--by Rev. Darrell Berger
I try not to use baseball to make points in my sermons and writings to the extent that it bores or annoys anyone. But when I finished Baseball as a Road to God by NYU President John Sexton in the morning and saw "42," the new movie about Jackie Robinson, in the afternoon, my resistance was futile.
Dr. Sexton has long been recognized as one of the nation's outstanding university presidents. Previously, as he writes, he was Dean of NYU Law School, a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger following Harvard Law School, and before that received a Ph.D in the history of American Religion from Fordham.
The book is the result of his years of teaching an undergraduate course of the same name. He grew up in Brooklyn loving the Dodgers and hating Dodgers' owner Walter O'Malley for taking them away. As he grew up Roman Catholic and a baseball fan, he gradually recognized similarities between his two passions.
His religious thinking is dominated by two terms. Ineffable refers to that which is indescribable yet real. He says it signifies the truths known in the soul. I do not recall his saying much about what the soul is, or how we know it is real.
The second term is hierophany, or manifestation of the sacred or holy. He does say that religion has no exclusive claims to these experiences. They may be found in any number of rich human endeavors, like music, art, or a walk in the woods.
Yet baseball, for him, also lends itself to a number of other experiences that he identifies as religious, including faith, doubt, conversion, miracles, blessings, sin and community. To me, this shows that he see baseball through the prism of his Roman Catholicism.
I don't. I see it through the prism of my own experiences and education. To me baseball, if any kind of religion at all, is pagan or earth-centered. It is a sublimated ritual representing the old herding cultures found in the northeast quadrant of North America. If you herd cattle or sheep, or play baseball, you start at home, go into the field, and return home. The team who does this most, wins. You do this every day from early spring until late autumn, unless it rains. Like many sublimated rituals, its specific origins are lost.
Dr. Sexton's subtitle is "Seeing Beyond the Game." This is exactly what he does, though I would put it another way. He overlooks the game. Baseball is wonderful its own self. It need not be a religion or like a religion to be wonderful. It is not enriched, nor better understood, for the comparison.
He writes that over the years he changed loyalties from the now-distant Dodgers to the Yankees. He says he did this during the 1977 World Series as a statement of solidarity with his son, a Yankees' fan. He intentionally decided his son would have this team loyalty, choosing it for him at infancy. It was best for him. It would save him the agony of being a Mets' fan. His son would root for winners.
The fact that he believed that he could, and ought to, choose this for his son instead of giving the boy the tools to choose for himself, might be the single most telling value that separates Dr. Sexton's view on baseball and religion from my own.
Later, he describes George Steinbrenner as having spurred the Yankees' salvation, his free-spending having returned their winning ways. This indicates that Dr. Sexton may have trouble discerning salvation from a Faustian bargain.
There is further evidence of this lack of discernment. While the author often mentions his university presidency, legal and religious academic backgrounds, he never once mentions other activities on his resume. From 2003 to 2007 he was Chairman of the Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. One will recall this was the time of the run up to what is now called The Great Recession. Dr. Sexton is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
While he has been wildly successful at increasing NYU's endowment and prestige, he has also been busy opposing graduate teaching assistants' efforts at obtaining higher levels of compensation and working conditions, though his compensation is in excess of one million dollars per year.
He has also spearheaded NYU's manifest destiny, as it continues its attempt to swallow several blocks of its neighbors' land, supported by the mayor and city council, with opposition coming only from the people whose homes and communities will be destroyed. He has recently received a vote of no confidence from the NYU faculty. Has it occurred to Dr. Sexton that he has become Walter O'Malley? If Dr. Sexton ever seeks to speak the truth to power, he need only talk to himself. One wonders what this conversation is like.
While stressing the manifestations of the ineffably sacred, he also includes a brief disparagement of deism, which is as close to theology as eighteenth century Unitarianism gets. Thomas Jefferson constructed his own Bible, pasting together the teachings of Jesus, eliminating references to miracles and other affronts to natural law. "The result," Dr. Sexton writes, "many scholars have since agreed, was a rehash of garden-variety moral philosophizing that is missing any spark, much less a sign or a wonder."
