Humor in Religion

Even God might get tired of all the grave piety, Alan suggests. To prove his point, he recounts irreverent tales—like a vagabond snoozing on temple pillows who retorts, “Can’t a guy catch some zzz’s in his Dad’s house?” Laughter, Watts argues, springs from embracing life’s contradictions, not fighting them. Seen thus, humor becomes divine comedy, with the Cosmos itself as the ultimate rascal.



A listener writing to me has made the comment that he felt it in bad taste to make a joke about God as I did in a former talk. And since the God I made the joke about was the God who inhabits a Christian church, whose house it is, he said he felt that I wouldn’t have made the same kind of joke about a Buddhist shrine. I suppose the listener assumed I was a Buddhist. I’m interested in Buddhism and I like it very much, but I’m not a Buddhist. I don’t give myself a label. But it’s always struck me that a person who doesn’t know how to make a joke about God or about his own religion is somehow strange to his own religion.


I like a Buddhist story very much. It’s about a kind of Buddhism in Japan called Shin Buddhism, and the peculiarly, you might say, wonderful examples of this particular way of life are called Myōkōnin, which means “marvelous fine people.” The story goes that one of these Myōkōnin was traveling one night, and the only place he found for lodging was a temple. And he went inside and it was a rather bare, drafty place until he got up around the altar. And there he found the various cushions on which the priests sit, and he made himself a comfortable bed out of them and slept right in front of the altar. And in the morning the temple priest came in and saw this raggedy-looking beggar sleeping in the holy sanctuary. And he said, “My, what effrontery! What irreverence! What sacrilege! You, a common bum, coming in here and sleeping in front of the altar!” And the Myōkōnin looked up and said, “Why?” He said, “You must be a stranger here. You can’t be one of the family.”


And I remember another story. This time it’s a Catholic story. There was a church in Italy, and an Italian mama had taken her kids in there. She wanted to pray. And while she was praying the kids were tearing up and down the aisles having a wonderful time. And there was a New England spinster visiting and seeing the sights with a guidebook in her hand. And she saw these children making irreverent noise, and she touched the Italian mother on the shoulder while she was praying and said, “Excuse me, but can’t you take care of those children of yours? They’re making a very unnecessary disturbance.” And the woman said, “But it’s their father’s house. Can’t they play here?”


I wonder why it is that we—especially we of the Anglo-Saxon subculture—have to be so terribly gloomy about religion and deny all humor to it? I remember when I was a boy in school—it was one of those British public schools. One of the very great sins that one could commit was to smile or laugh at a church service. One had to keep on the straightest of straight faces. Even though everybody knew we made all sorts of terrible jokes about the reverent clergy and the things that went on, nevertheless, while we were there, while we were in the presence of the public, there must be no laughter at all for fear of the most dire punishments.


I don’t think it’s in bad taste to be jocular about divine matters, about holy things. Indeed, one of the most vigorous spokesmen of traditional Christianity, G. K. Chesterton, used to say that very often, when he wrote the word “cosmic” in an article, the printer would print comic. And he said: “This is after all not so unintelligent, for there is a greater connection between cosmic and comic than the mere similarity of the words.” He said on another occasion: “It is one thing to be astonished at a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who doesn’t exist. But it is much more profound to be astonished at a hippopotamus, a creature who does exist and looks as if he doesn’t.” He had this sense, in other words, that the good Lord had the most tremendous sense of humor.


Perhaps you may know that poem that he wrote where he’s describing some sort of strange, wonderful fish, where he says:

Dark the sea was: but I saw him,

One great head with goggle eyes,

Like a diabolic cherub

Flying in those fallen skies.

I have heard the hoarse deniers,

I have known the wordy wars;

I have seen a man, by shouting,

Seek to orphan all the stars.

I have seen a fool half-fashioned

Borrow from the heavens a tongue,

So to curse them more at leisure—

—But I trod him not as dung.

For I saw that finny goblin

Hidden in the abyss untrod;

And I knew there can be laughter

On the secret face of God.

Blow the trumpets, crown the sages,

Bring the age by reason fed!

He that sitteth in the heavens,

‘He shall laugh’—the prophet said.


Of course, actually, the quotation that he takes from the prophet at the end is a little bit out of context, because, if I remember it correctly—and I’m only speaking from memory—he that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh, the heathen to scorn. And that’s not real humor as Chesterton intended the idea of real humor. Because I think real humor, or the profoundest order of humor, is to be able to laugh at one’s self. Humor is the awareness—isn’t it?—that you yourself, inwardly, are very incongruous with what you appear to be outwardly.


