‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighbourhood.’ (Rocky, 1976)
Rocky, and those ‘real-life’ champions we mentioned previously, remind us of what Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset once wrote, “The hero is someone in continual opposition to the status quo. The hero is always becoming himself.” (Dr George Sheehan, The Marathon: Stage for Heroism, 1987)
Boxing and sports are ‘more than a game’ because they can help reveal our honest identity and partake in cosmic patterns of ultimate significance unbound by ideological lines of real and unreal. They point beyond themselves towards a more human way of living.
Dr George Sheehan described the marathon as a ‘theatre for heroism’. But, the arena of sport generally is a theatre for heroism and fighting plays its part. In the same article, and with typical convincing precision; Dr Sheehan has proclaimed that we are all made to be childlike, animals, poets and saints. This is not just for some other hero out there somewhere, but a call to each person. Expressing his point in a manner which hints towards Dante, and the epic poetry of our existence, he recalls:
“There at the halfway point, all I could see
was evidence of heroism and the marvellous
endurance of the ordinary human body.”
Jeremy Treat, a pastor in LA, has punctured our complacency with penetrating incisions into sport, proving that they are ‘more than a game’:
“… the story of redemption in Scripture is not one merely of rescuing souls from the fallen creation but rescuing embodied souls and renewing all of creation (Col 1:15–20; Rom 8:18–25). The final vision of salvation is the enthroned Jesus declaring “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5).
Salvation is the restoration of creation, and if creation included God’s design for play and sport, then there will certainly be sport in the new creation.
As Herman Bavinck says, “The whole of re-creation, as it will be completed in the new heaven and the new earth, is the fruit of the work of Christ.” Certainly, the re-creation will include recreation.” (Jeremy Treat, More than a Game: A Theology of Sport, Themelios Volume 40 – Issue 3)
Lincoln Harvey and Robert Ellis offer two distinct, but complementary, book impressions of the role of sport in Christian life and worship. In an article on their two books by Peter Leithart, he leads our eyes to see the profound potential of the endeavour:
“A central difference is the way the authors connect sports to the Christian doctrine of creation. In games, Ellis says, we imitate God by creating a rule-governed world:
“The game is its own world, and boundaries are created or observed (that fence is out of bounds, this corner is the hospital ward) and the freedom of play is exercised within these boundaries.”
Sports, with their “bureaucratized” rules, are more genuinely creaturely than mere play, “because sports players do not set their own boundaries even though they push at them constantly.” For Ellis, we play because we are made in the image of a playful Creator.
Borrowing from William James, Ellis tabulates the varieties of sporting experience. Players describe sports as rejuvenating or regenerating. Sports are deeply communal, like religious rituals. A player can have something resembling the self-forgetfulness of mystical experience, as he so fully enters the flow of the game that he becomes indistinguishable from it. Sports can thus provide what Peter Berger calls “signals of transcendence” in a secularized world.’’
This places sports as one of many concentric circles around true worship, which is reserved for The Living God alone. Harvey’s emphasis is different, but under a charitable reading stays within the bounds of orthodoxy.
‘’Harvey recognizes a “family resemblance” between sports and worship, but he thinks of them as complementary opposites. In liturgy, God comes close in order to “inhabit the liturgical action, becoming truly present with the creature.” Sports involves the opposite movement, God’s withdraw from the field of play, “enabling the creature to be somehow at a distance in its own integrity.”
Both advent and withdrawal are implicated in the doctrine of creation: God makes and inhabits his world, but the world is contingent, unnecessary, un-serious (though meaningful), because God leaves creation space to be itself. Worship is the liturgy of God’s presence; sports are the liturgy of divine absence, a celebration of creaturely contingency. Sport, as a result, “is not for God. It is simply the graceful creature.”
The effort to discover a moral or mystical dimension in sports undermines the very thing that makes a game a game—its utterly “autotelic” character. “Worship does not quite define everything,”
I would argue for a charitable reading that sees Harvey’s emphasis within the light of the quote from Irenaeus that opened our essay but might join Leithart in asking for greater clarity.
‘’Harvey argues. “Sport is understood to be the only thing that is not worship. Or, to make the point the other way around: everything we do in our life serves our worship, except our sport. Sport is only for sport. It is the one thing that is not directed to the glory of God. That is what sets it apart.”
This is an odd conclusion, partly for an obvious reason: It puts sports outside rather than within creaturely existence, since creaturely existence is classically understood to be entirely directed toward God.
