Monday, March 19, 2012

Baseball and the Beauty of the Divine


My beloved Toronto Blue Jays
I went to my first baseball game of the season last week when I accompanied my oldest son’s first grade field trip to the University of Louisville-Ol’ Miss college game.  Although the kids were bouncing off the walls with excitement on the bus ride over to the game (by the way, you haven’t lived until you’ve ridden on a school bus with 50 screaming children), and although they excitedly cheered during the first inning, by the time we reached the second inning, the kids were booorrrrred.

I, however, was in my glory.  Watching baseball does something to me.  Something metaphysical.  Something profound.  I can’t really describe it, for the experience itself goes beyond words.  The best I can do is say that when I attend a baseball game, even a poorly-played baseball game, I think I experience something that is, if not divine beauty itself, something very akin to it.  It is a profound spiritual experience to attend a baseball game.

People often look askance at me when I talk about baseball in these terms.  Many seem to view the game as slow and boring instead of seeing in it the movement of eternity itself.  Because I’m Canadian, I’m told that I’m supposed to love hockey.  But while I appreciate some aspects of hockey, I find it intolerable to watch on television and only marginally more enjoyable to watch in person.  Most sports are interesting to watch, I grant.  But only baseball moves me to the very core of my being.

My hope one day is to write a book on the theology of baseball, though that won’t happen until I finish a few other projects.  But I’m engaged actively in reading novels about baseball, histories of the game, and biographies of notable players; I just finished The Natural and am currently reading Robert Creamer's acclaimed biography of Babe Ruth, Babe: The Legend Comes to Life. And while I read this stuff for my own personal pleasure, I do so also because I think there’s a theological story about baseball that needs to be told.  For baseball means something.  I’m not sure what yet, specifically.  But I’m searching for it.

One of the best pieces I’ve read on baseball recently is a little article by the theologian David Bentley Hart called “The Perfect Game” published in the August/Sept 2010 issue of First Things.  Below is an excerpt from this article (the full article is here).  I've never read anything that so compellingly describes the profundity and beauty of baseball.

I know there are those who will accuse me of exaggeration when I say this, but, until baseball appeared, humans were a sad and benighted lot, lost in the labyrinth of matter, dimly and achingly aware of something incandescently beautiful and unattainable, something infinitely desirable shining up above in the empyrean of the ideas; but, throughout most of the history of the race, no culture was able to produce more than a shadowy sketch of whatever glorious mystery prompted those nameless longings.  The coarsest and most common of these sketches—which has gone through numerous variations down the centuries without conspicuous improvement—is what I think of as 'the oblong game,' a contest played out on a rectangle between two sides, each attempting to penetrate the other's territory to deposit some small object in the other's goal or end zone. All the sports built on this paradigm require considerable athletic prowess, admittedly, and each has its special tactics, of a limited and martial kind; but all of them are no more than crude, faltering lurches toward the archetype; entertaining, perhaps, but appealing more to the beast within us than to the angel…

You needn't smirk. I admit that my rhetoric might seem a bit excessive, but be fair: Something about the game elicits excess. I am hardly the first aficionado of baseball who has felt that somehow it demands a "thick" metaphysical—or even religious—explanation. For one thing, there is the haunting air of necessity that hangs about it, which seems so difficult to reconcile with its relatively recent provenance. It feels as if the game has always been with us. It requires a whole constellation of seemingly bizarre physical and mental skills that, through countless barren millennia, were not only unrealized but also unsuspected potencies of human nature, silently awaiting the formal cause from beyond that would make them actual. So much of what a batter, pitcher, or fielder does is astonishingly improbable, and yet—it turns out—entirely natural. Clearly, baseball was always intended in our very essence; without it, our humanity was incomplete. Willie Mays was an avatar of the divine capacities that lie within our animal frames. Bob Feller's fastball was Jovian lightning at the command of mortal clay.

