"If we define religion as the state of being grasped by an infinite concern we must say: Man in our time has lost such infinite concern...
How did the dimension of depth become lost? Like any important event, it has many causes, but certainly not the one which one hears often mentioned from ministers' pulpits and evangelists' platforms, namely that a widespread impiety of modern man is responsible. Modern man is neither more pious nor more impious than man in any other period. The loss of the dimension of depth is caused by the relation of man to his world and to himself in our period, the period in which nature is being subjected scientifically and technically to the control of man. In this period, life in the dimension of depth is replaced by life in the horizontal dimension. The driving forces of the industrial society of which we are a part go ahead horizontally and not vertically...
One does not need to look far beyond everyone's daily experience in order to find examples to describe this predicament. Indeed our daily life in office and home, in cars and airplanes, at parties and conferences, while reading magazines and watching television, while looking at advertisements and hearing radio, are in themselves continuous examples of a life which has lost the dimension of depth...
Nothing, perhaps, is more symptomatic of the loss of the dimension of depth than the permanent discussions about the existence or nonexistence of God--a discussion in which both sides are equally wrong, because the discussion itself is wrong and possible only after the loss of the dimension of depth.
When in this way man has deprived himself of the dimension of depth and the symbols expressing it, he then becomes a part of the horizontal plane. He loses his self and becomes a thing among things. He becomes an element in the process of manipulated production and manipulated consumption....
But man has not ceased to be man. He resists this fate anxiously, desperately, courageously. He asks the question, for what?"
--Paul Tillich, "The Lost Dimension of Religion", The Saturday Evening Post, 1958
In 1884 Edwin Abbott published the charming book Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. The story is about a two-dimensional (2D) world called Flatland. The protagonist is a Square. Much of the book is devoted to the curiosities of imagining life in a 2D world.
Imagine that our protagonist, Sammy the Square, is facing his friend Cindy the Circle. How would Cindy appear to Sammy? Sammy can perceive only two dimensions, Left/Right and Forward/Backward. Thus, Sammy cannot perceive Up/Down. His world is flat.
Draw a square on a piece of paper and then draw a circle in front of it. How will that circle appear to the square? You might try bringing your eye closer and closer to the paper. From directly above, the circle looks like a circle. But as you bring your eye closer to the paper the circle looks more like an oval. Eventually, as you bring your eye level to the paper, the oval converges to a line. That’s Sammy’s view. He can’t see Cindy as a circle. He can only see her as a line in his world. You and I, of course, can see Cindy as a circle. But that is because you and I live in a 3D world. We sit “above” Flatland.
It is great fun thinking of rooms and people in Flatland. Imagine Sammy is in a room and Cindy is partly blocking the door. Can you imagine what Sammy would see? It would look like this:
The walls of the room are in black and the gap is the door. Sally is in red, in front of the door. This is Sammy’s 2D perspective.
Now you and I live in what Abbott calls Spaceland. We live in a 3D world. We can thus look down “into” Flatland and see Sammy’s and Cindy’s situation in the room from above:
In Abbott’s story the 2D Square protagonist is visited by a 3D Sphere from Spaceland. Again, Spaceland is 3D. Obviously, the 2D Square cannot fully perceive the Sphere’s full shape. Thus, as the Sphere stands above Flatland it can see things in Flatland that the Square cannot perceive (as we did above). Further, as the Sphere moves through and intersects with Flatland it can produce some “miraculous” effects in Flatland. (As a visualization exercise imagine what a Square in Flatland would perceive as a Sphere made contact with and pushed through Flatland. Think of a ball being pushed through a piece of paper.)
In Abbott’s book the Sphere visits Flatland every 1,000 years to create a new apostle who will try to convince the world that Spaceland, the third-dimension, really exists.
A motif of Flatland is that true understanding and insight comes from depth. To see our situation accurately we need to find a “higher” dimension that can be used to gain perspective on our current circumstance. If Sammy could only see his situation from the 3D view he would know more fully how Flatland is constructed. But Sammy is locked into his lower dimensional view. Sammy lacks depth. Sammy’s view is shallow.
Aren’t we like Sammy? Are we not constantly seeking the higher-dimensional vantage to get a grip on our predicament? Don’t we want to know the “big picture,” “the point,” and “where all this is going”?
We are seeking depth. Meaning always comes from “transcending” our “flat” perspective. But we can’t step outside of our dimension. We are stuck in Flatland.
Meaning comes from the dimension just beyond us. Meaning comes from the N + 1 dimension. Can we get from N to the +1?
But perhaps the +1 visits us. This is the idea behind Dali’s famous Crucifixion. Christ is crucified on a tesseract, the 3D analog of the 4D hypercube. In Dali’s painting the cross is the N + 1 dimension, the place where we can gain a “higher” perspective on the human predicament. The cross is Flatland’s intersection with Sphereland. The cross allows us to see, understand, and know more fully.
The cross grants us depth.
