Theological and psychological reflections on identity in sport.

Author:Watson, Nick


Sport, as many commentators have noted, is the new religion. It has superseded Christianity in many cultural theorists' eyes as the social practice par excellence that initiates persons into rules and norms of virtuous and vicious behaviours which orientate us more broadly in the world. (2)

--Mike McNamee

Fourth in the Olympics hurt, but retirement is like a death in the family ... I struggled for three months ... I'd walk around and just start filling up. I'd wake up lost. I didn't know what to do. My emotions were so intense I felt I'd lost a member of the family. I'd lost a major part of my life, something was dead. Everything I'd lived for was over. (3)

--British Olympic Decathlete, Dean Macey, on retiring from sport

Theologians and philosophers (4) have argued that we need to think more philosophically about the meaning of sport participation and competition. Kretchmar has recently suggested that in studying sport "to do ethics in vacuo," without some sort of metaphysical (i.e., religious) basis is a questionable endeavour. He sees athletes as "meaning-seeking, story-telling creatures," who can encounter real drama, experience excellence and self-discovery in healthy sporting contests. (5) In relation, a small number of sport psychologists have also challenged the current dominance within their discipline of positivistic research and cognitive-behavioural consultancy techniques advocating the need for more holistic, philosophical, existential, and spiritual and religious approaches. (6)

These recent shifts toward spiritual and religious concepts, within the disciplines of sport philosophy and sport psychology are encouraging and make a significant contribution to my thinking in terms of understanding the complexities of athletic identity. This said, the foundational source of identity (ontologically and epistemologically) (7) throughout this body of work is, as Frankl (8) states, "... a human phenomenon rather than divine," and thus puts the self at the centre of the framework of meaning (humanism and naturalism), rather than God (supernaturalism). I will argue that this is diametrically opposed to a Christian theological perspective of identity as described in the Bible, in which humans are called to deny themselves and live in Christ (Matt. 16:24-27). (9) This is not as burdensome a thing as it may sound to some but rather something that, as C.S Lewis (10) notes, actually leads humans to freedom of heart, peace and becoming "more truly themselves ... it is when I turn to Christ, when I give up myself to His personality, that I first begin to have a personality of my own."

In hopefully adding something new to the valuable past psychological, psychiatric and clinical, sociological, and pedagogical work on athletic identity, and related research on self-worth and dispositional neurotic perfectionism in sport that is based on a secular and humanistic worldview (11), this approach provides a significantly different understanding of personhood and how we understand ourselves and others in competitive sport. Its core premise is that humans' identity, that is, their feeling, thinking, attitudes, and behaviour should be grounded in, and flow from, the heart of a loving Father God. As Paul states in the Bible (Acts 17:28) when addressing the Athenian philosophers, "for in him we live and move and have our being ..."

This study is also needed due to longitudinal sports ethics research that has suggested that athletes in Christian and secular American schools show very little difference, if any, in moral-reasoning, and that Christian athletes had a tendency to compartmentalize their faith and exclude it from competitive sport. (12) Why is this so? Can Christian athletes simply learn and follow the strict moral code of the Bible (an important dimension of Christian faith) and feel, think, and act in the heat of competition and in relationships, in a Christ-like manner? I will argue not, due to the foundational biblical principle that the state of the "heart" of the believer, their disposition--the depth of relationship and intimacy with God through Jesus Christ--is the source of all right and wrong, feeling, thinking, and acting.

Above all else guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.

--Proverbs 4:23)

The mouth speaks out of the overflow of the heart.

--Matthew 12:34

My anthropological start point is predicated on the biblical position that all humans are made in the image of God-imago Dei (Gen. 1:27) and comprise soul, body, and spirit (1 Thess. 5:23). This division of self is useful in analyzing identity in sport. However, throughout this paper, I wish to combat the Platonic-Cartesian mind-body dualism entrenched in the western thought by referring to the soul, body, and spirit holistically as the heart, a Hebrew and Pauline perspective. (13) This view maintains that the human being is thoroughly integrated, though with different aspects.

