As tempting as it is, in this essay I’m really not going to discuss Stephen Colbert’s comedic shtick or liberal ideology. My summary view, for what it’s worth, is that Colbert as a humorist is most often ridiculously funny, while as a political pundit he is sometimes simply ridiculous.
The caveat, of course, is that because Colbert is (probably?) first and foremost a comedian, I’m never entirely certain whether he is telling a joke or sharing his opinion. Still, when it comes to political views—especially on social issues—I suspect that he and I don’t have much in common.
As Christians, I’m also doubtful whether we would often agree on just how faith should inform our politics. Colbert is, I think inarguably, very committed to both his Catholic tradition and love of Christ. And while I think we agree on motivation and basic grounds—for instance, love matters—I just don’t see how Colbert’s religious commitments quite square with some of what seem to be his policy positions. He might think the same of me.
That said, I have only good things to say about Colbert’s view of human suffering expressed in his recent—and enormously popular and widely shared—conversation with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. The relevant portion of the wide-ranging discussion began with Cooper describing the recent death of his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt. With the subject of human suffering now contextualized in a deeply personal manner, Cooper referenced an interview Colbert had done in 2015 with GQ’s Joey Lovell. One focal point of that talk was, as Lovell put it, the “deaths of loved ones, the phases of our children’s lives hurtling by, jobs and relationships we never imagined would end. All of it.”
That’s to say it was, in a word, about loss, as was the poignant exchange between Colbert and Cooper. What is resonating with so many people is Colbert’s willingness to recognize that among much else, “our lives are compendiums of loss and change and what we make of it.”
The crucial sequence began as follows.
Cooper bridged his reflection about the death of his mother to Colbert’s loss of his father—and two brothers—in a plane crash when he was 10 years old. Gesturing to the GQ essay Copper noted: “You told the interviewer you have learned, in your words, ‘to love the thing I most wish had not happened.’” Fighting back tears, Cooper required a moment before collecting himself enough to squeeze out the question he was fighting to set up. “You went on to say, ‘What punishments of God’s are not gifts?’” Cooper then looked at Colbert with something like desperately hopeful incredulity: “Do you really believe that?”
It was Colbert’s turn to pause, as if seeming to weigh—in recognition—the gravity of his answer. He finally said, simply, “Yes.” He again paused before offering an explanation. “It’s a gift to exist. And with existence comes suffering. There’s no escaping that.”
Colbert observed that he was “grateful for the things I wish didn’t happen. Because they gave me a gift.” He continued:
What do you get from loss? An awareness of other people’s loss. Which allows you to connect with that other person. Which allows you to love more deeply, and to understand what it’s like to be a human being—if it’s true that all humans suffer…And however imperfectly, to acknowledge their suffering and to connect with that suffering.
This solidarity, this empathy, is crucial to Colbert, and rightly so. Even if this empathy for others goes unrequited, there is—for the Christian—a divine solidarity. Invoking the Christian’s suffering God—He of the crucified Son—Colbert averred: “And in my tradition, that’s the great gift of the sacrifice of Christ. God [suffers] too. You’re really not alone. God does it too.”
More than revealing himself to be something of a capable lay theologian, Colbert also proved himself a nerd of Middle Earth. Colbert revealed that he first found this notion of divine-punishment-as-divine-gift in J.R.R. Tolkien. Following the plane crash that killed his father, Colbert plunged himself in sci-fi and fantasy as a necessary escape. Tolkien was his favorite. Indeed, Colbert has much in common with the Father of Hobbits. Tolkien himself was just three years old when he himself lost his father. He was completely orphaned when he was just shy of becoming a teenager. This dimension of childhood grief is echoed in many of his literary characters: brothers Boromir and Faramir lost their mother when they were young, as did Samwise Gamgee. Aragorn lost his father early. Éomer and his sister Éowyn, like Frodo Baggins, lost both parents as children. Not insignificantly, Frodo was orphaned at age twelve, same as Tolkien. It is no surprise that Colbert would have found much solace in Middle Earth.
Still, at first glance, there might seem something amiss in Colbert—and Tolkien’s—assertion that punishment is a gift. Punishment? Don’t they mean, simply, pain or grief? Isn’t the correlation between pain and punishment an error? In some instances, perhaps. But there is a literal, etymological, connection. The English word “pain” comes from the Latin poena—which means “penalty or retribution.” Seen in this way, like the linguistic, the theological connection between pain-as-punishment and human sin also becomes clear, even reasonable. Scripturally, it is seen immediately as a part of the consequences of the human fall. Moreover, because God always approaches human beings in grace, punishment for sin can be a mercy—a gift—for it can alert us to our trespass and need for repentance. Thomas Aquinas–a source for Tolkien and, I suspect, for Colbert, asserts that when the sinner’s pain of shame or grief leads to his “perception and rejection of evil” then pain can be a virtuous good. As Aquinas concludes, “guilt is a greater evil than punishment.”
