Humour As A Catalyst In Religious Experience

Edited contents of workshop at September 2001 Sea of Faith Conference presented by Tony Sutton

"The comic represents the imprisonment of the human spirit in the world" (Peter Berger)

"Laughter is a commentary on finitude — a response to the ambiguity of human "thrownness" in the world" (Martin Heidegger)

The editor of the US religious magazine Christian Century has remarked that he has more difficulty in obtaining religious humour than any other humour. Perhaps this is because there are hazardous boundaries in humour. Normally it is not acceptable to use humour to ridicule the divine or the mysterious: to use humour to "take flight" to express hostility or if it demeans peoples or issues or tries to wield power over people unfairly. Humour can then be treated then with some suspicion. Often humour does not fit the religious mould. Traditionally religious awareness is predominantly in the mind, cerebral, in our rational left side of the brain. Humour using the right side of the brain like music and other art forms has a creative role to enrich our experience of the divine and human relationships. One of the best examples of humour in a religious setting is that of a clown or jester. In history they are much more than a circus act. The first recognizable one was an Egyptian one, a dancing dwarf, and after that a Chinese one about 650 BCE. These are his significant recorded words: "I am a jester, my words cannot give offence". Prior to the twentieth century the clown in Europe was a divine interruptor, not disruptor who would frequently intervene in public worship to raise the consciousness of the congregation of the importance of the liturgy. The same interrupted action was found in university settings where the clown would appear through small doors behind the speaker's platform. Clowns then were not performers, but people there to create an environment in which "the circus of life can happen".

In our day this sort of clowning is alive and flourishing. About fifteen years ago I was at a conference of people from Union and Cooperating local churches. A clown presided at the Holy Communion namely the Rev Dianne Miller-Keeley now co-vicar of the Howick Anglican parish. For me that service was fascinating and transforming. The total silence and the effective body language of the clown gave a new perspective to the predictable structure of the service. Her role was truly that of a catalyst. Dianne writes:"A clown's task is to release the knowledge already known in the minds and hearts of those at worship by exaggerating it — so the truth being highlighted becomes unmistakable. The task of the clown is not to perform but to highlight — not to focus attention on the clown as a person but on "the discovery", not a solo act but to facilitate more awareness of the corporate bonds of Christian community. So the clown is reacting against individualism, against being pompous against joyless worship, against "solo acts" by the worship leader or the worshipper, and against the "expert syndrome". Dianne continues:"driving my car dressed as a clown can be an interesting experience. My favourite memory was when I passed Father Christmas also driving in a car in the opposite direction! My clown wears her emotions on her sleeve. She clearly shows joy, she is quickly crushed, hurt, confused or rejected. A clown does not have a stiff upper lip, she has a mouth that shows every fleeting emotion and helps other people get in touch with theirs as they enter her world. She offers the reassurance that it's "O.K." because she always receives the surprise of joy in the end". So here we see the clown using humour as a spiritual catalyst.

The stage and screen have made us familiar with the image of Jesus as a clown. Twenty-five years ago there was the musical Godspell, which presented Jesus as a clown. In the nineteen forties a short colour film was made for the New York Council of Churches and screened at the New York World Fair. It depicted Jesus as a clown throughout his ministry. St Francis of Assisi can be seen acting as a clown when he is accused before the town council of a debt he owes his father. Francis spontaneously takes off all his clothes before them all. He is surely clowning. Some months ago the newspaper syndicates featured a long interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It was mainly about the cancer treatment he was having and what he expected in his after life. The Archbishop was cracking jokes about both without restraint.

He really was clowning but doing this as a man of extraordinary joy and faith.

Recently a guest at the N Z Medical conference an American Doctor Patch Adams spoke about his role as a clown in two ways. To give joy and release to very sick children and adults and to challenge the often pompous and hidebound attitude of the American medical establishment. The film of his life was popular some two years ago. An American religious clown, Ken Feit, in the WCC magazine One World (Jan/Feb '79) writes that the key word for him is paradox — the reconciliation of such apparent contradictions as life/death, male/female. old/young, order/chaos. So a life giving meal consists of dead beings, personal solitude is necessary for community, silence is the most potent language, confusion can be the basis for creativity and possessions tend to own the possessor. "A fool`s foolish freedom is won at considerable cost". This humour is creative, encourages lateral thinking and exposes self importance and can be a great leveller. It can help a person to initiate dialogue on sensitive issues such as power, death, sex and the mysterious. It can help people recognize the ambiguities implicit in religious belief, language and traditions according to Feit. In the same article the Rev Bill Peckham also a religious clown writes: "I have learnt many things about people and their unmet needs especially about "skin hunger". Whilst babies, mothers the young and beautiful are all easy to touch, he discovers countless people who have become untouchable — the disabled, the disturbed, the less than beautiful, the isolated and the elderly. We might recall Jesus in the Gospel narratives touching the leper and the woman with an issue of blood and the man born blind and being recognized as the friend of publicans and sinners.

Humour as a catalyst helps to prevent the religious professional reverting to being a sort of medieval intermediary between God and man. No wonder Jesus infuriated the scribes and pharisees with his quips and embarrassing questions. Humour can "put down the mighty from their seat and exalt the humble and meek". We may recognize the ghosts of the worst sort of scribes and pharisees and the humour that dethrones them in a masterly send-up of sermons, "Take a Pew" written by Alan Bennett and performed in the Cambridge Revue analysed in a perceptive article in the Scottish Journal of Theology by Dr Graeme Garrett of St Marks Theological College Canberra. Garrett comments that this imaginary pretentious preacher should be challenged because he reduces Gods otherness far too easily to the cramped dimensions of all too human language, thought and feeling. It is the double theological problem, the deification of the human and the degradation of God. The comedian knows that our human language is of earth not of heaven. Laughter points the way towards a symbolic use of language where human words become transparent to a truth beyond the merely empirical horizon, Garrett writes.

So humour can make a unique contribution in spiritual awareness and is worth taking seriously. It uses the right side of the brain — it challenges "ham-fisted" talk of the divine and the numinous and enables us to handle creatively the paradoxes. that are entwined in our human existence.