Culture At Large

Playing tennis with Augustine

Nathan Bierma

I've been shopping for a new tennis racket. I wanted a racket that would help me control my shots better; I can hit the ball hard enough but I struggle to keep it consistently in play. I've never been a believer in equipment as the key to athletic achievement: either you can hit the ball well or you can't, no matter what racket you're holding. But after trying several different demonstration models, I'm persuaded that equipment makes a difference. And along the way, the racket-shopping process taught me a little something about St. Augustine's philosophy of human freedom.

I tried two different kinds of rackets: power rackets and control rackets. Power rackets are lighter and have a wider face, so you can swing faster and get more spring from your strings. They're good for players who are accurate but less powerful. Control rackets are heavier and have a smaller face, so your swing is steadier and your shots less erratic. They're good for players who hit the ball hard but aren't as accurate. That's me.

At first I worried that a control racket would inhibit my shot too much. But what I found was just the opposite: the more that my shots went straight and landed in the court - rather than flying out of bounds - the more confident I became in my swing. And the more confident I became in my swing, the harder I swung.

It turned out that the control racket was a power racket. Rather than inhibiting my shot, the control racket was letting me swing more freely. The lack of freedom resulted in greater freedom. It's a paradox that got me thinking about Augustine.

Augustine never played tennis, but he said something about human freedom that I think I understand better after trying out tennis rackets. Augustine said true freedom is not, as we usually think, merely freedom from external constraints. True freedom is freedom to do something; the freedom to live as God intended. True freedom is not to be free from God, as Adam and Eve tried to be, but to be free to serve God according to God's purpose for human life.

That's why sanctification, in Augustine's view, results in more freedom even though it seems like less: As we submit ourselves more and more to the Spirit, "we walk in step with the Spirit," and live more like we were created to live. The Spirit is a constraint of sorts that might seem to inhibit our freedom, but is actually enabling us to live more freely. When Augustine lived a life of reckless womanizing, he had no constraints on him. After his conversion, he did have constraints. And those constraints made him feel more free than ever before.

With the power racket, he couldn't stay in bounds. With the control racket, rather than feeling less power, he felt more empowered.

In Western society we worship a non-Augustinian view of freedom. The United States in particular is founded on a belief in liberty as merely the release from external control. Human beings, in the Enlightenment view, are self-sufficient sovereign agents who function best with minimal or no constraints upon them. But when we worship liberty just for the sake of liberty, and accept the Enlightenment assumption that an unconstrained human is the ideal human, it goes too far.

We could take a lesson from Augustine, or from my new tennis racket: maybe we are most free when we are free to rather than free from. We hit the ball hardest when we know it's going to land in the court.

Topics: Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Sports, Theology & The Church, Theology