Archive for March, 2013

Laughter is a funny thing

Laughter is a funny thing; Laughter and theology

 

My thesis: Laughter and theology fit well together and, as we learn about laughter, so we gain a new perspective on the whole task of theology – and even on ourselves.

 

Laughter is a funny thing. Although there are many ideas, we are still not sure why we laugh. Freud’s theory is that it is the lid coming off the pressure cooker. Our society suppresses a number of deep urges especially about sex and violence. So laughter is a sudden expenditure of saved up repression.[1] Anyone who has seen a Tom & Jerry cartoon, or listened to a comedian on the television knows that Freud has explained a great deal. But he probably has not explained it all. The other main theory about the origins of laughter is that it is based on incongruence.[2] Something just doesn’t fit. We would laugh at the Archbishop of Canterbury dressed up as a fairy. This incongruity explains many jokes. The punch line of the joke fits, but doesn’t fit, in a clever way and so resolves a tension. What is clear is that the subjects of humour vary from context to context. What may make an Englishman laugh does not necessarily affect a Frenchman and visa versa. The roots of laughter may be the same but the way in which the laughter is triggered is, to a degree at least, cultural.

 

Now how does all this relate to theology? Well first of all, laughter is a good communication tool, it relieves pressure and relaxes the listener. C.H. Spurgeon once explained to his students how he used humour in the pulpit to get his point across. He said that if you try to force open a live oyster or clam you may well not succeed. What you need to do is tickle the edge of the shell and when it opens, you stick the knife in. Humour relaxes the mind to accept the truth. It is a pity there are not more jokes in theological treatises. And humour also creates a social bonding. Not all of us are good at that, but laughing together seems natural. When you hear a joke you want to tell it to someone else so you can laugh together. So, just as theology should be done together, so should laughter.

 

But someone might say that humour is inappropriate to theology. Theology is a serious matter and so it excludes laughter. I would be tempted to reply that there is nothing more serious than humour. In fact the objector’s basic premise is at fault. Theology needs laughter because laughter is a sign of theology’s humanity. Only humans laugh. (It has been claimed that all primates laugh but having read a few biographies of Archbishops and Popes, I know this not necessarily to be the case.) Dictators and fanatics have no sense of humour because they have lost much of their humanity and regard themselves to be God-like. Laughter was banned from medieval monasticism, quite logically, because many monks drew a dichotomy between being human and being spiritual. And, of course, Jesus laughed. Can you imagine how the crowd in Judea fell about laughing when Jesus described the Pharisees carefully removing gnats from their wine and swallowing whole camels without noticing? And do you imagine that there was not a smile on the face of our Lord when he said it? As Sherwood Elliot Wirt says, to deny laughter to Jesus is to be theologically unsound because you cannot have a person who is fully human without laughter.[3]

 

Now this has been recognised in the context of theology in the last 20 years. For instance, Bernard Ramm writing of Karl Barth, entitles one of his chapters “The Laughing Barth”. He writes, ”Humour in theology serves the function of reminding every theologian that he or she is a human being performing a very human task”.[4] It is only when the theologian starts to act as the dictator or fanatic that humour disappears. Karl-Josef Kuschel makes a similar point. He talks about laughter having the power to heal and humanise theology.[5]

 

There is a fundamental distinction between theology and the Word of God. I will not laugh at the Word of God. It is divine and perfect. You must excuse me if occasionally I laugh at your theology, your attempt as a human being to build that bridge, to apply that word into today’s situation. And I must excuse you if you laugh at mine. My definition of the infallibility of Scripture will not be infallible. The way in which I talk about the divinity of Christ will not be divine. For all the help of the Holy Spirit and the blessing of knowing what others have done before me, I create theology as a human being and so open it up to that characteristic human response, laughter.

 

And lest you think that this is a less than useful distinction, it would be fair to say that a great deal of the suffering and difficulties of the church through the ages and even at the present time can be laid at the door of an inability to draw a distinction between the Word of God and theology, a refusal to recognize the humanity of our attempts to understand and present the Word of God. So often we transfer the authority of the divine word to our individual and partisan theological constructions. And so we become inhuman in our dealings with each other. To be frank, some of our divisions and furious theological contests are laughable. One of the best things you can say to some theologians these days is “loosen up”, “be real”, “smile a little more”, “you’re only human.”

 


[1] Paul Kline, “The Psychoanalytic Theory of Humour and Laughter” in Chapman A.J. and Fort H.C. (Eds.). It’s a Funny Thing Humour, Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1977 p9.

[2] Michel Mulkay, On Humour, Oxford, Polity Press, 1988 pp 26f.

[3] Sherwood Eliot Wirt, “The Heresy of the Serious” in Christianity Today, April 8th 1981, pp43f.

[4] Bernard Ramm, After Fundamentalism, Cambridge, Harper and Row, 1983, p194.

[5] Karl-Josef Kuschel, Laughter; A Theological Reflection, London, SCM, 1994, p109.

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