The Need For Humour (A Weak Theology) in Our Lives

Posted: April 4, 2023 in Uncategorized

The Need For Humour (A Weak Theology) in Our Lives

“It is true that at least one medieval theologian, Petrus Cantor,
is known to have asked during the course of his ruminations whether Christ
ever laughed. Cantor was of the solemn opinion that he must have 
if he was truly [hu]man. What disturbs us today is that Cantor 
should ever have felt the need to ask the question.”
(Harvey Cox)

In recent studies seeking to understand and define consciousness it is suggested that consciousness is far more widespread that just the human species, Scientists have told us, so the saying goes, that of all the creatures that live on earth, only humans have the gift of laughter. But not all know how to laugh. Recent studies suggest that its possible that many animals and maybe even plants might include humour in their being.

Many of us human beings, it is said, only go through the motions of laughing. Their sense of humour is lacking, without which laughter is merely a muscular reflex. Religion in general and Christianity in particular has not for the most part appreciated the place of laughter in the human heart. In fact, religion has often taken a pretty solemn and gloomy view of life. At least that is the experience of many when religious attitudes are subjected to the so-called ‘pub test’.

Religious people including perhaps Presbyterians are often caricatured as dry and  humourless. An article by Chris McGillion in the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out:
“When humour surfaces in a church setting it seems somehow awkward if not unnatural and laughter erupts as a sense of relief more than an expression of genuine merriment.”  (McGillion 2000)

On one, occasion Rex Hunt of the Uniting Church in Australia was part of a team that wrote a ‘religious’ radio script which, in part, went something like this: “There is a man who seldom thinks about the church: but when he does he always has a vision, and in which he sees church people. “He shudders whenever he has this vision of church people for it is not
only their appearance that frightens him. It is also their message. “They tell him of all the things he dare not do, and he notices that everything they list is something he enjoys…”

And the reaction? Well, let’s say it was interesting. From the church-goers: criticism. From the people ‘on the street’: agreement. The Calvinist wing of the Reformation was not known for its exuberance or wit!

Always keen to push some theological boundaries, Harvard Divinity School theologian Harvey Cox, in his book The Feast of Fools, suggests that the “comic spirit is somehow closer to Christianity than is the tragic”.  (Cox 1969:150)

Then 18 years later, in April 1987, he published in the journal Christianity and Crisis, an article called “God’s Last Laugh”. In it he suggested: “God laughs, it seems, because God knows how [Easter] all turns out in the end.”

Cox went on to say :“On the Christian calendar Easter is a feast of gladness. Grief turns into jubilation. Bitter defeat becomes exuberant hope. Even those who walk in the valley of the shadow of death know they need fear no evil. But, without a trace of irreverence, can we not also say there is something genuinely comic about Easter? Could it be God’s hilarious answer to those who sported and derided God’s prophet, who blindfolded and buffeted him, and who continue to hound and deprive God’s children today?”  (Cox 1987)

Recent theological study responding to the challenge of a non-theistic, non-supernatural non- Almighty, omnipotent God who demands obedience and who intervenes at whim have suggested that the foolishness of the cross metaphor might be more appropriate and that a so-called weak theology might make more sense. My suggested ‘Almost’ as the word for the divine recognised the shift from object to process, noun to verb and even the adverb as a way of exploring this weak theology.

Cox had in mind, no doubt, the custom found in some Orthodox churches, where members meet in the church – usually on the Monday after Easter (through to the following Saturday), and called ‘Bright Monday/Week’ – for a feast and festival. Games would be played. And there would be much laughter, dancing and joke telling. Why? Because, they said, it was the most fitting way to celebrate the ‘big joke’ God pulled on Satan in the resurrection. And of course, this frivolity is grounded in the understanding of resurrection as the resurrection of all in God’s time, not the individualization that the western church adopted. Being able to make fun of the empire and its obsession with cruelty, and punishment as the means of power and control appeals to me.

But it leaves us with the over-all question: Why does laughter hold such a meager place in our religious life? One reason for wanting to raise this question is simple. Not just because all work, all seriousness, makes us dull and uninteresting people. Nor is it to have a go at so-called Fundamentalists, of the right and the left whom many believe have no sense of humour at all!  As someone suggested: “the Christian fundamentalist has the awful fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”  

It is important to wrestle with this propensity for stoicism, dullness and fear induced solemnity because a culture that causes people to be too serious all the time, and lacking in humour, can be a culture in which awareness of the other, the disadvantaged, the marginalized and and compassionate response can be lacking.

