Play, Politics, and Worship

Here is a thought for the day:

“I assert that in all the cities, everyone is unaware that the character of the games played is decisive for the establishment of the laws, since it determines whether or not the established laws will persist.”

This assertion was made by Plato in The Laws (book VII) and it suggests that the political culture of a society is bound up with the nature of its games. More specifically, Plato goes on to observe that the persistence of a society’s laws is bound up with the persistence of its games:

“Where this is arranged, and provided that the same persons always play at the same things, with the same things, and in the same way, and have their spirits gladdened by the same toys, there the serious customs are also allowed to remain undisturbed; but where the games change, and are always infested with innovation and other sorts of transformations … there is no greater ruin than this that can come to a city.”

We typically remember that Plato treated music with a great deal of seriousness in The Republic, we less often hear of the seriousness with which he treated sports and games, but there it is (courtesy of James Schall from whose essay, “The Seriousness of Sports,” these quotations are drawn).

There’s a good deal to think about here.

It is not insignificant that with regards to the two great civilizations of the classical period, Greece and Rome, we readily think of games which seem to characterize their societies: the Olympics and the gladiatorial games respectively. In Constantinople, that enduring but infrequently remembered enclave of classical civilization, the Blues and the Greens which functioned as part gangs and part political associations not infrequently contributing to riots and coups began and were sustained as fans of popular charioteering teams. More recently, in Egypt, one not insignificant block of participants in the current political turmoil are bound together primarily by their love of soccer.

On a related note, perhaps at the root of soccer’s inability to take in American culture there is more than a hint about the national character (insofar as we may legitimately speak of one).

Moreover, what might it mean that for a time baseball could legitimately be called America’s sport? And what, in turn, might it mean that while baseball remains popular, it’s place in American culture has been challenged if not replaced by basketball and football? Both of these, of course, have been around for some time and it could be argued that they too are distinctly American. So perhaps we may create a political taxonomy of sorts based on the three dominate sports of American society: baseball, football, and basketball. I wonder, has anyone studied whether a preference for one of these sports is a reliable predictor of political inclinations?

Two titles come to mind in connection with the theme of play and culture. The earlier one is historian John Huzinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Elements in Culture, the first Dutch edition of which appeared in 1938. Huzinga aimed at demonstrating the elements of play that variously manifest themselves in culture. The other is a more recent work,  Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution, which similarly stresses the links between play and worship.

The link between religion and sports is frequently noted and perhaps there is more to it than we usually imagine, more than the surface similarities between the worship of the religious and the devotion of the fan.

In The Laws, Plato puts the following claim in the mouth of the Athenian:

“I assert that what is serious should be treated seriously, and what is not serious should not, and that by nature god is worthy of a complete, blessed seriousness, but that what is human … has been devised as a certain plaything of god, and that this is really the best thing about it. Every man and woman should spend life in this way, playing the noblest possible games, and thinking about them …”

This is all well and good, but it seems to describe less and less the reality of sports in America. Perhaps because sport has become an end to something other than itself. Schall also cites the following from Aristotle:

“Men have been known to make amusement an end in itself … for there is indeed a resemblance; the end is not pursued for the sake of anything that may accrue thereafter but always for its own sake.”

Sports at their best, Schall notes, approach a form of contemplation:

“Here, in a way, we near what is best in ourselves, for we are spectators not for any selfish reason, not for anything we might get out of the game, money or exercise or glory, but just because the game is there and we lose ourselves in its playing, either as players or spectators. This not only should remind us that what is higher than we are, what is ultimately serious, is itself fascinating and joyful.”

It is these realizations that explain our collective fury and anger when sports is tainted with betting scandals or steroid controversies and even haggling over the distribution of dollars in the billions. In each case, the happy myth of sport played and watched for its own sake as a kind of end in itself channeling even higher realities is shattered. It is not that men and women have disappointed us –although this also is true — it is rather that the vessel of a certain secular grace has been broken and we are all the poorer for it.

It’s Not a Game, It’s an Experience — Mark Cuban Channels Don Draper

In the first season finale of the AMC series Mad Men, Don Draper famously pitches an ad campaign for Kodak’s new slide projector in which he suggests, with appropriately melodramatic music in the background,

This is not a spaceship, it’s a time machine … It goes backwards and forwards, and it takes us to a place where we ache to go again … It’s not called ‘The Wheel.’ It’s called ‘The Carousel.’ It lets us travel around and around and back home again.

The scene was effectively parodied by SNL shortly thereafter.  You can see the scene below and watch the parody at Hulu.