And there is something equally fateful, as has been noted so often, in the exact fittingness of the game’s dimensions: the ninety feet between bases, the sixty and-a-half feet between the pitching rubber and the plate, that precious third of a second in which a batter must decide whether to swing. Everything is so perfectly calibrated that almost every play is a matter of the most unforgiving precision; a ball correctly played in the infield is almost always an out, while the slightest misplay usually results in a man on base. The effective difference in velocity between a fastball and a changeup is infinitesimal in neurological terms, and yet it can utterly disrupt the timing of even the best hitter. There are Pythagorean enigmas here, occult and imponderable: mystic proportions written into the very fabric of nature of which we were once as ignorant as of the existence of other galaxies.

How, moreover, could anyone have imagined (and yet how could we ever have failed to know) that so elementary a strategic problem as serially advancing or prematurely stopping the runner could generate such a riot of intricate tactical possibilities in any given instant of the game? Part of the deeper excitement of the game is following how the strategy is progressively altered, from pitch to pitch, cumulatively and prospectively, in accordance both with the situation of the inning and the balance of the game. There is nothing else like it, for sheer progressive intricacy, in all of sport.  Comparing baseball to even the most complex versions of the oblong game is like comparing chess to tiddlywinks.

And surely some account has to be given of the drama of baseball: the way it reaches down into the soul’s abysses with its fluid alternations of prolonged suspense and shocking urgency, its mounting rallies, its thwarted ventures, its intolerable tensions, its suddenly exhilarating or devastating peripeties. Even the natural narrative arc of the game is in three acts—the early, middle, and late innings—each with its own distinct potentials and imperatives. And because, until the final out is recorded, no loss is an absolute fait accompli, the torment of hope never relents. Victory may or may not come in a blaze of glorious elation, but every defeat, when it comes, is sublime. The oblong game is war, but baseball is Attic tragedy.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Synopsis of "Why I am Catholic: An Open Letter in Response to the Freedom from Religion Foundation"

I’ve been told that my post about Why I’m a Catholic (written in response to the Freedom from Religion Foundation) is perhaps too long and complicated, and that I should provide a summary of the salient points.  So…here’s a synopsis (for the full post, see here):

  • I am Catholic because of what the church understands itself to be ideally.
  • What does it understand itself to be ideally?
    • God is love
    • God exists as a community of selfless love (this is what the Trinity means)
    • God manifests this selfless love in the Incarnation (i.e., God becoming human as Jesus Christ), and in Christ’s death and resurrection
    • God continues to manifest this selfless love to us through baptism and the Eucharist, by mean of which God gives himself totally to us.
    • In receiving the gift of God’s very self, and in experiencing divine selfless love, we are united one to another in the bonds of this love, and ideally become communities of selfless love that imitate the Triune love that is God’s very being.
    • Therefore, the church is, ideally, to exist as the imitator of God’s selfless love, living out this love concretely and in a totally uninhibited manner.
I then conclude by asking the following questions:

“Yes, the Church has always and continues to fall short of this ideal.  But does this fact mean that I must abandon this ideal?  Does the Church’s continued imperfection mean that I should just give up?  No, it most certainly does not.  For I cannot help but be absolutely attracted to the beauty of what the Church is called to be by Christ himself each time Christ gives of himself in the Eucharist. 

Those who have not experienced this beauty and the beauty of the selfless love that is God cannot be expected to understand.  And, frankly, the Church frequently does a very good job of masking this beauty.  But once it has become known, it cannot be abandoned.  It can only compel.”

If you really want to know what I'm talking about, read Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow.  Sometime I'll write about this novel.  It really is a 'must read'.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Why I am Catholic: An Open Letter in Response to the Freedom from Religion Foundation

Last week, the Freedom from Religion Foundation purchased a full-page advertisement in the New York Times simply called “It’s Time to Consider Quitting the Catholic Church.”  The advertisement contained an ‘open letter to ‘liberal’ and ‘nominal’ Catholics’ (the full text of the letter is here), and in this letter the co-presidents of the foundation make the case that liberal Catholics are enablers of an “antidemocratic Old Boys Club” that consistently discriminates against women, and whose ideas are irrational throwbacks to the Dark Ages.  The authors write:

“Join those of us who put humanity above dogma.  As Thomas Paine observed: ‘My own mind is my own church.’  We invite you to free yourself from incense-fogged ritual, from ideas uttered long ago by ignorant men, from blind obedience to an illusory religious authority….  Please.  Exit en Mass.”

