From the Bottom Up
“The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” – Saint Irenaeus (Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 180)
His whole life was a million to one shot. – Rocky 1976
Anthony Joshua, with his impressive and inspiring victory over Andy Ruiz in December, has lit the fire for this article on boxing and redemption. His return to the heavyweight throne serves to reiterate once again the perennial fact that most great stories involve serious redemption and are movingly personal. The great appeal of boxing, and part of the reason for its resonant cinematic success, is its heart of passionate redemption.
We see this icon of elevation again in Tyson Fury’s tale, recounted in his recent autobiography. The lineal heavyweight champion moved from the top of the heavyweight division down to the brink of suicide, and weighing over twenty stone, before elevating back to new heights.
Fury accomplished his triumph by returning to outbox adversary, and maybe boxing history’s most devastating puncher, Deontay Wilder, in an epic comeback fight. Tyson even rose like wrestling’s The Undertaker from a disastrous knock-down in the twelfth and final round, to cement the drama. Fury later proclaimed that God’s hand was at work here. The struggles and successes for each boxer in the ring reflect the same patterns in life outside the squared circle. In Fury’s case the pendulum has swung wildly, and reveals life’s uneven contests:
“…Yet now, as I drove along the motorway in this new dream car, I was caught in the nightmare of clinical depression. I had it all, but I felt I had nothing to live for. There was no point to my existence.
As I came off the motorway and slowed down, I just knew it was time to leave all this torture behind. “Right, come on, Tyson, just get this over with.’’ My mind was made up, it was in a place of meaninglessness. Nothing mattered; I didn’t matter.
I looked at the upcoming bridge. That was the target; that was the end point. The Ferrari’s engine roared back into life. It would be the last sound I would hear. In a couple of seconds my mind would be clear, devoid of all the voices that were boiling in my head. I put my foot to the floor. The end was in view.
Then, in the moment before I was set to crash, a voice shot into my head: ‘No! Stop! Think about your kids!’ And I blasted past the bridge before hammering on the brakes.
That’s as close as I have come to ending it all. I look back with relief and bewilderment at just how a person can enter such a state, suffocated by depression like I was, and I give thanks to God. Without my faith I would have committed suicide that day. My children would not have a father to guide them and my amazing wife Paris would have been robbed of a husband who, for all my faults, loves her with all his heart.” (Tyson Fury, Behind the Mask, 2019)
Now, Tyson has returned from the brink and aims to ascend to his heavyweight throne once again. Echoing the previous words about life, he informs us what it was like to struggle on in the ring, after a devastating fall against Deontay Wilder:
“I hit the canvas with an almighty crash. This had to be the end, thought Wilder and everybody else in the arena, and the millions watching around the world on TV…
Five seconds later the comeback was alive, the darkness gave way to light as I rose to my feet. It was all meant to be, whatever has happened in my life. I was supposed to go down against Wilder; I was supposed to rise dramatically.” (Tyson Fury, Behind the Mask, 2019)
Why was Tyson, who ‘had it all’ on the surface, found in a position of almost fatal darkness? And why now can he see the light?
Without exhausting the story, or explaining any pain away, we suggest that he forgot who and what life is truly about. This is a problem for many wandering souls in our flattened-out culture without fight or passion for living.
It has been said that passivity breeds mediocrity and mental illness, for those who will not settle for mere existence. I would echo this claim and observe how it fits with Tyson Fury’s story of mental illness. He speaks to the passive stupor of the present age. An age with neither heroism nor a healthy routine of good habits to form redeemed character.
One part of the problem is the shallow nature of our consumerist golden calf. This wasn’t enough for Fury, and it isn’t enough for us. Man does not live by consumption alone and yearns for an elevated position.
“A mere consumer,” Wendell Berry writes, “is, by definition, a dependent.” (Daniel Lattier, Wendell Berry on Consumerism in America, 2018)
It is in action, and the rising above the banal, that we become who we are made to be. This is despite our own fears and limitations. An active body and mind attack the constant attempts at slumbering self-sabotage and defeatism that follow in the wake of a collapsed, consumerist, hollow which lacks incarnate heroism.
The quest for elevated redemption rails against the restrictions placed upon Man by others, and our desire to prove ourselves to them according to standards that fall short of our full stature in God-Manhood. Tyson’s, and ours, is a crisis of true identity.
The Fight for True Identity
Manhattan’s magnificent Pastor, Tim Keller, has preached convincingly about our identity in Christ, and His holy desire to move us out of our morose inertia. He describes three basic options and opens a door out of despair:
“…Dinesen recognizes three paths toward identity, each taken by a different group of people. First there are those looking outward. These are the traditional people who look to their duty and role in the community to find a self.
Then there are those who look inward. They do not believe in any cosmic order but, as we have seen, this means they must rely on competition and shifting fashions to find self-esteem. They are no freer than members of traditional society, for they must take “their happiness, and even their own selves, at the quotation of the day.” No wonder they “tremble, with reason, before their fate.”
But there is a third option—there are people who, as it were, look neither outward nor inward but upward. Dinesen proposes something neither traditional nor modern. What if we were created by a personal God and given a personal mission and calling? Then neither does the individual take precedence over the group (which can lead to social fragmentation), nor does the community take precedence over the individual (which can lead to oppression). What matters is not what society says about me, nor what I think of myself, but what God does.
Dinesen follows another great Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard, who said:
In fact, what is called the secular mentality consists simply of such men who, so to speak, mortgage themselves to the world. They use their capacities, amass money, carry on enterprises… perhaps [to] make a name in history, but themselves they are not.
Spiritually speaking, they have no self, no self for whose sake they could venture everything, no self before God, however self-seeking they are otherwise. (Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God, 2018)
Life will pummel us all, but we each long for redemption in body and soul. We are called to act and become more than we are, or ever were before. In Christ, redemption is offered for when we fall. It is given to the full and directs us along the way. He has first acted to restore our stature, and yet lift us even higher than in the beginning.
We see a growth from Genesis to Revelation, and a call to maturity. Some of us experience this pull to a greater whole through sports, others through arts, or by any number of paths. He offers His holy hand for us to grasp, regardless of the road taken, and all true stories of redemption may partake in His primary story of redemption.
Cometh the Man
In a talk about redemption in boxing, and what it means to be a man, just after Joshua’s arresting loss five months ago; boxing legend Teddy Atlas admonished AJ with moving passion. The veteran trainer shared on a podcast how Anthony might grow from loss… Grow he did!
Joshua, like Fury, found ascent along the J-curve on the way to redemption. The J-curve is dying to a lower self to receive new higher life. We will discuss this in more detail later, but this is a constant elevated way each of us may follow in life.
During the discussion with Brett McKay on The Art of Manliness podcast, Teddy Atlas also spoke about fighting against the downward drag to give in, before proclaiming from the heart that the man must fight:
“…When you fight, it’s over within a second, 10 seconds, really. I mean, really. Am I exaggerating? A world title fight, if it goes the distance, lands 36 minutes. That’s a blink of the eye in somebody’s life, a blink of the eye. It’s a second. Something difficult you gotta deal with, a minute, half a minute, five seconds. Whatever it is, that’s how long it lasts, to deal with it.
But if you don’t fight, whatever your fight is, you don’t deal with it and you quit, you submit, you give in, that doesn’t go away. That’s there all day, all night. It comes at the worst times to you, 2 o’clock in the morning. You can’t sleep. You’re lying in bed. You get up, you walk into the washroom, you look in the mirror, and there it is. There it is. There it is. It’s still there. The next day, still there. The next day, still there.
Yeah. If you understand it in the way I just said it, the real way, yeah, it’s damn easier to fight than it is to quit.” (Teddy Atlas, Podcast #524: Boxing Trainer Teddy Atlas on What It Means to Be a Man, 2019)
Atlas’s ardour reveals that to be a warrior is not to wage battle senselessly against forces only outside yourself, but to be better today than you were in the past and convicts us to be better in the future by careful preparation. This artful self-improvement takes us up into a higher plane of intentional living, banishing the ugly resentment that falls from a passive mindset, or constantly judging yourself by the standards of the critic.
However, we must know our foes inside-out to understand the threat posed, and prepare for action.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” (Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 2005)
The redemptive fighter will prune suffocating weeds to grow to greater stature. This is what we saw in Joshua’s comeback, mirroring Tyson’s terrific success. Plus, Anthony Joshua entered the esteemed annals of boxing history by joining only a handful of heavyweight boxers to win an immediate rematch for the world title: A short list including only Muhammad Ali, Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson and Floyd Patterson.
When we remember our real identity, the living character of redemption replaces the suicidal shadow of discontent. We are offered a rightful death of lower selves in service of a nitid higher purpose, but we have to join the fight.
“The positive Warrior energy destroys only what needs to be destroyed in order for something new and fresh, more alive and more virtuous to appear.”
(Robert L. Moore, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine, 1992)
Whether we refer to boxing or life, the high road to redemption is hard, but necessary for a full life.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.’’ (Robert Frost, The Collected Poems, 2013)
Many will wonder, in an age of passive comfort and indolent armchair theologians, what Christianity has to do with the hard road of boxing, or any fighting arts. This portrays, most often, a failure of imagination and sometimes a failure of incarnational nerve.
The Martial in Man
Because it is fashionable today, especially in the halls of Christian academia, to proffer pacifism or purist non-violence as a panacea to solve all Man’s ills; I wish to briefly caution against this. It shuts our imagination down, before we can get a glimpse at the depth of the fighting life in various forms, including boxing.
I do not follow this popular path nor see it as an absolute binding tightly on all Christians. With CS Lewis, St Augustine and others in our great tradition, I turn away from the ideology of absolute non-violence in order to follow Christ, and His church more fully. Finding a place which is full of peacemakers, some of whom are warriors. We fight according to God’s words and deeds in different ways.
My countryman CS Lewis speaks with his usual brilliant clarity, when he says “…Christians cannot retaliate against a neighbour who does them harm, but the homicidal manic, “attempting to murder a third party, tried to knock me out of the way, [so] I must stand aside and let him get his victim?” Lewis answers his own question with a resounding, “No.”
Furthermore, regarding the context of specific Christian verses about self-defence and war, Lewis proclaims, “Indeed, as the audience were private people in a disarmed nation, it seems unlikely that they would have ever supposed Our Lord to be referring to war. War was not what they would have been thinking of. The frictions of daily life among villagers were more likely on their minds.” (CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 2013)
Orthodox Christianity has long stood for respectable self-defence and defence of innocents, and we can see it throughout church history reaching way back into the Old Testament. This martial character of the church is important as it shows us that the fighting man has a place in the church and can assuredly follow the hero’s journey to the foot of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. Tremper Longman III has shown us how even God Himself is a warrior. (Tremper Longman III, God is a Warrior, 2010) We will return to this key point soon.
There are numerous passionate arguments going on within academia and online about just war, pacifism, self-defence and defence of others. Some of these points touch upon our topic and may interest readers. If we are flippant, we run the risk of failing to appreciate the depths to which Christian warriors, and sports such as boxing, speak to a full Christian life.
