David Brooks argues that the nature of competitive sports is in conflict with Christianity and, indeed, all religions. Not just that sports can be rough–not all of them are–but that sports require pride, whereas faith requires humility. Here is part of what he says:
We’ve become accustomed to the faith-driven athlete and coach, from Billy Sunday to Tim Tebow. But we shouldn’t forget how problematic this is. The moral ethos of sport is in tension with the moral ethos of faith, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim.
The moral universe of modern sport is oriented around victory and supremacy. The sports hero tries to perform great deeds in order to win glory and fame. It doesn’t really matter whether he has good intentions. His job is to beat his opponents and avoid the oblivion that goes with defeat.
The modern sports hero is competitive and ambitious. (Let’s say he’s a man, though these traits apply to female athletes as well). He is theatrical. He puts himself on display.
He is assertive, proud and intimidating. He makes himself the center of attention when the game is on the line. His identity is built around his prowess. His achievement is measured by how much he can elicit the admiration of other people — the roar of the crowd and the respect of ESPN.
His primary virtue is courage — the ability to withstand pain, remain calm under pressure and rise from nowhere to topple the greats.
This is what we go to sporting events to see. This sporting ethos pervades modern life and shapes how we think about business, academic and political competition.
But there’s no use denying — though many do deny it — that this ethos violates the religious ethos on many levels. The religious ethos is about redemption, self-abnegation and surrender to God.
Ascent in the sports universe is a straight shot. You set your goal, and you climb toward greatness. But ascent in the religious universe often proceeds by a series of inversions: You have to be willing to lose yourself in order to find yourself; to gain everything you have to be willing to give up everything; the last shall be first; it’s not about you.
For many religious teachers, humility is the primary virtue. You achieve loftiness of spirit by performing the most menial services. (That’s why shepherds are perpetually becoming kings in the Bible.) You achieve your identity through self-effacement. You achieve strength by acknowledging your weaknesses. You lead most boldly when you consider yourself an instrument of a larger cause.
The most perceptive athletes have always tried to wrestle with this conflict. Sports history is littered with odd quotations from people who try to reconcile their love of sport with their religious creed — and fail.
In terms of this blog, Brooks is arguing that playing sports, professionally, say, is not a legitimate vocation for a Christian. Do you agree?
I don’t, and this column has precipitated a request from another blog to write about whether or not some vocations are forbidden to Christians. I’ll link to what I wrote when it comes up on the blog that invited me to contribute. In the meantime, how would you answer Brooks?