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Laughing At Thunder

The sun is going to go down tonight and and will rise again tomorrow. Knowing that the sun doesn’t really go up and down, that it is an illusion, doesn’t make it any less beautiful or wondrous. Science has removed some of our delusions about the nature of life, but science and religion can agree that life is a miracle, it is a privilege, and it is our responsibility to embrace life in all it’s wonder.

We live in a time when genetic research is providing answers to some of the great mysteries of life, giving us insights we couldn’t have dreamed of just a few short years ago. As an example, I remind you of the astonishing revelation that every single human on earth is descending from a single woman who lived in Central Africa a mere 60,000 or so years ago. We know this because of the discovery that every human on earth, including everyone in this room, carries a record of their ancestors journey inside of their very flesh.

The miracle of loaves and fishes seems like a parlor trick compared to the miracle your DNA carries in it’s spiral structure. It contains your family tree, the blueprint that makes you you, and the set of instructions that will shape your children into what they will become. Mankind, alone among all living things, has figured out how to decode the blueprint that built them.

Count your blessings that you live in a time when we are learning so many things about life on earth, at a time when superstition is losing it’s hypnotizing power, at a time when we have confirmation that life’s mystery is cause for reverence and wonder and mirth, instead of fear and repression.

Count your blessings that you get it.

The philosopher Frederich Neitzche understood that far too many people don’t get it. 

“God is a comedian,” he wrote, “performing for an audience that is too afraid to laugh”.     


“I've always thought that a big laugh is a really loud noise from the soul saying, "Ain't that the truth."  
Quincy Jones

“People take their religions very seriously.
Step over the line, and you invite lines -- of picketers and protesters, letters to the editor, and in the worst-case scenarios, terrorists and suicide bombers.
Religion and humor have a checkered history… There are the countless "rabbi, priest and minister" jokes, though many of them make fun of the messengers, not God or religion themselves.
Mostly because, in history in general, to laugh at religion was to invite harsh criticism, ostracism -- or worse.
[There was] a 17th-century admonition that banned "games, sports, plays [and] comedies" because they didn't agree with "Christian silence, gravity and sobriety." The penalty wasn't specified, but people have been killed for less throughout history.
Steve Lawler, an Episcopal priest who advises organizations on ethical questions, believes the humor-impaired are the ones that truly lack faith.
"Laughing at oneself and one's own beliefs shows a kind of faith that escapes the literally minded," he observes.
"The idea that there is a particular line to be drawn gets complicated right away. Who gets to draw the line? What happens to those who cross it? And, probably my biggest question -- what are you so worried about?"
He notes that many religious festivals celebrate life-cycle events of the seasons and of human beings. Ironically, those festivals have sometimes been hijacked by people who miss the point of celebration, he says.
"These festivals have stories and activities that are meant for fun and for humor. It is the deficit of literalist and fundamentalist traditions that make the world less enchanted and more dour," he says.
"They are proudly ignorant of their own histories and the practices of those others who have a stronger claim on the essential understanding of their tradition."
Lawler also has an explanation of why America's Protestant denominations have less of a humor tradition.
"If we look at the Calvinist form of religion that undergirds American civil religion, we can see why there is a lack of [humor] in those traditions," he says. "Anti-emotion and anti-body, there goes the belly laugh."
Besides, humor reminds us that we're human, says Lawler.
"Too many of the humorless have lost the fullness of their humanity. They stand stone-faced and scared before God. The sad thing is that they think the rest of us should as well."
    - essay by Todd Leopold

“A minister was completing a temperance sermon. With great emphasis he said, "If I had all the beer in the world, I'd take it and pour it into the river." With even greater emphasis he said, "And if I had all the wine in the world, I'd take it and pour it into the river."

And then finally, shaking his fist in the air, he said, "And if I had all the whiskey in the world, I'd take it and pour it into the river." Sermon complete, he sat down with an air of righteousness.

The worship assistant stood and announced, "For our closing song, let us sing Hymn #365, 'We Shall Gather at the River.'"

