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"I jump into a sand pit for a living"

Jonathan Edwards, World record triple-jumper

John Paul ll’s Interpretation of I Corinthians 9:24-27

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A Paradigm for a Christian Ethic of Sport – John White


John Paul II proposes that 1 Cor. 9:24-27 includes sport among the human values and offers a paradigm to recognise ‘the fundamental validity of sport, considering it not just as a term of comparison to illustrate higher ethical and aesthetic ideal, but also in its intrinsic reality as a factor in the formation of man as a part of his culture and his civilization’. In this paper, I intend to follow John Paul lI’s interpretation and moral reasoning in order to demonstrate how I Cor. 9:24-27 can be used in Christian ethics as a paradigm for theological reflection on sport.”

The traditional interpretation of the Pauline athletics metaphors is that they are simply analogies to aid understanding of the Christian faith. Ladd and Mathisen refer to some evangelical interpretations of the passages as a kind of “folk theology”. In this paper John White presents and elaborates John Paul II’s argument that the Corinthian passage gives validity to sport and has implications for how we play sport. As White puts it: “St. Paul’s use of an extended athletic metaphor in 1 Cor. 9:24-27 functions as a summary and model for how a Christian, no less a Christian sportsperson, practises and lives life for the sake of the gospel”.

In contrast to modern attempts to relate Christianity and sport where “modern muscular Christianity has predominantly chosen to appraise sport’s moral worth according to its pragmatic utility”, this paper urges us not to overlook “the freedom, spontaneity, and richness of the trivial nature of sport as play”.

White challenges the tendency to use these texts primarily as “an accommodationist method of cultural engagement”, preferring to “follow John Paul II’s interpretation and moral reasoning in order to demonstrate how 1 Cor. 9:24-27 can correctly be used in Christian Ethics as a moral reflection on sport.

Among the points made by John Paul II are:

• The possibility of “outlining not only anthropology but an ethic and also a theology of sport which highlights all its value”.

• That “Athletic activity can help every man and woman to recall that moment when God the Creator gave origin to the human person, the masterpiece of his creative work.”

• When humans play sport they are participating in the order of creation itself. What this means then is that sportive action is understood as coming from and cooperating with God’s creative action and purposes.

• “Because sport is embedded in this created order, sportspersons should respect these positive values intrinsic to human players, since this demonstrates gratitude to God the creator for how he gifts athletes with their abilities which they should responsibly direct.”

• “Our participation in sport, when construed according to the ends given in creation, can be an appropriate use of the gifts of our hands and bodies, which is meant to be developed as part of the God-given, cultural mandate in Genesis 1-2. God’s directive to ‘fill the earth’ involves the making of human culture. If sport issues from this cultural-making mandate, then, when we direct and relate it towards God, it affirms him as Creator”.

• When this mandate is understood accordingly, then sport receives its meaning as an aspect of the good, created order that depends on God. Sport is not an autonomous zone disconnected from God’s purposes.

• Sport does not have meaning in and of itself but derives its value from its position as a creation of man the player and maker. This explains why John Paul II declares that the fundamental validity of sport is a ‘factor in the formation of man as a part of his culture and his civilization’.

• sport is an activity that can ennoble humans.

White acknowledges that we can ask to what degree St. Paul actually commends sport through his use of athletic imagery or the agon motif but feels that we cannot ignore the fact that the metaphor is used with some frequency, despite the association with pagan idolatry which surrounded the games. He suggests that John Paul II’s interpretation “makes it plausible that St. Paul’s positive rhetoric about sport corresponds to a positive conception of sport as a creational good proceeding from who we are as God’s image-bearers”.

White noted that for John Paul II sport was “a lived experience” and as such he sees in it a positive value. As well as emphasising sport as a created good, John Paul underlines the importance of redemption when reflecting on sport. White continues “Participating in play, games, and sport is part of what it means to be human... John Paul II argues that Christians are called to redeem sport which means making the dignity of the human person the objective of all sporting activity”.

White notes that John Paul II opposes the concept of‘sport for sport’s sake’ agrument that ‘sport is at the service of man and not man at the service of sport, and therefore the dignity of the human person is the goal and criterion of all sporting activity”. He also challenges us to build a culture of love in sport a culture that might seem to stress production and consumption as well as utilitarian and hedonistic considerations.

White concludes “In summary, John Paul II believes that St. Paul valued sport for its intrinsic reality to form persons and for how Christians then and now ought to conduct themselves, including Christians in sport. This focal image of the athlete orders his acceptance of sport as a human value—especially against the modem demands of life and work that often preclude or dampen the time for sport and leisure—for an athlete can choose to become somebody”.

This is an important and thought provoking paper.

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