Tebow’s Faith and Ours

A friend just alerted me to Daniel Foster’s thought-provoking article on Tim Tebow. I am sure that a number of you will have read it before, and will be familiar with (and perhaps exhausted by) the discussion surrounding Tebow’s faith and his public expression of it. However, the article makes a very good point, and one which I think worthy of closer examination and elaboration.

Foster claims that at the root of the criticism and annoyance at Tebow’s open demonstration of his faith:

has to do with the curious double standard that seems to be in place when it comes to an athlete’s religiosity. With very few exceptions … athletes’ professions of faith strike most believers, nonbelievers, and agnostics alike as empty ritual, an extended solipsism in which big men with bigger egos congratulate themselves for having God on their side. How could it be otherwise? We see that in fact so many of them are supremely arrogant — materialists, abusers, and lechers. We’ve become cynical and secular enough as a society that this dissonance doesn’t bother most people. The hypocrisy is actually sort of comforting, a confirmation that that old hokum in the Bible has no bearing on the world as it actually is. It’s the same sort of glee you see from some when Christian politicians and ministers are felled by all-too-human moral — especially sexual — foibles.

By contrast, Tebow is the last Boy Scout. A leader on the field and off who spent his college years not indulging in any of the worldly pleasures afforded to Heisman Trophy winners, but doing missionary work in Thailand; helping overworked doctors perform circumcisions in the Philippines (you read that right); and preaching at schools, churches, and even prisons. This is a young man with such a strong work ethic that, according to teammates, he can’t even be coaxed into hitting the town on a night after a Broncos win, because he is too busy preparing for the next week’s game. This is a young man who even turned the other cheek at Stephen Tulloch’s Tebowing, saying, “He was probably just having fun and was excited he made a good play and had a sack. And good for him.”

That’s way too much earnestness for the ironic. It’s way too much idealism for the cynical. And it’s way too much selflessness for the self-absorbed. In short, people aren’t upset at Tebow’s God talk. They’re upset that he might actually believe it.

As Slavoj Žižek observes, in the contemporary West, fundamentalists – people who genuinely believe, fully and without reservation – are the barbarians.

And, perhaps, the prohibition to embrace a belief with a full passion explains why, today, “culture” is emerging as the central life-world category. Religion is permitted — not as a substantial way of life, but as a particular “culture” or, rather, life-style phenomenon: what legitimizes it is not its immanent truth-claim but the way it allows us to express out innermost feelings and attitudes. We no longer “really believe,” we just follow (some of the) religious rituals and mores as part of the respect for the “life-style” of the community to which we belong (recall the proverbial non-believing Jew who obeys kosher rules “out of respect for tradition”). “I do not really believe in it, it is just part of my culture” effectively seems to be the predominant mode of the disavowed/displaced belief characteristic of our times: what is a “cultural life-style” if not the fact that, although we do not believe in Santa Claus, there is a Christmas tree in every house and even in public places every December? Perhaps, then, “culture” is the name for all those things we practice without really believing in them, without “taking them seriously.” Is this not also the reason why science is not part of this notion of culture — it is all too real? And is this also not why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as “barbarians,” as anti-cultural, as a threat to culture — they dare to take seriously their beliefs? Today, we ultimately perceive as a threat to culture those who immediately live their culture, those who lack a distance towards it.

Such an attitude is especially characteristic of our generation. We wish to retain a distance from our beliefs (although, as Žižek remarks, science gets a pass on this front), not taking them seriously enough to see them as making powerful claims upon ourselves and – heaven forfend! – upon others. We hold them, but we must not allow them to hold us.

Such an attitude is also widely present among Christians. We can feel profoundly uneasy about someone who does not maintain a sufficient detachment from the faith, and takes it too seriously. For instance, when a benighted fundamentalist Christian speaks about ‘the lost’, which characterizes others contrary to their preferred self-descriptions, imposing an identity upon them and recognizing the demands of an unacknowledged objective and un-privatized truth over them, many professing Christians will wince at the gall and the insensitivity.

In order to feel secure, justified, and self-assured in our unbelief, we view all others with a cynical and critical gaze, with the jaundiced eye that colours all it sees. The fundamentalist ‘true believers’ are merely ignorant, players of power games, or hypocrites. The transparent and genuine faith of someone like Tebow offends us precisely because it exposes the degree to which our own lives are characterized by a profound detachment and self-protective distance from anything that might demand our ultimate loyalty, service, and love. It cuts through our rationalizations and exposes the lie that grounds them. I am including myself throughout, because this is a sin that I recognize in myself: I have been powerfully shaped by a sort of theological training that often celebrates and cultivates exactly such a detachment and distance from faith.

Far too much contemporary cutting edge Christian thought is merely concerned with the sophisticated rationalization of unbelief for a theologically elitist crowd who believe that their cultured distance from faith makes them closer to God. We celebrate a faith that has shrunk in the wash, cloaking our unbelief with tortured exegesis or by ‘cutting a scandalizing God down to the size of our believing.’ Rather than lamenting our unbelief, we can re-characterize it as a more profound form of faith.

In such a context, our entire confession of faith can operate as if it were between ‘air quotes’, attenuated by countless qualifications and reservations, and most powerfully by our cultivated distance. While it is still confessed, we need to beware of taking it too seriously. Such an attitude can pervade many contexts, even where very good things are said in principle. Our cynicism, disillusion, and indifference make it difficult for us to throw ourselves unreservedly into believing anything, being moved by anything, or surrendering ourselves to any truth.