The impetus for this advertisement, and for the anger against the Catholic church that clearly lies behind it, is the current controversy here in the United States regarding the Health and Human Resources’ mandate regarding contraception coverage and the reaction of the U.S. bishops to this mandate. 

I do not intend in this space to write about this controversy.  Nor, frankly, do I have the time or energy to address every facet of the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s ‘open letter’.
Instead, I want to write about why I am Catholic to give sympathizers of the letter’s sentiments some comprehension about why someone like myself would be Catholic.  Simply put,  I am Catholic because of what the church understands itself to be ideally.  

The Catholic Church is not, nor does it pretend to be, perfect.  As was declared by the Second Vatican Council, the Church is “at once holy and always in need of purification” (Lumen Gentium 8).  The Freedom from Religion Foundation rightly points to some of the church’s imperfections when it refers in the ‘open letter’ to the abuse of children by priests and to the role that the church has played, and continues to play, in the oppression of women and minorities.  These are, to my mind, abhorrent realities that are difficult to deny, nor should we as Catholics want to deny them.

Moreover, throughout her history, the Roman Catholic Church has historically struggled with those who have wanted to define the church in a juridical manner.  When this occurs, law and authority tend to trump an understanding of the Church centered around the Eucharist.  And this juridical definition of the church usually is coupled with the idea that ‘catholicity’ means ‘uniformity’.

I do not believe that a juridical definition of the church is all bad.  I believe that the hierarchy of the church, with the pope at the head, play the central role in preserving and defining matters of faith and morals.  But I do not believe (nor, frankly, does the church itself believe) in a slavish obedience akin to ecclesiolatry.  There is within the church room for divergent opinion and expression.  As Pope Pius XII wrote: “The church is a living body, and it would lack an element of its life if the free expression of opinion was lacking.”

But this juridical definition of the church has always proven incomplete, and the church has continually returned to an understanding of itself rooted in the Eucharist.  The basic parameters of the church’s self-understanding can, I think, be described in the following way. 
For a variety of reasons too complicated to delve into here, we believe that God exists as a Trinity, and this understanding of God as three and yet one is extremely important.  There is no easy explanation of the Trinity, but the best I can do is simply to say that Christians have, through revelation and experience, come to an understanding that God exists as community, that God exists, most significantly, as an eternal embrace of selfless love where each person of the Trinity gives the totality of themselves to one another in a dance of love so profound, so complete, so giving, so unifying, that threeness comes to equal oneness.  This is what it means to believe, as 1 John 4.8 reads, that “God is love.”  Love – self-giving, totally gratuitous, all-consuming love – is at the very heart of God’s essence.  This Trinitarian love, this notion that God exists eternally and completely as love, is at the heart of the beauty that is essential to the Christian faith.  It is the idea that God is love that makes sense of why the created order ever came into existence.  It is the idea that God is love that explains the gift of God’s very self to us in the Incarnation, when God became human.  And Jesus Christ’s example of selfless love, love that led him to the cross, reveals to us that God is love, that God exists as love.

Not only does Jesus Christ reveal God to be love, but he reveals to us the degree to which all of humanity is loved.  We are created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore have the stamp of the divine marked within our very existences.  By virtue of our humanness, therefore, we all have what the church calls an inherent dignity and surpassing worth, and the Incarnation reveals to us the infinite value of humanity in God’s eyes.

