The Humour and Playfulness of God

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2008
Reproduced with Permission

Often, at hockey, baseball, or football games, when the television camera is pointed at the crowd, we see someone holding up a sign on which is written: Jn 3: 16. If someone sitting in front of the television is curious enough to look it up, he will come upon the following text of Scripture: "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life". The entire good news of the gospel is summed up in that one verse.

The Person of the Son did not come to us in anger, to condemn the world. He came to reveal the inner life of the Trinity, which is a life of absolute love between the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit is that very love in Person.

That such a sign would appear in the context of a game, whether it be a hockey, baseball, or football game, is apt indeed, because the Incarnation of the Son and his redemption of the human race is a game, one that is sacred, serious, mysterious and full of humour. The narrative of this game, moreover, will preoccupy the blessed for an eternity.

Allow me to begin with a reflection on the divine humour. For laughter is such a mysterious phenomenon. I often wonder why certain things make us laugh. A key to unlocking the mystery of humour in order to explore it more deeply is the word itself, from the Latin humus, which means 'soil', 'dirt', or 'ground'. The word 'human' is also derived there from; for a man is one who is 'from the ground': "Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground…" (Gn 2, 6).

The word 'humility' is also derived from the Latin humus. A humble person is one who has not forgotten his origins, namely, his origin in God: "…the Lord God…breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being" (Gn 2, 7); as well as his origin 'from the ground': "Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes" (Gn 18, 27).

The humble man, among other things, knows he is smaller than God, entirely dependent upon him, and subject to his law, and he knows that he is weak and vulnerable to destruction like any other material thing. Moreover, he refuses to ascend to heights disproportionate to his material nature, unlike the proud man who stubbornly insists on being his own god and the measure of what is true and good.

Humility is akin to humour because the more humble a person is, the more a spirit of humour permeates him, and thus the more he is able to laugh, in particular at himself. Evil has a narcissistic or egotistical character to it, and one quality that egoists lack is the ability to laugh at themselves. Those in darkness typically take themselves very seriously, but they take others, their lives and especially their salvation, very lightly. The saints, on the contrary, take themselves very lightly, but they take the souls of others very seriously.

This is so evident in the lives of the martyrs, who would often joke about themselves on their way to execution. William Roper tells of his father in law, Thomas More, who joked with the Master Lieutenant as he was being escorted up a weak scaffold: "I pray you, Master Lieutenant, see me safe up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself". With a cheerful countenance, he said to the executioner: "Pluck up thy spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office; my neck is very short; take heed therefore thou strike not awry, for saving of thine honesty." And yet Thomas wrote some of his best theological works while imprisoned in the Tower, evidently more concerned for the truth of Christ and the souls outside the Tower than for his own life.

Those who dwell in darkness, on the contrary, don't mind playing with people, using them, manipulating them like pawns in their own little game that has as its end the maximum level of self glorification that they can procure for themselves. Such people simply don't have the eyes to laugh at themselves, for they never see any incongruity between themselves and a higher law or standard that measures them, because they refuse to acknowledge and submit to any law other than their own will.

A person has to affirm a law greater and more lovely than himself in order to be able to laugh at himself, as he beholds how much he has fallen short of the standard it holds out to him. Instead, the egoist laughs at others whom he takes lightly, and he does so sardonically.

To be human is to exist at this juncture between God above and the ground below, and it is only here, suspended between heaven and earth, that genuine humour is at all possible. A person who is far too immersed in the affairs of the earth, and who loves the earth inordinately, laughs with great difficulty. He is too serious, and his mind is far too weighed down by the matter of the world to see himself and others from a distance and against the background of the divine law, which is the angle from which joyful laughter is made possible.

A person who is so elevated off the ground laughs with great difficulty as well, because he has forgotten that he is from the dirt. He is no longer aware of his fumbling nature, his limitations, and so he lives under the illusion that he is in control-and how can he laugh when he will no longer be surprised.

