Monday, February 17, 2014

Faith and Sport

Since the Sochi Olympics are taking place right now, here's another column that looks at faith and sport in general.

The New Testament writers use many metaphors to describe the Christian life, including sport. 

"Run with endurance the race that is set before us," said the writer of the book of Hebrews, using the image of a long-distance race to encourage the early Christians in their new-found religious life.

In the first book to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul suggested that merely running wasn't enough -- winning was the goal of the Christian life. 

"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."

In other places, Paul indicated his only aim in life was to "finish the race." But at another point, when he seemed to be dealing with doubts, he wrote that he wanted to be sure he had "not been running my race in vain."

Sportsmanship was also important to Paul -- something today's athletes could keep in mind when tempted to cheat. 

"If anyone competes as an athlete, they do not receive the victor's crown unless they compete according to the rules," he added in the book of Second Timothy.

Of the major faiths, Christianity seems to have made the most of the sports-faith connection -- think of the controversy over former Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who regularly thanked God following late-game heroics, or the many athletes who point a finger skyward after scoring a touchdown.

Publishers of the Bible have noted this affinity for sports, publishing the Athlete's Bible, the Sports Devotional Bible (helps you "get in great spiritual shape") or the Extreme Sports Bible. 

The latter "contains 20 full-colour action photos of extreme sports, combined with verses about courage, bravery, faith, and adventure."

Other faiths also promote good health and exercise, but not to the same degree.

One Buddhist commentator notes that sport can help develop the mind, including positive states like team spirit, friendship, alertness and even a degree of detachment through gracefully accepting defeat. 

Another Buddhist suggests that athletes have a chance to experience a "meditative state worthy of a Buddha" through single-minded devotion and exertion.

"Sport becomes a form of meditation when you engage it with your full attention," he writes, suggesting this phenomenon can be called "sportsamadhi" -- "Samadhi" being the Sanskrit term for intense meditative concentration.

For Islam, most of the attention has been focused on restrictions on female participation in sports. But one Muslim commentator notes that the Prophet Mohammed recommended physical fitness to his followers, and that he participated in camel races.

Of sports in general, the prophet is reported to have said "any action without the remembrance of Allah is either a diversion or heedlessness excepting four acts: Walking from target to target (during archery practice), training a horse, playing with one's family and learning to swim."

Since sports in Greek and Roman times were associated with idol worship, ancient Jews were critical of sporting activities. 

The Talmud, for example, condemns Roman sports, especially gladiatorial combat. More recently, however, sport has been seen as a way for Jews to enter mainstream North American society, particularly through boxing and baseball.

The connection between religion and sports isn't restricted to playing fields; it has also found its way into the stands. 

American baseball teams, for example, often host religiously themed nights at their ballparks. Some major league teams hold Jewish heritage nights and faith and family days.

Not wanting to miss out on the fun, atheists in Minnesota will have a theme night for themselves on Aug. 10 when the Winnipeg Goldeyes' rivals, the St. Paul Saints, hold a night of "unbelievable fun."

During the game, sponsored by the Minnesota Atheists, the home team will drop its religious moniker and become the "Mr. Paul Aints." 

As well, the letter "S" in all Saints signs and logos around the stadium will be covered, and the game will include references to Big Foot, UFOs and other targets of the skeptical community.

"We want to show that atheists can have fun," said August Berkshire, president of Minnesota Atheists.

The Saints have hosted several religiously themed events before, including Christian concerts and a Jewish Heritage Night. 

It would be "hypocritical" to tell the atheists no, Saints general manager Derek Sharrer said.

To me, it sounds like fun, although I wonder what the crowd will sing in place of God Bless America during the seventh inning stretch -- maybe George and Ira Gershwin's It Ain't Necessarily So. 

Originally published August 4, 2012. If you want to reprint this column, send me a note. You can find my e-mail address in the post labelled About This Blog or in my profile.

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