The church, the community we believe was established by Christ to be the nascent kingdom of God on earth, is itself to be a community of selfless love that exists in imitation of the love that is God.  And we are created and sustained as such a community of selfless love in and through baptism and the Eucharist.  For it is in baptism that we receive God’s very own Spirit who lovingly and selflessly descends upon each of us and lifts us up to become part of the dance of love that is the life of God.  Through the gift of God’s very self to us in baptism, we are drawn into communion and intimacy with God.  Through God’s Spirit, God ceases to be merely our creator.  God now becomes, through the Spirit, our Father.  Through the Spirit of Christ, Jesus becomes more than our Lord and Saviour.  He becomes our brother and our friend. 

And in the Eucharist, the selfless love of God is made manifest as God continually gives the gift of himself in the bread and the wine.  Pope Benedict XVI outlines the implications of the Eucharist as follows in Sacramentum Caritatis:

"The union with Christ brought about by the Eucharist also brings a newness to our social relations: this sacramental ‘mysticism’ is social in character. Indeed, union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own.  The relationship between the eucharistic mystery and social commitment must be made explicit…In the memorial of his sacrifice, the Lord strengthens our fraternal communion and, in a particular way, urges those in conflict to hasten their reconciliation by opening themselves to dialogue and a commitment to justice."

Overwhelmed by the love of God truly experienced in and through the Eucharist, we must and can love God and others in return.  We become united to God and to one another, and learn to view others with the love God has for all.  And in imitating the selfless love of God in the church, the church comes to manifest God to all.

It is this Eucharistic definition of the church, the idea that the Eucharist makes the church, that has been articulated over and over again through the church’s history.  And it is this definition that draws me into the church and compels me.

Yes, the church has always and continues to fall short of this ideal.  But does this fact mean that I must abandon this ideal?  Does the church’s continued imperfection mean that I should just give up?  No, it most certainly does not.  For I cannot help but be absolutely attracted to the beauty of what the church is called to be by Christ himself each time Christ gives of himself in the Eucharist. 

Those who have not experienced this beauty and the beauty of the selfless love that is God cannot be expected to understand.  And, frankly, the church frequently does a very good job of masking this beauty.  But once it has become known, it cannot be abandoned.  It can only compel.

So...this is why I am Catholic and why I think the authors of the Freedom from Religion Foundation advertisement totally and completely misconstrue the Church so drastically and totally misunderstand what it is that compels people to be and to remain Catholic.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

18 Years!

On this day, 18 years ago (1994!?), I began dating the love of my life.

This is what we looked like then (we were both 18):

Me: Skinny, nerdy, trying (unsuccessfully) to grow a beard.  Kim: Hot
 This is what we look like now:

Me: Hairier, 60lbs heavier.  Kim: Still incredibly hot (Notice the baby?).
Over the past 18 years, Kim has consistently modeled for me what it could mean to love selflessly.  She has moved all over the place with me, putting my career above her own desires; she set up her own (very successful) practice as a registered massage therapist and so provided the monetary means that made it possible to live comfortably while I went to school; and she now devotes her time and energy to three young and incredibly spirited boys while she rests her hands, and ponders what will be her next step once the boys start attending school full-time.

Without exaggeration, Kim compels me to become a more selfless and loving person, only because she is both of those things in abundance.  In countless ways she exemplifies this love each and every day.  I quite regularly fall short as a partner and as a father (as I tell my students, I am one selfish bastard), but she loves me nonetheless and patiently waits while I try to become more like she is.

So…Happy dating anniversary, Kim!  We’ve now been together for half of our entire lives (yikes).

P.S. I should note that we will be celebrating our 14th wedding anniversary this summer.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Camino de Santiago

I’ve been obsessed with hiking the famous pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago, in Spain for a number of years now.  From the moment I heard about the Camino, I resolved that I would someday become a pilgrim on that trail.  I don’t know when that day will occur, but – God willing – it will, and I dearly hope that I shall hike the Camino with my family.