Humour exists in that space between heaven and earth in which one beholds the affairs of fallible, fumbling, forgetful human persons in light of the divine law. That is why the saints exhibit the greatest sense of humour.

Consider the humour in irony. The nicknames that children give to one another are often very funny, because they are full of irony. Think of Hercules, the kid so named because he couldn't lift a sack of potatoes if his life depended upon it, or the tall kid whose friends call Shorty, or the short kid they call Stretch, and the fat kid 'Slim'.

Or, think of the child that laughs at the TV when a witch turns a man into a frog, or the proud man who walks high and mighty, then suddenly slips on a banana peel, or bends over to pick up the paper and rips his pants at the seat. We laugh because we are struck by the irony, the latter a kind of reparative irony, that is, a much needed reminder that we are only matter and spirit.

When we consider these two aspects of humour, namely humility and irony, we see that God really has a great sense of humour. The Incarnation of the Son of God is a perfect blend of irony and humility.

St. Gregory of Nyssa highlights the irony in the Incarnation in his Sermons on the Beatitudes:

"What more humble for the King of creation than to share in our poor nature? The Ruler of rulers, the Lord of lords puts on voluntarily the garb of servitude. The Judge of all things becomes a subject of governors; He who holds the universe in His hands finds no place in the inn, but is cast aside into the manger of irrational beasts. The perfectly Pure accepts the filth of human nature, and after going through all our poverty passes on to the experience of death. Look at the standard by which to measure voluntary poverty! Life tastes death; the Judge is brought to judgment, the Lord of the life of all creatures is sentenced by the judge; the King of all heavenly powers does not push aside the hands of the executioners. Take this, He says, as an example by which to measure your humility" (The Beatitudes, Sermon 1).

Furthermore, God, who cannot be contained, but who contains all, chooses to remain really and truly present to us under the appearance of ordinary bread. Imagine if one were to hold up a piece of rye bread and declare out loud: "This is my uncle Joe. He promised that he would remain present to the family after his death, in this piece of bread". Turning to the rye bread he continues: "We miss you, uncle Joe. We love you! You'll always be close by, in the bread basket, and we'll greet you daily on one knee."

We'd be compelled to laugh at such a spectacle, for it is ridiculous. But God the Son has chosen to do just that, to remain substantially present to us under the appearance of ordinary and unexciting bread. The character of ridicule is gone, because it is true, Christ is the Bread of Life, literally. But the humour is still mystically discernible; for here is humility and irony at its best. It is divine humour, for the joke is on those who don't believe it and ridicule it. The Eucharist is the perfect example of the humility that takes itself lightly.

The Incarnation reveals not only the absolute mercy of God, and the infinite love of God, but it reveals at the same time the joyful humour of God. When we enter into the life of the Trinity by faith, we enter into God's humour.

I recall the reaction of a very gifted but quiet student of mine upon coming to understand some very profound truths on the soul, universals and the nature of knowledge in the thought of Plato. On more than one occasion, I'd look over in his direction to find him laughing by himself. I finally inquired of his laughter, and he simply pointed out: "I get it". He came to understand. Truth is beautiful, it is awe inspiring, and in his case he was moved to joyous laughter as the lofty ideas of Plato came in contact with a spirit that is united to matter. The joy and surprise of coming into the possession of what is eternally true spilled over into his body, inducing him to laugh.

And God is Truth Itself. He is subsistent Truth, just as He is subsistent Being, Goodness, and Beauty. To behold God as He is in Himself is to be possessed by Joy Itself, and a body possessed by Joy is one that is disposed to laughter.

Divine Playfulness

Not only is the mystery of humour rooted in God; so too the mystery of play. Comedy is a type of playing. A good comedian plays with his audience. He depends, however, on an audience that is willing to play along.

Creation as well as the re-creation of our redemption, is divine play. It is a sacred game. Even for us, recreation typically involves play.

