Sport as Religion

I have been a sports enthusiast as long as I remember. I played all manner of sports though tennis was always my best sport and I eventually became a teaching professional and a coach and was able to see the sport from a different angle and appreciate it even more than I had when I played. There are those who think sports are a waste of time, but I disagree. So does John Carroll, as it happens. You remember John Carroll? I have referred to his books frequently of late because they do provide an excellent spark to ignite thought. Or something.

In any event, Carroll has a chapter in his book Ego And Soul devoted to sport. He thinks it is one of a number of ways that modern  men and women find meaning inter lives. And he makes out an excellent case that sports in our culture have displaced religion and as such play a vital role in a culture that desperately needs something to draw people out of themselves. Sports do just that. We have heard that football, for example, allows those who play and those who watch to release their aggressive impulses. This is a healthy thing, though it apparently does not release enough aggression in enough people, sad too say. But sports in general have become larger than life and they make possible the ecstasy that is frequently identified with the religious experience by Zen masters and they also make possible the sense of euphoria and catharsis that are frequently associated with that very religious experience. Religion, for most people, has lost that ability and has become mainly ritual that leaves the participant empty and dissatisfied. Sports fills the gap, according to John Carroll. Take the Olympics, for example.

“The modern West has created one global cult of mythic force. The modern Olympic Games has become the pre-eminent international institution.

“The modern Olympic Games was initiated in 1896 by the a Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin — 1500 years after the ancient Olympics were closed down by a Christian Roman emperor on the grounds that they were too pagan. Coubertin sought to recreate the classical Greek ideal of religious festival in which humans perform athletic and cultural feats at the highest level of excellence.

” Coubertin was strongly influenced by the English Public Schools. It was, in particular, the emphasis in Thomas Arnold’s Rugby on developing the character of the boys, linked to the neo-Hellenic ideal of a ‘sound mind in a healthy body.’ For Arnold, sport played a key role, but it was not sport for its own sake. Coubertin’s adaptation was to take education out of the school and into the public arena. He then harnessed sport to his pedagogical ends by orchestrating the games within a totality of brilliantly conceived ritualized drama. He created what would become the modern religious festival, dwarfing all others, rising, as if on cue, as the Christian churches began to empty.

“Coubertin was quite explicit that his was to be a religious revival, and that it was pagan. He spoke of new gods to replace the dying old ones. He lamented in the 1930s that the Games were turning into a marketing spectacle; he had intended them as a Temple, in which religio athletae was to be practiced. . . .

“The spirit of classical Greek religion had been rekindled. By taking sport, and setting it in a larger metaphysical context, a neo-pagan festival had been recreated that appeals to the religious sensibility of the secular modern West.”

We are all aware of the commercial spectacle the Olympics has become, with players being paid by their countries for the medals they win. But at the heart of this spectacle, especially during the grand opening of the Games, we can see suggestions of what Coubertin had in mind. The Games were to be the new religion. They were to provide for participants and spectators alike a deep religious experience, taking them out of themselves and moving them to new  heights of appreciation for the beauty that is athleticism at its best. Thus we have the religious experience par excellence: ceremony; aesthetic delight; ecstatic and cathartic experience. All in the interest of connecting us with one another and with the greater world outside the self.

Those who participate in sports have described the rare experience of “being in the zone” in which they don’t think but simply feel and act as if on a high. This is ecstasy as it is described by the gurus and mystics who meditate until they reach nirvana. Shades of it can be experienced in the company of great works of art, when the aesthetic becomes the totality of the world: the painting, sculpture, or music become all there is. At this point, as Carroll would have it, ego and soul become one. Balance is achieved. This can happen not only for the athlete but for the spectator as well — especially in large groups such as a packed crowd in a sporting event when “it’s all on the line.”

To a degree, all sports can achieve this, according to Carroll. Even the individual sports such as golf and tennis. They fill a vacuum that has been created by the death of religion which, all signs to the contrary notwithstanding, no longer enriches the spirit or replenishes the human soul of the vast majority of people in the West.

Certainly a novel and most interesting suggestion, is it not?

Our Disenchanted World

For some reason that no one I have read has been able to explain “religion” is a word assiduously avoided by any self-respecting intellectual as though it is identical with superstition or Christian fundamentalism. And, at the same time, a number of very good minds have struggled with the questions that are most troublesome in our times, attempting to place their collective fingers squarely on the faint pulse of a dying culture — so faint that some have even gone so far as to call America a “cultureless” nation. Perhaps so. Perhaps culture is already dead, if the word is taken to mean the heart and soul of a society that raises it above a collection of bodies that happen to live in the same geographical region.

In any event, two modern thinkers who have actually had the courage to introduce the word “religion” into a discussion of the plight of humanity see its absence as one of the central problems in today’s world. Nietzsche famously said at the end of the nineteenth century that “God is dead.” What he meant, I take it, is that humans have taken His place: they don’t think they need Him any more. But if we take the word “religion” to mean more than simply a belief in a God or gods, if we take it to mean a belief in something beyond human science and discursive knowledge, something deeply mysterious that lies always just beyond our grasp, then perhaps we come closer to knowing what is wrong with our sick culture: we have lost any sense of the spiritual, whether it be God, the starry skies above, or the beautiful and perplexing world around us that we cannot possibly grasp in its full mystery: “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in [our science and technology].”  If we agree with Hamlet, then we must turn in our intellectual credentials. Or so it seems.

