Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reading Tom’s Classic Christianity. It’s a big book, over 850 pages. Yet it’s a compilation of an even longer series of books, Tom’s three volume systematic theology: The Living God (Vol. 1), The Word of Life (Vol 2), and Life in the Spirit (Vol. 3). These three books run over 1400 pages. Tom certainly wrote a lot about God, word upon word, line upon line, page after page.

Even as words about God poured out of Tom’s lively mind and warm heart, though, he observed the humor inherent in human beings’ theological ponderings, efforts and offerings. We who love and pursue God, but don’t miss taking pleasure in the details, we are bipeds who dream of eternity. Playing God, yet with masks showing our life as bums, clowns, and louts — yet bums who can say from the heart, Deo Gloria.’

As clowns we mime the posture of Superman; louts who cannot help but conceive of the idea of perfect being. We are awed by the final judgment, but a little less so than about the brakes on our car. Inheritors of large brains, we cannot balance our bank accounts. Living souls puzzled by death. We are such creatures who take up pen and ink and scribble bold sentences about God, who breathe polluted air as we ponder the ineffable Spirit; who use the name of God most often to intensify cursing, yet still pray to One whom we name Almighty.” 

I imagine Tom in God’s presence at this moment. He’s dressed himself in a polka-dotted clown suit. On Tom’s face is a bulbous, red nose and a joyful, infectious grin. He is a holy, happy, dancing joker, with wild frizzled hair. Tom’s tossing words into the air as he parties before God. They float like bubbles before God’s face and suddenly pop, amusing Tom and drawing a chuckle from the Lord, who is entertained, indeed, delighted at Tom’s antics. For isn’t there something humorous about a tiny image-bearer talking and writing about God? Yet God welcomes our words of love and insight, delighting in our ability to think and speak of him, to love him with our tiny, finite minds and mouths. 

Tom believed the disciplined study of God is best experienced from within a light-hearted, caring community that laughs at its own soberest undertakings. Those whose faith offers the corrective love of admonition to others give a great gift. But the gift is best wrapped in the brightly colored tissue of hope, in an atmosphere where comic lightness about the pretended gravity of our words abounds.” 

Tom took truth very seriously. He could be tough and dogged in a debate. He knew that rotten words about God bring death in their train. I have no doubt that he willingly would have died defending the Holy Trinity or the divinity of Jesus. Still, Tom recognized the paradoxical nature of the human attempt to study Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, an effort strewn with blood and flowers, with passing wind and singing hymns.” 

The martyrs themselves occasionally evinced a holy sense of humor, sometimes during their torments. St. Lawrence, a Roman deacon cruelly martyred during the Valerian persecution, said to his tormentors as he died on a red-hot gridiron, That side is done now. You can turn me over.” Tom rightly comments: The tradition that can laugh, not unsympathetically, at martyrdom, is surely healthier than one that can only bemoan inhumanities.” 

I agree. Best not to take one’s words about God — and the reasoning behind them — too seriously. The healthier the study of God, the more candid it remains about its own finitude, the stubborn limits of its own knowing, its own charades, Band-Aids, closets, masks, and broken windows.”