While I'm sure he can find many scholars to agree with him, many practicing ministers of many faiths regard that "garden-variety philosophizing" to be the very core of their ministry, far more useful in living that anything ineffable or miraculous. Which brings me to Jackie Robinson.
Go see "42." It will be shown to Americans long after all of us are gone. It captures the history of the time adequately, but captures the moral tone of the time exquisitely. There was nothing about what Robinson faced that was ineffable or transcendent. While God may often be hidden, evil is far too often in plain sight for all to see.
For me, religion is not so much about what I can't see, but what to do about what I can see, but which too many choose NOT to see, or to do nothing about it they do.
If baseball has a religious aspect for me, it comes not from miracles or conversions or faith, but from a garden-variety moral philosophizing that says everybody gets a chance to play.
Every American generation has its own way of wounding the English language, as ignorant and habitual usage become standard, or at least, descriptive. I've long surrendered to literally being used to mean figuratively. I know that unique will often be illogically embellished by "more" or "most." I'm more distressed about usage that wounds our ability to think.
"No problem" has become today's "you're welcome." Do parents and teachers drill today's children to mind their "please" and "no problem?" Sometimes "no problem" works fine. For instance, if someone on the street puts down one's own packages to help another person with his or hers, one might consider this an inconvenience. Telling the recipient that it is "no problem" makes good, considerate sense.
But if I'm in a restaurant and I say "thank you" when a wait person places my meal before me, I'd prefer "you're welcome" to "no problem." Why should doing one's job be a problem to overcome?
I'm even more annoyed with the idiom "slam dunk." It means "this is easily accomplished." I played basketball for decades. I could never dunk, slamming or otherwise. I do not think slam dunks are easy.
Also, slam dunks are almost always the result of one player's physical prowess. It usually requires no teamwork or personal forethought. George W. Bush was told that finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq would be a slam dunk. It was a partially correct use. It required no teamwork or personal forethought, but failed to be easily accomplished.
Rather than eliminating "slam dunk," I suggest we add more basketball idioms, ones that evoke the game's more complex and unfortunately, vanishing strategies. How about "give and go" to describe when two people work together for the good of the team? How about "offensive rebound" when someone does the tough, often unappreciated work? How about "set a screen" when someone unselfishly helps another accomplish one's goal? How about "mid-range jump shot" for something that helps a team as much as a slam dunk, but which has been learned through years of practice?
The most odious current idiom is "no brainer," a decision so obvious that it requires no thinking. Isn't it obvious, in nearly every facet of American life today, that far too many decisions are considered "no brainers?" I suggest we start using the idiom "brainer" to indicate a decision that would benefit from some careful thinking.
Would we live in a better society if we considered more decisions "brainers?" If we had more "offensive rebounds" and few "slam dunks?" If we did not have to explain that giving service and courtesy was not a problem and simply rendered it? I don't know. I do know that my point of view on this may be very unique. Yet these current idioms are literally driving me crazy.
When I arrived as your minister six years ago, I received perhaps a dozen church newsletters in the mail every month. Now I receive exactly zero. All are emailed. To contact a minister, I google "UU" plus the town where the congregation is located. Its website is usually the first item.
I once recorded my sermons on a cassette recorder. Each new version was smaller than the last until they disappeared, replaced by a very small mp3 recorder. I plug this into my itunes, and can email it to webmaster Paul for our website.
Some of our Board business is conducted via email; discussions, sharing of information, even voting.
Email is the main way I keep in touch with staff. This isn't different from the way any organization conducts its business now, of course. And like other organizations, we need to keep up. How could we possibly not have a website, or send announcements to our email members list? We could not survive without changing with the technological times.
Over the years I have been told if your congregation doesn't do this or that, it will not have a future. Usually this did not prove true. UU congregations did not have to have small groups ministries in people's homes, though some did. Ministers did not need to learn PowerPoint, though some did. The question is, how to tell the passing fads from the trends that become necessities?
In the coming year we want to update our website, use our Facebook account more effectively, and decide what is the best format for our newsletter. Personally, I've sent about a dozen text messages in my life and have never sent nor received a tweet, so maybe I'm now like those ministers of a generation ago who held out against computers until, well, they all became extinct.
