Football Explains Everything: Faith vs. Knowledge

VY Forever

With six minutes and 42 seconds left in the Rose Bowl after the 2005 season, USC quarterback Matt Leinart threw a pass to Dwayne Jarrett, who fell into the endzone just past two colliding Texas Longhorn defenders. The touchdown put USC up 12 points; both Longhorn defenders were injured on the play, with cornerback Tarrell Brown leaving the sideline with what looked like a broken arm.

It was the game’s low point for Longhorn fans (like me). Keith Jackson described the pass as a “dagger,” and sideline reporter Holly Rowe described the “dejection” of the Longhorns, who “seemed to have the air taken out of them.” At that moment, it looked for all the world like Texas would lose.

Then Vince Young took the field.

Every Longhorn fan I know describes the next six-and-a-half minutes with the same words: I knew we were going to win.

We knew it.

Now, we all knew at different times. For me it was after Vince completed three straight passes to move the team thirty yards in about thirty seconds. For some it came when Vince scored on an unbelievable run, avoiding a sack, seeming to fall down, but then staying up and reversing field to outrun all eleven USC defenders. But, by the time the Texas defense stopped Lendale White on 4th and 1* to give the ball back to Vince with two minutes left, everybody—Longhorn fans, USC fans, announcers, players on both teams—knew what was going to happen. Which was this:

vy gif

That certainty, that thing we called “knowing,” is faith. It’s different than the kind of “knowing” that someone reading a recap of the game in the next day’s newspaper would have. Because, watching the game, we didn’t KNOW what was going to happen, even though we knew what was going to happen. A loss was always possible, even likely: Vince could have thrown an interception or fumbled the ball; USC could have scored a touchdown that would have put the game out of reach. Nonetheless we knew. That was faith, and faith is a paradox.

I thought everybody knew this, and that we were all operating with a shared definition of “faith.” So I’ve been shocked lately reading blogs from very religious people who explicitly write that their religion is based on a kind of faith that I just can’t recognize. 

Take this testimonial from Catholic writer Kimberly Manning, posted at her friend Leila Miller’s blog: Manning writes (in a response in the comments):

There is nothing hocus pocus about being a Christian. One need not suspend his powers of reason to believe. In fact, it is possible to come to belief by a simple process of logic and reason. Christianity is fundamentally predicated on a historical event — a man came after numerous astoundingly accurate prophesies, lived and claimed to be God, did innumerable, witnessed miracles done by no one else before, died, resurrected from the dead as no on else before, and impacted the human race more than anyone else who ever lived. He must be taken seriously, and His witness is provable by simple logic and historical proof.

By “hocus pocus” she means things like mystery and paradox, things I take to be the heart of Christianity.** But more troubling is her assertion that “His witness is provable by simple logical and historical proof.”

The idea gets echoed by Leila and several of her commenters. In fact, I’m finding it’s fairly common among Catholic writers who like to emphasize their faith’s rationality and objectivity. We don’t have to entertain doubts, Manning says, or wrestle with impossibilities; in fact, if you follow a few simple, ironclad proofs, you’ll see it’s downright unreasonable not to believe.*** 

From this perspective, we’re not fans watching the game play out, certain-but-uncertain of its outcome. Instead, we’ve read the box score and the newspaper recaps, and now we’re just watching the highlights on Sportscenter for the third or fourth time. This guy (not a Catholic, but also trying to “reason” his way to faith) goes so far as to compare our knowledge of Christ’s ultimate victory to the power of x-ray vision:

If you buy a lottery ticket, do you hope you’ll win the lottery? Yes, of course you do. Do you have any assurance you’ll win the lottery? Absolutely not. You have no way of knowing that your ticket is any better than the millions of other lottery tickets out there competing for the same pot.

But what if you had x-ray vision, and you could see through the gray scratch-off coating on the lottery tickets you buy at the supermarket? You’d know if you had a $100, $200 or a $1,000 winner, wouldn’t you? In that case, would you merely hope you’d win? No, you’d have assurance , wouldn’t you? You’d have assurance of those things you previously only hoped for. It would be hope with conviction, not a mere hoped, but a hope buttressed by facts and evidence.

That’s why the Christian faith cares about the evidence, friends. For the biblical Christian, the facts matter. You can’t have assurance for something you don’t know you’re going to get. You can only hope for it.****

This notion is stunning to me. Truly. Because it’s not faith. By definition, faith is inseparable from doubt— inseparable from the possibility that what you hope for might not transpire, that Vince Young, for example, might drop the ball. If you remove that possibility, then what you have is no longer faith, but something else.*****

And this bothers me, a lot. Why?

Maybe because it’s not the way Jesus operated. This deserves a longer treatment than I can give it here, but suffice it to say that, for Jesus, faith was wrapped up with the freedom not to believe.

The ironclad logic that Manning and Miller describe, on the other hand, has inescapable conclusions. It permits no freedom, so it’s no accident that Manning uses the language of obligation in her piece. “If [Jesus’ claims] are true,” she writes, “you MUST accept Christianity…” [Emphasis hers] 

More personally, though, attempts to “reason” your way to faith take what I love out of religion. Doubt is tough. Doubt is troubling. But there’s a reason we watch sports live, and there’s a reason everyone hates a spoiler—whether it’s for last night’s DVRed game or Downton Abbey. I think there is a sort of magic in not knowing. Manning might dismiss that as “hocus pocus,” but it’s the central experience of Christianity, and it’s a source of the Church’s beauty. 

Faith is necessarily subjective, and that’s a good thing.

*You can see the video of the Texas defense celebrating that stop here: notice that even though Texas is still down by 5 points, they react like they’ve just won the game. Because, in a theological sense, they have.

 **Elsewhere, she writes “But I had already learned that it is only in the world of subjective truth that two opposing doctrines can both be right.” What she sees as “subjective truth” is pretty much the definition of paradox, which Fr. John Hardon says is the essence of Christianity.

 ***These “proofs” are highly debatable, but let’s put that aside for now.

****This is especially stupid, since its author bases his idea on faith on Hebrews 11:1 (“Faith is… the evidence of things not seen.”) Hey, guy, if you have x-ray vision, then the winning lottery numbers aren’t unseen, are they?

*****And I don’t know what to call it. I hesitate to call it absolute knowledge, because it’s “certainty” built on questionable foundations. It’s closer to a form of denial.

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