   - Anonymous

When I was a child my grandma and grandpa lived on a farm. It was a wonderful place for a child -  there were cows and chickens and pigs and hills and woods and fields and all sorts of possibilities for adventure. My grandma and grandma were the two most wonderful people in the world, loving and accepting, always offering a hug and a kind word. It was heaven on earth for a small boy.

The adventure was mitigated a bit by the lack of indoor plumbing, but even that was kind of exciting in a way - except in mid winter, when body parts got chilly that you didn’t want to get chilly - and in late summer when body parts were exposed to spiders that you didn’t want exposed to spiders.

The farm had a root cellar, common in those days, but unheard of in 2012. It was an underground space for storing potatoes and other root vegetables, and was where my grandma stored mason jars she filled with pickled vegetables as she prepared for winter. It was cool and damp and filled with cobwebs, lit by a single bare light bulb. It was not an inviting place.

What I remember it most for, however, is that every time a thunderstorm came up, we would be herded to the root cellar, waiting out the thunder and lightening and rain under the ground.

My mom’s large family all have a sly, pervasive sense of humor. Everybody kids each other and has a playful attitude towards all aspects of life. But there was no humor in the root cellar. We were there because my grandma was deathly afraid of thunderstorms. Even as a child I could see the tension in her face, sense her paralyzing anxiety. She tried to hide these things from the children, but in the cool, dank, tight quarters of the cellar there was no mistaking her fear. I don’t recall my grandma going to church often as a kid, she had so much to do and church was miles away over country roads, but it did seem to me, deep in the cellar, that she was quietly moving her lips, grimly petitioning her Creator to get us through the evening alive. 

Thinking of my grandmother there in the root cellar reminds me of all of the times, flipping through the TV channels, I have come across television preachers leading their flock in prayer. Aside from being reminded of the biblical admonitions against public prayer and considering that wisdom, I am always struck by something I see in these brief interludes. The preachers always have a grimace on their face and are fiercely squinting, as if they have just slammed their hand in a car door. My grandma’s grimace arose from fear and anxiety. Shouldn’t someone petitioning their Creator safely in front of a flattering, soft-focus camera lens have a less grim, more beatific look on their face?

Which further reminds me of a quote I read some time ago that I found quite disconcerting. It was by Alfred North Whitehead, the English philosopher and mathematician. He noted that: “The total absence of humor from the bible is one of the most singular things in all of literature”. 

This thought struck me as particularly important. Humor and laughter are a fundamental part of the human experience, perhaps the defining quality of humanity, and yet the bible, like it’s dour acolytes behind the television pulpits, seemed to be a grimly humorless operation.  As I tried to recall an example of humor in the bible all I could come up with was the incident where Jesus crossed paths with a man who was going to his father’s funeral and so rejected Jesus’ entreaty to join him. Jesus responded by telling the man to “let the dead bury the dead”. Hardly a knee slapper, but perhaps evidence of a sarcastic streak in Jesus.

Humans, as best we know, are the only creature on earth capable of humor, the only animal that laughs, and I don’t think I need to quote research that has shown that humor is perhaps mankind’s most essential coping mechanism. We all understand that innately. Humor allows us to go through the day with a spring in our step, gives us a lift when we need one. It is also a defense mechanism we use to get through life’s challenges, even when those challenges involve unspeakable horrors. Humor can be an adjunct to spirituality when times are tough. The great Mel Brooks noted that “Tragedy is when I stub my toe. Comedy is when someone else falls in a manhole and dies.” Sometimes I think that God’s sense of irony is the glue that holds the universe together.

In times of trouble and heartache it is our sense of humor that makes it bearable.

I once heard of a family who lost the matriarch of the family and one of her daughters brought a CD of piano music for the service called “Hymns of the Resurrection”. Lost in grief, it slowly occurred to her that people were giggling all around her during the service . As she puzzled over this, she suddenly realized that they weren’t listening to piano hymns, but rather Broadway show tunes from the CD she mistakenly gave the minister. The heartbroken friends and family all had a therapeutic laugh that made the day more bearable.

All of you who have had to deal with the loss of a loved one know that there is a kind of funeral humor that will help get you through the ordeal. I was surprised and grateful at the first funeral of a loved one I had to endure to learn that humor is not just tolerated, but expected during that somber ritual.

