The book: “Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game”
The author: John Sexton, with Thomas Oliphant and Peter J. Schwartz
The vital stats: Gotham Books, 242 pages, $27.50
Find it: At Barnes & Noble, Powells, the author’s NYU page or the publisher’s website
The pitch: One of our favorite recent moments on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” was listen to host (and devout Catholic) Stephen Colbert have Sexton on to discuss this book.
Sexton, president of New York University who is also Catholic with a wife who is Jewish and a son that has decided to also practice that religion, explains:
“The key that I’m trying to get at in this book is that what we as human being should be doing is searching for meaning. And frequently, the real meaning of life can’t be put in cognitive terms. There’s a word I use in my course (at NYU) and in the book: It’s ‘ineffable.’ It can’t be reduced to words. We experience it. … There is the known, so we know now the world is not flat. There’s the knowable that we don’t yet know, but will know because of the advancement of knowledge and science over the centuries. But then there is the unknowable, and what I try to get at in this is book is we appreciate that which can’t be put into cognitive terms. . . . “
To which Colbert replied: “One of the things that I don’t know is what you just said.”
It’s inevitable that the word ‘ineffable’ would be the guiding word to live by in this book, which came as an offshoot of the class that Sexton teaches at NYU. “That which can’t be defined” is what he’s trying to define for us in this cross of a philosophical inquiry and a theological exercise that hardly relies on superficial analogies.
“We ask whether baseball, like Catholicism or Islam or peyote in the desert, can be a road to God — not the road to God for all, but a road to God for some,” he writes on page 11. The focus is on the similarities found in experiences such as awe, faith, doubt, hope, passion, miracles, curses and community.
The contagious feeling of optimism, too, is essential on another Opening Day, like today. Kinda like the election of a new Pope.
The first example Sexton links to is his own experience in October, 1955, listening to Vin Scully proclaim that his Brooklyn Dodgers finally won the World Series. Three years later, there’s the betrayal of the team moving to L.A. (with the Giants to San Francisco), and fans who try to decide if it’s worth sticking with them or converting to another team.
More than just the casual “baseball is life, and life is baseball” or how stadiums are today’s sports cathedrals verbiage often tossed around as if it comes off the strings of a violin, Sexton takes a far deeper approach to the matter and examines the core values. We’re blessed to have been guided into reading this not just as a way to start this month-long process, but also as something we can pass on to other family members who may be “spiritual” but not really understand why, or have been turned off by the trappings of organized religion.
The hierophany of baseball, if you’re looking at it through that prism, probably needs organization to make it of value. Don’t deny you’ll check the standings, even after Opening Day. The hierarchy matters.
More to know:
== From Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf in 2012, a syllabus of Sexton’s NYU class
== Oliphant did the 2005 book, “Praying for Gil Hodges”
== Why Time magazine calls him one of the 10 best college presidents.
== Bill Moyers, with Sexton from 2010.
== From the New York Times, in 2009
== You might also want to read up on “Parables from the Diamond: Meditations for Men on Baseball” by Phil Christopher (2009), and “Sportuality: Finding Joy in the Games” by Jeanne Hess (2012)