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Transcript:

March 12, 2010


BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL. There are those among us for whom there are no two words as romantic, as exciting, as full of promise as these: spring training. Baseball teams have assembled in places warm and bright, and are honing their skills, hearkening to the sounds of the crack of the bat and the smack of the glove, preparing for next month's Opening Day.

My guest, John Sexton, says nothing could be better? For him every pitch is an epiphany. In the church of baseball, John Sexton is one of the preeminent theologians. He's the president of New York University, NYU, whose 40 thousand students roam a massive urban campus sprawled across downtown Manhattan. "TIME" magazine recently named Sexton one of the best university presidents in the country. He's certainly one of the few who still teach courses every semester.

His students in this class are from the Middle East, where NYU recently opened a campus in partnership with the government of Abu Dhabi. The subject today: Religion and the U.S. Constitution.

JOHN SEXTON: The exercise of constitutional interpretation is just like the exercise of interpreting the Koran or interpreting the Old Testament or the New Testament. It's a sacred text, but it's a sacred secular text.

BILL MOYERS: But this is the class that brings together Sexton's twin enduring passions. He calls it "Baseball as a Road to God."

JOHN SEXTON: And this young man comes up to me and says, "I really don't understand. I know nothing about baseball." I said, "All right, I'll make you a deal." I said, "I will submit to you that if you will read 12 books that I'll give you to read, that by the time you've finished reading those 12 books, you will understand that baseball is a path to God."

BILL MOYERS: His fascination with religion and baseball goes all the way back to childhood in Brooklyn. Brought up in a Catholic household where boarders helped make ends meet, he learned early that after the Church, there was no higher altar than Ebbets Field, home of his beloved Dodgers.

JOHN SEXTON: We lived and breathed the Dodgers as I grew up. We became one with them. In our games, we played them. So, whether we were playing stoop ball or stick ball or baseball. You know, we'd go-- stoop ball was a two person game. And as you played it-- I was the Dodgers. And I would be every player in the lineup. Or if I could choose one player, if I had to play one player, I would visualize myself as my hero, Jackie Robinson.

BILL MOYERS: His presidential office is a shrine to the sport, filled with baseball memories… but it's also a testament to his broad adventures in learning -- from a Jesuit education at Fordham University to a chair of the Religion Department at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, and finally to Harvard Law School. He clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, came to NYU as a teacher, becoming dean of its law school and then in 2002, president of the whole shebang.

JOHN SEXTON: That's where I live, and that's my office, over there.

BILL MOYERS: So how did a poor kid from Brooklyn come to lead a university with influence that circles the globe? John Sexton will always give credit to one memorable high school teacher, a man named Charlie.

JOHN SEXTON: Charlie had a phrase-- this is an important Charlie phrase, "Play another octave of the piano." If there's food you haven't tasted, if there's a symphony you haven't heard, if there's a type of music you haven't heard, play another octave of the piano. Reach out, stretch yourself.

And Charlie, who for generations of young men at this high school would be the greatest teacher they ever encountered. Charlie began to lead us down a mystical journey of thinking strange. He taught us to see things we never would have seen by looking at them in a way we never would have thought to look at them. So, he would ask questions or say things to us that would just jog you to a different vantage point.

BILL MOYERS: It's one of the life lessons he brings to his baseball and religion class on Tuesday nights.

JOHN SEXTON: Last week, we put Otto's great phrase, "mysterium tremendum et fascinans" on the board. The mystery that can't be spoken. That is both terrifying and ineluctably attractive.

NICOLE CONLAN: If you look at back at Eliade, religious man sees a stone as more than just a piece of rock. From a practical stand point, I mean, it's stone. You can build things out of it, you can throw it at someone and it'll hurt.

But, like, religious man sees a stone as, like, a symbol of, like, a lot of things. I mean, it-- everything becomes a religious symbol.

JOHN SEXTON: So baseball is the stone in a way?

NICOLE CONLAN: Yeah. Kind of.

SETH CONCORS: Baseball is, you know, this transcendent experience. And for people that share that experience, for people that see baseball or experience something greater through baseball, it becomes a religious experience for them, I feel. And so in that way that's how I've, you know, come to see, you know, baseball--

MATT FINSTON: The root of this course I think is taking, being able to look at somebody else's narrative, someone else's story and being able to see that there's some truth in that. Even if it doesn't, even if the limits of intelligibility prevent you from understanding and comprehending.

LUCAS SACHERMAN: I mean, John, you spend 75, 80 percent of this class telling us the most outrageous stories with a very large cast of characters in exotic locations around the world.