Within the Christian community, there are many differing voices. Fr Alexander Webster has written recent books on pacifism and the virtue of war (Alexander Webster, Virtue of War: Reclaiming the Classic Christian Traditions East and West, 2004), Fr Philip LeMasters likewise, in a number of articles and books (Philip LeMasters, Orthodox Perspectives on Peace, War and Violence, 2011). Fr McGuckin has written about war in Christian tradition and raises important, but perhaps answerable, questions about self-defence and uses of violence. (John McGuckin, Ascent of Christian Law, 2012) At certain levels of self-defence, Fr John Whiteford suggests active physical force has a moral place within the Christian life, arguing that in some contexts such actions are not sinful. (Fr John Whiteford, Self-defence, 2016)
This overlaps in part with violent sports such as boxing and martial arts, which I and many Christians see as valid avenues for elevated and redemptive action. Context is vital.
The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth?
Quite simply, we are called to be meek more than, what we often mean by, weak or submissive to violence.
We are called to be humble in mind, body, and soul but not to knock any fight out of ourselves. God’s weakness is truly greater than Man’s strength, but this does not refer unfavourably to self-defence, or martial arts, for God-fearing Man.
Clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson gave an interesting and refreshing interpretation of what it means to be meek on the Joe Rogan Podcast, but was criticised from self-appointed theological ‘experts’ online, only too quick to cast him off their self-assured terrain. (Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan Podcast #877, 2016)
Peterson’s basic notion of meekness, as a more complex and positive virtue than is often realised, was correct however and is supported by at least one actual expert, Derek Kidner. He writes, in his commentary on The Psalms:
“…The context gives the best possible definition of the meek: they are those who choose the way of patient faith instead of self-assertion.” No mention of weakness. The focus is on the strength to choose appropriately.
We take a wrong turn, when we turn meek into weak rather than humble. One aspect of humility is exactly what Peterson was describing – you know your strengths, but you choose to refrain from a negative action (action driven by anger or wrath). You trust in God. This is the exact description of Jesus. Jesus was strong but in the face of evil, he chose to be humble.
God wants you to be strong but humble. Know your strengths and your limitations and do not overemphasize either. Evil loves to devour weak people. A Christlike character is a character of strength in the face of evil. God gave us a spirit of “power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7). (Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72: an introduction and commentary, 1973)
David Kopel has written at length on pacifism, and its lack in portions of the early church. With Kopel, I follow the living God of Israel and the church; from the early days until present in standing against any small absolutist pacifism. We know that we’re in a life and death fight. (David Kopel, Christian Pacifism before Constantine, 2008)
Catholic philosopher, and anthropologist, Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire suggests we are imitative creatures and asserts that this should make us averse to most forms of violence because it begets more violence. (David Cayley, Rene Girard, 2015) Christ knew this well and spoke with authority in His warnings against taking up the sword too readily.
However, the good Lord also whipped the moneychangers in the temple and encouraged His followers to carry swords. It is a popular pacifist trope to explain these events away today, but I remain unconvinced. Moreover, there is no reason to suppose that all violence is morally equal. Defending innocents by using some sort of force is on a different level to aggressive violence; As is fighting for sport, in a theatre of heroism and in rigorous play. Again, context matters.
The Christian warrior fights in war, sport, and for defence at several levels; most often however we know, with Joshua, Fury and the many who have walked the path; We fight against demons, in the spirit of competition, and our past selves for elevated redemption. Not for mimetic revenge.
“Sin, to one who loves God, is nothing other than an arrow from the enemy in battle. The true Christian is a warrior fighting his way through the regiments of the unseen enemy to his heavenly homeland.” – St Herman of Alaska (Prokopy Povarnitsyn, Saint Herman of Alaska, 1996)
The Christian warrior’s life is an incarnate attempt to partake in redemption; his attempt is greater than the critic’s gnostic complacency, sitting aloft and looking down at the redeemed who fight when they must:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” (Theodore Roosevelt, The Man in the Arena, 1910)
Once we appreciate that there is no ultimate and binding restriction on combat for Christians, then we can start to appreciate the character of fighting, and fighters, from a more fruitful point of view.
If we follow the way as Christian warriors, we might go down several different routes. Jack Kerwick dusts off two: Martial Arts as Game (MAAG) orMartial Arts as War (MAAW).
I respect parts of his atypical Christian take on fighting, but don’t follow his conclusions entirely, just like I don’t follow a purist black and white pacifism. Kerwick suggests “The presuppositions of each are diametrically opposed to those of the other.’’ (Jack Kerwick, Virtue, Liberty, and God: The Morality and Theology of the Martial Art of ‘Warrior Flow’, 2019)
I’m not sure about these strict formulations. However, the element of the ‘game’ mentioned by Kerwick brings Huizinga’s important notion of ‘play’ into the picture and speaks to the innate appeal of martial arts, which like other sports cannot be restricted to their usefulness. (Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, 2016)
Rules can sometimes stand in the way of God and Man; whilst they can also at other times provide a lofty path. ‘Play’ can even be ultimately and highly serious, whilst still offering joy and a shot at redemption; It often is.
The Warrior Returns
Of prime importance in our discussion, as we noted before, God Himself is a warrior. Tremper Longman III’s book, God Is a Warrior, traces the development of the “divine warrior” motif through the Old and New Testaments, beginning with Israel’s conflicts with her enemies and ending with Christ’s victorious return in Revelation. So, to understand the true meanings of fighting, and what it means to be a warrior, we must turn to the living God.
Against the broader background of Ancient Near Eastern warrior mythology, Longman’s work discusses Yahweh’s warfare on behalf of ancient Israel, and prophecies of the coming Divine Deliverer. Longman also looks at the New Testament’s Divine Warrior, Jesus Christ, and His war against His spiritual enemies in the Synoptic Gospels, in Paul’s letters and in the final apocalyptic battle in the book of Revelation:
“…War was worship for Israel. But even further he noted the warlike nature of Israel’s religion. Israel was in conflict with her neighbours, particularly in the area of religion, and this frequently led to armed conflict.’’ (Tremper Longman, God is a Warrior, 2010)
Ecclesiastes 3 King James Version (KJV)
3 To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;6 A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;7 A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;8 A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
Redemption in Story and Song
One of my earliest memories from childhood, and only memories of my late father, is watching the first Rocky movie in a small house in Dundalk. This story of redemption and hope has left an indelible imprint on my mind. Even then, the tale of the hero and icon of a new and resurrected life spoke to me and stamped a lasting insignia on my heart.
Pastor Vander Klay reminds us that we are storytelling creatures at our roots, who live in both a ‘story verse’ and a ‘matter-verse’. We live within stories we are told and tell ourselves. By means of memory and following such archetypal stories with passion, we enter an enchanted life. I experienced its power then and do more so today. The prismed life of these lasting narratives affects us by taking their part in the true light of reality, and resist reductionism. We come to know who we are, and know that we are on a journey, by entering these tales. All of this finds its end in the light of reality, Himself. By following Jesus and the J-Curve, we participate in the true redemptive story of Man. (Paul Vander Klay, Jesus as Master of the Matter-verse and the Story-verse and Brings them Together in Himself, 2019)
The incarnation of God as a man speaks to this mixture of matter and story. When we partake in the patterns of redemption, we partake in this true story in body and soul. Boxing, and sports generally, lay one path for us to follow the journey to incarnate redemption. The ring serves as a microcosm of, and metaphor for, the whole of life. Sylvester Stallone realised this, and played upon it, when he wrote the classic Rocky story. Characters in daily life and drama each make meaning manifest through their deeds:
“… meaning is made, not just discovered. That is what religion for the most part is: the constant making and remaking of meaning, by the stories we tell, the rituals we perform and the prayers we say. The stories are sacred, the rituals divine commands, and prayer a genuine dialogue with the divine. Religion is an authentic response to a real Presence, but it is also a way of making that presence real by constantly living in response to it. It is truth translated into deed.”(Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, 2012)
From the beginning, redemption is a key feature of timeless Academy award-winning movie Rocky. This is a movie about meaning, and ‘metaphor for life’, that is made for the big screen.
Now an established cultural icon, this film moves in the beginning from an icon of Christ, the Redeemer, right down to Rocky getting pummelled in the ring by Spider Rico. This shows us, in pure storytelling form, a perpetual problem that needs to be resolved and points the way to salvation. Rocky, to be the man he’s called to be, needs to make a meaningful life for himself; if he is to avoid being just ‘another bum from the neighbourhood’.
Stallone intentionally chose this image of Christ, and Rocky’s downtrodden position at the beginning of the archetypal tale, as a ‘metaphor for life’ and made Rocky the Christian ‘crusader’ who must go out to fight in the world, acting through ‘self-sacrifice’. He explained each of these facts in a most revealing interview with Pat Robertson upon the release of Rocky Balboa. (Sylvester Stallone, Sylvester Stallone accepts Jesus Christ, 2014)
This is the genesis of the journey that we are all called to go on in some manner and helps us see why Rocky speaks to us with such power across generations.
One of the net’s premier boxing channels has traced further themes of redemption, friendship, lasting love and sacrifice in this memorable film and series. (Rummy’s Corner, Ranking the Rocky Sequels from Worst to First, 2018)
Art and Life Imitate Each Other
The plot thickens when we come to realise that the story of Rocky is, in many ways, Stallone’s own story. The story of the film’s creation reverberates with pulses of redemption all its own. It is beautiful to behold the film’s coming to fruition when we consider the sacrifices Stallone made to be true to who he is and the vision he was given. We are told how he lived hungry and sold all he had. Including even his best friend in the world, his dog. Before getting it all back and then some. This cherished canine appears in the film, as the memorable Budkiss and recalls the happy resolution achieved in Rocky’s making. (Tony Robbins, The Rocky Story, 2013)
We see this microcosmic tale retold in many great boxing and sports movies. Few move the audience so much. It’s there in Cinderella Man, Raging Bull, The Fighter and many other boxing films. But few tell the tale so well, or convincingly as the Rocky series and even less have the widespread appeal of Stallone’s iconic series. It is popular to refer to such archetypal tales as ‘iconic’, in a pop-culture sense, and they are. These images partake in what they symbolise.
Rocky taps into the archetypes of any great story. Writer David Lucas has traced the simple pattern of many great stories in his work and educates people on its supreme potential: Beginning with “a problem, before things get worse…and worse! Then, a crisis. Followed by a twist, before the problem is solved.’’ (David Lucas, A Simple Story Pattern, 2019) This is the J-curve in action, in literature and film. We observe its irresistible contours in each of the great Rocky movies. This helps us get into step with them.
In a long book on the basic plots of our favourite tales, author Christopher Booker has traced perhaps the main seven, across time and place. They reveal some of the character of our ‘story verse’, calling us outside of the dull dormancy of armchair critic. He speaks thus of rebirth and redemption:
“Sleeping Beauty is based on the type of plot we may call ‘Rebirth’. A hero or heroine falls under a dark spell which eventually traps them in some wintry state, akin to living death: physical or spiritual imprisonment, sleep, sickness or some other form of enchantment.
For a long time, they languish in this frozen condition. Then a miraculous act of redemption takes place, focused on a particular figure who helps to liberate the hero or heroine from imprisonment. From the depths of darkness they are brought up into glorious light.’’ (Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots, 2005)
Lest we uncritically assume that fiction is somehow ‘false’, does not matter in the end, or can’t speak to how we should live; we would do well to reflect upon what moves us deep down and why. Fiction is an experience of the real world that cannot always be expressed in another way.
