Can a sense of irony be essential to a sense of religion? Kent Hayden, a newly graduated and entirely non-accidental theologist, argues exactly that today over at the Huffington Post (full article here).
Taking off from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s October 30 Rally to Restore Sanity — which seems to have made a lot of people feel quite good, despite the fact that its small-format TV-studio brand of irony was clearly an uncomfortable fit on the large open stage of the Washington Mall — Hayden ends up with this mini-manifesto:
Stewart and Colbert exploded the absurd in our political discourse so that a satirical generation can take the future of our country seriously. It is unclear what exactly that will look like going forward, but in the moment, it felt like a quarter-million people smiling broadly in the October sun.
If we were to explode the absurd in religion, if we exposed the fallacy of our reductive handling of systems of understanding the deep questions of life, would the same kind of sincerity emerge from our irony?
If Generation Irony came to our houses of worship carrying satirical signs that read “God Hates Figs,” and we laughed at clips of the simplistic and divisive rhetoric that makes us ashamed to call ourselves Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, atheists or whatever, and if we sang familiar songs together and listened past the demonization of the other, what would happen? If we exposed all the things that make our religious discourse absurd — all the squawking about other peoples’ sins, all the fighting about which language to use to describe the ineffable, all the simple-minded conflation of poetry and prose, and the universalizing of the particular — I suspect that there would be enough sincere goodwill floating in the wake of our laughter to give us goosebumps again, and to help us take seriously the future of our religious traditions.
Never mind for now that Hayden seems to imagine that satire and irony are the same thing. (Satire attacks from the outside, while irony works its effect from within, subtly subverting the false premises of its target.) He still has an excellent point.
The subversive power of irony applied to what passes for religion in these televangelist Bible/Quran-thumping times can help us see past the kindergarten caricature of the divine in which God is cast as the class bully dictating what we should love or hate — a small-minded god for small-minded people. And once we’re past that caricature, we might be more open to the idea that what we so casually call ‘God’ is merely a reductive shorthand for something that is, by definition, beyond human comprehension.
Just about every religious person I respect — and there are many of them — comes equipped with a healthy sense of irony. How else can one be both religious and intelligent in today’s polarizing world, where slogans pass for thought and certainty replaces humility? How else escape the dehumanizing trap of hating people in the name of loving God?
The fact that humorless bigots loudly proclaim their piety is no reason to cede religion to them, just as there’s no reason to cede the United States to Tea Partiers loudly proclaiming their crude sense of patriotism. If some people like their religion small and petty, I pity them. For the rest of us, it’s time to polish up our sense of irony and admire the accidental theology of a sign that reads ‘God Hates Signs.’