Does God Control Football?
In the wake of a turbulent and jaw-dropping playoff saga there was never any lack of things to talk about. There was a play call that many called the worst of all time. There was the best break on a slant I have ever seen in my entire life. There was Rob Gronkowski gronking all over the gronking world. Finally, there was Left Shark — our newest and finest American hero.
And yet somehow, after all of that happened, people started talking about God.
Somehow God became a big topic of conversation after several intriguing interviews with Russell Wilson and one of the craziest Super Bowl endings of all time. Now, I just so happen to be a theology student; so I thought I would lend whatever ‘wisdom’ I’ve gleaned from my (way too) many years in school to this issue.
One caveat before I start.
This is an article about theology but it is not, I promise, intended to evangelize, shame, or otherwise cause you any additional discomfort beyond what the world already provides. I’m writing about this topic because I find it irresistibly fascinating, and I hope you will too. People also tell me I’m funny so hopefully this won’t suck. Ok, here we go.
After the NFC Championship Game — another ending for the ages — Russell Wilson gave a very emotional interview. He also gave an incredibly theological interview. Here is what he said:
“God has been preparing us for this situation.” That doesn’t seem all that direct a claim, really. It’s not like Russell Wilson said that God was in control of the outcome of that football game, just that God prepared him to play in that football game. But then he was asked about those very comments at Super Bowl Media Day, and he said this….
“Yeah I think God cares about football. I think God cares about everything He [sic] created.” (Source: USAToday)
To his credit, this isn’t all that committal either. We can say that God cares about lots of things involved with the game of football — like how we treat one another on the field, whether we are providing adequate medical care for head trauma, etc. — but saying that God “cares” is not the same as saying that God controls the winner of each and every sporting event. I say “each and every” because I doubt anybody would say God takes a day off on games that don’t matter.
But then, after the Super Bowl — the worst loss (hopefully) of Wilson’s professional career — Wilson said this about his game-ending interception:
“That’s God setting it up, to make it so dramatic, so rewarding, so special,” he said, alone for a moment in the locker room before heading out for the night. “I’ve been through a lot in life, and had some ups and downs. It’s what’s led me to this day.” (Source: MMQB).
Now we’re getting at the basic idea I want to talk about: God is in control of everything, hence since the Super Bowl is a part of that “everything” (along with every other game too, mind you) God must be in control of all that as well.
This idea shouldn’t come as a shock to you if you’ve watched sports within the past few years. Two similar incidents ought to spring to mind almost immediately.
One involved Ray Lewis, who after winning a very tight playoff game against the Broncos said this…
Then, a few years later, Jameis Winston took up the mantle in his postgame interview after winning the last BCS National Title….
Now, to take up a biblical turn of phrase, what shall we say of these things? Are these guys right? Does God really decide who wins football games?
I think there are a couple of serious problems with this view.
The first problem is that this idea seems to imply that God also chooses who loses. Russell Wilson is perhaps the only one who has taken it so far as to claim that God was involved in him losing a game. Most folks only play the God card, so to speak, when winning is involved. Somehow, God would have had to choose the losers as well as the winners. Otherwise saying that God “chose” the winning party just doesn’t make any sense given what we know about choosing.
The second problem, and maybe the easiest to grab at on the surface, is that this idea of God being in control of winners and losers seems to undercut any one person’s responsibility for either outcome. Take the case of the recent Super Bowl. To say that God was in control of the winner and the loser seems to remove any and all responsibility from Pete Carroll and Darrell Bevell’s hands for calling what has been universally regarded as the dumbest play call in the history of the Super Bowl. It also, and I think this is even more important, takes away praise for Butler’s incredible interception that sealed the win for the Patriots.
Both of these problems, however, aren’t the real problem with the idea of God “choosing” who wins and who loses football games. For that, we have to back up a little bit.
As I see it, this whole question of whether or not God chose the Patriots to win the Super Bowl is a necessary byproduct of an anemic theodicy (and just for your reference a “theodicy” is an explanation of how God can still be God and good while also allowing evil to exist in the world – in short, a theodicy is an answer to the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?”)
Russell Wilson’s second quote is the one I think best shows this. He said, “Yeah I think God cares about football. I think God cares about everything he created.”
Notice what the opposite of this statement would be. If we were to reverse the basic idea of what Wilson said and deny that God cares about football we seem to be bound, then, to also deny that God cares about everything.
Can you begin to see how this is related to the problem of evil? That relationship is even more obvious when we return to the language of control.
If God is in control of everything then there is nothing that She (yeah you read that right; God isn’t a dude) is not in control of. Hence, there is nothing that is not a part of His plan, no matter how small. To admit the idea that God is not in control of one thing — say, the Super Bowl for example — is to admit the idea that God may not be in control of anything. Or, at the very least, that God’s control may not be as perfect as we make it out to be.
Now, let me bring it back down to earth for a second.
When I was about 15 my Grandfather died. He had brain cancer. To treat it he went through excruciating chemo. Came out of it without cancer but with very little of his former sharpness left intact. He went swimming while my grandmother wasn’t home one day. While he was in the pool he had a stroke and drowned.
I’m getting a degree in Christian theology and I am a Christian of the Anglican persuasion.
Do I agree with the statement ‘God was in control while my granddad was drowning in a pool’?
Yes, I do.
Do I believe that God was in control while the Super Bowl was being played?
Do I believe that God controlled either of these events as they were happening so as to determine the precise outcome?
No, I do not.
Let me unpack why those statements are different.
The reason Russell Wilson and Ray Lewis and Jameis Winston all think God was actually controlling the events that led them to where they ended up, whether it be champion or 2nd place, is because they are inheritors (as we all are) of an insufficient idea of God. Our idea of what God is just isn’t correct.
The reason it is incorrect is this: we think about God as if God were another *thing* in the world. But God is not a thing in the world. God is something more. God is something transcendent.
You see, if God were a thing within the world then God could “control” things in the sense we’re talking about. God could, in theory, “control” the Super Bowl or the Presidential Election or my granddad’s death like someone playing a video game. God inputs certain commands and they are executed subsequently without deviation or resistance. God gets exactly what God wants exactly when God wants it.
The problem with that perspective on God, however, (at least from the Monotheistic traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) is that this makes God out to be a thing that experiences time in the same way that we do. In other words, God can control events because God still experiences them as new events, as things coming to be, as things to be changed before it is too late.
It turns out that this is exactly not what God is.
In fact, it turns out we can say very little about what God is precisely because God is not a thing in the world and all of our human language is designed to describe things in the world.
But trying to determine just what we can say about God with certainty is a question for a whole other article.
What we can hold on to for now is this: when we say that God is in control of something we cannot mean something like human control on steroids.
God’s control must be another type of control altogether.
Now, as you can tell, I’ve taken us on a really long-winded journey to just about nowhere.
But here’s why a sports blog is taking the time to write about this — it turns out that 1 in 4 Americans or roughly 26% of the population believe that God determines who wins the Super Bowl. That’s a lot of people.
What I’ve been trying to show you is that this isn’t just a quaint eccentricity of American life.
It turns out that this odd belief — if you buy what I’ve been saying — is linked to how people make sense of their world.
More accurately, people hold to the idea that God determines the winner of the Super Bowl because if they don’t then they may not have a precise answer for why bad things happen in our world. This is so necessary for their faith that it turns out — again, if you agree with me — they end up with an idea of God as another being within the world, albeit the most awesome being you could imagine.
And whatever you believe about God, if anything at all, I’d like to think we all agree that God isn’t just another thing.
That’s part of what religious folk mean when they say that God created everything.