Good reader, I write a fair bit about theology - the stuff of belief if you like - and I will continue to do so. Gift or curse, theology is my calling, and in my view it has its important place. But in truth, and indeed as a strong feature of the theology that has attracted me, theology is not very important, and particularly not in the realm of real life and practice. A lot of people find it uninteresting, a distraction from more concrete, existential questions or just so much hyper-scholastic poppycock, and they have their reasons, including some very good ones.
For me theology - and in particular the proposition that 'God', our highest object of worship, prayer and service (if any) is equivalent to the entirety of our reality, real and imagined - is a foundation, the rock which can be relied upon to support our necessarily symbolic and social negotiation of life. When, as happens for most people at some time of life, someone wants to scratch the surface and ask the deep questions of existence, there is a real foundation of answers which will make sense, but which are available for the scrutiny of each generation. Their strength - if the answers have such strength - depend upon them constantly being buffeted by the wind and storm of such criticism. That they stay standing in all conditions is their only authority.
Religion however is about practice - social and symbolic (in case that term is scary I mean lingual, cultural, musical) life - and theology rarely comes into it. The strong connection between religion and belief has been somewhat artificially bolstered by the polemics of modern fundamentalists and new atheists (which, I tend to agree with Karen Armstrong, are two sides of the same historical manifestation). I want to explore the distinction further some time, but for any who want to follow up this distinction themselves James P Carse's, The Religious Case Against Belief (2008) may be an excellent place to start. The proposition presently is that old cliche hated by rationalists that you can't actually get religion if you don't do it. The belief is just a framework, quite obviously (looking about the world) very plastic; the activity is the thing which the individual and the society benefits from, in ritual and what I have termed 'embodiment'.
So I am not saying beliefs should not be criticised. Criticise the bloody things. It's an appalling desiderata of modernism and post-modernism that religion has lost its habit of endlessly debating propositions within itself, let alone allowing itself criticism from outside. And if criticisms strike home, change the bloody beliefs. We might spot in history that beliefs have changed before. That's how we engage logos and collectively grow in our understanding of God, of our common reality.
My apologies that my introductory remarks just kept growing there. I really am reviewing a religion called Soccer. And I must disclose that it is an overwhelming passion of mine and, coincidentally or not, has been so for approximately the same period I developed my relationship with Every. Make of that what you will. I'll also disclose that last night was my team's (Brisbane Roar) first home game of the season and they won 5:0 in style and in delicious circumstances. So although this sermon has been planned in outline for a while, you could say it's been forced because right now I will struggle to think about another subject.
Fortunately for yourself, dear reader, I have polemicised about the joys and details of this sport quite a bit before and I don't intend to repeat that material. If anyone does have an interest in the sport, apart from as an illustration of religion, I blogged about it for a number of years on Football Down Under and Beyond. Enjoy. :)
Now if I thought soccer was sufficient religion I would not be preaching these sermons but would instead simply be promoting sport. But when I entered the world of soccer fandom I was acutely aware of the patterns of my own religious nature being titillated and emboldened. Part of my enjoyment was this awareness (shared by many; soccer is routinely, if candidly, called 'a religion' by millions of its followers including some of its best writers; pop anthropologist Desmond Morris's The Soccer Tribe (1981) is a popular and fairly elaborate example), along with the lack of delusion involved or, at least, the transparency of the illusion. It is hard not to notice that the rise of cultish sports fandom has paralleled the slow demise of religion over the past century or so in the West. It's also hard to claim a direct correlation, but on the premise that H. sapien is a religious creature by nature - one of the premises of this blog - it makes sense that in times when belief becomes highly suspect that human religion might manifest in ways which have nothing to do with belief as such at all.
Meanwhile, as with my review of the candid cult Join Me! soccer provides a living illustration of our religious, symbolic, collectivist selves without a lot of the distracting baggage or, more accurately, with different distracting baggage than the usual supernatural narratives. As well as a novel illustration of the religious part of human nature in action in the modern world, there's a couple of general points I want to draw from it.
The broad outline of the parallels between sports fandom and religion are fairly obvious: narrative, heroes and villains, tradition, history, passion, song, solidarity, symbolism and ritual, all on a massive organised scale which deeply effects the lives of millions of individuals, families and communities all over the world. I'm not about to attempt to rationalise it, even though there is no faith involved. There is no belief involved in the way I've been using the word, but on the other hand belief is a very important word in all sport, for both athletes and fans. Like any religion, you don't get it if you don't do it.
