In his new book, The Rest of Life, Ben Witherington includes a chapter on sports and recreation (chapter 2: “Play On”). Play is a category that fits somewhere in the Christian life between work and rest, and it’s a category worthy of our theological attention. Witherington largely builds off Moltmann’s theology of play published in the early 1970s, a book that argues that honest play carries with it an inner proleptic hope of something to come.
In his book, Witherington picks up Moltmann’s connection between play and eschatological expectation, and builds on it, and applies this worldview to his golf game, his running, and the ups and downs of cheering on the Boston Red Sox as a fan. He focuses mostly on amateur team sports and backyard sports done “just for fun” (Witherington argues that pro athletes are not playing per se, but really working).
So how are sports tied to the eschaton? This is how Witherington words it (pages 42–43, 57):
… in playing we anticipate our liberation, a time when we study war no more, a time when we shed all those things that inhibited us and alienated us from real life. Play foreshadows the joy of the eschaton where all matter of drudgery and disease and decay and death will be left behind. Play is quite rightly seen as a celebration of life lived to its fullest, its fastest, its highest, its limits. … Games, played well and fairly, fuel a theology of hope for the future. Playing is not a useless activity. It anticipates the joy of the eschaton. …
Play foreshadows an eschatological better day when things go right, and this is worth celebrating now. The foreshadowing of better times is itself a foretaste of better times, and this is in part the theological function of play. It is not enough to say that play provides relaxation, elevation of the spirits, escape from reality, or pleasure, but serves no utilitarian purpose.
While play does do those things, play is also teleological. It performs no immediate service or utilitarian purpose, but it points to a future goal, a future state, a future time when the harmony and joy of play become the harmony and joy and play of all life, free from disease, decay, and death, free from suffering, sin, and sorrow. Free to be all that we were intended to be. …
Play was meant to point us forward toward a better day, a better time, a more harmonious world where all manner of things are well. Play suggests to us the full possibilities of what we can be, the hint of what it means to really live, to be fully human, to have real brothers and sisters in arms, all on the same team playing together toward the same end. This goes beyond camaraderie to koinonia.