A propos of New York Knicks phenom and professing Christian Jeremy Lin, David Brooks in The New York Times writes that “the moral ethos of sport is in tension with the moral ethos of faith, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim.” This is because, he says,
the moral universe of modern sport is oriented around victory and supremacy. The sports hero tries to perform great deeds in order to win glory and fame. It doesn’t really matter whether he has good intentions. His job is to beat his opponents and avoid the oblivion that goes with defeat. The modern sports hero is competitive and ambitious. . .He is assertive, proud and intimidating. He makes himself the center of attention when the game is on the line. His identity is built around his prowess. His achievement is measured by how much he can elicit the admiration of other people — the roar of the crowd and the respect of ESPN. His primary virtue is courage — the ability to withstand pain, remain calm under pressure and rise from nowhere to topple the greats. This is what we go to sporting events to see. This sporting ethos pervades modern life and shapes how we think about business, academic and political competition. But there’s no use denying — though many do deny it — that this ethos violates the religious ethos on many levels. The religious ethos is about redemption, self-abnegation and surrender to God.
But to say that “the religious ethos” is at odds with that of sports is to beg the question. In other words, if you reduce a religion to its “ethos,” you have predetermined the clash with alternative ethical understandings. But religion is more than a matter of ethos, as was well known for many centuries of Christian history and, indeed, up until quite recent times.
In his book The Ethos of The Song of Roland (1963), the late Professor George Fenwick Jones told an illuminating story on this subject. An American missionary was traveling with a caravan across the Gobi desert when it was captured by bandits. Now the bandits of the Gobi desert are the most ruthless and bloodthirsty in the world. Everyone else in the caravan despaired of his life, but the missionary went to work. He explained to the bandits the Christian version of redemptive history: the Creation of the world, the Fall of Man, God’s promises to Noah, Abraham and Moses, the law and the prophets and, finally, the birth, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and His promise of eternal life to those who believe in Him. And, lo, the bandits were moved by the tale. They spared the missionary and the whole caravan with him and sent them on their way. But when the bandits captured next caravan to come in their way, the captives were crucified while the bandits cast lots for their garments.
That story was meant to illustrate the difference between the mythos and the ethos of a religion. The Christian mythos used to have plenty of room in it for warriors and those who displayed the warrior virtues of courage and so forth as mentioned by Mr Brooks and stipulated of Jeremy Lin. “Victory and supremacy” were not thought to be incompatible with Christianity. It is only in the last half century that it has become usual for people to think of Christianity only in terms of the self-abnegating ethos of the Sermon on the Mount. If, as David Brooks insists “the two moral universes are not reconcilable,” it is only because he himself has drawn the boundaries of those two universes — leave aside for a moment the now unremarkable self-contradiction of a universe with boundaries — in order to make them so.
Our Victorian ancestors knew differently when they fused together, no doubt clumsily, the traditional honor culture with an expansive understanding of the Christian mythos and ethos that had room in it even for Christian sportsmen and athletes. I think the fascination of people today with characters like Jeremy Lin and Tim Tebow is in part owing to a popular hankering to return to that Victorian synthesis — or rather, perhaps, a sense of how barren and lonely life can become without it, once we have persuaded ourselves that even love must be circumscribed by a narrowly ethical view of the world.