Thomas Merton, Football, And The American Religion


American football as something deeper and more meaningful than just sport?

That’s a cliche, certainly.

Some have attempted to draw a (weak) connection between the game and an increasingly violent culture, while others, through literature, have sensed its potential for power and dominance even off the field. And an interesting association to some early religious beliefs, sacred rituals and prehistoric bonding has also been made along the way.

But football as religion itself, at least symbolically?

Reading Thomas Merton’s final journal entries leading up to his untimely death in 1968, The Other Side of the Mountain, The End of the Journey (The Journals of Thomas Merton, Book 7), has been a pretty eye-opening experience.

His observations on American society at that time – which spanned the increasing United States involvement in the Vietnam Nam war, the nascent peace and civil rights movements (Merton’s writings zealously encouraged both), the assassinations of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy, and the dynamics and aftermath of the 1968 Presidential election – reveal a sharp and severe critic of what he perceived to be a massive failure: America not living up to its own high ideals, values, and beliefs, not to mention even minimally grasping, and living, the life-affirming message of the Gospels.

So it was fascinating to – almost randomly in the middle of these journal entries – have run across Merton’s thoughts on American football; football as religion, football as, perhaps, some kind of continuous fall and redemption and judgment:

Football is one of the really valid and deep American rituals. It has a religious serious which American religion can never achieve. A comic contemplative dynamism, a gratuity, a movement from play to play, a definitiveness that responds to some deep need, a religious need, a sense of meaning that is at once final and provisional: a substratum of dependable regularity, continuity, and an ever renewed variety, openness to new possibilities, new chances. It happens. It is done. It is possible again. It happens.

And more:

Another play is decided, played out, “done”. . . and that’s enough, on to the next one – until the final gun blows them out of the huddle and the last play never happens. They disperse. Cosmic breakup.

Final score 31-27 is now football history. This will last forever. It is secure in its having happened.

And we saw it happen. We existed.

I’m still working through all of the implications (and, really, the full meaning of) Merton’s American-football-as-religion analogy.

But I have a sense from this that Merton may have better understood something than perhaps many others: our instinctual need for security, assuredness, and absolute certainty in a highly unstable and dynamic world – but not, ultimately, at the expense of our own constant need for forgiveness or for multiple, second and third, chances and do-overs – at least for ourselves, if not so much for others around us.

Until, that is, the final, definitive, and forever score is behind us.

That’s my takeaway, anyway.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts and comments.


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  1. Football is Big Business, which to some, makes it a religion. 🙂

    I can see some parallels to our faith: in rituals and beliefs and rules; in that you’re never quite out of it until the very end; in that to succeed, you have to submit your will to someone in authority. Other similar analogies can be drawn, I’m sure.

    But really, that’s how much of life is, isn’t it – whether it’s sports, or work, or recreation, or relationships. And I think one reason why is because God took on human flesh, became one of us, was like us in all things except sin. Because of the Incarnation, we have the ability to ‘religionize’ nearly every aspect of life. If God hadn’t become man, I wonder if we’d really be able to do that.

      1. I didn’t take parallels. Simply that fans are able to be nurtured on a deeper level with football than meets the eye. That its unwittingly taken some inward twists on a path of assuredness otherwise perhaps missing , from a life without Mass.
        If theres a parallel its that the games played Sunday and only Sunday for most.

  2. A comic contemplative dynamism, a gratuity, a movement from play to play, a definitiveness that responds to some deep need, a religious need, a sense of meaning that is at once final and provisional:

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