The Theology of Peanuts, Chapter 8: Depth

"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

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

16 thoughts on “The Theology of Peanuts, Chapter 8: Depth”

    This video clip of Nooma reminds me of this post. Don't know if you have seen this or not but it might be worth your time to check it out. I think it just echoes what you have said here; we do indeed crave depth.

    Love these series btw!

  2. Richard,

    I don’t know if I agree with you because I don’t know if I understand you fully. I will say this.
    Depth is not superstition.
    Fear of hell and fear of reason are not depth. That’s confinement to the bottom tier of Maslow’s basic needs pyramid.
    A ruling class that governs by telling the masses what life is about is not depth. That’s emotional enslavement or at least abuse.
    I would say also that poetry and metaphor may sound deep at times but it is only approximating the things referred to, no matter how lovely the words sound.
    I know also that modern life can consist of things that have little value in terms of meaning and happiness. Things like status, wealth, style, self importance and personal beauty are concepts that can be flat. Even a work ethic that is overly developed or self indulgence that masks fears and anxiety are things that lack depth. I know of people who keep real busy so that they won’t find themselves alone with their thoughts.
    I would caution anyone who conflates science with emptiness and flatness however. A joy in learning and discovery and an appreciation of the natural world is not a sign necessarily of a shallow life. I would argue that those who ignore reality and reason may be attempting to substitute an imaginary world for one that they are fearful of.
    I don’t fear the world and am excited by what I find in it unlike some who would attempt to take us back to a dark age where superstition and oppression were the norm.
    I think today we have the time and the means to find meaning and depth in our life whereas in darker times (like the dark ages) a person’s life was too brutish and short to achieve any depth at all. It’s just that today we have a lot of distractions that can hinder a life of depth but I would favor that scenario over one which leaves me no chance for meaning at all.

    Rick T.

  3. Hi Roxanne,
    Thanks for the link. I didn't know Nooma stuff was on YouTube. I enjoy Rob Bell. I'm not his target audience but I've liked the freshness and creativity of his approach.

    Hi Rick,
    Let me offer a few clarifications.

    I'm not suggesting that the enchanted age is "better" than the disenchanted age. But they are different. And, for better or worse, the scientific age is existentially flat. That isn't my observation, it's the observation of just about every post-WWI existential philosopher I've ever read. It is true I'd never want to trade places with a Medieval peasant but it is also true that Medieval peasants didn't struggle with existential, bourgeoisie nausea.

    So, depth is an issue for us. Yes, we don't want to go back, and we wouldn't trade our problems for theirs, but it is fair to recognize that secularism does have some problems to contend with. I think that is a fair assessment.

    On a different note. I would push against appeals to reason and science as generally accessible routes to meaning and depth. It is true that some people can feel existentially satisfied with science. Einstein was one and, interestingly, so am I. But I'm also keenly aware that I'm in the minority on this. I think secular intellectuals often oversell how emotionally and existentially satisfying science, reason, and raw nature can be. I also think they overplay the heroism of their position, framing themselves as the only ones who have the courage to see life clearly. Courage comes in many forms. Richard Dawkins has a kind of courage and I recognize its force. It's appealing in many ways. But he's not anyone I'd model my life after and his naturalistic heroism is thin soup, emotionally and existentially speaking, after a time. (And note that this observation comes from someone who buys and loves all his books.)

    But returning back to your point, the mere fact that people do overcome flatness with learning and appreciating nature illustrates the point of my post: The desire for depth. The general tone of the post was pro-Christian but I signal at points in the post that "Christian depth" isn't the only kind of depth (e.g., the Romantic protest is a naturalistic attempt to achieve depth).

  4. Richard,
    I always appreciate your comments. Thanks for being patient with me and clarifying things a bit. Upon reading your post again I see more clearly your point of the need for depth and the several ways of achieving it. As I can’t seem to believe in the transcendent anymore I can’t follow Tillich’s and Taylor’s remedy. I think their notions are a misrepresentation of life in the enchanted era for most with the exception of the few wealthier ruling or religious elite. For the common folk the depth they speak of would have to be deferred to the hereafter. My concerns about a theological solution to modern angst still stands as we can see attacks on science, reason, personal freedom, and illegal wars started by those who are convinced that their version of a life of depth should be shared by everyone. I would be interested in your description of a life of depth as I know it would make more sense than Tillich’s “dimensions of depth and symbols expressing it” or Taylor’s “Human events intermingled with spirits, God, and magic.”
    Do you think it ironic that mystics of all types seem to distil life’s meaning into often overlooked and seemingly common place daily life events like cooking, washing dishes, making love, a relationship or Ecclesiastes’ description of the good life? I do. You remember the Zen saying that after satori then clean the dishes. It seems depth is found in the things that define us as human. The pursuits of things conceptual like fame or money, punctuality, duty, patriarchal notions and the like are things that enhance the self or societal concepts that people have, which are not those things that the mystics or those that are experientially focused seem to value.
    I know you are a prolific writer and you need not comment as you already have made yourself clear but I would like to know what constitutes the deep life for you. Maybe others would be willing to share.
    Rick T.

