The Sin of Idle Sport

Pentatholon

Today another September starts. As evidenced by my complete neglect of the Golden Assay I had a very enjoyable good summer. I wasted it all in games, sports, outdoor pursuits; all the things one ought to do with good weather. But one can indulge too much in leisure and become ashamed of his idleness. I am reminded here of John Bunyan’s “conversion” on the Elstow village green. As roads to Damascus go, his was wonderfully banal. Bunyan, of course, was an obedient Christian his entire life, but he enjoyed sport and bell-ringing on Sabbath days and apparently considered himself a spiritual delinquent for doing so. I think he was hard on himself. The wretch worked six days a week as an itinerant tinker, and understandably, needed a day off from time to time and a little diversion to go with it. But the Creator won’t even give us that, sadly, for one Sunday, while he was playing Tip-Cat with the other sinners, a numinous voice from the heavens admonished him to find shame in fun-having and quit sports. The line at the time was that Christ disapproved of sport because it was wasted effort and an idler’s refuge. A pious Christian works six days and spends the seventh in prayer. Any deviation from a rigid schedule of industry and devotion is depravity. I think this had to do with the Calvinist position of determinism and their equating sin with rejection of God’s plan. If you spend your life in work and worship, you are carrying out the destiny God intends for you and are therefore a righteous being, a saint even. Idle pastimes, observance of leisure, general amusement, are not evils in and of themselves; it’s simply that they divert people from more meaningful activity. Bunyan’s sin was not that he was playing Tip-Cat; it was what he was not doing while playing with his friends.

This animosity towards sport has almost completely vanished in the minds of modern people. Today sport is considered a noble pursuit. The exercise one gets from sports is understood to be essential to physiological health. The signs of regular exercise on the body are considered attractive. In a complete reversal of previous opinion, the practice of sport is now thought to be an indication of personal discipline and integrity. We even use athletics as a method of instilling discipline among young people in school. It is hard to imagine how totally different our conception of sports is in the protestant Christian world from the view of past generations. It feels like it has been with us forever, but it’s actually only recently that people began having even a positive view of exercise. Before the Industrial Revolution, physical activity was associated with manual labor and low social status. Sport encompassed hunting and riding and had nothing to do with physical exertion. Beginning in the late 19th century, the inchoate science of modern medicine demonstrated physiological benefits from vigorous exercise and proper diet. This led to the growth of a spa culture among the new leisure classes and a practice of new sports like aquatics, gymnastics, tennis, etc., the performance of which was done not just for diversion but for health.

gym

Of course, there had always been a custom of physical conditioning and training in martial life. Within the context of military service a young man was encouraged to develop his physique through exercise and perfect his combat technique with regular drills so that he might become a more effective soldier. This tradition of militarism, of cultivating virility and strength, of meeting the adversary and besting him in an honorable contest, informs the formation of modern athletics as much, if not more, than the institution and normalization of exercise and the desire for good-health.

It is surprising how many of our sports today are abstracted pantomimes of warfare; not modern war but antiquated, non-mechanized warfare. One of my favorite sports from this past summer’s Olympics was the pentathlon, a multi-event competition comprising five extremely varied disciplines: swimming, running, fencing, riding, and shooting. It only narrowly made it into the games. Though held continually in every Olympiad since 1912, many have questioned its relevance in modern athletics. First devised by Baron Peirre de Cobertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, the pentathlon was intended to model the skill-set of a 19th century cavalry soldier caught behind enemy lines: he must ride an unfamiliar horse, face the enemy with sword and pistol, swim in lake or river, and run great distances to return to his encampment. What I appreciate most about de Cobertin’s introduction of the pentathlon into the 1912 games is that these skills would have already been obsolete by the onset of the 20th century, and any doubt of this would have been completely erased with the Great War just a few years later. And yet the sport is still practiced. 72 men and women representing nations around the globe competed in the pentathlon last month, executing antiquated maneuvers of warriors from centuries ago. And lest we think our other sports are free of such influence, remember that our modern pentathlon itself is an updating of the classic contest from the ancient Olympiad. In the pentathlon of 500 BC the events were running, jumping, throwing, and wrestling. What sport does not include at least one of these most basic movements of the human body? What is athletics if not the practice of an old ritual of physical urgency? A solemn and determined preparation for the unforeseen contest to come.

Fuck Thanksgiving

I don’t celebrate thanksgiving. There are several reasons for this. The first and most personal is that on thanksgiving day of 2011, less than six months after our wedding, my now ex-wife cheated on me with a member of our nation’s armed services. Every year at the end of November I am reminded of the humiliation and confusion I felt around that whole episode. My refusal to observe the holiday is an expression of my resolve to never be fucked with again. But I am also opposed to the idea of thanksgiving and what the celebration represents. Having grown up in the American Midwest and having been taught Lutheran values as a child, I was told always to be thankful for what I have, and thus satisfied with what I have been given. Imperative to one’s happiness and moral rectitude is the proper observance of gratitude. For a Lutheran Christian to be pious and obedient to God’s will, he must be grateful for the life that has been given to him by God. Now, if you believe, as protestants do, that one’s life is determined by an omnipotent and omniscient Father and that He rewards those whom He blesses, one cannot really do anything with one’s life that is of any more substance or value than simply giving thanks to the almighty and praising His works. Adoption of such a view means relinquishing all agency. In means resigning from responsibility over one’s own destiny and conceding to the notion that you are supremely powerless and never free, not in any meaningful way.

