At a coming seminar, Michael McGirr and Beverley Dunn will speak on the humour of God. It is a brave venture, the audacity of which has left many theologians speechless in admiration.
If we give God a sense of humour, what kind will it be? Humour differs across individuals and cultures. I may switch off Funniest Home Videos to watch the hundredth rerun of Fawlty Towers. But should I imagine God congratulating me on my superior sense of humour?
All theologians agree that God is different from us. If God has a sense of humour, it will differ totally from our humour. That is less sobering than it sounds, because if God is serious, his seriousness will also be totally different from ours.
But does God have sense of humour at all? Certainly, if humour is a good thing, a good God will have it. But it is not so evident that humour is really a good thing.
Much humour is designed to mock other people. It unites a group of people by excluding others. Humour can be brutal, as it is when an individual or a group are made the butt of jokes. But even benign humour works by exclusion as, for example, in jokes about Irishmen, Poles, blondes or lawyers. Try telling a joke about the Australian, the Englishman and the Irishman, but instead of the Irishman, make the Australian the comic figure. Your joke will be met with a puzzled and slightly hurt silence. You are excluding those whom jokes are meant to include. The humour is harmless, but it is alarming to contemplate God indulging in it?
Humour is also often a form of control. If conversation falls into a silence that might invite depth or intimacy, it is tempting to interject a facetious remark. We then assert control over a dangerously open-ended situation, and ensure that superficiality reigns. It is hard to imagine that God would need to use humour for self-defence.
For those of us endowed with higher gifts of humour, these forms may seem very primitive. But some of the greatest forms of humour rely on irony. It feeds on the gap between the world as we would like it to be and the reality that we know. It helps us to bear reality without yielding our ideal. The humour that flourishes under totalitarian regimes and self-deprecating humour offer examples of irony. It is subversive because it makes the present situation and regime seem impermanent and transient. But is hard to attribute irony to God, because by definition in God there would be no gap between ideal and reality.
But perhaps this human gap between human ideals and reality provides the space in which we might speak of God’s humour. For when we say that a sense of humour is a gift, we usually think of its importance for handling that gap in ourselves and in others. The humourless person regards the gap as an affronting wall against which heads are to be rammed. A sense of humour allows us to accept both ourselves and others who fail to meet our ideals.
A God who loves people and the world in their conflicted reality could then be said to have a sense of humour. It is not surprising that the Book of Jonah, which more than any other biblical text represents this kind of a God, is a richly comic work.
Some theologians open another front in the conversation by saying that the only way to know what God is like is to look at Jesus Christ. This argument does not help us say whether God has a sense of humour. There are few jokes in the New Testament, and Jesus’ words are invariably serious.
But the Gospels do represent Jesus as a storyteller. You have only to look at a good storyteller holding an audience of children spellbound to see that humour is an essential part of the deal. The circumstantial detail and the possibilities of a well-told story must take you along the narrow ridge that runs between laughter and tears.
Perhaps we should explore the notion of God as a storyteller. In classical theology, God’s stories are actions. What God says, God does. That a God should make and love such a crazy world as ours is a richly comic and happy notion.
Beverley Dunn and Michael McGirr will speak at the Mary Ward Symposium, Tuesday August 8, at St. Mary’s College, Parkville, from 6.00 to 7.30 p.m. Rod Quantock will chair the symposium. Click here to download the flyer (PDF 1.3MB)