The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 3, Chapter 9: "I can't figure out this death stuff."

One of the striking aspects of Calvin and Hobbes is how directly the strip confronts the issue of death. It's an odd thing for a comic strip to do. Peanuts was a strip that dealt with death. But Peanuts tended to come at the issue indirectly. For example, I have discussed in The Theology of Peanuts how Charles Schulz used snowmen as a metaphor for death and mortality.

By contrast, Calvin and Hobbes deals with directly. Often asking very direct questions about death.

For instance:

In his book The Secular Age Charles Taylor discusses the "malaise of modernity." That is, with the collapse of the transcendent, spiritual dimension secular persons face various challenges that our forbears did not face in bygone "enchanted" eras. Taylor notes that in the secular age, due to the flatness of the Immanent Frame, where no meaning is to be found outside of human strivings, we find meaning fragile. That is, if there is nothing deeper or above us, spiritually speaking, we struggle to find our projects of lasting value, meaning, and significance. We live and die and are forgotten. This realization continually threatens our psychological equilibrium in the secular age. Existential crises are common and ubiquitous. In the Immanent Frame we are constantly asking, "What's the point?" Work, work, work to get the gold watch? Is that the goal of human life? If there is nothing transcendent and lasting beyond me and beyond death then why not collect toys and distract myself with entertainments? These nagging questions are symptoms of the malaise of modernity. Meaning is hard to secure and protect in the secular age.

The most extended meditation on death in Calvin and Hobbes appeared in March of 1987. Calvin and Hobbes find a baby raccoon close to death. Calvin and his family try to save the baby raccoon but the raccoon dies. Across a two week period, nine strips in all, Watterson poignantly meditates on death, loss, and grief:

Taylor notes that the existential crises in the secular age are particularly acute when we confront death. In earlier enchanted eras we had psychological and spiritual structures that allowed us to understand and approach death. Death, in many of these formulations, was often seen as a welcome end, a friend. This aspect of death was powerfully captured in George MacDonald's fantasy tale At the Back of the North Wind. In that story a sickly boy named Diamond is befriended by the North Wind. Diamond and the North Wind have many adventures together. At the end of the tale Diamond dies and we discover that the North Wind is Death. This friendly companion was Death. And the safe haven is to be found at the back of the North Wind. In dying Diamond must pass through the North Wind to emerge safely on the other side.

Such a notion is unavailable in the secular age. Death can no longer be seen as friendly. Death is a hole. A cul-de-sac with no exit. An abyss.

In short, in the Immanent Frame death stumps us.

This confounding in the face of death is continually echoed in Calvin and Hobbes. In one of his riskier Sunday strips Watterson tackled this experience directly. The strip, at the start, shows us the picture of a dead bird. Which prompts the existential ruminations of Calvin, ultimately ending in that feeling of incomprehension:

Death confounds us in the Immanent Frame. In the secular age we are called upon to reconcile ourselves to our immanent projects. This life must be “good enough” for us. To want “more” is no longer possible.

But we wonder, with Calvin, if the Immanent Frame has prematurely foreclosed on the subject of death. Questions linger. True, we can’t figure out this death stuff.

But something inside keeps trying.

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7 thoughts on “The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 3, Chapter 9: "I can't figure out this death stuff."

  1. Hi Richard,

    I have been enjoying this series immensely.

    However, this post makes a claim that I find a little strange. It seems perfectly reasonable that someone could accept that we, as minds or souls, disappear at the end of life, while also accepting that there are transcendent projects, communities, and causes that will survive (and thrive) after us. In fact, I would say that is one of the primary evolutionary advantages to religious beliefs, they transcend a single lifetime and are primarily concerned with community cohesion.

    In my opinion, the Immanent Frame is the price that is paid to have objective knowledge. Kant explores this in some basic ways by dividing the "world" into passive sensation and active interpretation. We all interact with the same objective physical space, but we each put our own mental spin, our own narrative upon what is happening and our relationship to it.

