The Theology of Peanuts, Chapter 2: Sections xi-xx "It's him or me."

The theory of evolution by natural selection was triggered, independently, in the minds of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace by reading the same essay: Thomas Malthus' An Essay on the Principle of Population. In the Essay Malthus predicted that, given the logic of mathematics, population growth would soon outstrip food supply leading to catastrophic human death. From the Essay:

"The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world."

For Malthus, economics is largely the realistic assessment of how finite resources will, eventually, be exhausted. It is largely due to Malthus that economics is called "the dismal science." A Malthusian analysis isn't a cheery subject. And Malthus is still with us. A gas prices go up, we are weekly reminded that oil is a finite resource. Eventually, and we all know this, it will run out. What then? I don't like to think about it. Beyond oil, a Malthusian logic also governs other assessments of the human future. See Jared Diamond's excellent and chilling book Collapse for a recent example.

It is easy to see how Malthus' Essay triggered the idea of evolution. If a population must struggle over a finite and small supply of resources (e.g., food) only the strong will survive. The progress of the species is driven by the death of the weak.

In game theory, a branch of mathematics that studies human decision-making, the Malthusian dilemma is called a "zerosum game." Zerosum games are games where the payoffs in the game are finite and shifted from one player to another. Poker is a good example of a zerosum game. Imagine you and I begin a night with $100 and play head-to-head poker. At the end of the night I note that I hold $80. Which means I lost $20 to you. Obviously, you now hold $120. You won $20 off me. Thus, if we sum the payoffs -- $20 + (-$20) = $0 -- they sum to zero. We see the Malthusian dynamic in the zerosum game: There is a finite "pot" and what I gain must be taken from you. Due to this dynamic zerosum games are also called games of "total conflict" or games of "war."

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

Where does sin come from? Is it "inside" us, like a character flaw? A congenital meanness in our souls? Or is "sin" a product of context and circumstance?

Many have argued that sin is not an instrisic flaw in humans. It is, rather, an extrinsic, environmental phenomenon. Sin is simply the logical outcome of finite creatures living in a finite world. We are biologically vulnerable creatures living in a world of actual or potential scarity. We live, dismally, in a Malthusian world. Sin is the product of the Malthusian, zerosum dynamic. As Marilyn McCord Adams has written:

"There is a metaphysical mismatch between human nature and the material world as we have it, one in which the necessities of life and flourishing seem and are difficult to access and in short supply. If human psyche and biology, personality and animality, mind and body, are odd couples that run interference with one another, scarcity triggers fear and animal aggression and drives us into Darwinian struggles for existence in which only the fittest survive!" (1)

Human "selfishness," therefore, isn't a flaw the human soul. Selfishness is simply the logical consequence of living in a world governed by Malthusian dynamics. McCord Adams continues:

"My contention is that the fundamental reason why the human condition generally and Divine-human relations specifically are non-optimal is that God has created us radically vulnerable to horrors, by creating us as embodied persons, personal animals, enmattered spirits in a material world of real or apparent scarcity such as this. Sin is a symptom and a consequence, but neither the fundamental explanans nor the principle explanandum." (2)

Her point is well taken. Human "sin" isn't the spiritual problem, the thing to be explained nor the explanation itself. We don't need to be saved from sin. We need to be saved from the Malthusian trap known as the world. We need to be rescued from the zerosum dynamic that governs human relations. Concretely, biological creatures need to eat. They are not to be blamed for this. And when famine comes--real or imagined--the "sinful" animal will fight over food. Hoarding. Protecting. Scrapping. But human's didn't "choose" to eat. They just do. Thus, if Malthus and McCord Adams are correct that human biological contingency is the root of evil, then you can't blame humans for sin. You might seek to save them, but you can't blame them.

