‘My teacher, what are these cries I hear?
Who are all these people conquered by their pain?’
And he to me: ‘This state of misery
Is clutched by those sad souls whose works in life
Merited neither praise nor infamy.’ 1
The Divine Comedy is among the greatest literary works of all time. Written by the Florentine scholar and poet Dante Alighieri between 1306 and 1321, the poem recounts Dante’s journey (he plays the main character in the narrative) through the three parts of the afterlife (hell, purgatory, and paradise). Much could be said about the beauty, richness, wisdom, and brilliance of the poem. Here, however, I only want to make two points, one brief and one extended.
First, far too many Christians have only superficial familiarity with the work. Some were never introduced to it, even in a cursory way. They are, therefore, ignorant of what they are missing. Others, in a far larger group, know of the poem and are vicariously aware of its greatness, but are intimidated by the idea of reading it, just as many are with Shakespeare or Chaucer or Homer. This is a great shame, and a great spiritual loss. As the theologian Frank Sheed pointed out, “While it is obvious that an ignorant man can be virtuous, it is equally obvious that ignorance is not a virtue.”2 The poem, with guidance, is accessible and should therefore be engaged. Here’s just one among several excellent places to start.
Second, the poem’s many insights into good and evil, virtue and vice, the temporal and the eternal, and the nature of human life, have important lessons to teach Christian athletes, coaches, and fans. One such lesson regards a richer understanding of courage. Often, assertions regarding the place of courage in sport focus on overcoming its physical challenges such as: injury, fear, pain, or fatigue.3 There can be truth in such claims; however, ultimately, courage is not about “facing fear” or “overcoming injury” but rather is about a “readiness to accept harm for the sake of realizing the good.”4 If that is right, then courage is not available to those who pursue a trivial or an unjust cause because, in such cases, there can be no good for which to suffer. Courage requires truth and, at root, all truth comes from and points back to God. Therefore, I’d like to use Dante to look at courage in sport more carefully—that is, through a spiritual lens.
In Canto III of the Inferno, Dante has just entered hell with his guide, the Roman poet Virgil. While in the antechamber (a lobby of sorts), he hears the wails of those poor souls who in life were neither for nor against God but rather went in whatever direction the wind was blowing. Their lives, consumed in self, were dominated by a desire to avoid controversy by staying on the sidelines wherever and whenever conflict arose. Their milquetoast indifference to truth and goodness, to beauty and justice, as well as to the necessity of loving God before all things, means that they have no home in heaven. Nor does hell want these apathetic souls, even if it cannot fully deny them. Having refused to pick sides—consumed in shallow self-regard, momentary advantage, and absent all serious conviction—they are condemned to endlessly follow an empty and aimless banner while being stung by insects which cause throbbing and bloody welts:
And I, beholding saw a banner fly,
whirling about and racing with such speed
it seemed that it would scorn to stand, or pause,
And all behind that flag in a long line
So numbers a host of people ran
I had not thought death had unmade so many…5
Unwilling in life to suffer for the good, these poor souls now suffer for nothing. For it is nothing, to which they dedicated their lives.
To avoid that fate, as human beings or as athletes, we must be willing to stand up for the good, the true, and the beautiful. That is, for God. For it is only God, not the principalities and powers of the world (Ephesians, 6:12), who endures. As St. Theresa (n.d.) of Avila put it in her famous Bookmark Prayer:
Let nothing disturb you;
Let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing.
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Nothing is wanting to him who possesses God.
God alone suffices.6
An immoderate desire for the goods of the world is idolatry. A lust for winning, or vainglory, or an avaricious desire for monetary reward, must never quell our willingness to act when courage is required. We must be willing to suffer not only “for the team” or for a “gold medal” or for a “world championship,” but, when necessary, to suffer —as Christ’s passion exemplifies— for God and neighbor.7 To do otherwise is to worship worldly success and to build on shifting sand (Matthew 7:24-27).
What goods then are worth suffering for in sport? That is, in what ways does sport demand courage in this larger sense? In closing, let me briefly suggest two places where Christians in sport must be ready to swim against the tide and suffer for the sake of the good. First, fraternity. The human community, whether inside sport or without, relies upon solidarity—the thick bonds of obligation born of human intimacy and concern. Every athlete, no matter their skill level, is “created in the image of God.” God sustains his creation at every moment. Our embodiment is an ongoing (living) part of that creation. Embodiment is not an accident, nor a “Socratic husk” to be left behind at death. Embodiment is central to human being, which means kinesthetic skill—being the cultivation of our essentially embodied nature—is a central part of human flourishing. But this means everyone needs it!
