Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Arena Spirituality

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery Whiteis the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • Updated Jan 13, 2011

According to a pair of philosophers, the whoosh of God has been replaced with another whoosh.


The new book by philosophers Hubert Dreyfus of Berkeley and Sean Dorrance Kelly of Harvard, titled "All Things Shining," gives what New York Times columnist David Brooks calls a "smart, sweeping run through the history of Western philosophy."


Of interest is how Dreyfus and Kelly note that in our secular age there is a pervasive sadness.  Why?  Because the age is secular.  There are no shared values.  No sense of being determined or created by God.  Today, we have to find our own meaning.


So what, according to this pair of philosophers, fills the God-shaped void so famously noted by Pascal?




For example, they look back at the emotion which swept through the crowd at Yankee stadium when Lou Gehrig delivered his "Luckiest Man Alive" speech.  During the magic times that sport often provides we experience an intense elevation. 


A more contemporary example might be the celebration following last year's Super Bowl victory by the New Orleans Saints with Drew Brees holding his child during the post-victory celebration.


They call this experience "whooshing up."


Sadly, Dreyfus and Kelly argue that we shouldn't look for an ultimate "whooshing up" found in a single meaning of life, much less God.  Instead, we should celebrate the whooshes that live on the surface of life, such as the whoosh of a concert or a political rally.


In other words, the arena spirituality is the only spirituality available to us, so we better seize it for all it's worth.


Brooks insightfully notes that this is a poor substitute for transcendent truths, much less a Supreme Being.  Further, it doesn't give us much of a basis for separating the whooshing some people felt at civil rights rallies from the whooshing others felt at Nazi rallies.


But the two philosophers are right about one thing; for most people, the extent of their spirituality, and hence spiritual experience, is the corporate whoosh of the coliseum.  What was meant for a diversion and the pale imitation of the whoosh of the Holy Spirit is now central to our soul.  Or as Brooks writes, "Real life is more about serial whooshes than coherent meaning." 


And those serial whooshes are but faint echoes of the real thing.


In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis writes "of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.  I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure.  Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again."


Glimpses of this Joy came to Lewis beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day stirring the memory of his brother bringing his toy garden into the nursery.  And when he read the book Squirrel Nutkin.  Or when musing over the poetry of Longfellow's Saga of King Olaf.  In each was a desire, but a desire for what?  It was as if the longing of a longing was stirred.


Thus began Lewis' journey to God.


All it took was a whoosh.


So let the NFL playoffs continue in earnest.  Let us gather around our flat-screen TV's and hope for a sense of the transcendent.


And then let us remember that the whoosh we may feel is an echo from a distant land calling us Home.


James Emery White





Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining.


"The Arena Culture," David Brooks, The New York Times, December 30, 2010, online at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/31/opinion/31brooks.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=the%20arena%20culture&st=cse


C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy.

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