Over the top perhaps, but it did convey Madison Avenue’s awareness that selling a product involves connecting with something deeper than utility or effectiveness.  Think what you will of the Dallas Maverick’s sometimes controversial owner Mark Cuban, he has perceptively argued, along similar lines, that those in the professional sports business are not selling games, they are selling experiences.  In a recent blog post he writes,

We in the sports business don’t sell the game, we sell unique, emotional experiences.We are not in the business of selling basketball. We are in the business of selling fun and unique experiences. I say it to our people at the Mavs at all time, I want a Mavs game to be more like a great wedding than anything else.

Ultimately, his post ends up being about technologies that insert themselves into the experience and thus detract from that experience.

… I hate the trend of handheld video at games. I can’t think of a bigger mistake.  The last thing I want is someone looking down at their phone to see a replay.

This is not unlike Jaron Lanier’s wondering whether we are really there at all when we tweet, blog, or update our status throughout an event or gathering.  Cuban and Lanier, in their own ways, are both arguing for our full presence in our own experience.  He concludes his post with the following observation:

The fan experience is about looking up, not looking down. If you let them look down, they might as well stay at home, the screen is always going to be better there.

This is good advice for life in general.  Look up from the screen.  Who knows, in looking one another in the eyes again, we might begin to recover the habits of respect and civility that are now so sorely missed.

Is Sport a Religion?, Part Two

More thoughts on the intersection of sport and the sacred from Religion Dispatches.

In “Can We Take the Religion of Soccer Seriously?” Gary Laderman explores the parameters of what may be properly called sacred, particularly in the context of how religion is covered in “the new media landscape.”

And in the wake of two near deadly goring incidents, Jeremy Biles’ “Sacred Bull” gives a fascinating account of bull fighting’s “sacred appeal” in Spanish culture concluding with intriguing reflections on beauty, violence, tragedy, and the sacred.

Some Dim Dazzling Trick of Grace

Image: AFP

Unintentionally, yesterday’s post on sport as religion dovetailed suggestively with the preceding one, “Distracted from distraction by distraction.”  In that post I had continued a series of reflections on Nicholas Carr’s analysis of the Internet’s impact on our brains in his latest book, The Shallows combining a brief rejoinder to a strand of criticism frequently directed at Carr with strikingly apropos lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.”  Distraction was the recurring theme.  The Internet according to Carr habituates our mind to perpetual distraction, and in the long run our ability to think deeply and creatively suffers.  Eliot already laments a culture of distraction in the mid-20th century and seems to be describing us with eerie foresight.

Whether or not we finally judge sport to be a kind of religion, it is certainly a distraction; more precisely, it is a diversion.  As one comment noted, perhaps a bit harshly, it is escapist entertainment diverting us from ordinary life.  Sports may be more than this, and I will suggest that it is, but it is at least this.  And as our embrace of Internet-empowered distraction also demonstrates, we love to be distracted and we crave diversion.  We can hardly stand it if we are without either distraction or diversion for more than a few moments at a time.  We complain incessantly about our busyness, but were it all to stop we would hardly know what to do with ourselves.

This is not, however, a new problem.  Although the condition may now be intensified and heightened, it has been with us at least since the 17th century, and almost certainly before then.  It was in the 17th century that Blaise Pascal began assembling a series of notes on scraps of paper in preparation for a book he never wrote.  When he died at the age of 39 he left behind hundreds of barely organized notes which were later collected and published under the French title Pensees, or thoughts.  Pascal is today remembered, if at all, either for his law of fluid pressure or an argument for God’s existence known as Pascal’s Wager.  Neither quite does justice to the depth of his insight into what it is now unfashionable to call the human condition.

Pascal knew that we needed our diversions and distractions and that without them we would be miserable.  His description of the younger generation sounds wholly contemporary:

Anyone who does not see the vanity of the world is very vain himself.  So who does not see it, apart from young people whose lives are all noise, diversions, and thoughts for the future?  But take away their diversion and you will see them bored to extinction.  Then they feel their nullity without recognizing it, for nothing could be more wretched than to be intolerably depressed as soon as one is reduced to introspection with no means of diversion.

But Pascal is not merely an old crank berating a younger generation he fails to understand.  Pascal applies the same analysis indiscriminately.  Young or old, rich or poor, male or female — for Pascal it just comes with being human.  “If our condition were truly happy,” he explains, “we should not need to divert ourselves from thinking about it.”  As things stand, however,

Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things …. What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us.  That is why we prefer the hunt to the capture.

We need distractions and diversions to keep us from contemplating our true condition, frail and mortal as it is.  For this reason we cannot stand to be alone with our own thoughts and seek to fill every moment with distraction.  Pascal’s view is admittedly rather grim even as it resonates with our experience.  Yet, Pascal knew there was more than this to the human condition.  There was also love and passion, knowledge and creativity, wonder and courage.  Pascal knew this and he insisted that we recognize both the glory and the misery of humanity:

Let man now judge his own worth, let him love himself, for there is within him a nature capable of good; but that is no reason for him to love the vileness within himself.  Let him despise himself because this capacity remains unfilled; but that is no reason for him to despise this natural capacity.  Let him both hate and love himself; he has within him the capacity for knowing truth and being happy, but he possesses no truth which is either abiding or satisfactory.

