Art by Fordham student Tim Luecke

My attendance at the much discussed “The Cardinal and Colbert” extravaganza here at Fordham University last Friday made for rare moment in the life of a grad student: being plopped down in the midst of several thousand hooting, hollering, maroon-shirted youngsters. As a matter of principle, I resolutely did not do the wave, but I have to admit the pep rally style enthusiasm was a tad infectious, not to mention the unusually high celebrity quotient for the Bronx. The evening was a particular point of pride in that it was the brainchild of two professors in my own theology department, Michael Peppard and Charles Camosy; kudos to them for conjuring up and seeing through such a novel and energizing event.

The personalities brought together for conversation embodied the topic at hand: “Humor, Joy, and the Spiritual Life.” Stephen Colbert and Cardinal Dolan are each known for their prominent status as smile-wearing and smile-causing Catholics, albeit in very different ways. Fr. James Martin, SJ, the moderator, has written frequently on the subject of faith and humor, intent to show the twain shall in this case meet – and perhaps must. If there was a core message throughout the evening it was this: joy is an active and essential component of the spiritual life. Faith yea,even Catholic faith! – is not well served by the images of gloomy piety and somber sanctity often associated with it.

In my estimation this is a worthwhile message to spread, perhaps especially to a college-aged audience. Whether attaining to World Youth Day levels of evangelization, as the New York Times boldly claimed the following day, or not, an event bringing a hearty dose of laughter into the proximity of Gospel proclamation opens up new vistas on the good news, human experiences, and how we envision the spiritually committed person.

Yet over the course of the evening, the exact place of humor in this equation proved difficult to pin down. The question that emerged for me is in short: what is the relation of humor to joy? If one of the goals of this conversational encounter was to show that not only are faith and humor compatible, but that humor has veritable theological cachet, then how might we conceive of the relation between a theology of humor and a theology of hope? The nature and function of humor is of necessity a moving target. However, I’d like to highlight two distinct understandings of humor in the mix last Friday night and suggest that they occupy different positions relative to joy and hope, and in turn, different implications for Christian spirituality.

A first understanding sees humor and joy as basically synonymous. In Cardinal Dolan’s opening remarks, later shared on his blog, he sought to elucidate “what you might call the theological reasons for laughter.” He pointed to a seemingly unlikely symbolic center: the cross of Jesus. For in the light of the resurrection, Dolan preached, it becomes clear that this moment most bereft of love, goodness, and hope, when “[i]t seemed we could never smile again…” was not the end of the story. As Dolan put it: “Good Friday did not have the last word…Easter did!  That why I can laugh.” He went on to lift up contemporary examples from post-earthquake Haiti and pediatric oncology wards to show that despite there being “plenty of Good Fridays in our lives” “we believers have never stopped smiling since that Resurrection of Jesus from the dead!” Stephen Colbert, too, though without explicit reference to the paschal mystery, recounted a time in his own life in which humor drew near to suffering; the effect of his sister’s humor following the funeral for their father and brother became a formative instance in both his faith and aspirations to comedy.

I have also had similar experiences and would not for a minute want to discount their powerful if sometimes surprising impact. Dolan’s theological justification and certain of his conclusions, however, give me pause. I’m concerned, first of all, that his words could be taken to minimize the eschatological distance that persists even as Christians hold fast to the anticipation that all will be well, that laughter will abound in the company of a creation fulfilled. Although this hope is grounded in the sure promise of Jesus being raised from the dead, I think a robust eschatology suggests that we cannot fully inhabit a vantage point characterized as “in the light of the resurrection;” as much as it is given, joy is in many ways deferred. The christological problems are subtle and contentious, to be sure, but various liberation theologians have made a convincing case that as soon as the paradoxical “good” in “Good Friday” begins to flatten out, the gravity of Jesus’ death and our human suffering risks being slighted. Sin persists in history. It is real and calamitous and at times, all-encompassing. If joy – a contentment in God’s final righting of wrongs – is taken as a present possession, then I fear that in the face of injustice and oppression the message of hope may too easily slide into quietism.

Second concern, very much related: I think it would be misleading to see humor as equivalent to the joy borne of God’s faithful presence and laughter as its indelible mark, whether enjoyed now or in the future. Again, humor is a slippery concept, but that is precisely why I think some distinctions are helpful. Dolan presented the core belief of Christian faith, resurrection hope, as the reason “why a crabby, griping, whining believer is an oxymoron!” In offering a portrait of the light-hearted, confident believer Dolan had recourse to an aphorism from Teilhard de Chardin, which was a refrain for all the participants throughout the evening: “Joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence.” A profound statement indeed. But in addition to above concern about eschatological flattening, I think this conflation of humor and joy does not leave us well-equipped to envision and enact hope with regard to suffering whose causes we can see and are in fact called to critique. (Julia’s post several weeks ago posited the need for a more richly textured and differentiated language of suffering; I wholly agree.)

On this score some of Colbert’s comments on a quite different function of humor were more helpful, although they remained a kind of undercurrent in the discussion. In particular, he tried to delineate a difference in his own handling of faith as a comedian; his jokes call attention to the “misuse” of religion rather than religion itself, to those who would take “Christ as cudgel.” He spoke in several instances of the way that humor can nip at the heels of status, and sometimes upend it entirely, challenging the logic of privilege and power. Here the role of humor does not revel in a satisfaction that things are already being set aright, but exposes those situations where they remain decidedly wrong. (Elizabeth’s analysis of jokes about rape and their costly pitfalls demonstrates this idea very well.) Put succinctly, such humor is not celebration but critique. It may not be a work of joy in a straightforward sense, it may even come across as griping and whiny, but I contend that it is on some level a work of hope – hope understood as the tensive pull of God from the future into a conflicted present. So with regard to the spiritual life, it is certainly the case that laughter may have much to do with real “joy [as] the infallible sign of the presence of God” and I am appreciative of the reminder that last week’s event provided. But Stephen Colbert articulated an equally profound insight, namely that humor may also point to circumstances where the joy of God’s presence is obstructed or absent because of obstinacy, idiocy, prejudice, and hate; if done well, a joke of this sort spurs not only recognition but convicted response. And while that is a very different reason to laugh, it, too, is more than compatible with faith.

2 thoughts

  1. You make some excellent points in contrasting Dolan’s take on Joy with Colbert’s. The “don’t worry, be happy, it will all be okay in the end” notion of Joy coming from a person in a position of power and privilege, though, is not surprising. Prophetic speech or action is much more than “whining or griping” and it is very much related to joy and can be expressed, as Colbert points out, through humor and creativity. When Occupy Catholics held a general assembly on freedoms outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a few people had a very clever sign that said, “We’re not protesting. We’re advertising love.” I guess Cardinal Dolan failed to see the humor in this judging by the NYPD barricades surronding the steps, police cars and vans lining the street, and police officers monitering a peaceful gathering of faithful Catholics (all quite joy-filled as well, I might add). The Cardinal and Colbert is a great idea to get college kids fired-up about their faith, but as they journey to adulthood, we owe them an adult spirituality and faith articulated in a Church structure that invites more than their ability to smile and laugh jovially in the midst of a Church in serious crisis.

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