Every sport has its rules, and these rules are central to the playing of the game: (1) the rules will define the game’s purpose; (2) they will outline the manner in which the players are to achieve that purpose; and (3) they will measure the players’ success toward achieving that purpose. As a result, a sport without rules would make no sense. In fact, by definition, it would not be a sport.[1]

Consider the game of basketball, for instance. The rules stipulate how the players are to operate physically within a particular framework, and the rules also direct the players toward a particular and measurable end. In collaboration with their teammates, the players are to move the ball around a certain-sized court, by bouncing it with either hand or passing it around to their teammates, in the joint enterprise of getting the ball through a designated hoop. The players’ success in doing so is measured through a points system—1, 2, or 3—with points being allocated and accumulated within a strict timeframe, and the winner determined by the sum of those points. Anyone who wants to play basketball must abide by these rules. They don’t have a choice.[2]

And yet, of course, the players do have a choice. Players can decide to break the rules at any given time, perhaps by deliberately fouling an opponent to gain an unfair advantage. But, at that precise point, in executing an illegal act, such players are no longer playing basketball. They have instead stepped outside the framework that the rules have created, momentarily moving beyond the boundaries of the game into a reality that is best described negatively as non-basketball. Therefore, we might label these players cheaters, lob insults at their lack of skills, or if we’re feeling particularly philosophical, say they have invented a new sport. And if their infringement is spotted, the official will blow his or her whistle, the game will stall, and swift punishment will be dealt out. Only then can the game resume. This process shows that breaking the rules is to break the game. In short, basketball depends on its rules. There is no such thing as basketball without them.

This is all fairly obvious when we think about it, so I will assume there’s no need to catalog further examples. Players must play by the rules of the game because the rules of the game define the game they’ve chosen to play. Starkly put: submit to the rules if you want to play.

If this sounds draconian, in many ways it is. The rules in sport possess an absolute quality. There is neither flexibility nor creativity, and the thinking behind them is rarely justified. The rules will therefore retain an arbitrary quality to them: there is no objectively unassailable reason why different parts of the body should be ruled in or ruled out, for instance; nor is there any reason why particular equipment should or should not be used. There is simply no metalegal measure to justify the prohibitions and prescriptions of any particular game.

That said, rules can change. And when they do, the reasons for such changes are often made clear. New mandatory technology, for example, might be introduced to help protect players from grave injury or to stop them from becoming the victims of injustice.[3] But reasonable justification is the exception. Rules are usually imposed by diktat and without explicit rationale to justify their existence. This is how the game is played. If you don’t like it, go play something else.

From another perspective, the arbitrary nature of the rules means that a sport doesn’t really make any sense unless you’re caught up in it. There is no external rationale for the form it now takes. The meaning of the game is instead intrinsic and constituted by the arbitrary rules. This is one of the reasons why most fans don’t like sports being harnessed to outside interests. By commandeering sport to, let’s say, a corporate balance sheet or a political manifesto, sport is spoiled by being externally manipulated. Of course, we sometimes judge that particular causes justify spoiling the game—for example, we may celebrate the way Tommie Smith and John Carlos used the 1968 Olympics to protest against racial discrimination. But exceptions again prove the rule: sport is to serve its own end, not those of outside interests. Sport is autotelic.

This is why so many of sport’s uninterested mockers—rightly!—believe that sport is a complete waste of time, though they draw the wrong conclusion from this insight. Sport is certainly unlike all the things that we have to do. We must catch a bus to go to work to earn a living to pay our bills in order to eat, stay warm, and be secure; our work serves our needs. But sport has no obvious use. It’s quite ludicrous, punctuating the serious web of our endless instrumental acts with pure frivolity. And that’s why so many of us love it.[4]

What I am hoping to show here is that the sporting world is a radically contingent reality. Sports are free activities whose intrinsic meaning is constituted by unnecessary yet absolute rules, by rules that could always be different but remain authoritative nonetheless.

If we keep all this in mind, and take a step back, we can view the nature of rules from a theological perspective, thereby making an interesting connection: the radically contingent nature of this rule-governed activity makes sport an ideal arena in which to celebrate our identity as contingent creatures ruled by Jesus Christ. Let me explain.

First, no extrinsic necessity drives God’s decision to summon the creature into existence. There wasn’t a gang of gods twisting his arm. There wasn’t a divine council that laid down the law, stipulating the sort of world that God had to make in line with their vision. Nor was God’s action dictated by the quality of the materials God found lying around, as if his project were necessarily frustrated by the inherent deficiencies of the materials he just had to use. Instead, the church teaches that the one and only God summons the creature into existence out of nothing.

Second, no intrinsic need drives God’s decision to create. Nothingness is not a deficiency in God, as if the concept signified he were missing something and therefore yearning to be fulfilled, an eternal neediness, as it were. Instead, the one God is perfectly complete in himself, endlessly receiving and bestowing identity in relationship as Father, Son, and Spirit. And so, when the triune God creates, he does so freely and not out of need.