Writer Andrew Klavan, in a piece responding to our nihilistic fashions, beautifully describes the real and binding nature that works of great fiction have for us, and the cosmos:
“…Here is an area where I can speak with some expertise. I am a lifelong maker of fiction, and I am here to tell you that this (Harari’s nihilistic description of fiction) is not what fiction is; this is not how fiction works. Good fiction does not create phenomena; it describes them.
Like all art, fiction is a language for communicating a type of reality that can’t be communicated in any other way: the interplay of human consciousness with itself and the world.
That experience can be delusional, as when we hear voices, mistake infatuation for love, or convince ourselves that slavery is moral. But the very fact that it can be delusional points to the fact that it can be healthy and accurate as well.
When it is healthy, the “common imagination of human beings” can be regarded as an organ of perception, like the eye. Fiction merely describes the world of morality and meaning that that organ perceives. (Andrew Klavan, Can We Believe?, 2019)
It is only when we step outside our self-effacing suspicion of reality that we can appreciate life, emancipating ourselves from mental slavery. We are called to join in the story of redemption by various trails. Fiction, non-fiction and our finest songs all play to this truth, in redemptive harmony:
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds!… Won’t you help to singThese songs of freedom?Cause all I ever haveRedemption songs (Bob Marley, Redemption Song, 1980)
A Theatre for Heroism
‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighbourhood.’ (Rocky, 1976)
Rocky, and those ‘real-life’ champions we mentioned previously, remind us of what Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset once wrote, “The hero is someone in continual opposition to the status quo. The hero is always becoming himself.” (Dr George Sheehan, The Marathon: Stage for Heroism, 1987)
Boxing and sports are ‘more than a game’ because they can help reveal our honest identity and partake in cosmic patterns of ultimate significance unbound by ideological lines of real and unreal. They point beyond themselves towards a more human way of living.
Dr George Sheehan described the marathon as a ‘theatre for heroism’. But, the arena of sport generally is a theatre for heroism and fighting plays its part. In the same article, and with typical convincing precision; Dr Sheehan has proclaimed that we are all made to be childlike, animals, poets and saints. This is not just for some other hero out there somewhere, but a call to each person. Expressing his point in a manner which hints towards Dante, and the epic poetry of our existence, he recalls:
“There at the halfway point, all I could see
was evidence of heroism and the marvellous
endurance of the ordinary human body.”
Jeremy Treat, a pastor in LA, has punctured our complacency with penetrating incisions into sport, proving that they are ‘more than a game’:
“… the story of redemption in Scripture is not one merely of rescuing souls from the fallen creation but rescuing embodied souls and renewing all of creation (Col 1:15–20; Rom 8:18–25). The final vision of salvation is the enthroned Jesus declaring “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5).
Salvation is the restoration of creation, and if creation included God’s design for play and sport, then there will certainly be sport in the new creation.
As Herman Bavinck says, “The whole of re-creation, as it will be completed in the new heaven and the new earth, is the fruit of the work of Christ.” Certainly, the re-creation will include recreation.” (Jeremy Treat, More than a Game: A Theology of Sport, Themelios Volume 40 – Issue 3)
Lincoln Harvey and Robert Ellis offer two distinct, but complementary, book impressions of the role of sport in Christian life and worship. In an article on their two books by Peter Leithart, he leads our eyes to see the profound potential of the endeavour:
“A central difference is the way the authors connect sports to the Christian doctrine of creation. In games, Ellis says, we imitate God by creating a rule-governed world:
“The game is its own world, and boundaries are created or observed (that fence is out of bounds, this corner is the hospital ward) and the freedom of play is exercised within these boundaries.”
Sports, with their “bureaucratized” rules, are more genuinely creaturely than mere play, “because sports players do not set their own boundaries even though they push at them constantly.” For Ellis, we play because we are made in the image of a playful Creator.
Borrowing from William James, Ellis tabulates the varieties of sporting experience. Players describe sports as rejuvenating or regenerating. Sports are deeply communal, like religious rituals. A player can have something resembling the self-forgetfulness of mystical experience, as he so fully enters the flow of the game that he becomes indistinguishable from it. Sports can thus provide what Peter Berger calls “signals of transcendence” in a secularized world.’’
This places sports as one of many concentric circles around true worship, which is reserved for The Living God alone. Harvey’s emphasis is different, but under a charitable reading stays within the bounds of orthodoxy.
‘’Harvey recognizes a “family resemblance” between sports and worship, but he thinks of them as complementary opposites. In liturgy, God comes close in order to “inhabit the liturgical action, becoming truly present with the creature.” Sports involves the opposite movement, God’s withdraw from the field of play, “enabling the creature to be somehow at a distance in its own integrity.”
Both advent and withdrawal are implicated in the doctrine of creation: God makes and inhabits his world, but the world is contingent, unnecessary, un-serious (though meaningful), because God leaves creation space to be itself. Worship is the liturgy of God’s presence; sports are the liturgy of divine absence, a celebration of creaturely contingency. Sport, as a result, “is not for God. It is simply the graceful creature.”
The effort to discover a moral or mystical dimension in sports undermines the very thing that makes a game a game—its utterly “autotelic” character. “Worship does not quite define everything,”
I would argue for a charitable reading that sees Harvey’s emphasis within the light of the quote from Irenaeus that opened our essay but might join Leithart in asking for greater clarity.
‘’Harvey argues. “Sport is understood to be the only thing that is not worship. Or, to make the point the other way around: everything we do in our life serves our worship, except our sport. Sport is only for sport. It is the one thing that is not directed to the glory of God. That is what sets it apart.”
This is an odd conclusion, partly for an obvious reason: It puts sports outside rather than within creaturely existence, since creaturely existence is classically understood to be entirely directed toward God.
In celebrating creatureliness, Harvey removes sport from the God-directedness that is constitutive of creatureliness. It’s odd too because Harvey applies his point narrowly to sports. Why is music-making not autotelic in just the way that sport is? Why is ballet not a liturgy of contingency from which God withdraws to order to take his place among the spectators?’’ (Peter Leithart, Theology of Sport, 2014)
Dr Leithart concludes that “On the whole, I think Ellis is better able than Harvey to explain the power of both participating in and watching sports.
Neither, however, is entirely satisfying. Ellis blurs religion and sports, while Harvey, in an effort to avoid that danger, grants too much autonomy to sports. Yet the appearance of these two intelligent, provocative books gives hope that sport, a massively important facet of modern civilization, is finally receiving the serious theological attention it deserves.’’ (Peter Leithart, Theology of Sport, 2014)
Redeem the Day
“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it.
You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”
“Success is usually the culmination of controlling failure.” (Rocky Balboa, 2006)
Life, art and the sweet science; when done right, partake in a perennial arc of redemption. This arc of redemption is open to follow in daily life. It has been described by spiritual genius, Paul E. Miller in his most recent book, bringing us back to the ascetical J-Curve:
“…the J-Curve, the idea, frequently articulated by the apostle Paul, that the normal Christian life repeatedly re-enacts the dying and rising of Jesus. I call it the J-Curve because, like the letter J, Jesus’s life first went down into death, then up into resurrection.
Just like the earthly life of Jesus, the J ends higher than it starts. It’s the pattern not only of Jesus’s life, but of our lives—of our everyday moments.” (Paul E Miller, The J-Curve, 2019)
Like the Risen Christ, our existence is incarnate, and we cannot achieve what we must without entering the arena and taking risks. This is a part of the appeal of those who have fought and lost it all only to regain their riches in a blaze of elevated glory. We respect those who put it all on the line, souls with ‘skin in the game’.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “…argument is that there is a more essential aspect: filtering and the facilitation of evolution. Skin in the game –as a filter –is the central pillar for the organic functioning of systems, whether humans or natural.
Unless consequential decisions are taken by people who pay for the consequences, the world would be vulnerable to total systemic collapse. And if you wonder why there is a current riot against a certain class of self-congratulatory “experts”, skin the game will provide a clear answer: the public has viscerally detected that some “educated” but cosmetic experts have no skin in the game and will never learn from their mistakes, whether individually or, more dangerously, collectively.’’ (Nassim Nicholas Taleb, What do I mean by Skin in the Game? My Own Version, 2018)
Christian educator Dr Vigen Guroian shares his embodied knowledge about redemption stories and their importance from early on in a person’s life. He knows that we are in the fight right from childhood and need to enter the matter-verse and story-verse, well versed on how to live well. Know thine enemy:
“His goal was to fill a void he found in instructional material for parents to introduce and discuss the moral fabric of some of the best loved children’s literature, particularly stories and fairy tales…
Guroian covers the concepts of love and immortality by discussing The Velveteen Rabbit and The Little Mermaid; friends and mentors by looking at The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte’s Web and Bambi; evil and redemption through examination of The Snow Queen and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and heroines of faith and courage by reviewing the characters of Princess Irene in The Princess and the Goblin and Lucy in Prince Caspian. (Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, Book Review: Tending the Heart of Virtue by Dr. Vigen Guroian, 2018)
The Good Lord fulfils the promise of all such stories for children and adults. Bringing together all themes and plots on the path to salvation. Often in His non-violent moments, He shows us how to outfight and outfox the enemy. Bishop Barron illustrates this point by bringing the martial art of Aikido into view:
“Friends, our Gospel today is taken from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It is one of the puzzling texts in the New Testament. It speaks of loving our enemies. Not tolerating them, or vaguely accepting them, but loving them. When you hate your enemy, you confirm him as your enemy. But when you love him in response to his hatred, you confuse and confound him, taking away the very energy that feeds his hatred.
There is a form of oriental martial arts called aikido. The idea of aikido is to absorb the aggressive energy of your opponent, moving with it, continually frustrating him until he comes to the point of realizing that fighting is useless.
Some have pointed out that there is a great deal of this in Jesus’ strategy of nonviolence and love of the enemy. You creatively absorb the aggression of your opponent, channelling it back against him, to show him the futility of violence. So, when someone insults you, send back a compliment instead of an insult. When someone conspires against you, work to help him.” (Bishop Robert Barron, Word on Fire, 2017)
We fight, in imitation of Him, by fighting with heart. The heart, however, transcends the superficial mush, which many of us are familiar with from recent films and love songs. The heart of the Rocky series preaches to the true heart of Man. It is a heart of passion that knows loss and victory in their proper place.
“I believe there’s an inner power that makes winners or losers. And the winners are the ones who really listen to the truth of their hearts.” (Rocky Balboa, 2006)
The heart and the mind have meanings in both the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT) unfamiliar to us. The word “heart” is used to refer to the whole of the innermost part of the human, not merely the emotions that sentimentalist popular culture expects.
There is an abundance of references to the heart as having the lead role in decision-making. Both the Old and New Testaments present the word “heart” as always used to include the mental process (rational and reason), and the will (volition), as well as the emotions. Life, like boxing, requires the heart in its various roles. It is a sweet science and art. (The Heart and the Mind, What the Biblical Word Means, 2012)
Back to Basics
Many of the all-time boxing greats, from Gene Tunney to Sugar Ray Leonard, and Andre Ward have shown heart, and sharp minds in equal measure. They dig deep when it is needed, but first create a firm foundation of deeply focused planning and mastered ring craft. The best boxers and martial artists have planned meticulously how they would win inside and outside the ring. To continue with our analogy, Our Lord has a plan for salvation and doesn’t rely on chance. Neither should we.
