I watched with horror but little surprise as thousands of Penn State students rioted against the firing of Head Football Coach Joe Paterno for failing to call the police when apprised of the rape of children by his assistant –— even when a grad student told him of actually witnessing the anal rape of a ten-year-old boy.
The fact that a few days later, thousands of students mourned the damage to dozens of young lives felt like only the first small step toward compassion, toward comfort.
For it is the systematic idolatry of football at Penn State and beyond that is the true culprit — not merely Joe Paterno or the alleged multiple rapist, Jerry Sandusky, or the now dismissed president of the University and his indicted colleagues
These people were merely the priests of that idolatrous cult. Football brought oceans of prosperity to Penn State, as to other colleges and businesses –- and like many ancient and modern idolatries, whoever / whatever can bring such abundance is a god and Its priesthood is too sacred to be doubted.
What is idolatry? It is turning a pleasing and partial aspect of the universe, a single limited aspect of the Holy, into the Ultimate. It is falling on our faces and closing our eyes before it, blinding ourselves to its flaws, as if it were the Interbreathing of all life, the Majestic Order of all existence.
The Talmud tells a tale of a Jew who came to one of the ancient rabbis: “I have bought a Roman house with beautiful pool and waterfall. At one end of the pool is a beautiful statue of Venus. Must I destroy it as an idol?”
“It depends,” answered the rabbi. “If the pool was put there to adorn and celebrate the statue, it is an idol. Destroy it. If the statue was sculpted to adorn and beautify the pool, then it is art. Enjoy it.”
Football has its place. Although the idolatry of More Cash has made it more violent — even sometimes fatal — that could be changed if Cash were not the central goal. It could be an example of graceful speed, agility, accuracy, and strength – an example of how delightful the human body can be, one of the glorious unfoldings of Divine grace and Divine Grace, love beyond merit.
As the Jewish prayer says on the occasion of going to the bathroom, “ We thank You for this body of open hollow vessels and closed-off stops, knowing that if the hollow vessels became closed-off or the closed places became open, we could not survive before You to live and celebrate Your creativity.”
But for many football has become an idol. Why?
As Moses warns the people,
“You will enter this rich and fruitful land that has grown and flourished because I, the Breath of Life, have interwoven plants and animals, microbes and mountains, human beings of many different talents and desires and cultures.
“But soon you will convince yourselves that you alone invented all this fruitfulness, that you can exploit it with no self-restraint, that it would be a waste of time –- literally, a waste of time – for you to pause and let the earth and yourselves and each other rest and celebrate the Interbreathing that created it.
“Corruption will conquer. If you rape the Earth your Mother, why not rape your own children?
“And then the abundance will vanish.”
And the people will face the truth – some with grief and awe and compassion, some with rage at what they seem to be losing.
Whether it is a world-wide church or a single yeshiva or synagogue or mosque or ashram, a football stadium or a computer design or a company that extracts primeval carbon from the planet’s underparts, elevating abundance from part of the sacred whole to the Ultimate is one of the paths to self-destruction.
Penn State and the oil-well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico were rooted in the same spiritual distortion.
The sacred intertwining that does in fact deserve our celebration, our awe, does not need to be called God. Some who call themselves secular feel and act upon that Awe; some who call themselves religious have turned ”God” into an idol. Indeed, in another story the ancient rabbis say they went searching for the impulse to idolatry, hoping to destroy it – and finally found it hiding in the innermost chamber of the sacred Temple, the Holy of Holies.
It is the Awe that we must constantly renew, not the labels we attach to it.