- Sport As a Spiritual Practice: Mastery, Failure, and Transcendence in the Life of Athletes by Richard Hutch
Can sport be considered a form of religion or spiritual practice? While many authors have examined this question from a confessional perspective (i.e., through the lens of Christianity or Judaism), Richard Hutch uses a non-confessional platform relying heavily on the academic disciplines of history and philosophy. Through six stand-alone essays, Hutch explores human spirituality as an embodied knowing or intuitive awareness that can be experienced without the adoption of such religious traditions. Using a wide-variety of physical activities each representing different topographical spheres, or topos, Hutch considers sport as a place of renewal and failure that mimics the all-encompassing theme of human existence. In the end, Hutch believes that sport propagates an engagement between the individual, the material reality, and the particular topos producing an idiom for human transcendence.
Two key and interrelated concepts are central to the discussion. The first is “human spirituality”—to press on in the face of adverse circumstances while at the same time accepting that defeat, failure, and loss are real possibilities. From this, Hutch coins the phrase “moral presence” as a person’s engagement between one’s body and the material reality—the lived experience of the sports participants as they engage in their sporting arena. The ability to withstand and endure through these experiences of renewal and failure while existentially moving toward death defines one’s “moral strength” or, more simply, one’s character. Hutch strongly suggests that sport provides a fertile milieu for these spiritual experiences.
Armed with these concepts, Hutch explores the spiritual aspect of sport through four different axis mundi, or central worldviews, specifically heaven (sky), earth (ground), hell (underworld), and water (mediator between the other three). Highlighting the topos of water and the open sea, Hutch adjudicates moral presence as a counterpoint to technical self-reliance in solo sailing. Here, the author focuses on the interdependence of sailing technology with the acceptance of human fallibility. He uses the topos of earth to address the spirituality of recreational motorcycling through the ideas of speed, history, and the “here and now.” The following chapter climbs to the elevated earth topos of mountaineering focusing on the expansion and collapse of the human lifecycle—from youthful aspirations to mid-career stabilization to the adjudication of conflicting worldviews. Here pragmatic spirituality, or the defying of death and the creation of legacy through the conquering of specific mountain peaks, is central. [End Page 544]
Scuba diving, and the topos of water, is used symbolically not only to represent birth, regeneration, and connection to the primal waters of life but also as a foreign environment threatening human life through suffocation and pressure, among other things. Similar to his chapter on skydiving and BASE jumping (topos heaven), the idea of moral presence is unabashedly exemplified as both types of “divers” accept the extreme “all or nothing” perspective of one’s mortality by putting faith in the technical mastery of required equipment and in doing so transcend the ideas of mortality for at least brief moments. Hutch also travels “to hell” (topos underworld) through spelunking examples and symbolically compares the zones of a cave with the human lifecycle of conception (dark zone), birth (twilight zone), and life (entrance zone).
This work, through its organization by topos and non-confessional platform, provides a unique perspective on the spiritual nature of sport. It includes references to several well-known spirituality scholars including William James, Michael Novak, Howard S. Slusher, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Mircea Eliade as well as references to recent works by Jeffrey P. Fry, Mike McNamee, and Kevin Krein, to name a few. While remaining true to his purpose, Hutch does occasionally relate historically and philosophically to the confessional platforms of Christianity, Judaism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Ancient Greek mythology, yet this does not derail his unique vantage point on the subject matter.
Hutch’s supporting examples are also timely and...