The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 3, Chapter 8: Monsters Under the Bed

As we discussed in the last chapter, Charles Taylor describes our modern "secular age" as one existing in an Immanent Frame. That is, over the last 500 years we have moved from an "enchanted" age, with its gods, demons, spirits, and magic, to our modern, scientific "disenchanted" age. A two-dimensinal plane of existence with a horizontal human dimension and a transcendent vertical dimension has now been reduced to the flat, horizontal line. The only minds, meanings, concerns, goals, purposes, and values are human ones. Beyond us, there is nothing.

One of the recurring strips in Calvin and Hobbes is Calvin's fears about monsters under the bed.

As we saw in the last chapter, Watterson loves to play with subjectivity and objectivity. Are there really monsters under the bed? Or is this just Calvin's imagination? Regardless, we all identify with Calvin. Those spaces--under the bed and the dark closet--represent epistemic limits. We can't see into those spaces. So we fill them with creatures not of this world.

What is faith like in the Immanent Frame? What is it like to believe or contemplate belief in an age of disenchantment? How can we make appeals to "God" when the transcendent world is no longer as self-evidently obvious as are trees and rocks?

Taylor suggests that faith and unfaith in the secular age is like standing at the intersection of two strong crosswinds. One wind, the disenchanting wind, tries to flatten us into the immanent, the plane of purely humans endeavors. It is a wind of disbelief. But there is also an uplifting wind, one that lifts us skyward into the transcendent. This wind is an urge for something Bigger, for Faith, for a Meaning beyond human plans and strivings. It is, as Christians sing, a wind that makes us soar like eagles.

Two winds. One forcing us down. The other lifting us up. In the secular age faith and unfaith are like leaves caught in these cross breezes.

Are there monsters? Or not? We can only see so far. Peering into spaces where human eyesight fails. Is this world enchanted? Or is it disenchanted, all just in our heads?

We make commitments in the secular age to either belief or disbelief. Faith or unfaith. But due to the crosswinds both believer and non-believer will be uncomfortable.

For the unbeliever they will feel a loss, a sense of nostalgia perhaps, for overcoming childhood superstition. There is price for "growing up" and turing one's back on God. The universe seems colder, emptier. But what can we do? Facts are facts, right? We just have to tough it out. Make the best life we can without God.

Yet a sense lingers that life with God was more fun, exciting, and adventurous. Who doesn't want Santa Claus to be real? Or to live with the thrill of a world where monsters lurk? The world seems less.

The believer has a different collection of worries. On the upside, the world is abuzz in meaning, portent, and Ultimate Things. There is God (or gods), angels, demons, a Devil. Life re-enchants. And it's awfully exciting. Particularly given the 9 to 5 workaday monotony most of us face each week.

But faith in the secular age is fragile. Relative to earlier eras it becomes very obvious that we are, in fact, believing. We are betting. Sticking our necks out. Guessing. Hoping.

So doubt always nags. And we live with non-believers, people who seem so adult-like in their ability to live without God and a belief in an afterlife. How can they do that? Are they stronger, more courageous than I?

What if, at the end of the day, there are no monsters? What if it was all just in my head?

Calvin wants to know if there are monsters under the bed. I want to know if there is a God. We both peer into darkness. We think the world is enchanted. Something is there.

But might it just be in our heads? That is what people keep telling us.

Monsters. God.

Faith in the Immanent Frame.

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."

The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 2, Chapter 6: Get Rid of Slimy Girls

Only three children inhabit the world of Calvin and Hobbes. Obviously, there is Calvin. There is also another boy, Mo, the schoolyard bully. (We'll be talking about Mo in a future chapter.) And then there is the girl in the strip.

Susie Derkins.

Rivaling Calvin's parents, Susie is the most dominant ensemble character in Calvin and Hobbes. She is Calvin's neighbor and classmate. Calvin and Susie could be friends, good friends it seems. But Susie has a fatal flaw.

Susie's a girl.

As a girl, Susie becomes Calvin's nemesis and target. Probably the best example of this is Calvin's club G.R.O.S.S., which stands for Get Rid Of Slimy girlS. Given that Susie is the only girl in the strip, G.R.O.S.S. seems to be excluding one particular person:

All this might make Calvin seem cold and heartless in his treatment of Susie if it weren't for the fact that Calvin's harsh treatment of Susie appears to be covering over his romantic feelings for her. This note was struck in the very first Susie strip on December 5, 1986:

As Watterson has written, "I suspect Calvin has a mild crush on [Susie]." (1) Early on in Calvin and Hobbes Watterson claims he tended to overplay the Calvin and Susie love/hate dynamic. (2) For example, here are strips dealing with Valentine's Day from 1986:

