Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Militarization of Baseball

I took my two oldest sons to a Cincinnati Reds game on Sunday afternoon.  It was a beautiful day, our seats were in the shade along the first-base line, and - best of all - the Reds played my beloved Toronto Blue Jays.  Since moving to Louisville, I've adopted the Reds as my own.  The Louisville Bats are the Reds' Triple-A affiliate, and it's fun to watch young prospects like Billy Hamilton play in Louisville and then follow their career in the bigs.  But my first love is the Toronto Blue Jays, and my boys and I dutifully wore our Blue Jays shirts and caps to see them in Cincy.

The game was excellent; good pitching by both Cueto and Dickey kept the score close.  The Jays ended up losing, but my kids were thrilled to see Aroldis Chapman (another former Louisville Bat), throw 102 mph heat to close out the game for the Reds.  I also taught my boys how to keep score, which they did for the entire game; both of them proudly displayed their scorecards to their mom on our return home.

Unfortunately, the experience also included displays of baseball's frustratingly increasing militarization.  We arrived early to the game to watch batting practice, but there was none.  Instead, the area around home plate was cordoned off so that the United States Air Force could hold a public swearing-in ceremony for new cadets immediately prior to the game, and the crowd was expected to participate in the ceremony by standing during the oath; I made it clear to my boys that we would continue to sit until the ceremony was over.  The Reds then came onto the field wearing camouflage jerseys (see the picture above), and throughout the game the crowd was continually exhorted to welcome as heroes each and every enlisted person in attendance.  The crowd dutifully and enthusiastically replied, usually with a standing ovation.

I bought tickets for my sons and I to see a Major League Baseball game.  We ended up being fed unnecessary and unwelcome propaganda.

I realize, of course, that baseball is, and long has been, inextricably tied to American patriotism.  It is, after all, a distinctly American game.  I get that.  But, on a basic level, there's something very disturbing about celebrating war at a baseball game.  Baseball, unlike most other sports, has what Bart Giamatti called "deep patterns" that allow those who watch the game to enter into a kind of contemplative gaze where truth, goodness and beauty shine through the rhythm and repetition played out before them.  Giamatti describes baseball as follows:
Repetition within immutable lines and rules; baseball is counterpoint: stability vying with volatility, tradition with the quest for a new edge, ancient rhythms and ever-new blood - an oft-told tale, repeated in every game in every season, season after season (A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings of A. Bartlett Giamatti, 104).
Unlike football or hockey, violence just isn't built into baseball.  Sure, players slide hard into second to disrupt a double-play, but the goal is to disrupt rhythm not to display physical power.  It is jarring, therefore, to see baseball played by those wearing the colours of warfare.  It brings the imagery of that which is chaotic and destructive into a game that is characterized by order and beauty.  I also wonder what those who have actually worn fatigues into fields of battle think about millionaires playing a game wearing camouflage in paradise and so playing war, so to speak.

My frustration at the militarization of baseball goes beyond simply being philosophically opposed to mixing up a peaceful and orderly game with the chaos of war.  I am also a Christian pacifist deeply suspicious of the glorification of the military in American society.  As a parent, I seek to teach my kids what I believe is central to the Christian message: that if we take seriously the Incarnation, we have to take seriously the idea that God chose and continues to choose generous, self-giving love over power and force; that we, as Christ's followers, are called to this same generous love and to become communities that manifest this generous love; that freedom, true freedom, is to be found in this generous love and not in or through force.  This message grates hard against the predominant American political narratives.  People often find my viewpoint offensive, though I do what I can to affirm what I can in those who disagree with me.

However, is it too much to ask that I be able to go to a baseball game - a baseball game - simply to enjoy it with my kids?  Is it too much to ask that I be able simply to pass on to my kids the tradition of how to keep score without also having to explain to them why it is inappropriate that their favourite baseball players are wearing camouflage?

Baseball's deep patterns and ancient rhythms have something to teach all of us about freedom and peace.  We need to stop sullying the game's truth, goodness, and beauty by 'playing war'.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

An Incarnational Theology: Wendell Berry vs. Paul Griffiths

Paul Griffiths
Paul Griffiths' plenary lecture at the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America - entitled "Theological Disagreement: What It Is and How To Do It" - generated, and continues to generate, vigorous response (Grant Gallicho live-tweeted the session and so gives a good sense of the tenor and theses of Griffiths' paper as well as reaction to it immediately after; Michael Peppard and Meghan Clark provide more extensive responses).

