April 21, 2012

"Baseball as a Road to God" — the name of a course at NYU.

Taught by John Sexton:
As the president of N.Y.U., Dr. Sexton could certainly teach any course he wanted. And as the former dean of its law school and clerk to a chief justice of the United States, he might have been expected to hold forth on jurisprudence. However, as a child of Brooklyn, as a scholar whose academic robe bears the number 42 in homage to Jackie Robinson, and as a practicing Catholic with a doctoral degree in religion, Dr. Sexton has for more than a dozen years chosen baseball and God as his professorial focus.

“The real idea of the course,” he put it in an interview, “is to develop heightened sensitivity and a noticing capacity. So baseball’s not ‘the’ road to God. For most of us, it isn’t ‘a’ road to God. But 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.”...

The core of his original reading list — “The Sacred and the Profane,” by the religion historian Mircea Eliade — remains central to the class all these years later. Eliade’s essential insight, at least for Dr. Sexton’s purposes, is his concept of hierophany, meaning the manifestation of the sacred in the world. So, just as much as Stonehenge or the Kaaba or the Western Wall or St. Peter’s Basilica, baseball in Sextonian teaching affords such a locus for faith.
Hey, this reminds me of what my father used to say when I asked him why he didn't go to church. When we kids were little, the parents took us to church — we went here — but later they opted out. My father, who liked to play golf, said "God is every bit as much on the golf course as He is in church." I'm putting a capital "H" on "He," but it's not like he said it with a capital "H." That answer annoyed me, by the way. I was a teenager.
I was a nonbeliever in the proposition that guys on the golf course were thinking about God. Maybe if he'd claimed God was there with him when he went for a walk in the woods, I'd have accepted it. But my father never went for a walk in the woods.

By the way, a sexton is "An officer responsible for a church and its property, and for tasks relating to its maintenance or management" or "A warden, a custodian; a guardian or keeper of something..." The etymology goes back to words like "sacristan" and is influenced by the "secretarius" line of thinking which leads to "secretary." It's not connected to "sex," "the state of being male or female," which goes back to the Middle French word "sexe," meaning genitals —I'm getting this from the Oxford English Dictionary, which, sadly, I can't link to — even though one might think of genitals as sacred and secret.

"Hierophany" — which the linked article calls Sexton's "concept of... the manifestation of the sacred in the world" — is a word that is not in the Oxford English Dictionary. The closest thing is hierophancy, "The function of a hierophant; capacity of expounding sacred mysteries." A hierophant — familiar to anyone who's fooled with Tarot cards — is "An official expounder of sacred mysteries or religious ceremonies...." The etymology goes back to a root that means "bring to light, make known, reveal."



The sexton and the hierophant... picture them. One keeps things and the other brings them out into the light. Sexton's intellectual pursuit seems to be a manifestation of that old notion that an individual takes on a profession suggested by his name — many dentists are named Dennis, that sort of thing. If you were a sexton, would you not long to be a hierophant? If you were a groundskeeper, would you not long to be the Commissioner of Baseball? And if you were a lawprof, wouldn't you want to be President of NYU?

26 comments:

Chip S. said...

The age-old challenge for the field of God-and-baseball studies is to explain how a just, merciful and omnipotent Supreme Being would allow the Yankees to win.

Lem said...

Oh, green monster.. Love to stay byt I cant right now..

Maguro said...

Sounds horrible - it's got a smarmy Billy Crystal vibe to it. And hasn't the whole "baseball as a secular religion for New York Jews of a certain age" thing has been beaten to death already?

Paddy O said...

Interesting answer by your dad. It seems to elevate the golf course but, to my ears, it just as much or more is about the church. God doesn't have to be much on the golf course to equal how much he is in many churches.

It's interesting because it's not really an answer about God--it's an answer about where to find him.

Where was Jesus found? All sorts of places just as equally.

Craig said...

"If you're caught on a golf course during a storm and are afraid of lightning, hold up a 1-iron. Not even God can hit a 1-iron." Lee Trevino

edutcher said...

