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Guest Thinkers

Is Football A Variety of Religious Experience?

If the following combination of names has meaning to you, the answer is yes: Desean, Lesean, Jeremy, Michael, Brent. Football and philosophy don’t often share the same Op-Ed column, but today they did, and thinking on this relationship, we think that a future generation of philosophers might align them more often than not. Among varieties of religious experience, games rarely rank first, yet what we feel in the final moments of a unique collective experience (like the last Eagles/Giants game) could qualify as transcendent. And the transcendent qualifies for philosophical attention. In this sense, New Year’s Day represents a chance not only for deep personal reflection, but also for transformative, shared emotion.

Harvard philosophy Professor Sean Dorrance Kelly has a cool blog. He writes posts on things like the relation between what’s right and what matters. And, is there a phenomenon of the sacred now? He also references reviews for his new book, All Things Shining, the subject of David Brooks’s column in today’s New York Times.We don’t know what Mr. Brooks thinks about football, but he was willing to acknowledge its potential place in future philosophies of happiness, community, and individual freedom.

Brooks writes of Kelly and his co-author, Berkeley professor Hubert Dreyfus:

[They] might help invert the way we see the world. We have official stories we tell about our culture: each individual is the captain of his own ship; we are all children of God. But in practice, willy-nilly, the way we actually live is at odds with the official story. Our most vibrant institutions are collective, not individual or religious. They are there to create that group whoosh: the sports stadium, the concert hall, the political rally, the theater, the museum and the gourmet restaurant. Even church is often more about the ecstatic whoosh than the theology.

The activities often dismissed as mere diversions are actually central. Real life is more about serial whooshes than coherent meaning.

“The ecstatic whoosh:” anyone who loves football can attest to its church-like elements. All Things Shining may be the best book on Happiness we have had, being a work of philosophy rather than self-help. What is the difference? The former tends to tell us what to do to be happy; the latter looks at what we do to be happy, and tells us what it means. As long as we strive for “happiness,” we will welcome philosophers—and football—in our lives.

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One last thought on All Things Shining: today is a day to remember the men and women risking their lives in the ultimate theatre of collective experience: military combat. “All things shining” is a quote from American novelist James Jones’s 1962 World War II novel, The Thin Red Line, later adapted into a one of the finest war films ever made, by Terence Malick. It is the story of the Battle of Guadalcanal. These are the lines are spoken by Private Edward P. Train:

“Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness, light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.”

I am not sure if professor Kelly chose his title from the book or the film but it is apt. Jones and Malick both understood how loneliness is often most acute when experienced in the presence of others. They used their literary gifts to express this idea, and to apply it to the most pressing topic of their, and our, times: not happiness; war. 


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