God’s Sense of Humor

GianPaolo Salvini, SJ

 GianPaolo Salvini, SJ / Church Thought / Published Date:14 August 2017/Last Updated Date:15 February 2021

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The subject of humor in religious literature is certainly not something new, even in our journal.[1] We believe, however, that a brief note may help our readers keep alive a fundamental dimension of human existence that seems to us in danger of being lost in our western society where daily conflicts and tensions always run the risk of becoming radicalized and exasperating. As a consequence we lose  sight of the moderation offered by humor. One might say the same thing about a nearly equivalent term, irony.[2]

We hope the subject is a pleasant one for we all need humor, even those who cultivate the lay sciences such as economics. Indeed, the prestigious English journal The Economist has written that the work of economists is dedicated to the study of why its predictions never come to pass.

In the title, reference is made to God’s sense of humor. In reality, in order to speak of God we always begin from our human experience where the action of God is reflected. Humor is without a doubt a regal instrument for establishing ourselves in a serene state. This constitutes a part of wisdom that is a gift of the Holy Spirit; indeed, it is the salt of life – and especially the life of believers – that preserves them from every trouble.

The history of many heresies is largely the history of the loss of the sense of humor. One could also add that the loss of many vocations involves a story of the loss of a sense of humor. Those who lack it take everything seriously and so make everything very dramatic; or if they do not enter into the drama, they at least complicate life. In addition to the field of religious experiences, a psychologist recounts how two colleagues without a sense of humor met on the street and bid farewell to one another after an embarrassing silence. For the rest of the day they both asked themselves in anguish: “What did he want to say to me?”

Some elements of humor

Obviously there are many types of humor flowering in every field. We may say that the proper elements of humor – or of the sense of humor are the capacity to pick up on the absurd and contradictory sides of life, laughing about them in good-humored understanding; a higher perspective that allows you to see better and beyond; a new intelligence that relativizes and changes the dimensions of whatever might be taken absolutely and as lofty.

At the basis of the mechanism of humor there constantly appears to be an interaction between the background and the foreground that is suddenly turned upside down. One has then a different way of seeing the same reality. That which was secondary becomes visible and an unsaid fact is highlighted, defying logic and constituting an element of surprise, even if in a veiled way.

Many examples of this can be found in the Gospel of Luke, typically in the reversal of situations where the reader expects a parable to end in a certain way but Jesus concludes in a surprisingly different way. Much also depends evidently upon the state of soul one lives with, which is not always in accord with the Gospel. The two disciples of Emmaus are an example of this. Discouraged by the failure of their dreams, in meeting the unknown wayfarer who seems ignorant of the recent events that have taken place in the city, they cite precisely the kerygma, the message of salvation. But they do it with involuntary humor to show that everything has gone wrong, not to attain consolation from it.

This capacity of seeing something that others do not see reveals another quality that has something of the divine: the quality of the artist. For this reason humor has a strong link with creativity, art and genius: in a few jokes a crumb of wisdom can be elaborated.

Coming to the more spiritual aspect, we say that humor hides an implicit judgment that is founded on a conception of the person and human existence.[3] Kierkegaard considers humor the extreme approximation of the human to what is properly religious or Christian. Even if the contrary is apparently true: how is it possible to reconcile God’s absolute status with the sense of humor?

Hugo Rahner, taking an idea from the famous Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, wants to demonstrate that the perfection of human ethics is a mysterious reproduction of that eternal Wisdom which plays from the beginning in the sight of God. To the question: “Is God a humorist?” the response comes above all from the mystery of the Incarnation: God eternal and infinite, whose face no one can see and live (cf. Ex 33:20), who assumed human nature and becomes like us and suffers hunger and thirst, cold and heat, and undergoes the passion and death. All of this boggles the mind.

But if humanity is lost, God “amuses himself” with an amusement that is the expression of infinite love which evades all understanding. Behind the scandal of the Incarnation, there is the inexplicable abyss of the richness of the love and of the wisdom with which God has set out the secret plot of the deeds into which human history is woven.

If the basis of humor is sought in the law of the contrast and juxtaposition of contraries, it must be concluded that God is an unbeatable master with regard to humor. “That which is foolish for the world, God chose it to confound the wise; that which is weak for the world, God chose it to confound the strong” (1 Cor 1:27). The whole history of the Church is a sequence of choices – of persons, events, instruments – that God works with an unchanged sense of humor and confers upon them an undeniable flavor of optimism and joyous surprise.

It is true that in the Gospel Jesus never laughs openly, even if the Gospel is full of benevolent smiles. This is probably not because – as an excellent professor of religion maintained perhaps after reading the thoughts of St. Francis of Sales on the subject – what counts in a joke are the surprise and the punchline that turn the situation upside down. Jesus was not able to laugh at them as he already knew how they would end.

Christian humor

Now deceased, former Hungarian Jesuit, Ladislaus Boros, a lecturer at the University of Innsbruck, wrote that the intimate nucleus of Christian humor resides in the force of the religious. Humor sees the earthly and the human in their inadequacy before God; it sees how all that is earthly is imperfect. However, this resignation in its turn is elevated by the certainty that all that is finite is surrounded by the grace of God. Those who have a sense of humor love the world despite its imperfection, or rather they love it precisely in its imperfection, as God does.[4] They know to be grateful to God because they live in this imperfect world.

