This Personal Theology Thursday post comes from a sermon that Bill Thomas gave a few weeks back. Many in our facebook community expressed regret that they would miss hearing him speak, so I thought it would make a good PTT post.
Bill finds humor in religion and religion in humor. Enjoy!
When I was maybe 8 or 9, the minister in our Methodist Church we went to said, “Someone in our congregation told me he stole a bicycle… I told him, ‘Stealing is a Schwinn.’” The congregation was a little pleased a little shocked, it was much discussed. The idea of the preacher telling a joke was a bit shocking to some.
In fact, for many churches for many years – thousands of years – the doctrine was “There is no laughter in the Bible”. This is incorrect and by the way is also said incorrectly about the Koran – but many a monastery and convent lived by that rule, and many a Protestant church as well felt that in this world after the fall of humanity from grace, laughter was inappropriate. There is a story about John Murray, the founder of American Universalism. His parents were strict Calvinists, and as a child he was taken to a fire and brimstone sermon that shocked and scared him. Riding home in the carriage, he asked his father, is it true? His father said yes, it was true and that made the child very sad. But he wrote, eventually, as they rode, his father started to whistle and chuckle.
Well, you know there are some jokes in the Bible – though they can be tricky to figure out, they’ve been obscured by translation. Later I will give some from different religious traditions. Mohammed made a joke or two, here is one – “trust in Allah, but tie your camel”. There are plenty of Buddhist jokes, and the story I told to the children was a Jewish one.
There are a lot of theories about what makes something funny — the oldest one I know of is Plato’s, which he attributed to Socrates — the essence of the ridiculous is an ignorance in the weak, who are thus unable to retaliate when ridiculed. Aristotle elaborated on this and was translated into the Arabic, and the early Islamic world had lots of discussion with, in the record anyway, an especial interest in satire. Theorizing about humor can be sort of dreary as EB White said: “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”
So I’ll skip a lot of the different theories. But I am interested in one favored by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, called the Incongruity Theory – which is that humor frequently contains an unexpected, often sudden, shift in perspective. Arthur Koestler argues that humor results when two different frames of reference are set up and a collision is engineered between them.
There is a related theory propounded just recently by an anthropologist named Alastair Clark. I like it because it gets at the heart of why I think humor can be a big part of a spiritual or ethical path.
Clark says humor is based on pattern recognition. Now we humans are supposed to be really big on pattern recognition — it’s been proposed as why we enjoy music, visual art, literature, why we think that cloud looks like a bunny, or our burnt toast has the face of Elvis and so on.
In the case of humor, Clark says “humour occurs when the brain recognizes a pattern that surprises it, and that recognition of this sort is rewarded with the experience of the humorous response, an element of which is broadcast as laughter.” He goes on to explain that we start to see one pattern then, we suddenly see it as another pattern. Ba-da-boom — humor.
That is why I think humor can be such a useful part of spiritual, ethical and moral growth for each person, and the piece I have assembled for Laurie and I to read exemplifies this. Over and over and over again in this piece, a pattern is set up and then broken and then re-formed.
This see a pattern, break a pattern, see a new pattern is I think a sort of exercise that helps us break out of thinking that holds us back. I don’t say this is the only thing that humor does, or that all humor does this — humor can be used to divide, to shame, to exclude. When I say “What’s purple and has 40 wives? Brigham Plum” it does that pattern breaking thing, but the result is a separation between me – and by extension you, if you laugh at it –and Mormons. If a Mormon tells it, which they do, they tell it to other Mormons and the result is solidarity against non-Mormons.
But when humor is about certain things, I think it can, in a good way, shake us up, loosen up our thinking, and help us understand even ineffable spiritual truths better than we did before.
There has been some writing about this growing especially out of Buddhism, but also from Christian writers. One writer, writing about Zen Buddhism, identifies humor’s use to show how “in opposites is unity”, and to explore “frustration with reason”. I must add that I am a big fan of reason, but I admit that one must allow space for the ineffable – and humor helps jolt the rationality a bit.