Boxing and life require active attention, and smart planning, as well as an inspired heart. We are creatures of habit who must create good habits to win in life. (Art of Manliness Podcast #61: The Power of Habit with Charles Duhigg, 2014)
No one has proven this as much as the great French-Canadian martial artist, Georges St Pierre, who trains in precise routine to train his muscle memory for specific fights. These are repeated incarnate patterns for success.
“I have a belief that all human greatness is founded upon routine, that truly great human behaviour is impossible without this central part of your life being set up and governed by routine.
All greatness comes out of an investment in time and the perfection of skills that render you great. And so, show me almost any truly great person in the world who exhibits some kind of extraordinary skills, and I’ll show you a person whose life is governed largely by routine.” (Georges St-Pierre, Inside the Mind of a Champion, 2013)
It’s part about ‘how much you can get hit and keep moving forward’, and part about how well you can plan for success and play the game. Sugar Ray Leonard is another champion who showed each element over his long career: “To be the best, you need to spend hours and hours and hours running, hitting the speed bag, lifting weights and focusing on training.’’ (Ray Leonard, The Big Fight: My Story, 2013)
There is a call which Man must respond to, and plan for the consequences.
N.T. Wright has suggested that the story of redemption in “The Bible is a drama in five acts – Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus and the Church. The fifth act is unfinished, and it is for the reader to enter into the drama and then to complete the story.’’ (N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, 2013)
Doing the Rounds with or without Redemption?
“You had the talent to become a good fighter, but instead of that, you become a leg breaker to some cheap, second rate loan shark!’’ (Mickey’s Character, Rocky, 1976)
When we watch Rocky, we all like to imagine that we are the hero. But this is not necessarily so. As much as we don’t like to admit it, many of us resemble Paulie. We’re full of resentment and bitterness and can’t see what we’re doing wrong.
Plus, we must recognise that not all boxers are obvious victors. Some may never achieve the high redemption of the great winners and may even have their life ruined by the harsh reality of the sport.
However, there is an old saying that boxing saves more people than it hurts. This is probably truer than we’ve long believed. And, for many it is better to have lived and loved the sport than never lived at all. Those who take risks may never attain the elevated redemption they long for in this life but are part-redeemed in putting skin in the game and entering the arena.
For many, a life without a meaningful fight of some kind is a life not worth living. Boxing, like life, offers refracted redemption for losers and winners alike. That is if we approach it in the right spirit. Men and women can become more than they are and participate in the patterns of redemption.
Many however turn their back on this and stew in resentment, most often those outside the arena. We see this in the young and aggressive Paulie, who blames others such as his sister Adrian for his lot in life:
“You’re such a loser! I don’t get married because of you! You can’t live by yourself! I put you two together! And you – don’t you forget it! You owe me! You owe me!’’ (Rocky, 1976)
In an age of entitlement, everyone thinks they are owed. Grace says otherwise.
The Business of Resentment
“The intelligentsia in the media can decide what to emphasize, what to downplay and what to ignore entirely when it comes to race. These may be individual choices, rather than a conspiracy, but individual choices growing out of a common vision of the world can produce results all too similar to what is produced by centralized censorship or propaganda.” (Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Race, 2013)
The gross sides of boxing and life are on display in another boxing movie, The Great White Hype, which involves resentful characters and fragmentation. These characters look not at the heart, or image of God in Man, but towards skin colour and other fallen ways that belong to ‘the world’. This is how Rocky would look if Paulie were the hero of the story.
By comparing these two narratives, we can see how important it is to have a champion with heart. A true champion, outside the ring as well as inside, will unite people by virtue of their character and witness. Our measure is Christ. Many, like Stallone’s Rocky, have refracted his light in fiction and real life.
Without Christ at the centre and our participation in Him, we run into a series of divisive systems and narratives without honest heroism. Each antagonist only too happy to divide and conquer, by stewing in resentment and lesser games of blame. This anti-Christ gospel, according to the Paulie in us, is without redemption.
At this point, let me say that Paulie goes beyond resentment in the story and I am grateful that many of us do as well. He could be the hero of a good story, but not if he were to stew in his resentment. The same for all of us. The harsh point is that some refuse to move from here, and by calling them out we are fighting for them.
I bring ‘race’ to your mind here, because it has been made central to popular narratives of resentment. The theology of ‘Saint Paulie’ seeks to deconstruct our story verse, and reality itself, without tools for reconstructed heroism.
“As one of the consequences of the death of God, Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw that people could find themselves stuck in cycles of Christian theology with no way out. Specifically, that people would inherit the concepts of guilt, sin and shame but would be without the means of redemption which the Christian religion also offered.
Today we do seem to live in a world where actions can have consequences we could never have imagined, where guilt and shame are more at hand than ever, and where we have no means whatsoever of redemption. We do not know who could offer it, who could accept it, and whether it is a desirable quality compared to an endless cycle of fiery certainty and denunciation.’’ (Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds, 2019)
Alan Jacobs describes the redemption-less world of the new Paulie, the woke shadow-warrior who fights the wrong fight:
“Something even more deep-seated is at work when student protesters’ interpretations of events, and their proffered remedies for historical or current injustice, are challenged and the students reply, “You are denying my very identity.”
This response makes sense only within the mythical core, not the technological core. One cannot analytically pick apart a complex, integrated mythical framework and say, “I choose this but not that” without tearing holes in the web and leaving it dangling and useless. That is what instrumental reason always does to myth.’’ (Alan Jacobs, Wokeness and Myth on Campus, 2017)
Myths, True and False
The twentieth century’s premier mythmakers, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, both appreciated that there are true and false myths. We can learn a lot from them. Myth, properly ordered, might tell us deep truths about who we are. Which for us Christians involves a pilgrimage. We are worth more, much more, than our race, gender or sexuality defined by the new religions.
Rocky, and the great myths through the ages, stand the test of time because they speak to the heart of Man; elevating us and reaffirming our true identities. This should serve to inspire us in the world, but there is none at the centre but Jesus Christ.
“Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’.”
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened. (Justin Taylor, 85 Years Ago Today: J. R. R. Tolkien Convinces C. S. Lewis That Christ Is the True Myth, 2016)
It has been revealed to us by The Living God that we are His ‘beloved’ and elevated to the highest position imaginable. Fr Henri Nouwen spent a lifetime trying to understand and live out this redemptive life as one beloved by God and invites us along the road. (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, 2002)
The name ‘beloved’ brings with it a call, to be more than we are and to call out the lies that speak short of our full stature in Christ. From Him we receive a new name, an identity that goes beyond all others. (Klyne Snodgrass, Who God Says You Are: A Christian Understanding of Identity, 2018)
We wait and move in eager anticipation for His new name:
“We also have another name, one which we do not know. You remember the passage in the Book of Revelation which says that in the Kingdom each will receive a white stone with a name written on it, a name which is known only to God and to him who receives it?
This is no nickname, no family name, no Christian name. It is a name, a word, that is exactly identical with us, which coincides with us, which is us. We may almost say it is a word which God pronounced when he willed us into existence and which is us, as we are it.
This name defines our absolute and unrepeatable uniqueness as far as God is concerned. No one can know the name, as no one can, in the last analysis, know anyone as God knows him; and yet it is out of this name that everything else comes that can be known about us.’’ (Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, 1970)
Fighting Racism and False Narratives
We fight because we know what we are truly worth. Free from the crushing restrictions of the idols of the past or frenzied fashions of the present. “As we said in the last chapter, there has to be somebody, whom you adore, who adores you. Someone whom you cannot but praise who praises and loves you—that is the foundation of identity. The praise of the praiseworthy is above all rewards.
However, if we put this power in the hands of a fallible, changeable person, it can be devastating. And if this person’s regard is based on your fallible and changeable life efforts, your self-regard will be just as fleeting and fragile. Nor can this person be someone you can lose, because then you will have lost your very self. Obviously, no human love can meet these standards. Only love of the immutable can bring tranquillity. Only the unconditional love of God will do.’’ (Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God, 2018)
The most unfortunate loss is when Christians, give up their highest identity in Christ to opt for a fallen identity given by the world. And fight their brothers, rather than fight their own failures and evil forces. These are identities which knock us out. This can hit us by sex, race, nationality or other.
It’s most clear and terrible expression, within churches today in the anglosphere may be racial, but is not restricted to this.
The sport of Boxing knows only too well the problems with racism and its ugly ramifications. From the days of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis until today. ‘Race’ as it is commonly believed in today, has played an eventful and troublesome role in the sport, and English-speaking countries over the last few hundred years.
This simplistic term would have described the Irish, English and others as races in former times, but now constructs itself according to the social fashion of skin colour. Often it is used to bludgeon opponents towards an ideology handed down by intellectuals belonging to schools of Critical Theory.
Some have seen ‘race’ and seen through its shadowy hue, onto redemption. Many however, such as notorious boxing promoter Don King, have cynically used and abused this tenuous and un-Christian concept to divide, conquer, make money and serve ideological concerns.
Boxing and real life go beyond these deceptions, and the man in the arena knows he shares more with fellow fighters than conspiring critics and mere theorists sitting on the side lines. The shallow critic’s lies need to be fought for the good of all. We must replace them with our true, universal, human story united in blood, sweat and tears.
Perhaps none today suffer more from cults of race than African Americans, who have given the sport many Christian boxers and wider historical figures, witnessing to the universal arc of redemption that deconstructs the slavish lies or race.
Today lamentably, many black Christians have undermined the long noble Christian humanist tradition of Harriet Tubman, Booker T Washington, Archibald Carey, James WC Pennington, and many others who have fought actively for true shalom. Their eyes were fixed towards The Kingdom.
Boxers such as Joshua and Tyson Fury, in embodying universal tales of redemption, offer transcendent models for Man’s true character. The same point can be made for Rocky and his heir in Creed. They go beyond the race to the bottom, in the ring and life, embodying higher virtues of elevated character. Fans can resonate with this and aspire towards this higher way in their own lives.
One motif throughout the scriptures is the long walk to the mountaintop, where God reveals Himself to those who make the journey and have eyes to see. The ascent of man, regardless of ‘race’ or lesser characteristics, in the ring and life, reflects an elevated position that speaks across low and separating lines:
“I have been to the mountaintop… mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’’ (James M. Washington, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr, 1991)
We long for more than reductionist racism in sport and life, looking to warn others who have opted out of the true Christian way and ran down into the anti-Christian arms of Critical Theory and Don King-like ‘race’ hustling.
