RELIGION and amusement; the two things are here together on this God's earth of ours ; have been here from the beginning ; and we have not found vet the formula which unites them. Piety still looks askance at comedy, and knows not what terms it should make with it. It is singular that in a world which has never been without philosophers there should have been all along, on a theme so vital, a confusion so utter. Cicero introduces the question of the significance of laughter only to dismiss it as insoluble. Christian thinkers handle amusement from all manner of stand-points, but end generally by leaving their theme in the air.
There is, for instance, the solution of what may be called the Christian pessimism, of which Pascal was so great an exponent. To him the world's amusements were the most striking illustration of the essential misery of most human lives. Men sought amusement in order to escape from themselves. The very name " diversion " let out the fatal secret. To "divert" a man was, what P To turn his thought away from his wretched self. People gathered in crowds, talked, laughed, gazed at spectacles, did anything rather than face the ordeal of their solitary thought. Pascal's is, though with a different application, precisely the picture which Lucretius draws of the blasť Roman of his day, who rushed from town-house to country villa, and was happy in neither. "In this way each man flees from himself; but this self, whom he cannot escape from, still clings to him, and he hates it." The description is true enough of those who are in the sorry plight of making amusement their one business. " What is your occupation ? " is the question put to a young Parisian in a French romance. " Je m'amuse," is the reply. Poor wretch ! His occupation will grow harder every day.
But the pessimistic point of view, both Christian and non-Christian, despite the support it receives from the miserable misuse of amusement, does not satisfy us. Nor does another religious view, still in vogue in some quarters, which regards gaiety and laughter as not countenanced by the example of Christ or by the teaching of the Gospel. The Puritan found the New Testament a tremendously serious book, as undoubtedly it is. But he discovered no laughter there, which is a pity. Had he discerned it he had been a wholesomer man, and perhaps have won England, which is a laughter-loving country, to his side. As it was the Puritan verdict was a partisan verdict, the verdict of a sect, and fatally open to the raillery of the wits
These in a zeal to express how much they do
The mediaeval Church, with all its faults, understood this side of human nature better. In its miracle plays, out of which, let us remember, the modern theatre arose, the full swing of broadest humour in immediate con-tact with all that was sacred, while giving rude shocks to our modern susceptibilities, contained, nevertheless, the hint of a truth which the Puritan could not see. It was the truth that gaiety belongs to the cosmical scheme, that laughter lies at the inmost heart of things.
If for a moment we could conceive of life in its wholeness, see it as God sees it, we should perceive a strange thing. We should find that everywhere the world was, at the same time, laughing and weeping. The gay and the solemn blend there at every moment. The marriage feast synchronises with the funeral service. While manhood confronts its sternest problem the child is playing in the street. One such God-view of the world, that took all in at a glance, would be enough to convince us that these things at the root are essentially one ; that neither can forswear the other, nor call itself complete without the other. We should be yet more deeply convinced of this did we consider the inter-relations of work and play, of the serious and the jocular. All amusement is, on its other side, serious work. A drawing-room entertainment means hard toil for servants ; the world of spectacle is, to a great host of our fellows, the business which earns the daily bread ; the man who jests on the stage does so often enough with deepest tragedy at his heart. There could be no such subtle interchange if gay and grave were not woven of the same life-stuff.
Wherever, indeed, we cast our eyes the same lesson meets us. The universe is serious enough, but its surface everywhere ripples with gaiety. It is ready always for a laugh. AEschylus saw that ages ago, when he wrote of the " anerithmon gelasma " of Old Ocean. The depths below might be sombre and fathomless, but at the surface was "unreckonable laughter." Nature's handiwork completes itself always with a smile. Sunshine is not only warmth and light ; it is festivity. The young of all animals salute life with gay gambollings. Their glee is Nature's theology, asserting against all comers that the world is a good world and a wholesome.