But I do know that regardless of how we move forward with technology, it is even more important that we remain true to the content of our communications. A Unitarian Universalist congregation makes a huge and positive difference in its community. We have, for over a century. We would like to see that continue. It is not clear, exactly, what form this will take. This is our creative challenge for the future. Whether we email, text, or tweet our values, or send them through some presently un-invented medium, we know that they will be consistent with our heritage: reason and free inquiry, acceptance of difference, seeking equality and justice. For among the clearest and most concise explanations of our movement is that answer a Universalist cleric had to the question, "Where do Universalists stand?" "We do not stand," he replied. "We move."
I have been hooked on the PBS television series "Downton Abbey" since about the first thirty minutes of the first episode. As it began I dismissed it as a hopeless soap opera, but after a relatively short time I was into the characters, into the costumes, into the sets. I love Maggie Smith, who portrays the Dowager Countess with enough wit and acerbity to remind one of Oscar Wilde in drag. It is indeed a hopeless soap opera, but an engaging one.
It begins before World War I. The current season, just concluded, places the titled English family and their full complement of servants somewhere well into the 1920's. If the series can be said to have one theme, it is how change comes to a society that resists it mightily. As such, it has much in common with the present.
We see the changing role of women and the gradual, very gradual, crumbling of the class system. Ethnic and religious prejudices abound. One might note how profoundly Ralph Lauren has been influenced by English cricket uniforms of the 1920's.
Another theme is that people are people regardless of cast and clan. Some servants are scoundrels; some nobles, are, well, noble. Neither poverty nor wealth automatically begat either virtue or calumny.
As we look back on that time it is easy to be appalled by the blindness wrought by privilege, as well as how passively most of the suppressed accept their downtrodden places, and how difficult change is either to effect or accept. It is also notable how human and even kind are the most intransigent of the privileged, making it difficult for the viewer to dislike them, even as they continue in their efforts to maintain their unsustainable way of life.
The ravages of war, the limits of medicine, and the advances of technology profoundly influence every character's life and sometimes, death, just like today. Most clergymen are ninnies. Most Irish drink too much or are revolutionaries, or both. The Scots look like Sean Connery and decorate their castles primarily in armaments. Yet some sense of real people seep through the stereotypes, just like today. We see how difficult it is to get either the upstairs or the downstairs to understand just how truncated their lives are by the limits of their social constructs, just like today.
One may draw amusement from engaging the comedies and tragedies of this generation, long past, whose changes and fate we know all too well. Less amusing is reflection on the changes that batter us in our own day. May civilization survive them sufficiently that our great-grandchildren might someday look back upon our follies and tragedies, long since resolved, with equal amusement.
- March 2013
I went to college about five hundred miles from my hometown and I was always very happy to return for Christmas. Unfortunately, this meant I was also home for New Year's. But since I was no longer part of any local social group, I never had anywhere to go. Sometimes the few friends I had who also had left home, joined me looking for some action. This was in Toledo, Ohio and thus a futile quest. Other years I admitted defeat early and stayed home with my parents. I'm sure I was not much fun.
As I moved into adulthood, occasionally there were fun times on Dec. 31. New Year's Eve, I discovered, is the most inconsistent of holidays. If families get together for Christmas, they have scattered by New Year's Eve. Our mobility causes our old acquaintances not to be forgotten, but to be elsewhere. New Year's Eve parties often include a number of strangers, with whom it is awkward to ring in anything.
It is an awkward holiday. We are tired of parties by Dec. 31. It is the "new year" only by accident of the calendar. Little begins Jan. 1, other than budgets. There is no turning of a season. Rather, January means the beginning of "real winter" in our part of the world, announcing a few months of frozen dreariness.
There are no works of literature illustrating the real meaning of New Year's. There are no special decorations, no gifts, only one song, and the sound most associated with it are those kazoo-like noisemakers that replicate a Bronx cheer. Bah, humbug.
In recent years Kathleen and I have spent the day and the evening at home. We don't do much of anything. It is one of the few days of the year where you can get away with that. This, we have come to celebrate. There might be one or two good friends, a bottle of wine and a DVD of "The Thin Man." We eat and drink whatever is left from Christmas. We enjoy the tree for one last time.
