The Theology of Peanuts, Chapter 2. Humanity: No valentines and "the tragedy of non-integration" (sections iv-ix "Exclusion")

v. exclusion
Miroslav Volf, in his magisterial book Exclusion and Embrace, suggests that the problem of our time is one of Otherness. More, the great sin we struggle with is one of exclusion. At root, exclusion denies the humanity of the Other. Salvation, then, according to Volf, is reconciliation and embrace.

Although much of Volf's book deals with the most dark and difficult facets of exclusion and embrace, most of us deal with exclusion and embrace in more workaday venues, at home, at work, in our churches, and in our neighborhoods.

In its most passive form exclusion is manifested as indifference. More active forms of exclusion are banishment and violence. Again, Volf's interests are more catastrophic. But indifference, banishment, and violence are, we must admit, ubiquitous features of human life. As children we can be the ostracized as the "weird kid," passed over in kickball games, or plagued by bullies. These forms of exclusion scale up into adulthood, but the forms are more "polite" and subtle.

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

vi. the drama of embrace
In contrast to exclusion Volf discusses the "drama of embrace." For Volf this drama moves through four scenes. First, there is the opening of arms which signals a willingness and desire to welcome the Other. Second, we wait. The embrace is extended as an invitation. It allows for the agency of the Other to exert itself. Embrace is patient and non-coercive. The third movement is the closing of the arms in the act of embrace. Volf emphasizes that this involves a "soft touch." We do not crush. Finally, there is release. The independence of the Other is recognized as autonomy and scope are again granted.

If Peanuts is anything it is a mediation on exclusion and social alienation. I've mentioned Volf's "drama of embrace" to note that it is almost wholly lacking in Peanuts (Snoopy is the lone exception here). Embrace is longed for but rarely granted. If we take exclusion to be the "sin" of humanity then Peanuts is a dark epic of human sinfulness. As Michaelis has noted, "In [Schulz's] work, indifference would be the dominant response to love. When his characters attempt to love, they are met not just by rejection but by ongoing cold, even brutal, indifference, manifested either as insensitivity or as deeply fatalistic acceptance." (1) Umberto Eco calls Peanuts a "tragedy of non-integration," it paints the failure of humans to find love, friendship and community.

Christians have long fought over the notion of the Trinity, the mutual indwelling of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. What is at stake in these debates is the fundamental nature of God. For proponents of the Trinity the doctrine suggests that God should not be viewed as either "person" or as "relation/community." The Trinity mystically hovers between Personhood and Community, keeping the two notions fluid and in a dialectic.

The practical issue is that the church is to embody trinitarian living: Persons in communion. To become like God--the Eastern Orthodox notion of theosis--is not to trade in one substance (body) for another (spirit). To become "like God" isn't to become more "spiritual." It is, rather, to become more relational.

Trinitarian notions are important for a theology of Peanuts in that Peanuts starkly portrays failures of relatonality. In this, God, as Trinity, is absent. The world of Peanuts is relationally broken and fallen. The relational God is absent or, at the very least, struggling to gain a foothold.

In portraying the "tragedy of non-integration" Peanuts aids us in two ways. First, although we should praise Volf's work in confronting the most heinous forms of exclusion (e.g., genocide), we can often forget the pains of "mundane exclusion." Workplace or playground slights seem benign up against Volf's project. But if you have ever been excluded in this way the pain can run deep. Many people are still haunted by memories of shaming comments, humiliations, and bullying (verbal or physical). Peanut's supplements Volf's epic project by taking the time to look at workaday forms of exclusion.

Secondly, Peanut's helps us see the failures of Christianity in the domain of relationality. The Dali Lama has said, "my religion is kindness." Unfortunately, few Christians so prioritize acts of kindness. Yet, Peanuts reveals to us just how vital kindness can be. But tragically fews Christians see themselves as ministers of kindness. Christians tend to speak in grander terms. Their vision of "love" is often too heroic to be of any practical value. Very rarely do you hear a Christian community emphasizing simple kindness as their distinguishing trait. Consequently, Christians unwittingly participate in the "tragedy of non-integration." Christians fail, regularly, to offer an extra smile, larger tip, or helping hand. These acts of kindness are just not often touted as "being like Jesus." Again, Christians think too heroically. Their vision of love is too grand. And, thus, they regularly fail in treating the check-out boy in a humane manner.

This is not to say that the heroic vision of agape should be traded in for a lesser vision. It is just to say that kindness should be given greater prominence in the Christian moral identity. Kindness should dominate the Christian consciousness and should be a distinguishing trait. But this is not to be some bland practicing of "random acts of kindness." It is, rather, an intentional and consistent practice of kindness. Kindness isn't to be "random" and "occasional." It is to be Volf's stance of embrace played out in every human encounter.

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

(1) p. 7. Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis

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8 thoughts on “The Theology of Peanuts, Chapter 2. Humanity: No valentines and "the tragedy of non-integration" (sections iv-ix "Exclusion")”

  1. Richard,

    Two quick observations before a morning full of meetings about patients and policy.

