Briefly Noted: The Redemptive Nature of Laughter (Or, Why an Atheist Can and Can’t Get Jokes)

Now this one caught my attention. In a recent edition of Times Literary Supplement Tim Lewens reviews Daniel C. Dennett’s recent book on the nature of humor, Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind.[1] It caught my attention because Dennett is an atheist, which I think uniquely handicaps him in trying to understand humanity in general, and the comic dimension of humanity in particular.

Lewens notes three main theories of humor. Superiority theories “say that humor illustrates the inferiority in some respect of the joke’s butt” so that one laughs when one feels (at least a bit) superior about someone or something else. Release theories claim that humor provides “a sort of relief from build-up of nervous tension.” Incongruity-resolution theories “assert that humorous situations involve the presentation of an incongruity that is subsequently involved.” Dennett and company offer a version of this theory, arguing that humor is that “we find things funny when our expectations are overturned.”

The “expectations overturned” theory offered in Inside Jokes builds upon three principles. First, humor “requires committed expectations that are subsequently overturned.” Something is funny when it does not fit with the normal rhyme and rhythm of one’s day, and the expectations that come with it. Second, the overturning of expectations must ‘not be accompanied by any (strong) negative emotional violence.’ That is, there is a point at which funny crosses the line into “not funny.” Third, humor “requires that our expectations are swiftly overwhelmed.” Those with a quick wit tend to get more laughs than those who describe a humorous experience with long-winded, plodding, and pedantic prose (get it).

Lewens reflects upon Inside Jokes and offers several strengths and weaknesses this theory. He argues that its strengths are the importance placed on comic timing and shared-knowledge–something isn’t funny if no one knows what the person trying to be funny is talking about. Its weaknesses, though, are in the button-downed approach to humor: it may be too cognitive-based. Is there room in this cognitive theory for slap-stick or even the juvenile side of humor?  Some things are funny because they fit within a conversation, book, show, or film that intends to be funny. That is, Inside Jokes may ignore the genre of humor itself for the sake of a theory of how it works.

In response, I’ll agree with Dennett & Co. that the comic dimension of human existence is captured best by an incongruity-resolution theory of some sort. However, I’ll depart from Dennett & Co. by offering an additional theological insight: laughter is redemptive. Laughter is best understood within a Christian theological framework because it is one of God’s gifts to a fallen world.

In his book Redeeming Laughter, sociologist Peter Berger laughter is universal, that it is a signal of transcendence, and that it is redemptive because it makes life in a fallen world easier to bear.[2] He further argues that humor is best understood in terms of incongruity and resolution.

Where does the incongruence lie? Berger notes that most or all humor revolves around anthropological or ontological incongruence. In an instance of anthropological incongruence, we recognize that we are incongruent with ourselves. We are the only animals capable of standing outside of ourselves, and we live in the tension of being able to do so. In an instance of ontological incongruence, we laugh when we notice our location in the universe. The comic provides us laughter and, in so doing, presents briefly a world without pain.

Our recognition that we are incongruent with ourselves and our longing for another world (one without pain) can be made sense of most fully by a Christian theological framework, one in which God’s redemption extends to God’s (incongruent) imagers but also to his (fallen) cosmos. When we laugh at ourselves and at our location in this painful world, we have a brief respite from the painful realities of life in after the Fall. Our humor is proleptic, anticipating the new heavens and earth to come. As Helmut Thielicke once observed, if humor was given a place in theology, it would be under eschatology.

[1] Tim Lewins, “Around the Fire” in Times Literary Supplement (Dec. 7, 2012): p. 24; Matthew M. Hurley, Daniel C. Dennett, and Reginald B. Adams, Jr., Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind (MIT, 2011).


[2] Ibid., 205ff.

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