Here is proof of mankind’s irrepressible attachment to humor, even in the face of death. These are actual tombstone inscriptions:

Here lies the body
of Jonathan Blake
Stepped on the gas
Instead of the brake.

The grave of Ellen Shannon in Girard, Pennsylvania contains a consumer warning:
Who was fatally burned
March 21, 1870
by the explosion of a lamp
filled with R.E. Danforth's
Non-Explosive Burning Fluid

On a marker in East Dalhousie Cemetery, Nova Scotia:
Here lies Ezekial Aikle
Age 102
The Good Die Young.

In a Ribbesford, England, cemetery:
The children of Israel wanted bread
And the Lord sent them manna,
Old clerk Wallace wanted a wife,
And the Devil sent him Anna.

In a Thurmont, Maryland, cemetery:
Here lies an Atheist
All dressed up
And no place to go.

All of which somehow reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s last words, as he lay dying in a room in France. “Either this wallpaper goes, or I do.” Even in our darkest hours humor makes the existential nature of life manageable.

Another dark set of circumstances in which mankind relies on humor to get through tough times is represented in repressive societies. I visited Eastern Germany during the cold war years and discovered that it wasn’t so much a alternative to capitalism as it was a giant, soul crushing prison. When people are oppressed it is humor that helps get them through it, even though telling a joke in Eastern Europe mocking the situation could send you to prison. Here is an example of a joke that people used to deal with the tyranny of soviet style communism: "What would happen if the desert became communist? Nothing for a while, and then there would be a sand shortage."

According to a former East German secret policeman the most asked about report the secret police had every year was the one compiling jokes their wiretaps and spies recorded. Even the spies needed a laugh. Example: Three prisoners in the gulag get to talking about why they are there. “I am here because I always got to work five minutes late, and they charged me with sabotage,” says the first. “I am here because I kept getting to work five minutes early, and they charged me with spying,” says the second. “I am here because I got to work on time every day,” says the third, “and they charged me with owning a western watch.” 

A historian looking through the files of Stalin’s political prisoners concluded that 200,000 people were imprisoned for telling jokes, such as this ultimate communist joke: "There are people who tell jokes. There are people who collect jokes. And there are people who collect people who tell jokes."

Communism was officially godless. Religion and humor, the great human  coping mechanisms, were viewed with equal contempt by their paranoid leaders, an inkling of their symbiotic qualities.

So why do people rely so heavily on the great gift of humor as a coping mechanism?

Recent research might have some answers. Julian Keenan, author of the book “The Face in the Mirror: The Search for the Origins of Consciousness”, writes about a research project he participated in. He was hooked to sensors that measured the nature of hormones being released into his system while engaged in conversation with a researcher. The conversation lasted about 30 minutes, and during that time, Keenan, a jokester, cracked several jokes to lighten the mood. When they examined a printout of the 30 minutes of the conversation, there were 6 distinct spikes of adrenaline, each corresponding exactly to the 6 times he cracked a joke.

This research suggests that humor has less to do with entertaining others, or scoring points for being clever, or sharing humorous insights, and more to do with your brain giving itself a reward in the form of an invigorating dose of adrenaline. When you tell a joke, or have a big laugh, it appears that you are self medicating. 

Some of you may remember the author Norman Cousins, who wrote of a terrible illness he had that was not responding to traditional medical treatment. He learned by accident that a few minutes of laughter helped eased his pain. He began watching Marx Brothers movies and discovered that 10 minutes of laughter provided him with two pain free hours. He eventually recovered and was convinced that his laughter therapy was a big part of his cure.

Many people report that, during a religious event, like say, communion, they get a feeling of warmth and well being, they feel a rewarding inner glow. I found some research that suggests that what they are feeling is the result of exactly the same metabolic process as our response to humor. The physiological response to communion, like a good laugh, causes adrenaline and other hormones to be released into their system. 

