Recently I got quite caught up in a football game on television. It was a close match right to the very end. And in a dramatic finish the college team I was rooting for pulled off the victory. Watching it was a good way of spending a few hours. I did not experience any self-transcendence, however. Maybe that was a part of my problem. My guess is that thinking too much about self-transcendence can be a barrier to undergoing it.
Ordinarily, I would not have even been thinking about self-transcendence while watching a football game, but in the course of writing about experiences of human solidarity several months ago I had read an interesting article by Martin Siegel in America with the intriguing title, “Good Sports: Getting Closer to God through Athletics.” I really had to wait until football season to test Siegel’s hypothesis about the sports-fan experience becoming a spiritual event, since I really don’t get engaged enough in baseball or golf.
Siegel’s piece caught my attention because of some similarities in what he wrote to a rather whimsical passage I had come upon in Rousseau, where he imagines the collective effects of a community festival in a town where the leaders have planted “a stake crowned with flowers in the middle of a square.” The sun’s rays and some gentle breezes flow over the participants, energizing them in such a way that, Rousseau says, “each one sees and loves himself in the others, and all will be better united.”
Siegel claimed something similar for athletic events, although unlike Rousseau, he (Siegel is a rabbi) thinks that fandom has the potential of drawing us closer to God. Watching teams compete, he says, can inspire spectators in a stadium to identify in an almost mystical way with their efforts. “The players,” he writes, “are accomplishing their highest potential, and the fans are experiencing this vicariously. This offers what most humans desire: the capacity for self-transcendence. They [the fans] have become larger than themselves through identification with the players, the games and the community through this experience of the game.”
But no such “enlargement” happened to me. Perhaps I failed to react in that way during the game I was following because I was watching it on TV, alone in a hotel room. I did experience a measure of empathy for the team I was rooting for as I watched the game, but it fell far short of anything transcendent. Not all empathy takes us very far from our own “selves.” I see a mother at the airport baggage claim welcoming her college student son home for Spring break and I am momentarily happy for them. But it is a “That’s nice” kind of empathy—much like seeing my team’s quarterback complete a short pass for a first down.
There was no escaping my own partisanship as I watched the game. I wanted my favorite team to win and I did not at any point wish the other team well. If I had been sitting in the stands surrounded by fans who were cheering against my team, I would not have felt much human bonding with that part of the crowd, and if I happened to turn my attention to God it would likely have taken the form of a prayer for endurance for the state of my soul under present circumstances.
This is the competitive aspect of sports that Siegel overlooks. Football fans may well transcend themselves in experiencing, through a vicarious identification with the players on the field, a sense of a shared humanness with those possessing similar allegiances. But it is not likely that they will experience self-transcendence by means of a vicarious identity with the accomplishments of opposing team and its fans. Indeed, viewing those accomplishments may actually create a more intense alienation from those other folks.
This is not to single out athletic events for special criticism. Much of our worship life can function in the same way. My brand of Protestant worship has the capacity to stimulate new feelings of hostility toward Muslims, and even toward Catholics. The difference, of course, is that things should go better than that in church. A proper worship of God ought not to be the occasion for creating hostile feelings toward other human beings. In football games, on the other hand, a less than full-orbed sense of solidarity with some and rivalry with others—to say nothing of a lack of an awareness of the divine Presence—seems go with the territory.
But maybe there is some hope for a measure of self-transcendence even in a stadium. At the end of the game that I watched, the camera focused on what appeared to be a mere “ritual handshake” between the two coaches. But also within view of the camera two of the players who had been competing against each other in the game could be seen hugging each other. Seeing that hug I came close—not quite, but close—to experiencing something like a moment of self-transcendence. Even that rather modest sense of a shared humanness was probably enhanced by the fact that I was glad my team had won the game. I would like to think, however, that it had something to do also with a willingness of a losing player to hug someone who was celebrating a victory. We should not hope for too much self-transcendence in a stadium, but we should not deny the experience when it happens!
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.