Theology and Football

Here are some very unsystematic thoughts about theology and football. As I write, England await Croatia in the semi-finals of World Cup 2018. They may win this semi-final; they may win the whole tournament. That is simply not the point. The point is this: is there any justification for something like football from a theological perspective? Shouldn’t we all simply be spending our time praying more, and giving alms to the homeless, visiting the sick, reading the Bible, and so on? Aren’t there always better things to do than watching football? Isn’t it simply a waste of time to watch a group of overpaid, inarticulate young men kick a pig’s bladder around a large field? What kind of degenerate culture are we living in when success in this area makes us feel excited about and proud of being “English”, that most hated of nationalities? From a religious perspective, isn’t it simply idolatry to shout and cheer, and to praise those who achieve great heights in the arena of sport? Shouldn’t we be shouting and praising Jesus instead? If we were as passionate about Jesus as we are about Harry Kane then surely through our zeal our country would be re-evangelized in a moment, and we would once again enjoy the good old days in which everyone was a Christian, and we could put all this secularism nonsense behind us. To paraphrase Reverend Lovejoy from The Simpsons: Everyone is saying “Gareth this”, and “Jordan that”; but no-one is saying “Worship this” and “Jericho that”!

This topic is far larger than I can address in a simple blog post because it boils to fundamental questions concerning the nature of creation and indicates a dualism in Western culture that automatically makes a separation between the material or secular and the spiritual or religious. This material/secular, spiritual/religious dichotomy is arguably at the heart of what it is when we talk about Modernity. (There are many other things too, but this is certainly one of them.)

But I’m not interested in talking about that as such. What I am interested in is the way that football seems to be meaningful. It appears to give life a sense of meaning and excitement and drama. Is this all illusory? Is it “just a game”, or is there something more to it than that? Certainly there is something more to it for those who play it because their careers are bettered or worsened by the result, and they get paid more or less money and so on. But what about those of us who support, and whose support doesn’t have any tangible effect on our lives in general?

There are many answers which may satisfy us in a superficial way: football brings people together; it gives them a sense of common identity; it has certainly been good for our economy to progress this far in the world cup; we all need time to relax and recharge in order to re-engage with the important business of life. But I think that there is a deeper reason here. And in order to draw this out, I would make a comparison with literature and stories in general.

We all like stories. Stories are in a very central way what give our lives meaning. When I hear sermons, I must confess that my mind often wanders. But tell me a story, a good story, and I will not need persuasion to listen. When we read good literature, we are engaging a story, not just to be entertained, but to understand, to have greater insight, to be ennobled, to feel more acute empathy for others who inhabit different geographies or chronologies, perhaps even to be moved, not for emotional self-indulgence, but through desire to see life as it really is in its depths. During the England v. Columbia game the other day, one of the pundits, Martin Keown, quipped, “There are probably some people at home reading books. You need to get a life.” This remark was perhaps unfair, and one might be worried that literature will not survive such a scathing attack. But it probably will endure – just about – and for the sorts of reasons that I suggest.

The point is, therefore, that football can be thought of as similar to literature. Of course one can use football as an excuse for hooliganism and violence; anything can be misused. But football in its highest and greatest moments (like all sport with the exception of golf, which is unredeemable) is a compelling story that is all about life. It is life through a funnel of intensity that brings human emotion and the human story into a razor-like sharpness of focus. It speaks to us of longing, of striving, of growth, of success and failure, of maturity and belligerence, of glory, of pride and humility, of anxiety and relief, and of a hundred other things besides. We can learn to be better people through watching football, live better lives. We can also learn to be worse. Football is full of exemplars of greater and lesser moral worth: who would I rather imitate in my everyday life, Gareth Southgate who magnanimously and empathetically consoled the Columbian who missed his penalty and lost his team the match, or Diego Maradona, who, when his team beat Sweden, stuck both of his middle fingers up at the opposition supporters? How should I conduct myself, with the drive, poise and honesty of Harry Kane, or should I writhe around on the floor like a baby, pretending that I am in agony, in order to cheat my team to victory like Neymar? Should I spend more time and money on my haircut or more time and money on improving my abilities and looking to conduct myself in a more honourable manner? Should I, in other words, elect for style over substance or the reverse? Football can teach us about these things and much more. When we go to see a film in the cinema nobody asks us why we were excited or scared or moved or happy or sad at the end. We were those things because we were engaged with the characters involved, because we empathized with them, and learned from their story. Football is very similar.