In celebrating creatureliness, Harvey removes sport from the God-directedness that is constitutive of creatureliness. It’s odd too because Harvey applies his point narrowly to sports. Why is music-making not autotelic in just the way that sport is? Why is ballet not a liturgy of contingency from which God withdraws to order to take his place among the spectators?’’ (Peter Leithart, Theology of Sport, 2014)
Dr Leithart concludes that “On the whole, I think Ellis is better able than Harvey to explain the power of both participating in and watching sports.
Neither, however, is entirely satisfying. Ellis blurs religion and sports, while Harvey, in an effort to avoid that danger, grants too much autonomy to sports. Yet the appearance of these two intelligent, provocative books gives hope that sport, a massively important facet of modern civilization, is finally receiving the serious theological attention it deserves.’’ (Peter Leithart, Theology of Sport, 2014)
Redeem the Day
“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it.
You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”
“Success is usually the culmination of controlling failure.” (Rocky Balboa, 2006)
Life, art and the sweet science; when done right, partake in a perennial arc of redemption. This arc of redemption is open to follow in daily life. It has been described by spiritual genius, Paul E. Miller in his most recent book, bringing us back to the ascetical J-Curve:
“…the J-Curve, the idea, frequently articulated by the apostle Paul, that the normal Christian life repeatedly re-enacts the dying and rising of Jesus. I call it the J-Curve because, like the letter J, Jesus’s life first went down into death, then up into resurrection.
Just like the earthly life of Jesus, the J ends higher than it starts. It’s the pattern not only of Jesus’s life, but of our lives—of our everyday moments.” (Paul E Miller, The J-Curve, 2019)
Like the Risen Christ, our existence is incarnate, and we cannot achieve what we must without entering the arena and taking risks. This is a part of the appeal of those who have fought and lost it all only to regain their riches in a blaze of elevated glory. We respect those who put it all on the line, souls with ‘skin in the game’.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “…argument is that there is a more essential aspect: filtering and the facilitation of evolution. Skin in the game –as a filter –is the central pillar for the organic functioning of systems, whether humans or natural.
Unless consequential decisions are taken by people who pay for the consequences, the world would be vulnerable to total systemic collapse. And if you wonder why there is a current riot against a certain class of self-congratulatory “experts”, skin the game will provide a clear answer: the public has viscerally detected that some “educated” but cosmetic experts have no skin in the game and will never learn from their mistakes, whether individually or, more dangerously, collectively.’’ (Nassim Nicholas Taleb, What do I mean by Skin in the Game? My Own Version, 2018)
Christian educator Dr Vigen Guroian shares his embodied knowledge about redemption stories and their importance from early on in a person’s life. He knows that we are in the fight right from childhood and need to enter the matter-verse and story-verse, well versed on how to live well. Know thine enemy:
“His goal was to fill a void he found in instructional material for parents to introduce and discuss the moral fabric of some of the best loved children’s literature, particularly stories and fairy tales…
Guroian covers the concepts of love and immortality by discussing The Velveteen Rabbit and The Little Mermaid; friends and mentors by looking at The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte’s Web and Bambi; evil and redemption through examination of The Snow Queen and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and heroines of faith and courage by reviewing the characters of Princess Irene in The Princess and the Goblin and Lucy in Prince Caspian. (Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, Book Review: Tending the Heart of Virtue by Dr. Vigen Guroian, 2018)
The Good Lord fulfils the promise of all such stories for children and adults. Bringing together all themes and plots on the path to salvation. Often in His non-violent moments, He shows us how to outfight and outfox the enemy. Bishop Barron illustrates this point by bringing the martial art of Aikido into view:
“Friends, our Gospel today is taken from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It is one of the puzzling texts in the New Testament. It speaks of loving our enemies. Not tolerating them, or vaguely accepting them, but loving them. When you hate your enemy, you confirm him as your enemy. But when you love him in response to his hatred, you confuse and confound him, taking away the very energy that feeds his hatred.
There is a form of oriental martial arts called aikido. The idea of aikido is to absorb the aggressive energy of your opponent, moving with it, continually frustrating him until he comes to the point of realizing that fighting is useless.
Some have pointed out that there is a great deal of this in Jesus’ strategy of nonviolence and love of the enemy. You creatively absorb the aggression of your opponent, channelling it back against him, to show him the futility of violence. So, when someone insults you, send back a compliment instead of an insult. When someone conspires against you, work to help him.” (Bishop Robert Barron, Word on Fire, 2017)
We fight, in imitation of Him, by fighting with heart. The heart, however, transcends the superficial mush, which many of us are familiar with from recent films and love songs. The heart of the Rocky series preaches to the true heart of Man. It is a heart of passion that knows loss and victory in their proper place.