To play - because it is a type of leisure - is to engage in activity not for the sake of some further end, but simply for its own sake. It is activity that is meaningful in itself, not necessary in the way work is necessary, and profoundly serious.

Human play involves a space in which to play, a field, and the game to be played will have an intelligible structure, with rules, boundaries, penalties for infractions, and goals. It will involve a physical and/or mental struggle to achieve the goal; one that brings rest, even when it is strenuous, for it is a leisurely and intriguing struggle.

The game - if it involves teams - aims principally at a common good, to be shared in whole and entire by every player, namely victory. But once play begins, the game cannot be controlled as a whole, but acquires a life of its own that is larger than any one individual. It is always full of surprises, which is why it is so much fun. The players become part of a kind of providence, a mini providence, without which there can be no fun, and thus no game.

For this reason, to control the game, such as its outcome, is to allow it to lose its hold on us, and this would drain it of its meaning. A game controlled by any one or more individuals is not a game as those playing might believe it is. Rather, it is a sham, not a playing between equals. In such a situation, the players have been lied to and reduced to pawns to serve the private ends of a manipulator. So too is the audience being played. In other words, the childlike quality of the players and spectators-the quality which makes play possible-is being exploited.

Genuine play begets narrative. It is contemplative. Human persons will discuss a good play that is part of a larger game for years afterwards. Baseball's most eloquent and illustrious poet and former Commissioner, Bartlett Giomatti, writes: "..the fullest, most expansive, most public talk is the talk in the lobby, baseball's second-favorite venue. The lobby is the park of talk; it is the enclosed place where the game is truly told, because told again and again. Each time it is played and replayed in the telling, the fable is refined, the nuances burnished the color of old silver. The memories in baseball become sharpest as they recede, for the art of telling improves with age" (A Great and Glorious Game, p. 111).

Play inspires narrative because like a powerful river current, the game sweeps the observer off his feet, elevating him to a new level of participation and observation (contemplation). It is restful for both player and observer, because the game takes us out of the workaday world and into a higher order in which one is no longer conscious of the world's time that closes us in and hurries us on, but a heavenly time that does not limit, but liberates. This is especially evident in baseball, where there is no clock. The game itself has become the clock.

That is why a game, even a playing season, anticipates eternity. Bartlett Giomatti writes:

Mutability had turned the seasons and translated hope to memory once again. And, once again, she had used baseball, our best invention to stay change, to bring change on. That is why it breaks my heart, that game - not because in New York they could win because Boston lost; in that, there is a rough justice, a reminder to the Yankees of how slight and fragile are the circumstances that exalt one group of human beings over another. It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised….I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun. (Ibid., pp.12-13)

Now the Wisdom of God, who is with God and who is God (Jn 1, 1), eternally plays before the face of God like a child:

When he established the heavens, I was there,…when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a little child; and I was daily his delight, making play before him always, at play in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men (Prov 8, 27, 29-31).

Chokmah can be translated as wit, skillful, wisely, or wisdom. The Wisdom that 'makes play' before God is witty, wise, skillful. He is like a child, because children play. At the same time, He is like an artist who plays wittily and skillfully.

God creates through the Logos, His Word, who plays. In other words, God's creating is a divine playing, and creation is His divine game. Divine providence is the rhythm of that game, which exists for us who are both players and spectators in one. Creation does not proceed from God out of necessity, but out of a love that freely chooses to communicate itself and make itself visible. As the artist creates on the basis of what he sees, similarly God, who knows Himself in His Word who is Wisdom Itself, playing like a child before Him, creates according to what He sees in His Word.

And so creation reflects marvelously and of course imperfectly and in varied ways the beauty and wit of this divine playfulness of the Logos. To contemplate the works of the Word is to be drawn into his playing, and so it should come as no surprise that we are moved to play wittily and creatively. To behold the beauty of this world is often to be inspired to express it and imitate it in some limited way, either in song, dance, prose or verse, or on canvas, or else to enter into the beautiful works of others.

