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Laughter at the Foot of the Cross – Michael A. Screech

June 17, 2017

LATFOTC 3This is an odd book but, then again, so is its subject matter. It owes more to Erasmus and Rabelais than to scripture. I was disappointed but that is because I was suspecting something different as a result of an inaccurate book review that I had read a long time ago.

Laughter can be innocent. . . . But suppose there is an exultation over the foe, can this be Christian? Psalm II suggests it can. For after describing the rage of the heathen and their plots against God’s anointed, it says: ‘He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn: The Lord shall have them in derision.’

St. Paul banned ‘jesting,’ but did that include mockery and high spirits? And what were the lessons of Biblical figures like (delighted) Abraham and (disbelieving) Sarah, both in their nineties, who laughed at the news they were about to have a child?

Christian thinkers have always had a proper place for laughter. Aquinas, following Aristotle and Augustine, regards play and wittiness as essential relaxants of the mind and soul. Aquinas argues that a lack of mirth is sinful because someone without a sense of humour is burdensome both by failing to offer the pleasure of playful speech to others and because their dourness stops them from responding to the humour of others.

But Christ on the Cross was mocked not just by religious leaders but by the crowds and even by those who were crucified with him. What is the proper Christian response to such mockery? Screech highlights one response: counter-mockery at once wittier and more devastating than anything put forward by the enemies of truth. This is what he calls Diasyrm, which he defines as “harsh, railing satire” combining “disparagement and ridicule”. The basic meaning is “tearing a man apart”.

c.f. Monty Python’s Life of Brian

Christians read the Old Testament to see Christ prefigured there in all its details – details which influenced the way people read the New Testament. Thus he describes how the mockery of Elijah, God’s holy one, as “baldy” and Elijah’s subsequent mockery of the prophets of Baal, is a shadow cast ahead by the truth of the Gospel. Christ is mocked but those mockers will be outmocked. What is taunted is in the end not just ignorance or even ugliness but what seems mad. A central theme running through the book are some words of folly in Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly. “But the mad laugh at the mad, each provides mutual enjoyment to the other.” The mockers see Christ and his followers as mad. And they are mad, for they have been caught up into the beauty of God’s love, enraptured, ecstatic. Like Socrates, they practise the art of dying for they have already begun to leave their mortal bodies with a vision of immortal truth. Screech sees an integral link between ecstasy or self-transcendence and the folly of Christ and his followers.

In the light of the Cross and Resurrection, it is this folly that is shown to be triumphant: the mockers of Christ who are exposed not just as ignorant but as mad.

Traditionally, Easter sermons were full of jokes because the psalmist said, ‘Then was our mouth filled with laughter…’

The author uses the term ‘evangelical’ anachronistically and in an odd way.

Screech quotes Fontaine: “We then saw what St Jerome said of those who serve God and those who serve the world: ‘Each to the other we seem insane’: Invicem insanire videmur. There is a never ending dual between the two.'” This is the theme explored with great thoroughness and subtlety through the pages of Erasmus and Rabelais as they interpret the Bible in relation to the scandals of their time.

Psalm33 bids us Sing joyfully…because…The Lord foils the plans of the nations;

I hadn’t realised that Matthew misquotes Micah: In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:  “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler  who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Mica 5:2 doesn’t have the notion of shepherding

However, I fail to see that this is a ‘mistake’ – the author says it was meant o show ht Matthew made mistakes so as to keep him human.


If anyone would compare the Gospel story with that prophetic saying, he will readily perceive how often, and in how many ways, the Lord in the heavens laughed at the impious counsels of men and had them in derision.

Erasmus tells in expansive detail of the visit of the Magi and the slaughter of the Innocents. Herod, donning first the skin of a fox and then that of a lion, achieved none of his aims. By massacring those innocent babes he merely supplied Christ with his first martyrs; Jesus, whom he sought to capture, escaped. Thus Herod was made sport of, outplayed (deluditur). The Holy Child was taken unhArned to Egypt. That country was then riddled with demonic superstition: Jesus was unharmed by it. He was unharmed by the Devil, by the snares of Pharisees, scribes, elders and priests; Judas was bought.. with silver. And so on, to the end of Christ’s life on earth. All Christ’s’ enemies were mocked that way by God the Father, the Lord who dwelleth in the heavens. All were laughed to scorn.’

