Sometimes we come closest to the gods in moments of play. When play is genuine, time is suspended and we are lifted into an eternal Now, where passing away seems to pass away. The value of play, like fine art, is intrinsic. We might say of play what Heidegger says of a rose, that it is “without why.” Always purposeless, the beauty of play is that it is not utilitarian; it is valuable because it is impractical. As Nietzsche teaches in his “Gay Science,” play, which is beyond good and evil, reveals the wisdom of unworldly folly and the folly of worldly wisdom.

Precisely because we are at bottom grave and serious human beings – really, more weights than human beings – nothing does us as much good as a fool’s cap: we need it in relation to ourselves – we need all exuberant, floating, dancing, mocking, childish, and blissful art lest we loose the freedom above things that our ideal demands of us…. We should be able to stand above morality – and not only to stand with the anxious stiffness of a man who is afraid of slipping and falling at any moment, but also to float above it and play. How then could we possibly dispense with art – and with the fool?

In our sports-obsessed world, true play is rare. Ever eager to make a profit, crafty investors turn play into serious business. Customer recruitment begins when players are very young: children barely old enough to walk punch away on cell phones that carry video games; Nike runs sports camps to hook seventh-graders on expensive shoes; kids not yet in their teens compete for countless hours in massive multi-user-online games where they learn skills better suited for the trading floor than the playing field. When nothing escapes the logic of the market, losses become incalculable. These distortions of play have serious consequences – a society that has forgotten how to play has lost its way.

I have long thought the historic phases of economic development can be charted by the games people play: agrarian society loved baseball; industrial society, football; network society, basketball. It is not only the grass that makes baseball a field of dreams but also the leisurely pace of the game – nobody ever seems to be in a hurry. The long warm-ups, breaks between innings, walks to the mound, jumping in and out of the batter’s box seem designed to slow everything down. Baseball is not governed by the clock and often seems to go on forever.

And then there is the spitting – what is it about baseball and spitting? In no other sports do athletes spit like baseball players. They spit on the ground, in their hands, on their bats, in their gloves and, when they can get away with it, on the ball. It seems to be a ritual vestige of an earlier era when times were rough and edges had not yet been smoothed.

Football is all about strategy and timing and, as such, it is the ideal game for the military-industrial complex. Metaphors of war dominate discussions of football and violence is intrinsic to the game. More important, football is rigidly hierarchical – the command structure is strictly top-down. Plays are first diagrammed by coaches acting like generals and then executed by troops equipped with the latest high-tech body armor heading into battle against a hostile enemy. Carefully staged rituals make the point obvious: fighter jets flying low in tight formation over stadiums, military paratroopers landing on fields, color guards carrying the flag and high-soaring eagles released while fans belt out the national anthem. Warriors one and all.

Basketball is improvisational and spontaneously emergent rather than programmed and deliberately plotted. Like jazz, basketball is played best when it flows freely. Though some plays are planned, most are riffs that cannot be anticipated. The structure of the game is lateral rather than vertical, distributed and not hierarchical. Basketball does not conform to the logic of the industrial grid(iron) but follows the alternative logic of information networks. Though the court is circumscribed, the game is decentralized and the action is free-wheeling. If football players following commands recall movements on a chessboard, basketball players bumping into each other as they constantly adapt to the continuously changing flows surrounding them resemble packets darting across worldwide webs.

I enjoy no sport more than North Carolina basketball – not Red Sox-Yankees baseball, not Williams-Amherst football, but Carolina-Duke basketball. Several years ago I taught at UNC and had the good fortune to get to know Dean Smith, who is one of the most impressive people I have met.

What drew us together was my love of Tarheel basketball and his love of Kierkegaard. Dean reads theology and philosophy – Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr and above all others, Søren Kierkegaard – as seriously as I follow the team he coached for so many years. I guess it makes sense for the greatest coach in the history of college basketball to like the philosopher whose name is synonymous with “the leap of faith.”

During my stay in Chapel Hill, we met regularly and our conversations drifted back and forth between basketball and religion. It quickly became apparent that basketball is a religion for both of us but our faiths are different. Our contrasting faiths, we discovered, reflect alternative understandings of Kierkegaard.

