That is to say, modern sports only make sense from the inside; they are fundamentally arbitrary….
…and so modern sports, as anti-liturgy liturgies, actually reveal something of the vacuity of our situation. What are victory and defeat when set in a day and age that allows no final telos? What are success and failure when the game is just an arbitrary game, taking place in an arbitrary world? They are meaningless—which is precisely Edgar’s point. On his account, the positive role of sport in modern society is, ironically, a negation: to confront us with the “contingency, waste and potential meaningless of human existence.
Why kick this ball toward that rectangle? Why hit this round object with that stick? Why run endlessly around this oval? To develop character? To enjoy ourselves? To win? Outside a transcendent frame, victory and defeat, happiness, and even character development are transitory; they do not ultimately participate in anything beyond themselves. And this is why, as wonderful as the celebration is when one’s team wins a championship, one still wakes up the next morning and is confronted with the fact that nothing really has changed about the world. Joy, in this instance, comes not with the morning but seems to fade overnight.14 Sports, then, are not fundamentally an alternative to the modern but a participation in it. They lack any notion of the transcendent, for which we yearn, but which sports themselves seem never to provide.
What can sport do, then? And how might we think Christianly about it?…
…should we feel any less unease at, or any more comfortable with, games that mean nothing at all? Is the meaningless any more Christian than the mythical? Christians who like sports and care to participate in them, either as players or as fans, should not simply avoid this question, as if sports were a neutral category. If Pickstock is right about the truncated horizons of modernity, contemporary sports are just like all other anti-liturgy liturgies in that they train us away from transcendence and, potentially, into a vice list that would make Saint Paul proud.
Even within Edgar’s account, however, there are inklings that sport offers something beyond simply a window into meaninglessness, and in a fascinating correspondence, these inklings find a parallel in the more autobiographical testimony of David Foster Wallace. I am thinking here of the complementary realities of givenness and limits—notions that are not only rooted in a Christian vision of reality but that also emerge as central to the liturgical training of sport. With such liturgical goods to disburse, sports do not constitute just a negative liturgy. They may no longer participate in any real way in supramundane reality, but they can train us in a few of those things which the Christian tradition has, historically, associated with human life as it is lived before a transcendent God. In this way, sports do not simply reinforce at every point the ontological flattening of the cosmos. There are elements inherent to sports, in other words, that bite back from within against their modern secularization…
There is something profoundly Christian about this notion in Edgar and Wallace. The human being is not simply one who makes her world; she is also the one who receives it. To be sure, she actively participates in the ongoing forming of her world, but she works with stuff already given to her and within boundaries already set for her. She knows who she is because she knows where she is—namely, God’s creation, and in this space she is free to be a creature and not the creator…Like the quarterback who leaves the football field, to move outside of the givenness that makes us who we are—to reject it—is to become less human. To attempt to construct our own world, in which we are no longer creatures but gods, is to lose what we already had; it is to reject the gift of being images in order to pursue being gods. This is the tragedy of Genesis 3—a failure to rest in the goodness of creatureliness and a grasping after a knowledge that proves, in the end, too much for us. True Christian freedom, then, is not freedom from boundaries but freedom within boundaries. And sports, even sports that have been severed from participation in transcendence, provide a sort of liturgical training in this—the freedom to be who we are and to flourish within the boundaries and the givenness of the game…
…A sort of libertarian notion of freedom, in which the individual is free from the intervention of others, is not a Christian notion of freedom. To be human is not to be free from others but to be free with and for others, which immediately is to recognize that our freedom is now bounded by the other. On a small scale, I would suggest, sports invite us to explore precisely that boundedness and those limitations by participating in them…
…To be human, then, is to experience the twin realities of givenness and limitations, and I would call these Christian realities. We are human beings in a world of “lines and lines athwart lines.” Sports open us to the possibility of the goodness of such lines—of seeing boundaries and limitations not as problems to be overcome but as gifts that mark out the sphere of human flourishing. That is to say, lines properly drawn reveal the boundaries within which we become more human, not less.
But as an anti-liturgy liturgy, sports also have the habit of celebrating the erasure of such lines. Whether in something so mundane as the windscreens of Lincolnshire Bath & Tennis Club or so serious as the doping of Olympic athletes, sports have the potential to inculcate vice, to so despise limitations that athletes reject, or seek to transcend, their creatureliness. But to obliterate lines is not only to transgress creatureliness; it is to lose it. What are steroids if not a rejection of the athlete’s humanity, consumed in the pursuit of being a god? And so, it should come as no surprise to the reader of Christian Scripture that for Wallace, the removal of lines represents his “initiation into true adult sadness.”23 When humans give up limitation, choosing instead an undelineated cosmos, we lose the garden.
… The modern world has scrubbed itself of lines, has ignored notions of givenness and limitation, and it is difficult to see their being redrawn absent an apocalypse. Until that time, sports ought to point to the beauty and desireability of such Christian realities instead of fostering a need to transgress them.”
“the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courge never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?”
-Satan, speaking in Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, 1:105-108