The Humor of Karl Barth

Those of us who have drunk deeply from the well of Karl Barth’s theology are sometimes accused of taking things too seriously.  There is a quite mistaken but still lingering reputation that his theology is lacking in humor.  But just because Barth’s theology is deadly serious doesn’t make it deadly, and I often find passages that are downright playful.  So I was delighted to see this mention of Barth’s humor in a 1986 editorial in Theology Today by Daniel L. Migliore:

“It is well to be reminded, therefore, that for Barth theology was not primarily a heavy burden but a joyful activity. While it is certainly correct to speak of his theology as Christ-centered, to say that it was rooted in a life-long, uninterrupted conversation with the Bible, and to note how important prayer was in his life and theology, all such characterizations of Barth’s work would still miss something essential if they overlooked his remarkable freedom and playfulness. Laughter was deeply etched in Barth’s theology and spirituality. He was a theologian with a rare sense of humor.

Humor often arises from the experienced discrepancy between reality and appearance, from the distance between what we pretend we are and what others know us to be, or between what others imagine us to be and what we know of ourselves. Humor thrives on incongruity, disproportion, the sometimes bizarre disparity between assumptions and facts, protocol and performance, the imagined past and the real past, the awaited future and the experienced present. The quality of humor-whether it is harsh or gentle, destructive or humanizing-depends on whether these contradictions and incongruities are held to be eternal and inescapable or provisional and redeemable.

If disproportion and incongruity are the stuff of humor, the life of faith and the work of theology are fields ripe for the harvest, a fact that seems to have been more readily apparent to the children of the world than to theologians. Witness Woody Allen’s description of God as an underachiever; or the prayer of Tevye, the poor milkman in Fiddler on the Roof asking God kindly to bestow the undeniably high honor of election for once on some other people than the Jews; or the unlikely defense of God by Yossarian’s lady friend in Catch 22 who, although herself an atheist, is so shaken by Yossarian’s devilish indictment of God’s ineptness or malevolence that she breaks into tears and retorts: “I don’t believe in God, but the God I don’t believe in is a good God.”As theologians go, Barth was uncommonly appreciative of the rightful place of humor in human life in general and in Christian life in particular. He wondered why the modern apologists for the uniqueness of humanity, who had forgotten the meaning of the creation of men and women in the image of God, had never even mentioned the fact that apparently human beings are the only creatures who laugh. For Barth, humor was a symptom of being human, and it frequently found expression in his conversations and actions.

As a preacher, Barth could acknowledge that some of his sermons were real clinkers, like the one on the sinking of the Titanic which he later noted was as great a disaster as the original event. In the midst of the German church struggle, indeed in the midst of his trial for refusing to practice the Nazi salute at the beginning of his classes, Barth suggested to the court that like Socrates many centuries earlier he actually deserved a reward rather than a punishment from his fellow-citizens. The gesture was of course a complete failure, as one might have expected in the dreadfully humorless world of Nazism.

Barth was also able to laugh about his work as a theologian, recognizing that every theology is a human endeavor with all the limitations and need of continuous revision which this implies. He remarked that when he got to heaven, he would want to have a long conversation about theological method with Schleiermacher-say, for a couple of centuries. He imagined that the angels giggled among themselves when they saw old Karl pushing his cart-load of Church Dogmatics.

Recalling Barth’s humor is not a human interest ploy or a curiosity of merely biographical significance. It is certainly not intended to obscure or trivialize the thunderous prophetic criticism which Barth often directed against both church and society in the name of the Word of God. The point is that Barth had not only a sense of humor but a theology of humor, and it was of a piece with his whole theology and practice of Christian freedom in response to the grace of God. His theology of humor can be briefly summarized as follows. First, humor for Barth is often and perhaps primarily self-directed. “Humor is the opposite of all self-admiration and self-praise” (CD III/4, p. 665). There is, in other words, such a thing as Christian freedom to laugh at ourselves, to recognize the incongruity and disproportion between the sinners we still are and the saints we prematurely claim to be, and thus to recognize ever and again the miracle of our being graciously accepted, valued, and honored by God. When one can laugh at oneself, then one can also rightly laugh at others-never bitterly or cynically, never in the superficial spirit of carnival or the poisoned laughter that expresses hatred for, or superiority over, another.

Second, for Barth true humor, far from being an escape from the realities of suffering and evil in the world, is “laughter amid tears.” True humor “presupposes rather than excludes the knowledge of suffering” (Ethics, 511). As the child of suffering, humor takes suffering seriously but refuses to give it the last word. It is remarkable, Barth observed, how fundamentally humorless the rich and powerful and self-satisfied of this world are, and how, by contrast, genuine humor often flourishes among the poor. The refusal to become resigned to the reign of suffering and death in the world has enormous personal and political significance.

Third, and most decisively for Barth, humor is grounded in the grace, faithfulness, and promise of God. Humor is part of the freedom which is ours to exercise, thanks to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. It is a sign of liberation and release rather than bondage and resignation. Grace creates “liberated laughter,” laughter made possible by the memory of God’s faithfulness, the present foretaste of God’s new creation, and the hope in the fulfillment of God’s promises. To put this another way, humor for Barth is rooted in the glory and beauty of God and is an expression of the delight and pleasure which the God of the gospel evokes in human life. The grace of God in Jesus Christ is beautiful, and it radiates joy and awakens humor (II/1, p. 655).

Of course, it is necessary to distinguish between the time of humor and the time of unambiguous joy. Joy is experienced now, but not continuously or totally. “Joy is anticipatory,” it has an “eschatological character” (III/4, p. 377). Humor, like art and human play generally, is oriented to God’s future, and can only be properly understood in that context. In Jesus Christ, God’s mighty Yes to us has been spoken, and this event signals the beginning of the end of the contradictions of Yes and No, of life and death, of friendship and enmity. Barth’s humor points beyond irony or satire, and certainly far beyond ridicule or gallows humor, to the free laughter of children and friends in God’s new creation.

So understood, humor is different from, though intimately related to, joy. Joy arises out of the partial presence of the promised Kingdom which has erupted in Christ and in the work of his Spirit. Humor arises out of the still partial presence of this Kingdom, leaving the undeniable incongruity and disproportion between what we and the world still are and what God’s grace in Jesus Christ promises that we and the world shall yet become. Joy will find its fulfillment in God’s new heaven and new earth; humor belongs to a world between the times.” (Daniel L. Migliore, “Reappraising Barth’s Theology,” Editorial, Theology Today, April 1986)

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