Among the most important effects of Christian humor is the demystification of ourselves and of others. There are moments we are tempted to see ourselves in heroic perspectives; we feel ourselves the masters of the universe, capable of challenging and conquering all weaknesses. The impact of reality on our wretchedness could then be dramatic and the security valve is precisely humor, which does not hide our weaknesses but allows them to be seen from the perspective of the Lord. In general, to do this he makes use of creatures or of others, as happens with the cock crowing for St. Peter.

Humility and trust grow out of these collapsed heroic ambitions. As St. John XXIII said, humility reminds the elderly that the world does not end with them and the young that it did not begin with them. Trust projects us ahead and puts us back in our place in the little piece of history that we have to run, wrapping us in a tender and indulgent caress.

Cardinal Henry de Luba mentioned the counsel of an anonymous cenobite who said: “If your soul is disturbed, go to church, prostrate yourself and pray. If your soul remains still disturbed, go to your spiritual father, sit at his feet and open your heart to him. And if your soul is still disturbed, then retire to your cell, lay down on your mat and sleep.”

We may recall what the second Psalm says: “The one enthroned in heaven laughs” (v. 4), but as Karl Rahner notes God laughs calmly as if all this did not touch him, and in laughing he affirms that even a simple, pure smile that breaks out from a just heart reflects an image and a ray of God over any idiocy whatsoever of this world. God’s smile stands to show that all is good and all is grace.

If healthy humor can be defined as the capacity to laugh at things that are loved (including ourselves and what affects us), the path of humor in the spiritual life goes hand in hand with the humble love for the cross and the Crucifix, and in particular in the dialogue of the believer with the self and with God. Conversion is a fruit of biblical humor and is an act of remembering in the heart that humans are not the teachers of God. It is from the opposite presumption that trouble and problems are born.

Humor constitutes a precious element of a healthy and balanced life even from the spiritual point of view because it has a lot to do with gratuity, creativity and intelligence, all indispensable elements of the relationship with God.

It is not for nothing that the Bible has many links with humor. It is enough to think about the wisdom literature, the many stories, proverbs, and the curiosity to know that reveal a way of observing the world with an amused orientation. The capacity of being at one and the same time detached from one’s own representations of reality and fully and passionately involved in the things of God is not only the expression of a profound and healthy Christian humor, but is a sense of the relativeness of all that is not God.

In the saints – who are the lovers of God – one notes that this profound liberty of spirit is coupled with an equally profound sense of humor. It is not simply a question of good character, of human sympathy and of facility with the spirited joke, but is also conformity to the experience of how much everything is tremendously relative outside of the One who is ineffable and before whom all remain small and limited.

Humor as an antidote to fear

Finally, humor is also a powerful antidote to fear. It must be asked if one of our fundamental tasks in life is not that of conquering the sometimes uncontrollable fears that attack us. Humor is a way of exorcizing evil. It is enough to recall all the sacred representations that from the 12th century on – a Middle Ages marred by calamity, plagues, wars, and diseases – ridiculed the devil and what he represented. His suggested temptation disappeared when a person of God smiled at him. This was a way of exorcizing fear.

Many saints exorcized death by humor, giving it back its human meaning in the light of God. Our contemporary world is not capable of doing so except in a deformed way lacking humanity, pretending that death does not exist. Some tell the story of two Thebaid hermits getting old together as neighbors in two nearby grottoes. One said to the other: “Dear brother, we are getting old. When one of us dies, I shall return to the city.”

But even faced with the mysterium fascinans et tremendum of God that can be present in our lives, humor may be helpful, even for clerics. Without going back to ancient times, I remember a bishop of a great city of northern Italy replying to a journalist’s question about miracles or apparitions of Our Lady in our era. He said: “Certainly God can open a page of the supernatural even in a secularized world like ours, for example working miracles or sending the Madonna to bring a message of hope and joy to people or to a particular Church. But, please, not in my diocese. I have enough trouble as it is.”

If this happened to us we would want to remind ourselves of the pages of the Gospel where the eruption of God frightens, as in the case of Mary in the Annunciation, or of the shepherds on the night of Christmas, but in which the angel always says to the protagonists, and we hope also to us: “Do not fear: behold, I announce to you a great joy” (Lk 2:10).

[1] Cf., just to give some examples, “Umorismo e vita cristiana” (editorial), in Civ. Catt. 1986 III 3–14; L. Larivera, “Natura e necessita dell’umorismo”, ibid 2004 III 130–142; H. Zollner, “Considerazioni psicologiche sull’umorismo e il riso”, ib. 2010 II 533–545; G. Cucci, “Umorismo e qualita della vita”, ib. 2013 I 246–257; Id., “Umorismo e vita spirituale”, ib. 2013 I 463–474; F. Castelli, All’uscita del tunnel. Panoramiche religiose dell’odierna letteratura, Vatican City, Libr. Ed. Vaticana, 2009, from which we take some concepts and expressions.

[2] The occasion for these notes was the talk given by the author (here largely reproduced) on the occasion of his being named Emeritus Academician of the Pontifical Academy of Theology along with professors Romano Penna, biblicist, and Ysabel de Andia, patrologist, at a ceremony held May 8, 2017, at the Pontifical Lateran University.

[3] Cf. Dictionnaire de Spiritualite, VII/1, Paris, Beauchesne, 1969, 1189.

[4] Cf. L. Boros, Sperimentare Dio nella vita, Brescia, Queriniana, 1980, 34.