We see the low points of this dead valley floor in the ‘ethnic gnosticism’ which Dr Voddie Baucham has prophesied against in his ministry. (Voddie Baucham, Ethnic Gnosticism, 2019) This form of Gnosticism is not the only version but presents a pernicious test case. Philosopher Eric Voegelin has written in-depth about modern strands at Gnosticism, and their ultimate ‘totalitarian’ character which constantly trample underfoot. This should cause us concern, as we can see where this low road leads. (Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, 1987)
The Dream Turns to Nightmare
Twisted psychological theories are handed down from new secular priesthoods and proffer heterodox formulations of the Gospel, such as James H Cone’s, which drag us all into despair without redemption or a final bell. (Darrell B. Harrison, How “Woke Theology” is Weakening the (Black) Church, 2017) and the new religion of critical theory cannot go the distance, or reach the mountaintop. (Neil Shenvi, Understanding Critical Theory and Woke theology in the Evangelical Church, 2019)
Ariel Gonzalez Bovat has cautioned against psychobabble which recasts redemption along anti-human lines, thwarting human elevation. “…many black Americans today refuse to deconstruct their identity away from the black racial category because it would mean that they would have to see themselves as something more than the colour of their skin.’’ (Ariel Gonzalez Bovat, Black Identity Theories: Secular or Sacred?, 2019)
Jonathan Church has powerfully critiqued the other side of this ahistorical dogma, which claims that ‘whiteness’ should be used to describe people, or culture. We’ve seen that this is a new fashion, without truth in history. The scriptures don’t speak in such crude terms. Church has shown that the racist notion of ‘whiteness’ is a logical fallacy, especially of ‘reification’. (Jonathan Church, The Problem with ‘White Fragility’ Theory, 2018)
When we see our heroes in action, and seek to emulate them, we are not inspired by skin colour or the fallen nature of Man but their heart and quest for ascent that speaks in universal tongue.
Several pastors at Sovereign Nations have understood this new religion’s anti-Christian narrative and shown how it punches down. This is not the story of the underdog. There is no hero. Sin is replaced by ‘white privilege’, (Tom Ascol, White Privilege, The New Original Sin, 2019) our higher Pentecostal identity by enslaving ‘intersectionality’ (Josh Buice, Brave New Religion, Intersectionality, 2019) and other anti-human ideological distortions. We need to fight, in and out of the ring, against such doubts and deceptions to reach the mountaintop.
A brilliant young African American scholar, Coleman Hughes, has highlighted the routine retelling of history, where ‘race’ is made the sacred centre and told ritually. The new ideology encourages people to see Christian heroes now as primarily ‘black’ heroes, telling perverse stories of racial ‘redemption’ in place of true redemption, according to a series of secular liturgies.
A new Critical Theory calendar even takes the place of the church, with ‘black history month’ or ‘pride month’ replacing the universal Christian cycles of fasts and feast. We’ve lost the high road and must fight our way back. (Coleman Hughes, Racism: Getting to the Truth, 2018)
The Christian calendar and life are universal, neither effacing nor restrictive but recognise differences in people by placing them in deep and prophetic Pentecostal unity. The Pentecostal character of the church universal respects unity and difference together. It is here that we are provided a true sacred identity and history, which redeems us from the division and despair of false worldly identities. The new faiths are forced upon us by the fashions of ideology or determinist sociology and distract us from The Kingdom. (Alexander Schmemann, An Introduction to Liturgical Theology, 1966)
The greats of the sport, like the more heralded saints of the church, have united and inspired Man. From Irish Americans like Tunney and Dempsey, to Italian- American Marciano and African- Americans Ali, the two Sugar Ray’s and Iron Mike Tyson.
In our time, we have Irish traveller Fury and Nigerian son Joshua at the top of the tree. All different and unique characters, of various ethnicities, transcend simplistic limitations of ideology. Instead, inspiring generations of all kinds. We all want to ‘go the distance’ and become who we are made to be, in Christ.
A sporting display of true fighting heart can halt such ideological hostility for a time, but we require a more comprehensive metanoia, or change of mind. Only Christ can bring show us who we are meant to be as people, fighting for love and justice. Only He can transfigure Man at the mountaintop and transform the heart.
Solzhenitsyn describes the true ‘human heart’ in full character:
“The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.’’ (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Vintage Classics, 2018)
Eccentric, but insightful, Orthodox writer Jamie Moran, echoes in harmony, “…morality, truly understood and practiced, is about the heart. Everything else comes into it, of course: mind, soul, body, inner and outer, visible and invisible, history and nature, the cosmos and the earth. But quintessentially it is driven by and about the heart. The deep heart. The passionate, suffering heart. The brave, willing heart.
Kierkegaard says that the movement involved in faith “requires passion. Every movement of infinity occurs with passion, and no reflection can bring about a movement.
That’s the leap in life which [accounts for] the movement…What we lack today is not reflection but passion. For that reason our age is really… too tenacious of life to die, for dying is one of the most remarkable leaps…” (Jamie Moran, The Wound Of Existence, 2006)
Time to Fight
“Time takes everybody out. Time is undefeated.” (Rocky’s character, Creed, 2015)
So much of what we have discussed is a distraction from ultimate things. One of these ultimate things is death. In and out of the ring we must come face to face with mortality. By facing down death with triumphant faith in redemption and life beyond death. This means overcoming fears and sacrificing for our future, or for our other people.
Moran continues, “In effect, giving the heart to existence, on a basis of faith, is accepting death. It is a sacrifice. And sacrifice is at the heart of Abraham’s wrestlings with the passionate leap required by God if he is to follow the way of faith. His son is not only personally loved by him, the son’s very appearance so late in Abraham and Sarah’s life is a miracle.
God’s promise to Abraham that he will be the father of generations to come will be lost if Isaac is killed. Faith demands of Abraham the sacrifice of precisely what he most wants from life, what he most values and is most precious to him. The willingness of Abraham to make this sacrifice is extraordinarily costly; moreover, no human morality can justify it, for a father killing a son cannot be squared on any ethical criteria possible to imagine.’’
This story takes us far beyond the comfort of the armchair that amply serves as an image for our cushy half-civilisation.
‘’Abraham’s action cannot be rationalised, moralised, or made any sense of whatever; it is a leap into the deep and dark abyss, and as such, is radically irrational. Passion is irrational: it exceeds, and defies, the sensible boundaries within which most people elect to live.
Faith is not that credulity, or naive innocence, of the child which must be outgrown, and replaced by a more sober experience. For Kierkegaard, faith sets us the profoundest task, and challenge, of our human existence. What is tested in faith is not whether God exists, but God’s love and our love in relation to God’s. To attain faith, a struggle and a suffering must be embraced; this is the “genuinely human factor.” (Jamie Moran, The Wound of Existence, 2006)
First, we trust in the living God, Who leads the way. I for one have no life-transforming faith in ‘progress’, the goodness of government or secularism’s supreme tenets.
The English-speaking portion of the world, referred to comically as ‘developed’ may have faith that ‘God is dead’, but au contraire. (David Cayley, Redefining Development, 2017) This ‘death’ is a case of mistaken identity, as I suspect our time’s most interesting Nietzschean would agree. (UberBoyo, The Ubermensch: Shall we Become Beautiful or Comfortable? 2019)
Fr Illich and Simone Weil speak to the unfortunate fumble at play in the death of ‘God’ which rootless servants of the present age attempt to describe. This is a death of nothing more than an idol of the living and imperishable God of the Bible, and His church.
French philosopher, and mystic, Simone Weil speaks of atheism merely as a “purification.” (David Cayley, Ivan Illich as an Esoteric Writer, 2019) Columbian aphorist Don Colacho speaks in a similar vein of scepticism serving to ‘prune faith’, proclaiming confidently from his citadel in Columbia: “Scepticism does not mutilate faith; it prunes it.’’ (Don Colacho’s Aphorisms, 2011)
The term atheism has multiple meanings in the former Weil’s thought. ‘She speaks first in the sense in which Meister Eckhart says, “I pray God to rid me of God” i.e. an achieved image of God is always already an idol.’ (David Cayley, Ivan Illich as an Esoteric Thinker, 2019) Fr Illich plays with this theme and lays out the lessons to be learned by the church, in ‘The Corruption of Christianity’. (David Cayley, The Corruption of Christianity, 2014)
This pretentious modernist pretence that ‘God’ is dead, and a whole series of adjoined unexamined pre-suppositions provides no more than the wimpish man that Nietzsche himself lamented. The Ubermensch is still born. By attacking the wrong target, the philosopher with a hammer has only exacerbated the problem of limp redemption-less ‘life’.
The warrior king Jesus proclaimed, “I am the way, the truth and the life.’’(John 14:6) and paves the way to redemption for the true superman to walk. We believe Him!
Again, Eric Voegelin has penetrated the depths of our gnostic follies more than most, relating in impressive detail just what the real problem with our bloodless civilisation is. This is a civilisation that doesn’t fight for anything worthwhile, a civilisation that can’t ‘go the distance’:
“The death of the spirit is the price of progress. Nietzsche revealed this mystery of the Western apocalypse when he announced that God was dead and that He had been murdered. This Gnostic murder is constantly committed by the men who sacrificed God to civilization.
The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of salvation through world–immanent action, the farther the human beings who engage in this enterprise move away from the life of the spirit. And since the life the spirit is the source of order in man and society, the very success of a Gnostic civilization is the cause of its decline.
A civilization can, indeed, advance and decline at the same time—but not forever. There is a limit toward which this ambiguous process moves; the limit is reached when an activist sect which represents the Gnostic truth organizes the civilization into an empire under its rule.
Totalitarianism, defined as the existential rule of Gnostic activists, is the end form of progressive civilization.” (Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, 1987)
Russian Orthodox polymath Fr Pavel Florensky’s solution to a bloodless gnostic existence is the embrace of ‘antinomy’, “…for such an embrace will lead us to question the claims of reason, its claims to coerce what it maintains is the truth…
In other words, truth is an antinomy, and it cannot fail to be such. And truth cannot be anything else, for one can affirm in advance that knowledge of the truth demands spiritual life and therefore is an ascesis. But the ascesis of rationality is belief, i.e., self-renunciation. The act of the self-renunciation of rationality is an expression of antinomy. Indeed, only an antinomy can be believed.’’
The man outside the arena does not truly live or truly know but must live a dimmed life in the shadows of the man who fights for truth and life at its nitid height.
“Every non-antinomic judgment is merely accepted or merely rejected by rationality, for such a judgment does not surpass the boundary of rationality’s egoistical isolation. If truth were non-antinomic, then rationality, always revolving in its proper sphere, would not have a fulcrum, would not see extrarational objects and therefore would not be induced to begin the ascesis of belief.
Turning our mad world right-side up again, Florensky reminds us of dogma and the voluntary wrestling nature of freedom. The will to fight with and for someone worthwhile:
“That fulcrum is dogma. With dogma begins our salvation, for only dogma, being antinomic, does not constrain our freedom and allows voluntary belief or wicked unbelief. For it is impossible to compel one to believe, just as it is impossible to compel one not to believe. According to Augustine, ‘no one believes except voluntarily’ (nemo credit nisi volens). (P 109)
Whereas for Kant the antinomies constitute roadblocks to reason, for Florensky they trip up reason, as it were, expose its deficiencies, and make us realize that truth can be attained by no method such as that of rationality, but only by the spiritual life, which demands self-renunciation, ascesis, which explores the world opened up by dogma, which is the realm of freedom, the freedom of the spirit that discovers truth through opening itself to God. (Fr Andrew Louth, Modern Orthodox Thinkers, 2017)
Redemption and the Enchanted Realm
“You’re gonna have to go through hell, worse than any nightmare you’ve ever dreamed. But when it’s over, I know you’ll be the one standing. You know what you have to do. Do it.” (Rocky IV, 1985)
“Every champion was once a contender who refused to give up.” (Rocky Balboa, 2006)
The Christian message of redemption has long been misunderstood and the masses often misinformed. Over and against the speculative notion of other-worldly realms, the Christian way is a way of incarnate redemption in Christ and the body. This is truth known well by the beat-down, suffering and yearning folks who fight for freedom. This is expressed nowhere more clearly than Orthodox liturgies, and the spiritual treasures of African Americans. On the surface, these two cultural fruits look different, but contain the same sweet nectar once we peel them open.