“I believe there’s an inner power that makes winners or losers. And the winners are the ones who really listen to the truth of their hearts.” (Rocky Balboa, 2006)
The heart and the mind have meanings in both the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT) unfamiliar to us. The word “heart” is used to refer to the whole of the innermost part of the human, not merely the emotions that sentimentalist popular culture expects.
There is an abundance of references to the heart as having the lead role in decision-making. Both the Old and New Testaments present the word “heart” as always used to include the mental process (rational and reason), and the will (volition), as well as the emotions. Life, like boxing, requires the heart in its various roles. It is a sweet science and art. (The Heart and the Mind, What the Biblical Word Means, 2012)
Back to Basics
Many of the all-time boxing greats, from Gene Tunney to Sugar Ray Leonard, and Andre Ward have shown heart, and sharp minds in equal measure. They dig deep when it is needed, but first create a firm foundation of deeply focused planning and mastered ring craft. The best boxers and martial artists have planned meticulously how they would win inside and outside the ring. To continue with our analogy, Our Lord has a plan for salvation and doesn’t rely on chance. Neither should we.
Boxing and life require active attention, and smart planning, as well as an inspired heart. We are creatures of habit who must create good habits to win in life. (Art of Manliness Podcast #61: The Power of Habit with Charles Duhigg, 2014)
No one has proven this as much as the great French-Canadian martial artist, Georges St Pierre, who trains in precise routine to train his muscle memory for specific fights. These are repeated incarnate patterns for success.
“I have a belief that all human greatness is founded upon routine, that truly great human behaviour is impossible without this central part of your life being set up and governed by routine.
All greatness comes out of an investment in time and the perfection of skills that render you great. And so, show me almost any truly great person in the world who exhibits some kind of extraordinary skills, and I’ll show you a person whose life is governed largely by routine.” (Georges St-Pierre, Inside the Mind of a Champion, 2013)
It’s part about ‘how much you can get hit and keep moving forward’, and part about how well you can plan for success and play the game. Sugar Ray Leonard is another champion who showed each element over his long career: “To be the best, you need to spend hours and hours and hours running, hitting the speed bag, lifting weights and focusing on training.’’ (Ray Leonard, The Big Fight: My Story, 2013)
There is a call which Man must respond to, and plan for the consequences.
N.T. Wright has suggested that the story of redemption in “The Bible is a drama in five acts – Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus and the Church. The fifth act is unfinished, and it is for the reader to enter into the drama and then to complete the story.’’ (N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, 2013)
Doing the Rounds with or without Redemption?
“You had the talent to become a good fighter, but instead of that, you become a leg breaker to some cheap, second rate loan shark!’’ (Mickey’s Character, Rocky, 1976)
When we watch Rocky, we all like to imagine that we are the hero. But this is not necessarily so. As much as we don’t like to admit it, many of us resemble Paulie. We’re full of resentment and bitterness and can’t see what we’re doing wrong.
Plus, we must recognise that not all boxers are obvious victors. Some may never achieve the high redemption of the great winners and may even have their life ruined by the harsh reality of the sport.
However, there is an old saying that boxing saves more people than it hurts. This is probably truer than we’ve long believed. And, for many it is better to have lived and loved the sport than never lived at all. Those who take risks may never attain the elevated redemption they long for in this life but are part-redeemed in putting skin in the game and entering the arena.
For many, a life without a meaningful fight of some kind is a life not worth living. Boxing, like life, offers refracted redemption for losers and winners alike. That is if we approach it in the right spirit. Men and women can become more than they are and participate in the patterns of redemption.
Many however turn their back on this and stew in resentment, most often those outside the arena. We see this in the young and aggressive Paulie, who blames others such as his sister Adrian for his lot in life:
“You’re such a loser! I don’t get married because of you! You can’t live by yourself! I put you two together! And you – don’t you forget it! You owe me! You owe me!’’ (Rocky, 1976)
In an age of entitlement, everyone thinks they are owed. Grace says otherwise.
The Business of Resentment
“The intelligentsia in the media can decide what to emphasize, what to downplay and what to ignore entirely when it comes to race. These may be individual choices, rather than a conspiracy, but individual choices growing out of a common vision of the world can produce results all too similar to what is produced by centralized censorship or propaganda.” (Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Race, 2013)
The gross sides of boxing and life are on display in another boxing movie, The Great White Hype, which involves resentful characters and fragmentation. These characters look not at the heart, or image of God in Man, but towards skin colour and other fallen ways that belong to ‘the world’. This is how Rocky would look if Paulie were the hero of the story.
