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.
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.