Umpires and Postmodernism
I’m attending the Theology After Google conference at Claremont School of Theology, and there have been many thought provoking sessions. One of the speakers used an illustration from baseball to explain postmodernism, which was intriguing, but I think is misleading. It is the old baseball anecdote about the umpire who says, “It ain’t nothing till I call it.” According to Stanley Fish, this is a recognition that it is the interpreter who defines reality, that balls and strikes do not exist in the game until an observers makes the call. There is no objective reality, only interpretation, and the community helps define the nature of the umpire’s call. It is insightful, but what is crucial for the story is that baseball has authority figures known as umpires who are entrusted “to make the call.” The batter in the story was not asking for a statement on the nature of reality; he was looking for the umpire to determine the next step in the game.
Contrary to the speaker’s assertion, baseball never worked on the illusion that balls and strikes are objective realities evident to all observers. From early days, the organizers of games knew there had to be a subjective observer appointed to “call the game,” and, more importantly, the community agreed to his authority. Even television failed to change this dynamic as slow-motion replays demonstrated times when umpires “missed the call.” Casual fans watching at home may have been brought into the secrets of the game, but the gnosis was always there for those who participated.
What we have in the umpire illustration is pre-modernism. The umpire is the tribal chief or elder who has been appointed to make judgments affecting the life of the community. This is the wisdom model of discernment. The elder/umpire uses all of his or her knowledge, including knowledge of the living community, to make a wise decision for the good of the community. Should these judgments consistently prove harmful, foolish, or random, the community may remove him or her from the seat of judgment. But the community cannot exist without an arbiter of disputes precisely because the participants know that there is no way to determine an objective norm. To put this in ecclesiastical terms, the notion that “It ain’t nothing till I call it” is the functional equivalent of the priest saying “It ain’t the body of Christ till I call it.” As long as the community accepts that subjectivity of spiritual authority, we have a catholic church.
Contrast the role of the umpire in baseball with the role of time-keepers in many other sports, such as bobsled. Here we have sophisticated measuring devices and electronic barriers set up to give an objective (i.e. mechanical) determination of who had the fastest time. We never see the time-keepers. We know there are humans involved, but the “human” element has been eliminated in the desire for an objective standard quantifying the notion of “fastest.” The community turned over the task of interpretation to machines, and many people long for a similar process in other competitive sports such as gymnastics. In baseball, I imagine, one could insert a sensor that would determine the “precise” location of the ball within a predefined strike zone, but the game as we know it requires the active participation of umpires.
A postmodern view of baseball would see the umpire as one center of power/authority within the game, but recognize that there is much more going on during a baseball game than balls and strikes. Each player is a center of power, performing carefully articulated roles. Any individual may play a determinative role in the final outcome, but no one who it may be. In fact, you can never with integrity say that any one player won or lost the game because the game is an aggregate of dozens of pitches, swings, throws, etc. each potentially a game winner. Even those who do not play are centers of power in a drama that fans follow in the sports media. Will the centerfielder be on the injured reserve list? Has the coach benched the third baseman?
But even this barely scratches the surface because what is “really” happening in a baseball game is much bigger. Thousands of people are involved, but few are focused intensely on the game itself. People are talking to each other, eating, drinking, dreaming, keeping records, talking trash, remembering previous games, reliving their childhood, creating childhood memories, participating in one of the rituals of Americanization, exchanging money, encouraging capitalism, encouraging competition, advertizing brand names, admiring athleticism, having sexual fantasies about players (never umpires), and a thousand other things. Most of those fans know that most of the time it does not matter whether a pitch is a ball or strike. It matters sometimes, and any given fan will miss the moment. Even that does not matter, those who missed the moment will feel the excitement of the crowd and watch the replay.
What does matter is that the umpire makes a call so the game can continue. That is why the batter had to ask the umpire whether it was a ball or strike. The umpire had failed momentarily in his essential role in the game, and doubt set in. But the umpire quickly reminded the player (and scholars like Stanley Fish) that he (rarely she) is essential to the game in a way the player is not. Had the player protested too loudly and undermined the authority of the umpire, the umpire would have asserted his power dramatically by ejecting the player from the game. Again, this is a pre-modern system where the authority may be questioned, but only up to a point. Then naked power is revealed. That is why coaches, fans, and players repeat this particular anecdote as a piece of tribal wisdom. Every fan has the right to dispute a call, but we do not decide balls and strikes by consensus or the will of the fans. Players and coaches may protest, but not to the point of undermining faith in the game itself.
There is more, of course. The umpires, coaches, players, fans, and commentators all know that individual games do not matter in a 162 game season. Only a few games for a few teams at the end of the season really matter. That is why the nation watches the pennant race and the World Series. And most of those participants, even those making millions of dollars, recognize that even those games do not really matter. There is always next year. There is always the cycle of birth and death. What matters is that the game is played. This may sound postmodern, but it is also pre-modern. It is tribal. “In the spring of the year when kings go off to war,” says the writer of II Samuel. The postmodern turn in baseball is recognizing all of this, but still choosing to participate in the masquerade of balls and strikes because you know that the umpire is literally and symbolically a “part of the game.” And if you do not like that, you are free to choose another game with a different structure of rules and judgment, like curling.
So, how does this apply to the Church or to churches? We no longer have umpires that we give authority to call the game of faith for us. We do not even have a consensus on what the game of faith is or what truly matters in the game. We cannot even identify for sure where the centers of power are in the Church or who are the players and who are the fans. We are not even sure whether the game is played in the sanctuary/stadium or somewhere else. The premodern wisdom model of pastor as tribal elder has largely been rejected, in part because of modernism. The modern notion of an objective set of rules (Scripture, confessions of faith, books of discipline) is being overthrown, which is revealed by how desperately some cling to it. Some theologians and churches are struggling to adopt insights from postmodernism, but it is not yet clear if it is possible to have a postmodern community of faith since postmodernism is suspicious of all three of those words: community, faith, and of.