By comparing these two narratives, we can see how important it is to have a champion with heart. A true champion, outside the ring as well as inside, will unite people by virtue of their character and witness. Our measure is Christ. Many, like Stallone’s Rocky, have refracted his light in fiction and real life.
Without Christ at the centre and our participation in Him, we run into a series of divisive systems and narratives without honest heroism. Each antagonist only too happy to divide and conquer, by stewing in resentment and lesser games of blame. This anti-Christ gospel, according to the Paulie in us, is without redemption.
At this point, let me say that Paulie goes beyond resentment in the story and I am grateful that many of us do as well. He could be the hero of a good story, but not if he were to stew in his resentment. The same for all of us. The harsh point is that some refuse to move from here, and by calling them out we are fighting for them.
I bring ‘race’ to your mind here, because it has been made central to popular narratives of resentment. The theology of ‘Saint Paulie’ seeks to deconstruct our story verse, and reality itself, without tools for reconstructed heroism.
“As one of the consequences of the death of God, Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw that people could find themselves stuck in cycles of Christian theology with no way out. Specifically, that people would inherit the concepts of guilt, sin and shame but would be without the means of redemption which the Christian religion also offered.
Today we do seem to live in a world where actions can have consequences we could never have imagined, where guilt and shame are more at hand than ever, and where we have no means whatsoever of redemption. We do not know who could offer it, who could accept it, and whether it is a desirable quality compared to an endless cycle of fiery certainty and denunciation.’’ (Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds, 2019)
Alan Jacobs describes the redemption-less world of the new Paulie, the woke shadow-warrior who fights the wrong fight:
“Something even more deep-seated is at work when student protesters’ interpretations of events, and their proffered remedies for historical or current injustice, are challenged and the students reply, “You are denying my very identity.”
This response makes sense only within the mythical core, not the technological core. One cannot analytically pick apart a complex, integrated mythical framework and say, “I choose this but not that” without tearing holes in the web and leaving it dangling and useless. That is what instrumental reason always does to myth.’’ (Alan Jacobs, Wokeness and Myth on Campus, 2017)
Myths, True and False
The twentieth century’s premier mythmakers, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, both appreciated that there are true and false myths. We can learn a lot from them. Myth, properly ordered, might tell us deep truths about who we are. Which for us Christians involves a pilgrimage. We are worth more, much more, than our race, gender or sexuality defined by the new religions.
Rocky, and the great myths through the ages, stand the test of time because they speak to the heart of Man; elevating us and reaffirming our true identities. This should serve to inspire us in the world, but there is none at the centre but Jesus Christ.
“Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’.”
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened. (Justin Taylor, 85 Years Ago Today: J. R. R. Tolkien Convinces C. S. Lewis That Christ Is the True Myth, 2016)
It has been revealed to us by The Living God that we are His ‘beloved’ and elevated to the highest position imaginable. Fr Henri Nouwen spent a lifetime trying to understand and live out this redemptive life as one beloved by God and invites us along the road. (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, 2002)
The name ‘beloved’ brings with it a call, to be more than we are and to call out the lies that speak short of our full stature in Christ. From Him we receive a new name, an identity that goes beyond all others. (Klyne Snodgrass, Who God Says You Are: A Christian Understanding of Identity, 2018)
We wait and move in eager anticipation for His new name:
“We also have another name, one which we do not know. You remember the passage in the Book of Revelation which says that in the Kingdom each will receive a white stone with a name written on it, a name which is known only to God and to him who receives it?
This is no nickname, no family name, no Christian name. It is a name, a word, that is exactly identical with us, which coincides with us, which is us. We may almost say it is a word which God pronounced when he willed us into existence and which is us, as we are it.
This name defines our absolute and unrepeatable uniqueness as far as God is concerned. No one can know the name, as no one can, in the last analysis, know anyone as God knows him; and yet it is out of this name that everything else comes that can be known about us.’’ (Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, 1970)
Fighting Racism and False Narratives
We fight because we know what we are truly worth. Free from the crushing restrictions of the idols of the past or frenzied fashions of the present. “As we said in the last chapter, there has to be somebody, whom you adore, who adores you. Someone whom you cannot but praise who praises and loves you—that is the foundation of identity. The praise of the praiseworthy is above all rewards.
However, if we put this power in the hands of a fallible, changeable person, it can be devastating. And if this person’s regard is based on your fallible and changeable life efforts, your self-regard will be just as fleeting and fragile. Nor can this person be someone you can lose, because then you will have lost your very self. Obviously, no human love can meet these standards. Only love of the immutable can bring tranquillity. Only the unconditional love of God will do.’’ (Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God, 2018)
The most unfortunate loss is when Christians, give up their highest identity in Christ to opt for a fallen identity given by the world. And fight their brothers, rather than fight their own failures and evil forces. These are identities which knock us out. This can hit us by sex, race, nationality or other.