To say that comedy and humour are important is in no way to detract from the seriousness of life. Rather it is only to say just as there is a need to see that there is always an alternative we are called to see that seriousness must be tempered with a sense of humour. The person who can never laugh at herself/himself, or even at their own pretensions, may easily become the reactionary who wants to destroy everything that does not agree with her/his narrow focus of what is important. And ‘social media us into madness in the process! One of the problems facing AI is haw to factor in a sense of humour.

Former minister at All Souls Church in New York, Walter Kring, suggested: “I would almost be willing to subscribe to the thesis that the most serious person, if he/she lacks a sense of humour, may be the most dangerous person in the world, This is particularly true in our day when so much power can be concentrated in the hands of so few”. In that sermon Kring went on to make two suggestions as to what he believed made up a balanced life:

(i) Every life must have a serious purpose,

(ii) We ought to temper this serious sense of purpose with good humour.

Briefly, his commentary suggested that; The greatest people of our earth are those who have delved the deepest and who have found the most profound truths.

While philosophers, scientists, and religious prophets have differed from each other, they have all been seeking to find the basic nature of all things in all seriousness. Thus they have highlighted the fact that the only way to truth is through experimentation. That through the process of testing we shall eventually arrive at some generally accepted principles which will be felt to be true – unless something more satisfactory is arrived at. While this is true recent studies of the brain and how it works have suggested that process is too simple and limited by a dominant left hemisphere approach that ignores the right hemisphere’s contribution to meaning. Intuition, imagination and a view less bound by the need to complete and factualize is required for a more wholistic and human response to reality.

As people who take seriously ‘progressive’ religion, this should be particularly relevant to us.
Many people think of religion in terms of dogma – as law and answers, or what Bishop John Shelby Spong called “killing certainties”, rather than as search – as questioning. I would say also our obsession with the need to objectify, concretize and explain finally as a certainty or a thing, is also what is driving religion to the sidelines. Progressive Christians I suggest are seekers who honour the mind for its amazing abilities, live the questions now as a part of the life process and who know… perhaps someday in the future, gradually, and without ever noticing it, they live their way into an answer that is always new and unveiling.

David Felten Jeff Procter-Murphy in their book Living the Questions, write about these ‘christian’ seekers: “These seekers are comfortable with ambiguity and understand that through difficulties, mistakes, and challenges, and dare I say it foolishness, humour and so called failure it’s the journey that’s important. It’s what we learn along the way in relationship with the Divine and with one another that matters most.”  (Felten & Procter-Murphy 2012:69)

A ‘serious purpose in life’ must always be tempered with the realisation that no matter how inspired a leader, or catechism, or book, or we may be, in the long run, both they and we are undoubtedly not going to have the final answers to everything. Its why for me I can name God as ‘Almost’. No longer an old man up above who plays with the machine he invented but rather an energy a source, a collective Spirit that lives as I live or perhaps is part of how I live in that image. Yes… we all ought to be serious about life. And we ought to search with all of our being to find out what is true for us. We ought to use our brains to the best of our ability. But we also ought to temper this seriousness, this serious sense of purpose, with good humour.

A well- balanced life is going to be the life that truly understands the place of humour. Because laughter can help to herald in the dawn of human hope. Or at the very least, a hope about hope. Just as it is pertinent for ‘Progressive’ religion to  recapture the use of poetry and song and the aesthetic it needs to give recognition to the neglected gifts of humour, comedy, play, and laughter. They are after all ‘gifts of grace’ to be used for the healing of human lives, and for attaining balanced lives.

It would do us well to remember the words of American pastor and poet, Howard Thurman:
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”  (Felten & Procter-Murphy 2012:70)

The well balanced life is valuable, not because anyone says so, but because in the long run it is the most satisfactory life.

Cox, H. “God’s Last Laugh” in Christianity and Crisis, (6 April 1987)
————, The Feast of Fools. A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969
Felten, D. M. & J. Procter-Murphy. Living the Questions. The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity. New York: HarperOne, 2012
Hyers, C. “The House of Laughter” in Presbyterian Survey 80, 3, (April 1990), 29 – 31
Kring, W. D. “The Need for Humor”. All Souls Church, New York City, (17 January 1971)
(Staff Writer) “Christianity: A Laughing Matter” in Insights. The News/Magazine of the Uniting Church, NSW Synod. (August 2002), 23-24


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