Fields of Faith and Doubt

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.

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.”

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