MattAndJojang's Blog

God. Life. Spirituality.

Finding God on a Baseball Diamond

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Baseball as a Road to God

John Sexton, the President of NYU (New York University), teaches an unusual course on baseball and spirituality, which became the basis of a book he wrote in 2013 entitled Baseball as a Road to God.

The course started out when a student, who knew about Sexton’s love of baseball, remarked: “I understand you’re a big baseball fan. I think the sport is silly and I don’t understand why anybody would waste time on it.”

He replied: “You are among the great unwashed,” then issued a challenge to the student: “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.”

The student accepted the challenge, and it didn’t take long for word to spread. Other students wanted, too, to take the course; it eventually became a seminar that Sexton has been teaching for the past ten years.

The course (and the book) is based on the work of theologians like Abraham Joshua Heschel, Michael Novak, Robert N. Bellah and Johan Huizinga. At the same time, it also discusses the work of baseball novelists and writers like Robert Coover, W. P. Kinsella, and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

But, more importantly, it draws on Sexton’s love for baseball and his personal experiences.

He writes:

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.’

What he is talking about is best illustrated by an experience he relates at the start of the book.

The date: October 4, 1955. It’s Game 7 of the World Series between the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers.

In the basement of my family’s home, my friend Bobby ‘Dougie’ Douglass and I knelt and prayed with all the intensity we could muster, grasping between us in dynamic tension each end of a twelve-inch crucifix we had removed from the wall. … We prayed before a radio instead of an altar, which broadcast the sounds of Game Seven of the 1955 World Series instead of hymns. … For three innings, time had slowed; but in that moment it froze: The Brooklyn Dodgers had won the World Series! Seven decades of waiting were over! Dougie raised his arms in exultation, releasing the crucifix, whereupon the laws of physics drove the head of Christ into my mouth, chipping my front tooth. I wore that chipped tooth, unrepaired, as a visible memento for nearly fifty years.

He concludes:

October 4, 1955. For me and millions of others, a sacred day. Why? Hard to put into words. Impossible to capture completely in our limited vocabulary.

“Hard to put into words.” “Impossible to capture completely in our limited vocabulary.”

In other words, the experience can’t be fully described in words and can be summed up in one word: ineffable, a word which is often repeated in the book.

Many years ago, the psychologist, William James, uses the same word to characterize deep spiritual experiences. He describes it in the following way:

The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect.

The ineffable cannot be defined; it reveals itself in moments of intense feeling in baseball as in religion.

Another word which often comes up in the book is hierophany, a concept borrowed by Sexton from the religious historian, Mircea Eliade. Simply put, the term means the manifestation of the sacred in the world. Often it is associated with sacred places, like the Stonehenge, the Kaaba, the Western Wall or St. Peter’s Basilica. But can a baseball stadium be a place of hierophany?

Sexton answers in the affirmative:

For some of us, a visit to the ballpark is a move from one state of being—the more familiar one—to another. It is a transformation, evoking a connection to something deep and meaningful. This is more than the simple, surface observation that a stadium can be a church and the bleachers can be its pews; the stadium acts as what Eliade would call axis mundi—a channeling of the intersection between our world and the transcendent world, a place “sacred above all” that connects the ordinary and the spiritual dimensions. It is not that this evocative experience occurs for everyone in every ballpark every time; but it can happen to anyone, in any ballpark, anytime. In this place, magic can happen, and the fan can be transported to a space and time beyond, to an experience we know profoundly but cannot put into words.

But what about those of us who haven’t had such experiences? At the very least, baseball can teach us to slow down, live in the moment and appreciate the beauties of life.

To borrow Sexton’s words:

Fans occasionally do experience these moments as divergent from the ordinary, as connected to another dimension. Not all fans. Not even most fans. Not all the time. But for some fans, these special moments touch the part of us where the mystics live.

It is through a collection of such experiences that I and my students have come to appreciate the jarring proposition that baseball can show us more about our world and ourselves than we might have thought. Or at the very least, it can demonstrate the benefits of living a little slower, of noticing a little more, and of embracing life’s ineffable beauties…

–Matt

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Written by MattAndJojang

August 8, 2016 at 1:06 pm

8 Responses

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  1. A beautiful article so wonderfully written!

    Marisa Aguas

    August 8, 2016 at 1:21 pm

  2. Yes, I really enjoyed this as well as the article excerpts you post, if it is alright with you, I may share some of your posts. Thank you!

    Maria Gianna Iannucci

    August 8, 2016 at 6:27 pm

  3. Hi, Maria!

    I’m glad you enjoyed our posts. Though I and my wife, Jojang, wrote some of the posts, most of these articles were written by people who inspired us. Please feel free to share any of the posts in our blog. We’d like to inspire as many people as we can.

    Thank you for taking the time to visit our blog. Wishing you all the best.

    –Matt

    MattAndJojang

    August 8, 2016 at 6:32 pm

  4. Yes, I know you share other people’s writing. It is nice to find good stuff all in one place! I will share.

    Maria Gianna Iannucci

    August 8, 2016 at 6:36 pm

  5. I too am among the great unwashed, but I do have the pleasure of knowing people for whom baseball has seemingly deep existential value. You’ve probably already seen it, but if not I think you would enjoy the movie “Field of Dreams.”

    Bill

    August 8, 2016 at 6:40 pm

  6. Hi, Bill!

    It’s good to hear from you.

    I discovered baseball late in life. A few years back, I had nothing to do, so I started to surf the web and I discovered this great baseball management game called Out of the Park Baseball. It reminded me of the sports games that I invented/simulated when I was a kid. I grew up in a place where we had only few entertainment options. In fact, there was even no TV in the place where I grew up! So either I was playing with other kids, reading books or playing by myself, inventing/simulating sports games during my free time.

    Little did I know that the beauty of a well-executed basketball shot (I played a lot of basketball when I was a kid) or the joy of watching a graceful baseball player hit a home run would be intimations of something that is deeper — pointing to the Divine and the Sacred.

    I’ve watched and enjoyed the movie Field of Dreams quite a number of times, Bill. For me, it’s almost a magical experience, transporting me to a simpler time and place full of wonder and joy…

    –Matt

    MattAndJojang

    August 8, 2016 at 6:59 pm

  7. I bought the book after you mentioned it on your post and I really got a lot from it . i have been a passionate mets fan for 30 years and there were times I felt guilty spending so much time watching and reading about the Mets but after reading this book I no longer feels so his way. I never would have connected my love of baseball with my love of God but as the author has so beautifully expressed it , there is more to baseball than meets the eyes. We as a family had wonderful times spent together watching the Mets which has drawn us closer as a family , so many memories of joy and disappointment have made our lives richer for it.

    Leonora Rances

    August 8, 2016 at 10:15 pm

  8. Hi, Tita Nora!

    I sincerely believe that whatever gives us pleasure and makes us happy, gives God pleasure, too, and makes Him happy. What you said reminds me of the movie “Chariots of Fire.” The movie is a biographical account of Eric Liddell’s life, an Olympic runner who later became a missionary. My favorite quote from the movie was when Eric Liddell said: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

    Thank you for taking the time to visit our blog and for sharing your passion for baseball and love for God.

    Please give our regards to Tito Ralph…

    –Matt

    MattAndJojang

    August 9, 2016 at 8:32 am


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