And, I don't know. I think it's creating myth. And it's creating-- it's why do we want to read stories? Why do we want to remember stories? And what is the American story? I feel, like, what is baseball other than the chronicle of the American dream, like, the American saga, you know?

JOHN SEXTON: Everybody? Anybody else want to say anything?

BILL MOYERS: I've known John Sexton for years now. His restless intellectual curiosity and our far-ranging conversations have been part of my own continuing course in adult education. So I've asked him to join me for one of the final editions of the Journal, just to talk.

John Sexton, welcome to the JOURNAL.

JOHN SEXTON: Thank you. It's good to be here, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: So what does it say about getting to God through baseball, when Mark McGwire, the great hero, admits that he used steroids to reach the home run mark?

JOHN SEXTON: There have even been bad Popes, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: I knew that. And I'm not a Catholic.

JOHN SEXTON: Right, well, that's probably why you're not a Catholic. But there have been good ones, too.

BILL MOYERS: So seriously, what do you do? You're dealing with metaphors here. Can you give me an example of a student who actually said to you, "I've found the transcendent on third base?"

JOHN SEXTON: You know, one of the most interesting classes I've had was where, in the presence of Pete Hamill, we had--

BILL MOYERS: New York writer--

JOHN SEXTON: Yes, and we had done his great book, Snow in August, which triangulates a character, it's obviously Pete, you know, a Catholic teenager who meets a rabbi who's just come from Prague. And the young one teaches the rabbi about Jackie Robinson.

The book is set in 1947, and it ends with great encounter in Ebbets Field. And that, Pete-- well, I wasn't smart enough to do it. But Pete turned to the students and said to them, "Is there anything in your life today that you see as evocative of this other dimension as you see the Dodgers are."

And it was a startling question for those students. And they fumbled to come up with an answer. And that group of students decided that they wanted to continue the course over the summer.

And I met with them all summer, in the summer. This was 2004. And that group of students is still meeting to discuss that dimension of their lives. Now, what they found, how they chose to incorporate the notion of something transcendent in their lives, I can't say to you.

So it's a classic Charlie course. It asks a strange question, but pushes you to another level.

In a way that no course I taught, when I was teaching religion as a formal discipline, it forces them to develop their own understanding of what religion is. And I don't care whether they decide whether baseball is or is not for the characters. But they're in the process, they, in their papers, have to give their definition of religion. And they come more deeply into contact with this element of humans' existence.

BILL MOYERS: These words, other dimension, transcendent, God. When you say the word "God," and you do often and naturally and easily, what lies behind that?

JOHN SEXTON: What lies behind it for me is the sense that there's meaning in our lives. There's meaning that goes beyond us. There's meaning that goes beyond us in something more than the butterfly effects or the, you know, the chain of history or existence.

As you know the most magnificent person I ever met, my wife Lisa, died very suddenly three years ago. It means for me that I know that she still exists both as an impact in my life and the life of those that she encountered, including you, our children. But she exists consciously, and she's aware of my continuing love for her, and when I pass from this plane, I and she will be aware of the continuing love that we have for each other.

It's an ineffable God. I understand it. Everything I've said is, you know-- but when I was back--

BILL MOYERS: By ineffable, you mean?

JOHN SEXTON: I mean that what we're discussing now is something that's approached through music and poetry and mythos in the best sense of that word. You know, Americans talk about myth as falsehood. It's become a synonym for falsehood, whereas myth speaks-- I mean, Lisa had never reasoned to me to the fact that she loved me. I never reasoned her to the fact that I loved her.

It was something that was an experience truth, the deepest truths in life, including what we're talking about here, including what I tried to get at in that course. Baseball is a Road to God, with its kind of, you know, a frolicky title is there's something very serious. But it's not something that you get to through cognitive processes.

This is why the war between science and religion seems to me is a false war. There's no tension between science and religion. They're different dimensions. So everything I've just said to you I know is a matter of faith. There are people out there on the NYU faculty that are embarrassed to have their president say this and I delight in that, you know. I mean, but it is something that's real in my life and affects me day-in and day-out. It-- it's self-evident that there are important things that are not reducible to the cognitive. You know, now, the neuroscientists would like to map, you know, even the poetic parts of the brain. And so on. We'll see where that goes. But the fact of the matter is that when I listened to Rachmaninoff's second at the Philharmonic a couple of days ago, there was an ineffable transportation to another plane that undeniably became part of my experience.

