If, ten years ago, someone had told me that today I would be writing an article about the theology of a late-night talk show host, I wouldn’t have believed it. Picturing Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Conan O’Brien – I would have thought: What would there be to write about?
Yet here we are in a day in which late-night hosts have left behind some of the cynicism of the past in favor of the fundamentals of comedy. We smile at Jimmy Fallon’s infectious joy and marvel at Stephen Colbert’s ability to combine moments of hilarity with moments of gravity as he talks with his guests.
Faith in Late-Night TV
I’m glad to see this refreshing shift in late-night television. I’m also glad to see that, in the midst of our secular age, a comedian like Stephen Colbert would be so open about his Catholicism. In a recent episode of Witness, Colbert answered questions from Thomas Rosica about the persona he created on The Colbert Report, the need for humor and faith, and the interplay between faith, facts, and feelings.
Now, it’s rare to see performers of this stature speaking so openly (and positively) about faith – with no qualms or equivocations. Even more rare is the performer who displays so much knowledge of his church’s teaching and history. Colbert retells stories from the Gospels, references Thomas Aquinas, summarizes C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, and critiques Anselm of Canterbury. It’s remarkable to see a public figure speak not about “having faith” in general, but about a faith in particular.
The “Fool for Christ”
In the interview, Colbert describes his persona on the Colbert Report as a “pundit” – someone who is blissfully unaware of important facts, but confident in the rightness of his feelings. Colbert’s created persona acted on whatever he felt to be true. He was a “well-intentioned,” but “poorly informed idiot.” The humor came from Colbert’s willingness to “play the fool” for nine years, to mine the depths of stupidity in search for the unexpected, which evokes laughter.
According to Colbert, “idiocy” is when your good intentions and feelings overwhelm your judgment to the point you dismiss facts that might challenge your beliefs. Impervious to reason, Colbert’s alter ego is a fool “because he doesn’t act according to logic, and social norms, and expectations.”
Right then, Rosica shifts the conversation to what it means to be a “fool for Christ.” That’s when Colbert defines foolishness for Christ as the willingness “to be wrong in society, or wrong according to our time, but right according to our conscience, as guided by the Holy Spirit.”
Faithfulness as Living By Your Conscience
In Colbert’s definition of a “fool for Christ,” we see a snapshot of how many people in our society envision faithfulness: living according to your conscience no matter what the world says. There is a biblical impulse toward non-conformity in that definition, as well as a nod toward freedom of conscience, a right that is at the heart of every free society.
Colbert’s definition goes further than Jiminy Cricket’s counsel to always “let conscience be your guide” because he includes the role of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, his definition would be stronger had he gone even further.
In a secular age in which finding and expressing one’s “authentic self” is the main purpose of humanity, the desire to “live according to your conscience no matter what the world says” could easily be hijacked by the non-conforming impulse already present in our most popular books and films. It could be twisted into nothing more than a religious way of saying, “Be yourself” or “Be true to your heart.”
Something Greater Than Your Conscience
If “foolishness for Christ” must go beyond the appeal to conscience, where else do we turn?
Colbert mentions the Holy Spirit. A more traditional Catholic might add the Church, considering the Catholic Church’s vision of authority. Protestants who believe in sola Scriptura would say Scripture. (Luther appealed to his conscience, but he described his conscience as “captive to the Word of God.”)
Whatever the case, surely something outside ourselves must serve as ultimate authority. Otherwise, anyone can follow the dictates of their conscience and claim to be living an authentic Christian life.
If being a “fool for Christ” means following the dictates of your conscience (directed by the Holy Spirit), does this mean one is willing to be wrong, not just in the eyes of the world, but also the eyes of your Church? Or willing to live according to your conscience even if you find it contradicted by God’s Word? Furthermore, what happens when the feelings of one “fool for Christ” differ from the feelings of another?
Faith and Feelings
These questions stimulate further questions about the relationship between faith and feeling. In the interview, Colbert references Anselm’s proof for God’s existence – proof he believes to be “logically perfect” and “completely unsatisfying.” He explains:
“Faith ultimately can’t be argued. Faith has to be felt.”
Faith, for Colbert, is the settled conviction of feeling – something that must be expressed and experienced rather than explained.
Colbert immediately clarifies that he does not want to establish a dichotomy between faith and feeling. “Hopefully, you can still feel your faith fully,” he says, “and let your mind have a logical life of its own. And they do not defy each other, but complement each other.” Then, admitting he may be contradicting Aquinas’ view of human reason, Colbert says,
“Logic itself will not lead me to God, but my love of the world and my gratitude for it will.”
I could write two or three blog posts just on that one line about gratitude. Anyone familiar with Christian apologetics recognizes the limits of argumentation purely on the basis of logic and reason. Christian persuasiveness must include the corporate witness of the church, the beauty of the biblical story, and the general revelation of creation. And, with Colbert, evangelicals resonate with the idea that faith is something to be experienced, not merely explained.
Nevertheless, if we ground our ultimate authority in the faith we feel, we may wind up reducing faith to “personal belief.” In our secular age, faith retreats into the private feeling of one’s heart, where it peeks over the hedges only when it becomes a way to express one’s identity.
God, Give Us True Fools
Colbert’s definition is a start toward what it means to be foolish for Christ in the eyes of the world, but there is much more to be said – a richer and deeper foolishness we should aspire to.
What are the beliefs or practices that seem hopelessly out of step with the times, for which we are willing to be labeled “fools?”
How can we make sure that in our affirmation of faith we do not become like Colbert’s idiotic alter ego and instead become more like Dostoevsky’s Idiot, the kind of person who exudes an irresistible joy even while facing ridicule for being so “wrong” according to society?
Even better, how can we better resemble the Apostle Paul, who counted everything (including his good works and all his religious observance) as loss compared to the all-surpassing worth of knowing Jesus as Lord?
Those are questions I never expected to be prompted by a late-night TV host.