April 23, 2001

Cleese's 'First Sermon' Instills Faith in Humor

Print More

Actor and writer John Cleese, A.D. White Professor-at-Large, spoke in Sage Chapel Sunday morning. He delivered what was aptly titled, “My First Sermon.”

CHAPLAIN: Let us praise God. O Lord.


CHAPLAIN: … ooh, You are so big, …

CONGREGATION: … oh, You are so big.

CHAPLAIN: … so absolutely huge.

CONGREGATION: … so absolutely huge.

CHAPLAIN: Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell You.

CONGREGATION: Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell You…

CHAPLAIN: … You are so strong and, well, just so super.

CONGREGATION: Fantastic … Amen.

This exchange, from “The Meaning of Life,” one of Cleese’s films, parodied Cleese’s memories of formal, institutionalized religious experience.

Rather than resorting to this type of parody yesterday, Cleese emphasized his intellectual journey toward understanding religion as it plays a role in his life.

He also implied the importance of humor in that understanding.

He described his disappointing first encounters with religion, as he put it, “Church of England, 1950’s variety.” It was an unfulfilling experience that he went on to say “turned me away from religion for 20 years.”

Cleese was critical of the mechanisms of organized religion, noting that within it, “there is always plenty of room for distortion [of religious ideas].”

Citing the backlash against “Monty Python’s Life of Brian,” Cleese demonstrated the tendency to misinterpret ideas because of conflicting religious interests.

The 1979 film was denounced by many religious groups as blasphemy and, according to Cleese, was considered a sin by the Catholic Church.

“An idea is not responsible for the people who hold it,” he said.

By means of illustration, Cleese suggested the formation of a hypothetical sect, “Psychopaths for Christ.” Although their lives would undoubtedly improve if they adopted some form of religion, they would nevertheless remain psychopaths and would act accordingly.

“Let us not forget what’s been done in the name of religion … it does seem that holy behavior can be widely defined,” he said.

Cleese cited destructive religious-based acts, from the Crusades to the destruction of art by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

After discussing the aspects of religion that he found unattractive, Cleese spoke about the up side of having a relationship with God.

The sermon took an introspective turn as Cleese began to tell the congregation about his cat.

“If you were to ask Wednesday [the cat], what the purpose of my life is … it [would have] something to do with mice,” he said, referring to the cat’s inability to understand a higher level of thought.

“I imagine that the gap in intelligence between me and God is … larger than that between me and my cat.” Therefore, Cleese reasoned, how can people know what God is thinking?

The difficulty of understanding what one is expected to do combined with the distractions of everyday life leads to a confusing situation, he explained.

Cleese noted how nearly impossible requests like “love thine enemy” seem. People may as well be told “thou shalt hover unsupported four feet off the ground,” he said.

“I’d love to do it, if only I knew how.”

Cleese remained “not negative” about finding a personal relationship with God.

“I have a real hunch that if I could ever get quiet in today’s world and free for a moment [from] negativity … I might get a gift from God,” Cleese said.

Cleese’s words fell on the ears of an unusually large audience for a Sunday morning service.

Rev. Robert L. Johnson, director of Cornell United Religious Work, asked the congregation, “Where have you been?”

Cleese’s remarkable ability to draw a crowd stems from his notoriety and success as a writer and actor over the past three decades, especially for his work with “Monty Python.”

Cleese, who holds an M.A. in law from Cambridge University, has authored several books and will soon appeal to younger audiences with his role as Nearly Headless Nick in the upcoming Harry Potter film.

This is Cleese’s second visit to Cornell this year as an A.D. White Professor-at-Large.

He also spoke yesterday at the College of Veterinary Medicine on wildlife conservation.

Tonight he will lecture on “The Human Face,” based on a show he did for BBC One in England.

Archived article by Jennifer Gardner