“The resonances or points of convergence between Orthodoxy and African-American spirituality are profound. The first resonance is historical. Ancient Christianity is not, as many think, a European religion. Christian communities were well established in Africa by the third and fourth centuries. In Egypt and Ethiopia, Coptic traditions of worship, monasticism, and spirituality have remained authentically African and authentically Christian down to the present day.
The second resonance is spiritual: there are important analogies between African traditional religions and Orthodox Christianity. In classical theological terms, these analogies constitute a protoevangelion: a preparation for the Gospel based on God’s natural revelation to all peoples through nature and conscience. I would distinguish eight principal areas of convergence between African spirituality and Ancient Christianity…’’ (Albert J Raboteau, African American Orthodoxy, 2010)
Free My Soul from Sin and Death
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware preaches this point related to the prototypical prisoner. This works for those of us in physical prisons, or those of us who have become imprisoned by our society and in our own minds. By recalling a prisoner’s story, he compels us to ‘discern the passing image of the seen, and the eternal life of the Unseen’ which calls us to become greater than we are:
“It is… by being a prisoner for religious convictions in a Soviet camp that one can really understand the mystery of the fall of the first man, the mystical meaning of the redemption of all creation, and the great victory of Christ over the forces of evil.
It is… when we suffer for the ideals of the Holy Gospel that we can realize our sinful infirmity and our unworthiness in comparison with the great martyrs of the first Christian Church.
… then can we grasp the absolute necessity for profound meekness and humility, without which we cannot be saved; only then can we begin to discern the passing image of the seen, and the eternal life of the Unseen.” Letter from a soviet concentration camp. (Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 1979)
In our weakness, we can know His strength and be renewed to fight another day. The hope that we have stands in awe of the one Who freed us from the slavery of death. Our fight is preceded by His ultimate victory. Without His victory, we could not win. Texan psychologist Richard Beck has written about this, with some insight. Let’s reside on the chez long for a moment and consider his points:
“A while back I asked readers of this blog to recommend sources about the relationship between sin and death, with a particular focus on how the Greek Orthodox view the relationship.
The idea I’m exploring is a reversal of the typical Protestant formulation:
Sin causing Death. The formulation I’m working with flips the Protestant understanding around: Death causing Sin. The focal passage I’m working with is Hebrews 2.14-15:
Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.’’ (Richard Beck, The Slavery of Death, 2011)
It is here that we hear the deep living truths of the old African American spirituals, which cast Man beyond bondage:
‘’The idea is that we are “held in slavery by our fear of death.” Fearing death, we act in various ways that are prompted by needs for self-preservation. Life is ruled by a Darwinian survival instinct that makes us selfish, acquisitive, rivalrous and violent. Mortality fears create our sinful actions and attitudes. That is the key theological and psychological insight.
Given this situation, the work of the Christ is to “break the power of him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil.” (See also 1 John 3.8: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”)
Salvation in this view is obtained through Christ’s defeat of the devil who uses our fear of death to hold us captive to sin, using our instinct for self-preservation to tempt us into sinful practices. Christ came to destroy both the devil and death to set us free from our “slavery to the fear of death.” And being set free from this fear we are able to escape the bondage of sin. This is the meaning of resurrection.” (Richard Beck, The Slavery of Death, 2011)
“Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that and that ain’t you. You’re better than that!” (Rocky Balboa, 2006)
Man’s true nature is known only by the light of Death and Resurrection. It is redemption down to the bottom and up to the top. Fr John Behr’s words once again call us to the central fight against sin and death, and on to resurrected life.
Behr, like Beck and others we have heard from, makes it clear that we need Christ for victory over sin, death and the devil. We must stay the fight to become fully human. The perishable muscles, mind or heart of mortal Man cannot go the distance alone. He proclaims the good news for Man facing down his foe:
“What it is to be God and what it is to be human remain the same, but the miracle is that each is now revealed together in one and, therefore, also through each other: mortality is not a property of God, creating life is not a property of humans, but Christ has brought both together, conquering death by His death and in this very act conferring life immortal…’’ (Dylan Pahman, Book Review: Becoming Human, 2014)
Behr echoes Metropolitan Bloom’s deep insight that we will be given a new name and reiterates that we are becoming more than we are or ever were in sin.
‘’Behr’s assertion here that “we have yet to become human” is grounded in the patristic and Orthodox distinction between the image and likeness of God. We are made in the image but made to grow in the likeness. Though human by nature, we “become human” through continually dying and rising with Christ in the sacraments and asceticism, ever passing “from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18) in the likeness of Jesus Christ.’’ (Dylan Pahman, Book Review: Becoming Human, 2014)
Behr brings us back to our spiritual roots, at a time when the weak branches of modern deception are breaking under the weight of our stagnant self-obsessions.
‘’Paradoxically, in order to truly “become human,” we must become by grace what God is by nature. What this thesis amounts to is that the Gospel offers to us a new perspective on life and death, a new way—the only real way—to be “a living human being.”
“In fact,” writes Behr, “death is the only unavoidable part of life. It is the only thing which I can be sure of, and, thus, the only thing which I must contemplate.” (Dylan Pahman, Book Review: Becoming Human, 2014)
The Fight against Death
Only by wrestling with death and false selves can we emerge victorious. This is an infinitely better life than those of our ‘Present Age’ where we never emerge at all. Dylan Pahman describes Behr’s help in this battle:
‘’Certainly, the desert fathers, Philokalia authors, and other great luminaries of the spiritual life would wholeheartedly agree. “Just as bread is the most necessary of all foods,” writes St. John Climacus, “so the thought of death is the most essential of all works.” And what does this contemplation reveal?
Among other answers, Behr writes, now … in the light of Christ’s victory over death, death is revealed to be “the last enemy” (1 Cor 15:26). We can now understand that men and women don’t simply die as a neutral biological fact; they die by having turned away from their Creator, their only source of life. Our turning away, our apostasy, our falling into death is not simply something that happened at the beginning of time—someone else’s fault! It is something that each of us struggles with constantly in this life.’’ (Dylan Pahman, Book Review: Becoming Human, 2014)
We have seen how these struggles with resentment plague us throughout this essay. This idolatrous egoism defeats us if we let it.
‘’Egoism, then, understood as the belief that “we are actually sufficient unto ourselves, that we have life in ourselves,” proves to be the way of death and a manifestation of death in the present. When we turn away from God and towards ourselves, we turn away from the source of all life, embracing an existential emptiness.’’
Need we quit on our stool? Or shall we see the fight out in hope of victory, which we know will come one way or another?
“…in Christ a new “use” of death is revealed: “Turned inside-out, death now becomes the means whereby the creature returns to God, and, in fact, is fashioned by God as a living human being.” When we die to ourselves, to our egoism and fictitious self-sufficiency, to our blindness to our own and others’ mortality, then death becomes the path to life.’’ (Dylan Pahman, Book Review: Becoming Human, 2014)
Here is the way of the J-Curve:
“It was by His death—” writes Behr, That most human of actions, and the only thing that we have in common from the beginning of the world onwards, and an action which expresses all the weakness and the impotence of our created nature—by this, and nothing less, has Christ shown himself to be God.
And it is this to which Jesus calls each and every human being, to the extent that one is able, to “deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23).” (Dylan Pahman, Book Review: Becoming Human, 2014)
This whole way of being in the world and becoming more than we are is what we really want:
“Eastern thought does not regard the Fall as hurling humanity into “a substantially new condition.” Rather, sin’s consequences imposed an “infinite distance between the created and uncreated, the natural separation of [humankind] from God which ought to have been overcome by deification…”
Instead, “an impassable abyss” opposed sin and physical death, making deification impossible. All persons by birth would inherit the nature corrupted by Adam and Eve, which would set in motion a disorder in the entire created world in need of re-creation. The sin of the first ancestors is the result of their refusal to receive the created world as “the sacrament of communion with God.” (Janet Puppo, Sacrament of Deification: The Eucharistic Vision of Alexander Schmemann in Light of the Doctrine of Theosis, 2007)
There is no body without spirit, and as we have seen we are dead without spirit. The creation itself is only redeemed in spirit.
“Viewing the world as material, they failed to transform it into a means of communion with God. To restore humanity’s capacity for union with Him and their fulfilment as deified, God provides for the renewal and redemption of fallen creation.
Christ, the New Adam, unites divinity to humanity so that humanity is once again on the path to deification. The Son of God takes on human flesh, deifies it, and by His death, resurrection and ascension, He prepares the way for the final elevation of all creation.” (Janet Puppo, Sacrament of Deification: The Eucharistic Vision of Alexander Schmemann in Light of the Doctrine of Theosis, 2007)
We have spoken over and again of redemption. However, redemption means more than we’ve been long used to, and involves the low to high road less travelled.
Elevation: More Than Redemption
“The term “elevation,” the second and final act of the Eastern model, indicates the influence that the doctrine of theosis exerts on Eastern soteriology.
In the Western model, the third and final act of salvation, ‘redemption’ describes “God’s actions to redeem, to save and to restore humanity to a state resembling the original created condition.” This schema demonstrates that salvation is “a restoration to the original beatitude, the state that had been lost with the Fall.” (Janet Puppo, Sacrament of Deification: The Eucharistic Vision of Alexander Schmemann in Light of the Doctrine of Theosis, 2007)
As we’ve seen with the J-curve, this is not the whole story. The end is to be greater than before.
“The Eastern model displays a strikingly different design in its approach to soteriology. It is an “elevation to a new level of beatitude, something never before experienced by humanity.” In this act, the Eastern vision of theosis finds fulfilment.
Humanity is raised to a level of total union with God as partakers in divine life …In Eastern Christian thought, salvation is not strictly limited to the saving work of the Person of Jesus Christ on the Cross, but includes the realization of theosis as given in the Incarnation: the transfiguration of the entire created cosmos through the economy of the Son and the economy of the Holy Spirit” (Janet Puppo, Sacrament of Deification: The Eucharistic Vision of Alexander Schmemann in Light of the Doctrine of Theosis, 2007)
Creation is Redemptive
Cosmologist George FR Ellis serves to remind us, even from the position of science, that redemptive direction and purpose is built into the universe itself. He speaks of the moral nature of the universe. This insight is not obvious, especially in a time of rampant reductionism, but is ultimately correct. (Ultimate Questions of Reality – Dr George Ellis, Closer to Truth Interview, 2017)
This is a point, properly understood, that we orthodox Christians welcome: “Grace, therefore, is God loving His human creation and deifying it through His activity.’’ (Fr George Maloney, Uncreated Energy, 1987)
This is no new-age notion or mere man-made projection. To conjecture that we have only ‘projected onto the universe’ would be to miss the point here, and ‘make us strangers to the universe’. Peter Kreeft makes this point succinctly, describing the problem of the unaffected cosmic spectator during the Catholic Church’s Humanum documentary. (Peter Kreeft, Humanum, 2014)
Ellis’s, surprisingly rare, scientific appreciation of the free action and direction of real life is echoed by the awesome Edward Feser, Richard Cocks and late Arthur Young. Each resist what Huston Smith has labelled ‘promethean’ science, whose limits have been too tightly bound and drawn according to crude, mainly positivist, philosophical beliefs. (Huston Smith, Beyond the Postmodern Mind, 1982)
In his book on the metaphysical foundations of physical and biological science, Edward Feser combats reductive small mindedness with hard philosophical punching power. He restores science to its end, or ultimate point, by reaching down to the foundations first.
