Sunday, April 07, 2013

John Sexton's Religious View of Baseball

By Gary Berg-Cross

John Sexton is making the rounds on talk shows promoting his book Baseball As A Road To God: Seeing Beyond The Game. Sexton, a former debate champion expresses himself well and apparently won an impromptu installment of The Bachelor when he guest starred on The Colbert Report to discuss his book. The book is based on a class he teaches which attempts to reveal what he calls “the basic building blocks of a spiritual or religious life.” Wrapping up ideas like miracles and mythic  belief in an extended baseball model is perhaps yet another way argue for the centrality of  religion.

Efforts to connect religious feeling to
the “secular” game of baseball is not new. Thomas Boswell ("How Time Imitates the World Series"), W.P. Kinsella ("Shoeless Joe"), Robert Coover ("The Universal Baseball Association") along
with several others going back to the classic period have rifted on how sport brings people together. Sexton attributes this to what he calls the “ineffable” qualities of baseball shares – faith and doubt , experience of the contemplative/meditative, faith (will the Nationals win it all?), an out of the normal experience of time, conversion, blessings and curses, miracles, etc.. Sexton makes much of a focus on small “signs” that take on special meaning:

 it’s a way to notice, to cause us to live more slowly and to watch more keenly and thereby to discover the specialness of our life and our being, and, for some of us, something more than our being.”

Sexton gives credit for the core idea to religion historian Mircea Eliade whose
The Sacred and the Profane,” has been central to the & book. Eliade’s essential concept leveraged by Sexton is what he called “hierophany” or the manifestation of the sacred in the world. Certainly places like Stonehenge or St. Peter’s Basilica fit this labeling. Sexton just appropriates it for baseball while denying that is the stadium aspect of B-ball that he is thinking about rather than contemplating, faith, conversion and the like.

Sure these things are experienced in the phenomena in baseball and religion, but also politics, philosophy, etc. Doesn’t philosophy look for the deeper meanings to life? Secular humanist philosophers, like Paul Kurtz certainly provide views into these concepts. If we allow broad interpretations of concepts like “wishing things to come out well – aka “blessings.”  Taking advantage of a contemplative and philosophical moment or two these things seem a bit forced into religion and a path to God as opposed to a path to a place you chose to label as you will.

OK what to make of this?  In part it’s the labeling of complex human experience and shoehorning it into pre-set cultural categories such as “sacred.”  What does sacred mean to a person like Eliade?  His description ‘the intentional object of human experience that is apprehended as the real’ doesn’t really help me at all.

This is less a committed search for understanding than an opportunity to gracefully stamp things with a religious interpretation.

Sexton disarms criticism by saying we can dismiss “superficial similarities” between baseball and religion such as " a ballpark is a church and a ball game is a mass; there are three strikes to an out and three outs to an inning, another set of holy trinities." Of course.  But to then argue for deeper similarity & that baseball really is a road to God needs scrutiny too.

Actually Stephan Colbert did just a bit of this in his interview:

Colbert: “Jesus said that ‘no one gets to the Father but through me,’ are you saying that Jesus is baseball?”

Sexton: “Baseball is a road to God, just as our religion is a road to God, just as Buddhism is a road to God… The important thing is we must all get used to finding God in this world… God, like baseball, is timeless.”

Colbert: “Baseball feels timeless…”

Yes, one may label these as you wish. Sexton got a bit mystical too without mentioning metaphysics.

“There is the known… There’s the knowable… Then there’s the unknowable. We appreciate that which cannot be put into words, like love, which we know through experience. [Yet] we tend to confuse the unknowable from that which we simply do not know yet.”

“What I don’t know is what you just said,” Colbert says to audience—and our—amusement, “but I’m sure there are people out there who go to NYU who do know what you said.” (Anyone?)

Oh.  One more thing about the NYU connection.
In March the faculty of New York University’s largest college this week approved a non-binding     vote of “no confidence” for John Sexton, handing him as the NYTs said,

an embarrassing setback at a time when he is aggressively selling the university’s expansion plans at home and abroad…..Since taking office in 2001, Dr. Sexton has greatly raised the university’s profile, attracting a vast array of celebrated thinkers, raising more than $3 billion, winning approval for a huge expansion in Greenwich Village and assembling a Global Network University of campuses and study centers around the world.

But during the same period tuition rose and faculty salaries stagnated. His opponents said his emphasis on growth, along with the salaries and perks for a few top employees, were more appropriate to a corporation than a nonprofit institution."


Sexton in Class : from NYT cited article



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