Laughter: A Rumour of Angels

In these disheartening times it is easy to let every new anxiety beat us down. However, rather than beat our breasts bewailing our plight, it is rather a good laugh that is most likely to raise our spirits and build-up our resilience. So here is my case for the virtues of a good laugh:

      Peter Berger in his seminal book “The Sacred Canopy” coined the wonderful idea that laughter was like a rumour of angels.  He, along with Harvey Cox, in his book “The Feast of Fools”, recognised the mysterious nature of laughter.  Interestingly, both Berger and Cox are concerned with the sociology of religion rather than theology per se – confirming my suspicion that it really is quite difficult to play theology for laughs.  In fact a woman of my age is all too aware of the repercussions of inappropriate laughter…  Old Testament scholars will remind me of the unfortunate consequences for Sarah who dared to laugh at Yahweh’s suggestion that He could reverse the menopause.

      Social scientists have picked up the significance of laughter and humour suggesting they are distinctly human capacities – although I’m pretty sure that I remember that chimp, Charlie, at least smirking at Desmond Morris in “Zoo Time” way back in the 1960’s.  And having muttered earlier the word ‘menopause’, I speculate that whales and dolphins might also go in for the occasional chuckle.  Why?  Because the females of these large sea mammals are the only other species in addition to homo sapiens that experience a menopause.  Biologists speculate that the reason why we and the whales invest in barren females, is that the social environment in which offspring are reared is so complex that it cannot be mediated solely by the parent.  Whales, dolphins and human beings all need their grannies, because grannies have the capacity to see the world from a nuanced, ‘tongue-in-cheek’ perspective.

      The species homo sapiens might well have developed the capacity for laughter and play but it has also developed another distinctly human capacity – the capacity for worry and anxiety – that “Sickness Unto Death” that Kierkegaard describes so graphically.  Laughter and play are remarkable for their capacity to dissipate worry and anxiety, and for this reason laughter and play have survival value for the anxious species homo sapiens.  Play and laughter combine with prayer as the most effective antidotes to those overactive frontal lobes that dog us by day – and often at night.  Interestingly, those frontal lobes that fizz with anxiety are referred to as the reptile brain.  This term is used because the frontal lobe is considered to be the most primitive part of the human brain, and is the locus of cold-blooded behaviour.  It is no surprise, therefore, that when we react out of anxiety we often fail to anticipate pain – either our own or that of other people.  Anxiety is a dangerous emotion indeed.

      Whilst it might be stretching it to associate prayer with laughter, it is both legitimate and helpful to map the parallels between prayer and play.  Both are acts of ‘disciplined fantasy or ordered imagination’ and involve yielding ‘to a kind of magic’ to use terms coined by Hugo Rayner in his book “Man at Play”.  Neither prayer nor play is restricted by the mundane world of fact, they both go beyond it, and in doing this they pre-empt the future. In both playing and praying we assert that we are not beholden to past or present realities.  Play and prayer enable us to step outside ideas of fate and fact, and allow us to start again; they are not an escape from or denial of the world, but rather the first steps in a dance of recreation.

      If laughter and play are so important to the flourishing of humankind the question has to be asked why theologians have been so slow to give value to this rumour of angels.  Perhaps it is because theology has been co-opted by the powerful throughout our Christendom history its chuckle muscle has withered?  For one of the most effective ways of undermining power is to turn it into a laughing stock.  This is the tactic that is so precious to Community (or Citizens) Organising – a movement based on the ideas of Saul Alinski and which has been harnessed by the Catholic Church in the USA and is being taken up by churches and communities in Britain, including here in South London.  If people can laugh at and joke about the things which have power over them and oppress them then they have embarked on a route to freedom. 

      Our church history is spotted with glimpses of comedy: from the medieval mummers, and grotesque gargoyles to the occasional depiction of Christ as a clown or jester.  Christ the clown – the man of sorrows who also wears a fool’s cap – is an extraordinary symbol of both fun and seriousness.  The idea of the clown is not just about humour it also represents a perspective on life.  The clown refuses to be limited to normal reality, fighting against the law of gravity, ridiculing the pompous, turning authority into a laughing stock, upsetting everyday rules and responsibilities.  The clown is constantly defeated and trampled on, he is forever vulnerable, but never finally defeated.  And the same might be said of Jesus. 

Our serious, anxious world is in need of jesters – jesters that enable us to laugh at our failures, prompt self-forgetfulness and encourage us to get up again, dust ourselves down and start all over again.  In our secular world, in the presence of disaster and death, we are more inclined to laugh rather than cross ourselves.  Laughter can be the voice of faith, for it expresses an ironic confidence and joy – which may have no basis in fact – but it is none the less real.  Dante, when he finally arrives in Paradise after all his trials and tribulations, hears the laughter of angels praising the Trinity.  According to Dante, in Hell there is no hope and no laughter, in purgatory there is hope but no laughter, but in Heaven there is no need of hope, so laughter reigns.  Laughter is hope’s last word. 

Ann Morisy