Pope Francis and The Value of Humour

Ultra-conservatives may doubt Pope Francis' views, but his statement that bringing smiles to others makes God smile resonates. Even skeptical philosophers acknowledge the value of humor in life.

5 mins read
More than 100 comedians from around the world were at the Vatican. [ Photo: Vatican Media/Vatican Pool/Getty Images]

Crowd: Hail, messiah!

Brian: I’m not the messiah! …

Crowd: Only the true messiah denies his divinity!

Brian: … Alright, I am the messiah!

– Monty Python’s Life of Brian

I watch BBC World News and CNN every morning with my coffee. Admittedly, this is not the best thing to indulge in just as one wakes up, since  all one sees is a dystopian view of a world in turmoil and traumatizing carnage  that is mostly human-caused. But this morning, a refreshing news item made me smile. It showed Pope Francis meeting over 100 comedians before embarking on his trip to Italy’s southern Puglia region for the Group of Seven summit.  According to Associated Press,  Pope Francis had hosted a unique gathering at the Vatican on Friday, celebrating the profound impact of humor. This agglomeration  of entertainers came from 15 nations, including renowned U.S. figures like Whoopi Goldberg, Jimmy Fallon, Chris Rock, Stephen Colbert, and Conan O’Brien, and they were warmly welcomed by the pontiff.

Addressing the comedians, Pope Francis emphasized the transformative power of humor amidst global challenges, remarking, “In the midst of so much gloomy news, immersed as we are in many social and even personal emergencies, you have the power to spread peace and smiles.” He playfully requested their prayers, quipping, “Please pray for me: for, not against!”

The Pope underscored the divine aspect of humor, noting, “Divine wisdom practiced your art for the benefit of none other than God himself, the first spectator in history.” He highlighted the joy God finds in creation and humor, encouraging the comedians with the words, “When you manage to bring intelligent smiles to the lips of even a single spectator, you also make God smile.”

His Holiness also embraced the idea of lightheartedness towards spirituality, affirming, “It’s okay to laugh at God,” likening it to the affectionate playfulness shared among loved ones. After delivering his address, he personally greeted each comedian, sharing laughter and jovial moments. Goldberg expressed her joy, describing the encounter as “great” and “loving,” adding that it left her feeling happy.

Reflecting on the unexpected gathering, Fallon mused, “To be in that room and to be with all my fellow comedians, some of whom I’ve been good friends with for many years, in that environment, was quite strange.” Colbert, grappling with his limited Italian, managed to humorously remind the pope of his audiobook contribution, highlighting the light-hearted exchange that characterized the meeting.

In essence, Pope Francis’s engagement with comedians underscored the value of humor in fostering unity, spreading joy, and even deepening spiritual connection. His encouragement to embrace humor as a tool for positivity and understanding resonated deeply with the diverse group of comedians, affirming their role in bringing smiles and shared laughter to a troubled world.

The Bible does not offer a direct or systematic treatment of humor, yet it subtly references or suggests instances of humor, wit, or laughter. Here are several points to consider: for instance there is acknowledgment of laughter and joy where : The Bible recognizes laughter and joy as integral aspects of human life. For example, Psalm 126:2 describes, “Then our mouths were filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.”. There are also instances of wit and humor in narratives: throughout biblical narratives, characters engage in wit or humor in their interactions. For instance, Sarah laughs in disbelief upon hearing she will bear a child in her old age (Genesis 18:12-15). The name Isaac, which means “laughter,” reflects the joy and irony of his birth.

Some biblical passages employ irony and satire to convey messages. In 1 Kings 18:27, Elijah mocks the prophets of Baal, humorously suggesting their god might be busy or asleep, which serves as a form of sarcasm or irony.

Books such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes contain wisdom: sayings that occasionally employ wit or cleverness to communicate their insights. Proverbs 17:22 observes, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones,” suggesting the beneficial nature of joy and laughter.

