Faith, Humor, and Paradox

Rainbow Chi Rho Cross, c. J. Patrick Mahon, 2008

Humor has elements of surprise, incongruity and the unexpected. “a comic, absurd, or incongruous quality causing amusement.” ( William James has said, “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.” (

In general, we do not associate humor with things religious; however, I am discovering that the Bible is full of humor. Today’s Gospel reading is but one example. The person who does not follow the teachings of Jesus is building a house on sand. Stop. Think about it. Ponder the words and the image. It is common sense dancing not to build one’s house on sand and yet we see people building in flood plains in order to be near a trout stream or to have a picturesque view. Gerald Arbuckle says, “The discerning listener would have chuckled over the stupidity of anyone who tries to build their house on sand rather than on rock.” (Laughing with God: Humor, Culture and Transformation, 33)

Götz (Faith, Humor, Paradox) proposes that there is no opposition between faith and humor, belief and laughter. To argue this point, he shows how both the structure of faith and that of humor are the same, and this structure is paradox. Paradox, which is well known in the secular realms of mathematics and philosophy, is explored, first, in detail, and then he shows how faith and humor, both, are paradoxical in nature. The result is that there is no real opposition between faith and humor. The tragic and the comic are sisters, as Aristotle saw in antiquity. On the other side, Götz  shows what happens when faith and humor depart from paradox: faith becomes dogmatic and fanatical, and humor becomes superficial and banal. Fanatical faith latches onto beliefs and dogmas rather than to the openness of paradox, and so it leads to terrorism against those who hold onto different beliefs. Götz also warns against an easy embrace of tolerance as the only alternative to fanaticism, because tolerance itself is imperfect and is often forced to accept evil. (

A paradox is a “statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to comm0on sense and yet is perhaps true.” (

Richard Rohr often reminds us that faith is living with contradictions, living in the liminal space between opposites, embracing paradox. God dying on a cross, the symbol of capital punishment and taking up one’s cross daily, dying in order to live fully, are THE ultimate Christian paradoxes. This is incongruity to the nth degree. Götz warns us of the dangers of trying to wrap our faith in a neat little bundle. Fundamentalism does this quite well; however, it destroys genuine faith in the process. The burning bush is a prime example of paradox and contradiction—a symbol for divine presence. If Moses were a fundamentalist, he would have ordered Aaron to get the fire extinguisher. Bushes are not supposed to burn and not be consumed by the fire.

What are the symbols of humor, faith and paradox in Advent. We can start with Isaiah’s reading. God will bring down the mighty city and the needy and poor shall trample the ruins underfoot. Fast forward a few centuries. This would be like the Occupy Wall Street people bring down Wall Street. Look out, you high and mighty 1%! God does have a sense of humor and a sense of justice. Isaiah reminds us of Jesus’ first teacher, Mary:

He puts forth his arm in strength

and scatters the proud-hearted.

He casts the mighty from their thrones

and raises the lowly.

He fills the starving with good things,

sends the rich away empty.

Other symbols—lowly shepherds being the first to greet Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger—a water trough for animals. The One Sent by God lies in such lowly state—paradox, contradiction, the unexpected, a trace of divine humor. We have the symbol of the star guiding wise people from afar—a symbol that all nations will come to the Christ. (Cannot resist this humor—what were the wise men? They were firemen. Why? They came from afaar. Say this with a slow Southern accent and draw out the second syllable and you will get the humor.)

Let’s look for the humor in the Bible; otherwise we will become fanatics and we have enough fanatics in our society today. Some of them are even running for president!





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