While the Father laughed in the heavens as his prophets did on earth, Jesus the Lord, incarnate amongst men, also laughed and in the same way. Erasmus directly linked the ironical laughter of Jesus to that mocking by Elijah of the frenzied priest of Baal:

Perhaps you doubt whether irony can rightly be found in the apostolic writ­ings and in the Gospels, although there is no doubt that it can be found the Old Testament, indisputably in the Third Book of the Kings, chaps eighteen. Elijah, laughing in ridicule at the priests of Baal, said, ‘Cry loud for he is a god; perhaps he is having a conversation; perhaps he has gone i an inn, or is on a journey; or might indeed be sleeping and must be awaken

And, according to the opinion of Theophylact, the Hungarian bishop irony can be found in the words of Christ: ‘Sleep now, and take your rest

Set them to judge who are more despised can appear to have been said onically, especially since there follows, I speak to your shame. And perhaps these words of Christ are not far from irony: It is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to dogs!

Nor are these:

I came not to call the righteous but sinners, for he did not mean those who are genuinely righteous but was rebuking those who appeared to be so in their own sight.’

Those are not passing interpretations for Erasmus, nor indeed for theology in general.’ The ironical possibilities of the words of Jesus to his disciples at Gethsemane are expounded by him in his Annotations on the New Testament:

LATFOTCWhilst safeguarding other interpretations, Christ’s words [at Gethsemane] may have something of irony in them: ‘So far I have not been able to get you to stay awake awhile with me; now the event itself will arouse you, when you shall see my suffering and your peril.’ And that squares with what follows, ‘Arise, he [ Judas] is at hand.’

That was in the first edition of 1516. In 1519 Erasmus adds,

This opinion of mine begins to displease me less since I have discovered that Vulgarius states it emphatically.”

The discovery of ironical laughter in the mouth of Christ became an important aid to exegesis. It could explain some otherwise disturbing words of the Master. For example, a grave problem was set for Luther by the reply to the lawyer who, to try Jesus, asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked what was written in the law of Moses. The lawyer told him. Jesus said, ‘Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.’

Can that possibly mean what it appears to say? Can a man be saved by keeping the Mosaic law? If so, what happens to Paul’s doctrine of salvation through faith? What happens to Luther’s basic tenet that man is saved by faith alone?

derangement of mind, madness, mania. Such defects attributed to Christians by the worldly-wise. And vice versa.

Erasmus placed the words with which this chapter began quite early in the Moria. He put into the mouth of Folly words which how deeply he agreed with St Jerome: e mad laugh at the mad, each providing mutual enjoyment to the other.

Although the mutual laughter may seem six of one and half-a-dozen e other, it is not. The Christian is profoundly mad merely by standards of the world. To the world the wicked seem wise, but ad in the sight of God. The Christian is touched by the Infinite ill not only have the last laugh at the end of time: even now he laughs more insanely than the worldlings: And you will often see that the greater madman laughs more distractedly at the lesser.’

That`greater madman’ is the Christian fool — a fool touched by God.

Luther laughed at those idiots who took literally Christ’s reply to lawyer who cited the Ten Commandments: ‘This do, and thou alt live.’ But of course, as he was the first to acknowledge, his opponents laughed back at him: they turn Christ into Moses and God’s free grace into a new Mosaic law. The ‘papists and the fanatics’ do nothing but that. It is their entire doctrine:

They laugh at us who, with such diligence, inculcate and encourage faith saying, ‘Ha! ha! Faith! You just wait until you get to heaven by faith!’

They laugh at Luther, sure that he is mad: Luther, certain that he has God on his side, finds those ‘papists and fanatics’ even more laughable.

