The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Epilogue: "Let's go exploring!"

On December 31, 1995 Calvin and Hobbes came to an end. It had been a remarkable run for the strip. But being just ten years old many felt that the strip ended too soon. Many wanted more.

But for those who were following Watterson's career the ending came as no surprise. In the later years of the strip Watterson began taking extended sabbaticals and newspapers were forced during those times to recycle older strips. Watterson seemed burned out.

Some of this burnout was likely due to Watterson's epic battles with his syndicate, Universal Press, over the merchandising rights of the strip. As a new cartooner Watterson had signed a contract giving merchandising rights to Universal Press. So when the strip got hot it was natural for Universal Press to want to cash in: Calvin and Hobbes movies, action figures, coloring books, kids clothing lines, posters, a stuffed Hobbes. This was a normal and natural thing to do. Peanuts and Charles Schulz, that icon and influence upon Watterson, had set the tone. The Peanuts gang, particularly Snoopy, had been plastered on every conceivable product. Heck, Snoopy even sells insurance.

But Watterson balked. He wanted no part of merchandising. His reason was artistic independence and integrity. Watterson felt that the world and characters of Calvin and Hobbes had an integrity, a truth, that would be lost if his creation got slapped onto Frisbees or coffee mugs. So Watterson refused. Legally he was in a difficult spot. He had already signed over those rights to Universal Press. But his leverage was that could quit, walk away from providing them with one of the most popular strips ever written. The battles were long and difficult and appear to have taken a toll on Watterson. At the very least he came away disillusioned. But to Universal Press I'm sure Watterson was perceived to be insane. What is the harm in allowing for a few tasteful and hand selected items to be created? We are talking millions and millions of dollars. Most of it going into Watterson's pocket.

But Watterson said no. He turned down millions to protect the integrity of the strip. Today, there are no Calvin and Hobbes products on the market. Any you see are rip-offs and copyright violations (most notoriously the car decal sicker with a naughty Calvin peeing).

So Watterson won. And in 1995 he finally walked away from it all.

As noted in the very first essay of this series, the main theological focus of Calvin and Hobbes is its Augustinian view of human nature. This is clearly signaled by the names of the two lead characters, each named after two thinkers with notoriously dim views of human nature. And, as we have observed, Watterson's characters stay true, for the most part, to that commentary. We are a self-absorbed and selfish lot.

In Chapter 4 we added to this commentary on human nature by examining the wagon and sled ride motifs in the strip. We noted how the wagon and sled ride hinted at a kind of fatalism or determinism. This theme is also consistent with the notions of predestination espoused by John Calvin. In short, not only are our wills depraved there seems little we can do to change the situation. Again, all this fits neatly into an Augustinian formulation.

Or does it?

In the final strip on December 31, 1995 we are given one last sled ride:

And in this final sled ride none of the prior motifs of fatalism, determinism, or predestination are found. Further, the existential angst and ruminations often associated with the wagon/sled strips has also vanished. Rather, what we find is a sled ride that seems open-ended and hopeful. The feeling is one of adventure. Not inevitable doom.

It's a magical world. Let's go exploring. And the best friends start off.

John Hick in his important book, Evil and the God of Love, compares and contrasts two great traditions in Christian thought when thinking about the brokenness of the world. The first stream is the one we are familiar with, the Augustinian tradition. The Augustinian tradition explains the evil of the world (and the depravity of humanity) by positing a Fall from Grace. In the beginning there was Paradise. But Paradise was lost when humankind freely chose to rebel against God. Due to the Fall, all creation, human nature included, has been contaminated.

The Augustinian worldview has been the dominant strain in Christian thought, the "majority report" as it were. But Hick notes that there is an impulse in Christian thought that preceded the Augustinian system. The church father Irenaeus was a major thinker in this tradition and, thus, Hick names this "minority report" in Christian thought the Irenaean theodicy. In contrast to the Augustinian formulation, the Irenaean position places Paradise at the end of human history rather than, as Augustinians see it, at the beginning of human history. Rather than falling from Perfection Irenaean's see us as moving toward perfection. Simplifying greatly:

Augustinian System: Paradise to Fall
Irenaean System: Fall to Paradise
To quote from Hick (p. 214):
There is thus to be found in Irenaeus the outline of an approach to the problem of evil which stands in important respects in contrast to the Augustinian type of theodicy. Instead of the doctrine that man was created finitely perfect and then incomprehensibly destroyed his own perfection and plunged into sin and misery, Irenaeus suggests that man was created as an imperfect, immature creature who was to undergo moral development and growth and finally be brought to the perfection intended for him my his Maker. Instead of the fall of Adam being presented, as in the Augustinian tradition, as an utterly malignant and catastrophic event, completely disrupting God's plan, Irenaeus pictures it as something that occurred in the childhood of the race, an understandable lapse due to weakness and immaturity rather than an adult crime full of malice and pregnant with perpetual guilt. And instead of the Augustinian view of life's trials a a divine punishment for Adam's sin, Irenaeus sees our world of mingled good and evil as a divinely appointed environment for man's development towards the perfection that represents the fulfillment of God's good purpose.
This Irenaean view has a different temporal focus than the Augustinian view. As Hick notes (p. 237) "The Augustinian type of theodicy looks to the past...for the explanation of the existence of evil in God's universe. In contrast, the Irenaean type of theodicy is eschatological." It looks toward the future.

