Bill Maher makes me laugh. And cry. His radical simplification of complex issues is both laugh-out-loud funny — and gross. He pierces through the gullibility of people who let themselves be instruments of the self-interest of the rich and powerful even as they themselves become the victims of those who peddle patriotism like snake oil. In calling to account these faux leaders, Maher uses the words we would not dare use ourselves–except perhaps when talking back to the TV in the privacy of our living rooms.
I know I am complicit in his view of the world through the affirmation that my laughter signals. But Bill Maher on faith is disappointing. He engages in the kind of sophomoric reasoning for which he skewers the “Tea Baggers.”
Maher announced his inability to handle religion in his 2008 film “Religulous.” He chose to take his camera to worshippers at truck stop chapels and theme parks,for example, rather than engage scholars of faith. Perhaps he knew they would have given him more than can be dismissed with his trademark condescension?
So I should not have been surprised to hear him riff on faith at Austin City Limits last month. I hoped he might have grown since the film was made. No such luck. He confuses the need to hold deeply flawed religious institutions and leaders accountable with his inability to fathom what personal faith is about.
The Tea Party IS simple. We should lament the near death of true conservatism and the retreat of its leaders. Faith on the other hand is not simple. We should lament the near extinction of thoughtful discussion about faith in the civic square and its replacement by a conspicuous religiosity unmoored from what faith teaches us about loving your neighbor—or at the very least NOT going out of your way to hurt him.
It is wrong to call Tea Party politics, conservatism or “what the Founding Fathers intended.” It is just as misleading to call the pious politicians who push through laws that hurt the most vulnerable or the religious leaders who stay silent in the face of that assault, “Christian.” Maher knows the difference between Tea Party politics and true conservatism. He cannot seem to make the same distinction between faux religion and the intellectual terrain of faith. He ended his recent gig with three questions about faith:
1. Why is faith so important: what is so good about suspending critical thinking?
2. How do they know what they know? (How can they attest to the literal veracity of any of the stories in the Bible?)
3. If God had such an important message for us, why does He not bring us that message directly instead of sending some “prophet”—a.k.a. “nut-jobs?”
Maher’s questions are to faith what Sarah Palin’s “death panels” were to health-care: a distortion of the subject.
I don’t expect a critique of Proofs for God from Bill Maher. Or for him to find God tomorrow. But I do expect a man who oozes condescension to know that faith is not the suspension of critical thinking. I do expect him to know that people of exceptional intelligence, not just the gullible masses, choose to pursue a faith journey. Smart, thoughtful people engage in years of critical thinking, prayer and meditation to discover meaning in life and to connect to the transcendent. And they aren’t all doing it through Ernest Angley or Joel Osteen.
Faith is a lifelong struggle with our imagination and our heritage and our values and our yearnings and our skepticism and our doubts and our fears and our intuitive sense of the ineffable and the sacred. And it is a giant leap. And from giant leaps come the beauty of dance and song, scientific discovery and spiritual enlightenment. From giant leaps come the gifts of great, inexplicable sacrifice for the good of others, service to those in need and intimations of glory in the flower. It is the giant leap that takes us into the unknown. We can only dream of heaven. But any life beyond the one we have here on earth is unknown except through our acts of kindness towards each other. And those acts of kindness often spring from a deeply held faith in something larger than ourselves.
“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.”
Gardner could have been talking about faith.
I’d like to say to Bill Maher, he who professes no time or patience for enduring relationships: learn to love. It’s a leap –but as anyone who has loved deeply will tell you: you will see God.