God, Football, and How My Granddad Discovered The True Meaning of Life

The inevitable is occurring.  I’m writing about God.  If you read my old blog you would have found lots of God articles written in years that began with my strong, evangelical Christian belief and ended with my near-atheism.  My faith is no more.  It died.  Or did it just get happily replaced by an unlabeled form of humanism? But I find my obsession with God continues. I can’t seem to shake it. So this post was bound to be written sooner or later. Other God posts will almost certainly be written among the stories, poetry, and celebrations of life.

I’ve just been reading a very interesting (to me) article about the current manager of Luton Town Football Club.  It’s not specifically about football. I wouldn’t have read it if it was.  It’s about his Christian faith and the way he lives that faith.

He’s obviously a man of deep, faith.  He’s honest. Sincere. A decent footballer. A good manager. All power to him for living his faith. Faith – of whatever kind – can be a wonderful thing, providing inspiration, balance, community, and many of our basic needs.

I wonder about a few sentences in the article though and questions arise in my mind. As they do. Feel free to scroll down to the break after which I don’t talk about sport or ask these probably obvious questions, many of which either do or don’t assume that an omnipotent deity has a role in the governance of football scores.  Scroll ahead and meet my granddad, a man I didn’t know well enough.  A man I will never know better because he died more than twenty years ago.

“He vociferously gees up his team-mates before the game kicks off. Then he gives away a penalty within 15 minutes for a poor challenge.

He is devastated. “I went to God after the game and said, ‘Why did you do that?’ It was a big moment.”

Question: To what extent is it the nature of religious faith, or faith in an omnipotent deity, to pass the buck for what is our own responsibility? If I, a non-believer, gave away a penalty I would throw my hands up and say that I had done it. Even as a strong Christian I would have accepted it was my fault. I did blame God once though. I believed I had been wounded by following God. When I believed God had told us to go to Korea I obeyed. And it all went wrong. Had God told us anything? I don’t believe so. When does faith turn into a place for blaming God for bad things, or for good things? And where this happens, does it ever happen in a manner that would make for a consistent faith?

Questions: To what extent would your faith influence a football result? And to what extent would the faith of players on the opposing side?

Question: Would an omnipotent God really care who won a football match? Would he step in to influence who is given a penalty? And if he would, why wouldn’t he step in to influence who is shot in US schools or starves to death or suffers in Aleppo? Ah, the obvious human suffering angle.  It’s similar to the current common internet piece of anger and reason asking what use “thoughts and prayers” are in the face of another mass school shooting in the USA or what effect it might have on the rates of cancer recovery when a thousand people type “Amen” under a picture of a dying child on Facebook.

Questions: Would an omnipotent God help a Christian player to not give away penalties but ignore the pleas of a Muslim player? Is the football God specific to one religion? If a survey was done, would one religion have a footballing advantage? And would atheists lose more regularly through not believing in God? Many players make cross signs on the pitch – just as many sprinters too. I know that is a psychological plus to them. But, assuming that God is an active agent in the lives of participants in sport, can it be shown that this interventionist God steps in at any point or that cross signs are more efficacious than other religious symbols, good luck charms, or the superstitions that many sportsmen have. Is the sign of the cross a greater sporting advantage than a pair of lucky socks? Would we be able to measure this in a tangible way? Is there any evidence that holds together when tested and compared, systematically, with honesty and without prejudice for or against faith, with all other available evidence?

When I was in the Jesus Army the church leaders were asked to pray so that God would influence results for Northampton Town Football Club. They responded by saying that God had better things to worry about than football.

I am glad that this man has found inspiration and a “way to stay on the straight and narrow”. All power to him as he seeks to follow his faith and manage his team. He’s certainly doing a good job of it – Luton are currently second in League 2.

But is this down to God or man? Or both? Would an atheist have been able to lead the team as well? Or is the question of faith essential to someone’s ability to manage a football team or their own life?  Is the manager of Accrington Stanley, currently leading that league, a man of deep faith too?  Are the managers of teams in the relegation zone all men without faith in the Christian God?


 

I know I’ve asked a lot of questions. As someone with a faith that tends towards atheism I would give answers different to those of a strongly religious believer. I can also look back and see how I would have answered them at different points in my old Christian life, and how those answers changed over time.

I ask them not as a way to say that Christianity or any other religion or any non-religion is in any way false – as long as it’s intelligent and consistent within its own sphere of teaching.

