Two judges in Stalinist Russia run into each other outside the courtroom. One of them is laughing out loud. “What’s so funny, comrade?” asks the other. “I just heard the funniest joke,” the first judge explains. “Tell me!” the other implores. “I can’t,” says the first judge. “I just sentenced a man to 10 years in the Gulag for telling it.“
This joke, and many others like it, circulated in the old Soviet Union at a time when sharing the punch line of that joke could land you in a slave labor camp for real if you were caught telling it. Stalin found that terror was a potent weapon in quashing political dissent but not so much in suppressing humor, much of it aimed at him. Modern propaganda techniques had made Stalin the subject of a cult of personality unparalleled since the Roman emperors, but it did not spare him becoming the butt of many jokes.
Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, a natural opioid in the human body that reduces stress and stimulates feelings of calmness and euphoria. As such, it performs a critical function during times of adversity, which may explain why even Stalin’s secret police were powerless to stamp out the laughs at his expense.
If humor were critical to survival in the Stalinist regime, then perhaps it also serves a broader evolutionary purpose. Darwin himself had little to say on the subject, but plenty of other investigators have weighed in. Our first cousins on the evolutionary tree – apes, chimpanzees and orangutans – are all capable of reflexive behavior resembling laughter, especially in response to being tickled. Some evolutionary biologists speculate that laughter in humans may have replaced social grooming in primates as a way to promote group bonding. Both activities stimulate the release of endorphins, which can soothe potentially aggressive behavior among individuals in a group.
Primates lack language, so presumably there is no joking around as such with our knuckle-dragging kin. Symbolic vocalizations arose among hairless apes about 50,000 years ago following the enlargement of the prefrontal cortex in hominid brains. There is a certain sense of incongruity underlying most verbal humor that requires a fairly high degree of cognitive sophistication. Tool making is often cited as the distinguishing feature separating our species from the other beasts, but we should not overlook our ability to laugh at a good joke.
Investigators speculate that religious thinking may have emerged in human culture at about the same time as joke telling – and for similar reasons. Religious rituals reinforce social cohesion, and they are a balm in the face of adversity. Life was nasty, brutish and short, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes. Religious rituals helped to make sense of it all – and even though human suffering was no laughing matter, it never hurt to laugh anyway. You might even argue that the ability to laugh in the face of adversity is a sacramental act in the formal sense of the term: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
You won’t find many laughs in Holy Scripture, of course. The God of the ancient Hebrews was a pretty fearsome gent, and if any jokes were told at his expense, we don’t have a record of them. The priests and scribes who chronicled his exploits were a similarly sober-sided bunch, so we can’t look to them for any insights into God’s lighter side.
And yet there are glimpses here and there in Scripture that God may have a sense of humor after all. Start with the fact that God blessed Abraham’s wife Sarah with a son after years of childlessness. The Book of Genesis reports that Abraham fell down laughing when he heard that his wife would become pregnant. Why laughter? Sarah was 90 years old.
Then there was the magnificent homage to God’s creative powers in the 104th Psalm:
O·Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both small and great.
There go the ships,
and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.
Leviathan – thought to refer to a whale in this passage – is presented here not as some fearsome monster of the deep but as a creature “formed to sport in it.” Where is God’s seriousness of purpose that we would bring forth a creature solely to frolic beneath the waves?
One might ask the same question of those creatures he supposedly formed in his own image. What can we conclude from the fact that we alone among God’s creatures are capable of laughing at a joke? Laughter is sometimes viewed as an affront to piety, but I would suggest it is quite the opposite. If anything, laughter may be the highest expression of our divine nature. And if we can’t find anything in life to laugh about, then it just may be that the joke is on us.