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.

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  • Becky  On March 14, 2010 at 3:11 am

    Very interesting and an insightful conterpoint

  • Becky  On March 14, 2010 at 3:12 am

    or counterpoint

  • Brad Jones  On March 14, 2010 at 4:57 am

    Being tied too tightly to any confession is never a good thing. There are degrees of certainty on many issues, some having much certainty and some having very little. I say this coming from a perspective of the Reformed faith, as one who generally agrees with most of the teachings in the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Confession of Faith.

    Under Roman Catholicism, the source of authority was human beings, i.e. the church. The Reformers believed that God speaks through Scripture, which changed the way the church operated. As time has progressed, authority has slowly been being given BACK to human beings, though in this case as individuals and not an institution of human beings.

    The real question(s) we need to ask ourselves is, has God spoken to us? If so, what has He said? If there is no source of knowable truth in any sense from which we can derive answers from, then everything is irrelevant. Best of luck to everyone. See you in heaven, maybe hell, who knows.

    There is also a difference between God not having given us a clear revelation and us refusing to acknowledge the revelation He has given to us.

  • Brad Jones  On March 15, 2010 at 2:14 am

    Another thing I thought about today is that a lot of theology has failed–and failed is a very nice word to use in this case–because it has a lot of its underlying presuppositions in naturalism and rationalism. We juxtapose “science” and theology, when in reality the sciences as a whole greatly flourished when there was a theistic worldview underlying it. Now, because the scientific method is inherently philosophical and theological, everything is by default automatically based on a naturalistic worldview.

    Without a doubt, Christians have by and large assumed and presumed to know much more than than we actually do or can. This is a sad error that I am glad has been, and is constantly being, corrected. We are not God. We don’t know everything, we don’t even know most things nor will we ever.

    ALL worldview’s are built upon circular reasoning, as we formulate our worldview based on the presuppositions we hold. A worldview has to be consistent within its OWN frame of reference, not within a frame of reference that is built upon entirely different unprovable presuppositions.

    There are a lot of things that we cannot know regarding exactly how all of the “pieces” of a worldview will fit together. We cannot have ultimate knowledge, as that is something that only God has or can have. We can, however, have enough knowledge to make sense of who God is, what He requires of us, and how He has made things right again. No, I don’t know how God created the world. No, I don’t know if humanity is the only project God has going or if this is the only universe He has going on. No, I don’t know that we will ever have any type of definitive “proof” that we aren’t misunderstanding a lot of areas of Scripture due to cultural aspects, ours or the writers.

    But Scripture does give us enough answers to guide us along effectively to know what God requires of us and what He has done to save us. I get so sick of people playing games with one another. A lot of “conservatives” will use their pulpits to bash “liberals”, while “liberals” use their pulpits mostly to speak of how wrong the “conservatives” are. I read an article in a magazine that Yale Divinity School puts out a while, and wept after I read it. The professor who wrote it obviously holds VASTLY different theological views than I do, hers being “liberal”, mine being Reformed. But the thing that hit me from the article was God’s grace. God’s pure grace that He gave us through the God-Man Jesus Christ. I read it and thought, “FINALLY, someone who will just preach Christ and the cross. I disagree with a lot of where she is coming from, but I have no doubt that God could use this stuff to change someone’s life.”

    Though I do believe that theological dialogue, and in some instances church discipline, are vital to the Church’s health, why can’t we simply stick to what Jesus told us? “Repent and believe the Gospel, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” What is Jesus saying? He is saying, “All the things you look to to fill your life, they can’t do it. Stop trusting in those things. I have made a way to renew and restore creation. The reign and rule of the redemption of God has come through me coming and bearing the things that separate people from God. The old order of things is being swept away. Turn away from the things that leave you empty and join me in bringing about the new creation.” It doesn’t need to be said in any way other than in a loving way. I think if we just stick to the basic message we can all agree that He gave us, all of the other stuff would work itself out. Of this I have absolutely no doubt.

  • tony jones  On March 17, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    I get your point, but let me also say that, having been an umpire, the authority held is not quite so naked as you propose. The ump actually cannot do a great number of things, like call a strike when the ball is in the dirt. The point of my talk was that the community hold the ump in check at all times. And, if an umpire sucks, he will be fired rather quickly.

    I am postmodern enough to agree that it’s all a masquerade!

  • Theresa  On March 20, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    To me authenticity is in the direct apprehension of God, something that cannot be verified outside the experience itself. And this causes a problem for post modernist theory, which seems to deny an original source at all. Since it can’t be pointed to outside the experience itself, then it must not exist. Any authority set up by humans is imperfect, unless the authority is Redeemed in the old-fashioned sense, meaning fully united with divine consciousness. And many people question whether this is possible. But even an enlightened person cannot transmit that experience to others directly. We need that Holy Spirit that Craig talks about in his next post.

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