May 11, 2013
Why is Religion So Gloomy?
James Martin, SJ
I’ve been a Catholic and a Christian my whole life, a Jesuit for over 20 years and a priest for over ten. So I’ve spent a great deal of time living and working among those whom you could call “professionally religious.” Especially over the last 20 years I’ve met men and women working in all manner of religious settings—in churches, synagogues and mosques; retreat houses, religious high schools, colleges and universities; rectories and parish houses and chanceries; parish adult education programs, and religious meetings of every stripe. And I have known, met or spoken to thousands of religious men and women from almost every walk of life. In the process I have come across a surprising number of spiritually aware people who are, in a word, grim.
This does not mean that a believer has to be a grinning idiot every moment of the day. But I’ve met so many religious folks with sour faces that it makes me wonder to what degree they believe that joy is a necessary part of their spiritual lives.
Moreover, this morose spirit has wormed its way into the culture of many religious institutions. That is, it goes beyond the personal and moves into the communal realm. Why? A few reasons come to mind.
First of all, our understanding of God is often one of a joyless judge. Suffice to say that when you consider the grim spirit that pervades some church groups, it’s not a surprise that one of the most influential of all American sermons is Jonathan Edwards’s famous 18th-century tract, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” “There is no want of power in God to cast wicked men into hell at any moment,” thundered Edwards. Quite an image of God presented to the presumably grim-faced crowd.
Second, and related to the first reason, the aim of religion is often seen as one of overriding seriousness: one’s relationship to the Creator of the Universe, one’s obligation not to sin, one’s adherence to a set of religious regulations divinely ordained, and, depending on your terminology, one’s personal salvation, the latter of which is worked out, as St. Paul said, “with fear and trembling.” These are not laughing matters, say
Third, many religious organizations often seem more concerned with sin than with virtue. It’s up to religious leaders, some may think, to point out all the ways that their followers might fail, rather than to suggest the ways that they might flourish. Thus the seemingly endless stream of “Thou shalt nots” that overshadow the “Thou Shalts.”
Fourth, some religious organizations seem to reward the more serious types; they rise to the top because their dour attitude is seen as proof of their seriousness of the mission. Do they select those for ordained ministry on the same basis? I wonder. Whenever someone says to me, “Boy, I’ve never met a funny priest before,” I cringe a little. Is that because they have never known many priests, or because their experience with the clergy leads them to equate ordination with melancholy?
Fifth, much of what priests, ministers, rabbi and imams deal with on a daily basis is sad—suffering, illness, death, and so on--and ministering to those in extremis is seen as more urgent. When the choice is between celebrating the birth of a child with a parishioner at home or visiting a parishioner dying in the hospital, which will win out? The pastoral choice is not difficult for the overworked minister, but this may mean that the pastor or minister becomes burdened with more heaviness than lightness.
Sixth and finally, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the place of lightheartedness in religion in general.
Boy, I’m getting depressed just thinking about all that! So now for something completely different—a more positive approach.
Let’s start with this encouraging fact: It’s not hard to see the positive effects of levity. All you have to do is look around. And sometimes, it helps to look outside the walls of the church, in the stuff of everyday life, in order to better appreciate the value of joy, humor and laughter.
When I was in high school and college in Philadelphia, my best friend was a fellow named John, who came from a large Polish-Italian family. His mother was a lively, diminutive woman who always seemed delighted by life. John’s father had worked in a factory for many years, but after setting aside some money his family had bought a small house by the seashore in southern New Jersey.
On some summer weekends I would go “down the shore,” with John and his family, seven or eight of us packed into a ramshackle cottage with two or three bedrooms. At nights John and I would go drinking (this was college, after all) sleep late, and spend the rest of the day lounging on the beach or going “crabbing” with his father, that is, catching crabs in a nearby bay on the family’s ramshackle boat. (“A boat is a hole in the water into which you pour money,” said a little wooden sign on board.) In the evenings there was always a huge pot of spaghetti or crabs or sausage that John’s mother had whipped up.
Life was fun at the shore. I could have stayed for weeks on end. Of course we were all on vacation, but there was an unmistakable joie de vivre that drew me there.
John’s mother had an interesting turn of phrase that John and I used to mimic playfully. Whenever describing an enjoyable family get-together or party she would invariably end her long story with the words “We laughed.” “We laughed,” she would say several times, and smile, as if to indicate that this was the highest of compliments for any gathering.
And it is. So why does it seem that religious men and women seem forget that so often?
Perhaps I’m overstating things, or am reacting to something that is foreign to your experience. Maybe you belong to a religious community where people do nothing but laugh and enjoy one another’s company. Some megachurches, for example, are distinctly joyful places, but what about other mainstream churches? Is Sunday a fun day for most people? It should be: humor, for one thing, is balm for a troubled world.
My father, who died several years ago, had a sly sense of humor. Some of my favorite childhood remembrances are memories of listening to his long, spun-out jokes, which he often brought back from the office and shared with my mother, my sister and me over dinner. Even more enjoyable for him was telling a joke in front of a larger audience; the bigger the crowd the more lavish he was with the joke’s details. Sometimes, before the joke ended he would anticipate the ending, and would helpless with laughter, almost unable to finish. How wonderful to remember this about my father, who had something of a difficult life in his later years.
On his deathbed (literally, the hospital bed he died in, from lung cancer) my sister brought him a copy of the movie “Young Frankenstein,” which she played on her laptop computer. Mel Brooks’s comedy was one of his favorite films; his favorite scene featured the “Monster” (played by Peter Boyle) doing a tap dance with Dr. Frankenstein in a top hat and tails, the two of them belting out the song “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Humor eased my father’s life and eased his passing from this world to the next.
And one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard, speaking of my family, comes from my two young nephews. Their laughter—clear, untroubled, lighthearted—always makes me smile. Is there anything more wonderful than a child laughing? Every time I hear them laugh I think the same thing: this child, who a few years before did not even exist, is now expressing his boundless joy in life. Hearing them, I am made more joyful over this double gift: the child and the laughter. And just recently I shared with my twelve-year-old nephew one of my father’s favorite jokes, and when he burst into laughter over the dinner table, I felt a profound connection between my late father, me and my nephew: three generations connected by laugher.
Finally, let me tell you about a Jesuit I know: Andy, who is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. A few summers ago, I was on an eight-week retreat (the first half silent; the second half not) with Andy and several other friends. It was part of the final leg of our Jesuit training. He has a huge laugh, is enormously witty and is seemingly able to locate humor in almost everything in life. If the motto of the Jesuits is “Finding God in all things” Andy’s motto might be “Finding humor in all things.” And like those who are truly joyful he laughed hardest at someone else’s jokes, with a wide-open, belly-shaking laugh that never failed to lift me out of whatever spiritual doldrums I was navigating.
Andy had gone through a rough patch recently, and, a few months before, had just buried his mother, who had been ill for many years. Yet his good humor was undimmed. Recently, I was reading through my notes for the retreat and frequently found entries that read, “Andy made me laugh.” Or, “It’s great having Andy around.”
I found myself thinking, then as now, “Why can’t life be more like this?” Andy was not ignoring the pain or suffering; he was not a grinning idiot who knew nothing of trouble; but he was not letting those realities remove his joie de vivre, his joy in life.
All these experiences lead me to ask: Why can’t contemporary faith be more like this? We need, I would suggest, to recover a sense of joy, humor and laughter as not lying outside the life of the believer, but being at the heart of the believing life. By being the heart of that life.
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