So here at the end of this journey, contemplating the final sled ride of Calvin and Hobbes, I cannot help but wonder if we've got it all wrong. The world of Calvin and Hobbes isn't Augustinian at all. It's Irenaean. Specifically, as Hick notes, what we see in Calvin and Hobbes isn't the malice of a depraved adulthood but the stumbling about of childhood immaturity. The view of human nature is dim in Calvin and Hobbes, but dim in a way that suggests movement into God's Future. In short, the final open-ended sled ride of Calvin and Hobbes completely recasts all we've witnessed in the strip. It was a mistake to find Augustinian gloom in Calvin and Hobbes. And we always knew that. There is just too much joy and hope to be found in Calvin and Hobbes. And so here, at the end, we find the key:

The answers await us. God is in our future. Not our past. So don't look back.

Friends, it's a magical world.

Let's go exploring.


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10 thoughts on “The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Epilogue: "Let's go exploring!"

  1. Hello Everyone,
    Let me apologize for posting so infrequently and being unresponsive to comments. Life's been busy lately. All's well, just busy. So it is all I can do to get a weekly post up. Hopefully in the coming weeks and months I'll get back into my old form of more frequent posting and interactivity on the comments. Until then I appreciate your indulgence.

    As always, thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed the series.

  2. Richard,

    No one minds the wait when the quality is this good. This was a brilliant series. I hope you contact Watterson and get his permission to publish it in a formal setting.

    Of course, as a Calvinist, I don't see any conflict with the Irenaen view you describe. No one who really understands Calvin could call him joyless. He gushed constantly about the goodness of God. It is a sad thing that Calvinism has so often been misrepresented as (and occasionally really been) this grim life-denying theology. To me, the profound joy of moments like the one Watterson creates here are possible precisely because of the dark view of human nature he otherwise proposes. The light is brightest after the darkest night.

  3. Incredible!!!!

    Thanks many thanks!!!

    I really don't remember how I discovered your Blog ... but I most grateful to that bit of divine providence.

    I look for to more and to exploring your other topics



  4. My brother, Jonathan --who teaches at ACU as well, pointed me to your blog...last Halloween in fact...
    I was hooked! This last series was phenomenal...

  5. You have a gift of interpretation that I appreciate. I never read Calvin and Hobbs but you brought it alive with this series.

    I am so glad I have also developed a hopeful view of the future of all mankind, and you play a role in that view as well.

    Very grateful,

    Don in AZ

  6. First of all, I've had a very enjoyable time reading this series (just got linked to it last night, couldn't put it down).
    I grew up reading Calvin and Hobbes, and I have to say that it had quite an impact on my growing up. I cried when I first read the baby raccoon strips, and I cried again re-reading them here.
    I'm not at all religious, but I really enjoyed your take on a lot of the aspects of the series. The wagon ride, for instance, was spot on. The dual-worlds view of Hobbes was also just the right words for the idea I had in my head all along.
    So keep that in mind when I tell you that I really don't like the interpretation of the last year of the strip that you gave. He took an 8-month sabbatical before the last year of the strip, and if you look at the strips released before and after the sabbatical you should notice a change in tone. Before the sabbatical, things are more Augustinean, and after they're Irenaean, to use the terms you did.
    I think that when Watterson decided to come back from the long sabbatical, he wanted to give readers a warm fuzzy going away, rather than business as usual. I won't make any claims about why this happened, but it did, and I'll leave the reasoning to you.

    Once again, thank you for writing this wonderful series, and I'd really like to see this on a bigger scale. (Only without the bible quotes. They don't mean anything to unbelievers like me.)

  7. Fun and serious, like the better salads. I echo what Nikki said, with this exception: retain the Bible citations when you go public. Intelligent nonbelievers like Nikki can simply pass them by if they wish. The rest of us (i. e., believers) probably appreciate having a horizon or two proposed for us. I know I do.


  8. I enjoyed your critique, but I have to wonder if you misrepresent Augustinian theology to a degree in your conclusion. I suggest a more nuanced view is:

    Augustinian System: = Paradise to Fall to Paradise (via grace)

    Irenaean System: I question the Fall to Paradise as oversimplistic as it is my observation that most adherents of the Irenenaean system do not see humans as fallen and depraved but rather victoms of substances and circumstances that they see as intrinsically evil, "we just need to learn about the good in us"

    The Augustinian theology clearly does not end with the fall, but goes to paradise via a supernatural grace as opposed to an Irenaen karma of us recognizing that we are really good, loved by God and then learning how to do a bunch of good works.

  9. *Stands up and applause*

    These series of essays are some of the most enjoyable things I have ever read.  When I found this series, I couldn't believe that there was someone out there found a theological value to Calvin and Hobbes the same way I conceptualised, but with this great depth and fine writing.  I enjoyed this very much.

  10. It is a magical day. Each day of creation had evening first, darkness, then morning, toward The LIGHT. It is still no different. One merely needs to open his eyes not to close.

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