Not until very recently did I quite grasp Stanley Hauerwas’s somewhat famous sentence “Best is not a theological category.” It never quite made sense to me. It never struck me as false humility, even though a latent suspicion still remained. I mean, really, who says that in response to being named America’s best theologian in Time Magazine? But Hauerwas as honest has rung true to me for a long time. Too acerbic? Sometimes. Frustratingly bombastic? Yes, at times, and more often in the past than now. But false humility and a blatant liar to appear theologically stratospheric or pietistically transfigured? No. That just doesn’t seem to be him. So I felt caught in a bind. Here is Hauerwas saying something that exposes machinations -– a consistent move that he does and did in classic Hauerwas fashion -– but I just didn’t get it, and I’ve been reading him sympathetically for years. So what? Who cares if best isn’t a theological category? I wasn’t saying that we should allow “best” to permeate life like the triumphant commenters in forums proclaim that they commented first, nonetheless don’t we talk about the greatest theologians of the such and such century?
But it wasn’t just Hauerwas-as-cryptic that was the problem. I didn’t, until recently, truly grasp how insidious “best” can be. The epiphany came from watching sports and how people around me reacted. Wait, sports? Yeah, I know. I’ll play rec Ultimate Frisbee or hockey, and go to the occasional sporting event, but I certainly do not watch sports with any consistency. Perhaps this is why it took so long to understand this aspect of best, and it took two “moves.” And before you non-sports fans nod off, please let me explain.
The first move was borne out of filling a bracket -– predicting who would win what games in the tournament –- with friends for this years NCAA college basketball tournament. The tournament went sideways and virtually all predictions were embarrassingly off. In response, TV personalities debated about the quality of the winning teams and out of the upsets a new narrative was constructed, but a result for myself was lot of questions about the nature of competition. In a discussion with my roommate, himself quite a sports fan, I began to wonder if there is such a thing as healthy competition.
Competition necessitates a winner that subdues all others. Healthy competition attempts to dull the edge somewhat, but I suspect that this is an attempt to lightly reform a fundamentally problematic category. If life and death were at stake, one could rightly call it survival of the fittest. Competitive sport is evolutionary death lite. Triumph through subduing and sheer power is the underlying logic, even if done between friends.
The second move was about the dynamics between professional sports and fantasy sports that function similarly to nation-state loyalty and capitalism. Professional sports we see on TV, like the NFL. The teams have a major following, even a fanatical following -– hence the term fans. Loyalty is huge. I have a friend who won’t drink Sam Adams beer because it comes from Boston, which is where the Patriots play… who compete against the Colts, of which my friend is a huge fan. If you don’t quite get this, you should’ve seen him when the Colts lost the Superbowl to the Saints. Despondent only begins to touch on his reaction. Anyways, the point is here that sport fanaticism for a team looks an awful lot like patriotism.
Fantasy sports, however, looks an awful lot like capitalism: you are an owner/coach of your own fantasy team competing against other fantasy teams in your own league. But you don’t simply make up your own players -– it is based player’s performance on the current season who you drafted onto your team. In fantasy sports then, a different economy rules and an entirely different reality -– a parasitic game for individual profit over and against the body politic -– is in play. Yet, this virtual reality creates very real conflicts, even at a rather benign level. It is common, if not guaranteed, that a fan of one team may have an opposing player on their fantasy team. The conflict of loyalty is then quite real, and it apes the influence that capitalism on nationalism. Case in point, another friend of mine –- a huge fan of a baseball team -– got skewered by equally fanatic friends when we all watched the opening game. Why? Because the catcher on the other team, who my friend had on his fantasy team, single handedly scored enough points to crush the his team. The game was a clinic and the final score was ridiculously one-sided. Here my friend was happy to see his player do so well, and therefore he thrashed his fantasy opponent, but he also watched his team get spanked.
The point is that the outcome of a competitive dynamic, where the sheer notion of “best” rules, is that even best eats best. The fact that best does not share is a painfully obvious conclusion, but one we gloss over, and therefore do not see the underlying viciousness. Where is mercy and grace? Nowhere, even if it is a virtual game.
But we do need room for understanding romp. While best isn’t a theological category, I want to put forward that play is. This is how we should understand iron sharpening iron: best is practice on the gridiron for the eventual defeat of the opposition, but play is about living an entirely different way of relating –- a very different economy that is measured by flourishing life rather than supremacy by subjugation and death. Play is about equality and care with an utter disregard for the score.
I’ve found it toxic whenever supremacy makes its way into theological conversations. This doesn’t mean, without best, that there is no measurement. I’m not advocating for a fuzzy-soft-everyone-is-a-winner mentality. Some things do matter. Notions like appropriate or fitting, correct, and truthful, do certainly exist as theological categories –- they correspond to the transcendentals: the beautiful, the good, and the true. But these do not simply replace best under the guise of theological tradition; rather they show the poverty of best. Best is a pale imitation and largely childish. It is certainly not a theological category. The care for life, however, is a theological category, and at times we call it play.