Third, the free divine act is an act of sovereign determination. That is to say, the Father, Son, and Spirit didn’t create the world on a whim, haphazardly, chaotically, or with no purpose in mind. The world is instead summoned into existence and oriented toward its true goal, an ordered existence in which it is enabled by God to share in the life of the Three, an event the church believes to be centered on the life of Jesus Christ: everything is created in him, through him, and for him, and everything holds together in him.[5]

Karl Barth is helpful here.[6] Barth goes to great lengths to show that God freely determines that he will be God-with-the-creature, a sovereign decision in which the meaningful purpose of creation is to be realized in the incarnation of the Son of God. As the first of God’s works, God summons the world into existence by speaking “Jesus,” and the Son and the Spirit thereby, in obedience to the Father, establish and perfect a time and a place for the coming Son of God, or—to shatter the metaphysics!—the act of creation happens within the womb of Mary.[7]

Whatever acrobatics are required here—and there are many!—the central concept is clear: God decides that everything is to be summoned into life by being swept up into the dynamic movement of communion between God and the creature that is Jesus. That is to say, the lively existence of the carpenter from Nazareth—for others—is the meaning of our lives. This suggests two additional points: (1) the divine decision to be Jesus is freely determined and in no way necessary, and (2) the meaning of that decision takes concrete form.

As I have already indicated, God wasn’t contractually obliged to make things the way they are. This means that things really could be different. It means that the fact that the earth has one moon, and that mountains don’t have long curly hair, does have a certain arbitrary quality about it. Likewise, the human being: there is no reason why God had to give us two arms, two legs, one head, skin, and the capacity to talk and laugh but no feathers. Things needn’t be as they are.

Of course, the alternatives—that is, what might have happened if God decreed it—now seem monstrous, and that adjective is partly the point. That we could have had thirteen feathery heads and more legs than a millipede now seems absurd, but it needn’t have been so.

Already the language here, of monstrous absurdity, shows that we’re on the fringes of conceptualizing evil—that which God in his free decision has ruled out.[8] But the positive point is that God freely decides to create the human being and freely decides that the human being is just so. In other words, God’s decision takes concrete, particular form, which is to say that the act of creation is an act of judgment in which God says yes to this and thereby no to that; and this judgment centers on Jesus. It is because this creative act is ordered and ruled by Jesus that creation is shaped as it is. He is the terminus of the divine decision, and everything is shaped around him, not the other way around. In other words, explanations, justifications, and rationales run to ground in him. The bottom line is that the Father fathers this one, and the way of our human existence is contingent on their eternal relationship by which Jesus is the measure of everything. He rules. That’s that.

But what has any of this got to do with rules in sport? As I labored to show earlier, the rules of a game are radically contingent. There is no external reason why the basketballer can’t kick the ball through the hoop or carry the ball in both hands the entire length of the court. The only reason is that the rules of this game dictate otherwise. That is why the players have to move the ball around by bouncing it with either hand or passing it to their teammates as they attempt to throw the ball through the designated hoop. The rules are contingent yet absolute, despite their non-necessity.

With this in mind, I here venture a proposal: the radical contingency of the rules in sport maps onto our own radically contingent ordering. In effect, the contingent nature of the game echoes the contingency of our own being. Sport is a determined action enabled by the free limitation of our bodily movement to meet a specific format, and therein, it bears the marks of our created freedom as the determined and particular embodied form that is decided by God in Jesus Christ. In both cases, things could be different, but in neither case does this undermine the authority of what is.[9] Sport therefore needs to be celebrated as a liturgy of our contingency; it is an unnecessary but meaningful activity that provides a dynamic snapshot into our own existence. It enables us to delight in our identity as playthings, ones whose creaturely substance is constituted by our dynamic participation in the good game of God in Christ. Simply put, who we are is why we sport.

[1] For a more in-depth definition of sport, see Harvey, A Brief Theology of Sport (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 70–72. I am indebted to the work of Steven Conner here, whose analytic clarity on the nature of rules is very helpful and well worth reading: Conner, A Philosophy of Sport (London, UK: Reaktion Books, 2011), 146–82.

[2] This is a working sketch, designed to be illustrative rather than exhaustive. Variations occur that could undermine this account (especially concerning the number of players or the time limits). The general point concerning games and rules, however, remains.

[3] Recent examples of these two justifications: the modification of Formula 1 cars (safety) and the introduction of Hawk-Eye in tennis (justice).

[4] The word ludicrous is appropriate, stemming from ludo, which means “to play.” Sport is not that serious; it borders on the absurd until you’re actually absorbed in it, and then it’s meaningful and deadly serious. Of course, to preempt possible objections to this point: sport clearly has secondary consequences, but these are not its goals. Health, for example, is secondary, both positively (in fitness) and negatively (with injury). But it is not the point of the game. On the relationship between work and needs, see Gordon Preece, “‘When I Run I Feel God’s Pleasure’: Towards a Protestant Play Ethic,” Interface: A Forum for Theology in the World 11 (2009): 27.

[5] See Colossians 1 and the second article of the Nicene Creed.

[6] Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh, UK: T & T Clark, 1957).

[7] The identification of the eternal Son of God with the one born of Mary is a regular theme in the work of Robert W. Jenson. Any reader wanting to think systematically about christological election after Barth, and beyond Barth, should read Jenson. Of course, there are other ways to make the point, one of which is to argue that the identity of the unfleshed Word is that of incarnandus—going to be incarnate. The point remains: his eternal identity cannot be divorced from his enfleshment. As anyone familiar with Jenson’s work will spot, much of what follows here is deeply indebted to his work.

[8] I have Barth’s account of das Nichtige in mind here, see Church Dogmatics, III/3, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh, UK: T & T Clark, 1961), 289–368.

[9] On this point, I’m again indebted to Jenson; see Visible Words: The Interpretation and Practice of Christian Sacraments (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010), 9.