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 miokonen, which means marvelous fine people.
The story goes that one of these Miokonen was traveling one night and then a place he found the 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 Ma, what if from tree one river it’s what sacrilege you common but I’m coming in here and sleeping in front of the altar. And the Miokonen looked up and said wow 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 and she wanted to pray and washee was praying the kids were tearing up and down the aisles having a wonderful time and the reason New England spinster visiting and seeing the sights of the guide book in our hand, and she saw all these children making an irreverent know is and she touched the Italian mother on the shoulder while she was paid said Excuse me but contra take care of those children of yours they’re making very unnecessary disturbance. It’s how the woman said but it’s the 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 of human 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 the must be no loft 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 the 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 seen a fool ha fashioned borrow from the heavens a tongue so to curse them, or at leisure. But I try to not as dung for I saw that Finney goblin hidden in the abyss on drugs 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 siteth 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 sitting to the heavens for a laugh that he even the scorn. And that’s not real humor, as Chesterton intended, the idea of real human. Because I think real humor, or the profoundest order of human is to be able to laugh at oneself. Humor is the awareness isn’t it that. You yourself in would lay. Very incongruous with what you appear to be outwardly. Another remark that Chesterton made is it that 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 off 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 a sudden it comes to grief. And the humanity and fallibility and find it to do the creature suddenly intrudes. The same sort of amusement of course occurs when a dignified person breaks room 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 that offered to see how rumblings abdominal was simpler 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 performed a 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 was and they down the law to other people without something. In the way of a little twinkle in his eye. Or great deal of humor so-called, is simply malicious, where we make fun of other people at their expense and me point out that incongruities. And this humor lacks insight, because it doesn’t see that you, yourself have the same kind of contradiction.
You notice very often the can really subtle form of humor with Jewish people. I remember in particular a rabbi I think will Stein of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York whose…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 are 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 a way would even though or even just wandering thoughts and ideas and emotions and that you must keep your own mind swept clean of these funny oddities. And then you struggle and struggle all your life long to disown, be afraid all of these purely a spontaneous and strange creatures that arise in yourself like goblins from the abyss on drugs. Then of course you are sick and you have to go to a psychiatry and his main task of course is to get you to acknowledge and accept and be responsible for these unwelcome and alien aspects of oneself. In other words, what the psychotherapists teach us more than anything is that that is 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 the sign of an integrated psychically whole person that he has humor with respect to the side of himself. That he always is aware of 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 university or a corporation or whether he’s a judge or whether he’s a psychiatrist, a physician he has to have this understanding about himself and it’s very nice to be able to get up at 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 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 eyes, 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 row are complimentary. A coincidetia 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 and his ordinary life and yet he wrote these fantastic tales about Gargantua and Pantarole. On the other hand, will find all sorts of people whose writings and lives were overweeningly holy and were actually rascals, and they never really acknowledged it, they were always torn between a certain guilt. And so are I would say that that human the recognition of it of a sudden incongruity in things is one of the very highest qualifications of a Wholy Man holy in the real sense of being whole.
And now of the question arises you see, if this quality of humor is a characteristic of the highest kind of human beings that we know, why not…couldn’t it be a characteristic of God? Now please you understand, if I talk about God in this way, this isn’t saying that I think that factually, scientifically, you all metaphysically there is such a thing as a personal god. This is a sort of aside 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 these for the personal god and 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. So the question arises, why couldn’t wouldn’t the idea of God be extraordinarily defective and extraordinarily unpoetic without the gift of humor, and 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 sudden 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 its 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 realise that to be, to be alive means that we are going to die to be implies not to be. To become implies not to become, there’s something fundamentally frustrating about that. As if life was saying to us, heads I win tails you lose or you… I’ve got a game you can’t beat. And I say that 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, a 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. You know how it works. It’s an electromagnetic, 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 immediately the armature pulls it. The magnet releases it, and it springs back, but that switches the current on again, and so the armature springs 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 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 are trying to beat the game. So long, for example, as we are 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 anxiety it becomes laughter. And laughter is a release. Perhaps you know a remark that one of the zen masters made that when a person has struggles through the whole discipline of Buddhism and finally sees the point, he says nothing is left for you at this moment but to have a good laugh. Because you see again, the incongruity. You were striving, struggling, for something we 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 when it’s already on. It’s the incongruity of the state of affairs as they are, from the state of affairs as we imagine 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 irreverence. It might be irreverence if it were done maliciously. If it were done to laugh at it. But this kind of humor seems to be laughing with it. I mean the story I told about the prayers of the sort of beatnik character were answers instantly, whereas those of the devout believer were not, and when the devout believer protested, God said, ‘Man, you bug me.’ 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 would beg to suggest that even on negligence and on this you would find it exceedingly tiresome I would want to introduce a sudden 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 caught ceremonials of ancient kings. You know, everybody had to lie prostrate on the floor, mustn’t look in the eyes of majesty and how to speak especially polite language and make all sorts of bows and curtsies as I’m retired 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 would turn out to fight a rebellion and did everything possible to keep people. In on a hundred B.C. and. 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.