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Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Gordie Howe Hat Trick as a Religious Practice

I would be remiss not to mention the passing of Gordie Howe, the legendary Detroit Red Wing known as "Mr. Hockey." As I was born and raised in suburban Detroit, the sport of hockey is indeed hallowed and holy to my own life. Detroit is self-styled as "Hockeytown" and the proof is empirical ("Detroit is still the best hockey city in America")

Gordie Howe, by so many measures, is considered the best hockey player of all-time. He is the only professional hockey player to have played in six decades, debuting with the Red Wings at the age of 18 in 1946 all the way to a special one-time appearance with the Detroit Vipers in 1997. His actual last full season as a pro hockey player was in 1979-1980 at the age of 52 for the Hartford Whalers, playing with his sons Mark Howe and Marty Howe, where he scored 41 points-15 goals and 26 assists-and played in the 1980 NHL All-Star Game at the newly christened Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

In his 25 pro seasons, he was an All-Star 23 times, and he was in the top 10 in scoring for 21 consecutive seasons. He won the Stanley Cup, the ultimate team prize in the sport, with the Red Wings four times. He won the Hart Trophy, for league most valuable player six times, and the Art Ross Trophy, for league leading scorer, six times. Only "The Great One" himself, Wayne Gretzky, has scored more goals over the course of an entire career.

Following Gordie's passing on June 10th, two main narratives have emerged from his life and career. First, how incredibly skilled and tough he was on the ice. The quantity of his numbers has a direct correlation to the quality of his toughness. The sharpness of his elbow, the paunch of his punch, and the snakiness of his stick play (all adorably demonstrated on Keith Olbermann in this classic "This is Sportscenter" commerical) was his mad game. Hockey is still one of the most physical sports on the planet, but the classic toughness of Gordie Howe has been tempered for many different reasons, especially the NHL's own concussion crisis which has come about as players have become bigger and stronger and quicker than ever. 

The second narrative which has come out of Gordie's passing was his incredible humility, openness, and graciousness in his relationship to his many, many fans and well-wishers. It's not hyperbole to say if you lived in Detroit you either had a wonderful story of meeting Gordie or knew someone who met him. My uncle John and my cousins Jacob and Johnny, the most devoted and talented hockey players in my own family, met Gordie once and spent nearly an hour with him talking shop and getting encouraged to be the best players and people they could be.

It wasn't so much that Gordie went out of his way to make time with his fans and well-wishers. The time and energy he spent, his graciousness and humility, was his way. My hometown Detroit Free Press has a ton of great articles which reveal this part of Gordie's legacy, so check out the links to learn more: From Jeff Seidel, Helene St. JamesMitch Albom, Drew Sharp, Scotty Bowman, Steve Yzerman, Wayne Gretzky and more great tributes from the eulogy at his funeral by his son Murray Howe, and so many of his fans, friends, and well-wishers

Gordie also became famous for what became known as the "Gordie Howe Hat-Trick", getting a goal, assist, and having a fight all in one game. I was shocked to learn from Katie Baker, the great hockey journalist from The Ringer, that Gordie himself only accomplished this feat twice in his career. Of course what we do here at Sports Theology is stretch the bounds of sport and faith to see if they can fit together, so in that spirit, in Gordie's spirit, let me briefly explain how the "Gordie Howe Hat-Trick" can be a kind of daily religious practice.

1. Goal: What are we trying to accomplish in the practice of our faith? What is the goal? Are we trying to escape the world? Save the world? Find ourselves? Lose ourselves? Escape from other people? Save other people? In the Bhagavad-Gita, one of the classic wisdom texts of the Hindu/Vedic spiritual tradition from India, the nature of action and the motivation behind our action is explained as such: "You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty."

How to understand this seemingly contradictory instruction in a colloquial way? In performing action, and in being motivated to perform action, we must understand our sense of duty and obligation in performing right action, or dharma. However, in performing that right action, we must not be selfishly attached to the results of our actions. If we cling to these results in a destructive self-absorbed way, we are no longer performing right action. We must also understand that the results of our action are always the result of collaboration and community, even if the effects of this collaboration is subtle. Our ancestors and predecessors have always laid the path and the way for what we do and what we accomplish. We have a responsibility to them and to all living beings to perform our right action for the benefit of all. That is the goal of our right action.

2. Assist: The goal of our right action is the way our right action assists all living beings in performing their own right action. Both Hindu and Buddhist traditions talk about the concept of seva, or selfless, devoted service, ideally done with love and devotion, or bhakti, for the pleasure, benefit, health, and well-being of everyone we encounter. Our goal actually is to always assist others in the performance of right action. Our duty to assist places us firmly in the chain of right action which is the active and immanent presence of the Divine in the world all around us.

