Stephen Colbert argues that faith matters a lot
This column is part of our ongoing opinion commentary on faith, called Living our faith. Find the complete series here.
The very day I finished reading a new tonic book, Paul Kahn’s Testimonya memoir about family betrayal, revenge, and lack of love and mercy, someone sent me a clip of late-night host Stephen Colbert explaining how his faith ties into his comedy.
The intersection of the two themes got me thinking about the nature of faith and how its presence or absence can profoundly change our lives.
Colbert talks about the connection between humor, sacrifice and hope that are linked to his faith. Kahn, a Yale University jurist, sees his parents’ lives as a secular parable of a post-religious world in which forgiveness is impossible and hope in the face of death is no longer viable.
In different ways, Kahn and Colbert argue that faith matters a lot. This is remarkable at a time when Americans seem increasingly prone to indifference to religion and when churches seem largely unable to communicate a fundamental message that persuades ordinary Americans that religion provides something indispensable.
Surveys of American religious practice show an increase in a new category, called nuns, people with no specific religious affiliation or commitment. The early evidence, according to separate research by several groups, is that after COVID, a significant percentage of practicing former believers will not return to church. The loss of faith apparently occurs without really feeling that something important has been lost. While some may stop attending services out of rebellion or lack of interest, often the drop in attendance is not related to particular teachings, but to corruption in our churches, betrayal by the leaders of the church of the very teachings they espouse.
Kahn describes the aftermath of his mother’s confession, at the age of 75, to an affair that occurred more than three decades earlier. His father takes this as an opportunity to capitalize on the sense he has always had of himself as a victim. Instead of the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation, their few remaining years would be consumed by his insidious passion to make him pay for his betrayal.
Kahn sees his father as the epitome of modern disbelief: “an entirely secular person, he believed in justice, not forgiveness”. The materialistic view of human life in which death has the last word means that we live in a world of “bodies emptied of mysteries”. This view of human life may free us from the weight of certain types of religious guilt and fear, but it leaves us with other unmanageable burdens. This weakens our motivation and our practice of forgiveness. It also overwhelms us with a paralyzing void in the face of death. Without religious ritual, even the comfort of palliative care does little more than provide a “place to go from hope to despair.”
The title Testimony is ironic since the book is not a confession of faith but a confession of the devastating effects of the absence of faith. The result is a dark and painful memoir, a story without laughter or joy. Kahn’s memoirs provide negative confirmation of the teaching of the brilliant professor, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, that “forgiveness releases us from the past” and “breaks the irreversibility of reaction and revenge.”
It is remarkable how closely Colbert’s comments on faith mirror Kahn’s. Colbert ties his faith to “the idea of love and sacrifice, of being somehow related and giving oneself to others. And that death is not a defeat. The main sign of hope in the face of death is laughter. Colbert explains: “laughter prevents you from being afraid of it. [death]. And fear is the thing that makes you turn to evil devices to save you from sadness.
Fear and sadness are precisely what robs the elder Kahn—and through him his entire family—of the possibility of humor, joviality, or laughter. In a terrifying confirmation of Colbert’s observation, Kahn depicts a life of continually turning to evil devices as a way to deal with betrayal and self-pity grief.
That we should turn to a secular jurist and comedian for deep reflections on the difference faith makes is a sign of the banality of statements by so many religious leaders in our time. Quite differently, Kahn and Colbert remind us of what we stand to lose when we lose religion—a lesson as important for religious leaders as it is for non-religious leaders.
Thomas S. Hibbs is a professor of philosophy at Baylor University. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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