Reflections on the President’s Underwear by Peter L. Berger

Peter Berger died this week at 88 years of age.  He was a giant in the cross-disciplinary fields of sociology and religion.  His work is still considered essential reading in universities across the country.  He was also a very funny guy.  The article below was published in 1994 by First Things during the height of the Clinton presidency when the world was collectively shocked, shocked that the Commander-in-Chief could be so — human. 

Imagine that.

Rest in peace.  Rise in glory.



Peter Berger

Peter L. Berger

The Continuum Publishing Company has just brought out an English translation of a book by Karl-Josef Kuschel, Laughter: A Theological Essay (more or less simultaneously it seems, with the German original, a Herder publication). Kuschel teaches ecumenical theology and theological ethics at Tuebingen, and he is coauthor with Hans Küng of the declaration on so-called “global ethics” issued by the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago last year. That event could not possibly be discussed other than laughingly, and the Küng-Kuschel ethical manifesto, which tried to articulate some sort of lowest common denominator of religiously based moralities, would also present a formidable challenge to even the most accomplished satirist.

Despite these unpromising credentials, Kuschel has written a moderately useful book. He spends too much time on the ethical question (which had already bothered Plato) as to when laughter is or is not permissible, and he is overly fascinated by Umberto Eco’s much overrated novel, The Name of the Rose, which revolves around Aristotle’s lost book on comedy. Still, Kuschel makes two important points: that Christian theology has paid far too little attention to the comic as a dimension of reality; and that there ought to be something like a theology of laughter.

Kuschel does not pretend to supply this missing subdiscipline, and far be it from me to make such an attempt here. I have argued elsewhere that the comic is a signal of transcendence, because it suggests, even if only in fugitive moments, that tragedy is not the final word about the human condition. If religious faith is valid, then this suggestion is indeed true, in which case the comic discloses much more fundamental aspects of reality than the tragic. Put differently, in the perspective of faith it is comedy rather than tragedy that is finally profound. Put differently again, the phrase “redeeming laughter” says much more than it seems to do. Nietzsche once remarked that he would find Christianity more credible if Christians looked more redeemed. The scarcity of redeeming laughter, I daresay, has much to do with this unconvincing appearance.

Although Kuschel briefly discusses Freud’s ideas about humor, there is very little reference in the book to sex. Yet any reflection about the comic, theological or otherwise, must come to terms with the fact that a very large amount of humor has always revolved around sexual situations. From Homer to Aristophanes, from the most primitive pranksters to the most sophisticated comedians, there has been a perduring insight: Sex is funny. This insight is correct, indeed profoundly correct.

Why is sex funny? On the level of everyday human life, it is funny because it debunks the pretensions of those who deem themselves, or are deemed by others, to be important people. At the same time, this debunking exercise humanizes those who are thus shown up. During the Congress of Vienna, Metternich, the great statesman and architect of the post-Napoleonic order of Europe, fell desperately in love with the wife of one of the ambassadors at the conference. He would dash out of the most important negotiations to send the lady passionate billets-doux, to arrange meetings via dubious go-betweens, and to dash off to rendezvous in improbable places. Not surprisingly, with all this amorous activity, he frequently fell asleep during crucial diplomatic sessions.

But sex is also funny for a deeper (if you will, a metaphysical) reason: More than anything else, sex shows up the fundamental human dilemma of being caught between spirit and matter, between the aspiration toward the infinite and the captivity in finitude. Sex is the most pervasive link between the most sublime and the grossest human experiences. It is not only, in the words of Augustine, that we are born inter faeces et urinam, but that the same crass location has also given birth to every kind of lyrical emotion. This fact is heavy with anthropological significance; needless to say, it can be, and often enough has been, reflected upon without a trace of humor. I would argue that an understanding of the comic aspect of the matter is essential to a philosophical and indeed a theological anthropology.

During the last few years, virtually every major religious body in America has appointed commissions, study groups, and task forces to issue ponderous statements on sexuality. As was to be expected, these have become battlegrounds between the contending forces in the ongoing culture war. I have no intention of going here into the substance of these debates (if only because, I regret to say, my views on some of the points at contention do not easily fit into either of the two prevailing moral rhetorics). I only want to make one observation: I’m struck with the utter humorlessness with which this battle is conducted by the contending parties—all the contending parties. Given the subject matter at issue, this must inevitably distort the entire debate. I would further suggest that a realization (if you will, a raising-into-consciousness) of the inherent comicality of human sexual behavior might reveal hitherto unsuspected common ground.

If only they could break into laughter now and then. A commission of Roman Catholic bishops discussing marital chastity; a study group of Presbyterian theologians delving into the morality of masturbation; a gay-and-lesbian task force designing wedding ceremonies, with all the bourgeois frills, for graduates of bathhouses and leather bars. The aforementioned Parliament of the World’s Religions missed a great opportunity there. Instead of endorsing the Küng-Kuschel manifesto of global motherhood-and-apple-pie niceness, it could have appointed a number of task forces on sexual ethics: a Christian-Confucian task force on foot fetishism, a Jewish-Buddhist task force on polygamy. When these task forces would eventually have published their reports, there might have been outbreaks of helpless laughter even in the Roman Curia and at Princeton Theological Seminary—perhaps even redeeming laughter.

And surely, if one reflects about sex these days, one should not omit mention of President Clinton. When it is said that he has a problem with the “character issue,” several matters come up, but invariably a major question concerns his alleged sexual escapades. I have no way of knowing how much credence to give to the reports about the goings-on in swinging Little Rock during Clinton’s governorship. But assume for a moment that all these salacious stories are true. At the risk of offending the morally upstanding readership of FIRST THINGS (not to mention its morally upstanding editors), I must confess that these stories, if true, would be the best news I’ve heard about Bill Clinton’s character: All the other stories about him suggest an individual with an implacable will to power, in the service of which both people and principles are discarded whenever opportune. This man, it seems, will do almost anything to get or to retain power—but not, if these sexy stories are true, at the price of foregoing erotic adventures. Questions about sexual morality aside, this would be a humanizing trait. I would imagine that even in Arkansas such philandering would carry some political risks. A politican who risks power because of sex is more humanly attractive than one for whom power is the only aphrodisiac.

Which takes me back to the comicality of sex: Here we have these stories of the Governor, wearing his jogging suit over his by-now famous jockey shorts, being driven by state troopers from one provincial seductress to another. This is the stuff of high farce. Rabelais brought back to life to depict homo americanus erectus. And one would further wonder then (Rabelais certainly would) whether Mr. Clinton is still engaged in it. There are two possibilities, and it is not clear which would be the funnier one. Possibility one: he is still doing it, at much higher risks, with poker-faced Secret Service agents having replaced the jolly Arkansas troopers. Possibility two: he is not doing it any more, forced into excruciating celibacy by the harsh requirements of raison d’état.

The biblical creation accounts make it very clear that God created human sexuality, “male and female created he them.” It is also clear that, in doing so, God intended human beings to procreate and to populate the earth with their offspring. But I would speculate that there was another purpose to this gift of sexuality: to remind human beings that, though created in the image of God, they are still linked to all those other creatures—to the beasts, to the birds, to “everything that creeps on the earth.” In other words, as sexual beings, men and women should cultivate humility.

The creation account in Genesis 2 ends with the statement that “the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” But I will further speculate that, in that primeval moment when they first saw each other, they laughed.

Peter L. Berger, “Reflections on the President’s Underwear,” First Things, no. 48 (1994): 15–17.