Humor and Theology
A couple of weeks ago my supervisor, James Eglinton, and I (with some other students) were having a conversation about the place of humor in theology. It was an interesting conversation with wide ranging thoughts and implications. The question posed was: to what extent is there a place for laughter/humor in doing theology? We all granted that laughter is good. We all agreed that we should not take ourselves too seriously. However, the question still stood: to what extent is there a place for laughter/humor in doing theology?
Much could be said on the root cause of laughter in our day and age, but I will leave that for others (a good place to start might be: Russell Heddendorf, From Faith to Fun: The Secularisation of Humour). My main concern is to briefly explore the extent to which we should make jokes in our theology. This is particularly interesting to me because I love to laugh. I love to tell jokes. I often think everyone (myself included) takes themselves a little to seriously. And yet, I am a person studying to become an academic theologian.
You see, my supervisor's concern (and mine) is that humor is rooted in paradox. A concept or thought doesn't make sense so we laugh. James Eglinton argued that in our culture in the face of such paradoxes we medicate ourselves with 'fun' and that fun allows us to laugh in the face of paradoxes. Rather than actually having a paradox confront us and our world, we make light of it. Rather than grappling with paradox we laugh. Reinhold Niebuhr observed something interesting about laughter and its relationship to faith:
Laughter is our reaction to immediate incongruities and those which do not affect us essentially. Faith is the only possible response to the ultimate incongruities of existence which threaten the very meaning of our life.
As I have thought about this more and read more, I am becoming convinced that our culture wants to trivialize what Neibuhr calls 'ultimate incongruities' and bring them down to our level. We do this because we don't want to confront the fact that these 'ultimate incongruities' threaten how we think and live in this world. We make 'ultimate incongruities' into 'immediate incongruities' so that we don't have to respond in faith. For the theologian to engage in his task with that type of frivolity diminishes the importance of the task of 'thinking God's thoughts after him'.
However, God resists being trivialized. When God confronts us, we are not brought to a place of laughter but of faith. We can see this most poignantly during the times in life when we are suffering. Kelly Kapic notes:
Whether we are at a hospital, in the trenches during wartime, or wondering where our next meal is going to come from, in such times we don’t find ourselves laughing at God. We long for his care and provision. Yet when things are going well, when laughter fills the air, then we somehow think the idea of God can be hilarious.
I love to laugh. I love to make jokes. My supervisor loves to laugh and make jokes (granted many times I don't understand him... humor is cultural). Laughter is part of who we are as people. The gospel teaches us to laugh, to laugh at the world, to the laugh at ourselves. However, theology (and to some extent we all do theology) is a serious task that must be taken seriously. This is especially true in a culture that wants nothing less than to medicate itself with the shallow and frivolous. When we engage in the task of 'thinking God's thoughts after him', we find that we stand contra mundum and as we stand contra mundum, we find that we live coram Deo. The right response when before the face of God is not laughter but humbled faith and worship.