Football and Christian dialectics

Footie is now front-page news because 12 clubs, six from England, the others from Italy and Spain, have announced the founding of a breakaway Super League. If allowed to go ahead, this would trivialise, possibly destroy, traditional competitions, both domestic and European.

The entire football community – players, managers, pundits, fans – are understandably up in arms. And, since the big 12 will each receive signing-on fees in hundreds of millions, with billions more to come, the owners are rightly accused of greed.

Interestingly, the accusers, most of them rank atheists, are liberally quoting biblical injunctions against avarice, which is good to see. What’s less good to see is that they make no allowances for the dialectical subtlety of both Testaments, especially the New one.

The impression the critics try to convey is that Christ was opposed to wealth as such, not just particularly rapacious ways of acquiring it. That contravenes Christian dialectics, derived not only from Christ’s teaching but, above all, his person.

This tripartite dialectic can be represented by the formula of yes – no – yes or, in Hegel’s terminology, thesis – antithesis – synthesis. As applied to the person of Christ, it can work in this manner: Yes, Christ is fully God (thesis). No, Christ is fully a man (antithesis). Yes, Christ is God-man (synthesis).

Christians have always applied this dialectic to economic behaviour – come to think of it, they’ve applied it to everything, though not always consciously. There are many comments on wealth in the Scripture, but I’ll focus on just two.

In a well-known incident, Jesus stunned his apostles by a bold thesis: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” The disciples “were astonished out of measure”, and understandably so. After all, at the onset of their religion Abraham’s righteousness was rewarded with riches, as was Solomon’s wisdom.

But then came the antithesis: “…With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible.” The synthesis couldn’t be clearer: as long as we put God first, we are justified in pursuing riches. Granted, the Christian attitude to wealth never rose above toleration. But tolerated it was. It was never proscribed. 

In another incident, Jesus spoke of “mammon”, which is the Aramaic for wealth: “No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”

The yes – no – yes dialectic is implicit there, and in several ways. For Jesus, serving God meant putting God before all else  (metaphysical thesis). It didn’t, however, mean elimination of everything else, for life had to be lived (physical antithesis). Therefore, though we cannot serve mammon, which is to say put it first, we may still wish to live comfortably as long as we serve God (“…seek ye first the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you”), put him first (synthesis).

The message is clear: God is everything, but this doesn’t mean that man has to be nothing.

This dialectic was understood by all theologians who talked about riches. Thus St Thomas Aquinas: “The perfection of the Christian life does not consist essentially in voluntary poverty, though that is a tool of perfection in life. There is not necessarily greater perfection where there is greater poverty; and indeed the highest perfection is sometimes wedded to great wealth…”

Note the qualifiers: “essentially”, “not necessarily”, “sometimes”. Rather than issuing a licence to acquisitiveness, St Thomas was expressing the fundamental Christian view on pursuing wealth: Go on then, if you must. But do remember what comes first. Jesus, after all, only said man shall not live by bread alone, not that man shall live by no bread at all.

Addressing seven centuries after Aquinas a world that no longer could be automatically presumed to put God first, Pope John Paul II said essentially the same thing: “It is necessary to create lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.”

The language is modern; the message is two thousand years old. It’s based on the Christian balance between the two planes, physical and metaphysical, reflecting the two natures of Christ: God and man.

When our civilisation was being formed, seeking wealth for those who didn’t inherit large tracts of land was tantamount to selling the fruits of their labour. The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker bartered their products for other people’s. Since money was sometimes involved as a means of exchange, it was natural to expect that more of it would eventually end up in some hands than in others.

Thus labour indirectly presupposed the possibility of enrichment. Yet in spite of that the New Testament contains direct endorsements of work. These come across in the Lord’s Prayer (“give us this day our daily bread”), in Jesus the carpenter talking about “the labourer worthy of his hire” and in St Paul the tent maker stating categorically that “if any would not work, neither shall he eat.”

The upshot of this is that our football pundits should stop their Bible-thumping even if they can’t help screaming “Damn them to hell!” (Martin Samuels, our best football writer). Dismount your high moral horse, chaps, take a deep breath and try to discuss the issue of the Super League on its merits, such as they are.

When all is said and done, it’s only footie, not some heretical religious schism threatening our whole civilisation. A bit of dialectical perspective would come in handy, don’t you think?

2 thoughts on “Football and Christian dialectics”

  1. I think the difficulty with theism, Christianity in particular, is that everything, absolutely everything, has to be accounted for, including football. The atheist has the luxury of saying: s*** happens, but the theist has to absorb everything he encounters. Every interest, every pastime, his work, his friends, his dreams. Hardly an enviable task.

    I can’t help but feel this ‘Super-League’ would be the shake up that football needs, what with the law of unintended consequences and all….

  2. “After all, at the onset of their religion Abraham’s righteousness was rewarded with riches”

    Blessings of GOD for keeping the mitzvah confined strictly to Jews?

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