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However, in Philippians, Paul commands: “rejoice! and again I say, rejoice!” He calls forth the heart to sing out with gratitude and laughter. The great Roman Catholic journalist G.K. Chesterton, who would infect C.S. Lewis with the sanity of the Christian faith through his delightful paradoxes, explained how this laughter of joy was necessary. “Life is serious all the time,” he quipped, “but living cannot be. You may have all the solemnity you wish in choosing your neckties, but in anything important such as death, sex, and religion, you must have mirth or you will have madness.”
However, there have been those who believed that Christian laughter should be forbidden. Certain Church Fathers did hold dim, frowning views of laughter.
The sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict declared: “As for coarse jests and idle words or words that lead to laughter, these we condemn with a perpetual ban.”
On the other hand, in the “Inferno” of his Divine Comedy, Dante buries melancholy people in black mud in hell, because they had remained so stubbornly gloomy in the sweet glad air of God’s Sun. As he leaves the realms of Purgatory and follows Beatrice into Paradise, Dante hears a sound he has never heard before: celestial laughter, the laughter of the heavens.
Culling insights from orthodox Christians from St. Augustine and St. Aquinas to Chesterton and Lewis, we can find laughter to be grounded in three major doctrines of the church: Creation, the Fall, and the Incarnation.
In the beginning everything God created was good. And laughter was a gift, created before the fall. When someone like philosopher John Morreal suggests that God could never laugh because He is omniscient and one could never surprise Him with a punch line, he misses the point that we all laugh at jokes we already know. The key is the delightful incongruity which catches us off guard and reminds us of our creation. In the Garden of Eden, God placed two jokes, two grand incongruities that make us laugh even today.
The first incongruity is our own created nature as human beings. We are a mix of dust and divine breath. God breathes into humus, earth, and presto we are that amazing oxymoron—a spiritual animal. Spirit and earth make one comic being. On one side, we are related to the angels, the transcendent, the spiritual, the Amish—on the other side, we are cousins to jackals, weasels, skunks, and lawyers. The heavens and the earth are married, and the union is a marvel, a mystery, a matter for much mirth. “Of all living creatures,” notes Aristotle, “only man is endowed with laughter.”
Angels, wrote C.S. Lewis, do not see anything funny about being angels. Neither do dogs laugh at being dogs. They don’t loiter around the lamppost and fire hydrant and bark about naughty bits. Woodpeckers don’t do knock-knock jokes. Monkeys don’t human around. No chicken laughs when another asks why the human crossed the road.
What is man, O Lord? that Thou should crown him with glory, and bathe him in folly?
When we said that God as His own critic declared everything in creation to be good, we were wrong. There was one condition that God did not pronounce good; there was one joke that was not yet good enough to share. It is not good, He said, that man should be alone. That’s only half of a very good joke; so the second joke of creation is that God split His image in two: that He made man and woman in His own image. The comic possibilities about and between male and female have yet to be exhausted. Comedy resides in the creation of genders, of two beings so divinely alike and yet so frustratingly different.
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