Returning to Grappling

Josh Herring explains why, in his life and career, he opts not to live gnostically and embraces Brazilian jujitsu.

October 17, 2018
Josh Herring, in action

Academic study brings rich rewards; done right, such study frees the mind to continually learn more about the world through reading, conversation and writing. Such endeavors, however, carry with them the temptation to live gnostically. No one today accepts the premises of neo-Platonic or Valentinian gnosticism; it is far too easy, however, to live almost entirely in the life of the mind to the detriment of the flesh.

David Hume (apocryphally) exemplified such a life; he logically proved skepticism to be the most rational position, yet admitted that he could only hold on to his philosophy while sitting alone in his study. Upon leaving his house, reality and people imposed themselves upon his senses, and he could no longer live consistently with his theories. The academic life can be spent engaging increasing number of books, arguments and individuals solely on an intellectual level. And with such practices come the subconscious conviction that the problems of the world are mental in nature. Somehow, if everyone else pursued a Ph.D. and could think on a certain level, then the world would be fixed. Here lies a danger for the academic, and it is the origin of such stereotypes as the “absentminded professor,” the one who lives in an “ivory tower” where he is “so heavenly minded that he is no earthly good.” This temptation of gnostic living is especially present to the academic; Chaucer rightly described the Cleric as the one who would trade all his money for one more volume of Aristotle: “Whatever money from his friends he took/he spent on learning or another book …”

As fulfilling as the life of the mind is, cut off from physical engagement of the world such endeavors fail to cultivate the whole human person. If Richard Weaver is right, and “education is unavoidably a training for a way of life,” then patterns of life that ignore the physicality of human existence cut one off from sources of human flourishing. To grow as a human being, the academic must take thought for cultivating the body alongside the mind. In Ideas Have Consequences, Weaver puts it this way: “Specialization develops only part of a man; a man partially developed is deformed …” The academic gnostic has become deformed, yet deformed in a repairable way. By restoring balance between the cultivation of the mind and the body one can become a holistically developed person.

An awareness of the necessity to cultivate both dimensions of our humanity lies at the heart of Saint Benedict’s rule; Benedictine monasticism centers upon the principles of ora et labora (pray and work); not for Saint Benedict the desert ascetic meditating alone, but rather the band of brothers laboring together in the field and in the cloister. Rather than seeing humans as minds (our real selves) in bodies, the Christian intellectual tradition has always maintained that humans are both mind/soul/selves and bodies. We exist as embodied souls, with a spark of eternity in our hearts. The Genesis account of human origins describes God making the flesh out of earth, then breathing in the clay to bring the earth to life. This creature God declared “in our image, in our likeness” (1:26). In this poetic image we see both parts: the flesh (tangible, sensible, fallible) and the ruh, the spirit (immaterial, intellectual, eternal). Parsing out what aspects of humanity fit within the soul and which fit within the body is ultimately a fruitless endeavor; we are always both, and efforts to deal with the mind apart from the body or the body apart from the self cause harm to the human person. Human flourishing is found in both body and soul.

Gnosticism that ignores the flesh and pursues the life of the mind exclusively is the particular danger of the student. The high school National Honor Society emblem is a lamp burning the proverbial “midnight oil,” but no student should sacrifice his eyesight to have read one more book. Qoholeth reminds us in Ecclesiastes that, “Of the making of books there is no end, and much study is wearying to the body.” As my graduate studies resume, Brazilian jujitsu (BJJ) reminds me that I am more than a student; as a human, I must steward my own embodied nature.

Brazilian jujitsu encapsulates this tension between mind and body well. All martial arts are physical, but BJJ combines physical prowess and stamina with mental agility. Where other martial arts maintain a lengthy tradition, and mastering the art involves mental comprehension of an abstract past, BJJ is located in the immediate present. There is no room for thinking about how the technique was done by another person in another time: right now your opponent is circling around to find the weak spot in your defense. Rather than abstracting toward a past tradition, BJJ draws both mind and body to focus on the concrete present. Tapping out one’s opponent involves as much mental insight as physicality. In On Rhetoric, Aristotle defines rhetoric as the ability to perceive “all available means of persuasion” in a topic; BJJ asks the grappler to consider all available means of escape or attack from a given position, effectively combining body and soul in the pursuit of life (or sport, given the tournament context).

After 14 years of academic education exploring history, theology, philosophy and literature, it is a joy to return to the challenge of grappling, to face an opponent and know that mind and body must work in tandem to avoid being choked, joint locked or mounted. Such training reminds me that I am more than a mind, that life is more than seminar papers and that as a creature in God’s world I am made to flourish. Such flourishing happens “body and soul,” and Brazilian jujitsu is its own foreshadowing of that day when the body is resurrected in glorious perfection. Until then, I’ll settle for a bit more stamina and breath, and hope my partner does not outweigh me.


Josh Herring is a humanities instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University's Great Books program.


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