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colbert-witnessIf, 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.

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17 thoughts on “Stephen Colbert on Being a “Fool for Christ””

  1. Keith says:

    It seems the interviewer should have asked the follow up question, “How do we know when the Holy Spirit is speaking?” I think that could have then led to questions of ultimate authority, whether it be the church or God and his Word.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      That’s a great question. I’d love to see how he would answer that, especially considering his beliefs that are out of step with his church’s teaching.

      1. Terry says:

        How do you know about his beliefs that are “out of step” with his church’s teaching? I’ve read or watched every interview he’s given publicly, and haven’t noticed anything out of step. I am amazed by the way he articulates his faith and he gives me so much hope.

  2. john mosher says:

    Sorry. This is something I would expect to see in Time magazine. Colbert’s sister has run for office here in SC and he has given her his full backing. She is pro abortion as is he. It seems his “faith’ has never interfered with his far left political positions that lead to selling baby parts.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Yes, you are pointing out the reasons I mentioned in my post why his definition of “foolishness” needs to be significantly stronger. Appealing to one’s conscience as guided by the Holy Spirit makes no sense if someone, as a Catholic, believes the Spirit has guided the Church to the proper teaching, and yet your conscience counters that Spirit-led teaching.

      You might also check out the article I wrote about his graduation address this year, which appears to be a nod toward relativism.

  3. CJ says:

    I think this article very positively and accurately highlights the pros of Colbert’s role, his openness to discussing faith, and his faith background.

    I would only add that it is likely Colbert is referencing ‘conscience’ out of regard for the Catholic catechism, which also refers to our consciences in Article 6 saying: “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”

    Romans 2 is also referenced by the catechism in Article 6.

    For the record, Catholics appeal to *both* Scripture *and* Church tradition as outside authorities (not one or the other).

    Great article! God bless.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Yes, I recognize that Catholics refer to conscience as well, and I’m familiar with the Catechism’s teaching on Scripture and church tradition.

      Still, I do not believe his definition is sufficient. A start, perhaps, but it immediately runs into problems. The deficiency shows up in his own moral views, some of which are in contradiction to the Church’s teaching. His appeal to conscience, in those cases, stands over against the Church, and that leads him to a place more in line with liberal Protestantism than Catholicism. It is a raising of conscience over both the Church *and* God’s Word.

      As a Baptist, I believe Scripture alone is the supreme source of authority and must stand outside and over both the church and the conscience. So, yes, as a Baptist, I too would appeal to conscience, but — like Luther — would say it must be “captive to the Word of God.”

      1. Ike Lentz says:

        But scripture has to be interpreted by individuals, so again it comes back to individual conscience and the Holy Spirit. I think Colbert is right on about that.

        1. Kathie Wheeler says:

          The Bible is the Word of God. Men who wrote these books were inspired by the God, the Holy Spirit. Our consciences are only worth anything if we allow the Holy Spirit to lead us. Through prayer, worship, song, reading His Word, meditation can we be lead by our God, the Holy Soirit.

  4. Andre says:

    I am going to be honest about you article because it struck me the wrong way.
    Colbert is maybe not 100% on the train that some of us are in terms of speaking with precision but he still referenced the Holy Spirit during an interview. The fact that he speaks openly about faith is a fantastic. I become less liking of your article when after every faith related topic he adresses you step in clarify what is true or how it could have been stated better.
    Have you been in a situation where you only spoke 100% doctrinally correct for the full interview and nothing you said could have been added upon or clarified to a more full extent?
    Why is it that you have the authority to correct and clarify or make addition to?
    I see this all of the time in Christianity-We talk to each other with the utmost care of how our words are used because we have another language (some people call it chistianese) we are operating in and we don’t want to be criticized for speaking incorrectly according to the doctrine we hold. It is just possible that this is more pervasive in the reformed sect than others but none the less it is there. It was hard to read your article because it reads as a back handed compliment.
    Just my perspective and I hope you can take it and do with it what you will.
    The Catholic Church does have the advantage of heirarchy on which certain people have authority and others not as much, which means they don’t have 50,000 talking heads on one subject matter, as well as the need to clarify everything about one another’s words all
    of the time.

    1. Terry says:

      I agree, and was pleasantly shocked that he referenced the Holy Spirit more than once – he also said that’s why he thinks the pope is so joyful. because he is filled with the Holy Spirit. I mean, Colbert is someone who is reaching millions of people every night now. Spreading joy and his own personal faith. If you haven’t seen his interview with Joe Biden, it was also very lovely and hopeful.

  5. I am sure you mean this last part differently than expressed, but just in case…

    As a Christian, Scripture reveals God the Father as the Supreme Authority over all matters and all things. Scripture is not canonical because we say so and it has no authority except that given by God. It does not matter what I believe, He stands alone above, Scripture, the Church, and your conscience.

    I am not trying to be divisive and expect you will agree, and while a small bit of semantics, I think it is significant.

  6. Nick says:

    This is a fair article about what many of us wish Stephen Colbert had said in his many recent interviews. Insofar as it goes, I think most Evangelicals would echo many of your thoughts. I certainly do.

    And yet, I am left wondering: if one of the parishioners of the average Evangelical congregation had a similar level of faith, would they be as articulate in explaining it? As winsome? Would they demonstrate the level of reliance on their faith that Mr. Colbert seems to? These are questions without answers. But I find it highly unlikely that most Evangelicals are tossing around Anselm and Aquinas (correctly) in their every day conversations as a result of personal reflection on their respective philosophies. The task remains for those of us who preach and teach the Gospel to partner with the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Scriptures and to encourage a robust inner life.

    I don’t know what to make of Mr. Colbert as a public figure at this point, but I’m grateful for the apparent surprise of so many of those who enjoyed his work on The Daily Show to hear of his faith and his lack of embarrassment at it, and for the opportunity it affords to us to speak about Biblical Christianity.

  7. Moe Bergeron says:

    Before God made me alive by His Spirit I was a (good) practicing Roman Catholic. Not even once did I ever hear that we must be born again. Never once was I ever told that I would receive the Holy Spirit upon. conversion. I was never told that Christ died once and for all for all of my sin, sins past, present and future. Never once was ever I told that the sacrament of Confirmation could not give me the Holy Spirit. Never once was I told that the Roman Catholic church did not believe in baptismal regeneration. Colbert may or may not be a genuine born again Christian. God is his judge.

    What I am trying to say is that I am not excited about articles that appear to communicate that Roman Catholics who speak of their faith and experience the presence of the Holy Spirit believe God’s word as do evangelicals. Let’s be honest with our Roman Catholic friends and call them to repentance and faith.

  8. Tamara says:

    I am disheartened by this article. I have been a Christian for most of my life, and lately have had a hopeless outlook about the church as an institution, including the catholic church. Colbert radiates pure joy, and gives me hope that a religion based on love, joy, and service to others could possibly exist. He reconciles his faith with his comedy, intellect, and logic. It is deeply personal and meaningful that he speaks of the power of the Holy Spirit in his life. He wasn’t giving an academic speech about nit-picking the definitions of words, he was expressing his wholly singular experience with his faith and how it has stretched him to reach outward to others.

  9. Mark says:

    Well, it is easy for Colbert to “say” he is a Christian. His left wing ideology bleeds through all the time. Then there is the Trump tirade –
    Not sure I would use him as an example of anything Christian. Catholicism preaches a false gospel of faith + works, idolatrous worship, denies sola Scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide. Terrible article.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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