My new book Farewell to Football? An American Fan’s Examination of Conscience, as it represents my spiritual journey, is in large part a story of attachment, the movement from disordered passions–including idolatry of football–to a proper attachment to the things of God. Attachment is a particularly Jesuit concept in Christianity, but I made my way to it via the rhetorical tradition and scholar James L. (j) Kastely, who is also the director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston.
I describe j’s role as my doctoral mentor in Chapter 8 of Farewell to Football, and I recall that one time in a discussion of rhetoric and persuasion he said it’s all a matter of attachment. The “rhetor” will try to manipulate the audience’s attachments to achieve the action he or she desires. j’s book, Rethinking the Rhetorical Tradition, is a great resource for anyone interested in questions of persuasion. Kastely also has a new book about Plato, who is depicted conversing with Aristotle in the Raphael fresco that accompanies this post.
As I moved into my Christian formation, I learned more about the Catholic tradition around the concept of attachment. James Martin, SJ, a contemporary popularizer of Saint Ignatius Loyola, describes the objective of Jesuit detachment in his book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything : liberation from “a ‘disordered affection’ that prevents you from being free to meet new people, spending time with those you love, and viewing people as ends rather than means” (p. 10). For fans, football can become a kind of idol, venerated with disordered affections–the term “football widow” comes to mind, or the family that finds other things to do on the weekend while Dad rants and raves at football games on TV. That kind of devotion to the sport, common in my experience among men of my generation, led me to ask the keynote question in my book: “why is football such a big deal, such a quintessentially American big deal, and how important should the game really be?”
I also explored another sense of attachment, a “disorder” at the heart of sports-talk media as well as popular culture more generally: the attachment to opinion, and to subjectivity. In his book The Religious Sense, 20th-century Milanese priest Luigi Guissani identifies this “moral rule: Love the truth of an object more than your attachment to the opinions you have already formed about it. More concisely, one could say, ‘love the truth more than yourself’” (p. 31). For the modern American, immersed in a culture of subjective humanism and moral relativity, and the sports fan inundated by a steady stream of “hot takes,” this suggests a radical project–and really, that journey out of the swamps of subjectivity and toward the eternal light of truth is the journey I try to describe in my book. The best that we can hope for in this fallen world is that we detach ourselves from disordered affections, opinions, attachments to unworthy things, and that we seek with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength to find and honor the truth. It is, needless to say, an ongoing process, round and round and slowly up what Thomas Merton calls “the seven storey mountain.”