I haven’t watched much of the Beijing Games but enough to be reminded that athletics is one of the great glories of humanity. One history of the ancient Greeks is that they came into Europe as one of a number of tribes devoted to a warrior cult which made them successful invaders of territories occupied by more peaceful people, but also led them into destructive conflicts of honour such as the war at Troy, which killed their best leaders and impovershed their settlements. Over time, they learned to modify their aggression and to appreciate the arts of peace,channeling their competitive desires into physical and artistic competition. The creation of something splendid, either in art or athletics, became for them one of the highrest expressions of humanity. This is one the great discoveries of their civilisation: that the true virtue (Greek: arete) of humanity is to transmute the desire to conquer into the creation of intellectual, artistic and athletic splendour.
Yes, modern athletics like all modern competetive sport is defiled by nationalistic and financial concerns, not to mention the damaging use of drugs, but watching Mo Farah or Usain Bolt or Jessica Ennis-Hill in full flight is to witness a special form of excellence, that unites people in appreciation of human worth. Of course animals have instinctual physicalities which exceed all human effort, but they do not have to learn them through harsh self-discipline and precise control, as humans do. Physical sport unites the diverse poles of human nature, the wit of homo sapiens with the instinctive grace of the animal body, providing at its best a struggle that damages no one.
Some people feel that when thousands of human beings are dying from violence and impoverishment, such spectacles are at best a distraction and at worst a wicked waste of resources, but I feel that if nations could focus on competing in human excellence rather than in power and wealth, tyrants and warmomgers might be seen for the idiots they are.
Well, what’s all that got to do with Jesus? At first sight, not a lot. Amongst all people in the Greek empire of Alexander the Jews were the least impressed with Greek ideals of art and sport. The use of Greek gymnasia in Palestine was forbidden to faithful Jews, who saw the naked display of the human physique as a provocative arrogance towards God and one’s neighbour. Sober men and women had to cover their bodies and control their instincts, so that they could live decently as God’s people. Genuine human worth in Jewish eyes was seen in faithful family life, neighbourly kindness, social justice and the worship of the one God. Jesus was raised in that tradition, which he reverenced and modified; and there is nothing in his life or teaching, that encourages an interest in intellecual, artistic or athletic excellence.
So, is that kind of excellence foreign to Jesus and therefore to Christian faith?
There may be an answer in Jesus use of the phrase usually tranlsated as “eternal life” (Greek: zoe aionion, “the life of ages”). This can be intepreted as life that lasts for all time, or as life of everlasting quality. Allan Dale who translated the heart of the New Testament for school pupils, called it “splendid living”, that is, llife that expresses the nature of human beings as God’s children. St. Paul wrote of the “glorious freedom of the children of God.” Of course, for Jesus, no kind of splendid living can by-pass God and one’s neighbour, but rather must include them, as can be seen in the splendour of his own encounters with people in which the rule of God and the need of his neighbour are always acknowledged.
Perhaps the closest connection between the gospel of Jesus and the Greek ideal of excellence is his ministry of healing. The Jesus tradition has doubtless exaggerated the miraculous nature of this ministry, but it can hardly have invented the ministry itself. Jesus was a healer, one for whom the diseased human being was an offence to the creator, who used his skill to restore the whole person to family and community life. His special indignation was reserved for those who thought some religious observance was more important than this liberation of human bodies and souls..
Perhaps we can recover the image of Jesus as one who lived splendidly and enabled others to do the same. On the other hand, our contemporary notions of sporting excellence could benefit from reconnection with the ancient Greek tradition, and with Jesus’ more comprehensive practice of the splendid life.
(Desperate Dan’s exceptional fitness and physical prowess are of course due to a healthy diet of cowpies and long walks with his dog Gnasher.)