The results of this research have led to the thesis that both religion and humor have much to do with creating a welcome and pleasurable internal biochemistry. This helps explain why some people get so obsessed with religion - it is an intoxicating and physically healthy way to reward the body and brain with jolts of hormones that energize and relax simultaneously. Natural selection has favored a biochemical apparatus that rewards your brain when you are experiencing a spiritual or humorous moment.

Which reminds me of a story that illustrates the nexus between religion and humor told by the great moral philosopher, Henny Youngman.

“A grandmother is at the sea side with her grandson. The grandson is playing on the beach when a giant rogue wave comes out of nowhere and washes the boy, who cannot swim, out to sea. The grandmother is beside herself and pleads to God to save the child. Another rogue wave suddenly appears, and miraculously lifts the child and gently sets him at his grandmother’s feet. She looks at the heavens and shouts, "He had a hat!"

The earliest humor in human babies involves overcoming anxiety caused by things being temporarily out of view (representing uncertainty in their minds) and learning that out of view doesn’t mean non-existent.

The game of peek a boo is endlessly funny to a baby because it signifies that they have overcome the anxiety they associate with a parent not being visible. 

Research into the nature of humor shows that children first smile as a pleasurable response to perceived mastery over a situation. Peek a boo is an exercise that allows a baby having a laugh to celebrate mastery over the primal fear of being left alone.

Humor then, is a way to show control or mastery over a situation that is essentially uncontrollable, which is to say, life itself. When you consider that religion is a way to show control or mastery over a situation that is uncontrollable, again, life itself, you begin to see that humor and religion are the same thing in important ways.

Joseph Polimeni, a professor at the University of Manitoba, has authored a remarkable paper on the evolutionary origins of humor, published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. The central thesis of the paper is that humor and religion are rooted in parts of the brain that evolved simultaneously. 

Polimeni theorizes that humor and spirituality emerged together, about 35,000 years ago, suggesting that they were abstract ways, made possible by emerging brain evolution, for humans to relieve stress, communicate and make social connections in favor of more immediate means used by our primate ancestors, like grooming, roughhousing and other pack behaviors.

In the paper, Polimeni says that "Given that the basis of humor may conceivably be rooted in the same cognitive machinery that allows animals to play and tease, it is certainly possible that the cognitive processes that allow spirituality may have piggy-backed on this humor cognitive substructure".

If I may translate, Polimeni is suggesting that humor and religion may have evolved at the same time, providing an innate connection between the two.

It is worth noting that we know that fear is rooted in the oldest part of the brain, often called the lizard brain for shorthand. Fear was a necessary component for survival of the earliest animals with central nervous systems. Fear can help you escape danger. Spirituality and humor did not arise until millions of years after fear, associated as they are with more advanced brain structures. Thus the connection of religion and fear, so prominent in many religious circles, is not only destructive and counterproductive, it is inauthentic.

Research and scholarship now show that a case can be made that spirituality and humor have a evolutionary connection. Only people with an unseemly agenda make the case that fear and religion have a connection.

It is impossible to imagine life without humor, and were it so it would probably be unbearable.  Given the thesis that humor and religion are so intertwined, Whitehead’s observation about the lack of humor in the bible is all the more remarkable.  How can the most important book in western history, the Bible, be absent this fundamental quality?

Hershey Friedman, a professor at Brooklyn College, thinks that the critics of the bible’s lack of humor don’t know the whole story. Friedman has written that the bible is filled with sarcasm, irony, and word play, but repeated translations, often accompanied by ideological agendas, have massaged much of the earthy nature out of the bible. Friedman has many examples of passages that were meant to be funny and today are viewed as serious metaphors. Consider this passage from Luke, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” Friedman tells of sharing this passage with a child and the child, not hypnotized by biblical reverence, bent over in laughter, imagining a log in a person’s eye. To the child, the passage was like a Saturday morning cartoon. Jesus said, you may recall: “I will reveal to babes what I will keep hidden from the wise”

Friedman’s thesis illuminates another passage in a different light as well. When viewed through the lens of biblical reverence, Matthew’s “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” is a serious admonition regarding wealth. Considered in light of Friedman’s thesis it is a knee slapping bit of mockery regarding the hubris of wealth. 

