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The Latent Christian Gnosticism by Karl-Gustel Wärnberg

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The Latent Christian Gnosticism

Detail from "Boxer at Rest" (Greek, Hellenistic period, late 4th–2nd century B.C.), bronze sculpture with copper inlays, located in the Museo Nazionale Romano/Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.

In 2019, boxing heavyweight Deontay Wilder was named “Boxing Ambassador for Peace” by Pope Francis. Wilder shared that he learned the surprising fact that His Holiness is a fan of the sport. 

Many might already know of the pontiff’s love for football. However, his love for sport is not entirely uncontroversial in Christian quarters, where a suspicion toward sport—especially violent sport like boxing—remains. There is a long history of such attitudes against sports within Christianity.

We see examples of “anti-sport” sentiments as early in Church history as Tertullian: 

Therefore the believer, too, “perishes,” by lapsing out of (the right path) into a public exhibition of charioteering frenzy, or gladiatorial gore, or scenic foulness, or athletic vanity; or else if he has lent the aid of any special “arts of curiosity” to sports, to the convivialities of heathen solemnity, to official exigence, to the ministry of another’s idolatry; if he has impaled himself upon some word of ambiguous denial, or else of blasphemy. (On Modesty)

A piece in the National Catholic Register quotes this saying of Tertullian’s, as the author mentions Catholic friends who see sports as “evil.” Yet even Tertullian was never against sports per se, which is evident from other writings. Rather, he condemned excessive enthusiasm for games and the sinful violence that can accompany certain sports. 

Tertullian and contemporary critics alike denounce violent sports like boxing. Still the accompanying “frenzy” of which Tertullian wrote is also decried by a later thinker, Lord Bertrand Russell, when speaking of a sport many today consider peaceful. He complained,

With civilised men…, it is, I think, chiefly love of excitement which makes the populace applaud when war breaks out; the emotion is exactly the same as at a football match, although the results are sometimes somewhat more serious.

Russell was not a Christian, but he identified the same trait that disturbed Tertullian: excessive sporting enthusiasm, which can erupt into violence—no matter how civilised the sport might seem. 

All sport originates in acts of violence. This, which might seem to condemn it from the start, is actually its redeeming characteristic: sport was, and remains, the best means for ordering that particular human impulse.

To see how this is so, we must take a step back. Scepticism towards sport is related to scepticism toward the body, which emerges in different forms in every age. Tertullian lived in a time where virginity and asceticism were prized for their stark contrast to the decadence of mass culture. But this scepticism towards the body could be as old as The Fall itself, which clothed man’s relation to his flesh with guilt, concupiscence, and shame. Ascetic ideals of mystical purification call for the body to be left behind as the mystic moves into a higher spiritual realm. In modernity, René Descartes separated mind and body. Today, people fantasise about uploading their consciousness to the internet and living on forever in virtual reality. 

Behind all these attitudes lurks a latent Gnosticism, questioning and distrusting the body. Platonism has undeservedly been charged with spreading Gnosticism, while in fact, Platonism can undo the Gnostic spell. 

Christianity coexisted with the Platonic Academy until Byzantine emperor Justinian I closed the Academy in 529 AD. Nearly two hundred years earlier, the emperor Constantine had forbidden gladiatorial combat, while emperor Theodosius I banned the Olympic Games in 393 AD. All these developments sprang from a single impulse: Christianised emperors feared that the Academy and the Olympic Games both spread dangerous pagan influences. Constantine may have banned gladiatorial combat due to its bloodied spectacle, but as historian Peter Leithart argues, by banning the contests, he was also able to “chip away at the pagan civilisation that had preceded him.” With the advent of Christianity, both Plato and the classical combat sports came under suspicion. Western civilisation was left with a Gnostic unease about the relation between violence and the human person.

