When Stephen Colbert is asked what his image of God is, of course he says something that’s funny. Or is it?
Actually, the first thing one of the most mouthy Americans on TV does when asked about God is demur.
“I’m embarrassed by the limitations of my ability to talk about it,” Colbert tells his friend, the author Rev. James Martin, on Faith in Focus Thursday night.
The two men are famous in their own spheres — Martin is one of the country’s few pop culture priests, the “official chaplain” of Colbert’s mega-hit show The Colbert Report, which ended in 2014, and a well-known advocate for LGBT Catholics. Colbert is, well, Colbert.
But on the show, which runs on the Jesuit site America, Colbert rather shyly attempts to do something a lot of Americans just don’t do: Talk openly and in detail about what, or who, exactly, they think God is.
Colbert explains in a couple of ways that God, to him, is something mystical. He works to shift God from the material to supernatural realm. He tells Martin this is a longtime practice of his, making this effort to acknowledge another level of things, to know that what you see isn’t all there is.
“It’s Christ. It’s Jesus,” he says when Martin asks him what God is to him. “It’s not the Old Testament God. As soon as I imagine God, a literal imagery, I think of Jesus and that image dissolves because I then try to subsume that single image into the trinity … And it becomes a bit of like one of those amorphous creatures made of pure energy from Star Trek.”
“Which is fine,” the priest in the talk show setting encourages.
Colbert then says he has a “strange trick” he’s been playing versions of on himself since he was a young man, where “I often try to convince myself the world is different than it is.”
“Let’s say I’m at a cafeteria in college. I’d pick up a piece of broccoli and hold it up.” He then describes a mind game in which he tries to see if he can get his brain to wonder whether this broccoli, when dropped, will go down or up. If Colbert can surprise himself, that is good — it shows he’s willing to imagine other aspects of existence beyond this “gravit-o-centric one,” he says, this very concrete world we see.
Seeing God is similar, he tells Martin. He believes and wants to see “God as love.” Seeing God as love, as a kind of “opening and upward” — like bay windows — is about freedom, acceptance.
“My habitual prayer, is — whatever intentions I may have in my prayer, whatever I may offer up, I ask for ability to love. ‘If I can love, I’ll be free. As I love you, Lord, let this be.’ That’s sort of how I end every prayer after communion.”
Colbert also tells Martin in the interview about the times he’s fallen away from faith, “to my great grief.” He tells the priest about a powerful moment of return he had in his 20s, on a frigid Chicago street, when a stranger gave the anxious young man a Bible. The Bible was frozen and had to be snapped open.
He opened to a scripture against worry. It was the first time Colbert said he understood what it meant for scripture to “speak to” you.
Colbert and comic Jim Gaffigan, who appeared on Martin’s show last month, on the first episode, have spoken often about their Catholic faith.
But the America show — which aims to get progressive Christians, mostly, to discuss their faith lives — goes a bit deeper. It shows a new boldness on the left to not only dabble in faith but also to challenge the culture’s awkwardness about the G-word.
Jonathan Merritt, a progressive Christian writer who just this summer came out with a book about what he calls “a quiet crisis” (our inability and discomfort talking about God), said Thursday that his research for the book shows a desire for “fresh metaphors that are unique to our own time.” The patriarchal, power-centric metaphors for God “while helpful, are products of their time. … We are recovering a theological imagination. Something gets lost when we fail to engage our imaginations about God.”
Merritt, whose book is called “Learning to Speak God From Scratch,” said his research confirms the famous line by pastor-author A.W. Tozer: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
Whatever that word “God” means to us.
And to Colbert, it meant a story about broccoli. And Star Trek. And a frozen Bible.
Martin said that question about the image of God is a classic for spiritual ‘directors’ or teachers to ask. He said he’s asked it of other celebrities who will appear on the show.
“The great thing is, you can never pinpoint it — it’s always a person’s experience. It depends on their relationship with God,” he said. “One of my favorites is someone who said they picture God sitting across from them at a campfire.”