The reading we’ll do really emphasizes these, and the whole pattern breaking thing. Mostly we will be reading a series of oxymoronic aphorisms. An aphorism is a short statement packed with meaning. An oxymoron is a statement that contradicts itself — a famous example is “military intelligence” or, to be more prosaic, statements like “clean dirt” or “a speedy snail”. What’s great about these oxymorons is that first you hear the contradiction — then immediately, your ol’ pattern-seeking mind starts to try to figure out how the statement might, in fact, not really be contradictory but express a truth. The least oxymorons get you to think, the best ones point you to a deeper truth.
A. If a person begins by saying “Do not be offended by what I am going to say” prepare yourself for something that she knows will certainly offend you. Eliza Leslie
B. Let’s have a meeting.
A. Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything. John Kenneth Galbraith
B. Agreement is made more precious by disagreement. Publilius Syrus
A. No one has a finer command of language than the one who keeps their mouth shut. Sam Rayburn
B. Human beings are the only creatures who are able to behave irrationally in the name of reason. Ashley Montagu
A. People do not like to appear foolish; to avoid the appearance of foolishness, they are willing actually to remain fools. Alice Walker
B. I wish people who have trouble communicating would just shut up. Tom Lehrer
A. It is difficult to keep quiet if you have nothing to say. Malcolm Margolin
B. Weren’t we going to meet about the war?
A. The peacemaking meeting was canceled due to a conflict. anonymous
B. What about the retreat?
A. Let me see– here is the notice — The cost for attending the fasting and prayer conference includes meals. anonymous
B. Have you been to any of those?
A. Last month I blew $5000 on a reincarnation seminar. I figured, hey, you only live once. Randy Shakes
B. Nobody goes to those any more — they’re too crowded. Yogi Berra
A. Yeah, I heard there are plenty of vacancies but they’re all filled. Chris Ricks
B. Well, I’d like to do something religious.
A. Religion is a disease, but it is a noble disease. Heraclitus
B. A human is a messenger who forgot the message. Abraham Joshua Herschel
A. About god?
B. What about god?
A. Well, do you believe in god?
B. I’m an atheist and I thank God for it. George Bernard Shaw
A. There is only one thing about which I am certain and that is that there are no certainties. W. Somerset Maugham
B. Well, I’m an atheist — God’s only excuse is that he doesn’t exist. Voltaire
A. But which God don’t you believe in the Lutheran God or the Catholic God? Quentin Crisp
B. God is best known in not knowing God. Thomas Merton
A. God is the only being who, in order to reign, need not even exist. Charles Baudelaire
B. I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody’s religious obligations, no matter how ridiculous. Herman Melville
A. I’m in favor of free expression provided it’s kept rigidly under control. Arnold Bennett
B. When I came home I expected a surprise and there was no surprise so of course I was surprised. Ludwig Wittgenstein
A. People have one thing in common; they are all different. Robert Zend
B. Always remember that you are absolutely unique, just like everyone else. Margaret Mead
A. Fear of separation is all that unites. Antonio Porchia
B. Why do you have to be a nonconformist like all the others? James Thurber
A. If there is anything a nonconformist hates worse than a conformist it’s another non conformist who doesn’t conform to the prevailing standard of nonconformity Bill Vaughan
B. There is a degree of tolerance that borders on insult Jean Rostand
A. Oh yes — I hate intolerant people Gloria Steinem
B. It infuriates me to be wrong when I know I’m right. Moliere
A. Even if you persuade me, you won’t persuade me. Aristophanes
B. Passion makes the best observations and draws the worst conclusions Jean Paul Richter
A. There are some mistakes we enjoy so much that we are always willing to repeat them. James Geary
B. It’s a question of mind over matter — if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. Satchel Paige
A. I believe in the discipline of silence and I could talk hours about it George Bernard Shaw
B. You have no idea, sir, how difficult it is to be the victim of benevolence. Jane Aiken Hodge
A. Those who have given themselves the most concern about the happiness of people have made their neighbors very miserable. Anatole France
B. I know exactly who you are talking about. She is a selfish, hypocritical woman and I have no opinion of her. Jane Austen
A. Oh — her — well, when I spoke with her I just said nothing. Jane Austen
B. I simply agreed with all she said, for I did not think she deserved the compliment of rational opposition. Jane Austen
A. Ah, kindness.. The most unkind thing of all. Edna O’Brien
B. If you are kind to people who hate themselves, they will hate you as well. Florence King
A. The most melancholy of human reflections, perhaps, is that, on the whole, it is a question whether the benevolence of mankind does more good than harm. Walter Bagehot
B. Getting old, aren’t you? Old people are fond of giving good advice; it consoles them for no longer being able to set a bad example. Francois de la Rochefoucauld
A. Let’s get back to the war — You can’t say civilization isn’t advancing – in each war they kill you in a new way. Will Rogers I was talking with my friend Sam about it…
B. I’ve noticed your hostility to him – I ought to have guessed you were friends. Malcolm Bradbury
A. Never speak ill of yourself. You can count on your friends for that. Talleyrand
B. So, war — like the Jews and the Arabs… Prediction is very hard, especially about the future. Niels Bohr. But what do you think?
