Having recently arrived in America on sabbatical from my post in Australia, I have been trying to learn how the natives live. Among other things I have been listening to the radio, and I find this very illuminating.

A sports commentator interested me recently by claiming that in this country over a wide area sport is being ruined by a “win-at-any-price” attitude. He and another announcer began to talk about ice-hockey games in which physical intimidation is a feature of the playing; about a high school coach who had led his basketball team off the court, forfeiting the game rather than risk injury to the players; about golfers who falsify their scores. They gave other examples of “sportsmen” who bent the rules rather than lose.

One of them made the acute observation that people who engage in such tactics are not playing the game they think they are but quite another. Basketball, for example, is a game of grace and beauty with rules devised to bring out play of a certain type. The result is that the gifted athlete finds ample scope for exercising a variety of skills and the spectator for appreciating them. But when a brutal team wins a game by strong physical measures, it has not won a game of basketball so much as destroyed it. It has preferred to destroy the game rather than lose.

We may protest at this. But when we do we are likely to be met with some such retort as, “That’s the way it is today!” We are exhorted to face up to reality.

The complaint of my sporting commentator was that this is precisely what the “win-at-any-price” players and coaches are not doing. They are coming out ahead on the scoreboard by their tactics, but they are not facing up to the reality of what they are doing to sport and to themselves.

This led him into a reference to Scripture. He was reminded of the destruction of Sodom when Abraham pleaded that the city be spared if fifty righteous men could be found in it, if forty-five, if forty, and so on down to ten. He ended by suggesting that we are heading for a situation in which we will not be able to find even the barest minimum of people who know what sport is all about.

I found all this fascinating, not least because it has such a familiar ring. I think it was a great American coach who first said, “Winning is not the most important thing. It’s the only thing.” But Australians have made the sentiment their own. The games we play are for the most part different, but they are marred by the same ugly features, the same “win-at-all-costs” philosophy, the same readiness to use physical strength to excess, the same cynicism about those quaint souls who play games for the fun of it.

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And the attitude is surely not confined to our two nations. We read of most unattractive behavior at British soccer matches, and at cycle racing on the continent of Europe. The Olympic Games are once more upon us, but no one any longer expects them to embody the ideals that led to their formation. Modern athletics can be a fierce and hate-filled thing.

The point of all this for a column headed “Current Religious Thought” is that it has its theological aspect, as my friend the commentator saw with his reference to Sodom. Why do people adopt tactics like those I have been deploring? There may be many reasons on the surface, but deep down it is surely because of the truth that theologians have enshrined in the doctrine of original sin. The trouble is not that there has suddenly arisen a new generation of coaches who do not understand sportsmanship. The trouble is that deep down in the heart of every human being there is a tendency to do evil and this is finding an outlet on our sporting fields.

It is not, of course, confined to them. Another piece of Americana that has come to my notice is an article by James Reston in which he wonders why people try to assassinate presidents (and sometimes succeed). He finds himself unhappy with the suggestion that deeds of this kind spring from a few aberrant individuals. He agrees with Edmund Burke that it is not possible to “indict a whole people,” but he does not think that the problem has been solved when that is said.

Reston ranges over a variety of evils and cites a number of opinions. But when he comes to round it all off, he refuses to accept the view that all the tragedies he sees in the national life are no more than “accidents and personal failures.” It is not necessary to “indict a whole people” to see “that something has gone wrong with the common purpose of the nation.”

It would be presumptuous for an outsider to pass judgment on the informed comments of an acute observer from the inside. All the more is this the case when the outsider recognizes that in his own nation there are evil tendencies at work to the point that Reston’s very words apply: “Something has gone wrong with the common purpose of the nation.”

And what shall we say of Lebanon, of Northern Ireland, of Angola? Of Britain and other nations of Western Europe? Or of those Communist nations that neither solve their own problems nor refrain from interfering in the affairs of others? Does not the modern world afford many a striking illustration of man’s inability to order his own life in such a way as to serve his own wellbeing?

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The doctrine of original sin is often caricatured and is widely dismissed as quite untenable in a thoughtful age like our own. But I doubt whether any age has offered more widespread illustrations of the truth of the doctrine. We may have our doubts as to the way in which the doctrine has sometimes been formulated, but that does not alter the main point. There is a flaw in human nature, and unless that is recognized there is little room for optimism.

Christians are often accused of pessimism. They are pessimistic where the fatal flaw is unrecognized and where it is expected that man can solve his problems out of his own resources. Sin will always in the end defeat man’s aspirations, and it is only clearsightedness to recognize the fact.

But Christians are also optimistic. They refuse to accept man’s sin as the deciding factor. The love of God is stronger than the sin of man, and in the cross they see God at work, overcoming sin and providing the way of righteousness. So they proclaim the cross, knowing that without it man is lost, knowing also that redeemed man enters into that life which is life indeed.


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