Erasmus is reviving the Greek patristic theme of ‘sober drunken­ness’ — spiritual drunkenness. Gregory of Nyssa developed the theme when explaining the wine-bibbing in the Song of Songs: drunkenness always involves a displacement of the mind; spiritual drunkenness even more so. David was beside himself and spiritually drunk when he ‘said in his ecstasy, “All men are liars” ‘. Paul was drunk when, ‘caught away outside himself to God, he would say, “When we are raptured outside ourself, it is to God” (for it was to God that he was caught away); “when we seem endowed with a sound mind, it is to you”.’

The theme of the apparent drunkenness which caused the Apostles to be mocked at Pentecost mattered to Erasmus.

The extent to which Socrates can be absorbed into Christianity by Erasmud can be seen by the use that he makes of stupidus et bardus. Folly tells preferred simple, guileless men and simple, guileless beasts. The Holy Ghost came down as a dove, not as a hawk. Jesus, who could have ridden astride a lion chose to ride an ass. His own, he calls sheep: ‘No animal is so silly ­ – witness the Aristotelian saying, Sheepish ways.’ Because of the obtuseness of sheep, saying was applied as an insult to the stupidi et bardi. But in the Pr that infamous tag is applied not to Socrates but to the followers of Christ. That is equivalent to saying that, when Christ chose ‘sheep’ to be his own, he was choosing simple men and women who, like Socrates before them, could expect to be laughed at as ‘stupid and dull-of-wit’.

`Mary the Mother of Jesus to Glaucoplutus sendeth greeting. This is to let you know, that I take it in good part, and you have much obliged me, in that you have so strenuously followed Luther and convinced the world that it is altogether needless to invoke saints. For before this time I wa wearied out of my life with the wicked importunities of mortals. Everythin was asked of me, as if my Son — because he is painted so — was still a ch and at my breast; they therefore take it for granted that I have him stil my beck and call, and that he dares not deny me anything I ask of h. for fear I should deny him the bubby when he is thirsty. Nay, and they such things from me, a Virgin, that a modest young man would scarce to ask of a bawd, and which I am ashamed to commit to writing. merchant that is going on a voyage to Spain to get pelf recommends to the chastity of his kept mistress; and a professed nun, having thrown a her veil in order to make her escape, recommends to me the care reputation, which she at the same time intends to prostitute. The mercenary who butchers men for money bawls out to me, “0 Virgin, send me rich plunder!” The gamester calls out to me to gi good luck, and promises I shall ger snips with him in what he s and if the dice do not favour him, I am railed at and cursed would not be a confederate in his wickedness. The usurer prays, ” to get large interest for my money!” If I deny them anything, they that I am no Mother of Mercy.’

Christ is not-divided. Christ is not in material objects. His religionis of the spirit. He is found wherever there are affections worthy of him.’ In the Annotations those scathing criticisms have something of the tone of the satirical banter of Folly in the Maria. But in neither case is the laughter gay and joyful: it is laughter to scorn.

When Erasmus is less sure of carrying his readers with him, the laughter may turn rather desperately into scorn itself. In the Moria of 1519 Folly mockingly contrasted the gentle religion of Christ with what some popes and others make of it. The bone of contention is the arresting admonition of Jesus to his disciples: `But now, he that hath a purse let him take it, and likewise a wallet; and he that hath none, let him sell his cloak and buy a sword.’

At first Erasmus took literal interpretations of that injunction to be self-evidently laughable. Such literalism forms the basis for renewed mockery of Nicholas of Lyra, and — after his death — of the warrior pope Julius II, who actually led his armies in the field. For Erasmus: it is manifest that Jesus was talking not of a soldier’s sword but of the sword of the spirit.

In Folly’s oration in the Moria an element of banter lightens the whole of the satire of the likes of Julius II and Nicholas of Lyra. At the outset, the deeper implications of Erasmus’s pacifism were n clear even to him. Folly speaks as though the case had already be won. It could be laughed out of court. Sustained play in the Mo between the name of Nicholas of Lyra and the Greek saying ‘an at the lyre’ had already reduced that great Franciscan exegete to ignorant figure of fun. And how can that ‘sword’ justify Julius’s field-pieces?