Children know naturally how to play, and they are very serious about their play. Try disrupting the play of children - i.e., take the ball and run - and we soon discover that the playful is not opposed to the serious. And children are very serious about law; for they understand that law is an integral part of play. As they gather friends to play, they immediately go about drawing boundary lines, promulgating the law, the rules, the penalties for infraction; for without law there is no playing. Law exists to make play a possibility, that is, for the sake of the freedom to play. It is ordered, intelligible, harmonious, and protective of the good, in this case, the good of the game. One cannot arbitrarily decide, after hitting the ball, to run to third then back home again. One must proceed to first base, then second, third, then home. The kid who refuses to play by the rules is not serious enough about the game. He ruins the fun for everyone.

Only those who want to play by their own rules, those who want to control the outcome of the game, see law as restrictive, burdensome, and opposed to liberty. Those who refuse to play because it isn't their game see in law a desire to dominate and control, but only because they cannot imagine the possibility that others might be radically different from themselves and are willing to submit to a higher law for the sake of being taken up into the mini providence of the game.

Man's destiny is to learn to play the Lord's game, which is a very specific game with rules, some of which are absolute, and some relative. We are invited to enter into this divine game so as to enter into the Sabbath rest of His divine and eternal playing. To learn to play is to learn to become a child again: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 18, 3). For what is it that children love to do above all things? They love to play. Without play, there is no childhood, and without a childhood, one does not know how to be an adult.

How does one play? By surrendering to divine providence, that is, by allowing oneself to be taken up into the Lord's re-creation. It is to enter into the game of grace, the Person of Christ, who descended in order to lift us up into the humour and play of the Divine Persons. His game is profoundly serious, and it is bound by strict rules and foul lines. But the latter exist for the sake of the beauty and order of the play.

The point of this game, like baseball, is to return home. Some of us may be called to make a sacrifice fly so that the man on third can make it home, but all of us are called ultimately to help one another home, and when the enemy takes an aggressive posture, all of us must play our positions faithfully, patiently, without changing the rules that are not ours to change.

It is possible, however, to lose our balance in one of two ways. It is not a matter of Left and Right, Conservative or Liberal. Rather, it is a matter of becoming too serious, or heavy of spirit. Like those who refuse to play, we can, even while belonging to the right team, begin to take ourselves too seriously and the souls of others too lightly. Children take play and law seriously and themselves lightly, but some people who have freely entered into the play of Divine Providence become bored with childhood and delight in seeing themselves as slightly larger (inflated) than they actually are. Being an individual member of a large team is not all that flattering, and so some will experiment in ways that exceed the boundaries of the game. Inevitably, they will hide their recklessness under the guise of being light of heart. The problem is that they fail to take seriously enough what pertains to the salvation of souls.

The other extreme also involves a heavy spirit. These are serious about souls, but they as well are too serious about themselves. And so they become self-righteous, suspicious of those with whom they do not see eye to eye. And they fail to grasp the character of the game of which they are a part, that games are not, as a whole, controlled by coaches, managers, or team captains, but have a life of their own. These people are not secure in God, and so they laugh rarely.

But if we don't join this game, inevitably we join another, the game of those opposed to providence, one fast paced, unfestive, strenuous and exhausting, one in which to play is to work, ultimately for nothing. Behind this game is an empty promise of rest, and the humour that belongs to it is derisive and mocking, one that plays with reputations, soils the character, perverts the order of things, and aims to expose what it sees as the façade of moral nobility.

When the playing becomes difficult, when it rains and we are losing, we need only remember that a game is meant to be played in a spirit of joy. For we have an advantage in that we've been told and have been asked to believe that victory is guaranteed, not our own individual victory - unless we persevere -, but the victory of the team. It is right to taste the sadness of losing an inning, but we despair if we forget that the game is ours, and we have a part to play in this victory.