The Camino de Santiago is a medieval pilgrimage path that covers approximately 800 kms (500 miles) if one begins the pilgrimage route in St. Jean Pied du Port in the French Pyrenees, though pilgrims cover greater or lesser distances.  The destination of the pilgrimage is the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, a beautiful medieval church where the relics of St. James the apostle purportedly reside.  This cathedral also houses one of the largest thurible (incense burners) in the world.  Watch the video below from the pope's last visit to the cathedral:

Literally millions of pilgrims have hiked the Camino over the past thousand years, and the Camino remains a popular pilgrimage route today.  Most interesting is the diversity of pilgrims hiking the Camino.  Some, indeed, are pilgrims for religious reasons, but there are many who are pilgrims for reasons beyond the religious.

My fascination with the Camino has been rekindled in recent weeks through a movie called The Way.  Written and directed by Emilio Estevez, and staring Martin Sheen, The Way chronicles a man’s journey along the Camino after learning of his son’s death on the pilgrimage route.  It is a beautifully filmed movie, and one I highly recommend.  Martin Sheen’s character, Tom, is understandably engulfed in grief as he begins his pilgrimage.  In his pack he carries the ashes of his son, and sprinkles these ashes at various points along the Camino.  He is insular, self-absorbed in his grief, and so quite uninterested in the other pilgrims who are hiking the path along with him.  Central to the film is Tom’s movement from insularity and individualism to an embrace of selfless community as he comes to experience the love and care of fellow pilgrims.  Four incongruous people come together to make an unlikely community bound by the kind of love that is made possible through humble vulnerability.

After watching The Way, I decided to read a book that has been on my bookshelf for a while, but that I had not had time to read.  The book is called The Way Is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago and is written by Mennonite theologian and Benedictine oblate Arthur Paul Boers.  In this book, Boers recounts his 31-day pilgrimage on the Camino, relating how this pilgrimage shaped and transformed his spirituality.

There is much to commend in this book.  But what struck me most forcefully was Boers’ account of how boundaries and borders cease to exist on the Camino among the pilgrims, about how pilgrims attain a kind of solidarity with one another where “cooperation and collaboration, even trusting complete strangers, were the modes of operation” (105).  One cannot help but be open and vulnerable on the Camino.  All that you have is on your back.  As pilgrims you sleep in the same rooms, you eat together, you experience the aches and pains that come with hiking 500 miles, and you converse deeply with one another.

Boers (rightly) describes the solidarity of the Camino as being the Kingdom of God enacted on earth, and it is this solidarity that Estevez’ film captures so movingly.  Boers describes the Camino as being “a thin place” on earth, a place where heaven and earth meet.

But is not what Boers describes simply what the church is to be at all times?  Why does it take a 500 mile pilgrimage route to have people attain this kind vulnerable and loving solidarity?  Why is the Kingdom of God so wonderfully enacted on the Camino, but is so rarely manifested in our parishes?  I don’t know.  But I shall – Deo volente – be a pilgrim on the Camino someday to experience the beauty of the landscape and the beauty of loving solidarity for myself.  And in the meantime, I shall endeavour to assist the church in whatever way I can as it makes its own pilgrimage toward being what it will eventually be – the Kingdom of God.

Update (May 14, 2012)
Netflix recently added The Way to its 'Watch Instantly' catalog.  Click here.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Anyone Looking for a Job? or When the New Atheists Make Sense

A friend of mine passed on the following job advertisement for a pastor's job in Pennsylvania (original ad is here).  There are indeed times when the New Atheists actually make sense...

Pastor, Coal Township, PA

Please make sure you read all of the information thoroughly before contacting us. This is where we stand. We are not here to debate and argue. If you meet these qualifications feel free to contact us. If you fail to meet these qualifications please do not waste our time.

We are currently looking for a Pastor for our church in Coal Township, PA. Currently we hold services once a week at my home with our 6 members with me teaching due to the lack of a Biblically based church in our area. We are looking for a Pastor who is BIBLICALLY QUALIFIED and KING JAMES ONLY! We also need a Pastor who is constantly reading and studying God's word.

The Biblical qualifications of a Pastor are:
Titus 1:6 If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.
7 For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;
8 But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate;
9 Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.