Both in its play and in its fan culture soccer well illustrates embodiment; regular ensemble collectivity. Soccer is a relatively new religion, but with the oldest clubs over a century old, often dating back to factory teams, there are already rich traditions of narrative, values and song deeply rooted in family and community, a great diversity within the unity of the religion and its 11 "Laws of the Game".
Also in the soccersphere we can see the dark side of religious passion, especially when it is mixed with the tribal side of human nature. Like all religions the cliche gets rolled out about great majorities having their freedoms spoiled by militant and irrational minorities, but there is no apology that can be made for racism or violence wherever it arrises. We may have noted before somewhere that religion can be scary sometimes.
Racism and viciousness occurs among alienated populations too of course. Their roots are social and epistemological, based on ignorance and false narratives, as well as often economic. Indeed I would argue that they are maintained and bolstered by the ignorance of one another inherent in alienation. But when it occurs in embodied religious groups it really happens, and it's horrible. In this regard I offer two observations.
Firstly, although in mass fan culture we might see religious behaviour, it is culture without any implicit values except the need to win. Negotiating the emotional territory of winning and losing is a dialectic of self-improvement in itself of course, one which I daresay the Greeks would have approved of, and ideals like sportsmanship, determination, loyalty, avoiding hubris, focus and comradeship all become focusses of discussion and practice, but overall our society requires a little more moral compass than that in its religions, and the dark side ('winning at all costs') is an ever present temptation.
Incidentally, it is this poverty of moral compass, more than the absence of supernatural narrative or gods, which finally distinguishes sport from religion, in my own view. Though given the amount of players who cross themselves or bow when they enter the field or score goals they are also clearly not mutually exclusive. A persons symbolic life can rarely be described by a single religious label, with or without sport to complicate the question.
Secondly, as I observe the progress of the culture of the English League in particular, where racism and hooliganism have been very notable in the past, I wonder if the roots of these social evils aren't being exposed and worked against even by their explicit embodied manifestations. Once again racism isn't dealt with by our alienation. Not only have education campaigns (essentially against ignorance and for empathy) and reforms in policing and stadium design helped the situation, but active anti-racism campaigns headed by legendary players as well as mass petitioning by fan groups have not only addressed the problem in the sport, but arguably actually addressed the problem in the communities in a more direct, culturally authoritative manner than would otherwise be possible. If the task is to deal with racism in a community, say, do we trust the dialectic of alienation or the dialectic of embodiment to move society along that difficult path? Regardless of our social formations, we do not get to avoid the journey ahead of us.
I find it interesting that this dialectic - of problems and combatting problems - actually brings about by necessities active values among fan cultures, values of non-violence, anti-racism, empathy for the opposition and the like. From its highest levels, which are approximately as patriarchal and corrupt as the Catholic Church incidentally, soccer is explicitly universalist and seeking to end poverty, racism and war (I'm not exaggerating the rhetoric). As noted this religion is not that old and it continues to evolve its myriad church cultures. It's impossible to say how the game - and particular the mass fan embodied cultures - will morph.
The final lesson I'd love to draw from this game, which clearly I can not hide my love for, is that religious behaviour need not be sombre, serious or even sober for it to be distinctly religious behaviour. It is an expression of our natures, expressions of our collective natures, which involves endless creativity, joy, humour, dance and song as well as meaning.
In its embodiment religious culture evolves, which is why in the broad theological terms I generally write in I can not speak much of practice except in broad theoretical terms and in reflective explorations of my own experience. But ultimately religion, like music, language and sport, is something you have to participate in (even as spectator) to "get." And like the swarming of bees or the formations of birds such embodiment is our nature. If modern sporting culture teaches us one thing, the phenomena is not squashed by the absence of belief.
I leave you with one of the great football fan songs, performed by two of soccer's oldest and most established teams, doctrinally divided over who used the song first, but united here in breath, voice and vibration.
"When you walk through the storm hold your head up high and don't be afraid of the dark. At the end of the storm there's a golden sky and the sweet silver song of the lark. Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain, though your dreams be tossed and blown. Walk on! Walk on with hope in your heart and you'll never walk alone. You'll never walk alone."