February 2017 Pulse
In many traditional treatments of Christian theological anthropology (the Christian understanding of human beings), the focus has been on the rational faculties or spiritual capacities that distinguish humans from the rest of the animals.
Traditional conceptions of what constitutes the image of God in man (imago Dei) have been based mainly on these significant qualities.
While these qualities are important and deserve the attention they have been given, other uniquely human qualities are somewhat neglected.
For example, an aspect of our humanity that still awaits fuller exploration by theologians is our ability to see the lighter side of ourselves, others and life itself. I am referring to humour, which is associated only with Homo sapiens and which is absent in the other animals.
In this short article, I want to reflect on two behaviours that many regard as distinctively human but are not taken seriously enough (no pun intended) by theologians: the smile and laughter.
Let us begin with the smile.
Anthropologists tell us that only the human being is capable of smiling because this act is a personal and rational response to others and to events. Animals, they maintain, do not smile and what may sometimes appear quite close to a smile are in fact merely grimaces.
In making this observation, these anthropologists merely confirm what John Milton knew centuries before. In his delightful depiction of the love that Adam and Eve shared in Paradise Lost, Milton writes: ‘smiles from reason flow, / To brute denied, and are of love the food’.
The smile, according to Milton, is a rational act. Thus, it follows that only rational creatures are capable of this behaviour.
In addition, the involuntary smile, as a genuine response to the other, can be said to be an act of self- transcendence. Or, as Roger Scruton has brilliantly put it, the smile is ‘the blessing that one soul confers upon one another, when shining with the whole self in a moment of self-giving’.
Smiling is a way in which we signal our presence – not just our physical presence, but more importantly our personal presence as well – that we are truly ‘here’. Similarly, reciprocated glances and smiles are subtle acknowledgements of one another’s presence, a sign of human sociality.
What about laughter?
Again laughter can be arguably said to be a distinctively human behaviour. Animal laughter like those observed in chimpanzees, bonobos and even rats are not really laughter. They are in fact only vocalisations that sound like laughter, often in response to some physical stimuli.
Although laughter may be analysed in various ways, we must at the outset recognise the fact that, like the smile, it is always a rational response to something. Put differently, we may say that laughter is a form of judgement.
That is why philosophers Like Roger Scruton have postulated – rightly, in my opinion – that only rational beings laugh.
Thus, although bonobos may make screeching sounds that resemble human laughter when tickled, it should not be mistaken as laughter. This is because human laughter, although involuntary and visceral, is never simply a subjective response.
That laughter is a rational response and a form of judgement can be demonstrated in the way in which we respond to some jokes. Although some jokes are funny, we do not laugh at them because they are offensive and in bad taste. This means that we do not laugh at everything that is amusing, only those we judge are worthy of laughter.
Furthermore, laughter is in many senses a social phenomenon. It is an expression of delight or amusement that is other-directed. Scruton again explains this well when he writes that ‘Laughter is an expression of amusement, and amusement is an outward directed, socially pregnant state of mind’.
If smiling and laughing are distinctively human behaviours, can we say that they in some sense mirror our Creator, since human beings are created in the image of God?
Do we have accounts of God smiling or laughing in the Bible?
In the great Aaronic blessing, we have this remarkable statement: ‘the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you his peace’ (Numbers 6: 24-26). Although the expression has been variously interpreted, it could mean that God looks upon his people with a pleasant and cheerful countenance because he is pleased with them.
This has led some commentators to extrapolate that God smiles in delight as he looks upon his people.
The Bible does speak about divine laughter. But in most cases, the laughter of God is derisive – he laughs at human folly, idolators and those who set themselves up as mighty.
But the Bible also tells us that God delights in his children. For example, in Psalm 149, we read: ‘For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation’ (v. 4).
And his delight and blessings bring joy and laughter to his people. Rejoicing in the restoration of Zion, the Psalmist could say: ‘Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy … The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad’ (126: 2-3). This has led some theologians to suggest that God laughs with us as we rejoice in our salvation.
To suggest that God smiles and laughs do not in any way distort the biblical portrayal of God in his personal dealings with his people, which are often depicted in anthropomorphic terms.
Laughter and the smile are therefore indices of self-transcendence. As rational and uniquely human behaviour, they may in some sense be said to be an aspect of the image of God that we all bear.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.