Sport and Christian ethics: towards a theological ethic for sport
White, John Bentley
From the time of the early church to the present century, Christian assumptions about and theological responses to sport have been problematic. In the present century, evangelicals in North America lack a developed theological ethic about how Christians should regard modern sport--the practices, purposes, and values. What little theology there is, is an uninformed folk theology of muscular Christianity in which the primary means of evaluating sport is in terms of its instrumental utility with no recognition of goods that might be internal to sport. In this thesis, I formulate a modest Christian ethic for sport as a way toward reimagining sport in the Christian life as an embodied, penultimate good. I have chosen Augustine, John Paul II, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as the three primary interlocutors with whom to shape a theological discourse about and construct for modern sport. Together, they assist in exploring fundamental convictions of the Christian tradition and determining what bearing these should have on Christian moral reflection and deliberation on this cultural activity. In chapter one, Augustine‘s ethic is organized around three integral motifs: God and happiness, ordered and disordered loves, and the use and enjoyment of goods. By beginning here, a Christian ethic addresses the charges against Augustine‘s idealism set in the historical context of ancient Rome where the Christian tradition first engaged sport extra-biblically. These motifs lay the groundwork for how a Christian might relate to sport. In chapter two, I examine an exemplary modern attempt—by the American philosopher Paul Weiss—to give a moral and philosophical account of sport. Weiss develops a philosophy of sport around themes derived from classical Greek literature, including bodily excellence, anthropology, and teleology. Weiss‘s Greek ideals and philosophical categories function as heuristic tools because many issues of modern sport are connected in a variety of ways to these ancient Greek ideals. Weiss forms a bridge historically and philosophically to thicken our description of modern sport, to refine this thesis‘s analysis of some important categories native to modern sport, and to focus on what this phenomenon entails for a Christian ethic today. In chapter three, I engage with John Paul II's complex and rich account of the internal moral and theological goods of sport. John Paul II's personalism provides a much stronger basis for analyzing the goods intrinsic to sport than does Weiss--one that is, moreover, consistent with (while building on) the Augustinian foundation laid in chapter one. I demonstrate that in John Paul II's theology of sport, sportive actions find a significant analogue in the Christian doctrine of creation in relation to the body of the athlete, in which perspective sport may be seen as sign and gift shared with other embodied sportspersons. I propose that sport is an ontic-embodied good and gift that is only properly conceptualized in a Christian ethic, an ethic in which the pursuit of excellence is an objective that fulfils the dignity and worth of the whole human person. By contrast, Paul Weiss' philosophy of sport instrumentalizes embodied pursuits, such as sport. In chapter four, Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s Christological basis for Christian ethics serves to repair the persistent problem of dualism—two-sphere thinking—for modern muscular Christianity. Bonhoeffer‘s comprehensive vision of reality places Christ at the center of life and existence so that the question of the good becomes the realization of the reality of God in Christ. Therefore, a Christian ethic does not justify how the reality of God in Christ relates to sportive culture by appealing either to the sacred or secular, but justification is in Christ, since He has drawn and holds it all together. In chapter five, I continue with the problem of modern muscular Christianity in order to constructively reimagine how to relate the reality of Christ as the ultimate to sportive reality, the penultimate. This eschatological paradigm further organizes the final chapter in two important ways. First, the logic of sport is often governed by alien ends and loves. Augustine‘s ethic refines this problem as a matter of how the practice of sport can educate our desires according to competing teloi. Second, I elucidate the importance of St. Paul‘s sport metaphor (1 Cor 9:24-27) as another angle for interpreting and ethically engaging the complex lived experience of sport itself. This sport metaphor functions eschatologically to integrate sport and the Christian life and to ennoble this activity as a practice for moral and spiritual formation.