Pastoral Perspectives

Of Basketball and the Christian Faith

One of the activities I did on a recent cruise vacation with my family was to shoot some hoops. The cruise ship we were on had an indoor court equipped with basketball hoops, so I went in to have a bit of fun. It was years since I picked up a basketball, but it felt oddly familiar in my hands. In my younger years as a student, I loved playing pickup games and would hit the courts many times a week just to get my fix. I was never in organized basketball, but I enjoyed playing with my friends and random strangers who would show up at the courts.

Surprisingly, despite not having hit the courts for years, I could still dribble decently and score some fair jump shots. It seemed that my body could still remember the regular practice and play I subjected it to a long time ago! My friends had introduced me to basketball decades ago and I enjoyed it tremendously. However, I had to work hard to play catch-up since my friends were more skilled than me. So, I earnestly studied instructional books to learn the fundamentals of basketball, then I clocked in my hours on the court, practicing drills and playing pickup games. The more I practiced and played, the more I loved the game.

Week after week of such regular practice and play programmed movement patterns into my body such that it could reflexively recall in an instant what my mind had already long tucked into its recesses. Picking up the ball on the cruise ship once again made my heart burn with the passion it once had… only to be quickly quenched by badly aching muscles and joints!

I relate this recent experience to demonstrate how as human beings, we are more than just mind. We’re also body and heart. This understanding is important for us as Christians because today we tend to reduce the Christian faith to propositional knowledge: believe in the right doctrine and you’ll be saved, have the right worldview and you’ll live righteously.

This view of human beings as primarily thinking minds stems from the Enlightenment when the philosopher Descartes concluded that the human’s ability to think is the first principle of philosophy. This fixation with the human intellect has so thoroughly permeated Protestant Christianity and produced ‘an overly cognitivist picture of the human person.’ Reformed Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith believes such a fixation

tends to foster an overly intellectualist account of what it means to be or become a Christian … It is just this adoption of a rationalist, cognitivist anthropology that accounts for the shape of much Protestant worship as a heady affair fixated on “messages” that disseminate Christian ideas and abstract values … The result is a talking-head version of Christianity that is fixated on doctrines and ideas.

The problem is, I can learn as much as I want about basketball and have an understanding of the game cognitively, yet without playing it, I wouldn’t “know” the game at all. I may know definitionally what’s a Pick and Roll (an offensive play in basketball) but not know how to execute it on the courts. To execute it requires drill after drill after drill with teammates. So, one can’t “know” basketball without subjecting one’s body to it. Moreover, without practice and play, it’s hard to develop a true love for the game. It’s one thing to enjoy the game as a spectator, but another to love the game as a player fully absorbed in the exhilaration of the moment on court—something impossible without involving the body.

Therefore, there’s a need to recognise we’re more than minds. We need to pay more attention to the other aspects of our humanity: our physical body and our affections. What we do in our body affects what we love in our hearts, and it’s what we love that matters. St Paul affirms in 1 Corinthians 8 that intellectual knowledge puffs up and isn’t the point of our faith: ‘If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.’ On the other hand, ‘if anyone loves God, he is known by God.’ The love for God and for our fellows is what matters. What develops that love in us isn’t information but formation.

We don’t develop a love for God by merely feeding ourselves with more information about God through sermons and Christian education classes, important as they may be. My love for basketball wasn’t developed through reading more about it but putting into practice on the courts what I’ve read in the books. Similarly, our love for God and our desire for what is beautiful, good, and true develops only when what’s in our mind descends into our heart—when our knowledge becomes affection. This happens through forming good habits, also otherwise known as virtues. As Smith puts it,

These habits constitute a kind of “second nature”: while they are learned (and thus not simply biological instincts), they can become so intricately woven into the fibre of our being that they function as if they were natural or biological. … So the virtuous person is someone who has an almost automatic disposition to do the right thing “without thinking about it.”

To put it in New Testament terms, the virtuous person is the one who lives by the spirit and puts to death the flesh.

How can we be acquire such virtues? Virtues are ‘inscribed in our heart through bodily practices and rituals that train the heart, as it were, to desire certain ends. This is a noncognitive sort of training, a kind of education that is shaping us often without our realisation.’ This is probably the kind of training St Paul refers to in 1 Corithians 9 when he writes,

Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

In the Christian tradition, such training means engaging in outward forms for the purpose of forming the person inwardly. I’m not sure if a new Christian can suddenly wake up one morning impeccable in virtue and full of love for God. If the Christian life is about increasing conformity to the perfection of our Lord Jesus Christ, then formation is a slow, tedious, and mundane process. This isn’t unlike having to conform myself to the forms in drills to form my basketball skills. There’s nothing fanciful or exciting about this. Yet, it’s only by practicing a hundred jump shots daily that one acquires the ability to shoot freely and accurately in any game.

Christian formation is about the mundane: waking up at the same time every day to pray, saying the same words in prayer, fasting on the same days, reading the same Bible, going to the same liturgy, serving in the same ministry, doing the same good works and so on. Yet, a discipline of regularity forms in us virtues, and these in turn predispose us to desire God and the things of God. Sometimes, there’s a fear that we can set such spiritual practices over God. It’s true that any good thing in life can be perverted, but no real basketballer mistakes the tedium of practice for the gloriousness of the game. As long as we remember that they are but means to an end, the end of which is God, then we are on safe grounds. I’m just not sure if there’s any other way.

Pr Png Eng Keat

July 10, 2022