    (1) Simple good manners (do unto others) and fellow feeling reduce "mundane exclusion."

    (2) The mystery of the trinity is fine and helpful for those are in that tradition. But it can and has been used to exclude Christian women, dissenters, heretics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, etc., from the human community. Creedal forms and trinitarian slogans linked to blind acceptance of the "heroic vision of agape" have been used to justify shaming, bullying, murder and torture in the name of Jesus.

    Meetings await. Sigh.


    George Cooper

  2. Richard
    Love the series. One thing I have been playing around with regarding the difficulty of embrace rests on the importance of self-identity, and the way in which we craft that identity through the nexus of people around us. Bear with me here for a minute through this example.

    Imagine that I, as coherently argued by Ernest Becker and other existential philosophers/ psychologists, pursue life like it is a self-esteem project. As such, I always think in terms of some audience, either abstract (I wonder what 'people' will think?) or specific (I wonder what ______ will think?), human (I wonder what he/she will think?) or divine (I wonder what God will think?).

    I then build my self-esteem or self-worth in a multitude of ways, but one important way in by association. Given a hierarchy of social status, I take the approach to craft the nexus of people around me in a way which builds upon this existential project. I can do this through a variety of routes. I can try to hang out with 'better' people than myself. I can try to hang around people who think that I am better than they are, thus making my audience very clear and supportive. Or I can hang around people of a group where I have constructed my value (in group), and not around outside this community (out-group)

    From a sociological perspective, I think the latter point can lead to in-group out-grouping and eventually a failure to embrace, as Volf so coherently argues. From this perspective, the problem that drives our lack of kindness is self-created self-esteem system, where incentives are placed on a rather selective allocation of kindness. The problem addressed here (or the problem of the human condition) is merely only a failure for kindness at the surface, but rather a systemic problem built upon how we craft meaning and value into our lives.

    All this to say that I think the failure of many projects to create more kindness rests in their failure to address this underlying issue. A slogan like "what would jesus do?" brings to mind an answer, 'he would hang out with the sinners.' that serves to reinforce the social categories (i.e. I think I am a saint, and you think you are a sinner) and therefore creates kindness in a superficial manner (i.e. motivated by a sense that 'those people' need me to be kind). The true challenge is seeing the other people (the angry Lucys of the world) on the same level of humanity, and THROUGH THAT REALIZATION, embodying the trinitarian lifestyle. I think the catch is that the value system that promotes this type of lifestyle-- Trinitarian Christianity as you describe-- can often be the one that culturally leads to an ingroup outgroup mentality, with its corresponding social outcome of exclusion.

    Sorry to ramble here... I would edit, but have to work on a revision of a paper and am a bit edited out!


  3. You always give me food for thought Mr Dr Professor Beck.

    But this series is really just doing it for me :) There is so much in here that is resonating for me. Thanks, dude.

  4. George,
    I threw in the Trinitarian stuff because I've been reading Mark Heim's "The Depths of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends" which uses the Trinity to create an inclusive vision. It's an interesting read.

    Hear, hear for simple good manners!

    I love your theory and think it is exactly right. It should really be worked up into a paper. Has it been? In the works?

    My undergraduates call me "Dr. Beck" but I'm Richard, or worse (my brother prefers "Dick"), to everyone else:-)

    I'm so very glad you let me know you are liking the series. When I started the series I couldn't predict what people would think of it. I figured the main reaction would be, "This guy is sure wasting a lot of time reading comic strips."

  5. Hey Richard
    Thanks for the feedback. I have been delving into decision making biases and social structure lately, so don't know if its been addressed in the literature before. I am less familiar with the existential psych or philosophy material.

  6. Peter,
    You might, then, want to look at the Terror Management Theory literature on self-esteem. It parallels your model above, linking self-esteem to meaning-making and death issues. The novelty of your approach, in my mind, is how this dynamic tears at human relations. I don't think that facet has been looked at (theoretically or empirically).

  7. Just for the record this is a wonderful and informative series. Glad you're doing and that folks seem to be getting something out of it.
    Not sure one has to reach for the Trinitarian argument to support embrace - though psychologically ? A few questions/comments:
    1. How would relate embrace to the Buddhist notion of Compassion ?
    2. And/or to, say, Buber or ML King's comments about respecting the other, King phrases it as they are somebodies too ?
    3. While my grasp of scripture ain't great it seems to me that the notion that as we love others we love God is central; by which I mean the most core message, reiterated in numerous ways and places ?
    4. My own translation of Compassion and now Embrace would be to Respect the other - that is grant them innate worth as much as to yourself.
    - the obverse of that is that one can then expect others to act with high standards because they are respectable people.
    5. Practice - if the chain of logic holds up it seems to me that Christian, and other, belief/faith should emphasize the daily practice of Respect/Compassion/Embrace ?s

  8. what happened to section iv??  This page/day/entry starts at "v" yet it states in the title it is iv-ix. Kinda WEIRD.
    Pretty good though.
    Thanks, alot.

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