Thanksgiving is supposed to be a celebration of the previous year’s harvest, but I ask, is the harvest always good and should we always be thankful for what it has brought us? Isn’t it more useful to us to consider how our condition can be improved than to celebrate our reasons for being content? I think that implicit in the act of giving thanks there is a pernicious kind of complacency. If you profess yourself to be thankful, you are saying that what fortune has presented you is at the very least adequate. Being thankful does not preclude one from wanting more or believing that things could be better, but it does dissuade you from struggling after it. To be ungrateful is viewed as selfish and unwise. We resent the malcontented individual because he or she demands more of us, in addition to what we have already given. Making things better is hard. Leaving them as they are is easier in the short term and safer. Being thankful for what we have allows us a little slack about how we are in the world. It permits us to be lazy about things, makes us feel fine with the gross imperfection that surrounds us because we have made a thin portion of it good. It seems appropriate then that we should celebrate thanksgiving by excessively sating ourselves and passing the day in a sedentary stupor. Thanksgiving is boring. It is the most uneventful holiday on the calendar.

Over the past weekend, I’ve shared by views on thanksgiving with others and challenged a few people to debate me on the matter. I’ve heard it said a few times that thanksgiving is notable because, besides New Years, it is the only holiday celebrated by people in the United States which has no overt religious or patriotic meaning. To this I’ve replied that the religion and patriotism may no be overt, but they are still very much present in the ceremony. As I’ve shown above, it very actively espouses protestant values and ideology. The holiday is uniquely American, more so than any other. What is thanksgiving but the celebration of the bounty and promise of the North American continent? It is an exaltation of US triumphalism and of the improbable ascendancy of the Western Hemisphere. Thanksgiving is the great feast day for modernity, which we have almost deified as the fount of all prosperity in our lives. It is the first modern holiday, and it is the holiday upon which all other holidays are modeled. It signifies a transition in our society from sacrifice to consumption, from anticipation of lack to expectation of plenty, from concern over sowing the field to concentration on harvesting from it. I do revere thanksgiving. I acknowledge its glory and its terrible beauty, but I do not subscribe to it. This year for thanksgiving, I made myself a sandwich and read a book.

Doctrine of Visible Saints

In the Puritan sects of 17th century Britain, visible saints were those select few whom God had ordained righteous and who observably enjoyed the fruits of God’s grace. The visible saints did good works. They were honest and compassionate. They possessed strength of reason and could defend God’s word with eloquence and courage. Visible saints were good because God made them to be good. He furnished them with intelligence, charisma, and an aptitude for moral discipline. Their saintliness was made visible through qualities of behavior, their zeal for the Word, their station in society, and, most often and most obviously, through their acquisition of material wealth. I think the wealth component might have been the basis for the doctrine. There was a bourgeoning middle class in England during the 17th century. Common people—not just lords and noblemen—began owning surpluses of property and assets. To justify their right to wealth, these new members of the middle class began asserting that God desired them to be successful and that anyone questioned their worthiness would be challenging God’s will.

We often mistakenly attribute the protestant schism from the Catholic Church as being caused by frustrations with papal corruption and an unwillingness of sovereign rulers to submit to the church’s power. While these concerns certainly encouraged the spread of Protestantism, it cannot be said that Martin Luther risked life, limb, and his eternal soul because he was upset that the Vatican was taking bribes. Matters of power and administration could be resolved internally—they always had been. Luther’s contention with the church was doctrinal. He was calling into question old, foundational beliefs which to correct would have required an undoing of orthodoxy dating back to the first council of Nicaea. Specifically, Luther challenged the church on the matter of predestination. If we are to presume that God is all-powerful and all-knowing then we must also acknowledge that God has absolute control over the universe and is the facilitating factor behind all causes and effects. This would also mean that human beings, as creations of God, must, at all times, adhere to His will, whether acting morally or immorally. Therefore, the Catholic Church’s stance on free will and its view that salvation was a thing that people achieved through good deeds and obedience had to be invalid. Luther maintained that people were already saved. As an act of grace, God had sacrificed his only son to save mankind. The only moral decision one had to make was either accepting this grace through faith in God or rejecting it. John Calvin went further, discarding the moral decision altogether. He posited in his clear, forceful way that God makes some men fit for salvation and destined for it, while for others he makes it an impossibility: “All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1564)

And so it is from belief in strict predestination that the Doctrine of Visible Saints arises. As a moral system, this can be highly problematic. It erases ethical responsibility and the role of human will in individuals’ own lives. It justifies one’s success even if it comes at the expense of others and removes the obligation of charity as a means of redistribution. Perhaps most troublesome, it equates positive fortune with moral purity and misfortune with wickedness. The believer is made to accept that when bad things happen to good people, somehow the sufferer deserves it. It does not matter if the individual is good, their poor fate was predetermined and is independent of their worldly deeds.

I myself am areligious and do not have a position on the subject that could result in belief—though it is tempting to make one. I approach this debate more as a philosophical paradox. Still, I think it’s interesting to see how these shifts in doxa influence society and shape ethical values. The Doctrine of Visible Saints never totally disappeared. The rise of Methodism and subsequent spiritual revivals re-emphasizing good works and generosity have since offered some counterweight, but the tradition is still woven into the fabric of most protestant Christianity. We see it resurrected by the evangelical churches and the Church of the Latter-day Saints in the form of prosperity theology. It’s become a cornerstone of the evangelizing mission—and one can see why. They are offering an excellent value proposition: God wants you to be rich and happy, but you have to accept His grace so that He can get into your life and make it happen. More than any other message, the prosperity promise seems to resonate with people the most. It’s built mega churches and has made millionaires out of glad-handing salespriests. It’s ushered Christianity into the era of mass culture. To think, it was a doctrine derived from predetermines that did it. Of course, the part about how some people are pre-ordained to fail is usually left out of the sermons. In the prosperity gospel, everyone has a place the table. Whether it makes sense theologically is beside the point. It’s an optimistic message that everyone can get behind.