Let there be baseball - but which side is God's?
Fervent and faithful, baseball fans and theologians duke it out over Almighty picks in the playoffs.
On the way to the World Series, a lot of praying goes on: Fans do it. Players do, too. But all the petitioning makes some people wonder: Who is God rooting for, anyway?
Which team the Almighty prefers is heating up conversation at watering holes and curbsides around America. To many, the very topic may seem irreverent, presumptuous, or even silly. But debate is happening nonetheless.
One reason for all the theological talk is the postseason appearance of the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. Their so-called "curses" - for selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees, and turning away a retributive fan's pet goat, respectively - are referred to almost more often in the media than the strikeout abilities of Cubs pitchers.
Fascination with the curses is prompting fans and others to consider not only whose insignia is favored on high, but also what attention God pays to the details of human life, like free time. For some who study religion - and sports - the link between the two is obvious.
"I believe that God takes a deep interest in the sorts of things that we care deeply about," says Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. "Play, entertainment, leisure-time activities are an important part of our lives. I would be disappointed if God did not care about these things."
So would a lot of fans. An Episcopal nun in Boston says her town's team is the chosen one. A Jewish legal consultant in Chicago is holding out hope for the Cubs, as the title of his books "Is God a Cubs Fan?" and "Is God Still a Cubs Fan?" suggest. And a fireman in New York told a Boston Herald reporter recently that the Yankees were going to defeat the Red Sox because "it's the way God wants it."
Much of this talk imputes to God the ability to simultaneously deal with, say, the crisis in the Middle East and keeping Red Sox players from shouting obscenities at the Yankees (see Game 3 of current series).
At least one sportswriter says there's enough worldly evidence to go on without involving God in the discussion. "As an imperfect Christian, I try very much only to mention God when all other explanations have failed," says Allen Barra, an author and contributor to the online magazine Slate and The Wall Street Journal. "In my estimation, there are plenty of very good explanations as to why the Red Sox lose year after year - many of them, I might add, vividly on display during [Saturday's brawl-filled game] - that don't necessarily have to do with God."
Some scholars, however, say that religion and baseball go together as comfortably as a pop fly in an outfielder's glove. It's a connection made repeatedly in movies like "Field of Dreams" and "Bull Durham," and in numerous books about the religious aspects - the values and shared experience - of sports.
The language of baseball is often theological. People compare ballparks to cathedrals, and talk about how attending games in places like the Cubs' Wrigley Field is akin to a religious experience. And in the ultimate nod to God, even the word "fan" derives from a Latin word meaning "inspired by a deity."
As they do to religion, people have a huge emotional attachment to the game, suggests Mr. Barra, who was induced by all the curse talk to write about God in a recent column for Slate.
If the idea of God being a fan of a single team seems far-fetched, look no further than ancient texts for historical precedent, wrote Cathleen Falsani in a recent Chicago Sun-Times column. "If the stories from Hebrew scripture are true, God may love everybody, but God does have favorites."
Someone who has thought for a long time - two decades - about which team God prefers is Arnold Kanter, a Cubs fan and the author of the books exploring whether God is one, too. By process of elimination, he's deduced that God probably either favors the Red Sox or the Cubs.
In an argument sure to get him barred from New York for life, Mr. Kanter suggests that the Yankees are not God's pick. "Could people really believe in a God who might even be a Yankee fan?" he jokes in an interview, saying the concept needs no further explanation. Teams with domed stadiums are not in the running, either, he writes (the fancy roofs block access to heaven). God wouldn't choose a newer team, because he'd have been rooting for years before they were around, and the Almighty is too politically correct to opt for teams that offend native Americans.
Not everyone agrees with that assessment, of course. Dr. Mouw, for example, suggests that God doesn't "root" for a team so to speak, but he does delight in good physical contests - ones where people display the kinds of talents and abilities that are part of His creation.
Rather than taking sides, when a player on any team hits one out of the park, "I think God looks down and says, 'That's one of the reasons why I made this world,' " explains Mouw.
Kanter is hoping this is the year the question asked in the title of his book will be answered definitively. It's one he's been pondering in speeches he gives at his synagogue's open mike on the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur every year for the past 20.
In his first talk back in 1984, he predicted that the proof of God's existence would be in the Cubs making it out of the playoffs and into the World Series that year. He revisited the topic this year: "My prediction was just a little bit early."