Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Slipp’ry Frames of Reference

My walks sometimes produce odd questions. Something made me wonder the other day: Does God have a sense of humor? My instant, reflexive answer was, “Yes, yes, yes! Of course.” But this reaction was not just piety. If God is All and we have a sense of humor—well, some of the time, certainly—God who has everything in absolute abundance, must also sometimes enjoy a joke. It please me to think so, anyway. And countless instances of meaningful coincidences in my life have had that character—something you cannot help but laugh at—and yet the joke is serious. This subject, I think, hasn’t much standing in our official theologies. Earnest, earnest all the way.

My own Eureka moment concerning humor came in the 1960s when I read a then new book by Arthur Koestler titled The Act of Creation. Koestler’s subject was human creation, but—well, you get my point. It was a Eureka moment because Koestler’s explanation made wonderful sense. He proposed that all experiences of creation, humor, and invention—also the odd experience of art—come from the simultaneous linking of two otherwise seemingly incompatible frames of reference. The act of creation, invention, laughter come from the sudden (Eureka!) realization that the two frames are linked.

How was the steam engine invented? One conjecture might be this. A man is watching a pot boil on a kitchen stove. The lid clatters as steam escapes. His mind just then is filled with a problem: how to lift water from a well or from a flooded mine. Two frames of reference. Suddenly their linkage occurs to his mind. Why not contain that energy, lifting that lid, and make it do some work.

Here in the form of a delightful photo is the operation of this process as a joke:

The photo is by Friedrich Böhringer, titled “Headless,” and is from the Wikipeia Commons (link).

Some frames are slippery, others are not—at least for humans. But in God’s mind they all intersect. Infinite laughter!


  1. Not surprisingly, unlike the photographer and the rest of us, the young boy whose head seems on the verge of being buried does not appear to get the humor in this situation. His smile looks just a bit ambiguous to me.


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