    Plantinga calls scientific naturalism a depersonification of the world, which must by contrast mean that theology is the personification of the world. By exploring the impersonal forces that shape and control various actions and reactions, the materialist demystifies reality and thereby becomes mystified by his own reflection. Walker Percy does a much better job of explaining this paradox in "Lost in the Cosmos".

    Since also I enjoy insights from pop culture, I will end with a relevant quote from a Stephen King book: "Few if any seemed to grasp the Principle of Reality; new knowledge leads always to yet more awesome mysteries. Greater physiological knowledge of the brain makes the existence of the soul less possible yet more probable by the nature of the search."

  2. Scientific rationalism excludes God as a method of investigation, and it works better than anything else in its domain of applicability - the how and what of existence, but not the why of it. The mistake of materialism and rationalism is to substitute that tool for philosophy, or worse, for religion. It is the moral and intellectual equivalent to giving up on God and worshipping a jackhammer. The consequence of it is the "malaise of modernity."

  3. Step 2,
    I and Taylor would agree with what you are saying. I think it's an "altitude" issue. In the enchanted era the altitude of transcendence was infinite, Ultimate. In the Immanent Frame we, as you point out, do seek transcendence but we can't get quite so high. For example, I was struck while watching the VP debate how appeals to transcendent ideals (e.g., America, freedom, political party) become places where personal projects get "lifted" by things "bigger" or "higher" than ourselves.

    So there is a kind of transcendence here, but it doesn't get quite so high as spiritual, metaphysical, or religious transcendence. For every ideal there are competing ideals, for every nation there are other nations, and for every political party there is another party that thinks your project is idiotic. These conflicts tend to, to mix metaphors, take the wind out of our sails and bring us back down to earth a bit.

    On a different note, I think it is this facet of trying to replace faith with low-altitude human projects that is the reason things like patriotism and political party are our new immanent religions.

    I agree. I think Taylor's point is that as we've explained nature without needing God as a hypothesis Deism was created and, in one short step from there, secular humanism. Taylor's point isn't that faith is unreasonable or impossible in the secular age, just that faith is now reflective and, hence, problematized. Rather than having faith be a default and tacitly accepted worldview, faith is now something we see as risky and hard to defend at times. Faith "feels" different in the disenchanted age than in the enchanted age. But faith remains. Just changed as an experience.

  4. Dr. Beck- I am glad I'm still naive and believe in the transcendent spiritual. To me, it makes my life so much more wonderful! A great series. I have enjoyed it so much. Thank You!

  5. It would be interesting to hear your opinion on the being called Satan. I have heard it said that the development of Satan in the Hebrew Bible did not occur until after the Hebrews had contact with Persian Zoroastrians under which they lived after the collapse of the Babyloninan empire. Apparantly the Persians were very dualistic in their thinking and this later became incoporated into the Hebrew worldview. I do not know if this is 100% correct. Also, is it possible that the only Evil that exists in the world is not a personified being called Satan, but just the evil that we human beings do to one another. I would be interested in any input, Thanks, MATT

  6. I've never heard *anyone* reference "The Back of the North Wind". I found it a wonderful and terrible, and an attempt at exactly what you describe here. Grace and peace.

  7. Dr. Beck - Thank you so much for this amazing series! (I know, it was 6 years ago - I was 9 when this came out!) I chose to do a project on Calvin and Hobbes for my tenth grade Religion and Popular Culture class, and I used this article as a base. What I argued was that, although Calvin and Hobbes does relate to the Immanent Frame, Watterson is not saying that life has no meaning in the Immanent Frame - instead, he is saying that life is full of meaning despite this lack of spirituality. I think you hit on a relevant point in your third article, when you said that the morality turns from a duty to being true, pure morality when love is introduced. I also think that moments such as Calvin hugging Hobbes on Christmas show that there is meaning in life, not in materialism or riches, but in simple, touching moments of true love. I would say that this love is where we can really find true meaning in our lives.
    I would love if you could respond to this, as it would give me great material for my paper, but I understand that you are a busy guy and furthermore, you probably won't see this given that it was posted six years ago.
    Thanks again for these great articles!

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