Some theologians, it is suggested, will try to get away with a thing. Nicholas — again that ‘ass at the lyre’ — drew conclusions from Christ’s words which are as compatible with Christ’s mind as is with water. Nicholas wrote that Jesus in Luke was correcting going back on what he had once taught his disciples; times had changed: now was the time to find money for their travels and to protect them on their way. For Erasmus that is sheer Jesus was not arming but disarming his apostles. Jesus meant they should now get rid of every material possession, ‘bringing them nothing but a sword: not that sword with which thieves lurk in wait, but the sword of the spirit’. Such a sword penetrates into the innermost recesses of men’s breasts, ‘so lopping their affections, once and for all, that nothing remains in their but piety’.” Any other interpretation is laughed away — in the Moria, that is. And on the whole the laughs and smiles predominate. Erasmus attempted the same technique in his Annotations on the Testament when commenting at ever-increasing length on this passage of St Luke. From the original edition onwards the ter is present in the very first words: reader, I ask you! Who can be so glum as to refrain from laughing en he considers the ridiculous things written on this subject by men who not so much modern theologians as modern theologasters?

the laughter is a bastard one; it co-exists with deep indignation: Yet can anyone be so fond of laughing as not to feel displeasure that such heavenly teachings should be corrupted by that sort of exegesis?

The fault is Nicholas of Lyra’s, ‘a sound teacher (it seems to many)’. Erasmus accused him of twisting Christ’s words. Nicholas makes Christ tell his disciples to obtain provisions and a means of protection, `lest they should lack things to eat or be overwhelmed by oppressors’. Concern for food is just what you would expect from a monk!

But even the bastard laughter does not last. By the time of his death, Erasmus had expanded this note several times. In the fifth and last edition of 1535 it spreads over six folio pages.’ The laughter cannot be kept up. Some theologians do remain apparently easy targets. As in the Moria, they “include Hugo Carrensis: he can be laughed at for misunderstanding Chrysostom — laughed at too with a vague play on his name which suggests that Carrensis would be better employed as a carter.’ (Erasmus had a sporadic fancy for mocking play on men’s names: Schwenckfeld, say, might become Stinkfield, and a cantankerous Carmelite a Camel-ite.)

But some ancient theologians who were normally allies of Erasmus were now, when read more closely, apparently ranged against him. Chrysostom is cited as explaining Jesus’s meaning by an analogy: Jesus, with his command to sell cloaks and buy swords, ‘was turning his chicks out of their nests, teaching them to use their own wings’.’ Erasmus counters that contention with the bastard laughter of sar­casm. In 1527 he adds, after ‘to use their own wings’, ‘and to prepare lances, helmets, bronze shields-and field-pieces’.

In fact he was hard put to find any theologian, ancient or modern, who fits snugly into his own pacifist exegesis of Christ’s injunction to buy a sword. Even Origen, ‘without controversy the most learned of early theologians’, partly let him down: Origen declared that it was pernicious to interpret this verse literally; he promised to return to it elsewhere, but failed to do so.’ [But many of his works were lost.]

In this long annotation Erasmus divides the world into the sane (his side) and the insane (the side of his opponents — potentially to be laughed at). Marginal notes refer to the ‘insane’ wars. But t laughter fails to take off. Some said Christians should carry swor but never use them: but to be ordered to bear a sword one is ne to use is ‘laughable’. Perhaps; but Erasmus does not succeed arousing even an anaemic laugh.

`as though princes were not insane enough on their own’, and counsellors egg them on to war. In the Mona such does indeed evoke some wry amusement and perhaps a two; not so in this note as it finally appears, dense and Laughter is sought but never found. Rhetoric alone lends force to the final contention; what Christ tells us to a spiritual wallet and a spiritual sword:

sword of the Gospel. Accept the wallet and tunic of the Erastian laughter demands certainty and conviction. A long and anding note such as this one betrays a nagging unacknow­doubt, not unshakeable conviction that the text actually bears eaning you would like it to. The Lucianic scoffing — in so far re is any — slides to the level of Elijah’s mockery without certainty.

LATFOTC 2Erasmian mutual laughter of sane against insane cannot work without firm convictions on both sides. Folly in the Mona, her banter and her laughter, does makes a convincing case. We where she wants us to. But when that case was exposed in the otations to serious theological opposition over many years, the laughter withered on the vine.