In his book The Secular Age Charles Taylor discusses the transitions that have occurred in Western societies over the last 500 years. The world in 1500 was experienced very differently our world in 2000. Specifically, we have moved from an enchanted age to a disenchanted age. Taylor notes that there are two major symptoms marking the transition from enchantment to disenchantment.
First, in the enchanted age the world had a vertical, spiritual dimension. Human events intermingled with spirits, God, and magic. But over the last 500 years this vertical/spiritual dimension has collapsed. The world has become disenchanted. Nowadays, only human agency or scientific law can function for us as causal forces. As Taylor notes we now live in an immanent age. Only the flat, horizontal dimension exists for us.
The second symptom of disenchantment is the rise of the buffered self. In the enchanted age the self was at the crossroads of a great deal of spiritual traffic. Spells, demons, or God could penetrate the boundaries of the self. During the enchanted age the self was porous. But in an immanent age the walls of the self become firmer and clearer. The self becomes isolated and closed in upon itself. This is the buffered self.
Although many things were gained with disenchantment, there now exists a certain malaise with immanence and the buffered self. With disenchantment we have lost a sense of depth. As Taylor notes, "There is a generalized sense in our culture that with the eclipse of the transcendent, something may have been lost." (1)
What, exactly, has been lost? Generally, in a disenchanted age we have more difficulty with issues of meaning: "Almost every action of ours has a point; we're trying to get to work, or to find a place to buy a bottle of milk after hours. But we can stop and ask why we're doing these things, and that points us beyond to the significance of these significances. The issue may arise for us in a crisis, where we feel that what has been orienting our life up to now lacks real value, weight...A crucial feature of the malaise of immanence is the sense that all these answers are fragile, or uncertain; that a moment may come, where we no longer feel that our chosen path is compelling, or cannot justify it to ourselves or others. There is a fragility of meaning..." (2)
Because of this void of meaning, "the quotidian is emptied of deeper resonance, is dry, flat; the things which surround us are dead, ugly, empty; and the way we organize them, shape them, in order to live has not meaning, beauty, depth, sense." (2) We now experience "a terrible flatness in the everyday." (3)
In the face of this "flatness" we struggle to find depth without recourse to the transcendent. I would like to point out two of the rebellions against the immanent order noted by Taylor. First, there is what Taylor calls "the Romantic protest," the attempt of romantics of all eras to find a dimension of depth in communion with Nature and Eros.
A different kind of rebellion against the immanent is to find depth by turning inward and going "deeper" into the self. We live in an age of interiority, where the dimension of depth is found by tunneling into the core of the human psyche. We find meaning in being true to ourselves, living by an ethic of autonomy and authenticity. During the enchanted age guidance was sought externally; depth of meaning was gained via transcendence. By contrast, in an immanent age I gain depth by going "inside" and consulting the inner light of "my true self." Either way, internally or externally, a dimension of depth is created. The virtues of each approach can be, and are, debated. We only note here the need and desire for depth.
Taylor's point is well taken. We are struggling to find a sense of depth. And Peanuts reveals Taylor's observations as well as any other text. The world of Peanuts is characterized by the flat immanence of "the secular age." Further, we see the buffered self on display. The Peanuts characters are characterized by self-absorption and self-preoccupation. It ranges from the self-loathing of Charlie Brown to the egotism of Lucy.
But in this immanent world of interiority there is one exception, one character who stands apart.
In the world of Peanuts Linus is the one who consistently calls the characters out of themselves, appealing to a higher, transcendent dimension. Linus adds depth to Peanuts. Whether we agree on the "God question" or not, we can see in Linus a symbol of our need overcome the "flatness" of human existence.
There is no better place to see this characteristic of Linus than in the first Peanuts television special A Charlie Brown Christmas. The show first aired on December 9, 1965 at 7:30 p.m.
As most are aware, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a meditation of the flattening of Christmas. As such, it is a mediation on the flatting of all things in the disenchanted age. Further, the characters, caught up in their own buffered personalities and quirks, are in conflict. Setting up the climatic scene Charlie Brown cries out, "Does anyone know the true meaning of Christmas!?" It is an appeal for depth, and we share in his complaint. And at this critical moment Linus steps forward...
As David Michaelis writes, "Almost half the people watching television in the United States tuned in--some fifteen and a half million households--and found themselves breaking out in gooseflesh as Linus walked in silence to center stage, dragging his blanket, called out 'Lights, please?,' and filled an empty auditorium with his clear recitation of the Gospel tidings of great joy to all people. For years, viewers would be surprised to find themselves once again moved to tears by Linus's unadorned rendition of the Nativity. The simple, lisping authority of his exit line, 'That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown' would forever bind Schulz and his characters to the pure heart of the season." (4)
Maybe, in Linus's speech, a Sphere was passing through Flatland.
--End Chapter 8--
(1) p. 307 The Secular Age
(2) p. 308 Ibid
(3) p. 309 Ibid
(4) p. 359 Schulz and Peanuts