Fans, Fanatics, and Faith

Chicago Bears football fans, among which I number myself, having cheered for them since our seven years’ sojourn in the Windy City in the mid-1980s, are deeply divided about a matter of faith.

Some saw this past Sunday’s disastrous season-ender against the Green Bay Packers as evidence that coach Lovie Smith’s confidence in young quarterback Rex Grossman has been misplaced for an entire season. Fans talk about “the good Rex” and “the bad Rex,” referring respectively to Grossman’s ability to win and to lose–very badly. The bad Rex showed up Sunday, and–having gone 3-for-13 with three interceptions and a fumble, giving him a quarterback rating of precisely zero–he was yanked (“Finally!” many exclaimed) for veteran Brian Griese, who played the second half.

Griese proceeded to stink up Soldier Field himself, missing passes and throwing interceptions until he, too, earned the coveted QB rating of zero. He managed a few fine plays along the way, and led Chicago to its lone touchdown of the afternoon. But as the Bears go into the playoffs, they have got to be the highest-ranked team in recent memory to have such terrible problems at quarterback.

All of this, of course, reminds me of theology, as it doubtless does you, too. In particular, it reminds me of the question of faith.

In some circles, faith is viewed as a kind of wilful belief without any evidence–or even in the teeth of the evidence. “Faith is believing what you know isn’t true!”

But no one believes that way. Everyone believes something because he or she thinks he or she has good reason to do so–even if someone else might think those reasons to be inadequate.

So faith always depends on knowledge. We believe, we trust, we commit to, because we think we have good reason to believe, to trust, to commit to–that canoe, that set of directions, that daycare centre, that surgeon.

Chicago coach Lovie Smith thinks he has good reason to keep starting Rex Grossman. Apparently he sees Grossman’s career in college (his Miami coach says Grossman is the best passer he ever coached) and his subsequent play in both NFL games and practices as sufficient warrant to keep putting him in the game. Smith puts his faith in Grossman because he thinks he has good reason to do so.

Many Chicago fans admire Smith’s faith, especially given the ups and downs of Grossman’s season this year. And they appreciate that Smith has more evidence than they do–they are not at the practices or in the locker room, they do not study the game the way he does–and also that he is a more experienced and expert evaluator of the evidence than they are.

“He must see something we’re not seeing,” they say–perhaps with mounting hysteria. So they put their trust in Smith as he puts his trust in Grossman.

But others think Smith is a fanatic: someone who has shut himself off from considering evidence to the contrary and maintains his belief no matter what. At some point, they say, you have got to revise your opinion and realize that your faith has been misplaced.

Brian Griese’s performance on Sunday has not helped things, of course. By not playing well (admittedly, he was running for his life much of the time behind a lacklustre offensive line), he has not pushed the balance of warrants far in his own direction and away from Grossman. But one wonders just how badly Grossman has to play, for how long, before Smith benches him and plays Griese instead–since Griese has a long career of success in the NFL, which constitutes evidence that demands a verdict, so to speak: “Play him!”

Quarterback controversies thus are a vivid reminder of the nexus of faith and knowledge, of trust and evidence–a nexus that shows up in life all the time, and not just at “religious” moments.

The wise person weighs the evidence and puts her trust where it belongs–and then at some point properly relocates her trust someplace else when the evidence is just too strong another way.

Yes, Christian tradition speaks of the phenomenon of the “dark night of the soul,” when God seems to absent himself from one’s life, and the Christian Bible tells the story of Job, a good man who suffered terribly without obvious reason. But in both cases, God is testing and improving the faith of people who have already been given plenty of good reason for his trustworthiness.

To keep believing something or someone in the face of contrary evidence therefore is commendable in certain situations. Maybe Rex Grossman will take the Bears to the Super Bowl, and Coach Smith’s faith in him will be vindicated.