He begins, “The central argument of this book is that Aristotelian metaphysics is not only compatible with modern science but is implicitly presupposed by modern science. Many readers will be relieved to hear some immediate clarifications and qualifications. (Edward Feser, Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science, 2019)
Before separating the wheat from the chaff: First, I am not talking about Aristotle’s ideas in physics, as that discipline is understood today. For example, I am not going to be defending the claim that the sublunary and superlunary realms are governed by different laws, or the doctrine of natural place. (Edward Feser, Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science, 2019)
Feser is not seeking a return to a ‘pre-scientific age’, but offering a more comprehensive philosophy of science: I am talking about the philosophical ideas that can be disentangled from this outdated scientific framework, such as the theory of actuality and potentiality and the doctrine of the four causes. These are, again, metaphysical ideas rather than scientific ones…’’ (Edward Feser, Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science, 2019)
Feser brings us back to purpose and leads us to an elevated station by commending a full understanding of nature that requires us to include Aristotelian purpose, or teleology, and essences as well. Finally, Feser suggests that this leads us toward evidence for a divine mind behind it all.
Richard Cocks, in a review of a book by Perry Marshall, strikes several blows against Neo-Darwinist ideologues, who block hard scientific evidence of active directional evolution. He refers to “five different processes (have been) identified in which evolution takes place in real time, not over millions of years, and they do not involve natural selection.’’
This places micro and macro evolution on a more balanced scale. Cocks also informs the uninitiated that “they certainly have little to do with random mutations.’’ (Richard Cocks, Evolution 2.0?, 2020)
The specific processes mentioned in that instance are: Transposition, Epigenetics, Horizontal gene transfer, Symbiogenesis and Hybridization, also known as Genome Duplication. Each undermines ideologically blind Neo-Darwinism.
Cocks and Marshall are joined in this fight for verity by several top scholars who place Man in continuity with creation, reminding us that intelligent Man has arisen within an intelligent universe. Marshall even describes how elements within the cosmos, like cells, act intelligently and argues that they deserve the label intelligent based on their fruits.
Here, he complements the great movements in Systems Thinking which move in different directions to the various reductionist models we have been combatting: Fractal patterns, emergence, etc. (Systems Innovation, Systems Thinking: Course Introduction, 2015)
Fritjof Capra and Denis Noble are two champions in the fight against simplistic scientistic ideology. Each revealing more comprehensive philosophies, ‘The Systems View of Life’ (Fritjof Capra, The Systems View of Life, 2014) and ‘Biological Relativity’. (Denis Noble, Dance to the Tune of Life, Biological Relativity, 2016)
Noble’s 2006 book The Music of Life examines some of the basic aspects of systems biology, and is critical of the ideas of genetic determinism and genetic reductionism. He points out that there are many examples of feedback loops and “downward causation” in biology, and that it is not reasonable to privilege one level of understanding over all others.
He also explains that genes in fact work in groups and systems, so that the genome is more like a set of organ pipes than a “blueprint for life”. His 2016 book Dance to the Tune of Life sets these ideas out in a broad sweep from the general principle of relativity applied to biology, through to the role of purpose in evolution and to the relativity of epistemology.
Noble contrasts Dawkins’s naïve statement in The Selfish Gene, “Now they [genes] swarm … safe inside gigantic lumbering robots … they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence”, with a more honest and apt description:
“Now they (genes) are trapped in huge colonies, locked inside highly intelligent beings, moulded by the outside world, communicating with it by complex processes, through which, blindly, as if by magic, function emerges.
They are in you and me; we are the system that allows their code to be read; and their preservation is totally dependent on the joy we experience in reproducing ourselves. We are the ultimate rationale for their existence.” (Denis Noble, Dance to the Tune of Life, 2016)
He even suggests that there is no obvious empirical difference between these statements and says that they differ in “metaphor” and “sociological or polemical viewpoint”. Noble shows a refreshing respect for emergence and non-linear systems here and elsewhere. Dawkins’s descriptive imagination has been dulled by ideology and injures more strenuous enquiry, but sadly he is not alone.
Denis argues that “the paradigms for genetic causality in biological systems are seriously confused” and that “The metaphors that served us well during the molecular biological phase of recent decades have limited or even misleading impacts in the multilevel world of systems biology. New paradigms are needed if we are to succeed in unravelling multifactorial genetic causation at higher levels of physiological function and so to explain the phenomena that genetics was originally about.” (Denis Noble, Dance to the Tune of Life, 2016)
William Lane Craig and JP Moreland have been training Christian minds in Philosophy to dive beyond Dawkins’s shallow Philosophy, motivated by their existential trust in revelation and history: “In Scripture, faith involves placing trust in what you have reason to believe is true. Faith is not a blind, irrational leap into the dark. So, faith and reason cooperate on a biblical view of faith. They are not intrinsically hostile.” (William Lane Craig and JP Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 2017)
In a recent video on the ‘death of god’ by my countryman UberBoyo, he reveals that the cosmos presents certain moral notes to us which we can hit in our fight for redemption. The moral notes of the universe are like great music, which offer harmony to the moral musician. (Uberboyo, What Nietzsche Thought Caused The “Death of God”. And What He Actually Thought Was the Solution, 2020)
Brilliant Pastor and Peterson-commentator Paul Vander Klay preaches in harmony with this symphony of moral singers. He acknowledges that different cultures have their own uncriticised assumptions and taboos, but that a moral pull on Man is built into human nature. Man lives within an intelligent and moral universe. This is true even as some have closed their eyes and wished to fight against life blinded by reductionism.
UberBoyo and Paul Vander Klay both highlight the complex structure and genealogy of morals, without tearing up our moral and musical notes (UberBoyo, Shall We Become Beautiful or Comfortable, 2019). Paul does this by contrasting Anglo-Saxon warriors in the middle ages with modern businessmen but does not collapse to the reductive moral relativist canvas. (Paul Vander Klay, Beyond the Good Place’s Initial Moral Assumptionism, 2020)
You are not your ‘authentic self’, cut off from Man and God, as many like to imagine in our present age. (Soren Kierkegaard, The Present Age, 1846) One of the two examples in Paul’s example was told that their ‘self’ was a warrior and that their feelings should be honour if they fought, or ‘shame’ if they did not. Plus, they should not express themselves in certain sexual ways.
The other example is Man of today, told that our sexual expression is ‘who we are’ and that we must not ‘repress’ our sexuality. Yet, we are told that we must not fight, or we commit the unpardonable postmodern sin of ‘toxic masculinity’.
This contrast reveals the part relativist nature of so many man-made norms, which must be measured by something or someone outside the system. We can approach God’s revelation and involvement here in different ways, and Orthodox theology is rich in insights. (Paul Ladouceur, Modern Orthodox Theology) However, Jordan Peterson’s Jungian analysis can also help to put modern science at our service. He recognises that the highest ideal over time judges Man and provides direction, rather than time and random mutations alone. (The Rubin Report, Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro: Religion, Trans Activism, and Censorship, 2019)
We trust that the highest ideal is God, and that He calls us to make beautiful moral music. We imitate the Person of God, in Girard’s mimetic sense and try and hit the right moral notes for a good life, making beautiful music. James Alison has brought this to our ears. (James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes, 1998)
This musical cosmic fractal pattern was described by UberBoyo in the ‘death of god’ video and is also evident in Vishal Mangalwadi’s marvellous book on The Bible. Particularly his chapter on Bach and his music. (Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization, 2012)
We see these purposeful fractal and non-linear patterns throughout creation, in Perry Marshall’s book mentioned before and at the apex in human relationships such as Holy Matrimony. (David C Ford, Glory and Honour, 2017)
The Christian way composes a different score, far from the point-scoring moralism of ‘moral therapeutic deism’, other world religions or forms of secularism. As Bob Dylan sang “…you gotta serve somebody.’’ (Bob Dylan, Gotta Serve Somebody, 2019)
This might help us appreciate the sweet science of life in the existential ring. Again, the brilliant Christian Mangalwadi from India, has struck down our pretensions with his seminal book on The Bible and its permanent influence on civilisation. In the first chapter of his terrific tome, he places the fruits of the Christian way against a number of alternative worldviews and ‘secular liturgies’ (James KA Smith, You are What You Love, 2016).
We discover how and why Bach, his music and milieu, differs from modern and postmodern musicians like Kurt Cobain. Drawing on his knowledge of Buddhism, Sanatana Dharma and philosophy, Mangalwadi critiques the nihilist assumptions of Cobain and the parasitic civilisation to which he belonged. Without God, he reminds us that there is no self.
Mangalwadi commends a certain suicidal sincerity in Cobain that others lack and calls us back from the brink. Sadly, it is not surprising that we have such a fight on our hands with mental health problems. As we have seen with Fury and the sport of boxing however, redemption is at the heart of the story of Man.
My friend has written a short piece about Irish boxer Michael Conlan and his fight against suicide in our country. Since the Good Friday Agreement in the small region of Ulster, there have been more suicides than persons killed during the dreadful Troubles conflict. (Conor Donnan, Belfast Boxer Michael Conlan Calls for Action over Suicide Epidemic, 2020)
Whilst the past in Ireland’s north was far from ideal, the experiments in nihilism which have now replaced it provide no remedy. The fight has moved. Man needs a healthy community, that goes beyond the state or ethnic identities and must fight against the deception that would lead to death as an answer to the primal questions of life. We were not made to quit and can go the distance. But we must be trained.
Moreover, we should lament the lack of civilisational health which would serve to place us in a living communal body, proffering healthy nourishment for the whole Man. Instead, we are offered little more than tribal political crumbs, financial illness and resentful individualism. As we saw at one level in the difference between centring our story on Rocky and on Paulie, there is a world of difference between civilisations centred on resentment and a civilisation with redemption at its heart.
Again, we attend to the universe in which Man is no mere ‘cosmic fluke’, as Alan Watts used to say.
In Arthur Young’s book, The Reflexive Universe, the late inventor records his own selections of redemptive evidence for meaning and purpose throughout the earth and cosmos. He highlights at length the elevated structure that is built into creation itself. This is a creation within which Man fits organically and within which he has his place as ‘microcosm’. (Dimitru Staniloae, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology: The Experience of God v. 1, 2000)
We add to Young’s term ‘reflexive’, that the universe is redemptive, in line with the repeated elevated ascents mentioned throughout this essay and implicit in his own scientific work. (Arthur M Young, The Reflexive Universe, 1984)
With Grace and ascesis there are no ultimate limits to redemption, and there are places for micro and macro evolution that don’t assume a reductionist ideological vision. Man’s movements matter. We see this clearly in human beliefs and actions but have poisoned our senses towards the universe we live in, assuming we are ‘projecting’.
