After Sports and Politics, How Much Emotional Space and Energy Is Left for Religion?

After Sports and Politics, How Much Emotional Space and Energy Is Left for Religion? December 8, 2018
Titian, Ecce Homo; Wikimedia

Working out at a gym is quite telling—not only in terms of how physically fit or unfit one is, but perhaps how spiritually fit or unfit one is. Many of us invest a great deal of emotional space and energy in becoming physically fit, which can be a very good thing. However, fixation on one’s physical health and appearance must never outweigh concern for one’s spiritual health and how one looks before God. We must place physical exercise in proper perspective. As 1 Timothy 4:8 indicates, “for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (ESV).

The same goes for politics. Certainly, we are “political animals” by nature, as Aristotle claimed, since we are by nature furnished with language that makes it possible for us to deliberate on moral matters involving justice which build both the home and society at large. But we are more than political animals. We are spiritual creatures and our ultimate political alliance should be with the kingdom of God in which we would do well to invest considerable emotional space.

Jesus’ trial with Pilate is telling in this regard. Jesus claims that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) and that he has come into the world to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). In response to Jesus’ claim that “everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37; ESV), Pilate responds in an apparently cynical manner, “What is truth?” (John 18:38; ESV). Perhaps such apparent cynicism is one reason Pilate washes his hands of Jesus (See Matthew 27:24), though he knows Jesus is innocent of the charges leveled against him (John 19:4). It just may be for Pilate that what passes for ‘truth’—and ‘justice’—is whatever is politically expedient at the time.

During Jesus’ trial, Pilate appears surprised and troubled when Jesus does not try to defend himself. Pilate exhorts Jesus to speak up: it’s now or never for Jesus to make his case in Pilate’s mind, since Pilate has the power and authority granted by Rome to declare Jesus innocent or condemn him to death by crucifixion. Here’s the context for their exchange:

When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:6-11; ESV).

When Jesus’ accusers challenged Pilate with the words that if he releases Jesus, he is betraying Caesar, since Jesus claims to be a king as well, Pilate hands Jesus over to crucifixion (See John 19:12-16).

Pilate has no emotional space available to consider Jesus’ truth and justice claims, since allegiance to Caesar has swallowed him whole. Jesus, on the other hand, shows respect for political rule and authority, but defers ultimately to God’s kingdom and divine judgment.

Now back to the gym. In my gym, all the TV screens feature sports and political shows. While I have no issue with that at all, I wonder if the same goes for most of us outside the ‘gym.’ Is there any emotional or imaginative space left for religion and spirituality after we have expended ourselves on sports and politics?

Certainly, spirituality can infuse sports and politics, and we should seek to pursue a holistic way of being in which physical and social aspects of reality are integrated with our spiritual existence rather than compartmentalized. For example, Paul makes use of imagery from the world of sports for his spiritual contests:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; ESV).

Now while Scripture would not have us compartmentalize the various aspects of our lives, we should not replace spirituality with sports or politics, or allow them to take up all emotional space in our lives.

This calls to mind an Atlantic interview back in December 2016 between journalist Emma Green and Michael Wear, who served in the Obama White House. The piece was titled “Democrats Have a Religion Problem.” The interview highlighted what Wear perceived as “the [Democratic] party’s illiteracy on and hostility toward white evangelicals.” The closing segment of the interview speaks to the subject of political isolation and tribalism in our country and how politics is taking up far more “emotional space in our lives” than is warranted—not just for Democrats, but for Republicans and others, too. Here is the closing segment:

Green: You’re a little bit of a man in the wilderness. You have worked for the Democratic Party, but you have conservative views on social issues, and you are conservative in terms of theology. There just aren’t a lot of people like you. Does it feel lonely?

Wear: It’s not as lonely as it might appear on the outside.

One of the things I found at the White House and since I left is this class of people who aren’t driving the political decisions right now, and have significant forces against them, but who are not satisfied with the political tribalism that we have right now. I think we’re actually in a time of intense political isolation across the board. I’ve been speaking across the country for the year leading up to the election, and I would be doing these events, and without fail, the last questioner or second-to-last questioner would cry. I’ve been doing political events for a long time, and I’ve never seen that kind of raw emotion. And out of that, I came to the conclusion that politics was causing a deep spiritual harm in our country. We’ve allowed politics to take up emotional space in our lives that it’s not meant to take up.

Certainly, it would be a lot more comfortable for me professionally if I held the party line on everything. Politically, I definitely feel isolated. But a lot of people feel isolated right now. And personally, I don’t feel lonely because I find my community in the church. That has been a great bond.

It is one thing to invest considerable energy in politics, or sports for that matter. It is quite another when Republicans and Democrats and everyone else in between find their ultimate meaning and identity in these spheres. We need mediating institutions like the church to serve as buffers between ourselves and the state and other domains. The church, along with other religious institutions, call us to invest emotional space in the realm of transcendent value, which impacts our various activities, including politics, sports and work, but is not dependent or exhausted by them.

Where do you and I invest our most cherished emotional space? One way to answer this question is by asking other questions: If our political candidates or sports teams do not win, what does that do to us? Do our worlds cave in, or are we standing because God is our ultimate reward and Jesus’ kingdom reign our victory? Do we find our deepest encouragement from being united with those who vote the same way we do, or with those who root for the same team, or from being united with other believers who have invested their most cherished emotional space in faith in Jesus Christ?

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