Laughter and the Love of God

Laughter is nothing less than the presence of the image of God in Man

Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala, “Return to the Abbey,” 1868
Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala, “Return to the Abbey,” 1868 (photo: Public Domain)

“There’s nothing worth the wear of winning,” wrote Hilaire Belloc, “but laughter and the love of friends.” These words are personal favorites and have prompted much contemplation. I had previously thought and written that Belloc’s aphorism was “not to be taken too seriously” because “there are many things worth the wear of winning apart from laughter and the love of friends.” Now, upon further contemplation, I’m not so sure that I agree with myself. I’m now of the opinion that the lines should be taken very seriously indeed, even if doing so might make us laugh with joy. I would now say, without any qualification, that there is indeed nothing worth the wear of winning but laughter and the love of friends.

It all depends on what we mean by friendship. If we take friendship to mean the love we have with others, and especially the love we have with the Other, God himself, as our first and final Friend, the aphorism is transfigured into a truism. Should we attain the fullness of God’s friendship in the Beatific Vision we will, to pluck a line from a poem by Chesterton, be “laughing everlastingly.” 

So much for the love of friends, but what has laughter got to do with it? Why is laughter so important?

It’s simply that laughter is nothing less than the presence of the imago Dei in Man. To laugh is not merely to be happy it is, in some sense, to be divine.

Perhaps some explanation is needed. 

What does it mean to be made in God’s image? Isn’t everything in Creation made in his image? Aren’t trees made in his image? And birds? And stars? Aren’t they all the creative fruits of the Divine Imagination — or image-ination? Isn’t everything “charged with the grandeur of God,” as Hopkins tells us? Yes indeed but we know that Man is charged with God’s grandeur in a unique way, in a way that distinguishes him from all other creatures. He is not an image of God but in some sense the Image of God. This knowledge enables us to know ourselves better in the light of God but it also enables us to know God better in the light of Man. In seeing how we differ from the rest of Creation, in comprehending our uniqueness, we get an inkling of God’s image in us. 

We see it in the way in which the good, the true and the beautiful are present in Man in a way that is radically different from the other creatures. 

All creatures are good in the sense that God made them but only Man is good in terms of his ability to freely and rationally choose the good, to choose to act virtuously, to choose to lay down his life self-sacrificially for others, which is the divine reality of love. 

All creatures are true in the sense that they conform to the Logos in their natures but only Man is true in terms of his ability to reason. Man does not merely feel the warmth of the sun and see by its light, as do other creatures, he can calculate the heat of the sun and work out how long its light and warmth take to reach us.

All creatures are beautiful in the sense that they are great works of art brought into being by the Creator, who is the Primal Poet and Great Composer of the Music of the cosmos, but only Man has the creative gift to make beautiful things as God makes them, except that Man does not make them ex nihilo as God does but from other things that already exist. Unlike the other creatures, man is not merely a poem but a poet!

This is all very well but what has it to do with laughter?

Only Man laughs. Other creatures, such as hyenas, might sound as though they are laughing but they are faking it. Only Man laughs.

Laughter, like goodness, truth and beauty, is the mark of the imago Dei in Man. Like goodness, truth and beauty it can be polluted by sin but it is of its essence divine. This is why Chesterton proclaimed that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly whereas the devil falls by the force of his own gravity. Satan takes himself too seriously. It is not only pride but priggishness that precedes a fall. In this light and this light-heartedness, we can see that only those with hubris can be humiliated because humiliation is the healthy hurting of one’s pride. Only those with humility are beyond humiliation.

Laughter is indeed divine but it is also a great mystery that continues to elude the grasp of the philosopher and the mystic. “There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon our earth,” wrote Chesterton; “and I have sometimes fancied that it was his mirth.” 

This essay was first published by the Imaginative Conservative and appears here with permission.

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