Saturday, January 29, 2011

Did Jesus Laugh?

It's amazing how strongly people feel about this one. I look at the question as having significant Christological implications.

Remember last post, how I wondered how my class would feel about discussion Our Lord's sexuality? Well, I guess I dealt with it so satisfactorily that nothing remained to be said... One can dream.

Actually, the class focused on another matter, touched off by my incidental reference to that 'Jesus Laughing' picture.

The last 20 minutes of the class, as well as 20 or so minutes after class, consisted in an interesting discussion of this matter.

Now, I dislike this drawing intensely, but that does not mean that I have decided 'no' on the issue of whether he laughed or not. It's not a question, first of all, of who Jesus is; it is a question of the moral and intellectual significance of laughter.

First of all, a shout out to the class - they are a great group of young people, open to, and able to engage in, deep and interesting discussions. I am lucky to have them in my class, because not everyone is able to do theology in such an impartial and analytical manner. It takes a significant degree of personal maturity.

One of the students fastened upon the intellectual meaning of laughter - he assumed that laughter was only possible when some knowledge was lacking. Then it's a Christological matter - can we speak of real ignorance in Christ? Yes, of course, in his humanity. But is there any matter relating to humanity about which he is ignorant? That is a more difficult matter. St. Thomas says not insofar as it could relate to His mission as Saviour of the human race. Although others don't, I agree wholeheartedly with Thomas on this. So, then, back to laughter - is the student correct that laughter signifies some nescience? Another student thought, no, not necessarily. I don't really know what laughter is. I directed the class to a work of the great philosopher, Bergson, who was himself a great influence on Gilson and Maritain, devoted to laughter, entitled, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic - it's the only thing I've ever heard of devoted to that topic in any way.

If it involves nescience (the nescience of being surprised) - which I am not sure it does necessarily - does it involves a nescience that was incompatible with Christ's mission as saviour? Again, I think it is possible that a matter of laughter could fall outside of this decidedly expansive domain: for instance, seeing some ducks do something funny on Lake Gennesaret... Why could not have Jesus and Peter have found such a thing amusing? He is the saviour of men, not of ducks after all (despite the fact that there is a 'cosmic significance to the salvation He brings, it is not the salvation of ducks).

If laughter does not always involve sin (for instance, against temperance), a tendency towards sin, and is not an affect of original sin (from which Christ did not suffer); further, if it does not depend upon some type of ignorance which cannot be imputed to Christ, then there is not theological reason to deny Christ laughed. The reason for this is that according to the doctrine of the Councils of Ephesus, Chalcedon, and the III Constantinople, there was nothing essentially lacking in the human nature of Christ: He had a human body, soul, mind and will. There are two ways of looking at this, that are not exactly equivalent: 1) Would there be something missing if He laughed? 2) Would there be something missing if He did not?

See how these things are not the same: Augustine said that Christ could have begotten children, but He did not. Therefore it is not the case that if something were 'absent' in the life of Christ that means that He was not truly man. All plumbers are men, not all men are plumbers. In other words, it is still possible to suppose that He could have laughed but did not, He laughed but He could have not. Some people who argue that He did not laugh make an attractive argument that there was nothing within the mission of Christ to laugh about. These were not times for rejoicing, they might say. But they have some explaining to do, then, about why Jesus Himself compared His current sojourn with us in terms of a wedding feast. (Matt 9:15 & 11:18)

I trust in Jesus' ability to follow the mean between taking things too lightly and yet too seriously. I trust in His ability to perfectly live out Ecclesiastes 3:
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance...
It's the dancing thing that perplexes me more than the laughing  ;)

Ultimately, I will come down on the side of yes, He did laugh. His joy was greater than ours. Yet, His misery was too: He clearly saw all the sins of all the people who ever lived. Life is just like that - a funny contradiction of such utter beauty and tragedy. There is room in that for the perceptive observer (of whom Jesus was the most perceptive) to notice things to lament over and things to laugh about.


  1. I tend to think that laughter had more to do wiht knowledge than lack thereof. You cannot find humour in something if you do not see the truth of it - link it to something. If you lack understanding, you will not get the humour, and will not laugh. I think laughter is intrinsically linked with that recognition and understanding of truth, perfectly in keeping with Christ.

    And I do not believe that one always need be surprised in order to laugh. C. S. Lewis defines the different sources of laughter well in "Screwtape" when as Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. Some of these may require some element of surprise to provoke laughter, but not all. Joy, for instance, often needs no surprise.

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  3. But what constitutes the difference between something funny and something that one simply recognizes as true - that's the key question. I agree that it's likely that all humour doe snot revolve around some kind of ignorance...
    thanks for the reference to Screwtape!