But, again, two thinkers, Christopher Lasch and Carl Gustav Jung, have openly expressed their conviction that today’s world suffers from lack of soul. As Lasch says in his chapter dealing with religion and culture in The Revolt of the Elites, speaking about Americans in particular,

“A lust for immediate gratification pervades American society from top to bottom. There is universal concern with the self — with ‘self-fulfillment’ and more recently with ‘self-esteem,’ slogans of a society incapable of generating a sense of civic obligation. For native as well as foreign observers, the disinclination to subordinate self-interest to the general will comes uncomfortably close to capturing the essence of Americanism as the twentieth century approaches its end  [in 1993]. . . . [This suggests a broader field of disregard for others and a lack of acceptance of fixed values.] We have to ask ourselves, therefore, what accounts for this wholesale defection from standards of personal conduct — civility, industry, self-restraint — that were once considered indispensable to democracy. . .

“An exhaustive investigation would uncover a great number of influences, but the gradual decay of religion would stand somewhere near the head of the list.”

Now, bear in mind that Lasch is well aware of the growing numbers of people who attend church in America — even as congregations shrink at traditional churches and the buildings are converted to apartments or taverns. But he is speaking about religion in the broader sense, as a sense of who we are in relation to something beyond ourselves, involving awe and mystery, a sense of self defined in terms of something Else, attention turned away from the self to the world. Religious people live religion, it permeates their lives. It is not something that just happens once a week in a large building with comfortable seats, coffee, and good “fellowship.” And it may or may not involve a personal god. It is something that demands that we come out of ourselves and feel deeply the obligations we all have to one another and to the earth on which we depend for our very lives.

Jung, the other thinker with nerve enough to talk about religion, contrasts “modern man,” as he calls him, with “medieval man,” by which he means Western men and women. How totally different did the world appear to medieval man, says Jung. Indeed, that world was permeated by spirit; the heart spoke louder than the five senses; the self was subservient to something beyond itself; there were eternal verities that required no proof, and they were worth dying for; hope lived in every heart despite the invariable suffering that was a certainty in a short life. We have dismissed the whole lot with a wave of the scientific hand as mere “superstition.” As a result

“The modern man has lost all the metaphysical certainties of his medieval brother, and set up in their place the ideals of material security, general welfare, and humaneness.”

And, I might add, we expect these things as a matter of course. However, without religion, or something resembling religion, we remain, in the words of Karl Mannheim “disenchanted,” left with a world that is “flat, uninspiring, and unhappy.” Jung spent much of his time examining modern men and women as they “searched for a soul,” suggesting ways to recover lost spirituality without embracing worn-out creeds. He became convinced that for all our material progress and sophistication, we are simply lost in a maze made up of our own ignorance and presumption, convinced that technology will show us the way. We have so many “things” and we live such pleasant, smug lives. But we don’t believe in anything outside ourselves, sensing at a deep, subconscious level, that we are really not up to the task. Is it possible for Western men and women to regain once again the sense of enchantment that once permeated the world? I wonder.

 

In Search Of Soul

I have made passing references to Carl Gustav Jung’s remarkable collection of essays titled Modern Man In Search of a Soul. The book is exceptional in so many ways, but in particular it provides a great many insights into our current cultural malaise and takes us closer to an understanding of its causes. For example, it is a sobering thought to consider that despite our considerable scientific progress and the immense gains in material well-being and health care, we might in fact be poorer than our predecessors. Our blind conviction that the passage of time necessarily entails “progress,” that the latest is the best, may well be a fiction. In one of the later essays in the above book, Jung contrasts our modern age with the medieval period which we tend to equate with blind superstition, brief and painful life spans, and widespread human suffering. Jung suggests otherwise:

How totally different did the world appear to medieval man! For him the earth was eternally fixed and at rest in the center of the universe, encircled by the course of the sun that solicitously bestowed its warmth. Men were all children of God under the loving care of the Most High, who prepared them for eternal blessedness; and all knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves in order to rise from a corruptible world to an incorruptible and joyous existence. Such a life no longer seems real to us, even in our dreams. Natural science has long ago torn this lovely world to shreds. That age lies as far behind as childhood, when our own father was unquestionably the handsomest and strongest man on earth.

The modern man has lost all the metaphysical certainties of his medieval brother, and set in their place the ideals of material security, general welfare, and humaneness. . . . And while man, hesitant and questioning, contemplates a world that is distracted with treaties of peace and pacts of friendship, democracy and dictatorship, capitalism and Bolshevism, his spirit yearns for an answer that will allay the turmoil of doubt and uncertainty.

It is hard to accept the notion that our world may have regressed rather than progressed, hidden as we are behind our piles of material goods, expecting relatively long and painless lives, and diverted by all our electronic toys. But it is worth pondering. The possibility that those who lived in more austere times might be happier than we are was suggested about thirty years before Jung by Henry Adams who visited Chartres and Mount St. Michel in France and came away with the conviction that medieval men and women found peace of mind in a coherent, unified world contemplating eternal verities and devoted to the Virgin Mary. This, according to Adams, rendered their seemingly miserable lives spiritually rich and rewarding, and allowed them to pursue the immensely difficult challenge of building impossibly tall cathedrals, which took generations to complete but always kept their attention directed toward a better world.

One must wonder if our world-view, focused as it is on the present and built around the notion of linear progress and material success, might not be poverty-stricken. Perhaps, after all, we are all worse off for having bought into the notion that this frenzied, incoherent world of ours has brought us closer to the ideal of human happiness. One reads blog posts like those of my friend “Z” in Ecuador and one wonders whether those simple people in “third world” countries are not indeed much happier than we in spite of their poverty and lack of material goods. It’s just possible that those folks know something we don’t.