We don't really look ahead. We don't really look back. As a young man I despaired that there was nothing to do on New Year's Eve. Now, I rejoice.
Back in the fall, my daughter Erica gave me a book titled "Final Exam" by Dr. Pauline Chen, subtitled, "A surgeon's reflections on mortality." The book begins with the author's first days in medical school, which feature dissecting a cadaver. It continues it her various experiences and insights on death, as she progresses from med student to surgeon. Erica started medical school at the University of Michigan and she wanted me to know more about what she was experiencing, specifically focused on a topic that is central to both medicine and ministry.
My wife, Dr. Kathleen Lyon, tells me that medicine attracts a large percentage of people who, if not fearful of death, at least want to believe that their profession will keep death at arm's length. Of course, the irony, as this book well accounts, is that doctors find themselves immersed in death, and discover soon enough that death, despite Dylan Thomas, does indeed have dominion.
Or rather, it does if your medical paradigm is western and your religious paradigm is Christian. When western medicine embraced the scientific method and disenfranchised the homeopaths, it also embraced materialism. It treated the body like a particularly elaborate machine. It had no way of understanding what motivated that machine, or left it at death.
Christianity's salvation didn't really speak to this, either. Its pre-scientific view has no real answers that can satisfy a scientist, which is why so many are not Christians in any profound sense, and those that are, do so often by not allowing their religion and their science to meet, let alone inform one another.
Yet the poet, the pagan and the Buddhist have far less problem with the mysteries and sufferings of life and death, because for them there is no death, only life, which flows in and out of all things, transforms all things. There is no answer to the question of when life begins or ends, because it does not begin or end. It abides, and all individual manifestations are ripples in that vaster sea.
One need not change religions to adapt this approach to how we got here and where we are going. One need only heed the lessons of those who have come to understand and transcend the limits of ordinary perception, including a materialist scientific method. Life and death are united, a yin and yang of becoming, each eternally becoming the other.
At this season, from this point of view, the star, the infant and the savior are one. Our salvation is not that we are saved, but that our life is contained within the eternal.
On Oct. 15, 1962 San Francisco Giants' lefthander Billy Pierce beat the Yankees' Whitey Ford 5-2 to send the World Series to the brink. It was decided by the narrowest of margins the next day, 1-0 in favor of New York, when Willie McCovey's screaming liner was captured by the perfectly positioned second baseman, Bobby Richardson.
Since I was turning fourteen in four days and was a staunch Yankees' fan, this was the brink that captured my attention. Another brink was capturing the attention of Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara. U-2 reconnaissance flights over Cuba had photographed evidence of Soviet nuclear missile launchers being constructed.
Over the next few weeks I thought that any moment that nuclear missile I had heard so much about all my life would be heading, I surmised, not for the cornfields of rural Ohio where I lived, but for Detroit, sixty miles north. I was uncertain whether I would be able to see the mushroom cloud; whether I and everything I knew would be vaporized a moment later. The alternative was a slower death by radiation poisoning. My dad thought fallout shelters were the bunk.
This took the edge off the World Series celebration for me. I don't remember my birthday, either.
I do remember very specifically asking my mother, "What does this mean?"
She said, and I remember this with crystal clarity, "The next step is war."
I also remember the massive exhale of the human race when the crisis was resolved without war. There was no dancing in the streets or any kind of celebration. No one had the capacity to grasp what had narrowly been averted. We still don't.
I thought perhaps a bit more might have been made over this landmark anniversary last month. Perhaps a bit of appreciation that, despite all the horrors of all the wars in the last half-century, by some grace of humanity or God, no nuclear devices have been used as weapons. We might also reflect that this could change at any moment.
Fifty years later the only mention of the nuclear threat in the presidential campaign is how and for how long Iran can be denied. This a totally inadequate response to nuclear proliferation by both parties.
Now the World Series is played at night, the anti-climax of too many playoff games. There have been some outbreaks of rationality in nuclear disarmament over the last fifty years, but their continued presence shows that progress has been limited. From child to adolescent to adult to senior, the nuclear cloud has been ever overhead of my generation. I wonder what life would have been like without it? I wonder if any future generation ever will.