It’s most clear and terrible expression, within churches today in the anglosphere may be racial, but is not restricted to this.
The sport of Boxing knows only too well the problems with racism and its ugly ramifications. From the days of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis until today. ‘Race’ as it is commonly believed in today, has played an eventful and troublesome role in the sport, and English-speaking countries over the last few hundred years.
This simplistic term would have described the Irish, English and others as races in former times, but now constructs itself according to the social fashion of skin colour. Often it is used to bludgeon opponents towards an ideology handed down by intellectuals belonging to schools of Critical Theory.
Some have seen ‘race’ and seen through its shadowy hue, onto redemption. Many however, such as notorious boxing promoter Don King, have cynically used and abused this tenuous and un-Christian concept to divide, conquer, make money and serve ideological concerns.
Boxing and real life go beyond these deceptions, and the man in the arena knows he shares more with fellow fighters than conspiring critics and mere theorists sitting on the side lines. The shallow critic’s lies need to be fought for the good of all. We must replace them with our true, universal, human story united in blood, sweat and tears.
Perhaps none today suffer more from cults of race than African Americans, who have given the sport many Christian boxers and wider historical figures, witnessing to the universal arc of redemption that deconstructs the slavish lies or race.
Today lamentably, many black Christians have undermined the long noble Christian humanist tradition of Harriet Tubman, Booker T Washington, Archibald Carey, James WC Pennington, and many others who have fought actively for true shalom. Their eyes were fixed towards The Kingdom.
Boxers such as Joshua and Tyson Fury, in embodying universal tales of redemption, offer transcendent models for Man’s true character. The same point can be made for Rocky and his heir in Creed. They go beyond the race to the bottom, in the ring and life, embodying higher virtues of elevated character. Fans can resonate with this and aspire towards this higher way in their own lives.
One motif throughout the scriptures is the long walk to the mountaintop, where God reveals Himself to those who make the journey and have eyes to see. The ascent of man, regardless of ‘race’ or lesser characteristics, in the ring and life, reflects an elevated position that speaks across low and separating lines:
“I have been to the mountaintop… mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’’ (James M. Washington, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr, 1991)
We long for more than reductionist racism in sport and life, looking to warn others who have opted out of the true Christian way and ran down into the anti-Christian arms of Critical Theory and Don King-like ‘race’ hustling.
We see the low points of this dead valley floor in the ‘ethnic gnosticism’ which Dr Voddie Baucham has prophesied against in his ministry. (Voddie Baucham, Ethnic Gnosticism, 2019) This form of Gnosticism is not the only version but presents a pernicious test case. Philosopher Eric Voegelin has written in-depth about modern strands at Gnosticism, and their ultimate ‘totalitarian’ character which constantly trample underfoot. This should cause us concern, as we can see where this low road leads. (Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, 1987)
The Dream Turns to Nightmare
Twisted psychological theories are handed down from new secular priesthoods and proffer heterodox formulations of the Gospel, such as James H Cone’s, which drag us all into despair without redemption or a final bell. (Darrell B. Harrison, How “Woke Theology” is Weakening the (Black) Church, 2017) and the new religion of critical theory cannot go the distance, or reach the mountaintop. (Neil Shenvi, Understanding Critical Theory and Woke theology in the Evangelical Church, 2019)
Ariel Gonzalez Bovat has cautioned against psychobabble which recasts redemption along anti-human lines, thwarting human elevation. “…many black Americans today refuse to deconstruct their identity away from the black racial category because it would mean that they would have to see themselves as something more than the colour of their skin.’’ (Ariel Gonzalez Bovat, Black Identity Theories: Secular or Sacred?, 2019)
Jonathan Church has powerfully critiqued the other side of this ahistorical dogma, which claims that ‘whiteness’ should be used to describe people, or culture. We’ve seen that this is a new fashion, without truth in history. The scriptures don’t speak in such crude terms. Church has shown that the racist notion of ‘whiteness’ is a logical fallacy, especially of ‘reification’. (Jonathan Church, The Problem with ‘White Fragility’ Theory, 2018)
When we see our heroes in action, and seek to emulate them, we are not inspired by skin colour or the fallen nature of Man but their heart and quest for ascent that speaks in universal tongue.