Another remark that Chesterton made is that it is always funny to see somebody fall down, especially a dignified person fall down. It’s always funny to see, for example, a man running after his hat when it’s been blown away by the wind. And he says this is funny because it’s reminiscent of the fall of man: that the pretentious and pompous person, going along the street—you know how these people can move as if they were a procession all by themselves—suddenly comes to grief, and the humanity and fallibility and finitude of the creature suddenly intrudes. The same sort of amusement, of course, occurs when a dignified person breaks wind in public. And that’s why we see humor in such a famous limerick:


As I sat next to the Duchess at tea,

With everyone therefore to see,

Her rumblings abdominal

Were simply phenomenal,

And everyone thought it was me!


The contrast, the incongruity, between the dignified person of the Duchess and the rumblings abdominal! And so, on a much profounder level, it seems to me that it’s always a mark of the highest sort of wisdom that we find among human beings for a person to be aware of what I’ve sometimes called his own irreducible element of rascality. And therefore he’s never able, as it were, to lay down the law to other people without something in the way of a little twinkle in his eye. A great deal of humor (so-called) is simply malicious, where we make fun of other people at their expense, and we point out their incongruities. And this humor lacks insight because it doesn’t see that you yourself have the same kind of contradiction.


You notice very often a peculiarly subtle form of humor with Jewish people. I remember in particular Rabbi Finkelstein of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, who has a marvelously subtle sense of what you might call self-irony. And the whole of his charm as a man consists—he doesn’t overdo it, but it’s just the flavor of this slight humor about himself, his realization of his own finitude, without being guiltily ashamed of it.


And I think this is the important thing. After all, so much of the work of every psychotherapist is to get people to acknowledge and admit the disowned aspects of themselves. After all, if you’re brought up not only to behave correctly outwardly, but to imagine that you can behave correctly inwardly—in other words, to imagine that you can be without wayward evil, or even just wandering thoughts and ideas and emotions, and that you must keep your whole mind swept clean of these funny oddities. And then you struggle and struggle all your life long to disown and be afraid of these purely spontaneous and strange creatures that arise in yourself like goblins from the abyss untrod, then of course you’re sick and you have to go to a psychiatrist. And his main task, of course, is to get you to acknowledge and accept and be responsible for these unwelcome and alien aspects of one’s self. In other words, what the psychotherapists teach us more than anything is that it is plainly and downright absurd to be guilty, to feel guilty, because one is simply human and has this kind of wayward spontaneity of one’s inner life.


And thus you might say it is a sign of an integrated, psychically whole person that he has humor with respect to this side of himself; that he always is aware that he never is what he’s supposed to present himself as in public. And it seems to me that this is an absolutely necessary gift in anybody who holds the sort of responsible office where he has the life and death of other human beings in his hands. Whether he’s a president of a great concern—a university or a corporation—or whether he’s a judge, or whether he’s a psychiatrist or a physician, he has to have this understanding about himself.


It’s very nice to be able to get up in a public place and bombinate and lay down the law in a solemn way as to how everybody else ought to behave. You always notice that people who do this are really in the long run completely ineffectual and make asses of themselves. Whereas the more persuasive type of human being has, along with whatever he may say, a twinkle in his eye because he has the sense of his own limitations. And he knows very well—he’s conscious of the fact, in other words—that his inward being and his outward role are complementary, a coincidentia oppositorum (a coincidence of opposites) rather than simply the same thing on both sides.


That’s what, for example, makes a man like Rabelais so great. He was quite a devout and proper sort of clergyman in his ordinary life, and yet he wrote these fantastic tales about Gargantua and Pantagruel. Whereas on the other hand you will find all sorts of people whose writings and lives were overwhelmingly holy and were actually rascals, and they never really acknowledged it, were always torn between it with a certain guilt.


And so I would say that humor, the recognition of a certain incongruity in things, is one of the very highest qualifications of a holy man—holy in the real sense of being whole. And now the question arises, you see: if this quality of humor is a characteristic of the highest kind of human beings that we know, couldn’t it be a characteristic of God?


Now, please, you’ll understand if I talk about God in this way, this isn’t saying that I think that factually, scientifically, or metaphysically there is such a thing as a personal God. This is a sort of aside here to make the point clear. I do feel that there is perhaps an order of the world that might in some ways correspond to, rather than being equivalent to, the notion of God. But in talking about God in a more personal way, one is using what is, to my mind, a mythological way of speaking. And if you use it as such, you can say (in this mythological or poetic manner of talking) things that are important. Myths can sometimes express philosophical ideas that more exact language can never get across. Mythological language is infinitely suggestive. And therefore, if one talks about God and the devil, and uses the personal God and the personal devil speaking in a mythological way, it’s often very suggestive philosophically, and that’s the kind of spirit in which I’m talking about them.


