Friday, February 17, 2012

Brooks on "The Jeremy Lin Problem"

David Brooks has a thoughtful essay in today's New York Times about Jeremy Lin and religion. An excerpt:

For many religious teachers, humility is the primary virtue. You achieve loftiness of spirit by performing the most menial services. (That’s why shepherds are perpetually becoming kings in the Bible.) You achieve your identity through self-effacement. You achieve strength by acknowledging your weaknesses. You lead most boldly when you consider yourself an instrument of a larger cause.

The most perceptive athletes have always tried to wrestle with this conflict. Sports history is littered with odd quotations from people who try to reconcile their love of sport with their religious creed — and fail.

Jeremy Lin has wrestled with this tension quite openly. In a 2010 interview with the Web site Patheos, Lin recalled, “I wanted to do well for myself and my team. How can I possibly give that up and play selflessly for God?”

Lin says in that interview that he has learned not to obsess about stats and championships. He continues, “I’m not working hard and practicing day in and day out so that I can please other people. My audience is God. ... The right way to play is not for others and not for myself, but for God. I still don’t fully understand what that means; I struggle with these things every game, every day. I’m still learning to be selfless and submit myself to God and give up my game to Him.”

The odds are that Lin will never figure it out because the two moral universes are not reconcilable. Our best teacher on these matters is Joseph Soloveitchik, the great Jewish theologian. In his essays “The Lonely Man of Faith” and “Majesty and Humility” he argues that people have two natures. First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.

I would love to hear reactions to Brooks's discussion of the "Jeremy Lin Problem."


Jim Tantillo said...

There's been a lot more commentary about Brooks's essay than we've seen here on this blog. Just a sampling:

David Brooks on Linsanity and the difference between the morality of religion and sports

David Brooks Thinks Jeremy Lin Is the First Religious Athlete Ever

David Brooks is Linsane

Stop the Linsanity: Religion, sports, and the abject ignorance of David Brooks

There are many, many more--obviously Brooks's essay touched a chord.

Now, I believe many of these more overtly critical commentators tend to misread Brooks's main argument, which I take to be: (a) Lin is a seeming anomaly among religious athletes because (b) his faith appears to motivate him genuinely, resulting in (c) an apparently sincere humility that causes him (d) to deflect attention from himself to his teammates.

To the extent that this summary captures what Brooks is saying, I think I agree with Brooks, and therefore I believe his detractors to be reading him unfairly or uncharitably.



Mike Austin said...

I haven't read the commentary, but my first reaction to the article was that Brooks is misunderstanding humility. However, after reading it again, I think I agree with much of what he says. Lin is trying to live within the tension of humility and the pursuit of a very public form of excellence. Where I do disagree with Brooks is in the claim that "these two moral universes are not reconcilable." I think that one can be an excellent professional athlete, and be humble, though this is clearly a difficult thing.