Saturday, March 22, 2014

Sermon on the Mound: Baseball as a Road to God

(I'm not a huge baseball fan, but I do enjoy the game. I've written a couple times about its religious dimensions. With the new baseball season almost upon us, I thought I'd resurrect an old column and add some new information. With the boys of summer in spring training, what better way to forget about the cold weather that's still outside?)

Baseball is almost back!

Opening day for 2014 is March 31, although a few northern ballparks might be a little chilly.

Baseball’s return suggests that winter, at long last, has really been vanquished, even if the evidence outside our windows in Manitoba suggests otherwise.

Its return inspires a sense of hope, renewal and new beginnings for many—which sounds sort of religious, in a way.

In fact, for many people, baseball is a religion. It has all the religious elements: A creation story (replete with dissenting views about how this “faith” really started), falls from grace, redemption, prophets, heretics, deities, icons, rituals, holy books, temples, worship, miracles, sacrifice, miracles, saviours and sinners.

There’s even a Vatican-like place called the Baseball Hall of Fame, where “worshippers” can view holy relics, venerate the saints and re-live the great moments of the faith.

As Susan Saradon’s character said in the movie Bull Durham: “I believe in the church of baseball. I've tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones . . . and the only church that feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the church of baseball.”

William Herzog and Christopher Evans, who teach at Colgate Divinity School in Rochester, New York, seem to agree. The two are editors of the book The Faith of 50 Million, a collection of essays that “plumb how baseball illuminates significant patterns of faith and meaning.”

“People are incurably religious," said Herzog in an interview. “We have to have some form of religion, and for some people its baseball. It's only a game, but it has elements that point beyond.”

The book’s foreword is by theologian Stanley Hauerwas, a baseball fan and professor at Duke Divinity School.

He really brings it home for this Mennonite church member when he notes that “being a Cubs' fan and a pacifist are closely linked; namely, both commitments teach you that life is not about winning.”

Someone else who sees a link between baseball and religion is John Sexton, President of New York University and author of the book Baseball as a Road to God. 

Sexton, a Yankees fan, decided to combine his interest in religion and baseball into a course at NYU.

Also called Baseball as a Road to God, its a way to “get students to think about things that they see as mundane in a rich and nuanced way, and to do that through the trigger of something they see as an oxymoron.”

By using something familiar—baseball—he hopes to help them see the world in a different way, a way that “adds to the richness of your experience of everything in the world.”

As for baseball itself, Sexton sees that as a metaphor for a rich spiritual life—in baseball, time passes more slowly than in the real world, and since it doesn’t use a clock, it could go on forever.

Books on the reading list for the course include Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella, The Natural by Bernard Malamud, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy by Kinsella, and The Universal Baseball Association Inc. by Robert Coover.

For Sexton, "baseball evokes in the life of its faithful features we associate with the spiritual life: faith and doubt, conversion, blessings and curses, miracles, and so on. For some, baseball really is a road to God."

Sexton admits that, for many—especially for those who aren’t religious—baseball is not a spiritual experience. “But if given sensitive attention, it can awaken us to a dimension of life often missing in our contemporary world of hard facts and hard science,” he says.

“We can learn, through baseball, to experience life more deeply."

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