“…So, we could say both the world of Being and the world of Becoming include aspects that don’t exist. Eddington asks if a bank overdraft exists. I would prefer to place the bank account, whether overdrawn or not, in the world of Becoming and perhaps replace the word becoming by having. This makes it easy to see that not having has a positive aspect in that it creates need, and need is the human equivalent of a force.’’ (Arthur M Young, The Reflexive Universe, 1984)
We commend Systems Thinking and outlier scientists like Young or Rupert Sheldrake for calling out deadening reductionism, whether we follow their atypical conclusions fully or not. Sheldrake has even written about the ‘delusion’ of one-dimensional scientism. Young also ascends the ‘emergent’ mountain (Systems Innovation, Emergence, 2015):
‘’In science the photon’s creation of the first so-called particles, or protons (called pair creation) also creates an enormous force 1039 times gravity. This force is so great that nothing can exist until it neutralizes itself in the joining of positive and negative “particles” (proton and electron) in atoms that do exist.
Translated as having, we can define force or desire as “not having,” and just as important as having, because it and Being (both of which don’t exist) supply the dynamic that makes the universe evolve, not only making it go but creating it in the first place.’’ (Arthur M Young, The Reflexive Universe, 1984)
In other words, nature follows the J-Curve in patterns of death and new life. With such descriptions, Young undermines the idolatry of our modern scientism, which assumes itself to be all knowing whilst being open only to whatever fits its comatose positivist presuppositions. This is despite the well-documented nature and historical limitations of science, so defined, and its questionable lasting western ‘enlightenment’ foundations. (Paulos Mar Gregorios, A Light Too Bright: The Enlightenment Today, 1992)
Young calls out the same unwarranted secularist assumptions of ‘objectivity’ and ‘understanding’ as Metropolitan Gregorios in his writings. (Paulos Mar Gregorios, Certainty and the Secular, Which do we Want?, 2017)
Everyone has a story to tell, but the old reductionist stories are not good enough. Our knowledge is nested within communities, relationships and hierarchies and are not self-evident by any means. Man needs more than reductionist crumbs for a healthy life. (Jonathan Pageau, The Supreme Irony of Science as Overarching Truth, 2020)
The Battle Against Small Minds
Huston Smith has spent a full life undermining the reductionist mind slouching in the present age but dealt his most severe blows in his book Beyond the Postmodern Mind. The great scholar of world religions assists us further up the mountain of our excited elevation by attacking the small-minded assumptions of the cavernous modern and postmodern eras. (Huston Smith, Beyond the Postmodern Mind, 2013)
If we are still unclear about the meaning behind these claims of a purposeful universe moving in a moral direction, or Man’s place in history, let’s reconsider a moving quote from MLK Jr, who famously preached that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. (James M. Washington, Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., 1991) We might agree here with Dr King, but in a fresh orthodox perspective. In an excerpt cited by Fr Alexander Men, Max Planck highlights the link between a free-living man and the moral law:
“Our deliberations bring us to the conclusion that causal considerations are inadequate exactly at the point that seems most important in our lives. Enter ethics dressed as a vital complement to science. These ethics bind the causal “it can be’’ with the moral “it must be’’; alongside pure knowledge they put value judgements to which causal scientific examination is essentially alien.’’ (Fr Alexander Men, The Wellsprings of Religion, 2017)
We speak here of history, Man as a genuine actor and moral creature with direction. We will not bow to serve indentured determinism. An absolutist determinism would make moral and scientific idiots of us all:
“Physical determinism is the notion that all events, including thoughts and actions, are the result of cause and effect. Each effect is the result of a prior cause. Each effect is also the cause of some new effect, creating an endless causal chain…
However, if physical determinism is true then the person arguing for it has no choice as to whether he believes in physical determinism or not, nor whether he argues for determinism or not. He is in the grip of physical forces beyond his control.
It is as though someone pushed the cosmic “play” button and the arguer starts arguing for something he never had any choice but to believe and to argue for. He is the victim of circumstance. Why should any attention be paid to such a victim – to such a mindless and compulsive machine – to such an idiot?’’ (Richard Cocks, The Illogicality of Determinism, 2019)
Cocks continues his assault on his bloodied opponent:
“Some events are not predictable. Therefore, a mechanistic pre-programmed, rule-governed response will not work. Chaos theory, for instance, purports to demonstrate why some phenomena will always be unpredictable. The halting problem too proves with no shadow of a doubt whatsoever that given an arbitrary computer program and a given input there is no way of knowing for sure whether the program will finish running or not.’’ (Richard Cocks, The Illogicality of Determinism – Further Consideration, 2019)
Once we kill such simple scientism, we open to redemption in history and the chance of new life.
History is His Story
“History cannot be a predictive science, because historical truth is personal’’, John Lukacs once prophesied, before bringing our minds back to a seminal time in The Second World War:
“On 22 June 1941, everything depended on two men, Hitler and Stalin. This in itself refutes the social-scientific . . . opinion according to which history . . . is ruled by vast economic and material forces and not by individual persons.
The Second World War was . . . decided by personalities, by the inclinations and decisions of men such as Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt.”
In the example Lukacs often gives (like Aristotle and Aquinas, he never uses an example once), science can predict when a man’s finger will break, but not when or whether he will defy his interrogators.
The unpredictable quality is not simply the person’s “moral code” but that “Different people who experience the same things may think about them differently; and this thinking influences not only the consequences but the experience of the event itself.”
What happens is not what moves us, but how we interpret what happens. These interpretations are the key historical causes:
“History may be characterized by the absence of laws and by the multiplicity of causes.” (A Lukacs Symposium, John Lukacs: Biblical Historical Thinking, 2011)
History is more than the sum of its parts, and points beyond itself for those with eyes to see. This philosophy, even theology, of history is driven by our “Hope’’ and has been displayed by scholars like Lukacs, N.T Wright (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, 2011) and Dr Evgeny Lampert.
The latter, and least well known of this terrific trio, fleshed out this philosophy of history by pointing towards its true end, The Kingdom of God, the ultimate telos that fulfils the echoed sounds of Aristotle, Young and others discussed before. Lampert calls this “The apocalypse of History.’’ (Dr Evgeny Lampert, The Apocalypse of History, 1948)
Once one places their trust in The Living God’s revelation to ancient Israel, and later the Christian church then we can see the fullness of history lay itself out. History is understood in the context of eschatology, when the final bell rings. (N.T. Wright, History and Eschatology, 2019) We believe Christ, his apostles and their descendants are telling the truth about God, Man and History. By virtue of “The Bible and The Church’’, our tradition includes scientists, philosophers, sportsmen, etc but transcends them all. (Fr George Florovsky, Bible, Church and Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, 1987)
My friend Matt has looked for a long time at what philosophers call the ‘hermeneutic circle’. It is here that this circle of meaning finds its end. (Logos Made Flesh, Memento’s Hidden Meaning of Life, 2019)
In his magnum opus, The Divine Realm, Lampert preached, “Concerning the doomed cycle of dualism and atheistic or cosmic monism…There is no intellectual issue out of this dilemma.
This can only be found by taking the whole question on to another level from the static to the dynamic, from the abstract to the concrete. The world is related to God not as His objectified equal as a form of being as its own co-ordinated with Him, but as His living self-revelation, as His ‘other one’.
It is created by God; it is God’s creation. Its existence is a witness to the divine-human, theandric nature of divine being… The eternal image of man and of the world in man, the microcosm and the macrocosm, abides in the very heart of the hidden, triune life of God, and his inner life is revealed in the eternal image of the world and man. Such is the mystery of eternal God-manhood, the divine-human, theandric mystery of being human.’’ (Dr Evgeny Lampert, The Divine Realm, 1944)
His Russian Orthodox brethren, Fr Men, expresses the same spirit, “The aim of my work is to sketch out, in an accessible way, the drama of spiritual history…in the light of a holistic Christian worldview…and so the series (The Wellsprings of Religion) as a whole can be seen as an attempt at a synthesis of religion, philosophy, and history…[that will] help readers see in the history of religion, not a host of delusions, but streams flowing and carried onwards, as in rivers and brooks, into the ocean of the New Testament.” (Father Alexander Men, The Wellsprings of Religion, 2018)
We do not have faith in seamless ‘progress’ (Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics, 1994) but do acknowledge that the arc of the moral universe does truly bend towards justice, when based on redemptive action and rightly interpreted, bending along the J-curve. The universe has its central actors and they move the universe directly. Yet, all of this would come to nought if not for Christ, His resurrection and the promise of the coming Kingdom.
At the Top of the World
Gracefully, Redemption book-ends our story, from beginning to end and is what we are made for: “Even after Adam is cast out and down east of Eden, ascension is still the destiny of the human race. The rest of the Bible is full of ascensions. The flood lifts the ark above the mountaintops, and Noah, the first postdiluvian Adam, rebuilds humanity from Mount Ararat, where he plants a vineyard. Abraham’s great test takes place on Mount Moriah.” (Dr Peter Leithart, Ascent, Descent and Human Destiny, 2016)
We see the action in sacred history and step inside it in church. The church is to fight the powers of the world and has been promised victory. The Lord affirms us that “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’’ (Matthew 16:18)
The temple is built on that same mountain, and all the idol shrines in Israel are built on “high places.” Priests go up into the inner sanctuary, as worshipers “go up” to Jerusalem singing “Psalms of ascent.”
David is taken from the sheepfold and given a name among the great ones, while Solomon builds an ivory throne that sits atop a seven-step, stylized mountain. Each of these is a reminiscence, each a small, sometimes symbolic, and always partial recovery of Adam’s original elevation. (Dr Peter Leithart, Ascent, Descent and Human Destiny, 2016)
Before redemption is fulfilled: And each is an anticipation, pointing ahead to the Last Adam who is elevated beyond the garden, beyond even the peak of Eden, beyond the clouds and the firmament, all the way to the right hand of the Father in the highest heaven. Jesus ascends as a priest after the order of Melchizedek, a king who takes a throne higher than Solomon’s. Jesus’s ascension isn’t a “religious” event with a “spiritual” significance. It fulfils the human vocation to become God’s prince ruling God’s universe. It’s the foundation for a profoundly humanistic Christianity.’’ (Dr Peter Leithart, Ascent, Descent and Human Destiny, 2016)
We were made for ultimate ascent, to marry the loving descent of the living God and actions of self-sacrificial love. The path to redemption is indeed long, winding and not without weary days but finally takes us home.
What we have shared here is by no means the sum of the Christian story, but we have drawn a brief outline of the Christian warrior, our need for elevated redemption and the need to fight against outright lies and lesser truths which stand in the way of our ascent to the throne. We fight that we might have life beyond lesser deaths.
Boxing serves as one small way to incarnate the Christian story in action, and expresses its immortal power in rocky steps, but life offers many roads to the top of the mountain. If we follow Christ through death and trust His redemptive patterns to new life.
“Going in one more round when you don’t think you can. That’s what makes all the difference in your life.” (Rocky IV)
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Adonis Creed: “How does it look?
Rocky Balboa: “Not bad. Not bad at all.” (Steven Thomas, Rocky Retrospective, 2016)
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