In the later years of Calvin and Hobbes Watterson began to downplay the love theme, settling for allowing the "two personalities [to] bounce off each other." (2) Regardless, a romantic tension remained in the Susie and Calvin relationship. But the romantic commentary was no longer offered by Calvin. Rather, Hobbes began to make the psychoanalytic comments:

Regarding the Calvin and Susie relationship Watterson has written that "neither of them quite understands what's going on, which is probably true of most relationships." (1) Here in Part 2 of The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes we have been thinking about the view of human volition found in Watterson's strip. In Chapter 4 we noted how Calvin and Hobbes, via the wagon ride visual metaphor, overtly worries about the scope of human volition. Further, in Chapter 5 we noted how, in the personality of Calvin, we find an implicit argument concerning volitional constraints and investments. That is, our will comes to us configured in certain ways, ways we don't consciously choose: Why do I hate tomatoes? I have no idea. I just do. Now here in Chapter 6, in the love/hate story between Calvin and Susie, we find a further complication for human volition: Sometimes we have no clue about our true desires or identity. As Watterson notes, we often don't know "what's going on" with ourselves. It's one thing to argue for human volitional freedom. But it's another thing altogether to say we know, at root, what we really want. That is, even if we had "free will" we probably would be clueless as to its use.

This is, interestingly, the view of the mind being advocated by modern psychological research. Specifically, introspection might be a fool's errand. It might not be possible to fully know your own mind. Too much is inaccessible to us. Or, if it is accessible, super-sensitive to our spin doctoring. Surveys routinely find that the vast majority of us report being "above average" across a host of positive traits. A statistical impossibility. Yet who doesn't think they have an above average sense of humor? Or intelligence? Conversely, how many bigots do we know who honestly don't think they are bigots? How many narcissists think they are really humble? In short, as psychologist Timothy D. Wilson has written in his book Strangers to Ourselves, when it comes to our internal lives "much of what we want to see is unseeable." (3) But this doesn't stop us from trying and, ultimately, making choices based upon faulty self-assessments. As Wilson notes, "...introspection about feelings can cause people to make unwise decisions and to become more confused about how they feel." (4)

In Part 1 of The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes we noted the dim view of human nature presented in the strip. This Augustinian vision of human nature has been echoed in the volitional meditations in Part 2. Specifically, not only are humans intrinsically "bend inward" upon themselves (Augustine's incurvatus in se) but it also seems, given the view of volition in Calvin and Hobbes, that change is hard for us. Our will is too anemic to dramatically reshape our destinies. We seem condemned to ride the wagon.

Theologically, then, here at the end of Parts 1 and 2, we can say that Calvin and Hobbes sits most comfortably in the Augustinian and Reformed theological traditions, anthropologically speaking. This may be a depressing location. But we should be quick to revisit the conversation from Chapter 2. Specifically, the Augustinian spectacle found in Calvin and Hobbes is saturated in humor and comic exposure. This comedic context, I think, radically recasts the Augustinian formulation. It holds up humanity less as "totally depraved" than as myopic and silly. It suggests that humans are more funny than sinful. True, when pushed too far this perspective breaks down. There are times of serious moment and moral atrocity. But much of our workaday lives is saturated with folly than with evil. We are, as a species, pitifully funny. And this laughter goes a fair distance in dispelling the Augustinian gloom and moral seriousness infusing much of Christian discourse. In short, the Augustinian verdict need not imply a Calvinistic sternness and seriousness. It could also, if Calvin and Hobbes is to be believed, imply the joy of Qoheleth. For it was Qoheleth who, upon looking at human folly, recommended the joys of the moment and the very un-Puritanical recommendation to avoid being "too righteous."

To that recommendation I think Calvin would say "Amen."

(1) p. 24 The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book
(2) p. 70 Ibid
(3) p. 15 Strangers to Ourselves
(4) p. 16 Ibid

The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 2, Chapter 5: "Quit playing with your oatmeal and eat it."

How should we live?

It’s an important theological and ethical question, but notoriously difficult to answer. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in his book The Reasons of Love, suggests that the question “How should I live?” is difficult because we need to answer a more basic question first. The more fundamental question is not “How should I live?” but “What do I care about?”

The point for Frankfurt is that normative questions (How should or ought I to live?) can’t be answered until the issue of caring is addressed. What is it that we care about? Once we have those answers then we can proceed to questions about how we should live or structure society to reach the goals we care about.

