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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Baseball As a Road to God

Here's a book, John Sexton's "Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game," that one doesn't have to be a person of faith and/or love baseball to enjoy. I suspect, however, that people aren't one and/or the other will not pick it up, which is too bad because it's a wonderful book. One doesn't have to be religious or a baseball fan to like it. In fact, the book has its genesis in a crack made about baseball by a student to Sexton several years ago (Sexton is a professor and the President of New York University). As Sexton tells it, a student approached him and said,
I hear you're a big baseball fan. I think the sport is silly and I don't understand why anybody would waste time on it. 
To which Sexton replied,
You are among the unwashed...   
If you will read twelve books that I choose next semester, I will direct you in an independent study at the end of which you will realize that baseball is a road to God.
And that independent study grew into the exceedingly popular (and hard to get into) class at New York University (NYU), on which this book is based.  Students read a wide variety of books and articles, such as Marcie Eliade's "The Sacred and the Profane," W.P. Kinsella's "The Iowa Baseball Confederacy," Rabbi Abraham Heschel's "God in Search of Man," Robert Bellah's "Civil Religion in American," Doris Kearns Goodwin's, "Wait 'Til Next Year," and Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea."

The book is divided into "innings" and includes reflections about the game's greatest moments, such as Willie Mays over the shoulder catch, Bobby Thomson's "shot heard round the world," and Derek Jeter's back-handed flip that caught Jeremy Giambi (not sliding) into home. Sexton includes a number of personal stories as well. For example, he tells of how when the Brooklyn Dodger's were two innings away from winning their first World Series, he and his friend Dougie each held one end of a 12-inch crucifix and prayed for a Dodger victory. And when the Dodgers won, Dougie let go of the crucifix, and "the law of physics drove the head of Christ into" Sexton's mouth, chipping his front tooth. Sexton "wore that chipped front tooth, unprepared, as a visible moment for nearly fifty years." He also relates about when in 2004 the Yankees led the Red Sox 4-3, heading into the bottom of the 9th inning of the fourth game of the American League Championship Series (with the Yankees leading three games to none), a number of VIP Yankee fans sitting around him started to leave early in order to beat the crowd out of Fenway. In response, he warned a friend, "If you go, you will reverse the Curse," and baseball fans know that the Red Sox came back won that game, as well the next three, and went on to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals for their first World Series championship in 86 years. The curse (i.e., the "Curse of the Bambino) was finally broken.

Using baseball as a touchstone, Sexton writes of saints and sinners, faith and doubt, conversion, miracles, community, and nostalgia. In writing about saints, he compares the selection of players to Baseball's Hall of Fame to the selection of saints within the Roman Catholic Church. And he compares switching his allegiance from the Brooklyn Dodgers to the NY Yankees to religious conversion, a "conversion" that took several years after Walter O'Malley took the Dodgers away from Brooklyn.  But I am not doing the book justice, so I'll let Sexton have the last word (pp. 215-217):
I have tried to show how many of the elements we find in baseball— faith, doubt, conversion, accursedness, blessings— are elements associated with the religious experience; that inside the game the formative material of spirituality can be found. In short, viewed through a certain lens, baseball evokes the essence of religion. If we open ourselves to the rhythms and intricacies of the game, if we sharpen our noticing capacity, if we allow the timelessness and intensity of the game’s most magnificent moments to shine through, the resulting heightened sensitivity might give us a sense of the ineffable, the transcendent...  
But in baseball as in religion, deep faith cannot exist unless there is doubt, its handmaiden; confronting doubt is a central challenge in both religion and life, from the earliest Christian theologians to the 1991 Braves and Twins. This journey takes many roads, but conversion is certainly one of them, and the last steps can be truly miraculous as well as inexplicable. But there is a fine line between agony and ecstasy. Had Willie Mays dropped that fly ball in 1954, Giants fans may well have considered themselves accursed rather than blessed. It helps as well when our heroes are good people and not simply accomplished. Without sinners, our saints would be unremarkable. For each Christy Mathewson, there is often a Ty Cobb. We also want to try to keep them alive, to revisit their stories, both to learn from them and to try to relive their magic. It is no disrespectful sacrilege to observe that Jews gather for Passover Seders each year to re-create the miraculous story of their release from slavery in Egypt and that Pirates fans gather every October to experience Bill Mazeroski’s home run again. And as in religion, some of the most meaningful experiences in baseball are not lived alone but are shared with communities— from a family to a team to a country— that unite us in concentric circles of relationship. 
My NYU course and this book are attempts at exploring the basic building blocks of a spiritual or religious life, finding them, perhaps surprisingly to some, in an institution associated with secular life. The nine innings of this book are an assertion— an affirmation— that there is a meaningful dimension of the human experience (whether seen in what we recognize formally as religions or in a secular pursuit called baseball) that cannot be captured in words. Francis Bacon once observed, “The best part of beauty is that which a picture cannot express.” This dimension, which coexists with the dimension of the known, the knowable, and the wonder of science, affirms some of the most important truths of our humanity, like the joy of love or thesignificance of our lives. This reflection won’t persuade those who are not at some level already aware of it. As Louis Armstrong once said of jazz: “If you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know.” 
In our times, it is fashionable to force a choice between the worlds of science and religion, of the mind and the soul. Either/ or. This, in my view, is a false dichotomy— and perhaps this collection of baseball stories analyzed through a lens (and an intellectual tradition) usually reserved for the study of what are obviously religious experiences can cause some to see why. I embrace enthusiastically the joys of the intellectual life; but I reject the notion that, as a consequence, I must forfeit the wonders of a deeply transformative religious life. 
Baseball calls us to live slow and notice. This alone may be enough— if it causes some to perceive the world differently and more intensely. The game answers the call issued by my late teacher, the Passionate (referring to the Catholic order) priest and cultural historian Thomas Berry, when he wrote that “when we see a flower, a butterfly, a tree, when we feel the evening breeze flow over us or wade in a stream of clear water, our natural response is immediate, intuitive, transforming, ecstatic. Everywhere we find ourselves invaded by the world of the sacred.”
P.S. Sexton is NYU's 15th President. He joined the University's Law School in 1981, was named the School's Dean in 1988, and became the University's president in 2001. He received a B.A. in History (1963) from Fordham College; an M.A. in Comparative Religion (1965) and a Ph.D. in History of American Religion (1978) from Fordham University; and a J.D. magna cum laude (1979) from Harvard Law School.

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