The session itself was actually very entertaining.  Griffiths' paper was intentionally inflammatory and designed to evoke strong response, which it did, both from Michelle Saracino (the official respondent) and from various prominent members of the CTSA who challenged Griffith in the Q&A afterwards.

But I also found Griffiths' paper deeply disturbing.  It wasn't what he said about Catholic theologians needing to recognize that they work under the authority of the Magisterium that bothered me, though I thought his account lacked nuance and didn't accurately reflect the theologian's relationship to hierarchical authority as described in Donum Veritatis, to which Griffiths pointed again and again.

What disturbed me most about Griffiths' paper was the disembodiedness of his understanding of theology.  Again and again, Griffiths argued that Catholic theology concerned itself only with doctrine, and only with doctrine as it has been gifted to us by 'The Lord' (which is how he continually referred to God) through scripture and the teaching Magisterium.  Don't get me wrong.  As an historical theologian whose research revolves around the development of Trinitarian doctrine during the patristic period, I have a love for doctrine.  It is, quite literally, my bread and butter.  But there was something overly cerebral about Griffiths' understanding of doctrine, almost like he figures that the only job of a theologian is to receive the doctrine given to us by the church and then merely think about it without trying to do too much with it.

There was, moreover, no sense that theology is something messily incarnational, that the doctrines developed over the centuries emerge out of particular contexts, that the doctrines themselves emerged out of believers' experiences of the divine in community, or even that the doctrines themselves may require reformulation and reappropriation to account for the diverse lived experiences of other communities whose voices were not previously heard.  There was, in fact, nothing actually specifically Christian about Griffiths' portrayal of theology, nothing that recognizes the Christian theology begins from the premise that God became flesh and so entered into the messiness of human existence.

There wasn't any recognition that the theological task is one that is ideally lived out in a life of discipleship - here the stark contrast between Anthony Godzieba's wonderful paper on Friday night and Paul Griffiths' paper comes into relief.  Properly theological questions do not simply receive and accept answers from on high; such questions need to be lived out for the answers to have any truth, goodness, and beauty.

The disembodiedness of Griffiths' portrayal of theology led me to think about one of my favourite novels, Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow, a text I regularly use in my introductory theology classes.  As those familiar with Berry's work know, he has no truck with a theology that is (only) cerebral and otherworldly, and Jayber Crow is a novel that beautifully describes what it could mean to live out theological questions in such a way that the answers come to have a meaning and beauty they would not otherwise have.

Near the beginning of the book, the narrator recounts his conversation with one of his professors at Pigeonville College, a Bible college Jayber attended thinking that he had the call to ministry.  The problem is that Jayber can't accept the theological answers he's being fed.  His questions are too overwhelming, and he finally seeks the guidance of one of his professors, Dr. Ardmire.  The conversation they have sets the stage for the entire novel, and is particularly significant given what occurs on pages 230-260 of the book (no spoilers!).

Read the conversation below and judge for yourself, but it seems to me that this exchange more fully answers the question - 'What is theology?' - than did Paul Griffiths.  It is, at the very least, a more incarnational view of the theological task:
That I should give up my questioning was good enough advice, which I would have been glad enough to take, except that my questioning would not give me up.  It kept at me.  Sometimes it seemed to me that people I walked by in the street must be able to hear the dingdonging in my head.
And so finally, late one afternoon, I went to the professor I was afraid to go to, old Dr. Ardmire.  I was afraid to go to him because I knew he was going to tell me the truth.  Dr. Ardmire was a feared man.  He was a master  of the Greek New Testament, a hard student and a hard teacher...
I knocked at his open door and waited until he read to a stopping place and looked up from his book.
Customarily, when I came to see him I would be bringing work that he had required me to talk with him about.  That day I was empty-handed.
Seeing that I was, he said, "What have you got in mind?"
"Well," I said, "I've got a lot of questions."
He said, "Perhaps you would like to say what they are?"
"Well, for instance," I said, "if Jesus said for us to love our enemies - and He did say that, didn't He? - how can it ever be right to kill our enemies?  And if He said not to pray in public, how come we're all the time praying in public?  And if Jesus' own prayer in the garden wasn't granted, what is there for us to pray, except 'thy will be done,' which there's no use praying because it will be done anyhow?"
 I sort of ran down.  He didn't say anything.  He was looking straight at me.  And then I realized that he wasn't looking at me the way he usually did.  I seemed to see way back in his eyes a little gleam of light.  It was a light of kindness and (as I now think) of amusement.
He said, "Have you any more?"
"Well, for instance," I said, for it had just occurred to me, "suppose you prayed for something and you got it, how do you know how you got it?  How do you know you didn't get it because you were going to get it whether you prayed for it or not?  So how do you know it does any good to pray?  You would need proof, wouldn't you?"
He nodded.
"But there's no way to get any proof."
He shook his head.  We looked at each other.
He said, "Do you have any answers?"
"No," I said.  I was concentrating so hard, looking at him, you could have nailed my foot to the floor and I wouldn't have felt it.
"So," I said, "I reckon what it all comes down to is, how can I preach if I don't have any answers?"
"Yes, Mr. Crow," he said.  "How can you?"  He was not one of your frying-size chickens.
 "I don't believe I can," I said, and I felt my skin turn cold, for I had not even thought that until then.
He said, "No, I don't believe you can." [...]
I said, "Well," for now I was ashamed, "I had this feeling maybe I had been called."
"And you may have been right.  But not to what you thought.  Not to what you think.  You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers.  You will have to live them out - perhaps a little at a time [my emphasis]."
"And how long is that going to take?"
"I don't know.  As long as you live, perhaps."
"That could be a long time."
"I will tell you a further mystery," he said.  "It may take longer" (pp. 52-54).