Thomas Hobbes was an acute diagnostician of our Malthusian plight. For Hobbes human violence is easy to explain. Just set up the Malthusian and zerosum situation--finite creatures in a finite world--and throw in one extra ingredient: Ignorance. The Malthusian dilemma might be eased if we knew the intentions of the people surrounding us. But rarely do I know your full mind. Do you intend me harm? Will you share fairly with me? And so on. Because I don't know the full mind of my friend or enemy I grow anxious and paranoid. And this leads me to be wary, careful, suspicious, and less than forthright myself. The tragedy is that all parties, due to ignorance, are following the same path. Everyone grows wary, suspicious, and anxious. We fear the worst and often, to save ourselves, aggress preemptively. This cycle is called the "Hobbesian trap."

Mark Lilla in his recent book The Stillborn God describes the Hobbesian dynamic nicely (p. 82): "[This] is why the natural social condition of mankind is war--if not explicit armed hostilities, then a perpetual state of anxious readiness in preparation for conflict. Even the Bible recognizes this tendency. Hobbes asserts: Cain kills his brother not because of an explicit threat but because he feared losing what he had and was ignorant of God's reasons for favoring Abel. Fear, ignorance, and desire are the basic motivations of all human activity, political and religious. One does not have to assume man is fallen, or evil, or possessed by demons to explain why those motivations produce war. One need only understand how these basic motivations combine in the human mind, both when man is alone and when he is in society."

In Chapter 2 of The Theology of Peanuts we have been reflecting on the fissures between persons, the failures of humanity. We have discussed our relational "ache" and how that makes us vulnerable to suffering, creating the potentiality for living hells of isolation. Volf has taught us that these hells are created by exclusion and the failures of embrace. And in these final sections of Chapter 2 we have been meditating on deep source of man's inhumanity to man: The zerosum dynamic governing human relations.

As Schulz's biographer David Michaelis has noted, it was the "terrible zero-sum logic" (3) of Peanuts that made the strip speak so poignantly to the human condition. The zerosum, me-against-you-and-only-one-of-us-can-win dynamic we struggle against in this Malthusian world was portaryed weekly in American newspapers. Peanuts, in its innocent manner, was able to diagnose and bring our plight into the light of awareness. In all my reading of Peanuts I've found no better ode to the Malthusian, zerosum, Hobbesian world than this single strip:

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

--End of Chapter 2--

(1) p. 38. Christ and Horrors.
(2) p. 37. Ibid.
(3) p. 208. Schulz and Peanuts.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

5 thoughts on “The Theology of Peanuts, Chapter 2: Sections xi-xx "It's him or me."”

  1. "We need to be rescued from the zerosum dynamic that governs human relations."
    So the human condition was a natural consequence of confining humanity to the finite-ness of earth. The only way out is to either stop having children or move into space. What does Christianity have to do with salvation then? Seems like if this was really what God thought we needed saving from, he would have given us specific instructions regarding procreation. Don't read me as siding with God here, by the way.

  2. He could have also sent us Scotty to give us the plans for warp drive, instead of dying on the cross.

  3. Richard,

    A late night observation before heading off to bed with my own blanket:

    Creation, it seems to me, is structured as temporal paradox, as "both/and" and/or "either/or." Humans, too, behave historically, uniquely, paradoxically in ways that are both/and and/or either/or (pro)creative/destructive. The sum is greater than the whole of its parts. ". . . unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."



  4. I don't agree with all that Irenaeus said, but I tend to agree with him that this world is a "soul-making place," a place for us to mature in readiness for God. Perhaps the sum of our physical interactions is zero, but maybe there is still positive formation in the navigation of simultaneously creative/destructive deeds.

  5. Pecs, as I understand it, the EO thinking on this is that Jesus' resurrection conquered death, therefore Christians do not have to fear death, therefore they don't have to sin. Salvation, then, is deliverance from captivity to death.

    The idea has always appealed to me more than substitutional atonement (which is basically a Western idea), but it does seem to me that people act to avoid suffering and/or humiliation as much as death -- in fact, many people have chosen death over one or both of those. The Christian response is usually that we can bear those things because Jesus bore them, but that never seemed quite adequate to me, somehow.

Leave a Reply