Athletics, therefore, cannot simply be a luxury for the few, myopically focused on hyper specialization, winning, and elite talent. Such a focus would, by definition, leave most people behind. Having competitive teams, and recognizing differences in talent, skill, and performance is perfectly fine, if doing so doesn’t come at the cost of ignoring, denigrating, or underfunding opportunities for those who do not—or cannot—reach elite levels of performance. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with a love of the spectacle, drama, skill, and fun of “big-time” sport, so long as intramurals, parks, recreation, club sports, and physical education do not become mere afterthoughts. Consider what the sports world would look like if the same passion, conviction, time, energy, care, and funding that went into “big-time sport” could be found in defense of “access to swimming lessons”, “quality physical education,” or “safe, abundant, and accessible parks.” Christians must be willing to look at sport, sub specie aeternitatis, that is, “from the point of view of eternity,” and thereby embrace the intrinsic value of kinesthetic skill development for all people—whether or not it generates competitive success, revenue, or fame.
Second, Christians must be willing to stand up in defense of human nature. That is, for the integrity—the wholeness—of the human person. The post-modern West (including its sporting institutions) is increasingly gnostic and thereby increasingly hostile to Christian anthropology. By “gnostic” I mean that the reality of a given world—including our own nature—is rejected. Instead, “Humanity alone, and what humanity makes of itself and the world by its own will-power, is real.”8 Will and desire reign supreme. Yet, despite its waning popularity, Christians in sport must have the courage to stand up for the givenness of the body and all that entails. This is non-negotiable. We are creatures (Genesis 1:1). We are sexed (Genesis 1:27). We are frail (Genesis 3:17). We are not our own (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Moreover, embodiment is not incidental to our judgment and salvation. We are saved through Christ’s physical death and resurrection, and we will be raised on the last day—whether to glory or condemnation. As Dante writes, “Each man shall see again his woeful tomb/shall reassume his flesh and form, and hear/his sentence thundering through eternity.”9 Flesh matters.
The body is not an object we own, but an integral and irreducible aspect of the created self. Christians in sport must therefore stand up for limits and givens, even when it costs us revenue, or power, or jobs, or competitive opportunities. For instance, Christians must not participate in attempts to instrumentalize the body via commodification10 and overtraining,11 or through an unquenchable lust for victory that turns play into work.12 We must not join those who think salvation can be found bloodlessly,13 by escaping the limitations, frailty and particularity of embodiment via AI14 or “virtual reality sport”15 or through genetic enhancement.16 We must not embrace—whether at the behest of gender theory17 or transhumanism18—the idea that human nature is fungible, so as to foolishly remake mankind in man’s image, rather than remain in God’s. As theologian Adam Cooper so wisely insists:
Christianity, is a religion deeply interested in the human body, since each body is a person, and each person a creature and image-bearer of God. In the three great mysteries of God’s dealing with the universe – creation, incarnation, and resurrection – all material reality, and especially spirited, sensible, sexed and social human flesh, is radically implicated…In the light of Christ, the personal embodiment of humanity made divine, all these other spheres of reality become especially luminous.19
Recognizing this truth moves one out of darkness and into the light (1 Peter 2:9). Yet, being in the light places demands upon us, and sport is one of those “spheres of reality” than cannot help but be made “luminous” by Christ, even if the powers-that-be prefer the shadows found in worldliness, realpolitik, and the status quo (John 3:19-20). Nevertheless, as Christ teaches us, we ought not hide our light under a bushel (Matthew 5:14-16). How much less, then, should it be hidden under a glove, or behind an NCAA rule, a Power Five conference membership, or a TV Contract?
Life is not reducible to efficiency and quantifiable achievement, nor is it ruled, as the post-modern disciples of Nietzsche constantly preach, by power or will. Life is ruled and given—here and now—by God, which means that it is a gift and that it is ruled by love.20 To sit on the sidelines, to be willing to suffer for temporal goods like “prestige” or “championships” or “victory,” but unwilling to suffer in defense of love, is foolishness.21 It is an attempt to store up things for oneself while ignoring God (Luke 12:21). As St. Theresa saw, “God alone suffices.” To settle for less, to hide from controversy, or to ignore the “eternal horizon”22 in favor of safety or convenience or momentary advantage, is to dedicate one’s life to nothing. In the end, such opportunism will result in being condemned to suffer for nothing, just as Dante described.23 The Incarnation, culminating in Christ’s death and resurrection, changes everything. For through it, “God has concretely demonstrated his love by entering human history through the Person of Jesus Christ” [Emphasis Added].24 God’s grace has come to us, in flesh and blood! Christian athletes, coaches, and fans must pray for the courage—in both word and deed—to say so.25
- Dante Alighieri, Inferno. Trans. Anthony Esolen. (New York: Random House, 2002), Canto III, 32-36.