But what about the suffering of the innocent, those for whom there is no clear trajectory between an offense and resulting punishment? How can the wrenching, disequilibrating, liver-punch pain of the death of a father and beloved brothers be construed, for the guiltless, as a gift? Here, Colbert makes a surprisingly nuanced assertion. In clarifying his comments to Cooper, Colbert insisted that even as he learned to accept the pain of loss as a gift, he doesn’t embrace the loss itself: “I don’t want it to have happened. I want it to not have happened.” He can, he insists, “hold both of those ideas in my head.”
This is a measure of nuance that I call surprising because it is not always found in the Christian view, whether from the lay person, the theologian, or the pastor. That’s a crisis. But Colbert gets it right. We must not baptize evil—including the evil of the loss of loved ones—in order to make it good. Evil can only ever be overruled, or its consequences redirected toward goods—but it can never be made into a good itself. Aquinas made the same assertion. On the one hand, he contended, “considered simply and in itself, all sorrow is an evil.” On the other hand, he observed, “supposing the presence of something saddening or painful, it is a sign of goodness if a man is in sorrow or pain.” To love what ought to be loved and to hate what ought to be hated is a sure sign of being a more complete human being. And we needn’t just take Aquinas’ word for it. As our Lord himself insisted: “blessed are those who mourn.” It is a gift to know what ought to be mourned.
Regarding sources, if Colbert suggested his “What punishments of God are not gifts?” locution was a direct quote from Tolkien, so far as I can tell he was right in the main but not quite exact. In the draft of a letter to Rhona Beare, an English scholar, Tolkien wrote: “A divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift’, if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained.”
But, Tolkien–as I hope might Colbert–would offer caution: we mustn’t strive for so much clarity that we inadvertently occlude the truth. First, correlation is not causation. Grief, like poverty and much else, does not, in fact, ennoble. Undoubtedly, ennobling might occur through the process of grieving, but grief is not, itself, the direct cause. It contributes to a circumstance in which the interpenetration of history—personal, environmental, biological—and the will collude, in ways both knowable and mysterious, to help transform a grieving soul nearer to perfection. Grief is rather like too-much booze: It reveals the character that is already there, if only partially or even never expressed.
Secondly, as Tolkien puts it:
If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapour…And the products of it all will be mainly evil—historically considered. But the historical version is, of course, not the only one.
It will only be in light of the eternal perspective—sub specie aeternitatis—that we will be able to estimate what is really happening now. But, in history, this is one perspective we do not have. And so we need to see by faith. And to be humble.
But, as Colbert alludes to, there are some things we can now know. One thing that is clear is that our lives are not entirely about us, we are not exclusively our own. We are ingredients in God’s providential purpose. The cause or end of our present suffering may be part of a plan that extends far beyond our ken. Tolkien’s suffering was able to bring comfort to Stephen Colbert. Colbert’s suffering, he suggested, allows him to empathize with others.
On the one hand, of course, this merely moves the bump in the rug. My suffering might issue in the comfort of others who are suffering but, really, why are any of us suffering at all? Here we are confronted with mysteries beyond the reach of this post, save to suggest that because God wanted us to love him, he required that we be free—because love is free, or it is not love. Freedom has risks, one of which is the possibility of rebellion. And rebel we have. And so, much grief has entered into the world.
But, as Tolkien assured his own son, we’ve already seen how this rebellious story ends:
All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labours with vast power and perpetual success—in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in.
In various interviews discoverable across the web, Colbert has often spoken in ways that repeatedly reaffirms his commentary to Anderson Cooper. Colbert’s words to Cooper are clearly drawn from a deeply dug well. It is, he seems to suggest, the primary thing that keeps him going. “That’s my context for my existence,” he notes. “I am here to know God, love God, serve God, that we might be happy with each other in this world and with Him in the next—the catechism. That makes a lot of sense to me.”
To me too.
Marc LiVecche is the executive editor at Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy and the just war and Christian ethics scholar at IRD. He is currently in Oxford, where he is the McDonald Visiting Scholar at the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, & Public Life at Christ Church College. His book, The Good Kill: Just War & Moral Injury, is under contract with Oxford University Press.