Pascal insists that we reckon with all that is good and all that is bad in us.  It is our awareness of the possibility of goodness, however, which heightens our misery.  And, yet again, it is our awareness of our misery that is part of our glory.  In the end Pascal believed that “God alone is man’s true good” and Christ the “via veritas.”  With St. Augustine, whose influence permeates Pascal’s thought, he would have prayed, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”  Perhaps this is why at times spirituality and the language of worship suffuses our most prominent and powerful diversions.

Augustine and Pascal in turn both helped shape the thought of Walker Percy, a 20th century Roman Catholic novelist.  Percy blended Pascalian insight with a touch of existentialism in his best known novel The Moviegoer (1960) in which the main character, Binx Bolling, finds himself on a search.  “What is the nature of the search? you ask.”

Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me; so simple that it is easily overlooked.  The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life …. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something.  Not to be onto something is to be in despair.

Near the middle of the novel throughout which Bolling has been amassing clues he thinks are somehow related to the search, he despairs:

… when I awake, I awake in the grip of everydayness.  Everydayness is the enemy.  No search is possible.  Perhaps there was a time when everydayness was not too strong and one could break its grip by brute strength.  Now nothing breaks it — but disaster.

However, through a rather tortured relationship with a very broken young woman named Kate whom he has come to love, Binx begins to see grace in the ordinary.  Near the very end of the novel, while he and Kate are sitting at a service station discussing marriage and the worries that still fill Kate’s mind, Binx notices a man coming out of a church.  It is Ash Wednesday.  Binx watches while the man sits in his car looking down at something on the seat beside him.  The man’s presence puzzles Binx:

It is impossible to say why he is here.  Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world?  Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants?  Or is he here for both reasons:  through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God’s own importunate bonus?  It is impossible to say.

If sport diverts us from ordinary life, what do we make of it?  Is it as Pascal would have it a mere distraction which facilitates our unwillingness to acknowledge our true condition?  Or, taking a cue from Percy, might it be a rupture of the “everydayness,” the ordinariness of our lives that may awaken us to the possibility of the search?  My sense is that they are both right; each is a possibility.  Sports can be merely a distraction conducive to living in bad faith in denial of the truth of our situation.  It is odd, however, that something very much like a spiritual or religious aura so often surrounds sport.  Maybe it is because bursts of grace and beauty appear suddenly and unexpectedly even in the midst of our diversions to remind us that we ought to be searching for their source.  Maybe it is because “through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one” we receive “the other as God’s own importunate bonus?”

It is impossible to say.

Is Sport a Religion?

I can’t imagine that this is a new observation, but according to Nigel Barber at The Human Beast,

Psychologists are closing in on the conclusion that sport has many of the same effects on spectators as religion does. Here is Daniel Wann [2001], a leading sport psychologist at Murray State University, and his co-authors: “The similarities between sport fandom and organized religion are striking. Consider the vocabulary associated with both: faith, devotion, worship, ritual, dedication, sacrifice, commitment, spirit, prayer, suffering, festival, and celebration.”

So, is sport a religion?  The answer to that question could only be resolved, if at all, after some haggling over what one means by “sport” and “religion.”  In any case, there is something compelling about the comparison.  Myself, I’m inclined to think that there is something mystical and quasi-spiritual about baseball, but I can see how, especially this month, others might be more inclined to see adumbrations of the holy in World Cup Soccer (Football, Futbol, whatever).  As it turns out, meditations on the spirituality of soccer abound.

At the TimesOnline, Matthew Syed explores the psychological benefits of belief for players in “The Players with God on Their Side.” He concludes,

… if Ali [the boxer] is praying to Allah and Edwards [a triple jumper] to Jehovah, and if these two men believe in contradictory theologies, and if both are reaping benefits, it must be the belief itself, not its truth, that matters. These insights explain, I think, at least in part, the pervasiveness of religion at this World Cup. It is less a matter of theology than psychology. Belief in God can give an athlete, a team, a crucial edge in the cauldron of competition, where success and failure are measured in fractions.

Preston Davis at Religion Dispatches explores “Soccer and the Sublime in the Shadow of Apartheid” eloquently reflecting on the themes of grace, incarnation, beauty, and justice.  He soberly reflects on what the game can and cannot do, concluding that World Cup soccer,

like religion, possesses a beauty that humanizes. It does not whitewash tragedy but it does provide transcendence from it, and at its best meaning-making for it. It mysteriously wields us together and separates us all at once. We place our hopes in the efforts of 11 men on a pitch, competing against an opposing 11, and in the end we are thankful just to be a part of the experience.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing, each essay contains enough links to keep you busy for the better part of the morning.