1Timothy 3:2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;
3 Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous;
4 One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity;
5 (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)
6 Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.
7 Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

In the qualifications for a Pastor it says he must be the husband of one wife. We believe that divorce is biblically unacceptable. We believe in biblical words such as Pastor, Bishop, Deacon etc. We Reject titles such as Reverend, Doctor, Minister, and Scholar. Reverend is used once in the bible and it is referring to God so unless you're God... Simply put don't give yourself a stupid name and we won't call you by it. We also believe the Pastor MUST currently be raising or have raised Godly children. We currently have our service on Sunday 1-2:30pm, and then after we go Soul winning. We believe door to door Soul winning is VERY IMPORTANT as a church, and that it must be done on a regular basis. And finally we believe that salvation is through faith and faith ALONE! We do not believe in repentance of sins to be saved, or to be a good person, or to go to church.
The only repentance (Change) that has to be made is where your faith is. Repentance is not a guilty feeling it is just a change. We believe that the Holy Spirit DOES NOT Convict you of sins! It is NO WHERE in the bible unless you are reading an NIV. Salvation is not about emotion; it is about your FAITH. We also believe once you are saved you are saved FOREVER!
1John 5:13 These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.

On the back of our Soul Winning Pamphlet we put what we believe:
We believe the King James bible is thee word of God in English. Modern “Translations” remove verses, words, and change the meaning of Gods word.
We believe the entire bible from cover to cover including the Old Testament. There has been a change in some of the laws such as the Sabbath, the Passover, and a doing away of the Cardinal and fleshly ordinances including meats and drinks. However Gods laws of right and wrong still apply therefore murderers, adulterers, kidnappers, sodomites, etc. deserve the death penalty according to God’s word.
We believe in Door to Door Soul winning as thee only biblical method to reach the lost. Tracts, Street Preaching, and Life Style Evangelism are all unscriptural and will never work.
We believe in the local church as an independent congregation separate from all religious organizations and governmental rules and regulations.
We believe in separation from both the world and any one who teaches or believes false doctrine. This includes dress, music, speech, etc.
We reject the false teaching of the pre-tribulation Rapture. We believe that Gods people always have and always will go through tribulation. The Great tribulation is not God pouring out his wrath.
We Reject ALL forms of Dispensationalism.
We believe that everyone is created equal and that there is no difference between Jew or Gentile, black or white!
We stand firm on God’s word and God’s word only as our final authority in life.

We believe that God put in his word everything we needed to know, and he didn’t write a sequel. We are 100% King James ONLY! We do not consult the History books to see if Man is smarter than God.  In addition to this we believe in a single church. No Sunday schools, Nurseries, Youth Groups etc. We also believe Bible colleges, Christian Schools, etc are biblically incorrect. You DO NOT have to be ordained by a bible college to be a Pastor considering it is NO WHERE in the qualifications! Also we believe that the church should not be selling ANYTHING and that includes an Education. Why would it be okay to charge for a “Bible Education” However it is not ok to charge for a church service? Why do you think Jesus threw tables in the temple? TWICE!!!!!
We believe the women are to have NO PART in the Teaching at church! A woman is to keep SILENT during the Teaching and Preaching. This DOES NOT forbid a woman from singing. Women can and should be preaching the Gospel through soul winning, and any chance she can get. She is only forbidden from doing so during church!
1Timothy 2:11: Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.
1Corinthians 14:34: Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.
35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
Revelation 2:20 Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.
We also believe in a literal six days of creation.
We reject all forms of theistic evolution, gap theory, day age theory etc. SIX DAYS MEANS SIX DAYS!
We also believe the King James is the inspired word of God in English! We do not believe in going back to the Greek, Hebrew, Chaldean, Sand Script, Native American, Cave paintings, or Finger Paintings by children to “interpret” Gods word. God can speak English just fine and since he promised to preserve his word there is no need to go outside the English language to find it.

Once again Do not contact us if you are not interested in the position. If you’re looking for an argument find a tree and maybe you’ll win!