A. The cannon thunders… limbs fly in all directions… one can hear the groans of victims and the howling of those performing the sacrifice… it’s humanity in search of happiness. Charles Baudelaire
B. A person who is going to commit an inhuman act invariably excuses himself by saying “I’m only human.” Sydney Harris
A. The Jews and Arabs should settle their dispute in the true spirit of Christian charity. Alexander Wiley
B. Sam said that? Deep down, he’s shallow. Truman Capote Even his ignorance is encyclopedic. Stanislaw Lec
A. He has only one fault. He’s perfect. Other than that, he’s perfect. Truman Capote
B. If you listen carefully you get to hear everything you didn’t want to hear in the first place. Sholem Aleichem
A. War makes me think of death — If you wish to live, you must first attend your own funeral. Katherine Mansfield
B. It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens. Woody Allen
A. If I could drop dead right now, I’d be the happiest man alive. Sam Goldwyn
B. No matter how bad things get, you got to go on living, even if it kills
you. Sholem Aleichem
A. Life is easier than you think; all that is necessary is to accept the impossible, do without the indispensable, and bear the intolerable. Kathleen Norris
B. I feel bad that I don’t feel worse. Michael Frayn
A. Don’t despair, not even over the fact that you don’t despair. Franz Kafka
B. A life of ease is a difficult pursuit William Cowper
A. Ours is a world where people don’t know what they want and are willing to go through hell to get it. Don Marquis
B. Life is full of misery, loneliness and suffering — and it’s all over much too soon. Woody Allen
A. The average person, who does not know what to do with this life, wants another one which shall last forever. Anatole France
B. I was going to buy a copy of The Power of Positive Thinking then I thought What the hell good would that do? Bonnie Shakes
A. They say suffering comes from free will — but we have to believe in free will. We’ve got no other choice. Isaac Bashevis Singer
B. Humanity is condemned to be free Jean Paul Sartre
A. Freedom is the right to choose the habits that bind you. Renate Rubinstein
B. Sure — submit to the fate of your own free will Marcus Aurelius
A. Well, people say I’m indecisive but I don’t know about that George W. bush
B. We spend our time envying people who we wouldn’t like to be. Jean Rostand
A. I’ll tell you one thing — It’s easier to suffer in silence if you are sure someone is watching. anonymous
B. My dad said “I’m a Scotch Calvinist and nothing makes me happier than misery” James Reston
A. The truth is that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer. Thomas Merton. The glitter that lies inside the gates is a sham, but you can still lose your soul to get there. Lionel Trilling
B. But if there is nothing left to desire, there is everything to fear, an unhappy state of happiness Baltazar Gracias
A. Happiness is the absence of striving for happiness Chuang Tzu
B. But you do not know what life means when all the difficulties are removed! I am simply smothered and sickened with advantages. It is like eating a sweet dessert first thing in the morning. Jane Addams
A. To have enough is good luck, to have more than enough is harmful. This is true of all things but especially money Chuang Tzu
