Colbert on Faith: Logic Has Nothing to Do with It

Stephen Colbert is talking about his faith again, this time with Father Thomas Rosica, the Vatican’s English language spokesman for the Holy See and CEO of Salt and Light Television. In the short clip below, taken from an interview that will air Sept. 13 on the show Witness, Colbert shows off some impressive philosophical chops by throwing out a casual mention of St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument, followed by a similarly casual description of said argument for God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”

He then describes Anselm’s thinking as both flawlessly logical and “completely unsatisfying,” and of course he has a point, though not necessarily for the reasons he thinks. Anselm does fail to convince, but I don’t think logic is the reason for his failure. Colbert, however, does. Watch for yourself.

“Faith ultimately can’t be argued. Faith must be felt,” he argues.

Okay, that was a cheap shot, but it does get at the problem that arises with certain claims of feeling-based faith. Colbert’s reasons for believing are actually quite logical. He loves the world and feels grateful toward it (these are the same premises he mentioned in the GQ article from a couple of weeks ago), and as a result he chooses to direct that gratitude toward an entity he calls God. Judging by other interviews with Colbert, his faith extends beyond only this and actually takes on the contours of traditional Catholicism, but nevertheless here lies the foundation.

Experiential, yes. Illogical, no.

If he could be reached for comment, I suspect Anselm would say that he finds Colbert’s Gratitude Argument “completely unsatisfying,” but that does not make it illogical either.

There is a story in the gospel of John about the man healed of his blindness. When questioned by the authorities he claims a similarly experiential foundation for his faith. They cynically assert that Jesus is a sinner, to which the man responds, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25).

Faith need not be predicated on abstract reasoning, but it is supremely sensible, which brings up another important point about the foundation of faith. Saving faith is conditioned upon the work of the Spirit bearing witness to Christ in the heart of the believer. Without the work of the Spirit regenerating the heart of the person, saving faith is out of the question. As a result, any defense of faith in Christ, whether through rationalistic or experiential pleading, will fall on deaf ears if it is not attended to by the Spirit of Christ.

In this sense, Colbert makes a legitimate assertion. Faith must come from the regenerate heart properly acknowledging the truth of the Scriptures’ teaching about Jesus Christ. Like an infant smiling when her mother enters the room, the heart’s acknowledgment of its savior can appear more as a feeling than a considered argument. In this way, faith must be felt.

As in the case of the child’s acknowlegment, however, we would hope that the inarticulate feeling will blossom into full-blown knowledge with maturity and learning.

So, now that we know Colbert’s critique of Anselm, perhaps some enterprising reporter could coax him into a discussion of Calvin.

Consider the gauntlet thrown.

6 thoughts on “Colbert on Faith: Logic Has Nothing to Do with It

  1. There can be no proof of the unprovable. That’s why it’s called faith, not fact. I love Colbert, but it is becoming clearer and clearer to me that acceptance of (as compared to true belief in) a religious dogma, whatever flavor of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Mormonism, Scientology, Wicca, you name it, is the price of admission into that community which the believer desires to belong to. If it works for you, great. Accept that it is faith, though, and move on.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Let me start by affirming your two tautologies: one cannot prove the unprovable and belief is generally considered a prerequisite to membership in a believing community. The hard line you draw between proof, however, and fact (by which I assume you mean something like an observable, tested phenomon) is not so helpful. Humans make plenty of legitimate, even crucial, decisions based on criteria other than such facts. Then, of course, there is the obvious point that facts require interpretation–enter belief system.

  2. “Faith ultimately can’t be argued. Faith must be felt.”

    I think it would be a mistake to categorize Colbert’s sentiments as “feeling-based faith.” What Colbert is describing here more appropriately could be thought of as a non-foundationalist epistemology. Logic and argument and cognition and Reason (with a capital R) are insufficient for belief in God. The Holy Spirit himself must give us “eyes to see, and ears to hear” — and it is in this way that “faith must be felt” (as you later acknowledge in your post).

    Yes, faith is supremely sensible. And the child who loves its mother will mature and, as you note, “inarticulate feeling” ought to blossom into full-blown knowledge with maturity and learning. But again, I think this is exactly the type of sentiment that Colbert — albeit insufficiently — is trying to express. “Faith and logic,” in his words, can coexist and be extensions of one another. Faith doesn’t supplant or ignore reason, and vice versa.

    I think your points are generally valid, I just don’t think Colbert is the right target here. I think he would agree with you — and already did.

    1. I think we are in agreement for the most part, but I sense in his remarks a dichotomy between feeling and logic that is not entirely helpful. He seems to discount reason but then proceeds to make a reasoned argument for his faith, the premises of which are decidedly subjective (gratitude) but nevertheless sewn together with logical argument. I hope he means by it what you and I seem to agree is the role of the Spirit, but that isn’t what he seems to be saying. As an aside, I do think the Spirit can, and ordinarily does, work through the logical, clear presentations and defenses of the gospel (what we typically call evangelism and apologetics), so discounting logical argument kind of misses the point.

  3. Thanks for the discussion, Scott. Would you agree that the existence of God is unproveable in accord with a common understanding of “proof”?

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