That’s what I think anyway. Maybe I’m biased.

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Alasdair MacIntyre on the Emotivist Approach to Ethics

In After Virtue, MacIntyre identifies one of the characteristic aspects of modernity, that of the loss of the concept of “virtue” and a corresponding groundlessness to all discourse on ethics in the public realm. Or rather, it might be better said that MacIntyre argues that, either explicitly or implicitly, a view of ethics has developed within modern culture that he calls emotivism. Emotivism is the idea that all moral feelings or intuitions are, at base, preferences that are based on the choices of the individual and nothing more. They are not indicative of some kind of divine sanction or objective ethical values that really exist. They are merely feelings that are entirely subjective:

…whatever criteria or principles or evaluative allegiances the emotivist self may profess, they are to be construed as expressions of attitudes, preferences and choices which are themselves not governed by criterion, principle or value, since they underlie and are prior to all allegiance to criterion, principle or value. (p.38, third edition)

At the heart of the modern view of the individual, therefore, there is a belief in a certain type of freedom that consists in the ability to “choose” prior to any kind other factors. “Choice”, in this sense, becomes a kind of supreme good that takes priority over any other kind of consideration. When one thinks about it, it is quite obvious that this kind of “choice” is at once totally imaginary (because it is impossible to choose anything independently of the individual’s web of life experiences, human interactions, community environment, family and cultural influences and so on) and entirely arbitrary. Arbitrariness is built into its very definition: This is the right thing to do because I feel it is the right thing to do. How we have got to this state in modernity is the subject matter of After Virtue, and in my next post I will try to encapsulate MacIntyre’s articulation of the view of ethics that preceded emotivism.

A final point to make about emotivism is that, upon its foundation, it is impossible to resolve moral disagreement in any satisfying way: nothing is objectively wrong or right but is merely up to the preference of the individual. This includes acts of kindness and philanthropy as well as acts of child cruelty and murder. Any claim to objectively binding moral matters of fact are merely descriptions of the speaker’s preferences.

Summer Football Feelings

World Cup ‘94, I was only seven. It exists in my memory as a haze and a mist, like a myth of some cthonic past, half-remembered but sensed as tangible presence.

Euro ‘96, I came of age, and I realized that there is pain in the world, terrible pain. Not just for me, but for English footballers too. ‘Three Lions’ by Baddiel, Skinner and The Lightning Seeds sent shivers down by spine as I listened to the single over and over again on my CD player. What elation as I watched England destroy the Scottish and the Dutch in the group stages. Joy when Shearer scored against Germany after only a few minutes. I was eating chicken nuggets at the time. And then, oh my, oh my, oh my. I kept a diary for weeks afterwards, choosing a different German player each day and focussing all my disappointment and anger upon that particular man, rating him out of ten for how much I hated him depending on the part he had played in England’s downfall. The bitterness stays with me.

Many years have passed now, which I will not document. But I will observe that, as I have grown older, the magic has faded with each consecutive tournament. Like the way that Christmas gradually loses its lustre until it becomes another day just with more washing up, I look forward to these tournaments less and less.

Four years ago, at World Cup 2014, there was a significant moment of passion in my heart when I saw a pre-tournament video of the English players talking about how much it all meant to them, how they wanted to prove to themselves that they could do it, how they wanted to make their families proud and so on. A sense of belief welled up inside of me. More than that, I felt deeply emotional and full of conviction. I greedily logged onto my Facebook account and conveyed that enthusiasm to each of my friends who happened to check their Timeline that day. They would have felt my pride. After the first two games, we were out, and I swore never again would I give myself to this group of total incompetents.

Euro 2016, I was driving home in order to watch England vs. Iceland, deeply unimpressed by Roy Hodgson’s bizarre and capricious approach to tactics, hoping, yes hoping that England would lose this match so that he would get fired. It was quite clear to me that he was locked in a footballing sclerosis, paralyzed with fear. And then we all know what happened after that. I’ve forgiven him now though, and I’m pleased that he’s redeemed himself at Palace.

So what now? I still watch it all. I can’t turn it off, even when there is no consequence to the game and no star value, even, indeed, when I am not enjoying it and I am consciously aware of the fact that I could be doing something more valuable. Football is like a drug which I have been taking for twenty-five years: I just pipe it into my house via my TV, and I can’t bring myself to cut off the supply. I love it. I love the addiction.