Humor, like other forms of communication, is influenced by cultural and contextual factors. What may be humorous in one cultural setting may not be perceived similarly in another. Therefore, understanding the historical and cultural context of biblical texts is crucial when interpreting humor or wit found within them.

While the Bible does not provide a systematic theology of humor, it does acknowledge laughter, joy, wit, and irony as part of human existence. Biblical characters exhibit these emotions, and various literary devices, including humor, are employed effectively to convey messages throughout the Scriptures.

My Take

Although ultra-conservatives may express a certain cynicism and reservation in Pope Francis’ gesture and views expressed by His Holiness at the gathering , I believe The Pope was dead right when he said “  “When you manage to bring intelligent smiles to the lips of even a single spectator, you also make God smile.” Even skeptical philosophers have extolled the virtues of humour in our lives.

Throughout history, philosophers have contemplated the interplay between religion, seriousness, and the capacity of faith to alleviate human troubles. While their views diverge widely, many philosophers have advocated for a balanced perspective that recognizes the potential of religion to provide solace and faith in the divine.

Voltaire, renowned for his wit and satire during the French Enlightenment, critiqued religious dogmatism while promoting a tolerant and lighthearted approach to life. He viewed humor and laughter as essential tools for challenging oppressive authority and stimulating critical thinking. Voltaire famously quipped, “God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh,” suggesting that humor could liberate individuals from the rigidities of religious beliefs and provide a refreshing perspective on life’s challenges. One could interpret this statement differently, that God wants us to approach life lightheartedly.

Pope Francis, in my view, implicitly conveyed that religion should not be too dogmatic and mired in implacably originalist interpretation. This rigidity, representing a blend of originalism and textualism, is what  Friedrich Nietzsche, known for his provocative ideas, brought to bear   when he explored the relationship between religion and seriousness. He famously declared, “God is dead,” indicating the waning influence of traditional religious beliefs in modern society. Nietzsche criticized the overly solemn approach to religion, seeing it as potentially stifling personal freedom and creativity. Instead, he encouraged embracing life’s uncertainties and finding joy amid existential struggles, advocating for a lighthearted yet profound engagement with life’s complexities.

Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish existentialist, offered a nuanced view of religious faith. While emphasizing the importance of a sincere and passionate commitment to religious beliefs, Kierkegaard cautioned against excessive seriousness. He valued authenticity and self-reflection in spiritual matters, advocating for a balanced approach that acknowledges the paradoxes inherent in faith. Kierkegaard’s concept of the “leap of faith” underscores the idea that true religious commitment involves a personal journey marked by both seriousness and a humble acceptance of life’s uncertainties.

Albert Camus, an existentialist philosopher, examined the absurdity of human existence and the quest for meaning in a universe devoid of inherent purpose. Camus rejected the notion of finding ultimate seriousness or meaning in religion, cautioning against despair in the face of life’s absurdities. Instead, he promoted a spirit of rebellion and defiance against meaninglessness, urging individuals to find freedom and joy through embracing life’s challenges with resilience and courage.

Henri Bergson, a philosopher known for his theories on laughter, highlighted humor’s role in human experience. Bergson argued that laughter arises from perceiving incongruities and rigidities in human behavior, including those found in religious doctrines. He suggested that humor serves a vital social function by encouraging intellectual freedom and fostering harmony in society. Bergson’s philosophy underscores the potential of finding lightheartedness in religious beliefs, promoting a balanced and tolerant worldview.

In conclusion, it can be said that these philosophers offer diverse perspectives on religion, seriousness, and the potential for humor and lightheartedness to enrich human experience. From Voltaire’s satire to Nietzsche’s critique, Kierkegaard’s emphasis on authenticity, Camus’s rebellion against despair, and Bergson’s theory of laughter, each philosopher encourages individuals to approach religion with critical but pensive thought and embrace the human capacity for humor and resilience in navigating life’s challenges. These insights invite reflection on how faith and laughter can coexist to foster a deeper understanding of the human condition and promote personal growth and societal harmony.

Therefore, it is not entirely unimaginable that humour can be used as a means of promoting religious thoughts and feelings.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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