Baseball, Wittgenstein, and the Saint John Paul II Chapel

by on June 3, 2015

Baseball is in full swing. While the White Sox are lagging behind, the Cubs are getting by. Fr. Robert Barron, an avid Cubs fan, likes to use baseball as a good analogy for the spiritual life. He often says that the way to teach young kids how to play baseball is not by teaching them the infield fly rule. Rather, a good baseball coach tells them to practice, play and watch the baseball greats. I learned baseball this way. When I was about thirteen I made a team a league above what I, up to that point, played in. Before, I could get by without thinking much about the game, thinking that if I could throw straight and hit the ball I would be okay. However, upon entering the new league, I quickly realized I was in a more complex language game than before. My ability was based on my baseball fluency. The same applies to the spiritual life. Spiritual progress depends on spiritual fluency.

In my struggle to compete with the big boys, my coach didn’t hand me a manual on baseball or tell me to just go out there and play, willy-nilly. No. He immersed me in the game and, in addition to having me constantly practice, he told me to watch great infielders like Cal Ripken Jr. and Derek Jeter, giving me hints what to watch for. This was the guidance I needed.

It is the same guidance Mundelein is trying to give the seminarians. Fr. Barron is greatly influenced by an early 20th century Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who famously said, “Don’t think, but look!” (Philosophical Investigations 66 – you can read the entire Investigations here). To learn baseball one must be fully immersed in its language game, as Wittgenstein would say.

Many language teachers know this. The only way of knowing a language is by full immersion. In one of his homilies Fr. Barron tells the experience of Iris Murdoch learning Russian. She says,

I am learning, for instance, Russian, I am confronted by an authoritative structure, which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which is independently of me. Attention is rewarded by knowledge of reality. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something that my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal (Murdoch 1997, 373).

This is the same process of learning the Christian life. It is difficult and the goal is distant. Sometimes it seems alien. That’s because we’re being initiated into the Divine Life!  Fr. Barron calls it “The Strangest Way.” Like any language, it has an authoritative structure, which commands respect. Love of God leads one away from the clumsiness of the self to perfection of divinity.

It is not without reason that Fr. Robert Barron decided to renovate the student chapel, turning it into the Saint John Paul II Chapel. The chapel is adorned with stained glass windows depicting the lives of saints. The saints perfectly live out the language game of Christianity. And just as my baseball coach told me to watch the baseball greats, Fr. Barron is telling our seminarians to look to the saints to learn the grammar of the divine life. It is fitting that these windows are in the chapel because they complement the purpose of the Liturgy, which is to take us up into the Divine Life. By doing so they will gradually enter the language game of Christianity, thereby attracting others into the great game by being shining examples themselves!