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Deus Ridens. The Redemptive Power of Humour in Religion

Deus Ridens 2009 Groepsfoto web.jpg

This two-day international UCSIA conference, which was attended by a selective group of 30 researchers in this particular subject matter from Europe (Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Poland, Italy, Spain, Greece, UK, Norway), Israel, the United States and Australia and specialised in various disciplines (philosophy, theology, religious and cultural studies, classical studies, (art) history, sociology, psychology, political studies, literature and theatre) investigated the link between humour and religion in its most diverse aspects.

The first day was devoted to the role of humour within different religious traditions, focusing on such research questions as: 

  • Is humor an art of life serving ethical (religious) ends?
    Johan Taels, philosopher of the University of Antwerp, while referring to various renown thinkers, argued that humour acts as a means to help us deal with the comic and tragic ambiguity of life and helps us in preserving a spiritual balance between both. 


  • Is humor an inherent characteristic of Christianity and Buddhism?
    John Morreall, professor of religious studies at the American College of William and Mary,  developed a list of 20 criteria distinguishing between a comic and tragic vision of life to prove that in their origins both religions were marked by a more flexible, comic vision. But in their further development a more pronounced difference appeared between Buddhism, especially in its Zen tradition, in which the pro-comic stance becomes more apparent still, and Christianity, which, due to the appropriation of a Greek mind-body dualism, its incorporation as a state religion engendering a more marked militarist stance and its doctrine of the original sin, developed towards a less comic vision of life. 


  • Is there a Muslim sense of humour?
    Ulrich Marzolph, professor of Islamic studies at the Georg-Augustu University in Göttingen, countered the generally acknowledged western vision of Islam as lacking a sense of humour, by revealing the existence of an astonishing body of humorous literature within Islamic tradition. Arab culture cultivated forms of verbal expression above pictural expression and the Qur’an is considered as the direct verbal embodiment of Allah. Whereas the Qur’an preaches moderation in humour as in all other aspects of life and warns against mockery of other human beings, the Sunna recalls numerous instances in which the prophet Mohamed is depicted as enjoying laughter and humour. But it is especially the Adab-literature of educative and entertaining literature, with proponents such as Al-Jahiz and Ibn al-Jawzi, which elevated humour as a literary genre. 


  • How does humour come into play in Jewish tradition in the relation between women and patriarchal tradition?
    Athalya Brenner, professor in Biblical Studies at the University of Tel Aviv, illustrated, by means of specific passages from the Talmud how women, as socially inferior, get their fair share of humorous treatment and how they themselves use humour for critiquing male behaviour. She edited books on ‘Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible’ and on humour and women under the title of ‘Are We amused?’ 

The ensuing workshops provided more insight in the role of humour in Byzantine, Hindu and Japanese traditions and the use of humour in ancient Greek-Roman times and early biblical plays.
The day closed with a public lecture by Dominican professor of art and comparative religion, François Boespflug (University of Strasbourg), who presented the broader audience with an illustrated overview of the history of the representation of God, Jesus and other revered biblical figures from Christianity throughout the ages, to shed a more nuanced light on the controversy surrounding the debate on the Mohammed cartoons. 
In prolongation of the topic of the first day, the second day started with a presentation by Ingvild Saelid Gilhus, historian of religion at the University of Bergen, on the function of (rather aggressive) laughter as both a means of knowledge and mockery in the mythical context of early Christianity, illustrated by extracts from Gnostic text sources in which mythological figures make fun of the world creator and Jesus laughs at those who crucified him and at his disciples questioning him.
Jessica Milner Davis, research associate of comparative literature and theatre of the University of Sydney, made a cross-cultural and -historical comparison of the universal figure of the licensed fool, who exists in all traditions and fulfils the same role of critique and mockery of establishment within ‘controlled’ boundaries of specific religious rites, festivals and plays. In modern theatre this figure became professionalized on stage, while in contemporary society he has escaped the containment of the theatre and has become commonplace in all segments of public life, foremost the media, with a loss of critical (and spiritual) capacity.
These ideas were developed and transposed to our times in a first workshop presenting a dramaturgical theory of the relationship between humour and religion, the way it plays in modern translations of ancient Greek comedy texts (comparing English and Greek translations of Aristophanes’ The Acharnians’) and how contemporary literature stages monumental drama figures (such as Sisyphus in Albert Camus’ ‘The Myth of Sysiphus’) to convey a post-modern existential philosophy.
A second workshop confronted us, successively, with the role humour plays, through certain television programmes (‘The Vicar of Dibley’ and ‘Father Ted’ in the UK in 1994-1995), in making the church and its institutions and representatives object of scrutiny and reflection (on respectively the acceptability of ordaining of women priests in the Anglican Church and the understanding of the human character of Catholic priests), in election campaigns (the role of satire in the media influencing the outcome of polls as in the recent elections in the US) and in political cartoons on religious figures in Greece.       
The programme thus turned to more sociological and political reflections on the interaction between humour and religion in contemporary society
A long-term (1997-2001) psychological investigation of empirical reality to check possible links and differences between humour and religion, presented by psychologist Vassilis Saroglou of the Catholic University of Louvain, reveals that both religion and humour lead to positive reframing of life events and active coping strategies, but, whereas religion tends to elevate ‘everyday life’, humour diminishes life though incongruity (what is important becomes trivial); humour puts novelty above tradition, disorder above order, playfulness above seriousness. Humour and religion are not incompatible but religion tends to inhibit humorous expression. It is conceived, by believers and atheists alike, as a characteristic of the atheist.   
Anthropologist Giselinde Kuipers from the University of Amsterdam demonstrated how post-secular society lends itself to a fusion of humour and spirituality. Secularisation did not engender the disappearance of religion but permitted a transformation and diffusion of spirituality to other domains of life, a ‘sacralisation’ of  secular domains. It encouraged the emancipation of emotions which led to a sacralisation of the ‘Self’, placing wellbeing and emotional expression (and humour) central in life experience (cf. New Age emotionality). New ‘exuberant’ evangelical and pentecoastal religions attribute a preponderant  role to joy and laughter. In post-secular society more varied relations between humour and religion become possible. Given the fact that humour tends to demarcate and dramatize social rifts and oppositions, this also leads to contradictions and clashes. Why do not religions reply with humour more often?

The contributions to the conference have been published in the book Humour and Religion. Challenges and Ambiguities (Continuum, 2011).

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