On the same day that I was finishing reading a bracing new book, Paul Kahn's Testimony, a memoir about family betrayal, vengeance and the lack of love and mercy, someone sent me a clip of late night host Stephen Colbert discussing how his faith is connected to his comedy.
The intersection of the two themes set me thinking about the nature of faith and how its presence or absence can profoundly change our lives.
Colbert speaks about the connection among humor, sacrifice, and hope that are bound up in his faith. Kahn, a Yale University legal scholar, sees in his parents' lives a secular parable of a post-religious world in which forgiveness is impossible and hope in the face of death is no longer sustainable.
In different ways, Kahn and Colbert make the case that faith matters a great deal. This is noteworthy at a time when Americans seem increasingly inclined to indifference toward religion and when churches seem largely incapable of communicating a core message that persuades ordinary Americans that religion provides something indispensable.
Surveys of American religious practice show a rise in a new category, called the nones, people with no specific religious affiliation or commitment. Early evidence, according to separate research by several groups, is that, post-COVID, a significant percentage of formerly practicing believers will not be returning to church. The loss of faith occurs seemingly without much of a sense that anything significant has been lost. While some may stop attending services out of rebellion or lack of interest, often the decline in attendance is not about particular teachings, but about the corruption in our churches, the betrayal by church leaders of the very teachings they espouse.
Kahn describes the aftermath of his mother's confession, at the age of 75, of an affair that occurred more than three decades earlier. His father takes that as an occasion to capitalize on his lifelong sense 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 her pay for her betrayal.
Kahn sees his father as the embodiment of modern unbelief: "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." That vision of human life may liberate us from the weight of certain types of religious guilt and fear but it leaves us with other, unmanageable burdens. It weakens our motivation for, and practice of, forgiveness. It also saddles us with a paralyzing emptiness in the face of death. Without religious ritual, even the comforts of hospice care do nothing more than provide a "place to adjust from hope to hopelessness."
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 grim and painful memoir, a story void of laughter or joy. Kahn's memoir provides negative confirmation of the teaching of the brilliant teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, that "forgiveness liberates us from the past" and "breaks the irreversibility of reaction and revenge."
It is remarkable how closely Colbert's comments about faith mirror those of Kahn. Colbert links his faith to the "idea of love and sacrifice, being somehow related and giving yourselves to other people. And that death is not defeat." The chief sign of hopefulness in the face of death is laughter. Colbert explains: "laughter keeps you from having fear of it [death]. And fear is the thing that keeps you turning to evil devices to save you from sadness."
Fear and sadness are precisely what deprive the elder Kahn — and through him his whole family — of the possibility of humor, joviality or laughter. In a terrifying confirmation of Colbert's observation, Kahn depicts a life of continual turning to evil devices as a way of reckoning with betrayal and self-pitying sorrow.
That we should need to turn to a secular legal scholar and a comedian for profound reflections on the difference that faith makes is a sign of how banal are the utterances of so many religious leaders in our time. In quite different ways, Kahn and Colbert remind us what we might lose when we lose religion — a lesson as important for religious leaders as it is for the nones.