What is passing strange is, that any one coming from such a view of things to the New Testament should imagine an incongruity. As a matter of fact, Christ in His teaching takes the cosmic laughter always for granted. His world is a festive world. The parables take merry-making as their natural background. The children pipe in the market-place ; the prodigal son comes home to music and dancing; the kingdom of heaven is as when a man makes a great feast and invites many. The gladness of Jesus at the Galilee spring-time, His rapture at the song of the birds and the beauty of the flowers, are to us a religious revelation just as much as are His most solemn words concerning sin, sorrow and death. For they are His reading of life. Clouds are here, for Him and us, but they do not stop the shining of the sun. The laughter of the universe is the reflex of God's joy which He would share with us.
The mistake about amusement is that men invert its position. They go to amusement to get from it a satisfaction in life, whereas it is not till men have obtained life's satisfaction that they are in a condition to be amused. The soul can never be satisfied with anything lower than itself. Until its deepest want has been met its harp is on the willows. It cannot sing in exile. Men called Napoleon " the Unamusable." Talma might play before him, and " a pitful of kings," his vassals, form part of the audience, but the conqueror extracted no gaiety from the performance. That is the Nemesis of self. When, on the contrary, the soul has found its true life, the simplest things will serve. A man then learns " the heart's laugh." He will be another example of what an acute thinker has declared to be a psychological law : " The more a man is capable of entire seriousness the more heartily can he laugh."
The Christian Church needs in the present day to know its mind on the subject of amusements. It cannot ignore or taboo them, for its own teaching, properly interpreted, shows them to enter deeply into the Divine scheme of life. On the other hand, it must never forget that the prime function of religion is to supply the inner reconciliation without which there is no true amusement possible. The soul cannot laugh its own laugh till God has filled it. The Church has also to teach the world the ethics of amusement. The " gaiety of nations " can only increase as men imbibe Christ's unselfishness. It will come never, let us be sure, out of greed, or pride, or egotism. When, in society, we are passing a pleasant evening, be sure that at the bottom of it lie somebody's loving thought and self-sacrificing labour. And any amusement worthy of the name means, let us remember, culture of some sort. Field sports train the eye, the hand, the foot ; are an education of sense, nerve and muscle. The growing passion for them in modern times is wary Nature's set-off to the lowering of vitality which town life and sedentary toil are bringing upon civilised peoples.
Good amusement is, then, an education ; but it is something more. For the masses it is a diversion of the life-force from brute gratification to something healthful and humanising. When a man has choice of half a dozen skilled exercises for his free hours, he is less likely to occupy them in drink or vice. A nation's morals in this respect may be said to be largely a question of its progress in amusement. We have advanced from the time, not so far distant, which made possible that terrible story Mozley tells of Magdalen College in Routh's day. ' Says Routh to the chief college officer, one morning, ' Stop, I know what you are going to tell me. One of the Fellows has died drunk in the night.' ' It is indeed so.' The President exclaimed, ' Stay, let me guess.' Ile guessed right. ' There, you see, I knew very well. He's just the fellow to die drunk.'" In England, within span almost of our own time, to drink oneself to death was the diversion of a gentleman at which no one seemed surprised.
The Church, for ages, with more or less success, has been teaching men to pray. It has also, it now realises, to teach them to play. It must widen its programme until it takes in the whole man. It must renounce for ever the view which made seriousness take offence at mirth, knowing that each is from the same source, and works to the same end. Its attitude to humanity must be less of a menace and more of an encouragement. For ages has it busied itself with the religious meaning of tears. Let it now investigate a little more the religious meaning of laughter. Men, we learn on the highest authority, are to become children to understand the kingdom of heaven. The children's play is God's pledge. The child-heart delivers to us the open secret. In the midst of this tremendous universe, with all its mystery and all its tragedy, these little ones, nearest to the centre, are light of heart. The Church can build its doctrine on that fact. In it is contained the whole Gospel.
( Originally Published 1903 )
Ourselves And The Universe:
Our Moral Variability
The Escape From Commonplace
Of Spiritual Detachment
Life's Present Tense.
A Doctrine Of Echoes
Of Divine Leading
The Spiritual Sense
Our Thought World
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