So the question arises: wouldn’t the idea of God be extraordinarily defective and extraordinarily unpoetic without the gift of humor? Not the kind of humor which is laughing at others, but that of laughing at Himself (with a capital H). It’s so strange that people who believe in God very often expect the children of God to behave much better than God himself. When you consider the kind of conduct that is expected of a saint in most religions, in most theistic religions, it’s infinitely superior conduct to that which is expected of God. God is allowed to judge and damn people in all directions if they displease his divine will, and the saint is always characterized as an infinitely forgiving person. The saint may have humor, but very rarely does it seem that God does. What would the humor of God be? This, I think, would take us to a very profound matter: that if humor is the recognition of a certain incongruity in things, what would be the incongruity that is cosmic, that is absolutely fundamental?


Well, first of all, it does seem—doesn’t it?—that one of the things that is fundamental in all life is the polarity of what we call opposites. Namely, for example, that you can’t have life without death. You can’t have something without it being limited, both in space and in time. The higher you go, the further you can fall. That the more you succeed, the more you need to succeed. The more you have, the more anxiety you have to keep what you have, and so on. There’s a certain, isn’t there, a kind of contradiction that every yes seems to imply no.


And naturally, this is at the root of anxiety. When we realize that to be, to be alive, means that we are going to die—that to be implies not to be; to become implies not to become—there’s something fundamentally frustrating about that, as if life were saying to us, “Heads, I win. Tails, you lose,” or, “I’ve got a game you can’t beat.” And I say that arises and arouses anxiety in us because it gives us the feeling that we have to choose between two things, neither of which is quite the choice that we want to make. If we choose life, we get death, and so on.


Now, quite a long time ago in one of these talks I used an illustration of anxiety which I got from Gregory Bateson, and that was the electric bell. An electric bell is a mechanical anxiety because it vibrates, it wobbles, it trembles. And you know how it works. It’s an electromagnet, and alongside the electromagnet lies a strip of metal on a spring with a ball on the end, and that’s called an armature. And when the current is switched on, the magnet attracts the armature. But the armature moves and is also a switch, and it disconnects the current, so that immediately the magnet pulls it, the magnet releases it and it springs back. But that switches the current on again. And so the armature vibrates back and forth and rings the bell.


So, in other words, this mechanical anxiety is that every yes means no. To switch on implies to switch off, to switch off implies to switch on. This is like life implying death and good implying evil, and so on. And so it trembles, and this is the motion of anxiety. A kind of oscillating trembling is also the motion of sobbing, of weeping. But the wobbling, the trembling, remains (shall we say) negative—something like anxiety, something like weeping—just so long as we’re trying to beat the game. So long, for example, as we’re trying to have life without death, to have pleasure without pain, and to have virtue without the element of irreducible rascality.


When, however, this is seen through, when we see that this coincidence of opposites is the very nature of life, the nature of the vibration changes, and instead of being anxiety, it becomes laughter. And laughter is a release in—perhaps you know the remark that one of the old Zen masters made that, when a person has struggled through the whole discipline of Buddhism and finally sees the point, says nothing is left to you at this moment but to have a good laugh. Because you see again the incongruity. You were striving and struggling for something that you had all along. I mean, don’t we laugh at ourselves when we’re looking everywhere for our spectacles and discover that we’re wearing them, or digging through all the drawers and closets for one’s necktie which is already on? This is a matter for laughter. It’s the incongruity between the state of affairs as they are and the state of affairs as one imagines them to be.


So one might say there is this incongruity, this rocking ambivalence, at the very root of the world. And thus to introduce this perception into religion doesn’t seem to me to be in any way an irreverence or to demean religion. It might be an irreverence if it were done maliciously, if it were done to laugh at it. But this kind of humor seems to me to be laughing with it. I mean, the story I told in which the prayers of the sort of beatnik character were answered instantly, whereas those of the devout believer were not, and when the devout believer protested, God said to him, “Man, you bug me,” I don’t think this is at all laughing at things divine, but laughing with them. I mean, just suppose you were God and you had to listen day in and day out to the way people spoke to you, imagining that you are that kind of fellow that they do imagine you are, imagining that you could only be approached with fear and trembling, and with the most strange gestures of piety and standoffishness—I beg to suggest that even omnipotence and omniscience would find it exceedingly tiresome and would want to introduce a certain light touch into the proceedings.


It’s so strange that a great deal of the religious attitudes (of East and West alike) are based on court ceremonials of ancient kings. You know, where everybody had to lie prostrate on the floor and mustn’t look in the eyes of majesty, and had to speak a specially polite language, and make all sorts of bows and curtsies, and retire from the room backwards. Why did they have to do that? Why did they arrange it that way? The answer is simply that those ancient tyrants were terrified of rebellion, and did everything possible to keep people in order and obedient. It was because they were weak, not strong, that they had to have this sanctimonious kind of flattery. So if God—for those who believe in God—is really God, if God is strong and not weak, that kind of mummery is hardly necessary.

Alan Watts

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