Laughter and the infinite

When we talk about religion, we rarely talk about humor. Discussions of Confucian funerary ritual, for example, don’t usually spend a lot of time on what’s funny about the rituals, either intentionally or unintentionally.

So I am delighted that Laurel Kendall, a leading scholar of Korean shamanism and an excellent writer, actually raises the issue of humor in her writing on shamanistic rituals. It turns out that in Korean shamanism, one jokes with spirits, and spirits certainly joke with us.

And when you look a little below the surface, you find that there’s actually a lot of humor in religion. Zen is, of course, a fantastic repository of absurdist humor (cf. shit on a stick). But one finds humor elsewhere, too, if one looks for it: in Abraham’s haggling with God over Sodom and Gomorrah, in Taoist writing (especially Zhuangzi), even in the mad genius of Jesus spotting a crowd of people about to stone a woman, and instead of pleading with them to stop, simply suggesting that whoever is without sin go first. (This scene is much funnier and more astounding if you imagine it actually happening.)

This is something I want to look at more deeply. Writing on humor can be depressingly humorless, and I’d like to avoid that. But there may be something to the comedy of the spiritual.