I ask them out of an interest in the psychology of faith. How it helps and hinders us. How it can be a great personal blessing. How it can also be a convenient place to hang everything that’s wrong. Faith is powerful. I’ve found walking away from religious faith and towards some kind of secular humanism has been very difficult at times. My faith gave me meaning, centredness, hope, a home, community, common ground with other believers. At times my faith kept me alive. Giving all that up was a risk, just as it is for all who walk away from any kind of conservative, or evangelical, or exclusivist, or even fundamentalist religion.

Where is all of that outside of God? I believe it can be found. Yet I still walk in an old linguistic mindset. I erased and rewrote a phrase in the above paragraph. It said “I’ve found losing my faith …” Losing. Did I lose? Or did I gain something better than religious faith? Your answer will depend on what you believe about the truth or truths of the faith I once followed to the best of my ability.

Is there really a God shaped hole in all of us as religious people tell us? I don’t believe so. I believe God, in all its various forms, is a noble attempt by people in order to supply answers to basic needs. In filling needs it fills the hole. But so does secular teaching. Secular teaching is more dangerous in a way. More difficult. Because there isn’t a book. There isn’t a creed or a set path. There’s only life, life we have to discover for ourselves.

It can be risky. It can be challenging. The philosophers have been good at existential despair, and sometimes at falling into the temptation of nihilism – a conclusion that is perfectly reasonable if you look at the universe in a certain way, and a conclusion that religious people often say is the only valid one unless there is something or someone or some life outside of our own physical universe. After all, what does the universe mean. We live. We die. No matter what meaning we give to it, can it be valid if ultimately the universe will burn out and all will be forgotten? The religious and the atheist philosopher have asked the same question.

At this point in my life I’m deciding to follow the teaching of my own granddad. I wish I’d been able to allow myself to know him better and listen to him better. My granddad was a lifelong atheist. He learned much of his philosophy one to one with Bertrand Russell. My granddad had thought deeply about life and come to his own conclusions about what to believe and how to live. I wish I’d realised that as a child.

I asked him once what he thought was the meaning of life. It wasn’t long after I’d converted to be a pretty doctrinally conservative, “Bible believing” Christian. (I have issues with the phrase Bible believing as it can mean so many different things.)

He responded simply:  “Does life have to have a meaning?”

Now my granddad was a man who found profound meaning in a great many things.  He was a man who treasured family, who treasured community and finding ways in which he could build up what was good in the communities around him.  He treasured knowledge and the extension of human knowledge and endeavour.  He treasured science as much as he treasured philosophy.  He treasured history too, learning it and learning from it, and was greatly involved especially in industrial history.  He chaired committees, ran community events, raised five very different but very united children.  He treasured music, encouraging his children to play and to learn to treasure music too.  He treasured freedom and was known to stand up vocally for those who were suffering or abused by society and to stand up against prejudice.  My mum says there’s no way she and her siblings could have grown up knowing racism.  In the late 40s there was a lot of prejudice against Germans.  My mum had German ex-POWs around her from the start of her life and was taught that all people are equal.

Yes, my granddad treasured all kinds of things.  He found deep meaning, found contentedness in doing all he did.  And I didn’t realise that.  Not properly.

Had I realised I might have understood him when he asked me that question, “Does life have to have a meaning?”

Because, no, it doesn’t.  Not ultimately.  Not beyond the universe.  Not beyond time and space or beyond our physicality.

And that doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter at all.

Because the meaning of life is now.  It’s in our relationships and our solitude.  It’s in this moment.  It’s in what we choose to do. Now.  What we choose to invest for humanity, nature, the planet – and eventually perhaps our colonisation of other worlds.

The meaning is in all the things my granddad was passionate about.  The meaning is passion.  It’s being awestruck by a sunset, or the night sky as I was last weekend when I raised my head to the sky as the snow fell past midnight and felt immense joy to be so close to something beyond myself and then watched as a single star appeared, followed by the entire sky clearing over the course of five minutes to reveals the stars of rural Northumberland.  A moment of bliss.  I found the beyond.  The sense of the numinous.  Not in God.  But in living.  In time.  In beauty.  In excitation.  In wonder.  In the varied singing of the universe.  In community.  In creativity.  In justice.  In love.  In the way we are all so different and yet the same.  In the many million year light from every star and the way each snowflake reflects lesser lights just for a moment.

There doesn’t have to be a meaning precisely because there is already so much meaning.

Without God we don’t have to invent meaning.  We just have to find it and learn to live within it and express it.

This writing began as a few questions – slightly cynical ones I admit – about the relationship between religious faith, prayer, and football results.  I’m glad it changed direction.  I’m grateful to have met my granddad again as I wrote.  Here’s to you granddad, a greater man than I ever knew.

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