Monday, February 24, 2014

Baseball and Reading

I was fortunate enough to attend my first baseball game of the season on Saturday when my two oldest boys and I watched the University of Louisville take on Western Michigan.  I couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief and joy when we took our seats.  There's something about a game - seeing the diamond and the dugouts filled with players, watching a pitcher go into his motion, and hearing the sound of a ball either hit the catcher's mitt or the batter's bat - that leads me into a strange kind of contemplative space.  Perhaps there's something faintly sacrilegious about saying that a baseball game becomes prayer for me, but I don't really care.  At some point, I'll write a post on here about baseball as prayer.  Not today, though.

I want today to do a bit of crowd-sourcing.  The second-best thing to watching baseball is reading about baseball, and I'd like to hear about the best baseball-related books, essays, and/or poems you've ever read.  Any genre is great.  As a theologian, I'm particularly interested in pieces of writing where ties can be made somehow (perhaps only tangentially) between baseball, theology, and/or spirituality, though this isn't a prerequisite for any suggestion.  My goal is to create a bibliography on this blog of some of the best baseball writing out there, complete with annotations from myself and others.

Send me a note (my email is in the "About" section of the blog), write a comment below, or tweet me your suggestions along with a sentence or two about your choice.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Learning to See: The Discipline of Presence

On my last visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani, Br. Paul Quenon and I took a hike out to Merton's hermitage (I wrote about my visit here).  I'd never been to the hermitage in the winter, and I wanted to get some pictures of it in the snow.

I hoped that Paul, accomplished photographer that he is, might be help me take better photos.

But on the hike he taught me something far more important.  He showed me what the world looks like to someone who really sees it.

I don't really know how to describe this except to say that, throughout our entire hike Paul pointed things out to me that I simply hadn't noticed, or hadn't bothered to notice.  He drew my attention to different birds in the trees, to the plants still growing in the cold, to the colour of the sky, and to what he thought was the spectacular way the sun was shining through the trees and off the snow.

I saw none of it on my own.

Photo - Br. Paul Quenon, OCSO
When we arrived at the clearing in front of Merton's hermitage, we both stopped to take a picture, I with my wife's good camera and Paul with his little point-and-shoot that he carries around in his habit.  We took our pictures from the same spot at the same time, but when I looked at Paul's picture in comparison to mine, I was struck by my poverty of vision.  Our photos were of the same object - a cinder-block hermitage - but Paul's photo showed me that he didn't just notice the way the sky reflected off the windows or the way the sun's light streaked across the door frame.  He saw the totality of the place, its simple but profound beauty, and it seemed to me that Paul was, at the moment he took the picture, fully present to that beauty in a way that I wasn't.

This is what makes Paul such a good photographer.  This is what makes Paul a great teacher of the spiritual life.

I learned on our hike that how we see is indicative of how willing we are to be fully present to the situations, places, and persons surrounding us.  The distractedness of my mind, a distractedness that I confront whenever I spend time in silence, hit me square in the face that afternoon.

As I've thought about this, I've toyed around with the idea that there seems to be a deep connection between the ability to be fully present and the ability to love.  Perhaps to cultivate the discipline of presence not only helps us to see, but also helps us to be seen, to be fully present to others without the 'masks' (as Merton would call them) that hide us from others and ourselves.

So I'm working on improving my sight by cultivating the discipline of presence wherever I may be, whether in a forest with a monk, in front of a classroom filled with students, on a walk with my beloved, or in a basement with my boys building Thomas the Tank Engine tracks.

To see and be seen.


As part of his discipline to cultivate presence, Br. Paul writes haiku, almost daily.  Br. Paul, as many know, is a distinguished poet; I am not.  Truth be told, I have never written a poem in my life, at least I'm not going to admit to any.  But he inspired me to write haiku, however bad my poetry may be. 

My first haiku was about our hike:

I went out to see
a monk's cabin, but found my
vision to be blurred.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Ken Ham - Fool for Christ?

I'm not naturally an irenic person, but I've endeavoured in recent months to seek dialogue rather than confrontation with people who present ideas I find problematic.  As I understand it, dialogue takes as its starting point the dignity of the other and the recognition that the other has something worthwhile to contribute to the conversation, regardless of how much one might disagree with her/him overall.

Ever since the Bill Nye-Ken Ham 'debate' last Tuesday night, I've struggled to figure out how I should react to my young-earth creationist brothers and sisters. Setting aside the scientific problems of young-earth creationism, I'm troubled by creationism's unwillingness to engage the biblical text critically and mystically (i.e., in what I consider to be a theologically responsible manner), as well as by its apparent ignorance of centuries of Christian interpretation of the text.  Put simply, I don't comprehend the appeal of creationism.  I really don't.  Nothing about it makes theological sense to me.

This was why I tweeted the following on the night of the debate:
Dialogue presumes that the other has something worthwhile to contribute, but it was not apparent to me that creationism has anything of value to say about God, the origin of the universe, or biblical interpretation.  It seemed to me that Ken Ham's position was so theologically impoverished that it didn't merit comment, let alone debate.

Like I said, I'm not naturally an irenic person

But during the Ham-Nye debate I had a conversation with Michael Dougherty - well, as much as a conversation on Twitter allows - that was very helpful.  Michael expressed frustration with the reaction of many Christians on Twitter to Ham and his ilk, noting that there seemed to be a distinctive Luke 18:11-esque "Thank God I'm not like them" superiority lurking behind the condemnatory tweets; he later elaborated on these thoughts in a piece for The Week that is worth reading.

I think Michael is right.  The easy route is the one that is most tempting, at least for me.  It is the route that condemns Ham outright for expressing opinions in the name of Christianity that I consider to be theologically deficient, and rushes to let everyone know, "Yes, I'm a Christian, but I'm not like that guy right there."  It's a route that disparages for the sake of self-glorification, and it has nothing to do with charity or humility.

As much as I want to condemn or dismiss Ham and others who follow his brand of biblical literalism, to do so is to ignore their dignity, not only as human beings but as Christians.  Is there not something compelling about Ham's willingness to look like the fool for the sake of his convictions, no matter how much we may disagree with, and even argue against, those convictions?  The truth is that Ham's passion led me to assess the degree to which I'm willing to look the fool for the sake of Christ. And I saw that I was lacking.

Can I learn something from my creationist brothers and sisters?  Yes.  While I find neither their biblical literalism nor their understanding of the origin of the cosmos helpful, the truth is that I cannot but be impressed by their willingness to look ridiculous in the eyes of their peers for the sake of what they consider to be issues of ultimate importance.

All Christians are called to be "fools for Christ", which I interpret to mean that the logic of the cross for our understanding of God, human salvation, the church, and our way of being in the world will not make sense to the logic of a world characterized by categories of power and domination.  Ham and his ilk may be 'fools' for the wrong reasons, but I have to admit that they're on to something.

Photo from Wikimedia commons.