Americans have the opportunity to vote for an African American President next month, but about one-third of African American men will not be able to vote, having lost this privilege and many others to prison convictions. "The New Jim Crow" by Michelle Alexander tells how American courts, legislatures and presidents have conspired to create a wall that has separated the African American community from justice more efficiently, and with less objection from the rest of the American electorate, than either the plantation or the Klan.
"On 'The New Jim Crow'" will be the title of my sermon for October 7. The book can be obtained from Amazon.com or local bookstores. Reading the book is not a requirement for attendance!
There is an old parable about the origins of World War II. Workers around the world were told they were building baby carriages. But each worker toiled in isolation from the others, assured that his tasks were helping society. However, at the end of the assembly line, out came machine guns.
Since the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Jim Crow has been pronounced legally dead. But no sooner was the ink dried on the law than Richard Nixon created his "southern strategy," attracting racists voters with crypto-racist rhetoric. "Law and Order" was its shibboleth. The riots in Newark and Detroit were rewritten into popular history as caused by violent and angry black people, not by poverty and or police brutality. The present day's "war on drugs" is in unbroken line of this racist subterfuge, which includes Mr. Romney's characterizing those voters Mr. Romney knows will vote for President Obama "no matter what."
Slowly but surely the rights of the accused have been eroded. Racial profiling, stop and search continue. New immigration legislation depends on the ability to stop drivers guilty of "driving while Mexican." Prisons have been privatized, with no pretense of rehabilitation, as a black American Gulag has emerged, protected by the economic desperation of mostly white, rural towns that depend upon prisons for jobs.
White liberals rightly applaud the election of an African American president and of the increasing presence of an educated Black elite, while remaining blind to the oppression of black communities and the modern shackling of African American men. "The New Jim Crow" connects the dots, lifts the veil, and leads the blind to see. See you October 7.
I recently purchased the April 21, 1967 issue of "Life" magazine for five dollars from an antique store in Massachusetts. It had a rave review of the first album by a new singing group, Simon and Garfunkel. The reviewer enjoyed both the words and music, especially compared to Bob Dylan's, which he called "sadly dated." The advertisement for the new Cadillacs show machines so grotesquely elongated they can now remind one only of dinosaurs.
There is also an editorial titled "Dr. King's Disservice to His Cause." The reason: "in linking the civil rights movement with total opposition to our position in Vietnam, Dr. King comes close to betraying the cause for which he has worked so long." His calling the struggle a colonial war, suggesting "Negroes were dying in disproportionate numbers in Vietnam," and claiming that budgetary demands of the war were a hindrance to progress in civil rights, are all stated as undermining the cause of racial equality.
There is no claim that the points he was raising were false, just that raising them was somehow not helpful to his cause. They made people who might otherwise support him, hold back. Among those holding back, and then fighting back, were, we now know, the United States government. How interesting and melancholy these old magazines can be.
I wonder how current political topics will read when somebody in 2057 comes across the equivalent of "Life" magazine today, whatever form that might take. For instance, I recently heard what passes for a moderate Republican respond to the endless stream of ignorant, hateful statements from his colleagues on the topic of women's reproductive rights by saying, "I don't think this election will turn on abortion. It is about the economy."
However, just as Dr. King saw that there was a clear and tragic connection between civil rights and the Vietnam War, so ought we to recognize that women's rights are fundamentally connected to the economy. If there is one economic reality that can be demonstrated objectively, it is that the more women are free and equal to participate in a nation's economy, the more robust that economy becomes. The only exceptions are those nations sitting on huge oil reserves. Even they will eventually have to accept gender equality, or their wealth will disappear as surely as those gigantic Cadillacs.
It is almost impossible to imagine that anyone would want women in the United States to participate in our economy on anything but an equal basis. But that is exactly where the attack on women's rights is leading.
Dr. King paid a price for speaking about those things that connect people and events, even and most especially when the truth is difficult. Let us follow his example, secure in the value, regardless of price.
From Darrel's Desk Archives