Preaching on Laughter: The Theology of Laughter in Augustine's Sermons

By Torretta, Gabriel | Theological Studies, December 2015 | Go to article overview

Preaching on Laughter: The Theology of Laughter in Augustine's Sermons


Torretta, Gabriel, Theological Studies


James Martin opens his book Between Heaven and Mirth with a telling anecdote about a Jesuit friend of his named Mike who, when in formation, went to manifest his conscience to his superior after a prolonged bout of comic mischief in the community: "'Father,' he said, 'I confess excessive levity.' The priest glowered at Mike, paused, and said, 'All levity is excessive.'" (1) For many contemporary scholars of laughter, Martin's curmudgeonly old Jesuit represents the entire Christian response to the question of laughter: the Gospels never show Jesus laughing, Augustine "and all other church fathers" condemn it, (2) the medievals see the "true saint" as a "sad and melancholic figure," (3) and the present Church is "shivering and oppressed by the cold front of authoritarianism" that shuts all humor out of the Christian life. (4)

Certain aspects of the early Christian treatment of laughter seem to make these negative claims credible. Neil Adkin characterizes Jerome as being wholly opposed to laughter, condemning it not only in bishops and ascetics, but in ordinary Christians as well. (5) Adkin says that other early Christian writers, like Origen and Cassian, more moderately conclude that refraining from laughter is a sign of virtue that should be encouraged. (6) Karl-Josef Kuschel and Stephen Halliwell cite abundant evidence of John Chrysostom's distaste for laughter as unbecoming of the true Christian. (7) Likewise, M. A. Screech points out that the highly influential work of Pseudo-Chrysostom, the Opus imperfectum in Matthaeum, contains strong condemnations of laughter. (8) This list could be greatly expanded. So does Martin's stem formator accurately represent the patristic concept of laughter after all?

Although analyzing the complete narrative of laughter in the early Christian mentality is beyond the scope of my current project, one can find a more complete sense of the Christian meaning of laughter by examining Augustine's writings. Although Augustine never explicitly articulates a theology of laughter, a coherent understanding of the phenomenon emerges from his sermons. (9) In its most quotidian sense, laughter is simply an inherent part of the human person, and is subject to the same moral reflection as any other pleasure; but in its fullest sense, laughter expresses the dynamic of salvation, as a symbol of the temporal convergence and eternal divergence of the way of the wicked and the way of the just. The theological importance of laughter is especially clear when Christ is its object, as when the wicked laughed at Christ the Head in his earthly life, and laugh at Christ the Body now; (10) or its agent, as when Christ the Head laughs from heaven at the wicked, and Christ the Body laughs at them on earth. To understand Augustine's theology of laughter, we will first look at laughter's place in daily life, then examine Christ as the object and agent of laughter.

Laughter in Daily Life

Before turning to the symbolic value of laughter in Augustine's thought, I wish first to take laughter at face value, exploring its place in human nature and in daily life. When speaking generally about the human condition, Augustine offers strong characterizations of laughter that understandably have left some scholars convinced of his unqualified opposition to laughter on earth. Simply by observing newborn babies, he argues, we can learn that the lot of human beings is more fitted to tears than to laughter; right after birth, "the baby itself bears witness to its wretchedness by crying.... It doesn't begin with laughter, it begins with a wail." (11) The babe "could just as well have laughed," but tears come first. (12) In this way the child becomes "a prophet of its own future misfortunes," which beset all human beings who live "in the midst of trials and temptations." (13) The way a child begins its life outside the womb typifies the miserable state of postlapsarian man: "From the very moment Adam fell, and was driven out of paradise," he says, "there have never been any days that weren't evil. …

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