Whenever we make the decision to try to live “better” (be it healthier, or more uprightly, or more joyfully), the pursuit inevitably means confronting the contradictions that exist in our lives. Take, for instance, those of us who want to lose weight but also love late night snacking. These two desires are clearly at odds, and this conflict must be resolved before we can move forward—one must yield before the other. The same is true in the work of conversion: some things need to be cast off; others can be integrated.
A healthy benchmark for making such judgments is to “hold all things before the mirror of eternity.” I have gone through this evaluation numerous times, and the most recent topic has been sports: “Can playing sports be reconciled with the Christian life?” The question seems (and admittedly is) a bit silly, but the inquiry yields certain insights that are worth a short treatment. Consider this “An Apology for Playing Sports.”
1) We can begin with a few of the more obvious arguments. Most sports are forms of exercise. Further, we are indeed meant to glorify God with our bodies, which we hold to be temples of the Holy Spirit. So, inasmuch as playing sports contributes to living a more integral human existence, the discipline is seen to be good.
2) In addition, sports are enjoyable. We may not be able to find our final felicity on the playing field, but that doesn’t stop sports from participating in a limited way in human flourishing: they really do offer contentment and delight.
3) Moving on to more essential arguments, we find that sports can be “schools of virtue.” On the purely natural plane, sports are fertile ground for the growth of a variety of virtues in the soul of the athlete. Many sports encourage growth in prudence. An athlete is constantly called upon to grow in the capacity to apply principles to practical situations (think of the golfer evaluating a shot with his caddy). Sports also encourage growth in justice. The athlete is trained to operate within a certain moral sphere, adherence to which contributes to his flourishing and transgression from which, his failure (think of the foul trouble that undid the Celtics in their first two games of the series with the Heat). Sports also encourage fortitude. For sports worthy of the name, the goal is an arduous one, requiring constancy and perseverance. Here, one can recall Kerri Strug’s heroic vault in the 1996 Olympics on a broken ankle. Though we could go one, let’s end by noting that sports encourage temperance. We need look no farther than the attention given to the diet of athletes to find testimony to this.
4) Sports are also a healthy playground for the human passions. For those who live a relatively placid or even-keeled life, it is possible to go days without truly experiencing the passions of fear, despair, daring, or anger. Sports have a way of exciting the passions and so can reveal to us the degree to which these passions have been integrated. This is not to say that one ought to play sports merely to excite the passions (a dangerous exercise), but rather that sports offer myriad opportunities for the engagement of the passions and so provide a playing field for their integration.
5) Consider a final point. Sports are an analogue for the spiritual life. It is no coincidence that St. Paul uses the example of running a race (1 Cor 9:24–27) for the spiritual life, as the two share a number elements in common, many of which have already been mentioned. This is not to say that a good athlete will necessarily be a good person—we can certainly multiply examples to the contrary—but rather that sports offer themselves as a helpful tool for explaining, integrating, and practicing the disciplines at work in the spiritual life.
And so, while we may not be inundated by incensed accusers bewailing Christian participation in sports (most of the justifiable objections surround the abuses of the sports-entertainment industry, not the playing of sports themselves), these reflections may still be of some use. At the very least, perhaps they can contribute to a more conscious integration of sports into our lives and, in turn, to a greater appreciation and enjoyment thereof.
Image: Seth Eastman, Lacrosse Playing Amongst the Sioux Indians