Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game


In honor of opening day 2013 for major league baseball this weekend, let’s look at the game with a religious lens to use the sport to discover spirit. Not only is there a sacred aspect to the game but, as John Sexton wrote in this book based on a college course he teaches, baseball can help to show what religion is. He emphasizes that baseball is a road, not the way, to the divine.

Mr. Saxon is the president of New York University, was a religion professor before he became a lawyer and then administrator, and he still teaches full-time. And he’s a big baseball fan.

This book is more about sharing baseball stories than turning bats, balls, and gloves into religious artifacts. But with the tales of baseball’s history and people, Mr. Sexton and his coauthors show the elements that baseball has in common with religion.

The book is made up of nine “innings” rather than chapters and includes a seventh-inning stretch. Each address the sacred, faith, doubt, conversion, miracles, blessings and curses, community, and nostalgia. Those might be the same topics in an introduction to religion class.

It’s fun for a religious person who also likes baseball to read about such theologians Mircea Eliade, Paul Tillich, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin alongside players Gil Hodges, Christy Mathewson, and Pete Rose and writers Robert Coover, W.P. Kinsella, and John Updike.

But the book is like a baseball game in some less fortunate ways, too because there are times of excitement and lulls. Sexton said there’s a similar effect in church: “Anyone who has ever been to a religious service is aware that the level of pious intensity occasionally abates; intensity must be relieved. All religious services therefore include what look (and sometimes feel) like intermissions.”

Well, this book has times of low intensity, and some ill-chosen players in the storytelling. Part of the challenge probably was in translating a lively discussion type of course with a broad reading list into a manuscript. In baseball terms, the reader gets an intentional walk, while the students have a challenging at-bat.

The reader gets stories and learns ways to find the sacred. Baseball as a Road to God isn’t intended as a saving gospel, though. It’s a help to show that religion is a part of life, that play is holy, and that religion can be joy. It points the reader to the ineffable, which is an important word in the book.