Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale and the “Rally Nuns” throw out the ceremonial first pitch before game six of the 2021 World Series (CNS photo/Thomas Shea, USA TODAY Sports via Reuters).

I recently had occasion to visit with a good friend and former neighbor who I had not seen in about a year. The visit was unavoidably short, and unexpectedly intense. His wife, still in her sixties, has been suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s for several years. After caring for her at home, mostly by himself, my friend had finally been compelled to place her in a care facility. He visits her twice a day and remains in some sense her principal caregiver, still bathing and dressing her. He frankly admits that this struggle has taken a toll on his Catholic faith. We used to attend the same church, but he is no longer a churchgoer. In fact, in our brief conversation, he said he could not reconcile his wife’s extreme condition, and their shared plight, with a loving and just God. He confessed that he could no longer in all honesty say the Creed. “God the Father? Really?” he rolled his eyes. “The Virgin Mary?” He had become convinced that traditional religion is “irrational.” In these declarations, I detected an understandable note of grief for his wife, whereas in the past he had often been stoic. He still clings, he said, to a belief in a “spiritual reality” that somehow exists beyond the material world.

I didn’t have any answers for my friend that day, and the conundrum of why a loving and just God allows such suffering and evil to exist—and, often, seemingly to prevail—is as inexplicable now as it was for Job and for the crucified Christ. Indeed, the crucified Christ is God’s “answer,” but it is about as paradoxical an answer as can be imagined.

As will quickly become apparent, I am no philosopher or theologian, but I have thought quite a bit about the rationality, if not the reasonableness, of Christian faith. My answer to my friend’s question touches on something seemingly mundane, an appreciation for sports that we both share. Why do people universally respond to such games? On their face, the games we play or watch are at least as “irrational” as the practices, stories, and creeds of religion. What is “rational” about an activity that requires you to propel a ball across a field using only your feet and head and never your hands? For that matter, why would anyone, let alone an adult, bounce a ball down a court with the maniacal determination to toss or stuff it into a basket suspended ten feet above the ground? And don’t even try to explain or justify rugby to me. That seems like irrational behavior on steroids.

As with religion, intellect is involved in achieving excellence in such games, but human will and heart are even more important.

And yet human beings play or watch these and many other games with a seemingly unquenchable passion. Humans are meaning-making animals, and it is undeniable that we find meaning, beauty, and inspiration in these seemingly irrational—some would argue absurd—activities. Or should we call them devotions? Where does the meaning come from? My guess is that it comes from the rules, disciplines, boundaries, and purposes of the games, rules and purposes that make no sense outside of the games. Yet the games are perfectly rational as far as the players and fans are concerned. Indeed, they are often transcendent in the light they cast on human aspiration. If games were played with an indeterminate number of players, on courts or fields without boundaries and with ever-shifting “goals,” we would judge them irrational and meaningless. As with religion, intellect is involved in achieving excellence in such games, but human will and heart are even more important. It is not a coincidence that great athletes are praised for having big “hearts.” Outside the games, many athletes have notoriously smaller hearts. It is only within the rules of the game, or the rules of belief, that a certain kind of heart emerges. Sports, like Christian belief, remind us that we are embodied selves, not detached brains or pure spirits.

To those outside the practices, disciplines, and aspirations of traditional Christian belief—or Jewish, Islamic, or Buddhist belief—the “story” religion tells does not make much sense. “God the Father? Really?” But given the proper instruction, training, and discipline, the Creed, like a startling move on the soccer field or basketball court, reveals a reality of rare beauty and meaning. “Unbelievable!” exclaim the witnesses in acclamation, both in the stands and in the pews. There are those, of course, who deny the beauty sport or faith can bring forth, but that is a form of blindness, not insight.   

I don’t mean to suggest that there is a formulaic path to apprehending beauty and truth, either in church or in the arena. Nor do I question the good faith, so to speak, of my friend’s lost faith. Believers, like athletes, often tire and despair, and for legitimate reasons. But it is hard to make sense of our need for art and music, or religion and sport, if our understanding of what is true is enclosed by the everyday rationality of getting and spending, of physical suffering and loss, and the inevitability of death. In this sense, the truth and rationality of the Creed only become evident if, like any athlete, we practice and put our heart into it.  

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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