25 November 2015

Sola Scriptura, Sport and the Protestant ideal-type

Max Weber, my current go-to-guy in the sociological world, constructed a methodology for investigating society. One of the tools that he developed - an heuristic device, if you want to get technical - was the notion of the ideal-type.

An ideal-type is a kind of utopian version of a thing, which despite not actually existing in reality, can be used as a substitute, or approximation, of a particular social reality. Let me exemplify. Sport is a social reality which takes many forms around the world, but the mention of the word conjures up a similar image in our minds no matter where we are from, and so evidently there are some clear commonalities which link sport in each context or locality. These commonalities, when pulled together, can be seen to make up a sort of short hand of the thing itself. We might say that an ideal type of sport is that it involves physical exertion, skill or prowess, it is competitive, organised, rationalised, and exists in hierarchical structures.

The usefulness of the device is that, while plainly it cannot capture every facet of the reality, it provides (in the words of eminent sport sociologist Joseph Maguire) a 'relatively adequate, reality congruent' framework or starting point for further study. 

In this post I want to suggest what might be the characteristics of a Protestant Christian ideal-type, and where we might find the source of these commonalities. Having done so, we are in a position to ask questions about how Protestants might interact with a given social context - the context of sport.

It is clear, and not at all disputed, that beneath the banner of Christianity there are great many views, behaviours and ways of being. This becomes no less true if we hone in on Protestant Christianity. But is it possible (and more subjectively, is it desirable) to delineate an ideal-type of Protestantism? 

Sola Scriptura

One of the defining features of Protestant Christianity has been its emphasis on Biblical inerrancy. Indeed, it is this issue in particular which precipitated the emergence of the Protestant faith out of - and later away from - the Catholic Church. Sola scriptura - scripture alone - has been the watchword of the Protestant churches for generations. One wonders if, in constructing an ideal type of Protestant Christianity, we might begin with the doctrines of the movement, and with the text of the Bible in particular.

O Biblios
A key objection to this might be that in the social sciences we are dealing with things as they are, not as we think they ought to be. We are seeking to describe the realities that emerge as we observe the ballet of data and theory, rather than sketch a partisan utopia, cherry-picking from the data to support preconceptions. However, as Weber himself might have argued in a more interdisciplinary time, behaviours have their precursors: thoughts, ideas and beliefs.

Is it legitimate to say that the ways Protestants behave in the world are a consequence of their faith? Weber thought so, and it was precisely this point on which he built his notion of the Protestant Ethic. If Protestants do live according to a creed, and their creed is the Bible, can we not use the texts of the Bible (and those of the New Testament in particular) to construct an ideal type of the Protestant faith? Indulge me.

A Protestant ideal-type

Here I will suggest four critical Protestant doctrines, give a New Testament reference for their affirmation (though there be many), and suggest how each may influence Protestant Christian behaviour in the social world.

1. Faith in a sovereign and good God. 
"And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose." Romans 8:28
This doctrine may lead to acceptance of setback and trial as a critical part of God's refining work in the life of an individual. It may produce a conscious direction and calling in life along with a willingness to persevere through tough times. This may find fruition in Protestant responses to injury and rehabilitation as an integral element of the training process, something to be embraced rather than endured.

2. Presence of original sin in both creation and creature.
"Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:" Romans 5:12
A low view of one's own humanity in the state of nature, as being fallen and susceptible, may produce a conscious avoidance of temptation. In a sport context, this may be seen in the kinds of associations made and developed between athletes and peers, as well as activities engaged in such as hazing, and wider cultures of drinking and gambling. It may also dictate the use of earnings.

3. Salvific and daily deliverance of people by Jesus Christ, aside from human merit or agency.
"For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God" Ephesians 2:8
This doctrine may inculcate a gratitude to God for His work in the sport/life of a Christian athlete. We might expect to see Protestant athletes openly praying, thanking God for victories - or at least protection from injury - and using the language of dependence (or interdependence) rather than of independence. This may also manifest itself in the choice of celebration employed by Protestant athletes in moments of sporting success, and the extent to which gloating and trash-talking is utilised.

4. Human existence as a God-given gift to be used for God's glory
"What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's." 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
John Huss. Original baller.
In a study by Stevenson (1997), it was discovered that athletes, after coming to faith in Christ, re-imagined their participation in elite sport in three distinct ways. Responses centred around individual interpretations of the injunction to 'glorify God in your body'. Some athletes redoubled their commitment to their sport as a means for glorifying God, others had some difficulty reconciling their faith with the rigours of elite sport, and a few quit sport completely finding it wholly incompatible with their new found faith.

Plainly there is an entire systematic theology to which we might turn. However the point here is not theological, but sociological. Not 'how should Protestants behave?' (which is the realm of preaching), but 'how do Protestants behave?' I would argue that the majority of Protestant Christians (alas, including myself) are not well versed in the fineries of Protestant theology, and so it would be illegitimate to scour the writings of Huss and Wycliffe, Calvin and Luther, Edwards and Wesley, for teachings that may have implications for Christian behaviour. These four cornerstones seem a fair representation of a theology that is at once basic, widely-held and distinctly Protestant.

Using the ideal type

If I now want to investigate the ways in which Protestants might respond in certain fields of society, and in my own case the world of sport and leisure, I have a legitimate (though imperfect) starting point: the ideal-type. Clearly the ideal-type is fluid and subject to emergent and residual social forces, and will change as time goes by, but here is something workable.

2 comments:

  1. A thought provoking blog. The way in which each of the 4 doctrines can link with the world of sport is a sound reminder of how Jesus' followers should live out their faith in their sporting context.
    The way Christians treat their bodies in sport, where fitness is prized but injuries are frequent is certainly one that warrants further investigation.

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    1. Thanks for commenting. Christianity has a long and complicated relationship with the body. It's something I'm currently looking into in more depth. A lot of ground to cover though!

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