Several pastors at Sovereign Nations have understood this new religion’s anti-Christian narrative and shown how it punches down. This is not the story of the underdog. There is no hero. Sin is replaced by ‘white privilege’, (Tom Ascol, White Privilege, The New Original Sin, 2019) our higher Pentecostal identity by enslaving ‘intersectionality’ (Josh Buice, Brave New Religion, Intersectionality, 2019) and other anti-human ideological distortions. We need to fight, in and out of the ring, against such doubts and deceptions to reach the mountaintop.
A brilliant young African American scholar, Coleman Hughes, has highlighted the routine retelling of history, where ‘race’ is made the sacred centre and told ritually. The new ideology encourages people to see Christian heroes now as primarily ‘black’ heroes, telling perverse stories of racial ‘redemption’ in place of true redemption, according to a series of secular liturgies.
A new Critical Theory calendar even takes the place of the church, with ‘black history month’ or ‘pride month’ replacing the universal Christian cycles of fasts and feast. We’ve lost the high road and must fight our way back. (Coleman Hughes, Racism: Getting to the Truth, 2018)
The Christian calendar and life are universal, neither effacing nor restrictive but recognise differences in people by placing them in deep and prophetic Pentecostal unity. The Pentecostal character of the church universal respects unity and difference together. It is here that we are provided a true sacred identity and history, which redeems us from the division and despair of false worldly identities. The new faiths are forced upon us by the fashions of ideology or determinist sociology and distract us from The Kingdom. (Alexander Schmemann, An Introduction to Liturgical Theology, 1966)
The greats of the sport, like the more heralded saints of the church, have united and inspired Man. From Irish Americans like Tunney and Dempsey, to Italian- American Marciano and African- Americans Ali, the two Sugar Ray’s and Iron Mike Tyson.
In our time, we have Irish traveller Fury and Nigerian son Joshua at the top of the tree. All different and unique characters, of various ethnicities, transcend simplistic limitations of ideology. Instead, inspiring generations of all kinds. We all want to ‘go the distance’ and become who we are made to be, in Christ.
A sporting display of true fighting heart can halt such ideological hostility for a time, but we require a more comprehensive metanoia, or change of mind. Only Christ can bring show us who we are meant to be as people, fighting for love and justice. Only He can transfigure Man at the mountaintop and transform the heart.
Solzhenitsyn describes the true ‘human heart’ in full character:
“The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.’’ (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Vintage Classics, 2018)
Eccentric, but insightful, Orthodox writer Jamie Moran, echoes in harmony, “…morality, truly understood and practiced, is about the heart. Everything else comes into it, of course: mind, soul, body, inner and outer, visible and invisible, history and nature, the cosmos and the earth. But quintessentially it is driven by and about the heart. The deep heart. The passionate, suffering heart. The brave, willing heart.
Kierkegaard says that the movement involved in faith “requires passion. Every movement of infinity occurs with passion, and no reflection can bring about a movement.
That’s the leap in life which [accounts for] the movement…What we lack today is not reflection but passion. For that reason our age is really… too tenacious of life to die, for dying is one of the most remarkable leaps…” (Jamie Moran, The Wound Of Existence, 2006)
Time to Fight
“Time takes everybody out. Time is undefeated.” (Rocky’s character, Creed, 2015)
So much of what we have discussed is a distraction from ultimate things. One of these ultimate things is death. In and out of the ring we must come face to face with mortality. By facing down death with triumphant faith in redemption and life beyond death. This means overcoming fears and sacrificing for our future, or for our other people.
Moran continues, “In effect, giving the heart to existence, on a basis of faith, is accepting death. It is a sacrifice. And sacrifice is at the heart of Abraham’s wrestlings with the passionate leap required by God if he is to follow the way of faith. His son is not only personally loved by him, the son’s very appearance so late in Abraham and Sarah’s life is a miracle.
God’s promise to Abraham that he will be the father of generations to come will be lost if Isaac is killed. Faith demands of Abraham the sacrifice of precisely what he most wants from life, what he most values and is most precious to him. The willingness of Abraham to make this sacrifice is extraordinarily costly; moreover, no human morality can justify it, for a father killing a son cannot be squared on any ethical criteria possible to imagine.’’
This story takes us far beyond the comfort of the armchair that amply serves as an image for our cushy half-civilisation.
‘’Abraham’s action cannot be rationalised, moralised, or made any sense of whatever; it is a leap into the deep and dark abyss, and as such, is radically irrational. Passion is irrational: it exceeds, and defies, the sensible boundaries within which most people elect to live.