Plenty of assured and uncomplicated laughter is found elsewhere in the Annotations: an English clerical buffoon (who also appears the Monia) thought in his crass ignorance of Latin that Devita! (`Avoid!’) meant Devitalise! (that is, `Kill!’). That bloodthirsty idiot thought St Paul was telling his followers not to avoid heretics but to kill them! Behind such laughable ignorance lay the weighty matter of life and death. Yet — especially as the story is true — the laughter at that buffoon can be effective and spontaneous. The ignorance is preposterous; it is madness to hold such views as his.’

`Fools’ for many meant Sebastian Brant. Erasmus called him ‘incom­parable’. He was famous far and wide for his Narrenschiff, his Ship of Fools, which proved a publisher’s dream ever since it first appeared in 1494. He composed a Latin poem to print after the first Schurer edition of the Moria, which was published in Strasbourg in 1511. Brant was a distinguished man-of-law and a power in Strasbourg. His support counted. But was it support that he gave?

Content to have carried vulgar fools in our Narrenschiff, we allowed the toga to go untouched. Moria now comes forth, who, censuring the bryyha, the syrmata and the fasces, conveys as well philosophers and druids. Alas, what smears of blood she will call forth, arousing anger with wrath.

Brant tellingly emphasized the wide scope of Folly’s Taught which had taken on groups Brant never touched: the professi (the toga), the cardinals with their red cloaks (the byrrha), lawyers with their long robes (the syrmata), and even the state fasces). Not least, Erasmus had taken on the ‘druids’: the cle Brant foresaw trouble, ‘bloodshed’. Erasmus was not amused. N again were Brant’s verses to be published with the Maria.’

About his Ship of Fools, Brant was right. It is an accessible w making few demands on its readers. It is conservative in re and morality; it has few literary pretensions. It is above all a picture-book it consists of 114 woodblock prints, accompanying poems of length, all straightforwardly moralizing. No great person or corporation is mocked. The satire is straightforward, sober, taking on bad manners and vices: gluttony, chatterers usurers, the ungrateful and the proud, grasping peasants undemanding jobs for their sons in the Church. Perhaps satire which might have raised a smile on the lips of a humanist is the first one, condemning those who display in their books they cannot read or understand. The Evangelical could sympathize with the condemnation of blasphemous mockers of God, alist clerics. The good have the standard virtues of piety, y and prudence.’ The popularity of the Ship of Fools owes to its woodcuts; they were copied, pirated and reproduced for s in several countries.

literary and social antecedents of the Ship of Fools are not of the Moria. Brant’s work is much more at home in a long medieval tradition of fools and foolery. Erasmus, writing in elegant stian Latin and seeking to adapt to his uses the humour and doxes of classical literature must have found it irritating to have t complacently putting his book beside his own.

Despite all those woodcuts of fools, there is very little laughter in nt’s Ship. Yet there are similarities. The less philosophical pages the Mona pass in review groups of men and women laughed at foolish for their vices, or for their self-love and self-deception. ant was correct in saying such pages were — with their well-aimed laughter — hard-hitting and destined to provoke hostility and wrath from those who were attacked. All who are criticized by Folly are classified as fools; but there is never the slightest suggestion that Folly and her fools were fools in cap-and-bells. Their folly is internal, mental, spiritual. It is their standards that are wrong. They have no baubles or any of those insignia typical of fools that are sported by the fools who appear in every single one of Brant’s woodcuts.

the words of Christ in St Luke’s Gospel: Asked if he would like any wine, one says, ‘Go up higher.’ The other ‘Go up higher? Then thou shalt have glory!

The monk is pointing his finger higher up the side of his goblet.) e, Jesus (in words to be interpreted spiritually) advises you the lowest place at table. Your host may then invite you to exalted seat: ‘Friend, go up higher.’ Jesus comments, ‘Then shalt have glory.’ For the bibulous monk and his crony it splash wine higher up the goblet, followed by words to be irreverently twisted for a joke. Weak and harmless enough; but , not for Erasmus. He did not object to that kind of joke on -grounds of casual blasphemy. What riled him was yet more f of the coarseness of the monastic way of life. For him, monks lacking in refinement and scriptural scholarship.