Image of Paul Griffiths from

Monday, June 2, 2014

Pentecost and Ecumenism

The Feast of Pentecost is an important one for me for me, for it was on Pentecost seven years ago that I was received into the Roman Catholic church.  I requested that I be received on Pentecost - rather than at the Easter Vigil when it is often done - for good reason.  The Easter Vigil has traditionally been the time to baptize into the church those who had not received baptism before.  It's to be a time when the candidate for baptism definitively breaks with the past and lives into her/his new life in the Spirit.  It's a time when those who were not Christian become Christians.

But I was not becoming a Christian; I already was one.  I was entering a new tradition, but the Roman Catholic church recognized my baptism and therefore recognized that, although I did not previously eat at the same Eucharist table as my Catholic sisters and brothers we were united in our shared experience of the indwelling Spirit given in baptism.  It is this union through the Spirit that we celebrate on Pentecost, and it is for this reason that I asked to be received on this feast.

The union we have through the Holy Spirit, expressed so beautifully in Lumen Gentium, lies at the heart of the ecumenical enterprise.  And this is an enterprise that is important to me theologically (for the reasons given above) and personally.  I live in an ecumenical family, my wife and kids are Episcopalian.  It is not only a theological imperative that Roman Catholicism recognize the union all Christians share in the Holy Spirit, it is for me a familial imperative that is deeply important.

It bothers me, therefore, when I run into Catholic Christians who seem bent on denying the theological and ecclesial validity of other Christian traditions.  It bothers me doubly when they turn out to be converts like myself; for reasons I don't understand, converts often tend to be the least ecumenical Catholics I meet.

I took a group of students from various Christian traditions down to the Abbey of Gethsemani last Saturday, and there we discussed some passages from Thomas Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander we'd read for the day.  One passage struck me anew in my re-reading, particularly as we approach our celebration of Pentecost.  Merton understood that we as humans are compulsive dividers, that we do whatever we can to set ourselves apart from one another.  We make masks that lead us to view ourselves and others in a distorted way, and we often do so out of a vain attempt to declare our superiority over others.

In the passage I'm about to quote, Merton addresses the 'heresy of individualism' and his words are apt as we approach Pentecost.  Twice Merton refers to breath, the first I think hearkening to the breath of life God breathed into the first human (Genesis 2:7), and the second a reference to the Holy Spirit.  For Merton our unity is centered on both, and in fact, our continued existence requires this unity.

On the feast of Pentecost, I pray that we may, in our various traditions, grow in our unity with one another, a unity we already share in the Holy Spirit.  Here's Merton:
If I do not have unity in myself, how can i even think, let alone speak, of unity among Christians? Yet, of course, in seeking unity for all Christians, I also attain unity within myself.
The heresy of individualism: thinking oneself a completely self-sufficient unity and asserting this imaginary 'unity' against all others. The affirmation of the self as simply 'not the other.' But when you seek to affirm your unity by denying that you have anything to do with anyone else, by negating everyone else in the universe until you come down to you: what is there left to affirm?  Even if there were something to affirm, you would have no breath left with which to affirm it.
The true way is just the opposite: the more I am able to affirm others, to say 'yes' to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am.  I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone.
I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further.
So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc.  This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing.  There is much that once cannot 'affirm' and 'accept,' but first one must say 'yes' where one really can.
If I can affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 140-141).