Baseball hasn't had anything to do with God since the Bums left Flatbush.

PS How many guys named Rolfe are on the PGA tour?

Paddy O said...

So, where does the convivial vicar land on this timeline of Presbyterians and the Golfing God? (yeah, I've been around Althouse for a while)

I ask, because by mentioning the woods you're implying more of a mystical kind of religious experience, alone with God. Yet, when I think of someone encountering God on the golf course, I think of the community that is shared by the men who are golfing. A sociable vicar would bring the same appeal, yet if that vicar left or the context was spoiled as to its community, it would certainly lead someone to see God as much elsewhere as where we think he should be.

("baseball and God" could lead the discussion much the same direction--surely it's the community of baseball that makes an otherwise drearily boring sport such a draw for so many to play and to watch)

Robert said...

Field of Dreams sucked.

Partridge said...

is to explain how a just, merciful and omnipotent Supreme Being would allow the Yankees to win.

Au contraire Chip. There's little to explain.

Because you see, in baseball, the Yankees are God.

And God always wins.

Chip S. said...

That's exactly what Satan would have us believe.

EDH said...

If you were a sexton, would you not long to be a hierophant? If you were a groundskeeper, would you not long to be the Commissioner of Baseball? And if you were a lawprof, wouldn't you want to be President of NYU?

Angelo Bartlett "Bart" Giamatti (1938-1989) was the president of Yale University and later the seventh Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Giamatti negotiated the agreement that terminated the Pete Rose betting scandal by permitting Rose to voluntarily withdraw from the sport, avoiding further punishment.

At Yale... He graduated magna cum laude in 1960. That same year, he married Toni Marilyn Smith, who taught English for more than 20 years at the Hopkins School in New Haven, Connecticut, until her death in 2004. Together the couple had three children: Hollywood actors Paul and Marcus and jewelry designer Elena. In the film Sideways, a photograph of the character Miles Raymond (portrayed by Giamatti's son Paul) with his late father is really a picture of Paul and Bart Giamatti. Giamatti's friend and successor as baseball commissioner, Fay Vincent, wrote in The Last Commissioner that Giamatti's official religious view was agnosticism...

Giamatti served as president of Yale University from 1978 to 1986. He was the youngest president of the university in its history and presided over the university during a bitter strike by its clerical and technical workers in 1984-85. As university president, he refused student, faculty, and community demands to divest from apartheid South Africa... elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1980.

Giamatti had a lifelong interest in baseball (he was a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan). In 1978, when he was first rumored to be a candidate for the presidency of Yale, he had deflected questions by observing that "The only thing I ever wanted to be president of was the American League." He became president of the National League in 1986, and later commissioner of baseball in 1989. During his stint as National League president, Giamatti placed an emphasis on the need to improve the environment for the fan in the ballparks. He also decided to make umpires strictly enforce the balk rule and supported "social justice" as the only remedy for the lack of presence of minority managers, coaches, or executives at any level in Major League Baseball.

While still serving as National League president, Giamatti suspended Pete Rose for 30 games after Rose shoved umpire Dave Pallone on April 30, 1988. Later that year, Giamatti also suspended Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Jay Howell, who was caught using pine tar during the NL Championship Series.

Giamatti, whose tough dealing with Yale's union favorably impressed Major League Baseball owners, was unanimously elected to succeed Peter Ueberroth as commissioner on September 8, 1988. Determined to maintain the integrity of the game, on August 24, 1989, Giamatti prevailed upon Pete Rose to agree voluntarily to remain permanently ineligible to play baseball.

While at his vacation home on Martha's Vineyard, Giamatti, a heavy smoker for many years, died suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 51, just eight days after banishing Pete Rose and 154 days into his tenure as commissioner. He became the second baseball commissioner to die in office... Baseball's owners soon selected Fay Vincent, Giamatti's close friend and baseball's first-ever deputy commissioner, as the new commissioner.

