Jonathan Freirich
Listener, learner, thinker - leading to better actions.

Theology as a Dangerous Spectator Sport

Many of us root for the home team – whether the home team plays football (international or American), represents our university or college or high school (especially as student-athletes or parents), or is our religion or political party. Some of these are relatively harmless activities, and some of them are deadly.

Eitan Hersh in his excellent book, Politics is for Power, outlines the hazards of treating our political races as spectator sports in which we only invest seriously on a periodical basis, and don’t ever involve ourselves beyond “rooting for the home team”. The results of our inattention to the political sphere as a life-or-death concern have left most of us in the United States less connected to our representatives and our neighbors, and more convinced of bad intentions by groups of fellow citizens on “the other team” than perhaps since the Civil War.[1]

The idea that religion, something so significant, so personal, so fundamental, might also be treated with similar disregard seems frivolous at a first glance. Yet, we continue to fuel dire circumstances when we allow ourselves to take comfort in the “correctness” of our own belief systems.

Some examples.

In his most recent book, Jim Wallis, The False White Gospel, the impressive and wise founder of Sojourners and a true multi-faith and anti-racist pioneer, takes apart the problems of American Christian nationalism. In so doing, Professor Wallis attempts to set out the difference between “good religion” and what I might call “less helpful religion”. Professor Wallis cannot avoid the pitfall of calling one of those “true” and the other “false”. As a Jew in America today and a rabbi, I am tempted to think that drawing stark black-and-white good-and-evil binaries is primarily an American Christian problem. I might propose, “If only we could all be reasonable, pluralistic, and accepting that even the perspectives we most disagree with might have some truth in them, like the Jewish people I agree with, then we could all get along so much better.”

And yet, we don’t need to go too far into Jewish culture to find such stark dichotomies and us-and-them mindsets.

In their insightful and essential conversation leading up to Passover on the Promised Podcast of April 18, 2024, Noah Efron and Linda Wertheimer discuss some of the theological questions facing Jews this year, and inevitably come up against the “Where is our God when difficult things happen to us?” question. Such questions, the classical “Why do bad things happen to good people?” so beautifully explored by Rabbi Harold Kushner, lead many of us into the spectator sport trap that somehow, our concept of God via our own religions, means that the universe is on our side, is supposed to have our backs, and is letting us down when bad things happen to us, our loved ones, or anyone else we categorize as “our team”.

To make any progress as a species we must take a different approach. We must start with the difference between what we can know and what we believe.

We cannot know anything for certain about our concepts of the Creator of the Universe. Even theorizing that there is a singular Creator is a stab in the dark. Even our best scientific theories cannot investigate the opening instants of the universe at the Big Bang (for more on this check out any sources on Planck Time – I won’t try and explain it as a non-astrophysicist).

We may believe all sorts of things, but they are not knowledge, and treating them with the same absolute as something like the Theory of Gravity creates problems. Even in science, absolutes are called theories because someone may figure out a better absolute someday. When religions and beliefs lead us into absolutist thinking we get in trouble.

It is very important to me to believe that, despite all evidence to the contrary, there is a caring essence to the universe. Many Jewish morning blessings offer good reminders that when I view my existence as a gift that I didn’t earn and didn’t deserve that I can be a more generous, giving, and compassionate person for the rest of the day. We may phrase this as “God created the Universe and I give thanks for it”, and I choose to hear it as a reminder to be grateful.

The vital aspect of this claim is the “to me” part of it. I am not interested in everyone agreeing with my ideas that make my morning practice meaningful. It is mine and I am happy with that. I humbly request that “you do you” and let “me do me”.

When I begin to believe that “to me” applies universally as a truth for everyone, then I run into problems. Then I am claiming that some aspect of my “home team” is correct for everyone, and that if you’re not with my correct thinking then you’re against me. And if you’re against me then I can dehumanize you and justify all sorts of terrible actions that favor “my team” at your expense.

Here is a connection between one of Professor Wallis’ insights, that American religion tends to emphasize individual spirituality at the expense of communal responsibility, and the very quick slide into the idea that my inner life and spirituality give me the right to claim dominion over other people who are different than I am. When we claim the absolute truth of our inner lives then we can easily accept that anyone who has a different inner life is wrong and less than we are. This is when religion as spectator sport becomes deadly.

There are real differences between helpful religions and theologies and less helpful religions and theologies.

By religion I mean very broadly ethnic and faith communities that claim a shared heritage.

By theologies I mean ideas about the fundamental nature of all things.

Helpful religions and theologies lead us on lifelong journeys of learning and becoming, challenge us to grow in humility and humanity, and facilitate greater connecting and community. I believe that a helpful religious experience may lead us to feelings of awe in the face of the wondrous mystery of the universe, feelings of deep connection to a heritage shared with extended family and communities, all of which should contribute eventually to motivation and energy towards devotion to living and acting in better concert with others. Helpful religions and theologies can aid us in becoming people who build better multi-cultural societies and continue to become good responsible neighbors within them.

Less helpful religions and theologies can lead us into certainty and absolutes, may encourage us to judge, dismiss, and demonize others, and often comfort us by cocooning us in smaller, more insulated, and less connected sub-groups.

I am a lifelong fan of a few sports teams. I am also a lifelong “hater” of a few of those teams’ rivals. None of this precludes me from sitting down and having a great conversation with a fan of one of those rivals’ teams, many of whom are also family-members and forever friends.

That is the difference between a spectator sport and religion or politics. When the game ends, we are still friends.

Helpful religions and theologies should help us still be friends when we get together after we worship or don’t, wherever we worship or don’t.

Don’t treat our religions like spectator sports, and don’t treat other people’s belief systems as rivals with whom we can’t reconcile. Our lives depend on this.

Sources mentioned:

Efron, N. (2024, April 18). The “Unsmote, but smitten nonetheless” edition – The promised podcast. TLV1 Podcasts.

Hersh, E. (2020). Politics is for power: How to move beyond political hobbyism, take action, and make real change. Scribner.

Kushner, H. S. (2001). When bad things happen to good people: With a new preface by the author. Random House Digital.

Wallis, J. (2024). The false white gospel: Rejecting Christian nationalism, reclaiming true faith, and refounding democracy. St. Martin’s Essentials.

[1] Although we shouldn’t ignore the frequent, similarly horrific, and also more recent, divisions in American history, like periods of racist terrorism from the initial Reconstruction through Civil Rights, like the anti-union and anti-communist scares around World War I and the beginning of the Cold War, and the society-wide conflicts around the Vietnam War.

About the Author
Rabbi Jonathan Freirich, a Reconstructionist and Reform rabbi, with training in public policy and community organizing, originally from New York City, now coalition-builds, facilitates, listens, learns, and writes in Buffalo, New York. Dedicated to compassion and cooperation, thoughtfulness and thinking, and effective collaborative actions, Jonathan aims to contribute to a better connected, more peaceful, and more sustainable world.
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