B. The best things in life aren’t things. Ann Landers
A. Well, our real blessings often appear to us in the shape of pains, losses and disappointments. Joseph Addison
B. Yes, success has ruined many a man. Ben Franklin
A. What about success in love?
B. Free love is too expensive Bernadette Devlin
A. What you get free costs too much. Jean Anouilh
B. Personally I know nothing about sex because I’ve always been married Zsa Zsa Gabor
A. Like Judy — she always says “I can resist everything except temptation.” Oscar Wilde
B. I think she must have been very strictly brought up – she’s so desperately anxious to do the wrong thing correctly. Saki
A. Pleasure is more trouble than trouble. Anonymous
B. Yes, it’s an impossible situation, but it has possibilities Sam Goldwyn
A. Stop running around after happiness. If you make up your mind not to be happy, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a fairly good time. Edith Wharton
B. To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness. Bertrand Russell
A. Unhappiness is not knowing what we want and killing ourselves to get it. Don Herold
B. That’s why the best things to do with the best things in life is to give them up. Dorothy Day
A. Nothing is sufficient to those for whom the sufficient is too little. Epicurus
B. Society is made up of two great classes: those who have more dinners than appetite, and those who have more appetite than dinners. Nicolas Chamfort
A. We wish to be happy, even when we live so as to make happiness impossible St. Augustine
B. We are often vainglorious about our contempt of glory St. Augustine
A. “Vainglorious” — never use a long word when a diminutive one will suffice. William Safire
B. One who has seen everything empty is close to knowing what everything is filled with. Antonio Porchia
A. You know what I mean — I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible Jane Austen
B. The search for reason ends at the shore of the known Abraham Joshua Herschel
A. The stone is broken but the word are alive Abraham Joshua Herschel
B. Show me the stone that the builders rejected. That is the cornerstone. Jesus of Nazareth
A. In doing the finite we perceive the infinite Abraham Joshua Herschel
B. Wisdom is knowing when you can’t be wise. Paul Engle
A. The heart of the fool is in his mouth, but the mouth of the wise man is in his heart. Ben Franklin (after Proverbs 16:23)
B. Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet Jean Jacques Rousseau
A. Who wins through evil, loses Talmud
B. When you add to the truth, you subtract from it Talmud
A. Some study so much, they don’t have time to know. Talmud
B. Absolutely. Me, I am a woman of fixed and unbending principle the first of which is to be flexible at all times. Everett Dirksen (he actually said “man”)
A. When people are least sure they are most dogmatic John Kenneth Galbraith
B. Truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions. Friedrich Nietzsche
A. You can’t make anything idiot proof because idiots are so ingenious
B. If you should say “I have reached perfection” all is lost. For it is the function of perfection to make one know one’s imperfections. St. Augustine
A. Striving to better, oft mar what’s well Shakespeare
B. I don’t think I am any good. If I thought I was any good, I wouldn’t be John Betjeman
A. The Superior Man is distressed by his lack of ability. K’ung Fu-Tzu
B. We are all failures – at least all the best of us are. James Barrie
A. Well, of course. I’m proud to be a failure. Humility is something I’ve always prided myself on Bernie Koser
B. And me, I’m not a snob. Ask anybody. Well, anybody who matters. Simon Lebon
A. You know, honey, there are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them George Orwell
B. And often the surest way to convey misinformation is to tell the strict truth. Mark Twain
A. But it is the truth, even if it didn’t happen. Ken Kesey
B. Friends say I point out problems without providing solutions – but they never tell me what I should do about it. Stanislaw Lec
At this point I asked the congregation if they had any jokes they wanted to share. Mike Headrick said “What do you call a dead Unitarian in a suit? All dressed up with no place to go.” I responded that when we movd into south Moorhgead and the neighbors discovered we were Unitarians, they planted our lawn with a burning question mark.
I said that I would tell jokes from different traditions. Here is a Native American one, from the Meskwaki Indians who now live in Iowa.
