IN MY MEMORY from nearly 50 years ago, the great pitcher Sandy Koufax is going against my Phillies in the old Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. The records show that such a game occurred on June 4, 1964, the right year for my memory, so it is possibly correct. But I cannot prove I was there that day, nor can anyone prove I wasn’t. For me, it has entered the realm of myth—I may not actually have been there, but in my memory I believe I was. In a similar manner in religious experience, historical events originally recorded as perhaps inexact memories come to be believed as literal truths.
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In Baseball as a Road to God, John Sexton uses the categories of the study of religion to explore the meaning of baseball. Sexton, president of New York University, has taught a popular seminar on this topic for more than 10 years, and in this book collects the essence of those classes.
For a baseball fan, the well-told stories of historic players, games, and seasons are by themselves worth reading and will evoke many memories. But rather than a random collection of stories, Sexton groups them in topics—sacred place and time, faith and doubt, conversion and miracles, blessings and curses, saints and sinners—illustrating each with fitting examples. Underlying it all, he proposes, are two words and concepts that link baseball and religion. Both illustrate the significance of the ineffable, “that which we know through experience rather than through study, that which ultimately is indescribable in words yet is palpable and real.” And both have moments of hierophany—a term devised by religious historian Mircea Eliade to signify “a moment of spiritual epiphany and connection to a transcendent plane,” a “manifestation of the sacred in ordinary life.”
Sharing those moments with others builds a reality of community that can transcend the usual boundaries. Like a gathered religious congregation, the shared baseball experiences of faith and doubt, miracle comeback wins, gathering together in a “green cathedral”—all bring people together in ways that have become too uncommon in our individualized society. From the intimate experience of a parent and child to the national attention paid to a World Series, there is a unity of wonder and, at times, even reverence toward what is unfolding.
Finally, writes Sexton, “Baseball offers a window into the nature of faith, even in the deepest meanings of the word—as a source of comfort, of motivation, of understanding, and above all of meaning and ultimate purpose. There are moments when baseball can lift us from the ordinary to a different plane. ... We can learn, through baseball, to experience life more deeply. By embracing the ineffable joys of the ‘green fields of the mind,’ we can enlarge our capacity to embrace the ineffable more generally. Baseball can teach us that living simultaneously the life of faith and the life of the mind is possible, even fun.”
To someone who is not a baseball fan, those statements will likely seem incomprehensible. But to a fan, they are a profession of faith, to which I can only add “Amen.”
Duane Shank is an associate editor of Sojourners.