Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 8, 2010

Super Saints Go Marching In: On Faith and Sports

Any bourgeois academic or religious zealot who thinks sports do not matter to God– or should not matter in a civilized culture– got a serious beatdown in Miami last night. I have some serious things to say on the subject, though I can’t help but throw in a little humor and irony as well.

Bottom line: sports matter because human culture matters, to scientists, anthropologists, theologians and deities alike. Now, I’m not saying God always cares who WINS a game. I can’t speak for Him or Her. (First rule of faith: There is a God, and I ain’t Him.) But like everything else humans do, football actually matters, and last night proves it.

Let me make my case first, then see what you think:

Despite all the hype about New Orleans and Katrina, and humble, heroic acts by millionaire athletes and regular Joes in the Ninth Ward, what happened in Super Bowl 44 was about as genuine, as real, as pro sports ever get. (And not that this means much, but has anyone noticed that Barack Obama is the 44th President of the United States?!) The odds said one thing, but Reality bucked the odds.  The fact that it was one of the cleanest, closest, and most interesting Super Bowls in history only strengthens my belief that God (or Reality, if you prefer) cared. Despite Dwight Freeney’s ankle– the most famous ankle since pitcher Curt Schilling’s bloody sock in his World Series victory– the Colts played a good game and got beat, fair and square. Despite Peyton Manning’s New Orleans roots, his endless study of game films and playbooks, and his seemingly preternatural ability to play the game so well, it was actually Manning’s “random act of blindness” –and the resulting “immaculate interception” by Saint Tracy Porter of Louisiana — that sealed the victory.

Tracy Porter, who attended Indiana University in college. Tracy Porter, who isn’t even the most famous football player named Porter who comes from Louisiana! Okay, …well NOW I suppose Tracy will surpass perennial powerhouse LA Tech’s running back, Daniel Porter, in popularity and internet hits. But be careful here… does anyone outside of New York still remember the name of the receiver who caught the other Son of Thunder brother Eli Manning’s own heroic pass, in the final seconds of the Giants’ last Super Bowl win? (It was David Tyree, but I confess I had to look it up, despite my being a consistent fantasy football enthusiast.)

Okay, back to the sports and religion thing: For you serious academics– Christian, Islamic, secular, whatever — I cite William James’ famous, respectable, and mostly secular 1902 work of psychiatry and philosophy, Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study of Human Nature. Long story short, James makes a compelling scientific case for religion’s essential qualities, for the real existence of an overarching deity. Some one causes some things to happen, in real time and space. Within the mind and within the world, experience does not follow strict scientific laws in every case. Or, as we like to say nowadays: “S–t happens.”

Furthermore, C.S. Lewis –that champion of evangelical thinking who many Americans and Europeans have elevated to near-saint status (with good reason, mind you)– makes a similar case in his book The Four Loves. One of the loves — the Greek philia (filial love, or fellowship), our passion, enthusiasm, loyalty and drive to belong, to be part of a team or family — is cited as a godly and perfectly natural phenomenon. Unfortunately, the modern world has sometimes gone to extremes in this, where the former fanaticism of religious ideologues has now been transferred to the manic, needy behavior of tailgating fans with a fifth of hooch and painted faces. Ask any British soccer fan if you don’t believe me: on the continent where religion itself  has almost ceased to matter, soccer is as close to religious experience as the average Jane or Joe gets.

Finally, as any fan of the Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs can attest, remaining faithful to a team despite hardship and persecution can be excellent, character-building training for dealing with the joys and hardships of everday life. Before I ever had a good sense of belonging to God or a church, I was a dyed-in-the-wool, hopeful Cubs fan… and will be to the end (an apparently bitter end, unless they win the Series within my lifetime, which I am beginning to doubt will happen).

So I say a hearty “Hallelujah” and “Amen” to anyone for whom a Saints victory is the next big step in God’s recovery plan for the people of New Orleans. For once, the Mighty Casey has not struck out. There’s a whiff of change in the Brees (har har), and I’m still holding out hope that we’ll all pull together, get through these hard times, and get home safe. Someday.

Unless God’s plan becomes a bill that has to get through the House and Senate before being acted upon, that is…


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