There has been an enormous amount of media and public attention on two young American athletes, rising stars in respectively football and basketball—Tim Tebow of the Denver Broncos and Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks. My knowledge of the two sports is roughly equivalent to my knowledge of nuclear physics, but I understand that the performance of these two men is quite extraordinary, which in itself would explain the attention they are getting. But the attention goes far beyond the sports pages. For one thing, both seem to be very simpatico human beings—unpretentious, generous and socially concerned. I would think, though, that these qualities are displayed by other athletes. Tebow and Lin are unusual for other reasons. Both are committed Evangelical Protestants who are very upfront about their faith. Tebow, whose parents have been Baptist missionaries in the Philippines, was home-schooled and made comments implying opposition to abortion—thus showing adherence to two key values of the conservative party in the culture war. Both men represent the increasing public recognition of Evangelicals, who can now cite two cases where they can say, to others and to themselves, “Look, another one of our boys made it.” Lin is unusual for two additional reasons—he is Chinese-American in a field dominated by African-Americans, and he is a graduate of Harvard, an institution whose graduates are not exactly prominent in the NBA. In his person he exemplifies the movement of two minorities into important institutions—Asians, who have been at this for some time, and Evangelicals, who are more recent arrivals. Also, he highlights a fact not generally known—the large number of Evangelicals in the Asian-American community.
Tim Tebow was born in the Philippines and has strong ties to that country. He has occasionally preached there and otherwise assisted his parents in their missionary work. He is of course best known for his habit of very visibly praying before and after games. His prayer position—going down on one knee—has actually led to the addition of a new word to the English language: tebowing. (Come to think of it, this kneeling position is roughly the same as the one traditionally assumed by a man proposing marriage—a coincidence?) By all accounts, Tebow, who unapologetically admits to being a virgin, is clean-living enough to serve as an icon for Baptist Sunday schools. Apart from being generous in his personal relations, he has started a foundation, dedicated to helping pediatric patients. Jeremy Lin was born in Los Angeles. His parents, strongly Evangelical, immigrated to America from Taiwan. Lin already excelled in basketball at Harvard, apparently not to the detriment of his grade average. He too has started a foundation that focuses on the needs of children. He has mentioned an intention to become a pastor some day.
I tried to find out on the Internet just what Tebow is praying for while tebowing, but I only found some speculations from others (apart from one comment by himself, possibly joking, that he might have been praying for the other side to lose). I assume that Lin also prays in connection with his games, but I found nothing on what he prays for. In an interview Tebow observed that it does not matter who wins, so presumably he does not explicitly pray for a victory by the Broncos. Given what we do know about the faith of the two men, we may assume that they pray for spiritual strength and for doing a good job—which indirectly must affect the fortunes of their team. And if they do pray for their side to win (which would not surprise me), as good Christians they very probably include some phrase like “If it is your will” (Muslims say it more economically: inshallah). Let us propose a theological hypothesis: If God exists, he is not a partisan of any American football or basketball team. However, if we further hypothetize that God listens to the prayers of the faithful (as Tebow and Lin must), we arrive at a further proposition: Whether God intervenes to effect an outcome of this or that game, he is interested in what goes on there. Is this even remotely plausible?
As I was mulling over this question, I remembered an episode from my youth. I knew a German Lutheran pastor, a very lovely man, also a very forgetful man. He constantly misplaced or lost any number of objects—his car keys, his medications, his sermon notes. Whenever that happens, he and his wife would go down on their knees and ask God to help them find the lost object. At the time I found this amusing as well as absurd. Years later, when I recalled this, I looked at it in a different way. I’m sure that at the time I would have found it less absurd if the pastor and his wife had prayed for God to intervene in seemingly more important matters—world peace, social justice, the fate of the nation. Surely God would be more interested in such weighty matters as against the misplaced car keys of a messy clergyman—a trivial matter by comparison. But this ignores what must be the case if God exists: If the creator of the universe, with its inconceivably vast and mysterious myriad of galaxies, pays attention at all to the affairs of beings on a small planet in a minor solar system—then all these affairs should seem equally trivial to him—the fate of a nation as little, or as much, as a set of lost car keys. The astounding message of religion (at least of the three great monotheistic traditions) is that God is indeed interested in the affairs of this earth, that he listens to the prayers of its inhabitants, and that he does at times intervene (directly or indirectly).
All the three Abrahamic faiths resound with the awesome majesty of the God who, already in the first words of the Hebrew Bible, created the heavens and the earth. Those who first wrote down these words did not know about the galaxies and all the other discoveries of modern science, but they were just as overawed if they looked at the stars on a clear night in the desert or at a storm from a beach of what they called the Great Sea. And each of the three has brought this terrible God closer to the concerns of human beings. There are those Hasidic stories in which men argue with God, and often disagree with him. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus tells us to ask God to give us our daily bread—a phrase that surely includes the whole range of mundane human needs. There is a Muslim saying that God is as close to us as the gland in our throat.
Please note: I am not engaged here in an argument for the existence of God. Jewish, Christian or Muslim believers in this God will, I think, resonate with what I say here. Those who do not so believe may appreciate what is the most audacious idea ever conceived by human beings, even if it turns out to be an illusion—the idea that the universe is ultimately benign.
If God exists, he listens to the prayers of Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin. He may even, for utterly incomprehensible reasons, ensure that the Broncos or the Knicks win a particular game. Chaos theory suggests that trivial events may start a causal chain with huge consequences. A particular football victory may ultimately be a cause of world peace—or, in the hidden history of the repair of the universe (the tikkun olam of Jewish faith), bring about the coming of the Messiah.