Laughter as a Theological Diagnostic
Jun 21, 2008 by Don Payne | 3 Comments
Our ability to laugh can be an important diagnostic for the health of our theology. Don't ask what made me think about this because I could not give a clear answer. Perhaps it's my occasional tendency to become overwhelmed by all that is wrong in the world and all the risky theological ledges we walk. Much can go wrong . . . and has gone wrong . . . as we strive to "think biblically, live faithfully, and lead wisely." Yet, we must not allow theological sobriety to turn into a chronic condition of furrowed brow accompanied by a crippled ability to laugh. The reason is not merely that laughter is psychologically healthy (a benefit not to be overlooked). The capacity, even the inclination to laugh, is theologically significant.
Laughter derives from surprise. Why did my children laugh at "peek-a-boo" or any of the other silly games I played with them? It was because everything was new to them. They could be surprised by countless experiences that have become ordinary and even dull to me in adulthood. Why do I roll my eyes when I hear a joke for the umpteenth time, when I was breathless with laughter the first time I heard it? I am no longer surprised. With age and experience it's sadly common to become jaded, having little time for the light-hearted affect so common to youth and naivete. Intense suffering and loss can also (quite understandably) dull our ability to laugh. For many, life does not contain much to laugh about.
So, what's at stake here theologically? Simply put, it's the ongoing capacity of our hearts to be surprised by God. God's redemptive work in both our personal lives and in all of creation regularly confronts us with the unexpected. No matter how many times God brings life out of death or hope from despair, the next iteration of that redemptive work still surprises me in some way. Frankly, though, faith, hope, and love easily slip from being life-giving connections with the living God into little more than words . . . abstractions. Problems, risks, and failures become larger than God. The capacity to laugh is either suffocated or trivialized.
Of course, laughter itself is not the point since with it we can anesthetize ourselves to the inappropriate, trivialize the tragic, avoid looking deeply, or harm others. Sarah laughed in unbelief (Gen. 18:12). However, aside from extreme circumstances that legitimately and tragically rob us of laughter, our capacity and willingness to laugh can reflect our capacity for surprise - including God's surprises!
So, consider the following theological diagnostics that laughter provides: (1) Does my belief in God's faithfulness and unchanging truth translate into a compulsive insistence that God "behave" predictably in our lives? (2) Do I REALLY [functionally] believe that God's grace is more defining and active than all the forces of evil at work in the world? (3) When was the last time that I experienced the lightness of heart that comes with a glimmer of hope that God gave? (4) Has the Holy Spirit ever caught me off guard or corrected me in such a way that I felt more loved and lighthearted as a result?
These diagnostic criteria only illustrate. I invite you to suggest others. Hopefully, the point is clear. We need not TRY to laugh or be silly (some personalities just don't work that way, which is fine). Abraham's laughter of astonishment at God's promises (Gen. 17:17) says nothing about his personality. It speaks volumes, though, about how Abraham's spirit was somehow still open to surprise . . . and open to God.