2/15/2019 Jenny Gumbert

Sexton Speaks to the Ineffable Moments in Faith and Baseball

You know you’re experiencing a unique campus event when a speaker’s remarks culminate in a description of how a metal crucifix chipped his tooth. That was just one of the many uproarious anecdotes that John Sexton shared with the audience attending Franklin & Marshall College’s Common Hour, a community conversation conducted every Thursday that classes are in session.

So, how did Sexton arrive at that punchline?

Years ago, Sexton, president emeritus of New York University (NYU), dean emeritus and Benjamin F. Butler Professor of Law at NYU School of Law, began teaching a course titled “Baseball as a Road to God.” The course, which combined his passions for baseball and religion, was so popular that he has continued to teach it for more than a decade and translated it into a book of the same name. 

For Sexton, there are connections between something secular, like baseball, and religious faith that are not just limited to the metaphorical (i.e., the stadium as a cathedral). He focuses on the experiential similarities. According to him, one can “use baseball to get to the essence of religion.”

  • John Sexton tells the Common Hour audience how something seemingly secular, like baseball, might allow us to touch the ineffable dimensions of life. John Sexton tells the Common Hour audience how something seemingly secular, like baseball, might allow us to touch the ineffable dimensions of life. Image Credit: Deb Grove

Sexton’s observations about faith and baseball seemed to particularly resonate with the diehard baseball fans in the audience who laughed, clapped and sometimes playfully cheered (or jeered) in response to his praise of the original Brooklyn Dodgers and digs at the Boston Red Sox. Others who perhaps didn’t have the same connection to the sport were reminded of why he chose the name of his course and book carefully.

“It’s not baseball as the road to God. It’s baseball as road to God,” explained Sexton. For him, he explained, it’s baseball. For another person, it may be soccer or even another activity unrelated to sports. 

Ultimately, religious faith is about the hierophanies or ineffable moments in life, whether it’s witnessing the inexplicable beauty of natural wonders or the thrill of a historic baseball game.  

Which brings us back to the story of the crucifix and the chipped tooth. 

On Oct. 4, 1955, the Dodgers were in the World Series yet again and young John Sexton and his friend were listening to the game on a transistor radio. The game was close. John and friend were kneeling on the ground clutching a metal crucifix. And suddenly—they’d done it! The Dodgers had won their first World Series! His friend stood suddenly, letting go of the crucifix that then went hurtling toward young John’s mouth, chipping his tooth.

“Now that is a hierophanic moment!” exclaimed Sexton to laughter and applause. 

  • Common Hour speaker John Sexton tells the story of how the Dodgers winning the 1955 World Series resulted in a crucifix chipping his tooth. Common Hour speaker John Sexton tells the story of how the Dodgers winning the 1955 World Series resulted in a crucifix chipping his tooth. Image Credit: Deb Grove
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