Calvin and Hobbes: Religious Experience and Imagination

In a conversation a few weeks ago I had opportunity to revisit a post from my 2008 series about the Theology of Calvin and Hobbes.

Specifically, I was discussing how the focus in the comic strip upon Calvin's inner, subjective experience illustrates what Charles Taylor in his book A Secular Age describes as the "immanent frame," and how that frame has increasingly privileged religious experience and the challenges that places before us.

Immanent, according to dictionaries, is defined as:

1. Existing or remaining within; inherent.
2. Restricted entirely to the mind; subjective.
According to Taylor a "secular age" is an age where the transcendent, vertical dimension has collapsed leaving only the human, horizontal dimension. A rich two-dimensional universe has now been flattened to only one-dimension. Nothing higher, no meaning from Beyond penetrates our scurrying to and fro, back and forth, on the one-dimensional immanent frame of human affairs. The only meaning and purposes are those we find within ourselves and our societies. No meaning is to be found outside of human minds. Meaning is now subjective.

A feature of the Immanent Frame in this secular age is the advent of what Taylor calls "the buffered self." In earlier "enchanted" eras the self was porous. That is, the boundaries between the self and the world were vague and blurry. The self could be affected, penetrated, and overtaken by demons, spells, or gods. But in our "disenchanted" age of mechanism and science the self has been closed off, buffered from the world. The boundary between self and world is now clear and inviolable.

With the rise of the buffered self and the collapse of the transcendent, the secular age is often characterized by attempts to gain "depth" by going deeper into the self. If we cannot reach the Heavens at least we can dig into our psyche. Consequently, the Immanent Frame, per its definition, is characterized by subjectivity, interiorization, and the valuing of "authenticity" (digging deep and then staying "true" to what you find). In short, the secular age is an "internal" age, an age of private, buffered subjectivity.

There is no greater example of Taylor's notion of the buffered self, a self dominated by its own subjectivity, than Calvin. A dominant theme in Calvin and Hobbes, perhaps the dominant theme, is the portrayal of Calvin's inner world. The magic of Calvin and Hobbes does not come from an "enchanted" world. There are no fairies or wizards. Rather, the magic comes from Calvin's own mind. It is true that Watterson blurs the lines between objectivity and subjectivity, but the force of the strips comes from entering the "interior" of Calvin. We get inside Calvin's subjective experience and see how viewing the world through his eyes changes what we see.

Here is a tour through the thematic strips that routinely take us inside Calvin's subjective experience. First, there are the wonderful and zany Spaceman Spiff strips, where Calvin has adventures of a Buck Rogers sort (click on strips to make them large for reading):

There are also the many strips where Calvin becomes a dinosaur:

Also, who can forget Stupendous Man?:

Beyond these thematic strips there are numerous strips where Calvin has subjective, imaginative adventures:

And, finally, there is the subjective/objective issue surrounding Hobbes:

Truth-hood and reality in Calvin and Hobbes is dictated by Calvin's subjective experience. This is exactly the point Taylor is making about the buffered self in the Immanent Frame. Meaning and reality is now an internal and subjective affair.

Overall, and this was the point of the conversation I was having, life in the Immanent Frame with its focus on subjective experience has had an effect upon Christian apologetics. Specifically, appeals to an unseen transcendent realm are less persuasive in the Immanent Frame. More persuasive are appeals to religious experience.

However, this appeal to religious experience is troublesome to many. The focus on subjective experience privileges the individual and the individual's interior experience. And yet, in a secular age God cannot be pointed to as a "fact" as could be done in prior enchanted eras. Thus, in the Immanent Frame, for better or worse, subjectivity is what we lean on. The Immanent Frame dictates our experience of reality. The self is no longer porous, but buffered. We look inside for God, not outside.

And yet, I wonder if Calvin might help us find our way forward here, a way to pull us out of our buffered selves and back into the world.

Specifically, while the focus of the strip is on Calvin's internal experience the magic of the strip--and I use that enchanted word intentionally--is how Calvin's imagination affects reality. The ontological status of Hobbes is the key example here.

Calvin imagines a world and that world comes to be. Or, phrased differently, Calvin's imagination changes and shapes the world.

For the Christian, then, the key would be shifting focus away from interior religious experience to capture the magic of imagining the Kingdom and letting that magic remake the world.

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