My generation reacts against the (often only supposed) hypocrisy of their parents. However, rather than responding with transparent, undivided, and wholehearted devotion to truth, we do it by removing the precondition of hypocrisy’s possibility. Where a distance to and detachment from truth is presented as the norm, both unbelief and hypocrisy cease to mean much. If truth doesn’t exert strong claims upon our lives and world, we will feel considerably less pressure to cloak our unbelief and practical rejection of it. Unbelief and hypocrisy are only really sins to which those who live in a world that demands full involvement are vulnerable.

It seems to me that a change has occurred in the attitudes of many. Whereas once the moral failure of a professed Christian may have been met with a greater degree of sorrow, a contemporary response is more likely to be one of schadenfreude, even to some extent from other Christians. The early response was occasioned by a desire to uphold belief in the possibility of wholehearted sincerity: the contemporary response is occasioned by a desire to uphold belief in the impossibility or inadvisability of believing anything too strongly, or of holding to a moral standard that makes clear and unambiguous demands of you and others. I suspect that this desire to justify our cynical detachment, distance, and non-involvement, is also visible in the contemporary delight in revisionist history that reveals all of the failures of our parents’ heroes, and our instant distrust of all politicians and leaders (of which more in a post tomorrow).

Within our context, we may speak of a desire for engaging with the ‘other’, but as Žižek recognizes, by this we refer to an ‘other’ evacuated of his otherness.

There are two topics which determine today’s liberal tolerant attitude towards Others: the respect of Otherness, openness towards it, AND the obsessive fear of harassment — in short, the Other is OK insofar as its presence is not intrusive, insofar as the Other is not really Other… This is what is more and more emerging as the central “human right” in late-capitalist society: the right not to be harassed, i.e., to be kept at a safe distance from the others.

We speak of ‘community’, but we really want is not the messy, uncomfortable, and invasive reality of belonging to one another, but the ersatz community created in a temporary feeling of togetherness. Perhaps the greatest lie of all is found in our claim that we want ‘authenticity’, when what we really want is a simulated, decaffeinated authenticity, something that looks like the real thing, but which is altogether more comfortable and less demanding.

In other ways, our language has been thoroughly infected by our posture of distance. This infection perverts our speech so that even our speech about faith becomes a means of unbelief, creating a poisonous atmosphere in which nothing gets taken too seriously, and we slowly inure ourselves to the claims of Christ, inoculating ourselves against genuine faith, by injecting ourselves with a weakened dose. This is why I love my faithful fundamentalist friends: they force me to be far more critical of my own tendency to rationalize my unbelief and uphold anything less than a faith that ‘demands my soul, my life, my all’.

Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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5 Responses to Tebow’s Faith and Ours

  1. Mack Ramer says:

    As I’ve said on Twitter, I’m of two minds on this post. You’re dead right about how a double standard is being applied to Tebow. But your broader comment is what needled me, particularly this:
    “The transparent and genuine faith of someone like Tebow offends us precisely because it exposes the degree to which our own lives are characterized by a profound detachment and self-protective distance from anything that might demand our ultimate loyalty, service, and love.”

    This is absolutely true, and absolutely tragic.

    Your comments about community really get to the heart of it. We insist on this distance, this non-imposition. But why? I say: because it’s necessary to function, and to love, in the world as it is today. The necessity stems from the exclusivism embedded in the orthodox expressions of every major religion; in mine, we say “extra ecclesiam nulla salus.” But our neighbors, friends, even family today often have *radically* different religious beliefs from us. They may be Hindus, non-Trinitarian Christians, atheists, etc. Orthodoxy, then, and the exclusivism it implies, becomes an insuperable obstacle to loving relationships with these people. How can I believe that my best friend, my brother or even my mother is almost certainly going to suffer (or is currently suffering) eternal torment after death?

    This doesn’t imply that the non-orthodox/relativists’ claims are /true/; but I hope it does show that these postures can be adopted from love, not solely from selfishness.


    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Mack. My personal experience certainly resonates with much that you have said here.

      I wonder whether our issue is our inability maturely to grapple with the distress caused by the tension between our liberalism and the teachings of the Christian faith. By ‘liberalism’ I am not referring to a particular political denomination, but to the core convictions that shape contemporary social, ethical, political, and religious viewpoints, convictions with a particular historical provenance and genealogy. To some extent or other, we are all liberals now. These convictions include such things as an utter rejection of all that smacks of cruelty or imposition upon the other, the individual as a primary unit of explanation, a clear public/private divide, the private and personal character of faith, the equality of all and a distrust of strong differentiation within society, an ethics governed by the harm principle, articulated within the context of our methodological and theoretical individualism, a wariness about particularism, a commitment to a voluntaristic account of freedom, whose form is necessarily radically undetermined, etc.

      This set of convictions has entered into our bloodstream and now operates at the level of our instinctual and visceral response to the world, not least because, as you observe, it makes life in a pluralistic society in which we truly care about our neighbour bearable. However, it is quite contrary to the tenets of the Christian faith at several points. My concern is that the distance that we take serves as a means by which we avoid the crucible of existential distress that this tension between the faith and our core responses creates. Rather than entering into this trial as persons fully invested in life and faith, as persons with our souls on the line, we have checked out and stepped back.

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