But if Smith keeps playing Grossman despite the mounting–and mountainous–evidence to the contrary, and Grossman doesn’t come through, then Smith cannot be admired as a true believer. Nor is anyone else who clings to his beliefs–about football or about religion–no matter what.

There is a Biblical word for that sort of person as well: not “faithful,” not even a “fanatic,” but a fool.

0 Responses to “Fans, Fanatics, and Faith”

  1. Kate Power

    Had to force myself past the first sentence. What about drawing on The Beautiful Game (aka football, aka soccer) for a more global perspective?

  2. Karen

    Enjoyed the article !! Being a Bear’s fan who now lives in Canada , it’s been quite a year. And yes I have prayed in “faith” for the bears this year more than any other . It’s been a wild journey .

  3. Al

    Of course, as with the Bears’ quarterbacks, O-line, etc., one believer’s faith is another believer’s folly. That is not to suggest that both are right, or that no one can ever discover which faith is right.

    Those who confidently assure us that there actually is absolutely no credible evidence to believe that a creator god exists, or that humans live on beyond the death of their bodies, tend to be blind to their own faith in the powers of the laws of physics and chemistry to create a cosmos, first life and human life. Too bad that most of them likely will discover too late the folly of their faiths, which they regard as well-founded on reason and empirical facts. The great cosmic “Super Bowel” of eternity, is likely no mere game, with a hope for better success next season for the losers (whether in this life they were Bears fans or not). There, according to C.S. Lewis, they will gain the freedom to live out their rebellion against their creator god that they have so zealously fought for in their earthly lives.

    Sad that such rebellious faith is daily taught in our enlightened institutions of education, funded at public expense and masquerading as “science” (“knowledge”). They need our compassion and gentle, loving guidance toward the One who alone provides life abundant for this world and the one to come. That guidance likely calls for more warrant than merely sharing with them our experience or preferred perspective.

  4. Gord Shreeve

    Excellent points…If only Brett Favre could wear a Bears jersey for the rest of the season…now that would make faith easier! Another idea for an article…Approaching the Bears future with hope(what biblical hope is and isn’t).

  5. deogratius

    brotheren, we who are christians , ought not forget that our reasoning concerning spiritual matters should allways be christocentric so that we don’t err in our reasoning.bearing in mind that God reveals his mind to those who seek him whole heartedly. there for for those who deny his existance i can only say that they just need to know him first then he will reveal him self to them just as he really is.

  6. John Stackhouse

    Faith is always exercised practically. It’s always a matter of trusting something or someone in order to accomplish something, to get something done. So faith is always put to the test: Does it work?

    One of the most critical questions to ask about religious faith, then, is, What is it for? What’s it supposed to accomplish? How would we evaluate whether it is warranted–literally, successful?

    And one of the most important differences among us today is this one: We don’t agree on what religion is for, so we apply different measures of success. Some want constant happiness, some want wealth, some want good relationships, some want guarantees of a joyful afterlife, etc.

    So before we put our faith in a religion or philosophy, we need to ask ourselves, What do I want it to do? What’s the point of it all?

    The Chicago Bears are supposed to win football games–not be a bunch of nice guys, or model football uniforms, or test the limits of physical endurance. So the proof of Lovie Smith’s faith in his quarterback is winning games.

    What is your religious faith supposed to do? And how would you put it, and its main rivals, to the test?

  7. Mike

    It is difficult to draw a comparison. Jesus has warned us against putting our faith in any earthly things, because they are ever changing or perishable and as you said it was the “good Rex” vs the “Bad Rex”. No matter what evidence u have in earthly things they will always put u down at one point of time. Always go by the evidence but don’t be angry when they let you down. On the contrary, faith in heavenly things don’t need evidence, in fact Jesus comended those who believed WITHOUT SEEING. Rather it relies heavily on a decision to trust a covenant (the word of God, in the bible). Abraham left his land according to followed the voice of God

  8. Mike

    sorry I pushed enter by mistake….How did Abraham recognize it was God speaking? Rather Faith is a gift from God, through The Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:7-9), We don’t need evidence to get faith. Instead Faith is the evidence of things not seen(Hebrew 11:1)

  9. John Stackhouse

    Faith is indeed a gift. You can’t come to the conclusion that Jesus is Lord, or the Bible is the Word of God written, by a chain of argument from evidence.

