Nearly 70 years ago, the liberal Protestant theologian Paul Tillich published The Courage to Be. This rather absurd book, which I cannot pretend to have read through, was once considered very important to the sorts of Life magazine readers who found that they needed respectable-sounding reasons for not believing in God while continuing to enjoy whatever social benefits were then still attached to attending services at mainline Protestant churches.
Still, I cannot pretend that Tillich’s existential theology has zero explanatory power. More than half a century later there are still “those who ask for a message in the nothingness of their situation and at the end of their courage to be,” as Tillich put it in his decidedly non-systematic Systematic Theology.
I am talking, of course, about fans of the Detroit Lions. Whenever I am asked by a non-Michigander about my NFL rooting interest, I always respond on Tillichian grounds that the Lions are not a professional football team with a fan base—they are a radical existential proposition to which one must respond with an unhesitating affirmation in order to declare one’s vitality in the face of absolute meaninglessness.
All of which is to say asking whether someone is a Lions fan is a kind of category mistake. At the basic level of whether the Lions are the pro team whose fortunes I follow most eagerly and whose success matters most to me, the answer is no. (As it happens, I finally outed myself as a Patriots fan in 2020, at the team’s 20-year low point, in order to vindicate my position that Bill Belichick would be fine without Tom Brady; like rootless cosmopolitans everywhere last year, I bought low and sold high on a team that is now playing the best defense in the country behind the best rookie quarterback drafted in 2021). But whether I am a “fan” is not the right question.
Instead, I maintain, it would be better to ask whether I have what Tillich called “absolute faith” in the Lions. For Tillich, absolute faith meant an openness to the experience of being “which is present even in the face of the most radical manifestation of non being,” which is a needlessly abstract way of referring to the 0-16 2008 season. “Even in the state of despair,” the one with absolute faith is he who “has enough being to make despair possible,” that is, to continue watching each absurdly close fourth-quarter loss. Finally, he says, absolute faith means making one’s peace with the possibility of utter meaninglessness:
Meaninglessness, as long as it is experienced, includes an experience of the “power of acceptance.” To accept this power of acceptance consciously is the religious answer of absolute faith, of a faith which has been deprived by doubt of any concrete content, which nevertheless is faith and the source of the most paradoxical manifestation of the courage to be.
Just as Tillich insisted that absolute faith can overcome anything, even the non-existence of God in the sense in which He is defined by classical theorists, so too, I like to think, can my free, radically un-coerced commitment to Detroit transcend the metaphysical void that is the history of our beloved franchise.
Besides, there are other reasons for supporting the Lions that, while consonant with Tillich, transcend his tedious mid-century existentialism. A great deal is talked in conservative circles about the meaning of “place,” about the radical thrown-ness of loyalties, allegiances, and preferences—all those winsome little attachments that one is forced to confront simply by virtue of having been born under particular circumstances, in a given place, time, and so on. If you want to understand what it means really to love a place and an institution, a whole way of life in fact, in a way that transcends—or simply elides—every base utilitarian calculation, I can offer no better example than the Lions’ extremely devoted fan base.
Indeed, I cannot think of a better illustration of the so-called conservative virtues, of what serious regard for natural unquestioned affinities looks like in practice, than my mother’s first cousin, a union shop steward who regularly attends home games and with whom I grew up watching the annual Thanksgiving hecatomb.
Which is why I have no difficulty whatever saying that today, before a national Thanksgiving audience of many millions, the 0-9-1 Lions will beat the Chicago Bears with an undrafted free agent quarterback whose last season as a starter (in 2017) involved throwing for 11 touchdowns and 13 interceptions at Eastern Kentucky University. This is not because I have anything so hopelessly naive as “faith” in a sense that would be understandable to fans of, say, the Cowboys, who rightly expect to beat the ailing Raiders later in the afternoon, but precisely because I do not have it. I have instead something more radical: the courage, fleeting and imperfect but in the moment a source of extraordinary vitality, to be a Lions fan.
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor of The American Conservative.