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Anglican priest achieves doctorate in snowboarding

Posted on: March 4, 2011 7:39 PM
Related Categories: British Columbia, Canada

From the Trail Daily Times

A snowboarding priest from British Columbia has earned what could well be the first-ever doctorate in the sport for his exploration of spirituality on the slopes.

About 10 years ago, Rev. Neil Elliot, the minister of St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Trail, B.C., discovered the term “soulriding” to describe the sport. With its overt spiritual connotations, the concept piqued his interest, so much so that Elliot decided to pursue the idea for his degree.

“It’s the first PhD in snowboarding at all, so it’s pretty unique,” said Elliot. “It gave me an excuse to get out and participate in a sport I love and it provided me with a framework to examine human spirituality.”

An ordained priest with a master’s degree in theology and Islamic studies, Elliot decided to undertake his doctorate in the sociology of religion at the secular Kingston University in London, England.

He wanted to get away from theology and look “at what’s happening on the ground and the kind of stuff you can actually measure.”

He interviewed more than 30 snowboarders from the United Kingdom and Canada, trying to define and differentiate between what is spiritual and what is not, both from an academic or secular view versus a religious view.

The model identifies three dimensions of spirituality — context, experience and identity — each composed of varying elements: nature, freedom and escape, risk, peace, transcendence, community, lifestyle, rhythm and flow, meaning and purpose, and play. The 10 elements were chosen to incorporate features of snowboarding that might be construed as spiritual by those interviewed, he said.

Surprisingly, many of his very religious interview subjects did not consider snowboarding a spiritual experience, although they identified with many of its elements. They reserved spiritual experience exclusively for the realm of their particular religion. In contrast, others spoke of apathy and outright rejection of religion in favour of spirituality.

“One of the prompters to this research is, you have a lot of people saying, ‘I want to be spiritual but not religious,’ and I’m trying to find out what that means, especially for me as a priest and representative of a religion. I want to try and understand that because it has big implications of what is happening to religion.” Another hurdle he faced during the interviews was the subjective nature of the experience and whether it was “spiritual or just special.”

“From talking to them, you can pretty much tell they are having the same experience but some consider it spiritual and others do not,” Elliot said.

Many athletes experience it, whether it’s called being “in the zone,” “in the moment,” “a rush,” or something else. He said it is similar to the feeling experienced through meditation and prayer, or an uplifting church service.

“You’re very much aware of all your senses in a way that you are not normally, and you are also almost detached; detached from your body.”

Elliot said he is trying to bridge the gap between that experience and God. It may be elusive and ephemeral, but there is a community of boarders that get it, and the soulriding doctor would like to help others understand that connection. “Soulriding, like spirituality, was a frame of the snowboarder’s reality,” Elliot wrote in his thesis. “Whilst there was no simple answer to the question about the nature of soulriding and spirituality, soulriding seemed to be a mirror for perceptions of the essence, the spirit, of snowboarding.” The Anglican priest defended his thesis in December and is now waiting for the official documentation of his doctoral degree.