The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 3, Chapter 7: Spaceman Spiff and Religious Experience

Part 3: The Immanent Frame

Chapter 7: Spaceman Spiff and Religious Experience

Charles Taylor in his recent book The Secular Age discusses what he calls "The Immanent Frame." Immanent, according to dictionaries, is defined as:

1. Existing or remaining within; inherent.
2. Restricted entirely to the mind; subjective.
According to Taylor "the 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:

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:

The most simplistic reading of these subjective episodes in Calvin and Hobbes is that this is a strip about a child's imagination. This is true, but I think there is more to it, some of which is relevant to theological reflection. To wit: Truthhood 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.

In the last chapter of this book we will take up the issue of Hobbes' ontological status. That is the most fascinating aspect of Calvin and Hobbes. For now I would simply like to note how the "rise of subjectivity" in the secular age will affect discussion about religion and faith. Specifically, in the Immanent Frame subjective religious experience will, ultimately, be the deciding factor in religious apologetics. Appeals to an unseen transcendent realm are less persuasive in the Immanent Frame. More persuasive are appeals to religious experience.

This appeal to religious experience might be troublesome to many. Both believers and non-believers might see such appeals as fuzzy, indistinct, and prone to silliness. Yet God cannot be pointed to as a "fact" as could be done in prior enchanted eras. Thus, in the Immanent Frame subjectivity is what we lean on. It dictates our experience of reality. The self is no longer porous, but buffered. We look inside for God, not outside.

This focus on subjective religious experience was masterfully described by William James in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience:
"What keeps religion going is something else than abstract definitions and systems of logically concatenated adjectives, and something different from faculties of theology and their professors. All these [abstract] things are after-effects, secondary accretions upon a mass of concrete religious experiences."

"These direct experiences of a wider spiritual life...form the primary mass of religious experience on which all hearsay religion rests, and which furnishes that notion of an ever-present God, out of which systematic theology thereupon proceeds to make capital in its own unreal pedantic way."

"The mother sea and fountian-head of all religion lies in the mystical experiences of the individual, taking the word mystical in a very wide sense. All theologies, and all ecclesiasticisms are secondary growths superimposed."

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