A Different Kind of Cathedral: Fenway Park

Sometimes the longest way ‘round is the shortest way there. I aim to talk about Fenway Park here, but first I want to take you around the world of biblical faith, mediated to us, in this case, through some traditional theological constructs.

At the very beginning of the Book of Genesis, we’re presented with an image of the Spirit of God – in language that could also be read as “the Breath of God” – “hovering” over the whole creation as it’s coming into being. I think that it’s possible, indeed necessary, theologically speaking, to envision the Spirit still hovering creatively over our cosmos today and indeed still working creatively in, with, and under all things, drawing them forth from Nothingness toward the oncoming ultimate Future of God. Call this the Spirit-driven universal providence of God.

Traditional Christian theology offers us a further distinction that I want to invoke here, too. We can think of three modes of Divine providence – or the workings of the Spirit: general, special, and very special – providentia generalis, providentia specialis, and providentia specialissima. (Don’t let the Latin put you off here; I find that using it, on occasion, can stimulate the mind, like a spoonful of freshly ground horseradish on a cracker.)

These Latin terms can help us envision the Spirit’s creativity in three ways, as we witness it working: (1) throughout the whole universe, (2) throughout the course of human history on planet Earth, and (3) throughout the history of redemption as it’s played out on planet Earth, the latter being a particular narrative that begins with the calling of Abraham and comes to its fulfilment with the dawning of the world-historical mission of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem.

But note: much of Christian theological attention throughout the centuries, and to this day, has focused on the works of the Spirit in that third dimension of God’s universal history, on the processes of human redemption on planet Earth: sometimes to the neglect of the other two processes of Divine providence. Consider the question I heard from some Evangelical students when I was a college chaplain: “Are you saved?” That’s a legitimate, if somewhat wooden, question pertaining to providentia specialissima. But what about the first two, providentia generalis and providentia specialis?

I’ve been wrestling with this question for a long time. Over the years, as I’ve written about the theology of nature – which has been my overarching, longstanding theological preoccupation – I’ve accented all three: God’s general (cosmic) providence and God’s special (human-historical) providence, along with God’s very special providence (history of salvation) that focuses, to begin with, on biblical Israel and on Christ and the Church. Along the way, my own theology has been influenced in this respect by the work of one of my teachers, Paul Tillich, particularly by his theology of culture, which I want to highlight here.

Tillich’s thought was much more nuanced and insightful in this respect than mine has ever been. I think that I – and many others – can still learn from him. Tillich was adept at his interpretations of the workings of Divine providence not only in cosmic and human history overall, but especially in particular riches of human culture. He was, perhaps, our era’s single most important Christian theologian of culture.

A case in point.  On rare but blessed occasions, when I had occasion to encounter some of the West’s great cathedrals, I often thought of Tillich. I don’t know, for example, whether Tillich ever said that the Chartres Cathedral is transparent to the Ground of Being. But he could have. Who hasn’t been “carried away” – in the Spirit? – upon encountering that magnificent and revelatory Cathedral?

This past summer, I encountered a different kind of cathedral experience, to which I alluded at the start. Here, drawing on my learnings over the years from Tillich’s thought, I cannot resist telling this particular story of providentia generalis and providentia specialis. And, with this discussion, I finally come to the main point of this essay, after a long way ‘round.

It was a pristine night, as if it were the First Day of creation, in the aforementioned Fenway Park, in Boston, Massachusetts. My son, Matthew, and his two sons, Maxwell and Marlow, ages 13 and 12, had taken me there. Imagine this: a warm and clear late spring evening, some nineteen thousand souls in attendance, full of excitement under the bright stadium lights, but somehow at rest, too, as a last-place baseball team was going through its conventional motions, while many in the crowd, like us, feasted on exorbitantly expensive hot dogs and overpriced sodas, I, meanwhile, reveling in the presence of my dear son and his two extraordinary sons, the four of us sitting in box-seats two rows from the edge of the field, a little beyond first base. In retrospect, was all this a dream? I don’t think that any of us had ever been in such box seats before; we have long been a bleachers family.

The game itself was exciting in its own way, but somehow just part of a much larger drama (the Red Sox lost in the 10th inning on a silly play). As that contest unfolded, what caught my attention the most, I kid you not, was the glowing green grass of the playing field, bright as heaven it was, thanks to the brilliant stadium lights and to what must have been intense lawn care, most days of the week. During the game, three towering foul balls landed near us, as I imagined myself heroically diving for one of them and giving it to my grandchildren. The crowd sometimes sang old-time songs, sometimes made the ritual, extended-hands Wave from one side of the stadium around to the other, and sometimes seemed content just to be there, enjoying the experience, no matter what was happening on the field. Vendors tried to get us to eat more hotdogs and other stuff, like cotton candy. After my grandkids lunged enthusiastically after one of those foul balls that was bouncing between the seats, I was eager to hug them.

Meanwhile, I instinctively knew that son Matthew was conflicted. He was full of joy and sadness, or so I felt. He has been firmly holding on to me lately in public places, as when we made our way down those steep stadium steps to our box seats. That was because of my serious balance problems, of course, but also, I have sensed, because he’s been realizing that at age 87 I’m not going to be around to go to such games much longer.

Did I mention that Fenway Park that night was like a spacious cathedral, with an incredibly bright green field inside — an Elysian field? — and that the players should have taken off their shoes to run around on that grass? God was surely breathing on us that extraordinary night in that extraordinary setting, intensely and creatively. The four of us, and many others, I felt, were then and there blessedly enjoying a different kind of liturgy in a different kind of cathedral. Dare I say that anyone that night who had eyes to see could have contemplated wondrous signs of providentia generalis and providentia specialis all over the place?