He Who Laughs Last Misses Faith? Niebuhr on Humor

Reinhold Niebuhr loved to laugh. What's more, he enjoyed making others laugh -- though that's perhaps a little-known fact, hardly self-evident if one, say, peruses works such as Moral Man and Immoral Society.
As his biographer Richard Fox notes, Niebuhr enjoyed leading skits to entertain friends and family while retreating in Heath, Massachusetts.

Actually, though, Robert McAfee Brown's anthology contains a pretty interesting piece titled "Humor and Faith"; this piece, as it happens, is not funny in the least but is a fairly sober assessment of the laughter and its limtis that reveals both keen insights and theological limitations in Niebuhr's thought (The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr, New Haven, CT: Yale, 1986, pp. 49-60).

Niebuhr's thesis is this: Humor and faith are deeply connected in that both seek to cope with the contradictions of existence that cannot be reconciled or even fully rationalized. The fundamental root of the incongruous human situation, according to Niebuhr, is that we are embedded in material life and historical contingencies, yet we are spiritual -- that is, we transcend ourselves through the exercise of our critical reason and freedom. The incongruity of this existential situation lures us into sin as either of the two poles dominate the other one. (Niebuhr develops this anthropological perspective at great length in volume one of The Nature and Destiny of Man). I would emphasize the point -- though I won't elaborate it -- that this is not Cartesian mind-body dualism; rather, there is only one life for the human subject, simultaneously embedded in contingencies and transcending them.

Both humor and faith, in Niebuhr's reading, deal with the same incongruous situation: At our best, we aspire for moral achievements that we cannot achieve and our failure to do so only drives the irony of life home further. But humor and faith deal with this reality at different levels. Niebuhr writes:

Both humor and faith are expressions of the human spirit, of its capacity to stand outside of life, and itself, and view the whole scene. But any view of the whole immediately creates the problem of how the incongruities of life are to be dealt with, for the effort to understand the life, and our place in it, confronts us with inconsistencies and incongruities which do not fit into any neat picture of the whole. Laughter is our reaction to immediate incongruities and those which do not affect us essentially. Faith is the only possible response to the ultimate incongruities of existence which threaten the very meaning of life (pp. 49-50).

Thus, when a pretentious person falls due to his or her own blunders, laughter is the appropriate response; political satire comes to mind here. Humor fails, though, when the stakes are higher. Niebuhr reminds his readers of the naive souls who thought they could laugh off Hitler and Mussolini. Laughter falls away when we face the ultimate congruity of existence -- our mortality. If we do try to laugh off death, then our humor takes on a bitter and cynical edge. Still, as Niebuhr notes, humor can be a defensive survival mechanism for those enduring severe oppression and degradation. To be sure, African slaves could not free themselves by secretly making fun of their masters. Only an active movement of liberation could do that. Still, such humor did help the slaves find ways to make their lives slightly more bearable and to deconstruct the pretensions of their oppressors.

When we face the ultimately incongruities of existence, the appropriate answer is not humor but, rather, faith. Faith for Niebuhr (or as I read him, at least) is a fundamentally transcendental leap into the arms of that abyss we can neither control nor even formulate. That is, faith steps beyond he limits of historical existence into the depths of an eternity where, alone, this incongruity is reconciled. Niebuhr, unlike the theologians of hope, does not posit this reconciliation in terms of an eschatological realism nor, with more traditional believers, does he speculate about personal conscious existence beyond the grave. In his view, we don't really know how God reconciles the deepest aspirations of our being within the arms of eternal love. We simply have to trust this is the case.

From a Christian perspective, as Niebuhr sees it, the ultimate symbol of this reconciliation of our profoundest incongruities is the cross of Jesus Christ, which unites perfect love and justice within an act of utterly sacrificial love. The cross, manifestly, is not funny; the only ones who find humor in the death of Jesus are the cruel mockers, who fail to see the reconciliation manifest in this horrific event.

Still, I am left with this question for Niebuhr -- and I am far from being alone in this -- if the cross does not provide a comedic resolution for our dilemma, might we hope to find this elsewhere?

In other words, what ever happened to the resurrection?


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