Sport and Christianity

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What does Horkheimer’s claim that sport is based on Christianity mean? According to the Christian doctrine, “God” created man from dust and inspired him with life in the form of soul. The purpose of the earthly life is to liberate the soul from the “bodily prison” in order for it to “soar to eternity”. This corresponds to the conception that the true movement is not that of the body through physical time and space but the movement of the spirit through a timeless and limitless space. For Plato, the body is the “prison (grave) of the soul”. According to St. Augustine, “God orders the spirit, and spirit orders the body”: physical movement is the expression of spiritual movement. Thomas Aquinas thinks that man should try to “conserve his health” and “preserve body in a good condition”. This is close to the principle “take care about the body, but do not create the cult of the body” (cura del corpo si, culto del corpo no) which, in the eve of modern times, was established by the Catholic Church as the expression of its inability to oppose new tendencies in the development of the world. Philanthropists turned upside down the original Christian dogma. Guided by the maxim “Fresh, Pious, Free!” (“Frisch, Fromm, Frei!”), they do not see the body as the “prison of the soul”, but as the “temple of the holy spirit” (Pestalozzi). As far as “Christian reformers” are concerned – such as Kingsley and Maurice, Pope Leo XIII, protestant pastor James Naismith (“creator” of basketball), Pennsylvanian bishop Talbot (who said the words: “It is important to take part in the Olympic Games, not to win!” – which will be ascribed to Coubertin), abbot Didon (from whom Coubertin took over the maxim citius, altius, fortius) – they regard sport as a means for depolitization of “masses” and sports organizations as a collaborator in the struggle against the libertarian working movement. In sport, the soul is abolished, and thus the bond between man and God, while the body becomes an organic and symbolic, unbreakable bond between man and the existing world. Unlike Nietzsche, who, in opposition to Christian “despisers of the body”, sees in it the origin and the basic condition of man’s “self propriety”, in sport, the body is a means for abolishing man’s self propriety and his complete incorporation into the existing world. Thomas Arnold turned sport into an instrument for creating the cult of a “muscular” body and a character suited to the nature of capitalist society, but planted on it Christian moralism (“muscular Christians”). Modern Olympism, which is most completely shaped in Coubertin’s writings, discarded the normative sphere and became a cult of the existing world in the pure sense of that word: sport is the crown of the positivist thought, which strives to pin man down to the existing world.

According to the Christian doctrine, men are not “rivals”, but “brothers”. Hence it is dominated by the principle of “love thy brother”, which implies a movement of one man towards another – which is the movement of man towards “God” as true humanity – instead of the movement of man against man, as it is the case in sport, which involves the infliction of serious physical injuries and killing. According to the Olympic doctrine, man is not “a being created by God in his own image”, but is a “lazy animal” (Coubertin) in which, through an unrestrained fight for domination and the principle of “greater effort”, a fighting spirit is to be developed and thus a super-beast. In Christianity, the prevailing idea is that of transcendence, expressed in “God”, while in sport it is the positivist cult by means of which the existing world is to be divinized: sport represents the culmination of “modern” paganism. Christianity strives for the higher; sport strives for the bigger: it divinizes “progress” dominated by the absolutized principle of performance. Unlike sport, Christianity established the fight between good, manifested in “God”, and evil, manifested in the “devil”. The cross symbolizes a crossroad: it is up to man whether he will choose the “road of good”, or the “road of evil”. Unlike the Christian “paradise”, where the prevalent values are contrary to the existing world and offer an opportunity for establishing a critical (not change-oriented) relation to it, sport is a projection of the dominant relations and values and as such is the abolishment of a critical distance to the world and man’s immersion into that world. Instead of an illusory “world of happiness” which, if one lives the life of a humble Christian, awaits man after death, a play is offered as the “oasis of happiness” and thus an “earthly paradise”. In sport, the Christian “meekness” is discarded: the cult of a muscular body and a belligerent character serves to create the cult of thisworldy life: eternity is transferred from “Heaven” to earth. Nothing remains of “muscular Christians” but their muscles and an insatiable greediness which becomes the driving force of “progress”.

Instead of the Christian modesty and humbleness, sport is dominated by the spirit of aggressive elitism and haughtiness; instead of the spirit of the submissive – the spirit of the masters; instead of asceticism – greediness; instead of the cult of the spirit – the cult of the muscular body; instead of strivings for the “other world” – divinization of the existing world; instead of sin and redemption – the abolishment of moral reasoning and responsibility; instead of the Christian “Goodman” – a sportsman, a robotized gladiator, becomes the incarnation of a positive man; instead of the Christian depersonalized soul – a depersonalized (robotized) body… The dominant principles in sport are the following: homo homini lupus est and bellum omnium contra omnes, mens sana in corpore sano, mens fervida in corpore lacertoso, citius-altius-fortius – which are opposed to Christianity and founded in an order based on private property and atomized (petit) bourgeois. In spite of insisting on private property as a “holy” institution, the church is based on collective property and collectivistic spirit, which resembles (only formally) the communist principle “everyone according to abilities, to everyone according to his needs” (Marx). It is not the “faith in God” but the collective property which is the integrative power preventing the disintegration of the church, which would undoubtedly occur if, within the church, the “holy” private property were to become the dominant form of ownership.

The establishment of a rigid dualism of the body and spirit, the body being subordinated to the spirit, is one of the most important common points of sport and Christianity. In this context, both ideologies instrumentalize the body and regard is as a means for realizing “higher” ends. While in Christianity the body is a tool for the realization of “God’s will”, in sport, it is reduced to the means for realizing “progress” which comes down to the realization of strategic interests of the ruling order. In sport, the relation to the human body is close to that which Descartes shaped in his mechanicistic philosophy of the bodily, although here it is mediated by the absolutized principle of performance which conditions the development of a (sado) masochistic character. Unlike the Christian meditative activism which insists on asceticism and leads to the restraint and dying out of physical functions (kneeling is the most authentic Christian bodily posture), sports activism (based on the absolutized principle of “greater effort” corresponded by the maxime citius, altius, fortius) leads to a limitless intensifying of physical exertion, and thus to suppression, degeneration and destruction of spirituality – the basis of religion, which means of the very possibility of “reaching God” – and turns man into a pure matter having a mechanicistic form. A spiritless and instrumentalized man, reduced to a “sportsman”, becomes a manifest form of capitalist nothingness.

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