The Theology of Laughter


The Contrary Minister

My title is borrowed from the writings of that beautiful Persian poet, Rumi.

At one of the most serious times of the war, Abraham Lincoln turned to the members of his cabinet and said, “Laugh, gentlemen… laugh or you will go mad.” Lincoln’s favorite stories were what he called his “preacher jokes.” Needless to say, the clergy of that day did not find them amusing or funny.

Too many forget that laughter is a sacred gift that can refresh the soul. There is no humor in the entire bible except one priceless scene in the Old Testament when Abraham and Sarah, both of them, laugh at God. God wants to know, “what’s so funny?” Abraham and Sarah thought it was hilarious what God wanted of them at their age. Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90 years old and here God wanted them to have a child. The height of optimism  and humor.

Abraham fell down on  his face, rolling with laughter at God, and said: “Do you mean that we can have a child at our age?  Do you know how old we are?” They laughed, even at God. Would we not all be better off and far healthier spiritually and emotionally if we would, even as Abraham, laugh at God more often? And laugh at our own religious pretensions?More...

Why were, and are, so many of our Church “fathers” opposed to laughing at much of the church and the clergy? Do they sense that laughter might weaken the somber, grim, fabric of their creeds, doctrines and dogma? Laughter was even punishable during periods of church history. Maybe they knew, deep within their hearts that they were in some sense laughable.Laughter can strip away excessive dignity and presumptuous titles.

I, for instance, am always joking about the pretense and presumptuous ministerial titles, such as: “The Right Reverend” or “The Very Most Right Reverend.” I used to do this often around my ministerial colleagues. Not many thought it was funny. How sad, how pathetic. Laughter has the redeeming quality of being able to strip away pretension, suffocating seriousness and excessive dignity. When our puffed up pride and fragile egos with sterile self importance are deflated, then a sweet humility might enter our lives. When we can honestly look at ourselves and laugh, we become more of the “real stuff” as Carl Jung used to say.

Laughter can restore reality. Laughter is a natural sacrament of life. Whatever energy, force, made “man” and the universe made laughter too. Laughter can be a challenge to the unknown. The Hebrew writer apparently thought it perfectly natural to laugh at God, and natural for God to laugh back. And Abraham fell on his face rolling with laughter at God, saying “Do you mean that a 100 year old man and a 90 year old woman can have a baby? And God said, “why not?” And God, Abraham and Sarah, all three, must have laughed together at each other… and WITH each other.

One Comment

Never heard that story, but then my liberal arts “bible as literature” course must have overlooked it. Wish Edelen had cited some Rumi. Wish he’d expanded here a little more. And then, there’s that neurological stuff about laughter being like an energy discharge resolving what are perceptual contradictions. The art of humor, the neutralizing of otherwise painful stuff. The subject slips on a banana, busts a tail bone, but we laugh nonetheless, even though we know better. In Edelen’s citation, the ludicrous projection of an unlikely conversation is FUNNY. Wish I could have peeped out my mom’s belly button and waved at my dad, couple of days before getting yanked out with forceps. Non sequiturs are allowed.