He was caught in a trap when he strove to condemn monastic hter. How could it be done without citing examples? He conceded excessive mockery delighted St Jerome.’ The kind of ironical laughter found even in the mouth of Jesus was exploited by St Cyprian ainst idolaters. It was also exploited against the vanities of the entiles by Tertullian, Lactantius, Prudentius and Augustine. Jerome and Tertullian went too far. Nevertheless, ‘there are some errors which are better refuted by jeering’.21

Erasmus does concede to preachers, even outside the periods of permitted licence, liberties which he would never himself adopt. A preacher may wake up a sleepy congregation by telling a funny story.

Erasmus cites a Franciscan who did so. That friar spoke of a husband who had to go away for a while. He told his wife that she could do

anything she liked, except wash her face in a certain liquid. Being a woman she could not resist doing so. Her complexion was ruined.’

A typical conte; not very funny really. And there is nothing Christian about that laughter except that it was delivered from the pulpit.

Another example concerns a Dominican. (The tale which Erasmus tells was later retold with far greater success by Rabelais in his Tiers Livre.) A nun was found to be pregnant and her abbess called her to account for it. In excuse she said that the young man who did it was strong. The abbess was not satisfied: ‘You could be excused if you had cried out, as Scripture counsels you to do.’ (The allusion is to a legal principle laid down in Deuteronomy: a woman raped in a solitary place is presumed to have cried in vain for help. Otherwise she risked being stoned to death.) The pert nun had an answer ready: she would have cried for help, only it all took place in the dormitory; in order to shout for help there she would have had to break her vow of silence.’

Another typical conte. Even with that silly tale Erasmus felt he had gone too far: ‘I stop lest by reprehending absurdities I make myself absurd.’ Even before retelling the tale he warned that it was not without a ‘kind of lewdness’. Erasmus cannot let himself go, and so his satire often loses its edge. He heartily disapproved of a particular sermon he had heard about, but his account of it lacks both the power to amuse and the power to shock. St Paul, when insisting that he was on a par with that of the other disciples, exclaimed, ‘Are they Hebrews: so am I.’ In Church Latin that is, Hebrei sunt et ego. But the word hebrei pronounced as the French do, dropping the h and sharpening the vowels, sounds very like ebrii, `drunk’. Hence the sermon:

A certain preacher jumped into the pulpit half-asleep from a night’s drink­ing. (Some judge even this to be erudite and ingenious!) He began with these words, as though taken from St Paul: Ebrii sunt, et ego, ‘Are they drunk? so am I.’

He suddenly woke up to his mistake:

With remarkable dexterity he took up and twisted what he had carelessly `How great a drunkenness seized those wretched Jews when they to kill Christ our Lord.’

Erasmus, that was not an example of ‘remarkable dexterity’ but cautionary tale, warning against rash and scurrilous preaching:

The Church should be free not only from every kind of buffoonery but from what is inept, laboured or impetuous. If anyone wants to be us, let him transgress elsewhere, though buffoonery should be y excluded from the whole of the Christian life.

AEsop’s fables, at least from medieval times, form part of Christian teaching. (The first work translated into Japanese by the missionaries was not a Gospel but IEsop’s fables.) The wise Pantagruel uses precisely this fable to condemn Panurge for his mad love of self.’

Christians of all persuasions welcomed such teachings. Self-love is another name for the ‘old Adam’, for the ‘flesh’, for that self-centred love which stops us from loving our neighbours as ourselves. It can be one of the ways in which the Devil works in Man. Panurge, seduced by the Devil and deceived by self-love, is reduced to melan­choly-madness.’ That is why we laugh at him.

A human being nailed to a cross would, during his long agony, befoul himself. I can think of no work of art which faces that fact. Christ was fully incarnate as man. But our laughter is guided by art, and so are our horror and tears. Art takes us from some of the features of the ghastly pain, squalor and horror upwards to the Spirit.

Then, if anyone is being laughed at, it is not Christ on the Cross but – from the Father and the Son in the heavens – those who laugh at him.

