At the beginning of most Christian books on sports, the authors begin by expressing what sports mean to them. This is typically done to inform the reader that the forthcoming criticisms are not a blanket denouncement of sports. Authors want to gain a sympathetic hearing without alienating what is likely their primary audience: people who enjoy sports. The irony is that these authors’ enjoyment of sports rarely, if ever, has a significant role to play in their evaluation of sports. They tend to think that all that is required for evaluating a sport is clear thinking and communicating—all one needs is a brain, not a body.
However, sports, for all of their juvenile tendencies, cannot be reduced to an intellectual exercise; they cannot be dissected into their component parts. As author E. B. White once said in referring to a good joke, “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but like a frog, the thing dies in the process and the innards are disgusting to anyone but the scientific mind.” When we treat a sport as if it were a frog to be dissected in science class, we lose the things that truly matter in sports: our senses and our feelings. We forget people like Eric Liddell, the patron saint of sports for evangelicals, who said, “God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure.”1 Liddell did not say “When I run I think about his pleasure” or “when I run I examine his pleasure.” The original line rings true because it emphasizes feeling. It reminds us that when we play sports, we play them with our senses, and when we are too eager to critique and dissect sports, we lose this embodied physical dimension. In other words, we lose our feel for the game.
Western tradition has never done well with our bodily senses. As theologian Bonnie Miller-McLemore puts it, “In Western society, detachment from bodies is often considered a sign of intellectual and spiritual maturity and a mark of true science and morality.” This, no doubt, is both an outworking of the Greek Platonic philosophical tradition, which has devalued the body and bodily experiences in favor of the abstract forms of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and the critical method of philosophy employed by René Descartes, in which everything was to be taken with a grain of salt until it could be boiled down to an articulated thought. Remember, Descartes did not say, “I feel” or “I sense” or “I participate, therefore I am” but “I think, therefore I am.”2
And while Descartes’s critical method of philosophy has been useful in many respects, its need to articulate all of our experiences creates an unavoidable distance between our selves and our objects. The moment we put something into words, we create a gap between those words and the object or experience that those words are meant to signify. This is a common problem in all areas of life but it is particularly pertinent with sports because playing a sport is inescapably experiential and unavoidably bodily, and yet we too often evaluate sports as if the experiential bodily dimension doesn’t matter. We turn our bodies or activities into texts that must be parsed in order to be understood. Here, again, is Miller-McLemore on the place of the body in Western thought: “The body is transported to the literate, verbal world of Western academics where it becomes merely a text ‘that can be read and analyzed,’ stripped of ‘its smells, tastes, textures and pains—its sensuousness.’”3
Michael Polanyi, the twentieth-century scientist-turned-philosopher, believes that this philosophical turn away from the body and toward the supposedly objective world of science, language, and texts is perhaps our biggest misstep in the modern period. Polanyi argues that our surrendering to this sort of “unbridled lucidity” effectively removes the individual person from the equation. In his influential book Personal Knowledge (of which the subtitle, Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy, is particularly revealing), he argues that the individual person is essential to every part of the knowing process.4 Polanyi made this point in 1958 in a post-WWII Europe that was beginning to turn away from the idea that language could support our pursuit of objectivity. However, unlike many of the philosophers of his day and those who would follow, Polanyi did not let go of the possibility that people could have or possess knowledge. Instead, Polanyi emphasized that knowledge was inescapably personal, which also meant that knowledge was inescapably physical. Polanyi would call this type of knowledge tacit knowledge.
Tacit knowledge, Polanyi explains in his 1966 book The Tacit Dimension, is the idea that “we can know more than we can tell.”5 This type of embodied knowledge cannot be articulated or reduced into words. Polanyi refers to this complex form of knowledge as Gestalt, a term found most commonly in psychology and which refers to how we as individuals give coherence to an apparently chaotic sensory world. When Polanyi calls such knowledge Gestalt, he is suggesting that the whole of our experience is greater than the sum of its parts. Our experience, and the knowledge that attends to this experience, cannot easily be reduced to isolated parts, and when we do this—which, as Polanyi says, does have its place6—we risk losing much of the inherent meaning in our experience. We essentially lose our context within the whole.
To prevent this loss of meaning, Polanyi argues that we need to be aware that we understand things not by looking at them but “by dwelling in them.” And by this usage of the word dwelling, Polanyi refers to the process by which we integrate particular things in our environment into a comprehensive and meaningful whole. Our bodies are essential to this process because it is through our bodies that we engage, interact, and ultimately know things of the world. As Polanyi says, our bodies are the “ultimate instrument of all our external knowledge.”7
Many of Polanyi’s thoughts on knowledge and the role of the body in knowledge resonate with philosophers who would identify themselves as phenomenologists, particularly Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Like Polanyi, Merleau-Ponty was interested in the role of the body in our grasp of knowledge but instead of using the word dwelling, he talks about the body as “being-in-the-world,” which means, according to Steven Stolz, “that our embodiment precedes reflective thought.” To help demonstrate this, Merleau-Ponty explains that we know “what a forest, a prairie or a river is”8 not because we have deciphered the abstract symbols of the geographer’s map but because we have experienced the countryside, because it is a place that we have seen, touched, smelled, felt, and heard. For Merleau-Ponty, without this embodied experience we know only in part, if at all.
