October 25, 2004

Professor Cleese Offers Laughs in Religion Talk

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Students and family members packed Barton Hall on Friday for a lecture on the history and practice of religion. The speaker, introduced by President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77, was described as “serious and reflective about … philosophy, science, physics, … human behavior and politics.”

The erudite speaker, a graduate of Cambridge and a distinguished visiting professor at Cornell, was John Cleese — a man known more often for his trademark humor, silly walks and membership in the Monty Python comedy troupe.

Yet students expecting a stand-up routine were probably surprised to find Cleese giving a lecture entitled “What Is Religion? Musings on the Life of Brian,” sponsored by the Cornell University Program Board and the Program for A. D. White Professors-at-Large.

Lehman, who introduced Cleese, closed by leading the entire audience in a smashing rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Cleese, clearly tickled by the gesture and amused by the president’s compliments, will turn 65 on Wednesday. “Sixty-five. … Nearly dead,” Cleese immediately deadpanned as he took the podium.

He then commenced an elaborate introduction designed, quite typically for this British funnyman, to discredit his own knowledge before speaking on the topic at hand.

Claiming that he may very well know less than his audience about religion, Cleese gleefully admitted that it doesn’t matter: “Never mind. I am a celebrity!” He then launched into a whirlwind tour of religion, psychiatry and slapstick humor, helped along his way by clips from Monty Python’s Life of Brian or The Meaning of Life and an occasional jab at Vice President Dick Cheney.

Cleese noted that the re-release of Life of Brian in theaters has been called “just a cynical bit of marketing” in the wake of The Passion of the Christ, “which of course is true.”

Curiously, he said, American audiences prefer Monty Python and the Holy Grail while Brian is more popular in Britain. Cleese said he agrees with his fellow countrymen. The film, he said, does not have jokes “about religion, but about the way some people [practice] religion.”

Indeed, the main theme running through the lecture was the gap between spiritual teachings and the way in which organized religions practice them. Since Brian is a satire on Christianity, most of Cleese’s comments concerned the New Testament and its application in institutional religion.

Cleese spoke from two main sources: the psychiatrist Robin Skinner, with whom he has co-written two books, and his own experience as a student at a Church of England Protestant school, which he has heard described as “the Conservative Party at prayer.”

Much of what Cleese said criticized “religion as crowd control,” what he called an original “faith of tolerance” being governed by a “very rich, powerful, authoritarian organization.”

“Frankly, Christ seems less authoritarian,” he commented at one point.

Admittedly channeling Skinner, Cleese centered his thesis around a conception of “mental health” which, at the lowest level, revolves around God as a human, punitive being. People at this level, Cleese said, “like certainty and with it they like authority.” This certainty, he said, also includes a tendency to take parables literally.

During the brief question-and-answer session, a few interesting bits about Cleese were revealed.

Asked about his own spiritual beliefs, he replied, “If I can get sufficiently quiet inside myself, I might get a divine pat.” He imagined that the gap of understanding between he and his deceased cat Reggie might be smaller than the gap between God and himself. Hence, he likened a pat on a cat’s head to a divine experience.

He added, “I think the greatest mistake in religion is to take literally what is intended metaphorically.”

“I’m going to go away,” he said, and with that he was gone from the stage. Judging from the audience reaction, attendees overwhelmingly enjoyed the lecture and what Cleese had to say. Many parents visiting for Family Weekend also attended.

Evan Walther ’06, who participated in a small-group discussion with Cleese on psychology during a previous visit, was clearly impressed.

“I thought it was wonderful,” he said. “John Cleese really knows about a wide range of disciplines … he’s a very intelligent person.”

Ben Towbin ’06 also enjoyed the lecture, but added, “I think certainly that some things he said were rather one-sided.”

But, of course, “he’s the perfect English gentleman.”

As the audience filed out of Barton on Friday night, that was one point they could all agree on.

Cleese is on campus for several days to meet with administrators and plan his next major visit for the spring semester, part of his recent two-year extension as A. D. White Professor-at-Large.

Archived article by Andy Guess
Sun Editor-in-Chief