Finding God on a Baseball Diamond
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.
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.
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…