  5. Hi Rick,
    I think you are raising important questions. Obviously, religious faith is complicated in a secular age. Again, the supernatural dimension has collapsed. I think we are in agreement on that. So flatness is our predicament and many rebel against this, even atheists. Most of us want life to be "more," to be a part of some epic narrative that connects my workaday strivings with something larger than my own self-interested activities. We want to live FOR something. (Yes, there are some who are content with very local, self-focused goals, people who are content with LESS, but again, these persons don’t speak for the majority which causes me to resist the notion that their experiences become normative.)

    Many people find this epic narrative in religion, but an epic narrative can be found in science ("I am participating in the epic quest of expanding human knowledge"), a family or ancestry ("I'm connected to the past and moving the story of my people into the future."), or politics ("Yes we can!"). The goals of my post are modest, the simple observation that we both need and feel energized by these “deep” and epic narratives. I think William James was correct when he noted that these epic tendencies, despite their metaphysical dubiousness, do tend to “cash out” in tangible human flourishing.

    However, and I think this is closer to your point, when we assess all these stories they strike us unevenly. Some seem deep to us and others silly or shallow. To again borrow from James, some options are “live” to us and seem infused with possibility while others are “dead,” options we just never would consider. Faith is a live option for many. I have no idea why. But faith energizes and causes some people to live passionately and ethically. Yet, for far too many, “faith” appears shallow to outsiders. I would suggest that even though these people say they are “Christians” they are not living deeply or epically. Thus, the diagnosis of “shallowness” is warranted. But that isn’t a problem for faith per se, it’s a comment about that person. In contrast to all this, faith is a dead option for many. And again, I have no idea why this is. I agree with James, it’s just a feeling we have about certain things (he called it the “sentiment of rationality”).

    More and more I think life just boils down to aesthetics. And, as they say, there is no accounting for taste. We move toward what we are attracted to and are repelled by other things. Life is just an unfolding of what we consider to be beautiful. Which is another way of framing my post: We all, believer and non-believer, wish for a beautiful life.

  6. Hi Fellow Flatlanders,

    I thought you might like to read the concuding words from one of our founding fathers' treatises (Hume's "An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding"):

    "If we take in our hand any volume--of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance--let us ask, Does it contain and abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? NO. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? NO. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."

    Flatlanders unite to end this nonsense that Richard has foisted upon us! Talk of "the meaning of Christmas" and "and unfolding of what we consider to be beautiful." Does he imagine that he can just add a third tine to father Hume's fork! Where does it end? The utter blasphemy of it! Richard's post must be committed to the flames!

    A concerned citizen,


  7. First off topic, then on topic:

    Off topic: sorry, this seems to be the only way to communicate with you. Because you have written on the role of disgust in morality, you should see this new brain research from Sam Harris et. al. It shows that the same part of the brain that reacts to a bad smell reacts to a wrong answer -- whether "2 + 2 = 5" or "Torture is good!"

    On topic: in response to your comment:

    I think secular intellectuals often oversell how emotionally and existentially satisfying science, reason, and raw nature can be. I also think they overplay the heroism of their position, framing themselves as the only ones who have the courage to see life clearly.

    Have you ever seen the Gary Larson (Far Side) "children's" book, There's a Hair In my Dirt! In this post, I talk about it as "a genuine attempt to rewrite the fairy tale for the Darwinian era" -- an attempt that, to my mind, falls flat.

  8. He loses his self and becomes a thing among things. He becomes an element in the process of manipulated production and manipulated consumption....

    This statement of Tillich's is interesting to contemplate in relation to both abortion and assisted reproduction. I'm not a crusader or an absolutist on this subject, but I have given it a lot of thought.

    (I apologize for self-linking, but I'm longing to have a conversation!)

  9. Thanks Richard for your thoughts on this... the idea that you mention in your last comment seems to hold a lot of currency. Namely, "We move toward what we are attracted to and are repelled by other things. Life is just an unfolding of what we consider to be beautiful. Which is another way of framing my post: We all, believer and non-believer, wish for a beautiful life."

    I can understand Rick's aversion to religion, and sometimes (even though I am a Christian myself) find religion at a loss to provide that depth. But how does one craft a life based on the importance of 'wishing for a beautiful life"? Is that through religion (and specifically the Christian religion), or only if religion is beautiful to us?

  10. Tracy,
    Very funny! Actually, my comment about life boiling down to aesthetics is taken right from Hume.

    Let me mosy on over to your site. See you there.

    Good question. First, I should say that, as far as I can tell, many people really aren't looking for a "beautiful life." A "fun" life seems to be what most people are after.

    By "beautiful" I'm picking up on Taylor's discussion of Schiller on pp. 312-314 of A Secular Age. Specifically, "beauty" is when my appetites and my morals are aligned. Theists will ground out their morals and achieve depth via transcendence while non-thiests will find ethics and depth from more immanent sources (e.g., "the moral law within"). Either way beauty is achieved if the ethical and appetitive are fused.

  11. Hi! I had been surfing the internet before I got into this website. I just found the thing I had been looking for! I completely like your site. Pages that contain so great text are much better. I will recommend you to keep it up. It was my pleasure to read your article! Check my blog and download definitely free
    farmville 2 hack and
    xbox live code generator.

    Take care! :D

Leave a Reply