    Still, faith rests on evidence. No one believes that Jesus is Lord or that the Bible is the Word of God written for NO reason. Indeed, we believe for what we take to be entirely good reasons.

    As Blaise Pascal reminds us, however–and as Mike does, too, with perhaps fewer nuances–there are good reasons on both sides and ultimately the matter is decided in the heart, in the confrontation of each individual with the Spirit of God. It’s partly a “brain thing,” then, yes, but it’s finally a “heart thing” and a “will thing.”

  10. John Stackhouse

    P.S. What is crucial to remember, especially in the light of my initial parallel with Coach Smith and his quarterbacks, is that in the confrontation of the Spirit with each individual person, one does confront Reality. One does confront adequate reason to believe.

    The mysterious part, then, is the question of why some of us opt to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and why some of us don’t. My point is that it is not finally because of lack of evidence, nor is it because of overwhelming evidence.

    Theologians, philosophers, and psychologists haven’t yet come close to sorting this out. Why do we choose as we do about something so vital? God knows. Let’s just choose as well as we can.

  11. Keith Howard Duff

    Lovie’s job, is to coach and develop a football team. Grossman is now throwing in the Super Bowl. Lovie had faith in Rex because Lovie had faith in his own abilities to recognize talent and, so, trusted his own God-given skill to coach. He has trust in God. ,so then, trust in God’s gifts and so then trust in the results he was achiving with Rex. GO BEARS!!

  12. April French

    Well, Dr. Stackhouse, I’m sure you’re elated at Da Bears making the Super Bowl! One comment you made, referring to Griese’s ‘long career of success’, made me laugh. You see, I’m a Denver Broncos fan, and I would not say Griese was that great. Of course, when you’re hired in the shadow of John Elway, I guess it makes life difficult. Jake the Snake isn’t doing so well for us these days, either–sporadic at best.

    Good luck to the Bears next week. I’ll be rooting for the Colts (have to stick with the AFC).

  13. John Stackhouse

    It is quite understandable that, in the grip of Super Bowl fever, the actual Main Point I was making (about faith, remember?!) has been lost among some of those responding. After all, Super Bowl Sunday is one of the High Holy Days of the American calendar, and Christians have trouble escaping its, um, gravity.

    We have in our household a Steelers fan (who has had a terrible year, watching his beloved team lose game after game that they should have won), a Patriots fan (who is still muttering about last week’s loss to the hated Colts and the even more hated Mr. Manning), and your servant, a Bears fan.

    So we shall certainly be cheering for the Bears, respectful as we are of both Coach Dungy and his team–and as disrespectful as we are of Mr. Grossman, whose greatest claim to fame in the last two weeks has been that he HASN’T SCREWED IT UP. Never, I daresay, has a Super Bowl team had a less distinguished quarterback.

    To be sure, I quite take April French’s point that Brian Griese ain’t his dad. So perhaps we can agree that Chicago is in a peculiar quarterback controversy: which guy is less bad? Such a question is just unbelievable during the fortnight (as we football players call it) before the Big Game.

    I must turn away, however, from this site of sacred controversy back to my regular discourse of Christian history and theology, and thus will offer a blessing in conclusion:

    May the Colts play well, stay healthy, and feel they have given it their best.

    And lose.

  14. David Baldwin

    I know this is almost three years late, but it needs to be said that Rex Grossman played for the Florida Gators (my alma mater) and not the Miami Hurricanes as stated in this post.

    I thought a good way to get to know my new professor in INDS 530 is to check out his blog and I subsequently commented on this out of pride for my school and to capture the only chance I’ll have to correct Dr. Stackhouse.


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