Throughout his demanding writings, Kierkegaard identifies three stages through which each person must pass as he or she progresses from immaturity to maturity: aesthetic, ethical and religious. At the aesthetic stage, life is controlled by desire and people are immersed in sensuous immediacy. In a manner reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, the life of pleasure lies in the present. Without awareness of, or concern about the future, there is no worry about tomorrow – the now is all that matters. The most obvious example of this stage on life’s way is the infant, who is a creature of immediate desire and has not yet developed a broader sense of self and self-restraint. Aesthetic life, however, is not limited to infancy but can also be found among people who seem to be mature individuals. Adults remain infantile when their lives are governed by nothing more than the pleasure principle.

At the ethical stage, people realize that life is about more than the pursuit of pleasure. They become aware of their freedom and their responsibility for their own lives. No longer completely controlled by desire, they learn to follow moral principles handed down by parents, priests and professors. For the ethical person, life is a serious business and the stakes are very high. It is our responsibility to make the world a better place by following the principles and rules established by a moral god.

While never leaving behind the pleasures of the senses or rejecting the dictates of morality, religion is, according to Kierkegaard, beyond good and evil. In a manner reminiscent of aesthetic existence, religion involves an experience of eternity within time. At the decisive moment, the eternal God enters history to redeem the believing individual by releasing him from the travails of time. This instant is the eternal Now in which time is suspended, death is overcome and, thus, passing away passes away.

As Dean Smith and I discussed these tangled issues at considerable length, we gradually began to realize that for him, religion and basketball are ethical, while for me they are aesthetic. Though a fierce competitor who never wants to lose, Dean believes that the value of the game is not intrinsic but lies in the lessons it holds for life after basketball. Always practicing what he preaches, Dean has devoted his life to defending the civil rights of others and promoting social justice for all. The game is never simply about itself but is always about life’s larger lessons.

Dean was the first to integrate the Atlantic Coast Conference and, when local restaurants would not serve his players, he accompanied them and refused to leave until they did. Several years ago my daughter Kirsten broke family ranks and went to Duke Law School (there’s that will again!). When she was writing an article about the death penalty, she called Dean and he gave her an interview about his opposition to it. What greater coup than publishing an interview with Dean Smith in the Duke newspaper!

While the final score is important, for Dean Smith, the game is really won off the court.

I do not, of course, deny the pedagogical value of sports. Throughout my youth I played baseball (first base), football (offensive guard and defensive tackle – times were different then!) and basketball (center). I have no doubt that I never would have written so many books without the discipline I learned on the field and court. But what makes a game a game is not simply the way it prepares us for the future but the way it locates us in the present. We play games for those rare moments when time stands still: the perfect contact of ball and bat, perfect angle for a clean tackle, perfect touch on a last-minute jump shot. In that instant, players do not resolutely move toward the future by following the rules of the game; to the contrary, floating freely as if released from gravity, they live as fully as possible in the present. In this moment, I no longer play but something else, something other plays through me.

I know only three other experiences that come close to this moment: losing oneself in sexual bliss, immersing oneself in a work of art or standing outside of oneself in a moment of religious ecstasy. I suspect an experience like this is what Saint Paul had in mind when he wrote, “I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). As the very sense of self melts away, time and eternity actually become one. Though this instant inevitably passes, the memory of it creates the hope it might return once again.

I always recall the lessons I learned from my conversations with Dean whenever I watch Carolina play. My friend John and I get together to watch the game: my house, when the Tarheels are at home, his house, when the Blue Devils are at home. Former President of Williams College and past Chairman of the Duke Board of Trustees, at 83 John has lost none of his zest either for the game or for life, if, indeed, the two can be distinguished. When the Heels have a bad night, I know my first email in the morning will be from John rubbing it in. When Duke falters, I always return the favor.

As professors of religion, we both know that any living religion needs its rituals so we have devised our own. We don our fools’ caps and costumes – he wears his Duke hat and sweatshirt and I wear my Carolina hat and t-shirt. While eating popcorn and drinking beer, we leave behind the gravity of the moral problems facing our world and abandon ourselves to the “exuberant, floating, dancing, mocking, childless and blissful art” of basketball.

What I know, but John has yet to learn, is that the color of heaven is not Duke blue, but it’s Carolina blue.