What hath Bristol (CT) to do with Jerusalem? On football, knowledge and the Gospel

Confession: I listen to sports radio. A lot of sports radio. Most likely, too much sports radio. It’s  probably a problem. Confession: I don’t feel as badly as I probably should about it. It’s (mostly) good radio, especially now that the final four have been announced. The debate around who should have been in is part of the larger debate about how the National Champion should be chosen. Essentially, there have been two methods employed: The Bowl Championship Series (that’s right, BCS) and this year’s Selection Committee (SC).

Prior to the BCS, national champions were chosen by pollsters of two sorts, coaches and media. The team receiving the most votes from coaches and media at the end of the season was crowned national champion. This method of choosing, however, was deemed too subjective, too dependent on the mood swings of coaches, too biased. Too human. This perceived subjectivity lead to the BCS, which was driven by an algorithmic computer program. Since only cool-headed, neutral, disimpassioned logic ought to decide the participants in championship games, a complicated set of criteria, plugged into an equally complicated formula produced the best two teams who would then play for the championship. Computers would solve our problems.

Of course, algorithms don’t solve problems. After almost 20 years of the BCS, a new system was made, but not like the system which was made with our fathers. Computers are out and humans are back in. According to SC, the teams competing in the playoff are chosen by a 12-member selection committee. No longer relying on an algorithm, a community of voters evaluate and decide which are the four best teams.

This change from the BCS to the SC pictures something bigger than football. What if we thought of the BCS and the SC as two distinct ways of explaining how humans come to know God’s world? Suppose, that is, we let each system picture how humans come to know what they know. Let’s call the kind of knowing pictured by the BCS, Sherlockean Knowledge. Sherlockean knowledge is primarily a matter of proof, evidence and argumentation leading to certainty about truth. Knowledge is a looking at facts and drawing conclusions through inferences governed by scientific or philosophical guidelines.

By contrast, the knowledge pictured by SC is what we can call Watsonean Knowledge. Watsonean knowledge suggests that reason isn’t primarily what brings us into truth, rather coming to know truth is more like coming to know a person. This requires more than logical inference and scientific precision; it requires the whole of our persons, primarily our hearts. Knowing of this sort is risky, messy, uncertain.

Blaise Pascal, a 17th Century French philosopher, argues against using Sherlockean knowledge in the search for the truths of the Gospel. Rather, he (famously) offers a Wager [which you should check out in his Penseés (#233)]. My interest, however, resides in what Pascal says after the Wager. Suppose I agree that Sherlockean knowledge doesn’t work but neither does the Wager, what then? What should one who struggles with doubt about the truths of the Gospel do in the meantime? Pascal answers,

 … Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions…. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe….

Pascal’s advice seems strange at first. Just go to church?! In fact, that’s exactly what he says. Join a practicing, liturgical community and act as if you believe; for, doing so ‘will naturally make you believe….’ Indeed, the kingdom cannot be so much as seen, let alone entered until one has eyes to see and ears to hear. Believing, Pascal reminds us, is seeing. And this believing is shaped by our participation in communities of faith.

For Pascal, our intellectual problems aren’t ultimately intellectual; they are affectual, which is to say that it’s not our minds but our hearts that drive our doubts. Hearts are misaimed. And if misaimed, then the search for truth is that of a dizzy, blindfolded child flailing his wayward stick at a piñata. But notice, unlike the designers of the BCS, Pascal does not recommend a course in logic or nouthetic algorithmic counseling to solve doubt. Instead, he says to enter into a life of ‘belief’ until belief.

With both Pascal and the Watsonean turn in college football, we are reminded that truth is found in communities. Truth, St. John tells us, is a Person, the Word, and since the Word is God and with God, truth is Trinitarian. Coming to know truth is coming to know the Triune God, participating in the One who is Himself a community of persons. Humans, made in the triune image, must seek truth in community; for, only in communities are the affections necessary for coming to truth shaped. In this way, my sons came to love OU football. I didn’t argue that they should love the blessed Sooners; I brought them into a community whose practices of tail gating, crimson and cream, and yelling at incompetent coaches, shaped their love.

Crucially, John doesn’t leave truth in the abstract heavenly realm: Truth takes on flesh and dwells among us in a particular time and place, in a particular community. Our hearts need the embodied practices of community not simply its (dis)embodied voices. Communities constitute more than a place for sharing formalized doctrine; they shape desires through habituated actions, liturgies, which may be thought of as enriching the soil of affection from which the flower of knowledge grows.

This enriching is accomplished primarily (but not only) in the liturgy of Sunday morning worship. I need Sunday morning’s liturgy because I need to see and hear and taste and feel and smell the Gospel reenacted weekly in a community. I need to be called to worship. I need confession and absolution. I need the Word to pierce my heart. I need bread and wine to strengthen it again. I need a blessing to take me on my way through the week. I need to participate in the life of the Church, because in doing so, I participate in the life of her Bridegroom. The narrative of the liturgy shapes my affections so that I may come to see and believe the great truths of the Gospel. I need practices not programs because faith is to be performed not thought.

In the end, if Pascal is right, then the irony of the BCS (and Sherlockean knowledge) is that its architects objected to the very thing that was necessary in order to achieve their goal of an actual national champion, namely, the affections of voters, their intuitions and understanding gained in community. In avoiding the subjectivity of SC, they lost their ability to arrive at truth. Sherlock is impossible without Watson. Thus the turn to Watsonean knowledge is more human and if more human, then better for college football. And us.

In any case, so long as Florida State doesn’t win anymore, we’ll all be better off and perhaps I can cut back on my sports talk.

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Josh Spears has one wife and 3.25 children. When he’s not teaching things to students at The Academy and UCO, he reads, takes naps and yells at televised sporting events.