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 mem
ory 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 co
ach 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 pe
ople 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.