An uncannily resonant follow-up to Evan’s recent post about the Church of CrossFit appeared in the NY Times Magazine this past weekend, courtesy of Mbird fave Heather Havrilesky. “Why Are Americans So Fascinated With Extreme Fitness?” she asks, and her answers are nearly identical to our own, i.e. we are all deeply religious, and a religion of law plays to our controlling inclinations. The line about the similarities with the faith of our pilgrim forebears is particularly telling; the roots of asceticism, regardless of the form it takes, can often be traced to the same place. As always, say what you will about self-salvation, it certainly markets well:

CrossFitters represent just one wave of a fitness sea change, in which well-to-do Americans abandon easy, convenient forms of exercise in favor of workouts grueling enough to resemble a kind of physical atonement. For the most privileged among us, freedom seems to feel oppressive, and oppression feels like freedom. There’s also a very American fixation on extremes at play: More is always better. If you’re running just four miles a day and doing a few pull-ups, you’re a wimp compared with the buff dude who’s ready for an appearance on “American Ninja Warrior.” It’s hard not to feel awe when you watch a middle-aged woman in a Never Quit T-shirt clean-and-jerk huge weights. And it’s hardly a stretch to go from lifting a 35-pound kettlebell to wondering why you can’t run half a mile with it, especially when a CrossFit coach is right there, urging you to “crush it.” Common wisdom seems to dictate that it’s not enough to look good and feel good if you’re not prepared to lift a Mini Cooper off an injured stranger.

Ninja-WarriorThe whole notion of pushing your physical limits — popularized by early Nike ads, Navy SEAL mythos and Lance Armstrong’s cult of personality — has attained a religiosity that’s as passionate as it is pervasive. The “extreme” version of anything is now widely assumed to be an improvement on the original rather than a perverse amplification of it. And as with most of sports culture, there is no gray area. You win or you lose. You leave it all on the floor or you shamefully skulk off the floor with extra gas in your tank.

But our new religion has more than a little in common with the religions that brought our ancestors to America in the first place. Like the idealists and extremists who founded this country, the modern zealots of exercise turn their backs on the indulgences of our culture, seeking solace in self-abnegation and suffering. “This is the route to a better life,” they tell us, gesturing at their sledgehammers and their kettlebells, their military drills and their dramatic re-enactments of hard labor. And in these uncertain times, it doesn’t sound so bad to be prepared for some coming disaster — or even for an actual job doing hard labor, if our empire ever falls.

It makes sense that for those segments of humanity who aren’t fighting for survival every day of their lives, the new definition of fulfillment is feeling as if you’re about to die. Maybe that’s the point. If we aren’t lugging five gallons of water back from a well 10 miles away or slamming a hammer into a mountainside, something feels as if it’s missing. Who wants to sit alone at a desk all day, then work out alone on a machine? Why can’t we suffer and sweat together, as a group, in a way that feels meaningful? Why can’t someone yell at us while we do it? For the privileged, maybe the most grueling path seems the most likely to lead to divinity. When I run on Sunday mornings, I pass seven packed, bustling fitness boutiques, and five nearly empty churches.

The irony here, is that if CrossFit is a religion, as hard as it looks (and I for one get exhausted just thinking about all those burpies), its demands may be pitched too low, at least if they’re meant to lead to anything resembling contentment (which they’re not). Cue our fall conference speaker, Tullian Tchividjian, writing about the hazards of “cheap law” in his book One Way Love:

J. Gresham Machen counterintuitively notes that “A low view of law always produces legalism; a high view of law makes a person a seeker after grace.” The reason this seems so counterintuitive is because most people think that those who talk a lot about grace have a low view of God’s Law (hence, the regular charge of antinomianism, that is, of preaching in such a way as to imply that the Law is bad and/or useless). Others think that those with a high view of the Law are the legalists. But Machen makes the very compelling point that it’s a low view of the Law that produces legalism, because a low view of the Law causes us to conclude that we can do it—the bar is low enough for us to jump over. A low view of the Law makes us think that the standards are attainable, the goals are reachable, the demands are doable. The Law gets softened into “helpful tips for practical living” instead of God’s unwavering demand for absolute perfection. It’s this low view of the Law that caused Immanuel Kant—and Pelagius before him—to conclude that “ought implies can.” That is, to say, “that I ought to do something is to imply logically that I am able to do it.”

A high view of the Law, however, demolishes all notions that we can do it—it exterminates all attempts at self-sufficient moral endeavor. We’ll always maintain a posture of suspicion regarding the radicality of unconditional grace as long as we think we have the capacity to pull it off. Only an inflexible picture of what God demands is able to penetrate the depth of our need and convince us that we never outgrow our need for grace—that grace never gets overplayed.