Something did soften the diasyrm of Erasmus, too. Something distinct from Lucianesque laughter led him to wish to save at least some of those vulgar madmen who were railing and jesting at Christ and his ‘foolish’ Cross. Something other than all his classical sources led Rabelais to have qualms about the comic cruelty he so masterfully exploited, and to reserve a fate other than comic dismemberment for cruel old heresy-hunting fools.

Erasmus held that Christians could express their happiness even from the pulpit when their thoughts turned to the unspeakable joys awaiting the elect. A pleasant, happy style is right when a preacher speaks of the happiness of the angels and souls who gaze in rapture at the Father, or when he tells ‘what the life of the pious will be after the Resurrection’.” But Erasmus works mainly through diasyrm. Some, not altogether unfairly, see his laughter as akin to Voltaire’s cackle. Charity and diasyrm make hard bedfellows. But so too do charity and comedy while the laughter lasts. Charity is by no means always to the fore. Sometimes justice is — the harsh justice of comedy, where fools get their deserts.

Is there still room to laugh at Carraba? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But unless Rabelais has lost his touch — and we our sense of humour ­there is still room for a climactic laugh at a man with lacerated flesh and streams of blood — on the deck of Pantagruel’s ship, though not on Bozrah’s way. But then, that man, carefully deprived of our pity by Rabelais’s art, gloried not in God and things spiritual but in the copious products of his bum.

What brought kindness trickling into the laughter of Erasmus,, and flooding into that of Rabelais, was indeed charity. With charity comes a deeper understanding of the mercy of God and the redeeming power of Christ. Neither laugh-raiser revelled in the endless and ingenious torture of the damned.

Some think of the Christian revelation as above all a deposi dutifully guarded by an infallible man, institution, or Church. Others see the revelation of the fullness of Christ’s truth as primarily a winding road, leading members of a fallible Church — however fitfully — towards a deepening of her understanding of divine truth, justice and mercy. Christian truth may be at any time revealed — in his own way and at his own choosing — by the risen Christ. Christ is the Logos, the living Word, the very Idea of right-reason. He approaches man and addresses him in ways he can understand. It may all seem very mundane. The Logos does not smother the personality of those whom he chooses to address, but he does expect to elicit a response. One response had been a quiet rejection — despite Fathers and Councils and encyclicals and synods — of the notion of a celestial Belsen where wretches suffer infinite and everlasting torment, partly in order to add to the joy of the elect. When in 1553 the Church under Edward V I drew up her Forty-two Articles, the forty-second read: All men shall not be saved at length. Edward died almost at once, and those articles were immediately abrogated under Queen Mary. The forty-second was never restored under Elizabeth. So the Church left even the universalism of Origen an open question. Origen (the favourite theologian of Erasmus) held that, in the end, all rational creatures will be saved: all mankind, and even all devils. The Church, by never restoring Edward’s forty-second article, leaves the door of God’s redeeming power wide open: all of us may eventually be saved. If so, there will be no human beings left in Hell to laugh at, not even unbaptized babes. Leibnitz said of the doctrine of the damnation of unbaptized infants, ‘It is not to my taste.’ It seems not to be to the taste of many theologians nowadays. It was to the taste of many of them, though, for a millennium and a half.

The Reverend Frederick Farrar’s sermons in Westminster Abbey during 1877 led to the rapid rejection by many Christians of the crudest and vilest doctrines of the eternal torment of the damned; he opened wide the gates to charity. He deserves a place in the liturgical Kalendar as a merciful Doctor of the Church. But there was a price to be paid. His mercy restricted the scope of Christian laughter, though not of Christian joy. Christians may no longer be certain that they will enjoy, from a belvedere in Paradise, the ingenious tortures inflicted upon the damned. Is there any room at all now for diasyrm in Paradise?’

But not all laughter is directed at enemies. Charity opens the floodgates to joy, and joy can lead to ample laughter. It is joyful rather than mocking laughter which dominates Rabelais’s letter to Cardinal Odet de Chastillon.

The Church, not the philosophers or prophets of old, made joy a moral quality. What brought St Augustine from doubt to the Church was not simply her dignified face, but her ‘serene and not dissolute joy.

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