A young man wanted to go on his vision quest. He didn’t want to go for the vision of deer, which would bless him with powers of deer – swiftness, concealment. He did not want to go for a vision of hawk, and the powers of hawk – sharp sight, decisiveness. He wanted to be different. He decided to go for Mosquito.
So he went to the swamp and stayed for days, being bitten by swarms of mosquitoes and fasting. Finally, weak and blurry, he hears thundering steps and walking toward him he sees Mosquito – huge, with a long nose, and bulging eyes. The spirit of Mosquito stops before him and says, “You have earned the right to speak with me. What do you want?” The young man raised his swollen and bleeding hands and said, “I want the Power of Mosquito.” “But”, says Mosquito, “us mosquitoes ain’t got no power!”
“There is no laughter in the Bible”, a dictum for centuries, is not true.
Maybe the best example is in the story of Abraham. The Lord tells him that he and his 90 year old wife will have a baby. Abraham starts laughing. The Lord seems a little annoyed, because the Lord says “What’s more, you shall call his name Isaac,” from Yitzak, “he laughed.”
In the New Testament, one of the ones I like is this. “Before you talk about the mote in another’s eye, maybe you should worry about the 2 by 4 in your own!”. I paraphrase, but that is a joke.
Or, from the Book of John — Philip found Nathanael and said unto him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” That is a joke!
Philip said to him, “Come and see!” Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile” I think that is meant humorously, too.
Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, I saw you yesterday, standing under a fig tree.” Nathanael said “Rabbi, you are the son of God! You are the king of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said I saw you standing under a fig tree, believest thou?” That is sarcasm! “You shall see greater things than these.”
The Bible has been translated from Aramaic to Greek to Latin to English. So finding the humor requires some effort. But it really is there.
Why can’t the Buddha vacuum under the sofa?
He has no attachments.
When the Dalai Lama got to New York, what did he say to the hot dog vendor?
Make me one with everything.
OK, those were really jokes about Buddhism, not jokes from the Buddhist tradition, which has many. Here are some. These are from a paper by Jason Anderson.
Four monks were meditating in a monastery. All of a sudden the prayer flag on the roof started flapping.
The younger monk came out of his meditation and said: “Flag is flapping”
A more experienced monk said: “Wind is flapping”
A third monk who had been there for more than 20 years said: “Mind is flapping.”
The fourth monk who was the eldest said: “Mouths are flapping!”
There’s this wonderful story about the first meeting between Kalu Rinpoche and Zen master Seung Sahn:
The two monks entered with swirling robes – maroon and yellow for the Tibetan, austere gray and black for the Korean – and were followed by retinues of younger monks and translators with shaven heads …
The Tibetan lama sat very still, fingering a wooden rosary (mala) with one hand while murmuring, ‘Om mani padme hung,’ continuously under his breath. The Zen master, who was already gaining renown for his method of hurling questions at his students until they were forced to admit their ignorance and then bellowing, ‘Keep that don’t know mind!’ at them, reached deep inside his robes and drew out an orange. ‘What is this?’ he demanded of the lama. ‘What is this?’
This was a typical opening question, and we could feel him ready to pounce on whatever response he was given.
The Tibetan sat quietly fingering his mala and made no move to respond.
‘What is this?’ the Zen master insisted, holding the orange up to the Tibetan’s nose. Kalu Rinpoche bent very slowly to the Tibetan monk next to him who was serving as the translator, and they whispered back and forth for several minutes. Finally the translator addressed the room: ‘Rinpoche says, What is the matter with him? Don’t they have oranges where he comes from?’
Prince Gautama who had become Buddha saw one of his followers meditating under a tree at the edge of the Ganges river. Upon inquiring why he was meditating, his follower stated he was attempting to become so enlightened he could cross the river unaided. Buddha gave him a few pennies and said: “Why don’t you seek passage with that boatman. It is much easier.”
There is much more, but time is running out. Sufi Islam abounds in jokes and funny stories – there is a character called Nasrudin – some of the children have heard the story of Nasrudin Feeding his Coat. The point is the same – humor, laughter and jokes can help us on a spiritual, ethical, or moral quest – help us to see how things can look different, be different, with a quick twist of perception.