3. Fight: One of the greatest modern advances in theology has been the conviction that knowledge of the Divine must always correlate and create righteous action of justice for the most vulnerable living beings in our society and on the planet. From the "Social Gospel" to liberation theology to Womanism, we understand that the way we think and act as people of faith must never be disconnected from the suffering of our neighbor. Theology without this connection to the righteous action of justice is not actually theology, for it only represents spaced-out abstractions rather than the spark and flame of resisting injustice and oppression which is the actual reality of Divine knowledge.

As Gustavo Gutierrez writes in his classic tome A Theology of Liberation, our freedom in faith comes from our willingness to fight against what oppresses and separates us. He writes:

"The freedom to which we are called presupposes the going out of oneself, the breaking down of our selfishness and of all the structures that support our selfishness; the foundation of this freedom is openness to others. The fullness of liberation-a free gift from Christ-is communion with God and with other human beings."

I won't say Gordie Howe was a theologian or a saint, but when we recall his life and the way he related to so many people, we see someone who understand this simple Divine truth of opening up and going out to others. He leaves behind so many living memories and for all Detroiters and hockey fans everywhere his spirit remains ever-fresh. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

Muhammad Ali at the Intersection of Sports and Religion

At the intersection of sport and faith, there is perhaps no more profound and compelling figure and exemplar than Muhammad Ali. His faith as a Muslim was and is the very core of his being. Ali reflected, like a brilliant crystal, so many manifestations of exceptional, courageous, and enlightened ultralight beams. His creativity, the dance of his words and his feet, the poetry of his punch and the punch of his poetry, made him seem superhuman. Yet the sacred bonds Ali created with so many people over his lifetime, with his "playful jab", the flash of his smile and the light in his eyes which, as Keith Olbermann wrote this weekend, seem to honest-to-God telepathically communicate Ali's great and overflowing love and affection, revealed his clear, plain humanity. His faith as a Muslim was the fuel of his human heart and spirit, his generosity, and his defiance of the inhumane.

In his spiritual memoir Soul of a Butterfly, Ali spoke of his own understanding of faith:

My wealth is in my knowledge of self, love, and spirituality.

Ali, in his persona and spirit, was a revelator of the complexities and potentialities not just of the American character, but of the entire intertwined mutuality of the common thread of human character itself. He crossed boundaries of inhumanity with intention and strength. He resisted the cages we place around ourselves and others. His faith as a Muslim allowed him to understand that he was first and foremost a servant of God. His mood of service, his devotion, was actually the source of his greatest wealth, and this wealth, in the great cosmic irony that comes with true humble devotion to God, was what actually gave him the audacity and integrity to claim himself as The Greatest.

Ali found himself, in more ways than one, in the middle of one of the important theological moments in American history: the rise of black nationalism and black theology. Converting to Islam through the Nation of Islam, Ali advocated, with all his might, for the empowerment of the black community in America. In the volume Sport in America, From Colonial Leisure to Celebrity Figures and Globalization, David K. Wiggins wrote:

By embodying Muslim ideals, triumphing in the ring, and refusing to acquiesce to either the sport establishment or the broader American society, Ali helped invert stereotypes about blacks and inspired members of his race whose daily lives were often filled with drudgery and belittlement. Black Americans of every age group, economic class, political affiliation, and religious denomination were inspired by Ali’s refusal to sacrifice his principles when the clash came between individual success in sport and the imperatives of group action.

The righteous fire of his Muslim faith was his primary motivation for what can be considered the essential defining moment of his life: his refusal to fight for the American military in the Vietnam War. He proclaimed with full conviction that "I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality." The very peak years of his boxing prowess was thus taken away from him by the U.S government and by every major boxing commission for his refusal to "serve" a cause he felt and knew was ghastly against his service to Allah. Ali may not have wanted to choose faith over sport, and he felt the denial of the dance of his fists and feet in the ring was indeed an injustice, but when the crossroads came, he ultimately did not hesitate to put the practice and the demand of his faith and devotion first and foremost.

Ali was one of many voices in the 1960's, including and especially James H. Cone and his groundbreaking works such as Black Theology and Black Power and A Black Theology of Liberation, who began to publicly and with great affect to question the very concept of whiteness, and the way whiteness colored everything from Jesus to pound cake.

