The feature story in this week’s Sports Illustrated asked this provocative question: Does God care who wins the Superbowl? What followed was a very interesting journalistic take on religion and sports, in the best balanced, well-written SI tradition. But the question itself seems to me an interesting one, with two (at least two) possible and different answers deeply rooted in Christian tradition. No, of course God doesn’t care who wins the Superbowl. Why would God care about something as trivial as that? And also, of course God may or may not care about who wins the Superbowl, because God already knows who is going to win it.
First approach: God may not care about the outcome of sporting events, but He does have an ancillary interest in the participants in those events. He cares if players get hurt, he cares if they become despondent after a loss, or so elated after a win that they cheat on their wives, or do drugs, or otherwise celebrate in inappropriate or sinful ways. God loves all the players equally, as well as their wives and children and coaches and fans, and while He may not love them more or less during a championship event, He does understand that people behave differently most of the time than they behave in extremis. So it’s even possible that God, knowing and loving us all equally, cares for us differently depending on our circumstances. Differently when we’re in despair after missing that field goal, differently than when filled with overweening pride after catching that touchdown.
Second approach: God knows everything. He knows every sinew, every muscle, every brain cell and synapse in all the players on both teams. He knows, precisely and exactly, not only the arm strength of that quarterback, but his arm strength when tired, when being chased, with his legs firmly planted on, perhaps, somewhat degraded turf. He knows where that pass is going, precisely, exactly. He knows every variable of the receiver’s foot speed and hand-eye coordination and ability to concentrate. God’s omniscience is all encompassing. He knows who is going to win, and by what score, precisely. What we’re watching is merely an illusion of athletic competition. The outcome is pre-determined.
The difficulty of this purely deterministic way of looking at it isn’t just that it makes the game a lot less fun. If the whole outcome is entirely decided, entirely mechanistic, then the question arises: why do we even need a God? If the winner or loser of the game has been decreed in the heavens, why do we watch? Why, indeed, do we make any choices, at all, if we only have the illusion of choice? Why bother praying? If God knows already if we’re going to pray, and what we’re going to say when we do, then why go through the exercise? And what good does God do? Why bother with Him? If our decisions, to sin or not to sin, are already known to Him, is it fair of Him to punish or reward us? Can justice be real, can mercy exist? Can heroism, or courage, or determination, or cleverness, or willpower, do any of those words have any meaning at all? Doesn’t this make the Superbowl suck?
As a Mormon, do I believe in the omnis? Omniscience, Omnipresence, Omnipotence: are those words descriptive of the God I believe in and worship? It seems to me that Mormons must necessarily reject those concepts, if our theology is also to embrace agency. Plus, an omni-fied theology becomes, necessarily, entirely deterministic and mechanistic, in which case, why bother with God at all? If He can’t affect change, why pray, if we can’t maybe possibly even occasionally surprise Him, then why are we even here? And if mortality is a testing ground, then the test must be real, must be something we could possibly fail, or, preferably, pass.
Or, to look at it another way.
The Superbowl starts in about four hours. The 49ers bread-and-butter play is the read option. Let’s look at it theologically.
In the read option, the 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, stands in the Pistol formation, about four yards behind the center, with Frank Gore, the running back, four yards behind him. On the other side of the ball is the Ravens’ outside linebacker, Terrell Suggs. The ball is snapped to Kaepernick, and the line blocks for a running play, the center and guard and tackles opening up a hole for Gore. Suggs is not blocked; in fact, that’s the key to the play. By not blocking Suggs, another blocker is freed to block other defenders; the hole more likely to open. Kaepernick’s main read is Suggs, who has two choices. One is to step up into the hole that the line has opened up, where he will easily tackle Gore. If he does that, though, Kaepernick fakes the handoff to Gore, and runs directly to the space that Suggs just vacated. And Kaepernick is very fast–he’s faster than any other player on the 49ers offense, and faster than all but one Ravens’ defender. Suggs has another choice, however–not fill the hole, stay where he is. In which case, Kaepernick hands the ball to Gore, who has a nice big hole to run through.
Suggs has to make a choice, and either choice is basically wrong. But the better choice is to stay put, and let his teammates deal with Gore; trust that one of them will be able to shed a blocker and make the play. Kaepernick also has to make a choice, based on what Suggs chooses. But of course, he has to read it correctly; if he doesn’t, Frank Gore could get clobbered by Suggs.
Choices and consequences and accountability. The play, the read option, strikes me as a microcosm for mortality. We read–we assess, we figure out what’s going on–and we then have options. And they’re real options, real choices, with real-world consequences, with serious amounts of potential pain involved, and we’re held accountable for those choices.
But it all comes down to this: is Terrell Suggs genuinely free to choose? Is Kaepernick genuinely free to choose in return?
Terrell Suggs has been playing football, playing linebacker, since 1996, his freshman year in high school. Linebackers fill holes. That’s what they do, that’s what coaches have been shouting in his ear for most of his life. When you see a hope open up, you run to that hole and you tackle whoever comes through it. He’s a star, an exceptionally fine player, precisely because he is very very good at filling holes. The read option relies on him following his instincts, on making the wrong call, on pro-actively trying to tackle Gore instead of staying home and shutting off Kaepernick’s run option. That’s why the read option is such a diabolically effective play; the defender’s instincts betray him. In a purely mechanistic universe, wouldn’t sheer experience and muscle memory cause him to get it wrong, to step up into the hole? But Terrell Suggs is a very intelligent young man, and also very well coached; I think he’ll play it well. I’m anticipating what will happen, obviously, in a game coming up later this afternoon, but I expect that he’ll make the right call, and stay at home. But I think that because I believe in agency.
I believe in agency. I believe that the choices we make are real ones, that they are not pre-determined, that we can actually decide to do things or not to do them. I believe that the outcome of the Superbowl has not been decided. That’s why I’m going to have people over to watch it with me; we think it’s going to be fun. I’m not sure God cares all that much about who wins. Colin Kaepernick, when he scores a touchdown, kisses his own biceps, on which he has Bible verses tatooed–he’s a devout Christian, and he thinks God is on the side of the 49ers. Ray Lewis, the Ravens star, has, after each playoff victory, shouted ‘No weapon against thee shall prosper,’ a Bible verse suggesting, to his mind, that the players on the other teams are ‘weapons’ against God, and won’t prosper, because God wants Ray Lewis to win. I think Ray Lewis and Colin Kaepernick are kidding themselves, and that God’s actual response to their hubris is probably to be amused by it.
But I do think the final score is unknown, to God or to the unfeeling universe. The key to my theology is agency, not omniscient omnipotence, which I reject. I think we can act courageously, nobly, inventively, honorably, and that those terms have real-world meaning and consequence. I think we can surprise God.