The relevance of embodied experience to sports is probably best understood through an example. Consider Charlotte Brown, a high school pole-vaulter who, in the spring of 2015, won the bronze medal at the Texas state track and field championships, clearing a height of 11 feet 6 inches. Now, consider the fact that Brown is blind. Before every meet, Brown’s guide dog leads her on a walk through of the track. Brown then places the lid of her chalk container at her starting point on the runway so that she can find it with her foot before each attempt. She also places a beeper—inaudible to most other competitors—between the pads and the planting box to help guide her down the runway. When she is ready—she has said that “eventually you just gotta pull the trigger and you gotta go”9—she stands tall and holds the pole upright and close to her right hip. She rocks back onto her right foot and then launches herself down the runway, counting her strides as she runs. On the sixth stride with her left foot, she begins to lower the pole, and on the seventh stride, she plants the tip of the pole into the vault box and then pulls back, extending her feet above her head, propelling herself into the sky, and hoping that she got high enough.
That Brown would attempt to pole vault without her vision forces me to broaden my vision of what humans are capable of—I would never have encouraged a blind person to participate in pole vaulting—but the fact that Brown is also very good at pole vaulting is astounding. Brown’s ability to be in tune with her body and her environment in the absence of her vision is an excellent example of what Polanyi is on about with dwelling in the world. Polanyi even uses the example of how a blind person uses a walking stick to interiorize the world around them. He says,
[A]s we learn to use a probe, or to use a stick for feeling our way, our awareness of its impact on our hand is transformed into a sense of its point touching the objects we are exploring. . . . We become aware of the feelings in our hand in terms of their meaning located at the tip of the probe or stick to which we are attending.”10
In other words, we extend our senses into the world through tools, like a walking stick or a pole for pole vault, which become a sort of “sentient extension of our bodies” so that we can interiorize the world in ways that we do not fully understand and cannot fully articulate. Therefore, when we properly dwell or live as a “being-in-the-world,” we narrow the distance between a subject and its object and thus experience the world as embodied individuals. The paradox in Charlotte Brown’s case is that her disability enables her to experience the world and “develop a sense of [her] own identity” in a way that is different from those who do not have a disability.11 She will feel the surface of the track, the pole in her hands, and the air beneath her differently than most. What pole vaulting means to Charlotte is likely very different from what it means to her competitors. And what that meaning is exactly probably cannot be put into words. Thus, attempting to analyze or criticize Brown’s pole vaulting is no straightforward matter. If asked to do so, I am sure most people would be much more reluctant to critique Brown than her competitors. They would be conscious of the fact that Brown embodies something unique and that her mere participation carries significant meaning. But at the same time, we should not view Brown as being entirely unique in this regard. We all attend to the physical world in meaningful ways that we can’t quite articulate. The difference with Brown is that her disability simply makes apparent what is normally unapparent: our embodied activities are meaningful.
We often say that if you can’t teach something, you don’t know it. In saying this, we assume that if someone’s thoughts or feelings cannot be clearly communicated, they are essentially meaningless because they carry little communicable value. Because of this assumption, we rely on the critics or the experts to tell us what something means. This is valuable, of course (otherwise why would I bother trying to articulate my thoughts in this forum?), but it does not mean that what we cannot articulate has no meaning. Truly, many of the things that we struggle to put into words are exactly the things that give our life meaning. Sports are just one example of something that moves with meaning without the need for words. Dance would be another. Music, again, another. The fact that we sometimes cannot put our feelings or experiences or movements into words should be a clue, not that those feelings, experiences, or movements are illegitimate but that our language sometimes cannot excavate the things buried deep within us.
People like Charlotte Brown remind us of this. She and other athletes with disabilities, both mental and physical, are prophetic12 voices—no, prophetic bodies—that communicate loud and clear and without words that participating in sports can be a meaningful activity.
This certainly runs counter to the way much of our culture approaches sports. Sports are often seen as little more than an opportunity to be victorious over others. Because of this, sports have become too little of an activity and too much of a competition. Much of contemporary sports can be summed up by a few words from NFL Hall-of-Fame coach Vince Lombardi, the apparent godfather of North American modern sports: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”13
Within this line of thinking, there is little room for the weak, the vulnerable, or the disabled. Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, a community that seeks to support people who have intellectual disabilities, understands this separation well. He says, “There is a lack of synchronicity between our society and people with disabilities. A society that honors only the powerful, the clever, and the winners necessarily belittles the weak. It is as if to say: to be human is to be powerful.”14 What disabled participants in sports offer us is a glimpse into a world where to be human is not to be powerful but to be meaningful.
However, if every sporting activity has the potential to be meaningful, should we avoid criticizing those activities for fear of diminishing the meaning an individual might feel? Should we stop investigating the inner workings of a person, activity, or sport? Should we renounce competition and settle for participation?