Ali's journey as a Muslim, from the Nation of Islam to his identification with the broader global ummah (Muslim community), a journey reflecting the interrupted path of his friend and comrade Malcolm X, must be understood if we are to understand in any truthful and profound way who Ali was and is and who he remains for us today. His journey, and the way that it intersected with American culture and the realms of race, war, politics, and sports, is as relevant as ever. It is easy to forget or to not know how much Ali was considered a pariah to the "decency" of American whiteness in the 1960's. To this day, there are certain pockets of American society which would still resist Ali's blackness and the blackness of his faith. Some of us can take a step back and understand the contingencies and complexities of that historical moment and our historical moment in a kind of academic or scholarly way. Too few of us actually listen to what he and Malcolm X were saying, and understand the truth of their experience and the spirit of their call and resistance for the human over the inhuman. We need Ali's wisdom more than ever today.

Ali was, of course, also the greatest boxer of all time. Yet that greatness came with a dear and distinct price. Joyce Carol Oates, in a 1992 essay at the New York Review of Books, writes that:

Though highly ritualized, and as rigidly bound by rules, traditions, and taboos as any religious ceremony, it survives as the most primitive and terrifying of contests...boxing’s mimesis is not that of a mere game, but a powerful analogue of human struggle in the rawest of life-and-death terms.

Boxing, as expression and spectacle, certainly can enter into that uncanny extraordinary space we previously argued can be found in Football as Religious Experience, where the sports becomes ritual, where as ritual sports becomes, as explained by religious scholar Christopher Key Chapple, "the connection point through which one embraces and understands emplacement within the universe." Yet that extraordinariness of boxing is also one-and-the-same as its brutality. We can marvel at the Thrilla in Manila as one of the greatest fights and sporting events of all times, yet we can't separate the greatness from the violence, and the effect it had on both men. This is, to say the least, a very important question as we explore Sports Theology. Sports and religion can provide important, extraordinary, ritualistic experiences which can seem to provide us with meaning within the vast scope of the universe. But what happens when the extraordinary nature of this experience comes married with the brutality of violence, when it comes with a punch to the head or a nail to the cross?

Throughout his life, Ali gave himself to his fellow humans, insisting that every moment he gave to one of his fans and well-wishers was another notch to help him get into heaven. Throughout his last days, he advocated for Islam as a religion of peace and understanding against the phenomenon of Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other like-minded thieves of the tradition and against the idiocracy of demagogues like Trump. We remember him as the Greatest, but we can only do so if we remember him as a man of deep faith and devotion, a devout Muslim, and a spiritual teacher who can continue to guide our lives. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The "Wahhh!", the Chant, and the Club: Football as Religious Experience

For all the sturm-und-drang and hands to the heavens about the decline and downfall of religion in the 21st Century, I'm here to say everything is quite okay, especially if you're a devoted Football (Soccer) fan, for Football provides some of the most profound religious emotion and experience you can find in the world today.

You can experience this ecstasy, you can feel it in the marrow of your bones, in the beat of the heart, in that incredible moment when, incredibly, amazingly, against pretty stiff odds, a GOL is scored, and the crowd all goes WAHHHH!! at once. 

(Folks of certain persuasions and allegiances will have to forgive the preponderance of Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid. Ronaldo is a very attractive man-I call him "Sexy"-and the fans at the Santiago Bernabeu do the best WAHHH! after a GOL)

Mancunians of a certain "Blue Moon" persuasion know the spiritual agony and ecstasy of Football all too well. Having suffered for decades without barely a trophy or championship, having watched their beloved City fall down into the middling tiers of the English Football League, they found themselves on the final day of the 2012 Premier League season simply needing a win against lowly Queens Park Rangers to win their first championship in 44 years.

Being City, things did not go quite as planned, and you need this bit of context when watching the full video below. Watch especially the anguish of the City supporters, until 5:34 of the video, when you can understand and feel Football as Religious Experience.

The shots of the supporters after Sergio Aguero's miracle GOL are the best. There is this astounding emotional release which is so visceral, like a gush of gale wind, that you can practically taste the tears of joy and amazement. Every time I watch this video tears comes to my eyes without fail (I joke with a dear friend that sports is the only thing that actually makes me cry-more on that later). This was the moment that made me fall in love with Football. Even though I knew little of the angst of being a City supporter at the time, I understood how extraordinary this moment was. I could feel it through the screen and across the ocean. I jumped out of my seat and scared the shite out of my neighbor with my cries of joy (not the first or last time I will do that).

And it's just that: it's extraordinary! Here is a moment of sport, of "footy" as they call it in the Queen's land, which lifts these people, as individuals and as a community, into a mutual rush of emotion, feeling, and expression which is beyond all that is pale and mundane. If religion is anything, it is those experiences which draw us beyond ourselves, beyond our selfish little horrible spaces, into the kind of communal ecstatic connection which belongs to everyone and which is due to everyone. 

