St. Augustine once said that "Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe." Aside from being a complete crock of shit, this statement is nevertheless incredibly applicable to variety of ideas we're expected to blindly subscribe to; for example, love, happiness, and the free-market. Most important among these things, and no doubt what Augustine was referring to, is God.
What is God? Answering this pretentious question has sundered people into an abundance of factions; even Christianity has been split into scores of denominations over important doctrinal disputes, such as "Is this shitty cracker really the flesh of Jesus?" However, ignoring some of the great faiths of world, namely Hinduism, Buddhism, and Scientology, most systems of belief agree upon at least two things: there is one God and he (or she) is greater than man.
The belief in God, particularly one of omniscience, is comforting to us. Maybe we're less enamored with the Big Brother aspect as we guiltily type "hardcore amateur teen sluts" into the shadowy network of porn engines, but overall, we like knowing that our life has direction and meaning in a neatly scripted master plan.
Fuck, I don't know. I've never been comforted through my trials and tribulations by thinking that a more ripped and pissed off version of "The Dude" Lebowski was carrying me across a personal Normandy beachhead of anguish. Seriously, does having a guy who unleashes his wrath on fig trees sound like a stable traveling companion?
Obviously, a lot of people take this shit seriously: to them it's YHWH, or the AC/DC Highway. But for me at least, subscribing to a belief on the basis of fear of the unknown isn't very appealing. That isn't to condemn all monotheists as frightened sheep; I'm sure many find inspiration in the prayer, the liturgy, the
drinking before noon on Sundays. But more and more people are looking for an alternative, something that has more spiritual meaning to them. For some, it could be science. For others, it could be the trees. Hell, for some, it may be the writings of Nicholas Sparks.
For me, though - it's sports.
It's hard to say when I started ascribing spirituality to my fanhood. Perhaps it began in my youth, as I was entranced by an American folk hero, Brett Favre, ruggedly scrambling in the pocket, ruggedly evading tackles, ruggedly spiraling a prolate spheroid down the field, ruggedly sending out pics of his junk. Certainly by 2007, I was a baptized acolyte, as Roger Federer usurped Favre in my pantheon. The artistry, the brilliance, the dominance, and the way he moved - he moved like he was gliding on water...I had never felt so emotionally attached to an athlete before. David Foster Wallace was right - watching Federer is a religious experience.
There is magic in watching athletes like Federer compete, with the daring forehands in crunch time, the buzzer beating shots, the walk-off home runs. It's not just the love that is supposed to well up inside of you when singing hymnals - watching sports runs the gamut of human emotion, as you vicariously share the triumph, the disgust, the jubilation, the exasperation. Not to suggest that Jesus H. Public has never felt anything but pure happiness regarding religion over his lifespan. But I have roamed the entire range of the human heart in a matter of 90 minutes by watching a tennis match.
I've started to organize my bizarre infatuation with athletes into a coherent dogma, and plan to submit my creed to the state so they recognize my entirely legitimate holiday breaks and tax exempt status. Wimbledon would be my Ramadan; I may not fast for the fortnight, but I will swear oaths five times a day towards Centre Court. The Super Bowl shall be my Christmas - a single, glorious day of gluttony and commercial significance. The NBA Finals? My Kwanzaa...which I don't think requires further exposition.
I call my faith Olympicism, in honor of Greco-Roman tradition, when men were gods, and gods were imperfect. Ancient Olympic athletes and gladiators were lauded with verse, crowned with wreaths, and compared with Zeus, tangling art, politics, and, yes, religion into a wonderful mess. Today, we talk a little of sports and politics, a little less of sports and art, and not at all of sports and religion. Sure, we'll talk of religion in sports, of Tim Tebow polarizing a nation with his controversial prayers and his even more controversial virginity. But religion as sports? Gasp.
Consider the congregation of bleacher bums at Wrigley Field. Always overfull, regardless of the team's record and weather, the bleachers are a different environment than anywhere else in the park, perhaps different than anywhere else in baseball. Crammed on pew-like benches, the fans engage in communion with beer and hotdogs, drunken chants, and other bizarre traditions including throwing home run balls hit by the opposing team back into the field. When the fans continue to pour into the bleachers, unconcerned with results, one wonders if there is something going on, some ritual madness, some ritual ecstasy - something other than baseball.
What about the 40-something everyman, who works in retail nine to five, six days a week? Burned out, balding, and on the brink of marital separation, his one release is catching that Monday Night Football game. The cathartic, primal howls toward the television screen baffle his significant other, who skeptically rolls her eyes when he says he doesn't have the energy to join her and the children for church on Sundays.
Are these circumstances really classifiable as religious? A small but growing number of sociologists and psychologists are starting to think so. They note the similarities in the vocabulary used in both church and at sporting events - how many times have you gone through a March Madness game without hearing "spirit," "sacrifice," or "devotion"? It's no coincidence that the most famous and exciting play in football is the "Hail Mary." Recent demographic studies assert that the numbers of "atheists," or at least those having no registered religion, are on the rise at the expense of organized religion, and the numbers of sports fans, at the very least, remain static. While correlation does not prove causation, and to suggest that all people who do not subscribe to religion find spirituality in sports is a quantum leap in logic, the data does imply that people are starting to attach meaning to their lives in other ways than traditionally understood. Given how popular sports are worldwide, this is not a particularly unreasonable avenue of thought.
One thing which I think our ancient ancestors got right (and really, besides pederasty, slavery, and an economy based on conquest, what did they get wrong?) was their recognition of the metaphoric mortality of gods. Deities, such as Pan and Asclepius, could be victims of "death." The chief god of my Olympicistic faith, Roger Federer, is now 30 and certainly beyond his peak. I have no belief in an eternal kingdom in which Federer will reign forever. While still playing and still widely regarded as the greatest player ever, neither the fact nor the opinion are guaranteed to endure the test of time. This should be kept in mind by the many monotheists of today - no god can stay in his prime forever. It happened to Zeus. It happened to Ra. And it will happen to Federer. In our fast-paced, text-based, cyberspaced surreality, the Judeo-Christian God could very well be in decline.
Don't mistake me. I'm not a sententious egotist commanding the masses to kneel before my religion and suck my fat solipsicle. In my mind, no creed or dogma is inherently more valid than another. I've just made a very different choice in what I regard as spiritually fulfilling. No, I don't have aspirations of prancing around in the Elysian Fields with Federer and Favre once my body expires while others are floating around in the clouds playing harps or smoking hookah in palatial harems with their virgins. I have found both Heaven and Hell on earth with my submission to Olympicism and my subscription to Comcast's sports package. Regardless of your beliefs, I still must humbly supplicate you to watch Federer at least once while you still have the chance. Magic like that doesn't come around very often. Forget St. Augustine; it has to be seen to be believed.