While the Christian bible has had it’s humor altered by well meaning but misguided protectors of religious propriety, many other religious traditions have historically embraced humor as an essential element of their beliefs. 

Tribal societies in Africa and the Americas designated clowns who spoofed all sorts of things and helped to resolve disputes. A "laughing Buddha" emerged in Buddhist, Taoist and Shinto cultures to welcome worshippers with his laughing face, protruding belly and sack full of goodies. The Navajo actually have a ceremony to celebrate a baby’s first laugh. They think a baby is considered to be of two worlds at birth: that of the holy people and that of the earth people. As weeks pass, adults wait and listen for the child's first chuckle — a sign of joy that signals his desire to join his earth family and community. Greenland's Innuits developed comedic insult contests to avoid physically harming each other during conflict. 

As professor Polimeni observed, "To my knowledge, no anthropologist has ever suggested he or she had visited a humorless society." 

In his paper Poimeni writes about an incident in the late 19th century, in which anthropologists Louis Schulze and Charles Chewings became the first outsiders to record contact with Australian aboriginals, who had been genetically and culturally isolated from the rest of the world for tens of thousands of years. 

Schulze and Chewings got caught in a terrifying thunderstorm they thought would scare the Australians witless. Instead, as they later wrote: "When the thunder rends the air in deafening claps...the natives show no fear. On the contrary, they will converse freely, make light of it, and even burst out laughing at an unusually loud or peculiar clap of thunder." 

They got their dose of adrenaline by laughing rather than wringing their hands in fear, and had much less anxiety coping with the thunder than my grandmother, silently praying in terror next to her grandchildren there in the root cellar.

This is an idea that is ripe for contemplation - the idea that religion is rooted in the same evolutionary process as humor and laughing, and that religion and humor work together better than their oppressive corollary, religion and fear. Religion paired with humor works in a rewarding and satisfying fashion for the individual, religion paired with fear is more rewarding and satisfying for self-appointed proxies of god, men of flesh who leverage that fear to their advantage.

We have learned that the writers of the bible perhaps did have a better sense of humor than they are given credit for. Unfortunately, many of the followers of the branches of the Abrahamic religions have become humorless cranks, more inclined to judge people than to giggle with them. Were any of you surprised when a religious group sentenced a cartoonist to death for poking fun at them? Capital punishment for a joke. It appears that some religious folks are oblivious to the irony that was once religion's stock in trade.

The ability to laugh at yourself is considered a vital part of a well rounded person. The inability to laugh at one’s circumstances can be deadly.

I have some advice for all of you. 

First, don’t ever take advice from me. 

Should you chose to ignore that advice, my second bit of advice is to beware of any institution that represses humor and irreverence. In any environment where giggling is viewed with suspicion, put a hand on your wallet, walk slowly backwards, and hightail it to a place where laughter is embraced. It is your genetic imperative.

A rabbi, a priest, and a monk all go into a bar. The bartender says, “What is this, some kind of joke?”

Well, yes it is.

Life is illusory and beautiful and confounding and joyful and ephemeral and   mundane and mystical and lonely and collective. How else can we react to the remarkable and inexplicable gift of life than by embracing the fundamental possibilities of reverence and it’s inevitable cousin irreverence?

Our ancestors got the joke. In this day and age too many of us have exchanged humor and irreverence regarding the inescapable uncertainties of existence for fear and repression. Those humorless certainties cause us to miss the joke - and thus miss much of the essence of spirituality. This is not how we are wired.

Some of us make it all serious, when in fact it is about joy and mirth and chuckles in the face of the inevitability of the void. 

Our ancestors giggled at danger. Their Gods were sarcastic and cynical and reveled in irony. There were things that could kill them but a brave and smiling countenance in the face of those dangers made life a courageous hoot instead of a burden to be endured. Laughter was the defense mechanism they and their Gods used to make life bearable, just as almost every person outside of a church continues to do each and every day in every other aspect of their life. People once knew in their marrow that Fear doesn’t lead to the spirit, laughter does.

Join me in taking a hint from our aboriginal ancestors and start laughing at thunder.

Go forth and giggle.