I mean, I think Keats would say, at this point, that there's a coalescence of what we're talking about here, about transcendence and beauty and truth and faith.

BILL MOYERS: Would you teach a course on baseball, as the road to beauty? Baseball, the road to truth?

JOHN SEXTON: I would do anything in the title of a course, and with the selection of the subject matter for a course, that would elicit from students passion and interest in a way that they experienced as strange. This, the whole point is to bring in students to get them to think strange. I mean, that is Charlie's maxim that said, "Play another octave of the piano." And if that gets them to think differently about beauty or truth, I'd do that too.

BILL MOYERS: You had them read Coover's "Universal Baseball Association," Kinsella's "Iowa Baseball Confederacy," Malamud's "The Natural," which I can understand, and you mixed those with, Heschel's "God in Search of Man" and William James' "Varieties of Religion Experiences." I mean, this is sports as metaphysics?

JOHN SEXTON: Yes. By the time we get to "The Universal Baseball Association," by Coover, which is, in my view, the best-- most people think "The Natural." I think Coover's book, which is very Joycean, is the best book written about baseball by anyone.

You're in this Joycean world, where a character has on his kitchen table a game run by the roll of dice, in which he's created an alternative baseball league that's more real to him than his life and real baseball. And early in the book, his-- the dice are rolled and-- rolled three times there are an enormous number of variations. And up comes the one result he was horrified to see, which was that his favorite player is killed by a baseball in the course of the game. And he has to decide whether he's going to intervene to change that or not. Now, doesn't that resonate to you about-- free will, free destiny? It's all there, Bill!

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, when Steve Jobs introduced his iPod--

JOHN SEXTON: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: He concluded that life is random. I mean, do you agree with Steve Jobs that life is random?

JOHN SEXTON: No. I mean, there's certainly randomness in life. You know this. But I think that-- and I don't think Jobs would deny this, okay? The core to being human is Gnothi Sauton. Know thyself. Okay, understand thy core, understand thy purpose. Be able to explain it. Constantly think. "Am I living a useful life? Are the things I do, day in and day out, useful?"

So, to the extent that the statement, "Life is random," liberates one from that responsibility, I don't accept it. I mean, there are many ways in which the statement is true. But to the extent that it liberates you from that daily question, "Am I living a useful life?" Which pushes you through, to, in my view, the transcendent, not just to ethical behavior. I would disagree with Jobs.

BILL MOYERS: What about Malcolm Gladwell? I think of him as I hear you talk about all of this. Malcolm Gladwell's message is, "Blink."

JOHN SEXTON: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: You know, go with your instinct, not with your reason.

JOHN SEXTON: Right, look, in fact, I allude to both that statement from Jobs and to Gladwell's book "Blink" in a piece that I wrote about my concern that a kind of allergy to thought was developing in our country. I mean, this is a pattern that I see. I--

BILL MOYERS: What do you call it?

JOHN SEXTON: An allergy to thought, an allergy to complexity, nuance. A kind of collapse into an intellectual relativism where opinions become fact and even knowledge and wisdom, to play out Eliot's phrase. It's a dangerous thing, I think.

BILL MOYERS: That we're hostile to knowledge--

JOHN SEXTON: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: Hostile to learning?

JOHN SEXTON: Yeah, and I think there's--

BILL MOYERS: You think that's--

JOHN SEXTON: --a ho-- I think there's a growing hostility to knowledge in this country.

BILL MOYERS: This brings me to your appearance on Stephen Colbert's show. Let me show our audience. STEPHEN COLBERT: You've got a problem with our culture. You say that it's been reduced.

JOHN SEXTON: I think that there's a terrible disease abreast in the land, yes.

STEPHEN COLBERT: What is it?

JOHN SEXTON: And I think that you're contributing to it. And I'm trying--because when a magnificent mind like yours reduces itself to slogans and to--

STEPHEN COLBERT: That's America buddy, love or leave it. Where's the beef, Sexton?

JOHN SEXTON: Do you believe that there's any idea beyond the first one that comes out of your mouth.

STEPHEN COLBERT: No.

JOHN SEXTON: Therefore you think that the first thing you think of, at every single moment, the first thing you think of is the solution that the world should adopt.

STEPHEN COLBERT: I go with my gut.

JOHN SEXTON: You go with your gut. And your gut will help us cure disease.

STEPHEN COLBERT: My gut has helped us cure disease.

JOHN SEXTON: And exactly how?

STEPHEN COLBERT: The disease of wishy-washiness. Of waffling and flip-floppery. I take a position, and I never change my position. My position is "I am right" and you're never going to change that.

