God and Triathlon Part I
by Matt Sheeks
We live in a “how” culture, and you may notice that many questions triathletes ask revolve around “how?” How do I improve my power on the bike? How do I pull more water? How do I develop a forefoot plant? Perhaps “what?” is just as popular a question, such as, “what sort of wheels should I buy?”, or “what is the best power meter?” While these conversations can easily become irritating and obnoxious, they do at least point out that triathletes are by nature seekers of knowledge.
I think since we spend so much time, effort, money, and energy on triathlon, at some point we must take a stab at the “why” question. For an endeavor so consuming, there must be some significance to it all. To make a simple decision, such as what to eat for lunch, does not require much of a look at significance. But something that is as resource intensive as triathlon does require a look at significance, because it must be given such a high priority in our life. So triathletes by nature must ask the “why” question; consequently, we see much spiritual activity reflected in the triathlon culture. But the approach to addressing the spiritual, if we can categorize it at all, takes on vastly different forms. On the Christian side, there is heavy involvement from Multisport Ministries, FCA, and of course (a local favorite) Team FASTT. Atheists and Agnostics find that triathlon is an end in and of itself, while other alternatives such as eastern religion or “new age” spiritual systems see triathlon as a way to become one with the universe or nature.
The why question is the spiritual question, and it is one of the few questions in triathlon that cannot be answered scientifically. Every attempt to do so merely results in another “why” question. You could say that the “why” question is the ultimate question; if answered sufficiently, there is a sense of satisfaction and finality. If not, frustration and ambiguity, and lack of direction are the result. Eventually the why question must be answered by you and you alone, in that it must be answered by your values. The greatest determinant of your values is your beliefs. The following illustration helps us explain this concept:
Here, we could go down several rabbit trails, but what I want to draw our attention to is the issue of consistency regarding one’s values. For our discussion, consistency merely means that our values do not contradict our beliefs. For example, we cannot value helping other people over and above animals if our worldview (being the sum total of our beliefs) dictates that humans and animals have equal significance.
The Failure of Atheism and Agnosticism to provide meaning
The first issue I would like to address is purpose. Two ideas rule the land today in this sector. The first is that the universe and everything in it was created by chance events. Honest philosophers admit that the end result of this idea is the belief that life has no purpose. Because chance events occur without cause and for no reason whatsoever, it follows that there is no reason for the existence of the universe, for life, or for humans. And of course it follows that triathlon has no purpose; it is just a sport created by mankind fairly recently that has no real objective. This is the honest atheistic position
William Lane Craig puts it well:
“But more than that: even if [life] did not end in death, without God life would still be without purpose. For man and the universe would then be simple accidents of chance, thrust into existence for no reason. Without God the universe is the result of a cosmic accident, a chance explosion. There is no reason for which it exists. As for man, he is a freak of nature— a blind product of matter plus time plus chance. Man is just a lump of slime that evolved rationality. As one philosopher has put it: “Human life is mounted upon a subhuman pedestal and must shift for itself alone in the heart of a silent and mindless universe.”
“What is true of the universe and of the human race is also true of us as individuals. If God does not exist, then you are just a miscarriage of nature, thrust into a purposeless universe to live a purposeless life.”
“So if God does not exist, that means that man and the universe exist to no purpose—since the end of everything is death—and that they came to be for no purpose, since they are only blind products of chance. In short, life is utterly without reason.”[i]
It is often asserted that someone can be atheistic or agnostic and still live a good, meaningful life. But this is neglecting the most important fact of naturalism[ii] – that there is no meaning! Atheists and agnostics can have the impression of living a good and meaningful life, but they have to borrow their values from other worldviews to even determine what good and meaningful would be. In other words, I as a theist could say that an atheist I know lives a meaningful life, but the consistent atheist could never say they live a meaningful life, because that which they are attempting to ascribe to themselves, in their own view, does not exist.
William Lane Craig again provides an insightful statement, including a quote from atheist ethicist Richard Taylor.
“For, regardless of immortality, if there is no God, then there can be no objective standards of right and wrong. All we are confronted with is, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s words, the bare, valueless fact of existence. Moral values are either just expressions of personal taste or the by-products of socio-biological evolution and conditioning. In a world without God, who is to say which values are right and which are wrong? Who is to judge that the values of Adolf Hitler are inferior to those of a saint? The concept of morality loses all meaning in a universe without God. As one contemporary atheistic ethicist points out, “to say that something is wrong because . . . it is forbidden by God, is . . . perfectly understandable to anyone who believes in a law-giving God. But to say that something is wrong . . . even though no God exists to forbid it, is not understandable. . . .” “The concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain but their meaning is gone.” In a world without God, there can be no objective right and wrong, only our culturally and personally relative, subjective judgments. This means that it is impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as evil. Nor can one praise brotherhood, equality, and love as good. For in a universe without God, good and evil do not exist—there is only the bare valueless fact of existence, and there is no one to say you are right and I am wrong.
Infamous atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” [iii]
Atheist Philosopher Kai Neilson points out, “We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons, unhoodwinked by myth or ideology, need not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. Reason doesn’t decide here. The picture I have painted for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me . . . . Pure practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality.”
