Can humility and humor coexist?

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Professor Roger Owens reflects on the nature of humor and humility.

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

It’s a gray Pittsburgh morning. I’m sitting on the back patio. Cardinals are whistling a racket in the trees. I hear trash trucks rumbling through the neighborhood. Blessedly, the plop, plop from the nearby pickleball court has yet to begin.

I’m reading Richard Foster’s latest book, Learning Humility, and he is quibbling with St. Benedict, who wrote about humility in his 6th-century monastic rule. Foster objects to Benedict’s assumption that humor is inconsistent with humility, to his assertion that “the tenth step of humility is that one is not given to laughter.”

(Anyone who has read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose can imagine the murderous consequences of taking this rule to the extreme: a monk poisoned the pages of Aristotle’s treatise on comedy, killing any brother who dares to read it.)

Those backward ancients, we think.

And I get Foster’s point. Playfulness is a neighbor to prayer, and humor can be a cousin of holiness when it causes us to drop our defenses. It can disarm, and for a moment when we laugh, we are being ourselves. Of course, humor can be overdone – Foster acknowledges this – and it can harm. But the ability to laugh is also one of the distinctions of being human. And isn’t the spiritual journey one on which we are meant to become increasingly human?

My own instinct, when reading someone like Benedict, is to ask: What does he know that I don’t know? What does a seemingly backward rule have to teach me?

(Plop, plop — it has begun.)

And this morning, as I read, I’m remembering something our children’s minister said to me at the church last night.

“You had me cracking up in our meeting this afternoon,” she said.

“I did? How?”

“It was your commentary while Ginger was talking about something serious.”

Uh oh, I thought.

My wife, Ginger, and I have pastored together now for nine years, and, yes, I’ve often said that Ginger is the one in charge and I’m the comic relief. She’s the play-by-play announcer and I’m the color commentator. With jokes.

I’m glad for my role. Humor has an important place in ministry. I love shared laughter in worship, for instance. Like lament, it’s one of the most fully embodied experiences we can have. It’s so close to joy, and when 200 people laugh together in the context of turning their hearts to God in worship, it’s as lovely as a hymn of praise.

But humor can also distract from worship and community life when it’s gratuitous and calls attention to itself. The wry comment or the riotous guffaw – in a Bible study, worship service, meeting, or other gathering – can be like a raised hand, saying, “Look at me! Look at me!”

Which is the opposite of the unselfconscious playfulness that approaches prayer.

Which is the converse of humility.

I know I need to be more aware of when my own penchant to inject the clever comment expresses a desire to be center stage. A not infrequent desire, I’m sure.

This will be my spiritual practice today: I will be aware of humor. I will watch how it plays in community; how it can bring life, facilitate connection, and release tension.

And I will observe how it can call attention to itself, be the squeaky wheel, the subtle – or not so subtle – grasping for the limelight.

But, before that, I’ll listen to the plop, plop a little longer and watch the hummingbird sip the honeysuckle nectar. And I’ll sit here a few more minutes as the sun tries to burn through the haze, and I’ll watch this rabbit chomp clover just a few feet from the patio.

And that reminds me, what do you call a group of bunnies hopping backward?

A receding hareline.