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Baseball as a Road to God: NYU Silver Alumni Book Club Hosts President John Sexton

May 28, 2014

In Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game, New York University President John Sexton puts to paper the eponymous undergraduate course he has taught for more than a decade. The popular class uses America’s pastime—with its rich history of rituals, heroes, and spectacular moments (and, for some, religious levels of spectatorial observance)—as an approachable allegory to spiritual life. On May 15, Sexton joined the NYU Silver School of Social Work Alumni Book Club to lead a conversation on his book, social work, and tapping in to the ineffable.

The book club meeting was held in the President’s Penthouse overlooking Washington Square Park. Following an opening reception with wine and cheese, Book Club founder and NYU trustee Jane Bram, MSW ’79, PhD ’00, called the meeting to order, and as the many attendees took their seats, she quipped, “Our group is not usually this large!”

NYU Silver Dean Lynn Videka introduced Sexton, stating: “Many leaders are called to set the direction of an institution, but if you look at the data, few have transformed a University as much as John has, turning NYU from a good university into a great university in his tenure.” Sexton thanked Videka, and lauded her own achievements as dean of the social work school: “She has brought a tremendous force of energy both to the School of Social Work and the Dean’s Council… let me say this: superstar.”

Sexton, a self-professed “noticer and storyteller,” began the discussion with a few vignettes about his history. The proud Brooklynite shared memories about growing up in the Rockaways, and of his time at Brooklyn Prep High School, which he credits as the most important academic experience of his life. It was there, under the tutelage of Charlie Winans, the beloved English teacher whom Sexton described as “a corpulent Colonel Sanders with the body of Orson Wells, the voice of James Earl Jones, and the soul of St. Francis of Assisi,” that Sexton began his lifelong fascination with spiritual inquiry. Winans “shaped my worldview,” he shared. “He taught us to ‘think strange’ and ‘play another octave of the piano.’ If you want to know where the idea for the Global Network University comes from, look no further.” Sexton acknowledged Winans’ use of the social work concept of person in environment: “All teachers have to know where their students are,” he said, and Winans used his students’ lower socioeconomic statuses as a tool to encourage them to push beyond their experiences. “Don’t look at life through the window you’re given,” Sexton related. “Look at it through the facets of time.”

Of his course, Baseball as a Road to God, Sexton stated, “It’s about religion as it has been experienced from the beginning of time, without doctrine.” The rigorous class has an onerous reading list of religious treatises and baseball novels and weekly paper assignments in which students are asked to connect their evolving understanding of religion with the baseball characters about which they are reading. Sexton said that while 75 percent of the course’s students are nonreligious, the majority of them report that class conversations are transformative for them. “I don’t proselytize,” he noted, “but the one thing I demand of them is that they appreciate the importance of love, and that love is a slow activity; a gestating thing.”

The course, and Sexton’s book, focuses on the notion of the ineffable in spiritual living and practice: “It’s like the way we know love,” Sexton explained. “It has a transcendent meaning beyond science.” There is a commonality of mysticism in all religious tradition, which correlates well with baseball, he suggests, because “the wonder of baseball is that the majority of the action takes place between the pitches.” And in another example of thematic crossover, he stated that when it comes to the religions we practice or the teams for whom we root, “There is a 99 percent chance that these beliefs are inherited.”

Sexton opened up the forum for questions, at one point engaging in a spirited debate with a guest (and New York Giants fan) who disagreed with Sexton’s assertions about “the Shot Heard ‘round the World,” the game-winning home run scored in the 1951 matchup between the Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers that may have been the result of sign stealing. “One of the wonderful things that baseball teaches us is the wonder of the gray,” Sexton laughed. “And this ties in to the ability of two people to experience the same thing deeply, profoundly, spiritually, and incredibly differently.” And while allegories to religion could be drawn to nearly anything, the approachability of baseball (and the impassioned responses it inspires) makes it an excellent medium for inspiring spiritual discourse. As Sexton finished, “What I love is to show the similarities in structure… There’s a wonderful confirmation bias that allows us to not hear anything we do not want to hear, including—(and he winked at the Giants fan in the audience) that the Giants didn’t steal signs.”

By Penelope Yates, MSW ’15  

Type: Article