About Me


Powered by Blogger.
Friday, November 25, 2011

Can our love of sports save us from neoplatonic mysticism?

After reading this article in the New York Times, I wondered if sports, and football in particular, have become such a destructive force in our society, that Christians ought to avoid any affiliation with them at all.  When I consider that many sports are extremely violent, and nothing more than sanitized (maybe) war games sucking billions upon billions of dollars in resources public and private from our national economy that might be put to more productive uses, like education, it gives me pause.  When I consider the strong association between some sports and domestic violence, I worry that sports are not just violent endeavors, but actually promote violence in society at large.  When I consider the time I waste on sports rather than in productive activities like raking leaves and splitting wood, or working on a sermon, I feel a twinge of guilt.  When I consider the arguments of this book, and this column, the guilt gets a little heavier.  Is our national obsession with sports really that idolatrous?  Is it poisoning our political culture, sucking political energy away from where it might be productive, and putting it into silly games?  What about all the time and money sports take away from the church and its mission?

For those of you feeling guilty or defensive by this first paragraph, take heart, this post is about to take a turn. For those of you feeling smug or self righteous, don't get too comfortable on your high horse.

The first paragraph takes me back to a Walter Mitty moment two years ago.  My second cousin, Brad Mills, had been named field manager for the Houston Astros.  As second cousins, Brad and I share great grandparents and one of the more tragic stories in family history, so I feel a kinship with him.  Not wanting to hide myself from my kin, we arranged to travel to Houston during the opening week of the baseball season to cheer him on and hopefully meet him.  In one of my Walter Mitty moments of day dreaming, I imagined being invited into the clubhouse to pray before the game (me being a pastor and all).  When I would come to, after this recurring day dream, it would hit me.  What on earth could I possibly say in a prayer in such a profane setting as a Major League Baseball game?  The cost of building the stadium was outrageous.  The players salaries were obscene.  The competitive spirit required to get to such a lofty level as the major leagues was downright pagan (in the Nietzchean sense).  Performance enhancing drugs?  Players treated as chattel?

What does a Mennonite pastor pray in such a profane setting?  God help these poor sinners to repent?

I never ended up praying in the Astros clubhouse (at least not yet), but my Walter Mitty fantasy at least had a happy ending.

It hit me, sports can be a wholesome celebration of God's creation, the human body.  Neoplatonic mysticism (and perhaps some cousins in the gnostic family) has effectively wormed its way into the popular consciousness of Christians in our time.  Perhaps this is most evident at funerals when we try hard to ignore the corporeal reality of the deceased and turn his or her primary essence into some kind of disembodied spirit which migrates at the time of death to God's side (or wherever it is destined to go), leaving the body, just a shell in this narrative, to rot in the earth or be burned.  This isn't remotely close to Christian proclamation.  The church proclaims the embodied resurrection of the dead, just as Jesus rose embodied from the grave.  This is profoundly important for a variety of reasons.  Many of them have to do with how we live our lives here.  The senses matter.  Our physical existence here and now is very much a part of the life of faith, it is sacramental.  Another has to do with our bodies as God's creation.  These are to be celebrated and enjoyed in all their physicality, with gratitude and wonder.  This includes all of us.  All of our bodies are beautiful, and capable of doing remarkable things.  The earth itself is God's creation, and requires our stewardship as God's gift to us, not our abuse as something profane doomed to be destroyed.  As Christians we are permitted to hate the corruption of God's creation into something evil, we are not permitted to hate creation, and this includes our own bodies.

The church's doctrine of analogia entis (the analogy of being) has come into ill repute in the wake of magisterial Protestantism's (e.g. Luther and Calvin) emphasis on the total depravity of humankind.  But it is a doctrine worth reviving, and perhaps our national obsession with sports can help us do it.  Analogia entis cannot be summarized easily, but at its core it asserts that God's creation (including we God's creatures) still reflects God's glory, albeit only in part (through a glass darkly).  Our bodies (all of our bodies!) are not just shells, weigh stations for maturing spirits, but themselves are bearers of the glory of the creator, even if only the dimmest reflection.

So when we participate in, watch at, pray for, the games at which we play, remember that the glory of a high jump, a great catch, an impossible goal, is the glory of the one who created our bodies.


John Jay Smith and Joann Yoder Smith said...

Your reflections got me thinking, which I assume you hope will happen. Lots of physical activity for everyone? - yes, for sure. Professional sports? - it's harder for me to see the value, although I don't intend to argue with those who are convinced of their value.