The serious morality of humor

Humor is used for good or bad. In Peter Berger’s study on laughter he places humor outside of conventional morality but not just for the sake of the scientific method. According to Berger we must take humor seriously: “While humor can clearly be used for good or evil purposes, the comic as such appears to be strangely beyond good and evil.”[1] Humor alows us to imagine above our current, by definition, subjective understanding of morality or lack thereof and enfuses its application with a transedent perspective available only to God.

Worst WaiterThis perceived amorality has been understood by those that care to stem from the fact that laughter is not serious. So, because the study of humor has been positioned in the realm of the unimportant, Berger believes that humor hasn’t been given its due treatment in academic disciplines, and yet he wants to allow for the comic to be taken seriously whilst also keeping its ‘beyond good and evil’ nature. He is doing this particularly because of his faith.

Rather than positioning humor outside of the realms of the serious, he compares humor to play (which can be serious), invoking “the Schutzian[2] category… play is clearly a finite province of meaning to which individuals can emigrate from the reality of everyday life: … ‘[stepping into] a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own’. ”[3] This allows for the creativity of humor to transcend traditional precepts of morality yet keep within its boudaries a sense of tentative seriousness.

Paradoxically, when taken seriously, humor can, as Simon Critchley tells us in his short treatise On Humor, rephrase the reality we find ourselves in. Invoking Wittgenstein he says: “Jokes are further descriptions of phenomena that show them in a new light.”[4] By acting as a ‘clarificatory remark’ we re-enter a shared common world enriched with what we may have learned from the experience.

Critchley further introduces us to what Shaftesbury called the “sensus communis”, to which we are reintroduced through humor after having been allowed to see what Critchley says Berger called ‘a signal of transcendence.’ [5] Humor reveals our shared common world by breaking up our expectations about this world, giving us a changed perspective and then putting the expectation back together again. We are opened to the possibility that the healed common sense may not be the same as the common sense we started with.

Where Critchley and Berger differ is in their outlook on the possible. Critchley does not believe in a life after this world, whereas Berger does. Critchley is happy for humor to be like a prayer which opens up the messianic possibility for a better world, motivating us to that end.[6] Berger, however, says: “The painless world of the comic can … be seen as an adumbration of a world beyond this world… empirically, the comic is a finite and temporary game. Faith, however, puts the empirical in question and denies its ultimate seriousness.”[7] In turn, the comic turns everything on its head in anticipation of redemption ‘in one form or another.’

Both Critchley and Berger – inasmuch as he anticipates redemption in so many forms that he does not know by which it comes: ‘in one form or another’ – miss the point. Both of them are partially right. Critchley is certainly right when he says that the comic can be used like a prayer in beckoning forth and fostering not only an imagined better world in the future but also justice now. Because Critchley only sees the here and now, he misses the anticipation Christians participate in through Christ’s work on the cross. This work caused an in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in the here and now, yet foretells of a better world in the future. It is still to come fully.

Berger, however, also misses the mark as he does not identify the locus of redemption, which is the ultimate ‘comic’ act of Jesus dying on the cross and being resurrected for the sake of God’s created order. While its true that it is by faith we anticipate the second coming of Jesus, the empirical reality of the death and resurrection of Christ has married the comic and infinite in an everlasting ‘game’. Faith does not question the empirical, but rather the empirical points to faith and so affirms the ultimate seriousness of the comic who is Jesus.


[1] Berger, P.L; Redeeming laughter: The comic dimension of human experience, Walter De Gruyter, NY 1997, p. xiv

[2] Schutz, A.; “On Multiple Realities”, in Collected papers, Vol.1 (The Hague: Nijhof) 1962 8f  In: Berger, P.L.; Redeeming laughter: The comic dimension of human experience, Walter De Gruyter, NY 1997,

[3] Ibid. p.13

[4] Critchley, S.; On Humor, Routledge, London, 2008, p.86

[5] Ibid. p.17

[6] Ibid p.17

[7] Berger, P.L; op. cid. p.210

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