On October 14, 1989, before Game 1 at the World Series, Giamatti—to whom this World Series was dedicated—was memorialized with a moment of silence. Son Marcus Giamatti threw out the first pitch before the game. Also before Game One, the Yale Whiffenpoofs sang the national anthem, a blend of The Star-Spangled Banner with America the Beautiful that has been since repeated by other a-capella groups.

wildswan said...

I would prefer a Sunday walk by a river any day to church but I have to say I know by experience that if you don't go to a church you stop thinking about God and what He wants. This is the old curmudgeon outlook - "Yeah, I've seen that before, it looks great and it doesn't work."

Jess said...

@Althouse:
Maybe if he'd claimed God was there with him when he went for a walk in the woods, I'd have accepted it. But my father never went for a walk in the woods.

If he never went for a walk in the woods, then he was a far better golfer than am I.

DaveO said...

There's 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there's 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance.

john said...

"...as a scholar whose academic robe bears the number 42 in homage to Jackie Robinson..."

I have a coat that's a 42-long, kept in homage to those long-ago days when it still fit.

leslyn said...

An agnostic post in this discussion of faith, but still--

If you want to go to an interesting/fun course closer to home, especially if you're a rocker, there is "Exploring Bruce Springsteen's America" at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

James Pawlak said...

Ah---Such academic offerings will allow the USA to maintain a chief position in the world's economy and in real science. Right?

traditionalguy said...

There must be a connection we cannot see. Jesus said that the last would later be the first, and the 1990 Braves did that.

And then there was Sid Bream's run and slide at home to win the next season's playoffs. That speed coming out of Sid Bream was clearly a supernatural miracle.

Phil 3:14 said...

re: where God is at, see Matthew 18 verse 20.

hombre said...

"God is every bit as much on the golf course as He is in church."

If the statement of faith of the Westminister Presbyterian Church was the same then as it is now, your father was undeniably right - at least about that church.

Bender said...

I had a chance to see the revival of Damn Yankees a few years ago, with Jerry Lewis. He stopped in the middle and did a bit of stand-up.

He has still got it.

Quaestor said...

Ann Althouse wrote:
That answer annoyed me, by the way. I was a teenager.

That answer annoys me as well, and I'm no teenager. Facile rejoinders like that have always bristled me. I'm not a believer, so it's like not my particular ox is being gored, but anyone who equates an act of worship with a round of golf is playing fast and loose with a bushel of fundamentals. This is not meant as an insult, Professor, but if someone I only knew casually made that claim to me I'd be inclined to distrust that person on the grounds that he might make other glib rationalizations. I trust that was an atypical departure on your father’s part.

A hierophant, besides being a Tarot card was a priestly officer in the sacred precincts of Demeter in Eleusis. No one knows the details of the celebrations there, as the initiates were required to keep all they saw and heard secret on pain of death, however it seems certain that part of the ceremony involved the display of certain sacred relics, and the person in charge of that display was the hierophant, the shower of the holies.

DADvocate said...

What a crock of shit!! Anyone with half a brain knows the path is football.

I worshiped at Neyland Stadium and still face it's direction on Saturday afternoons during the fall, unless I'm joining in the devotion watching my son play at his small college.

Lem said...

Good vrs Evil.. otherwise known as Red Sox vrs Evil Empire NY Yankees.. starts in about 15 minutes.

I have a web link to the game but somebody will call me home if I were to divulge it.

Big Mike said...

That answer annoyed me, by the way. I was a teenager.

Teenagers are annoyed by anything and everything. Nothing new there.

Carnifex said...

I enjoy going to baseball games. Not for the game itself, the game is horrid. But to watch the young girls stroll around in their little shorts and tiny white tennis shoes, and see their long tan legs, supple smooth thighs, and I realize, that yes, there is a God.

And I look to the sky, and I say "Thank you God, for giving me this day for ogling young girls, and the gift of sight to do it with, But could I ask 1 more thing? Could you please speed this freaking $(*&^)&(*%^$#@#@%%( game up!"