(RNS) — Thursday evening (March16), in the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, Duke University, a historically Methodist school in Durham, North Carolina, tips off with Pentecostal powerhouse Oral Roberts University, in Orlando, Florida — a Southern Baptist stronghold and a part of the country that takes both religion and college athletics very seriously.
North Carolinians are no less known for their near-religious team spirit and their religious belief. The wisdom tradition of the late Dean Smith, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s famed basketball coach and a courageous Baptist layman, includes the well-worn koan, “If God is not a Tar Heel, why did he make the sky Carolina blue?”
So the question naturally occurs: If both teams in the Christian tradition pray for victory, which one gets God’s favor?
“Tough question,” said the Rev. Jim Henry, retired Orlando megachurch pastor and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. “But if the official is a Baptist — which is likely here — he will probably give the Pentecostals benefit of the doubt on close calls, since they sing better!”
(Duke’s young coach, Jon Scheyer, is Jewish, but the concept of swaying God’s favor through prayer doesn’t appear to be as deep in the Jewish faith: “Nothing drives me more crazy than when I hear an athlete thanking God for a three-pointer, a twenty foot putt, or a touchdown,” wrote Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner, on the website Spirit and Story.)
The question is lighthearted, but underlying it is a more serious one: Besides the idea that God could or would influence the result, what is the appropriate thing to pray for in sports? And how does this kind of prayer translate into other areas of our lives?
We turned, naturally, to Rusty’s sister, the Rev. Deborah L. Wright, Duke ’74.
“As a Presbyterian minister and an avid Duke alum and March Madness fan, I never pray for victory,” she said. “I scream at my TV for it, mind you, but rather I pray for fairness, for mutual respect, for the officials to have ‘the eyes to see,’ and for the Duke players to recognize the source of their strength. I also pray that our game times don’t conflict with any of my Sunday duties — that’s too big a temptation to call in a sick day!”
The Rev. Will Willimon, former dean of the Duke Chapel, former Methodist bishop of North Alabama and a current Duke faculty member, shares the idea that God is agnostic, so to speak, when it comes to sporting contests, writing in an email, “Though I’m deeply, deeply committed to winning basketball, I have no evidence that God is.”
“Jesus said not to hide our light under a basket,” Willimon continued, “when I wish he had said to make as many baskets as possible in the first half of the game. I don’t dare bother the Lord with prayers for a Duke win, though Duke is a better school and team. Sitting here in my office in the middle of Duke’s gothic campus I’m tempted to pray, ‘Dear Lord, bless both teams but please bless the Blue Devils with just a few points more than you bless ORU.”
The ORU vs. Duke game carries significant complexity for Norm Mintle, associate dean of the ORU College of Arts & Cultural Studies. He confessed that after living 37 years in Virginia, his family members “have been die-hard Duke basketball … fans for decades.” After working at ORU a year and a half and attending several games, however, he is “slowly becoming an ORU fan,” he said, adding “Go Blue!” (Note, that was not “Go Blue Devils!” ORU’s colors are Navy Blue and Gold.)
But he also sees praying for victory as a vain effort. “I often smile,” he said, “when I see fans of religious schools praying for victory and ask myself, ‘Do you think your prayers carry more weight with the Almighty than your opponents’ prayers?’ Poor God. How is he to choose?
“A better prayer might include asking help with safety, a gracious spirit toward the opponent, or that each player do his best. But I do love the old saying, ‘Pray like everything depends on God. Act like everything depends on you.’”
The question also helps us look at other historical theological controversies. “God doesn’t pick favorites in sporting events,” said Mintle. “But he certainly knows the outcome before tipoff. Does that mean he preordained the outcome? That’s a great Calvinism v. Armenianism debate topic.”
The Rev. Joel Hunter, former pastor of Northland, an Orlando nondenominational megachurch, said he had no wisdom to offer on the basketball game, only suggesting that “it’s theologically problematic for evangelicals to root for Blue Devils.”
Not everyone agrees that prayers for divine intervention are either wasted or unholy. Rusty once heard a campus Christian speaker tell of asking a Georgia Tech football player what, as a follower of Jesus, he prayed before each game. The player said he asked God to keep everyone healthy, to play their best and that the best team would win. The speaker said instead, he should pray for his team to win.
The player, incredulous, complained that would be selfish, dishonoring God.
The speaker mentioned the Apostle Paul’s teaching in his Letter to the Philippians “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The speaker explained the word “requests” would better be understood as “what you want.” The promise was not that you will get “what you want,” but that you will get “the peace of God.”
His point was that we should be honest with God and not try to hide our desires from him (fruitless with an omniscient, omnipresent deity). Honesty with a loving God helps us to see ourselves in divine light, perhaps prompting surrender and trust in divine strength.
Every season during March Madness, Rusty dusts off his “playoff verse,” the New Testament’s First Letter of Peter: “Prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” We can hope our team will win, but this reminds us fans to keep our ultimate hope and joy grounded in something more reliable.
(Mark I. Pinsky and Rusty Wright met as Duke students and will be attending Thursday’s Duke-Oral Roberts game together. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)