Thursday, October 27, 2011

Christianity is like baseball

There is an article that has stayed with me for quite a while now. The article is "How Baseball Explains the Nature of Language" by Alva Noë. Noë is a philosopher of perception at UC Berkeley. He is also a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Center for New Media, and he blogs on NPR's science blog 13:7 Cosmos and Culture, where this article was published.

Now I've been asking methodological questions about theology for over a decade now. What is theology? What makes theology good or bad? Does theology mean anything? Does it have purpose? Is it useful? What is appropriate to it and when could it be said to go off the tracks? Is it a craft or a science? How do you know if you are doing theology versus, say, sociology, psychology, political theory, writing protest songs, or abandoning oneself to phantasie under the illusion of piety? What are its basic moves, its tools, its core principles? How can one define its edges and sort out its territories? Is theology native to confession or imported (or worse) into/onto it?

Nearly all of these sorts of questions are simply assumed by surveys and the literature (though not by Barth who plows right in from the start), and so I've been forced to work backward into the questions, which is my usual and oh-so-efficient method. Nevertheless, I have made slow, imperceptible progress. My hypothesis is that theology is not akin to philosophy or a philosophical system, but resembles more a craft, something that is made by human beings and that also makes them back.

So if theology is a craft, then what structures and orders it? What are its tools? I've been around the block long enough to have heard a bit about Ludwig Wittgenstein's language games, and I own a copy of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the Philosophical Investigations. But his work outstrips my abilities--and Noë's article enters the picture at exactly this point, meeting low-brow abilities like mine with exactly the sort of metaphor this citizen of Red Sox Nation can respond to: baseball.

A fundamental of Noë's argument is that context governs meaning. The phrase "home run" is meaningless outside of the context "baseball". Baseball creates a space in which meanings like home run, triple play, our grand slam can come to be and make sense. (Wittgenstein put it like this in the first proposition of the Tractatus: Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist / The world is all that is the case. Think also of Heidegger’s Dasein—that we are thrown (Geworfenheit) into this world. Dasein ist geworfener Entwurf.) But what sort of activity is baseball?

Baseball is based on rules, but it far transcends them. Baseball includes all of these actions—throwing, hitting, catching, how to steal a base, how to bunt—and all of this new grammar—double-play, foul ball, home run. But it also includes a higher-order discussion of how it is best played and what makes for the best team and the best game. “Baseball people are concerned not just with how you play, but with the very question of how one ought to play baseball.” And it also brings with it an ethic: “When you are initiated into the baseball world, you learn to care about such things as stolen bases and pick-off attempts.”

Baseball is a human space. And this space is not just system, but a practice, a game, an activity which by definition is participatory, social, and makes as much as it is made. "To learn baseball," writes Noë, "is to come to be able to see and feel and be motivated in ways that are meaningless to strangers of the game. Baseball is more than a system of rules, it is a practice."

Noë says that there is a class of actions that human beings practice, a class based on rules, but that can’t help but transcends rules. A class that always has both first-order activities (what is done) and second-order activities (how we evaluate what is done). He calls these “baseball-like practices” and practices whose “ontologies are practice relative” and includes in these other social practices such as dance, art, law, speech, and language.

As a philosopher of language, Noë is taking linguistics to task. Linguists, he says, want desperately to be descriptive and evaluate only what is there. But they cannot do that, he maintains, because language is one of those class of actions that cannot be described from the outside. We live inside language; we can’t examine it from some removed and untouchable location. “We are so deeply embedded within and at home in the language world (compare: the baseball world) that we find it difficult to believe in the practice relativity of our convictions and commitments.” And because of that language is not only a first-order practice, like chemistry or geology, which can be comfortably described and dissected, but always and everywhere a second-order practice which can’t help but comment and critique itself.

And so I say that Christianity is a baseball-like practice whose ontology is practice-relative. It is a human practice, and that means a social, a political practice. It is based on rules (law), but those rules create a space of actions and activities and words and meanings and, almost instantly, the second-order discussion of how this should all work called theology. But going deeper than that, it is a revealed religion, which means it is based in language (Word) and, because language is a baseball-like practice, then by definition it must have grammar, it must have ethics, it must have theology.

Coming the long way around, then, Christianity is a practice-specific, a baseball-like ontology that exists along the first-order—its practices (liturgy, public and private)—and the second-order—the ethics generated by and for those practices as well as the metaphysics, the theology that questions the fitness of the whole.

Well, I’ve thrashed around in this for a while. Such thrashing is not Noë’s fault. His article isn’t about Christianity, after all, but an intramural jab at linguistics. There is something lex orandi, lex credenda (the law of prayer is the law of belief) about it. And there is something of Plato’s Paradox of the Meno and previous discussions on this blog about the epochē that are here as well. I’m dissatisfied as this last point I’ve neglected altogether in this description. At any rate, I’d better post.