The Neo-Platonist, Plotinus, wrote an entire text called Against the Gnostics. His central claim is that matter itself is not evil. Instead, chaos, disorder, and the lack of Form are the source of evil. This idea is inherited from Plato, who in his Timaeus argued that the world was made by a Demiurge from matter that already existed. For Plato, this matter was not evil (contrary the later claims of Gnostics), but rather the lack of order, that creates chaos. This world is rightly ordered when it aligns with the spiritual world, or what Plato calls the “world of Forms.” These Forms are the organising principles that make each thing what it is. This means that for Plato, the material world we inhabit is a continuation of the spiritual world.

Detail from “Boxer at Rest” (Greek, Hellenistic period, late 4th–2nd century B.C.), bronze sculpture with copper inlays, located in the Museo Nazionale Romano/Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.

The Greeks had an intimate relationship to martial arts. These arts were part of preparation for war, but also served to strengthen both the individual and the community. Bouts were held in the nude, which is what the very word gymnastiké means. The Greeks would organise agon, or contests, from which we derive the English word agony. Agon expanded to mean any physical struggle, then an activity fraught with difficulty or pain, and at last, mental or spiritual anguish as well as physical. The English word agony means precisely that anguish of body or mind, and encompasses even the throes of death.

It might seem that Christians in the vein of Tertullian are uneasy about sports like boxing because these sports disregard the dignity of the human body. This attitude lingers today; in a 1962 article for Sports Illustrated, moral theologian and Catholic priest Fr. Richard McCormick argued for banning boxing. He argued that the knockout is dangerous and fosters brutal instincts, and that the sport itself is morally compromised because there is intent of injury. The body of the bruised athlete indicates that human dignity has been violated—but for the athlete, his bruises are the mark of his dignity. They reveal his work and dedication in their fullness.

Scripture itself strikes a balance between these two perspectives. St. Paul speaks in Corinthians of the body as a “temple of the Holy Spirit,” which implies we need to care for it as we would any vessel which contains valuable items. The Old Testament makes clear the God created humans with a body, and thus willed us to be in an embodied state. The connection between body and soul, therefore, is no accident. We owe it to God Himself to care for our earthen vessels. Christians, therefore, have no cause for fear of exercise. While there is a legitimate moral debate as to how far combat sports—or, indeed any sports—should go, sports themselves are an integral part of life. They help perfect the body, which is part of who we are. They teach us important life lessons, such as discipline, order, focus, determination, and perseverance. 

Boxing epitomises this. The athlete stands exposed, alone and vulnerable. He must overcome his own fears through conditioning and disciplining his body, and through applying the cardinal virtues to his actions. In a team sport, the body extends beyond the individual; the team itself becomes a body, corporate and communal, while the individual is subsumed. But the boxer is always, ultimately, himself. Joyce Carrol Oates writes in her splendid reflection On Boxing that, like “the saint [the boxer] gives the impression of having arrived at his redemption by unflagging solitary effort.” Perhaps this is why St. Paul himself references boxing in his letter to the Corinthians. 

Surely, then, it is no coincidence that many of the boxing greats have been Christian. Gene Tunney was a U.S. marine, world heavyweight boxing champion, and a Catholic, as was undefeated champion Rocky Marciano. Recently retired heavyweight champion Tyson Fury thanks his “Lord and Savour Jesus Christ” after all his victories. He, too, is undefeated. Perhaps these men each found a profound connection between their own physical strivings and sufferings and the great physical striving of Christ on the Cross. 

I return once more to Joyce Carol Oates. She summarises the conflict at the core of boxing thus:

of course [boxing] is primitive, too, as birth, death, and erotic love might be said to be primitive, and forces our reluctant acknowledgement that the most profound experiences of our lives are physical events—though we believe ourselves to be, and surely are, essentially spiritual beings.

We cannot forget the body, which is vital to our spiritual order, and there is no clearer way of doing so than by being knocked back into reality in the ring.

Karl-Gustel Wärnberg holds an M.A. in the History of Science and Ideas from Uppsala University. He is the editor-in-chief of Fighter Magazine, Sweden’s oldest martial arts magazine.