Consistent with this idea that the Christian faith can be described as a personal and intimate relationship with God in the "heart" of the human believer, versus a dry rule-governed legalistic and judgmental religion (arguably an idol and huge defense mechanism in the modern world), and that the word heart is spoken of hundreds of times in the Bible, it is necessary to provide some explanation of this term. In a little known and arguably neglected book, Biblical Psychology, (14) Oswald Chambers provides some clarity on the spiritual nature of the human heart, which he calls the "radiator of the personal life"--the source of human identity and moral reasoning:

The use of the Bible term 'heart' is best understood by simply saying 'me.' The heart is not merely the seat of the affections, it is the centre of everything. The heart is the central altar, and the body is the outer court. What we offer on the altar of the heart will tell ultimately through the extremities of the body ... the centre from which God's working and the devil's working, the centre from which everything works which moulds the human mechanism ... Our Lord undertakes to fill the whole region of the heart with light and holiness ... (2 Corinthians. 4: 6) ... Do I realize that I need it done? Or do I think I can realize myself? That is the great phrase today, and it is growing in popularity--'I must realize myself." "I must realize myself?" Indeed, Chambers' reflections from the early twentieth century are, I would argue, prophetic for the age in which we live. The cultural ethos of "self-realization," or what has been called "selfism" by psychologist Paul Vitz, (15) is so encultured in the west that I agree with those who have argued that pride of the heart "is now synonymous with virtue" in the institutions of media, sport and religion. (16) To be sure, this view of identity and self-worth that has no objective foundation, as it is relative to each person, is so deeply woven into the fabric of society, that it is, as the nineteenth-century writer Kierkegaard states, the worst form of despair, a "fictitious health." (17) Why? Because it is, as Kierkegaard called it, the disposition of the "automatic cultural man an unconscious denial of the reality of life built on self, instead of the source of our being, a Holy loving God. This idea is not new and supports the maxim, "read an old book for a new idea!"

As articulated in the writings of St. Augustine, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Oswald Chambers, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis and of course the fountain of all their musings, the Bible, the insidiousness of pride and narcissism in the west s cultural value system has resulted in widespread cultural and social fragmentation. This is, in part, a consequence of the liberalization of ethics and the "human potential" movement (e.g., Esalen Institute) in America. The titles of notable books such as The Culture of Narcissism: Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations 1980, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship (1994), and Ernest Becker's award winning The Denial of Death 1973, (18) also accurately conveys our current situation. Nonetheless, liberal-humanist and postmodern voices that dominate academic sports studies (e.g., sociology, philosophy, psychology, pedagogy) and other disciplines, at times seem oblivious to the evidence all around them that the 19th and 20th century utopian "myths of progress" have been unable to prevent, and have often contributed to, what David Blankenhorn, and many others in theology and sport and leisure studies (19) have accurately called a Fatherless Generation.

A principal aim of this paper is to suggest that the foundational answer to this problem lies in individuals, communities, and nations coming into a knowledge and personal revelation of the love of a Father God. To achieve any clear understanding of individual human identity from this perspective, I must also examine the dominant characteristics (identity) of the society and culture in which individual identity is formed-enculturation. For as Phil Night, founder and chairperson of Nike states, sports arguably "define the culture of the world." (20)

After providing a rationale for the need of this study, my first task is to analyze the conceptual nature of sports competition and its role in understanding "athletic identity," which has been defined as "the degree to which an individual identifies with the athlete role." (21) This will allow for a theological and psychological analysis of identity in sport, focusing on pride, humility, and idolatry. Pride and humility are the two states of heart that I see as fundamental in understanding both positive and negative aspects of identity in sport. I will then provide extended Concluding Remarks due to the embryonic nature of the study of identity in sport from a Christian perspective and some suggestions for future empirical research and scholarship and a range of resources to assist in this process.

Identity and Competition in Sport

In his...

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