New Binding Religion

By now folks know I appreciate the insights and articulation of essay writer, David Books.  He has a recent piece entitled, “Revolt of the Masses.”  It is a good examination of our times.  We live in a time where terrorists might attack airports, nightclub or churches.  Unfortunately, sometimes the perpetrator is Muslim, so an entire faith tradition is lambasted.  If the doer of a heinous crime is Christian, he or she is just a wacko.  And so the situation often worsens.

As I reflect on our contemporary society, I have concerns.  Economically, there is a widening gap between the folks making significant money and the larger group of people who are holding their own or worse.  And it is difficult to see this changing as we go further.  In fact, I suspect the gap between the rich and poor is only going to get worse.  There are many people in the so-called service industries who have little hope to make a better life.  We only have to think about the huge number of people working for minimum wages.

Part of the problem is the educational gap.  If you are uneducated, the chances for a good paying future jobs are pretty bleak.  We all know the rapidly accelerating technology that is so prevalent in our lives.  It is hard to believe that we will some day look back at the cell phones in our pockets and laugh at how old-time they are!  Anyone my age is absolutely amazed at what is possible with a phone in our pocket.

Technology drives the economy.  Robots will increasingly do more of the work that human hands now get paid to do.  The folks who create the robots are handsomely rewarded.  The poor folks whom the robots replace are the real losers.  What will they do now?  This is the backdrop to some of our societal ills.  Certainly, I don’t suggest the poorly educated, under-employed are the sitting ducks for problems.  But their disadvantages do not help.

Brooks identifies the problems in ways I recognize.  The opening line of his essay nails it.  “Anybody who spends time in the working-class parts of America (and, one presumes, Britain) notices the contagions of drug addiction and suicide, and the feelings of anomie, cynicism, pessimism and resentment.”  I know in my own middle-class community the rampant use of drugs is amazing.  Heroin is cheaper than alcohol in some places.  And there is fentanyl, which is the rage now.  It is one hundred times more potent than morphine!

This is the context, which is the focus of Brooks’ analysis.  Clearly much has changed in my lifetime.  Brooks is right when he says, “What’s also been lost are the social institutions and cultural values that made it possible to have self-respect amid hardship…”  It seems true to me that someone dealing in heroin or fentanyl is not someone with high self-respect.  I am convinced our social institutions have changed and, in some cases, been lost.

It is easy to blame technology for these changes.  I am convinced institutions like churches do not play the same role for a significant number of people that once was true.  Things like cable television and online streaming of entertainment have drastically changed other public institutions.  I don’t lament this and long for the good old days.  While interesting, the Amish solution will seldom be a popular choice.

In the heart of the essay Brooks makes a statement that I find both true and arresting.  He notes, “Sports has become the binding religion, offering identity, value, and solidarity.”  I am one who has valued sports my whole life.  I played sports and I still participate.  But I also believe Brooks has a point.  Even in my own life there were times when sports became a quasi-religion.  But it was never my religion.  I think Brooks offers a good sense of what real religion offers.  It offers identity, value and solidarity.

In effect religion helps me understood who I am (identity).  It teaches me what to value---what is worthwhile in life.  And it offers solidarity, which in my own perspective is what I call community.  These three characteristics are evident when you watch teams in action.  And if the team should win some kind of championship, these three are powerfully present.  People wear team colors, uniforms, etc.  There is a powerful sense of community among the supporters.

But even championship teams do not measurably change the lives of ordinary people.  Sports do not offer ultimate meaning in life.  There is no human growth and development in being a sports fan.  The group loyalty I feel for a particular team is not going to lead to self-sacrifice and peace-making.

I hope sports are always around and a part of my life.  But I also hope our culture can be healed in such a way that everyone can find some sense of identity, value and community in healthy ways that make a difference in the local places and across the globe.  It is not an argument for old-time religion.  But it is an appeal for a new binding religion that is more than sports can offer.

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