God’s Sense of Humor

Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Originally Published on ronrolheiser.com

Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI

If we genuinely trust scripture, our own experience, and our own sanity, we can only conclude that God has a sense of humor, and a robust and sneaky one at that.  Where’s the evidence?  

A generation ago, Peter Berger wrote a remarkable little book entitled, A Rumor of Angels. Unlike Aquinas, Anselm, Descartes, and a number of renowned philosophers, he didn’t try to “prove” the existence of God through logic and argumentation. Rather, he simply examined a number of very ordinary human experiences and pointed to what’s hidden inside and behind the walls of those experiences. For instance, when a mother soothes and calms a frightened child at night, assuring the child that there is nothing to fear, she does this in good faith only because at some deep level she intuits that ultimately everything is all right. In effect, unconsciously, she is praying a Creed.

Now, one of the experiences Berger highlights is the experience of humor. Here’s his thesis: no matter how oppressive and dire the circumstance, human beings always have the capacity to make light of it, to view it through the prism of irony and humor. For example, martyrs have joked with their executioners and, no doubt, there was some banter, sarcasm, irony, and bitter humor at times inside extermination camps. The fact that people can do this, and do in fact do it, shows that there is always something transcendent inside us, something over which no human oppression has power, something that sets us above any situation within which we find ourselves. Our sense of irony and humor manifests that something in our soul sets us above anything that can beset us.

And, this can have its source in only one place, inside of the Creator who made us. Thus, not only must God have a sense of humor, humor must be something inherent within the nature of God, since humor is good and God is the author of all that is good.

There’s a school of classical philosophy that believes God has four transcendental properties. God, it teaches, is One, True, Good, and Beautiful – to this we can add, Humorous. Moreover, this can be inferred from more than just the fact that sometimes we sense that humor manifests our transcendence within a given situation. More importantly, we can infer that humor has some godliness from examining the component parts of love. God is love, and humor is undeniably an important part of love.

When the classical Greek philosophers defined love, they highlighted a number of components within it, namely, erotic attraction, obsession, friendship, pragmatic arrangement, and altruism. However, they also highlighted another component, playfulness/banter/humor.  How insightful. Humor along with healthy banter and playful teasing are part of the grease that enables us to sustain relationships long term, despite the inevitable over-familiarity, hurt, disappointment, and boredom that beset even the most loving relationships. Humor helps make it all work. Thus, since it is an innate part of love, it is an innate part of God.

Sadly, we don’t often picture God that way. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have this in common. We all picture God as male, celibate, solemn – and humorless. How might we picture God differently?

If you were to draw up a composite face representing God, whose face would you include in this picture? The pious face of the gentle, blond-haired Jesus with a lamb on his shoulder we see in our holy pictures? Images of a serenely composed and quiet Mary that we see depicted in our statues of her? The face of Mother Teresa? The face of Therese of Lisieux? The face of Dorothy Day? Of Martin Luther King? Of Oscar Romero? Of Billy Graham? Of Henri Nouwen? Of Rachel Held Evans? The face of your mother or father? Would you also include the face of your favorite comedian or favorite wit? Jerry Seinfeld? Bette Midler? Rowan Atkinson? The mischievous face of your colorful uncle telling a joke?

Any picture of God’s face needs to manifest an inner soul that is One, True, Good, Beautiful, but also Humorous and Mischievous. Funny, while I believe that God is the author of humor, I’ve never been enamored by the various artistic depictions of Jesus as laughing uproariously. Good idea, good intention, good theology, but to my taste, lacking the right nuance. That kind of laughing face has an ephemeral quality that too easily gives way to something else after it’s had its moment. God’s face, I suspect, has a quieter, sneakier, more permanent mischievousness to it.

If this is true, if God not only has a sense of humor but is also the author of humor itself, then humor is an important quality within sanctity and holiness. What makes for wholeness, maturity, holiness, love, and for the kind of person you want beside you at the table, here and at the eternal one in heaven? Certainly, you want someone who manifests the qualities that Jesus asked for in the Sermon on the Mount – along with a warm, playful, and mischievous sense of humor.