Faith is not that credulity, or naive innocence, of the child which must be outgrown, and replaced by a more sober experience. For Kierkegaard, faith sets us the profoundest task, and challenge, of our human existence. What is tested in faith is not whether God exists, but God’s love and our love in relation to God’s. To attain faith, a struggle and a suffering must be embraced; this is the “genuinely human factor.” (Jamie Moran, The Wound of Existence, 2006)
First, we trust in the living God, Who leads the way. I for one have no life-transforming faith in ‘progress’, the goodness of government or secularism’s supreme tenets.
The English-speaking portion of the world, referred to comically as ‘developed’ may have faith that ‘God is dead’, but au contraire. (David Cayley, Redefining Development, 2017) This ‘death’ is a case of mistaken identity, as I suspect our time’s most interesting Nietzschean would agree. (UberBoyo, The Ubermensch: Shall we Become Beautiful or Comfortable? 2019)
Fr Illich and Simone Weil speak to the unfortunate fumble at play in the death of ‘God’ which rootless servants of the present age attempt to describe. This is a death of nothing more than an idol of the living and imperishable God of the Bible, and His church.
French philosopher, and mystic, Simone Weil speaks of atheism merely as a “purification.” (David Cayley, Ivan Illich as an Esoteric Writer, 2019) Columbian aphorist Don Colacho speaks in a similar vein of scepticism serving to ‘prune faith’, proclaiming confidently from his citadel in Columbia: “Scepticism does not mutilate faith; it prunes it.’’ (Don Colacho’s Aphorisms, 2011)
The term atheism has multiple meanings in the former Weil’s thought. ‘She speaks first in the sense in which Meister Eckhart says, “I pray God to rid me of God” i.e. an achieved image of God is always already an idol.’ (David Cayley, Ivan Illich as an Esoteric Thinker, 2019) Fr Illich plays with this theme and lays out the lessons to be learned by the church, in ‘The Corruption of Christianity’. (David Cayley, The Corruption of Christianity, 2014)
This pretentious modernist pretence that ‘God’ is dead, and a whole series of adjoined unexamined pre-suppositions provides no more than the wimpish man that Nietzsche himself lamented. The Ubermensch is still born. By attacking the wrong target, the philosopher with a hammer has only exacerbated the problem of limp redemption-less ‘life’.
The warrior king Jesus proclaimed, “I am the way, the truth and the life.’’(John 14:6) and paves the way to redemption for the true superman to walk. We believe Him!
Again, Eric Voegelin has penetrated the depths of our gnostic follies more than most, relating in impressive detail just what the real problem with our bloodless civilisation is. This is a civilisation that doesn’t fight for anything worthwhile, a civilisation that can’t ‘go the distance’:
“The death of the spirit is the price of progress. Nietzsche revealed this mystery of the Western apocalypse when he announced that God was dead and that He had been murdered. This Gnostic murder is constantly committed by the men who sacrificed God to civilization.
The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of salvation through world–immanent action, the farther the human beings who engage in this enterprise move away from the life of the spirit. And since the life the spirit is the source of order in man and society, the very success of a Gnostic civilization is the cause of its decline.
A civilization can, indeed, advance and decline at the same time—but not forever. There is a limit toward which this ambiguous process moves; the limit is reached when an activist sect which represents the Gnostic truth organizes the civilization into an empire under its rule.
Totalitarianism, defined as the existential rule of Gnostic activists, is the end form of progressive civilization.” (Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, 1987)
Russian Orthodox polymath Fr Pavel Florensky’s solution to a bloodless gnostic existence is the embrace of ‘antinomy’, “…for such an embrace will lead us to question the claims of reason, its claims to coerce what it maintains is the truth…
In other words, truth is an antinomy, and it cannot fail to be such. And truth cannot be anything else, for one can affirm in advance that knowledge of the truth demands spiritual life and therefore is an ascesis. But the ascesis of rationality is belief, i.e., self-renunciation. The act of the self-renunciation of rationality is an expression of antinomy. Indeed, only an antinomy can be believed.’’
The man outside the arena does not truly live or truly know but must live a dimmed life in the shadows of the man who fights for truth and life at its nitid height.
“Every non-antinomic judgment is merely accepted or merely rejected by rationality, for such a judgment does not surpass the boundary of rationality’s egoistical isolation. If truth were non-antinomic, then rationality, always revolving in its proper sphere, would not have a fulcrum, would not see extrarational objects and therefore would not be induced to begin the ascesis of belief.