Beyond the naturalistic view, the theistic view remains quite popular. The essence of this position is that the universe and everything in it was created intentionally by a supreme being who exists outside of the environment He created, yet can interact with His creation. The agreement on theism ends about there, and so you have Jews, Muslims, Christians, and several other positions including every derivative of Christianity.
What theism does for us is to give us the possibility that there is some purpose to triathlon, and more importantly, some glimmer of hope that anything you do in this life actually matters, which the atheistic position fails to do.
Christians are unique in that we have one ground rule: If the Bible declares it to be true, than it is true. But along with this, the big idea of Martin Luther and the reformers during the Protestant Reformation was that Christians everywhere need to read the Bible for themselves to determine for themselves how to have eternal life, what life’s purpose is, what constitutes true morality, and so on. So to put it succinctly, there can be as many beliefs about life’s purpose as there are Christians! Yet there is only one truth on life’s purpose as revealed in the Bible; man only has to discover and understand correctly what it is. In other words, no Christian can say, “I believe it because I believe it,” or “I believe it because the King believes it and I don’t want to see the rack tomorrow,” for these fall short of true belief. Belief is to be arrived at by examining God’s Word which He has chosen to reveal to us. This is the type of belief that is much similar to how we arrive at beliefs in other areas: based on evidence we are presented, we come to a conclusion about what we know to be true.
This is where the theistic view differs from the deistic view significantly. The deist says that God created, but did not reveal why created, while the theist says that God created, and revealed why He did. Each faith system within theism, of course, has its view on what that revelation is (Bible, Book of Mormon, Torah, Koran, etc.). Why the Bible appears to me (or anyone else) as a more reliable source of God’s revelation is not within the scope of this article, as we are primarily interested in comparing worldviews. To summarize, the Bible correctly identifies Jesus as the Son of God, while other holy books are incorrect as to their identification of who Jesus of Nazareth was and what He specifically accomplished.
Based on the Bible as God’s word, we know that God created the universe and mankind to manifest His love to His creation. His goal is that His love would be recognized, appreciated, and expressed by human beings who bear His image. Humans are a special type of creation – they have an immaterial element to their being called the soul which cannot die. This distinction is crucial because it is what gives humans special significance beyond the rest of creation, whether that be animal, plant, fungus, eukaryote or prokaryote.
Imagine if people around you thought your life was no more important than a blade of grass. That is what atheism states plainly. Now imagine if those around you (perhaps they are atheists) actually acted like you were no more important than a blade of grass, or the rubber on their tires, or the dirt on their boots. Let me pause for a moment and ask you, which worldview appeals to you more, naturalistic atheism or theism? Why do you think it appeals to you? Of course I am intentionally giving you the best case I can for theism, but if you settle on naturalistic atheism, I only ask that you live consistently with it.
Now, this is where the naturalists get off track, because they might say, “since there is no purpose to life, then “do whatever you feel like” or “whatever feels good.” Rape, pilage, destroy, conquer! Or if you are so inclined, help others, feed the poor, volunteer for Teach For America, or become a physical therapist. But this view carries an assumption which atheism does not hold, namely, that you should follow your whims, dreams, and desires. Naturalism cannot make such a distinction;, in fact, it cannot tell you how to act at all – your thoughts, desires, and emotions are merely neurons firing along with chemical reactions in your brain. They mean nothing. There is no rhyme or reason for why you should follow them. In fact, atheism even denies the possibility of free will, so you cannot be a consistent atheist and chose any life path whatsoever, or have any values in order to chose any purpose or path in life. Naturalism, therefore, can give no advice on how to live. You can just as well live like a Hitler than a Mother Theresa, a genius or a lunatic, a diplomat or a sociopath. No one can say as a naturalistic atheist, “which is better?,” for there is no reference point from which to start – no purpose, no right and wrong, no value to human life, no morality, no good, no bad, no better, no worse, no achievement, no laziness, nothing commendable, nothing despicable. Atheist philosophers like Ayn Rand attempt to create an atheistic ethic, and theists even enjoy her work and often agree with it, but as an atheist her conclusions are ultimately baseless. It is as the poet Hughes Mearnes once wrote:
As I was sitting in my chair,
I knew the bottom wasn’t there,
Nor legs nor back, but I just sat.
Ignoring little things like that.
And so it is with many of my atheistic friends. When I ask them, “why did you choose that” or “why do you want that career path, job, or woman to marry?”, if I chisel down far enough, there ultimately is no reason. In order to find meaning and happiness, they must borrow from what culture tells them, which derives its values from other worldviews that do have a firm footing in an objective purpose. They themselves, however, lack the belief which provides the underpinning for objective purpose, morality, the sanctity of human life, etc.
Going along with the theistic view, we find three major conclusions that naturalism lacks:
- (1) Life has objective purpose
- (2) Human beings have value
- (3) Right and Wrong exist
Triathlon, then, could have relevance in each of the three categories. It could have purpose, since it is part of life and the human experience; it could have an element of moral goodness or badness, as it is an action, and could add to or subtract from expressing God’s love to other human beings, as it is an interdependent sport (you cannot compete in a vacuum). It really comes down to what God thinks of it.
Next time I would like to examine some key texts from the New Testament in order to develop a systematic theology of sport and competition.