This weekend I was honored to be invited to deliver the Baccalaureate Address at the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater. So I decided to tell the Class of 2011 a little about not taking themselves so seriously.
This is is a religious event so let me begin with a parable: There's an interfaith gathering at Penn and all the participants -- Catholics, Protestant, Jewish, Muslims, Buddhists, even agnostics and atheists -- are on lunch break. They go to a local food truck (my favorite, which we called Ptomaine Tony's), and they all get food poisoning and die.
So they arrive at the gates of heaven, bummed out because, you know, they're dead, but happy because they're in heaven. And St. Peter comes out to take care of business. So he turns to the Protestants and says, "Hey, thanks for all that great work you did in helping people learn the Bible and all those great hymns. So welcome to heaven. Why don't you go to Room Five, but make sure not to look in Room One." Off they go. Then Peter says to the Jewish crowd, "Hey, thanks for keeping the Covenant faithfully, and following all the Commandments that God asked of you. So Mazel tov! Welcome to heaven. Go to Room ... Four, but don't look into Room One." Then he turns to the Muslims and says, "Thanks for all daily prayers and your devout observances of all that the Quran taught. Welcome to heaven! Go to Room Three, but make sure not to look into Room One."
Finally, one of the agnostics, who's surprised to be there at all, says to St. Peter, "What's in Room One?" And he says, "Oh, that's the Catholics. They think they're the only ones up here."
Now, you're now probably wondering why you're spending your final hours of undergraduate-hood listening to cheesy religion jokes. You're thinking that if you're going to go to the baccalaureate address, then at least there should be a point to this talk. Well, that is the point. Which is this: Lighten up. Don't take yourself so seriously. Or, since this is the baccalaureate at Universitas Pennsylvaniensis, and I should frame things more elegantly, how about this: Joy, humor and laughter are underappreciated virtues in the spiritual life and represent an essential element in one's own relationship with God.
It's not clear why humor and laughter have been deemed as inappropriate in so many religious settings. But I'm sure you've met people who seem to think that being religious means being deadly serious all the time. But, as the saying goes, when you're deadly serious, you're probably seriously dead. In Christian circles these people are known as the "frozen chosen."
There are a host of reasons -- sociological, theological and even psychological -- why humor is downplayed within religious circles. Take American Christianity, for example.