Turning our mad world right-side up again, Florensky reminds us of dogma and the voluntary wrestling nature of freedom. The will to fight with and for someone worthwhile:
“That fulcrum is dogma. With dogma begins our salvation, for only dogma, being antinomic, does not constrain our freedom and allows voluntary belief or wicked unbelief. For it is impossible to compel one to believe, just as it is impossible to compel one not to believe. According to Augustine, ‘no one believes except voluntarily’ (nemo credit nisi volens). (P 109)
Whereas for Kant the antinomies constitute roadblocks to reason, for Florensky they trip up reason, as it were, expose its deficiencies, and make us realize that truth can be attained by no method such as that of rationality, but only by the spiritual life, which demands self-renunciation, ascesis, which explores the world opened up by dogma, which is the realm of freedom, the freedom of the spirit that discovers truth through opening itself to God. (Fr Andrew Louth, Modern Orthodox Thinkers, 2017)
Redemption and the Enchanted Realm
“You’re gonna have to go through hell, worse than any nightmare you’ve ever dreamed. But when it’s over, I know you’ll be the one standing. You know what you have to do. Do it.” (Rocky IV, 1985)
“Every champion was once a contender who refused to give up.” (Rocky Balboa, 2006)
The Christian message of redemption has long been misunderstood and the masses often misinformed. Over and against the speculative notion of other-worldly realms, the Christian way is a way of incarnate redemption in Christ and the body. This is truth known well by the beat-down, suffering and yearning folks who fight for freedom. This is expressed nowhere more clearly than Orthodox liturgies, and the spiritual treasures of African Americans. On the surface, these two cultural fruits look different, but contain the same sweet nectar once we peel them open.
“The resonances or points of convergence between Orthodoxy and African-American spirituality are profound. The first resonance is historical. Ancient Christianity is not, as many think, a European religion. Christian communities were well established in Africa by the third and fourth centuries. In Egypt and Ethiopia, Coptic traditions of worship, monasticism, and spirituality have remained authentically African and authentically Christian down to the present day.
The second resonance is spiritual: there are important analogies between African traditional religions and Orthodox Christianity. In classical theological terms, these analogies constitute a protoevangelion: a preparation for the Gospel based on God’s natural revelation to all peoples through nature and conscience. I would distinguish eight principal areas of convergence between African spirituality and Ancient Christianity…’’ (Albert J Raboteau, African American Orthodoxy, 2010)
Free My Soul from Sin and Death
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware preaches this point related to the prototypical prisoner. This works for those of us in physical prisons, or those of us who have become imprisoned by our society and in our own minds. By recalling a prisoner’s story, he compels us to ‘discern the passing image of the seen, and the eternal life of the Unseen’ which calls us to become greater than we are:
“It is… by being a prisoner for religious convictions in a Soviet camp that one can really understand the mystery of the fall of the first man, the mystical meaning of the redemption of all creation, and the great victory of Christ over the forces of evil.
It is… when we suffer for the ideals of the Holy Gospel that we can realize our sinful infirmity and our unworthiness in comparison with the great martyrs of the first Christian Church.
… then can we grasp the absolute necessity for profound meekness and humility, without which we cannot be saved; only then can we begin to discern the passing image of the seen, and the eternal life of the Unseen.” Letter from a soviet concentration camp. (Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 1979)
In our weakness, we can know His strength and be renewed to fight another day. The hope that we have stands in awe of the one Who freed us from the slavery of death. Our fight is preceded by His ultimate victory. Without His victory, we could not win. Texan psychologist Richard Beck has written about this, with some insight. Let’s reside on the chez long for a moment and consider his points:
“A while back I asked readers of this blog to recommend sources about the relationship between sin and death, with a particular focus on how the Greek Orthodox view the relationship.
The idea I’m exploring is a reversal of the typical Protestant formulation:
Sin causing Death. The formulation I’m working with flips the Protestant understanding around: Death causing Sin. The focal passage I’m working with is Hebrews 2.14-15:
Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.’’ (Richard Beck, The Slavery of Death, 2011)
It is here that we hear the deep living truths of the old African American spirituals, which cast Man beyond bondage:
‘’The idea is that we are “held in slavery by our fear of death.” Fearing death, we act in various ways that are prompted by needs for self-preservation. Life is ruled by a Darwinian survival instinct that makes us selfish, acquisitive, rivalrous and violent. Mortality fears create our sinful actions and attitudes. That is the key theological and psychological insight.
Given this situation, the work of the Christ is to “break the power of him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil.” (See also 1 John 3.8: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”)
Salvation in this view is obtained through Christ’s defeat of the devil who uses our fear of death to hold us captive to sin, using our instinct for self-preservation to tempt us into sinful practices. Christ came to destroy both the devil and death to set us free from our “slavery to the fear of death.” And being set free from this fear we are able to escape the bondage of sin. This is the meaning of resurrection.” (Richard Beck, The Slavery of Death, 2011)
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