JOHN SEXTON: And it is exactly that kind of dogmatic thinking which just shuts out the thing that God gave us, your God gave us, your God gave us that makes us human. Okay-- the mind. The soul. That says "I'm not going to use this, God gave it to me, I'm not going to use it, I'm not going to develop it, I'm not going to exercise with it. I'll exercise to make my body look good but when it comes to thought I'm going to go with the gut. It's exactly that that's the problem.

Well of course, in truth, Colbert's doing a great parody-- trying to alert us to the fact that because the people like his character, you know. And he's steadfast about not coming out of the character. Our political discourse, our national progress is being retarded because we have fallen into this discourse by slogan. We have fallen into this relativism that you and I were talking about, where it's a conversation to stop and say, "Well, that's your opinion. My opinion."

There's no extension of the argument. You know, you couldn't win a debate if you didn't extend the argument, if you just repeated the same thing. In the 2004 presidential debates, which I watched very, very closely, in the first presidential debate, John Edwards, started out on his core issue, Bill, saying, "I grew up in a mill town. My father lost his job. I didn't vote for NAFTA." In the 40th debate, he said the same three things.

No one ever asked him, except for the New York Times editorial board, which-- and it was reported in a very minor piece in the Times, about halfway through the Democratic primary campaign. "Will you repeal NAFTA?" He said, "Of course not. Couldn't do it." This simple question which would have been asked on the first examination by a high school debater was not-- and we call that a political debate. And this is-- we've reduced our political discourse to this.

BILL MOYERS: What's your explanation for why we have come to that? Wasn't political speech always intended to win? That was its purpose?

JOHN SEXTON: Well, political speech frequently is to win. But I'd like to think that some political speech-- certainly, you go back to the Athenian ideal of political speech. It was a search for good answers. We're so far from that today that it's almost ludicrous for me to bring that up. But I just want to remind us. There's a capacity here for political speech to actually be a search for good answers. But--

BILL MOYERS: But the Athenians also said that the first step toward practicing democracy was to learn to listen.

JOHN SEXTON: That's right.

BILL MOYERS: And who listens today?

JOHN SEXTON: Well, we don't listen well, as a society. We-- when we listen, we listen in feedback loops to people who are likely to say what it is we think is right. And it won't surprise you. I think this is a complex matter of causes. But to list just some of them, we have this overwhelming, undifferentiated database of information, which the Internet has created.

People can quote things that are preposterous when examined. But they're quoted as if they're the basis for serious thought. You move from that to a very, very short attention span. We have created a society that has, as I say, an allergy to nuance and complexity.

And we're in the process, it seems to me, of, because of this allergy to complexity and nuance, devaluing the importance of education.

BILL MOYERS: And as you indicated earlier, we buy the books that support our already held opinions. We talk to the people, go to the blogs, go to the websites that confirm our world view. And there seems to be no genuine-- and by that, I mean, understanding coming from it, conversation between the polarities in our society, the silos we all live in.

JOHN SEXTON: Yeah, and this is a result that seems to me, of this dynamic we've been discussing and the coliseum culture, which has been introduced.

BILL MOYERS: The coliseum culture?

JOHN SEXTON: Yeah, this-- I mean, think of the way we operate as a society now. Think of it in, through the lens of television. We tend to blur the line between entertainment and news. We now consider it appropriate to present, you know, two extreme views in battle with each other. This coliseum culture, where we have the two gladiators come in from the extreme.

And there's no serious conversation, because they end up talking past each other in talking points. And we've got to push back against this. So, and I think universities are the last, best hope for pushing back against this, and I think-- because what we do is complexity and nuance.

BILL MOYERS: You remind me that back in 2004, there was a young Senator from Illinois who spoke, electrified the country with the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, talking in the way I think you are suggesting. Let's look at an excerpt of that.

BARACK OBAMA: It is that fundamental belief-- I am my brother's keeper, I am my sisters' keeper-- that makes this country work.

It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, and yet still come together as one American family: "E pluribus unum," out of many, one.

Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers, who embrace the politics of anything goes.

Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America.

There is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.

The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too…we are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

BILL MOYERS: I would suggest that that was the moment Obama defined himself as a candidate, four years later, and as president. But what has happened to that vision? Was he romanticizing the ideal? Was he deceiving himself? Or was it just another political speech?

JOHN SEXTON: Well, look it's an ideal that he presents. It-- now he's aware that the cynics are out there. I don't think he's aware in that moment of the horrible growth in this society of a lack of trust that comes along with that cynicism.