- Frank Sheed, Theology for Beginners, 3rd Ed, (Cincinnati, OH, Servant Books, 1981), 5.
- Consider, for example, this ESPN piece about a Division I volleyball player’s battle to overcome a life-threatening heart condition and get back on the court. Aishwarya Kumar, “The extraordinary courage of NCAA volleyball star Asjia O’Neal,” espn.com. December 3. 2021, https://www.espn.com/college-sports/story/_/id/32697350/the-extraordinary-courage-ncaa-volleyball-star-asjia-oneal.
- Josef Pieper, The Christian Idea of Man, trans. Dan Farrelly (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2011), 23.
- Dante, Inferno, Canto III, 52-57.
- St. Theresa of Avila, “Bookmark Prayer,” catholicculture.org, n.d., https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/prayers/view.cfm?id=874.
- Augustine succinctly explains the Greatest Commandment: “Every human being, qua human being, should be loved on God’s account; and God should be loved for himself.” St. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, Trans. R.P.H Green (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 21.
- Adam G. Cooper, Life in the Flesh: An Anti-Gnostic Spiritual Philosophy, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 3.
- Dante, Inferno, Canto VI, 97-99.
- John Hoberman, Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport, (New York: The Free Press, 1992).
- Simon Hughes, “Football’s Addiction to Sleeping Pills – ‘A Disease Spreading Quietly Across the Game’,” theathletic.com, September 7, 2021, https://theathletic.com/2802210/2021/09/08/footballs-addiction-to-sleeping-pills-a-disease-spreading-quietly-across-the-game/?article_source=search&search_query=sedative
- Antonio Morales, “The Cost of Raising a Blue-Chip QB: ‘God Dang, that is a Lot of Money’,” theathletic.com, January 27, 2021, https://theathletic.com/2293170/2021/01/27/five-star-quarterback-trainer-cost/
- The disembodied nature of such claims should give all Christians pause: As St. Paul puts it: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” Ephesians 2:13 (NIV).
- Michael S.A. Graziano, “Will Your Uploaded Mind Still be You?,” wsj.com, September 13, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/will-your-uploaded-mind-still-be-you-11568386410
- Jacob Feldman, “What the Metaverse Means, and What It Means for Sports,” yahoo.com, August 16, 2021, https://sports.yahoo.com/metaverse-means-means-sports-040128114.html
- W. Miller Brown, “The case for perfection,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 36, no. 2, 2009, 127-139. See also the work of Bill McKibben, “No one needs to run in the twenty-first century. Running is an outlet for spirit, for finding out who you are, no more mandatory than art or music. It is a voluntary beauty, a grace. Its significance depends on the limitations and wonders of our bodies as we have known them. Why would you sign up for a marathon if it was a test of the alterations some embryologist had made in you, and in a million others?…It’s not the personal challenge that will disappear. It’s the personal” Bill McKibben, Enough, (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2003), 7.
- Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, (New York: Routledge, 1990).
- Neil Sahota, “Human 2.0 Is Coming Faster than You Think. Will you Evolve with the Times?,” forbes.com, October 1, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/cognitiveworld/2018/10/01/human-2-0-is-coming-faster-than-you-think-will-you-evolve-with-the-times/?sh=72b7d5744284
- Cooper, Life in the Flesh, 263.
- Nor is “love” reducible to affection, warm feelings, or sentimentality. One is reminded of two Bible verses which clearly communicate the nature and content of love: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” 1 John 4:8 (NIV). “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails…” 1st Corinthians 13:4-8 (NIV).
- “What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away” 1st Corinthians, 7:29-31 (NIV).
- “Dear friends, the Church considers that her most important mission in today’s culture is to keep alive the search for truth, and consequently for God; to bring people to look beyond penultimate realities and to seek those that are ultimate. I invite you to deepen your knowledge of God as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ for our complete fulfilment. Produce beautiful things, but above all make your lives places of beauty” [Emphasis Added]. Pope Benedict XVI, “Benedict XVI Address at Cultural Center of Belém, Lisbon,” catholicculture.org., 2010, https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=9315.
- “A body by its weight tend to move towards its proper place…Things which are not in their intended position are restless. Once they are in their ordered position, they are at rest…My weight is my love. Wherever I am carried, my love is carrying me.” St. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 278.
- Pope Benedict XVI, The Apostles, (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2007), 81.
- We are all tempted due to fear, apathy, or convenience to rationalize our cowardice behind the bromides of liberalism. Here Voegelin is helpful: “No one is obliged to take part in the spiritual crisis of a society; on the contrary, everyone is obliged to avoid this folly and live his life in order.” Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics & Gnosticism, trans. William J. Fitzpatrick (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1968), 17.