The problem with laughter, at least from the point of view of various religions, is its implication of disrespect. Laughter can be used as a tool to ridicule or mock authority, and it poses a specific threat since authority or the “truths” embodied by the authority figure would not be taken seriously.
There are different kinds of laughter, but each is seen as either un-serious or related to pleasure, two things that religion throughout history has not been very fond of. Satires, for example, have many political implications as an implicit critique and a source of discredit towards authority figures. By focusing on the weaknesses or absurd traits of leaders, those people in charge may lose their status and respect in the eyes of the public, or what is even considered a worse effect, those leaders would not be able to instill fear anymore.
Plato was against laughter as it diverged from the path towards truth and knowledge, and he saw comedies as harmful to the soul and religious sentiments. In fact, Plato did not accept any art that did not contain a certain kind of model for morality. Monasteries are built on silence and reflection, and the sound of laughter would be a disruption of serenity and austerity and a sign of irreverence, a fact that was stunningly demonstrated in the Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. It was only through serious reflection and meditation that one could attain the truth or have a connection with the spiritual realm.
Despite a common feature among religions to focus on obedience and relentless study of scriptures and doctrines, there is the strange incidence of the “flower sermon” in Zen Buddhism. The Buddha is said to have held up a flower to convey and transmit a secret truth that cannot be learned or taught in the traditional way with sermons or lectures.
The “unspoken truth” was embodied in an enigmatic smile, and a main tenet of Zen is that truth must be passed on from the master to the student. Of course, there is no lack of discipline and soul searching, but it is a strange case where a smile, though not laughter, is acknowledged as a mediator of truth. There are various Buddhist traditions that also give laughter credit and emphasis, as the future Buddha, Maitreya, is often represented as a merry and jolly, Santa Claus-type figure.
Yet what about Jesus? Traditionally, the focus has been on his serious and dedicated nature on the quest for God's truth. His sermons are mainly told in parables and are meant as lectures for his followers, while he has revealed or proven his higher powers through the use of miracles, whether walking on water or raising the dead.
However, there is a particular instance, one of his “early miracles”, where we can sense a certain kind of playfulness within the nature of Jesus. He attends the wedding at Cana and there is concern that there might not be sufficient wine. Wine, along with song, dance and laughter, is a celebration of life and of the ensuing marriage between the couple. The fact that Jesus is there, and in the movie Last Temptation of Christ we actually see him dance, shows that he was not adverse to fun and pleasure.
What strikes me even more is that he actually contributes and adds to the general joy by turning a supply of water into wine. Wine is stripped away from its religious significance, as opposed to the blood of Christ during the Last Supper, and is the medium for more joy and laughter. This is the Jesus that is often ignored, who, by using a miracle, adds to the general festivities and merriment instead of denouncing or criticizing it as a sign of disrespect towards God.