We've created a society where Americans have said in polling they don't trust their neighbors, let alone the government officials.

The only way we're going to change the-- there are structural problems. Look, probably the single greatest structural problem that I observe at the federal government right now comes from gerrymandering. It's a pernicious outcome of the manipulation of the boundaries of districts.

And the result of that is that-- when you look at the districts in the House of Representatives-- 90 percent of them are safe. The red automatically wins in those districts that are red. The blue automatically wins in the blue. And then they come to Congress and there's no middle. And that dialogic listening middle isn't there. We've got to make structural changes, like redistricting, commissions, nonpartisan redistricting commissions. We've got to do things to change the structural hecklers veto in the Senate, where you know, you have to get under the guise of allowing free and open debate, you have to get 60 people to stop debate.

But the huge problem, the biggest cause in all of this, in my view, is the-- is this sense of lack of trust and cynicism that he mentions there.

That at-- takes the pluribus that he wants, right? "E pluribus unum." It takes the "pluribus." It takes the many, but it never brings it to the "unum." It never brings it together in a marketplace of respect. Not of agreement, not of homogeneity, but of respect, civility, listening and trying to find ground where we all can live.

BILL MOYERS: In the face of what we're experiencing now, as a Democratic society, you still have faith that institutions can do good in the world?

JOHN SEXTON: Yeah. Listen, the problems we face are enormous. And I think it's fair to say that there is both a vertical and a horizontal concentration of wealth that is untenable over the long-term and should be untenable. So by the vertical concentration of wealth, I mean the concentration of wealth in a very, very few in these country, vis-á-vis the rest. We're talking about one or two percent, five percent at the outer band-- vis-á-vis the rest. That is wrong and untenable in the long run.

And then there's a horizontal concentration of wealth that doesn't get a lot of attention in this country, which is the concentration of wealth in this country and a few other highly developed countries, vis-á-vis the rest of the world. And that is equally untenable and wrong. And I think there's got to be a readjustment in that. Now, I will tell you this, Bill. We will not get serious nuanced policy appropriate for the complex readjustments that have to occur, if we continue to build this society of distrust that we are building.

So yes, I do have faith in institutions. I'd be insane if I were the president of a university and I didn't have faith in the transformative power of institutions. Charles Eliot, the 40-year president of Harvard on whom I wrote my doctoral dissertation, said, if you want immortality, attach yourself to a great institution and leverage your effect through it.

Now my view of immortality is much more developed than that. But institutions are a tremendous force for good. I think scrutiny is important. And this is where, I think, the change has to occur. Less broad-gauged criticism. Targeted, serious criticism at those that deserve it.

But, a little bit more of the kind of respect and civility that used to exist perhaps too much. Okay, I'm not talking about my country, right or wrong. Okay, my view of infallibility as a Catholic is this. The Pope says something, and I disagree with it. I think again.

If I think he's wrong, I think yet again. By the time I've thought again the fourth time, if I still think he's wrong, I think he's wrong. Okay, so-- but I cut him a break to begin with, even on issues on which I have deep, passionate feelings. Now, you know, on in vitro fertilization, on condoms in Africa, he's wrong. Okay, but--

BILL MOYERS: Abortion?

JOHN SEXTON: Abortion's more complex for me as a personal matter. Choice is not. Choice is clear. But--

BILL MOYERS: The right of a woman, to be the chooser, the decider.

JOHN SEXTON: In our family, Lisa would have made the choice, had we ever faced it.

BILL MOYERS: Speaking of Lisa, John, in your eulogy for her, you quoted the opening words of Joan Didion's book, THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING. Quote, "Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant." Therefore?

JOHN SEXTON: Therefore, you have to make sure that you live every day as a transcendent day to the fullest of your ability, because you never know when you're going to have a chance to live it again.

BILL MOYERS: You said in that eulogy, "Life is a lot about making memories." Were you doing that consciously, those years? Or did you just live life as you describe it so that the memories happen?

JOHN SEXTON: I think if one lives by the maxim, "Play another octave of the piano," what you're doing is you're setting yourself up for memories. And the memory-making then flows naturally from that. But the important step is to say, "I'm going to get myself out of my comfort zone as much as possible." And this is true intellectually. And it's true in terms of river rafting and canyon-climbing, even in-- by someone who has a fear of heights.

BILL MOYERS: John Sexton, thank you very much for sharing this conversation with me.

JOHN SEXTON: Thank you, Bill, very much.
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