The Theological Importance of Humor

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Guest post by Dr. Matthew Tan.

Recently, the Sydney community of the Order of Preachers, more commonly known as the Dominicans, organized an Aquinas Symposium. At this symposium, one of the community did a presentation on some of Aquinas’ quirkier virtues, one of which was the virtue of eutrapelia or good wit.

This virtue is an extension of the cardinal virtue of prudence, because a prudent person is someone who knows when to take things seriously, but also know when to find rest, and a way to find rest is through humor.

This virtue is especially important for Christians, since a problem many Christians face is being too serious. When battling the powers and principalities of this world, the burden thereof has made Christians into a dour race. This lack of mirth has serious consequences for the moral life.

In the second part of his Summa Theologiae (2a2ae, Q. 168, Art. 2), Thomas Aquinas noted that a morally sound person, made up as he is of soul and body, must be able to find rest not just for the body, but for the soul as well. This kind of rest, Thomas said, can be attained through pleasure. Words and deeds that bring about that pleasure are not only good, but necessary for the rest of soul.

By contrast, Thomas said that persons who “lack playfulness… never say anything to make you smile, or are grumpy with those who do”, were morally unsound and even sinful. The reason for this is that in being so dour, they take on the real and imagined evils of the world themselves, forgetting about the ultimate lordship and goodness of God.

Much, much later, G.K. Chesterton wrote that the test of a good religion depends on whether one could joke about it.

We also the most succinct theological observation from Pope Benedict XVI, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, wrote in his Principles of Catholic Theology:

[W]e might formulate this basic rule: where joylessness reigns, where humour dies, the spirit of Jesus Christ is assuredly absent. But the reverse is also true: joy is a sign of grace. One who is cheerful from the heart … cannot be far from the God of the evangelium, whose first word on the threshold of the New Testament is  ‘Rejoice’.


Originally published at Awkward Asian Theologian.
Photo by Marc Shafer on Unsplash.

Dr. Matthew Tan is a Sydney-based theologian, blogger and author. He was born in Singapore and has lived in Australia, Europe and the United States. After completing undergraduate studies in Law and Arts (majoring in International Relations and History), Matthew went on to complete his Doctorate in Theology at the Australian Catholic University. He then became a Russell Berrie Fellow in Inter-religious Dialogue, where he received his License in Sacred Theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Matthew now works in the Archdiocese of Sydney, and is an adjunct Senior Lecturer in Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

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