Our Daily Dread: The bigger picture of why sports matters, from a theologian who makes his pitch

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In the beginning, God threw out the first pitch. It was the start of the big inning.

Not to get proportinally biblical on you here, but there are some deep spiritual roots that replenish our enjoyment, and participation, in sports. In this case, it took an open-minded theologian with some free time and a passion for golf and watching his own kids play to shine a ray of light on the subject and make believers of anyone who choose to go along with the premise.

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Dr. Richard Gaillardetz, a professor of Catholic studies at the University of Toledo, had his powerful PowerPoint pointed to a screen at a hotel ballroom near the Anaheim Convention Center last weekend, participating in a massive religious education conference that was attended by more people than could have fit into nearby Angels Stadium.

In an hour-and-a-half lecture called “For The Love of the Game: Toward A Spirituality of Sports,” the doctor of systematic theology from Notre Dame and author of 80 articles and seven books — and, in far more practical terms, the married father of four teenaged boys — was compelled to connect some dots and create a visual map that showed, if you think about this sports stuff long enough, there’s a higher power involved.

For starters, Dr. Gaillardetz explained that to be a true theologian in today’s world, one must have a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, to realize the interplay between faith and culture.

The fact he was promoting newspaper reading had me clearly focused. If only now he could change the rough waters of the business into some kind of sweet wine.

“Sports has a huge role in North American culture, but theologians seem to turn their nose up at it,” Dr. Gaillardetz said as he tried to sniff this thing out. “There is nothing superficial about sports.”

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We worship our professional athletes. We treat Sundays in the fall as if it is a religious experience. And the next player who does a sign of the cross before he steps into the batter’s box won’t be the last. Yet, Dr. Gaillardetz didn’t even touch those obvious religious aspects of sports that we, as consumers, see and feel most on a daily basis. That was kind of the residue of God’s bigger design.

“There’s a built-in grace to athletics,” Dr. Gaillardetz says, explaining the foundation of Christian spirituality that includes embracing the grace of God. There’s also what he calls a “paschal rhythm” of Christian living, a paradox that we must be born and die to learn how to live. Like in sports, where players must embrace losing before they can learn how to win.

As Dr. Gaillardetz tried to connect sports with spirituality with four basic themes – the delight of playing, the celebration of the body, the pursuit of excellence and the embracing of failure — the ballroom filled mostly of men looking for some justification of having committed a weekend to of listening to hours of priests, nuns and those of all sorts of creeds and beliefs riff on different aspects of their spiritual life seemed easily convinced that their enjoyment of athletics had to be because of a higher calling.

They just now needed some well-conceived propaganda, to be used as ammunition, so when their cleric asked them why he didn’t see them at their house of worship on a particular Sunday, they’d have copious notes to explain that the 12:30 p.m. Laker game at Staples Center really fulfilled their needs for that particular week.

Not to trivialize any of this, but without stretching one’s preprogrammed secular mindset of how the world works, none of Dr. Gaillardetz’s theories make any sense. If it gets one to think a little outside the collection box, then he’s achieved a minor miracle in some circles.

Maybe the essence of all this connection begins with this notion the God created the world out of nothing, for his own pleasure. Even Charles Darwin was part of that process.

God was “in the zone” back then.

St. Thomas Aquinas, depicted by some artists with a portly frame “not unlike Babe Ruth,” as Dr. Gaillardetz says, writes about how our very existence is a result of God’s wanting to play and be delighted.

“At the core of our being is a radically uncompromised sense of gift,” Aquinas wrote and Dr. Gaillardetz cited. “We didn’t have to be here, but we are anyway.”

So when we delight in our existence – playing and enjoying sports activities is definitely part of that – we share in the divineness of God.

“When sports is an occasion for joy, and athletes get lost in a game, they’re engaging in a joy that has, I would contend, a divine source,” Dr. Gaillardetz exclaimed.

The audience didn’t burst out into an “Amen!” It didn’t have to.

Think of how Magic Johnson made watching basketball fun, and inspired kids to see what they could do on the court. Or how Pete Rose dove head-first into bases. Just don’t think too much of the reasons why Johnson contracted HIV, or why Rose gave into gambling and lied about it. That’s another lecture that Dr. Gaillardetz wasn’t necessarily hoping to undertake at that session. But he has opinions on it for a later time.

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Too many coaches and parents, Dr. Gaillardetz lamented, do their best to kill the delight of sports.

He didn’t make the connection, but I will. Of those deadly sins we know about — greed, pride, envy, even gluttony, and think of ESPN on that last one — some of them do kill the enjoyment of sports.

Coaches and parents need “to be the mystagogues of today’s world,” helping kids recognize God’s grace in our lives, Dr. Gaillardetz concluded.

In the end, Dr. Gaillardetz effectively made his pitch, but he threw a curve at us. We do have a deeper understanding about what we know, and still enjoy, about sports. So much so that it does make us question whether it’s by some higher power that makes us equate baseball park with cathedrals, or try to make a connection between Kurt Warner’s God-fearing mindset and what’s the best for the next step in his NFL career.

Walking back from the hotel to the convention center, and trying to get our head around all this beautiful sense of a purpose to our pleasure, there was more time to ponder the big picture. Yet there was one question that Dr. Gaillardetz probably couldn’t answer, but one that has rattled around our mind now for years ….

Whatever happened to God Shammgod (linked here)?

We pray that you log in a comment here, or email one to thomas.hoffarth@dailynews.com For more on Dr. Richard Gaillardetz, visit his website, http://gaillardetz.com

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