Participating in the experience of Football is a sensual feast. The chants that resound around the grounds resemble a kind of mantra altering the consciousness of the team's supporters, and hopefully altering the consciousness of the team's players so that they perform better. A traditional definition of mantra from Indic religious traditions is a chant or prayer which "delivers the mind." The mind is delivered from its everyday, obsessive, unhealthy, selfish compulsions towards patterns which are more integrated, more compassionate, and more connected to the common good of all living beings. 

The chants of the football fan can certainly uplift the fan into communion with their fellows which breaks down common barriers, but like all-too many seemingly religious exhortations, it can also be a prescription for a dangerous kind of fanaticism. The phenomenon of hooliganism, expertly detailed in Bill Buford's book Among the Thugs, is something that Football has not entirely recovered from. The ways that the constructive and destructive sides of Football and sports devotion resemble the constructive and destructive sides of religious devotion is something I hope we can explore more together in our Sports Theology blog.

The grand cathedrals of modern football and modern sports are in many ways the repositories of deep emotional experience that the grand religious cathedrals of yore once primarily invoked and contained for society. This also reflects the constructive and destructive side of religious experience. Within our grand modern-day sports stadiums we can find a kind of release from our everyday concerns, and a connection to our community which can make our life more meaningful. However, these stadiums, and the economic principles they represent and express, are also a tremendous drain on community resources which can and must be used to care for the most vulnerable members of the community. These kinds of conflicts and paradoxes, so prevalent in their own similar ways in religious communities, I also hope we can explore together through this our Sports Theology blog. 

There are a lot of ways to define religion, and to argue for Football or Sports as Religious Experience isn't particularly new or novel, or even popular. Religious theorist Martin Riesebrodt, in his compelling tome The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion, laments that:  

When soccer games are seen as religious phenomena and the recitation of Buddhist sutras is not, something has obviously gone wrong.

I read this recently as I was beginning to consider the idea of Sports Theology more seriously, spurred on by encouragement from friends and colleagues who wouldn't let me treat the idea as a half-joke. To be honest I have a very distinct disagreement and kind of disgust with Riesebrodt's statement. We can understand his sentiment as quite a bit traditional and/or fuddy-duddy. I want this blog to start a conversation and argument with sentiments like Riesebrodt's, sentiments which are suspicious of the relationship between religion and popular culture. The theory and practice of religion, and how this theory and practice is defined, is undergoing profound change in relation to centuries of preceding thought and practices largely confined and prioritized within Western, Christo-centric frameworks. But religion as our grandparents knew it, even as we knew it when we were younger, isn't simply the same bells and whistles anymore. 

What we need and desire and express in relation to religious knowledge and experience is always contextual and subjective, even as it connects us to what we feel and know is the objective connecting foundation, source, and thread within all aspects of our mutual reality, a foundation, source, and thread we call by many, many Names. "Spiritual But Not Religious" folks, also known as the "Nones", are on to something when they refuse to define or limit their spiritual/religious experience to what has come before. We may find their quest rather amorphous and flighty, and trust me there are more than a few religious scholars of Riesebrodt's generation who think this way, but these critiques, valid or not, do not obscure the nature of the phenomenon, of the reality of these concrete persons, who in their own faith journey, who are putting into practice the cutting-edge of the theory and practice of religion.

Understanding religion as something more fresh and fluid that what has come before opens the door and creates a path for arguing for Football as Religious Experience and for the concept of Sports Theology in general. If I am to make a claim and stake a space within the spectrum of the theory of religion, I would say religion and spirituality are those experiences, practices, collections of wisdom, and existential relations between living beings and life processes which draw us beyond toxic self-absorption. Psychotherapists may call this the id, Christians may identify it as pride, and many Hindus call it the ahankara, or the illusioned self. Religious experience draws us beyond this caged space of destructive self-absorption towards our communal, collective destiny of reciprocation and relationship with all living beings and with the divine foundation, source, and thread of our reality.

So am I completely off base arguing that Football and sports in general can be a kind of religious experience, and can have theological import i.e that it can give us experiential knowledge of the divine foundation, source, and thread of our mutual reality? This is what I hope we will explore together here in this Sports Theology blog. I think there is plenty of evidence that Football, and sports in general, can draw us beyond the pale,  the ordinary and the rotten selfishness we abhor in ourselves and in others in ways that not only resemble religion, but which may actually be religious themselves (especially when the Football is miraculous, as in Leicester City's rise to the 2016 Premier League title from 5000-1 odds to win it at the start of the year. Wright S. Thompson has a great article on how this miracle is compelling the people of Leicester to recover their sense of community).

Whether you scoff or smile at the idea that Football, and sports, can be Religious Experience, I hope you will add your voice to this discussion to explore the extraordinary meaning and experience of sports and how this meaning can intersect with the extraordinary meaning and experience of religion.