Not at all! I am not proposing that criticism or competition has no place in sports. Competition, for example, is like the guardrail on a highway: it doesn’t tell us where to go but it prevents us from driving off the road and losing ourselves in self-absorption. In some sense, the competitive structures of sports provide us with a shared way of making meaning, of putting the meaning we discover through our embodiment into a communal context. Participation in sports should not lead to isolation; when we properly dwell in the world as embodied people we should not have to forgo competition for the sake of meaning. Dwelling in the world simply means that we are aware of the importance of our body in discovering meaning and thus we resist the temptation to remove the body from our being and the sensuous from our experience.
Christianity has not always done this well. Many Christians throughout history—and even today—have thought little of dance, for example. Such Christians might consider dance a waste of time at best and sinful at worst. In contrast, Friedrich Nietzsche, the nineteenth-century German philosopher who announced that “God is dead,” was notorious for his love of dance. Apparently, he danced every day. He called dancing his “divine service” and once declared, “I would believe only in a God that knows how to dance.” What is it about dance that has turned away so many Christians while at the same time allowing Nietzsche, an atheist, to experience a sense of the divine through it?
I think part of the answer is that dance has an amazing capacity to move people, both literally and figuratively, in ways that words cannot. According to Stolz, “human movement is the place where we can both find meaning and express our own particular identity because the body is actively involved in the world and is also the locus of expression and meaning producing acts.”15 This is, of course, a dangerous idea. When something can carry great meaning and yet elude our critical grasp, as is the case with most physical movements, it has an enormous power to shape us. John Calvin knew this well. He said that when it comes to music, a close kin to dance, “there is hardly anything in the world with more power to turn or bend, this way and that, the morals of men, as Plato has prudently considered.”16
Sports, though different from dance, are a place where an individual can find meaning through the movement of their physical body. This is part of what makes sports powerful and why it should not be surprising that sports are as popular as they are. But does the power of sport necessitate its rejection? Should we spurn sports because of this power? For some, sadly, the answer is yes. For others, it means that though they may participate in sports they can never allow themselves to truly enjoy the experience. They are forever suspicious of sports and the cultures that attend to it. Some of this suspicion may be warranted, but the habit of being overly critical will eventually do damage to how we understand ourselves, our world, and our place in the world.
When we create a culture of criticism, we rely on the critics to find meaning for the participants. And in such a culture, what do we say to disabled participants? What do we say to all of those who find meaning through sports in ways that they cannot put into words? Do we insist that their meaning in sports must be contingent on some other able-minded person, some philosopher or ethicist who articulates from the bleachers? Indeed, should we even say anything at all? Here is Jean Vanier in response to that question:
There is a beautiful story of a young man with a disability who wanted to win the Special Olympics; he got to the hundred-meter race and was running like crazy to get the gold medal. One of the others running with him slipped and fell; he turned round and picked him up and they ran across the finishing line together last. Are we prepared to sacrifice the prize for solidarity? It’s a big question. Do we want to be in solidarity with others? . . . We have to look at the poorest and the weakest. They have a message to give us.17
Perhaps it is time that we hear the message of the participants—all of them, abled and disabled—even if their message is one without words.
- Internet Movie Database, “Memorable quotes for Chariots of Fire,” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082158/quotes.
- Miller-McLemore, “Embodied Knowing, Embodied Theology: What Happened to the Body?” Pastoral Psychology 62 (2013): 752; and Descartes, Discourse on Method, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis: IN, Hacket, 1998), 19.
- Miller-McLemore, “Embodied Knowing,” 746.
- Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966), 18; and Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1962), viii.
- Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, 4. Emphasis in original.
- We should remember that Polanyi was first and foremost a scientist who believed that “the detailing of particulars, which by itself would destroy meaning, serves as a guide to their subsequent integration and thus establishes a more secure and more accurate meaning of them” (ibid., 19).
- Ibid., 18 and 15.
- Stolz, “Phenomenology and Physical Education,” Educational Philosophy and Theory 45 (2013): 953; and Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (New York, NY: Routledge, 1962), x.
- “How She Does It: Charlotte Brown,” ESPNW, May 16, 2015, http://espn.go.com/espnw/news-commentary/article/10872841/espnw-blind-pole-vaulter-charlotte-brown-strides-texas-state-meet.
- Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, 12–13.
- Ibid., 16.
- To steal an idea from Nick J. Watson, “Special Olympians as a ‘Prophetic Sign’ to the Modern Sporting Babel,” Journal of Disability and Religion 18 (2013): 24–48.
- Lombardi, “Famous Quotes by Vince Lombardi,” Family of Vince Lombardi, Luminary Group, http://www.vincelombardi.com/quotes.html.
- Vanier, Becoming Human (Toronto, ON: House of Anansi, 1998) 46.
- Stolz, “Phenomenology and Physical Education,” 954.
- Calvin, “Introduction to the 1543 Geneva Psalter,” in Strunk’s Source Readings in Music History, ed. Leo Treitler (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1998), 347.
- Vanier and Carolyn Whitney-Brown, Jean Vanier: Essential Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008) 167– 68.