In short, caring creates our reasons for doing things. At root, justification for actions or ways of living ground out in what we care about. If we cared for nothing no reasons for action or normative justification come to us. As Frankfurt writes, “It is by caring about things that we infuse the world with importance. This provides us with stable ambitions and concerns; it marks our interests and our goals. The importance that our caring creates for us defines the framework of standards and aims in terms of which we endeavor to conduct our lives...The totality of the various things that a person cares about—together with his ordering of how important to him they are—effectively specifies his answer to the question of how to live.” (1)

Once we value something, care about it, this psychic investment provides us reasons. If you are asked, “Why do you help your wife around the house?” Your reason is “I love her.” We might also be asked, “Why help the poor?” Our response, at root, is an appeal to care about the poor. If you don’t care you’ll be fundamentally unmoved by my arguments. More specifically, you’ll not recognize my arguments as motivating reasons for action. Reasons make appeals to what we care about.

And yet, we don’t get to choose what we care about. We find ourselves volitionally committed in certain ways, ways we discover and stumble over rather than select after careful deliberation. As Frankfurt notes, “What people cannot help caring about…is not mandated by logic. It is not primarily a constraint upon belief. It is a volitional necessity, which consists essentially in a limitation of the will.” (2) Our will doesn’t come to us radically unattached. We begin life invested.

One of the running stories in Calvin and Hobbes is how Calvin just cannot bring himself to like what his mother has prepared for dinner:

Often, Calvin’s dislike of his food spins into the surreal where, in classic Wattersonian fashion, Calvin’s subjective experience becomes blurred with objective reality:

Calvin’s food episodes provide a nice commentary upon human volition. As noted in the last post, Calvin and Hobbes doesn’t posit a radically free will. Rather, the view of the will found in Calvin and Hobbes has a distinctively Frankfurtian feel. Specifically, Calvin comes to us (and to himself) volitionally committed in various ways. Liking or disliking something isn’t really up to him. As Frankfurt notes,

There are some things that people cannot do, despite possessing the relevant natural capacities or skills, because they cannot muster the will to do them. Loving is circumscribed by a necessity of that kind: what we love and what we fail to love is not up to us. Now the necessity of that characteristic of love does not constrain the movements of the will through and imperious surge of passion or compulsion by which the will is defeated or subdued. On the contrary, the constraint operates from within our own will itself. It is by our own will, and not by any external or alien force, that we are constrained. (2)
What comes across most strongly in Calvin and Hobbes is the personality of Calvin. Which is to say that Calvin comes to us as volitionally invested agent. Whatever Calvin is he is not a blank slate. Calvin is Calvin, and his likes and dislikes, what he cares about, are already well in play. In short, Calvin and Hobbes is as clear a rejection of John Locke’s tabla rasa view of childhood as you are likely to get.

This isn’t a rejection of human freedom per se, just a full recognition that humans, to be human, care about things. We come volitionally committed. Like the wagon rides from the last post, we start life already moving downhill. Fast. And importantly like the wagon rides, we don’t usually choose what we care about (i.e., where the wagon is going). As Frankfurt says, “What we love is not up to us.” (3)

Obviously, this creates problems when people come together caring and loving different things. Particularly when those investments might impinge upon the rights, wellbeing, and freedoms of other people. Frankfurt isn’t suggesting that this isn’t an important issue to be confronted. He is only suggesting that we can’t get to those ethical and political conversations and solutions until we know what the bargaining partners truly care about. This is because political and ethical solutions have no traction if not grounded in the volitional commitments of those concerned. In short, what Calvin and Hobbes allows us to see is the need to confront and appeal to persons as persons, as persons who come to us with likes and dislikes. Humans, like Calvin, are not bland abstractions. We are particular and peculiar. Pastors, theologians, ethicists and politicians, like Calvin’s mother, can’t make us eat what we fundamentally don’t want to eat:

This isn’t, however, to be read as a capitulation to human nature. It is, rather, simply recognizing a vital starting location of all ethical, political, and spiritual conversation.

(1) p. 23 The Reasons of Love
(2) p. 46 Ibid
(3) p. 49 Ibid

The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 2, Chapter 4: The Wagon Ride

Part 2: Wagons and Will

Chapter 4: The Wagon Ride

In Part 1 of the Theology of Calvin and Hobbes we dwelt upon the dim view of human nature portrayed in Watterson’s work. Again, this view was not wholly unexpected given that the two protagonists of the strip are named after John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes. In Part 2, we will explore some related observations concerning human volition.

Given the dim view of human nature in Calvin and Hobbes it should come as no surprise that questions concerning human choice, volition, and will should also arise. Further, it also not surprising that the view of human volition in Calvin and Hobbes appears to be influenced by the theology espoused by its lead character’s namesake. As Watterson has noted, Calvin is “named for a sixteenth-century theologian who believed in predestination.” (1) Just as Calvin and Hobbes presents a dim view of human nature, it also presents a picture of a circumscribed human will. A will with little wiggle room, range, power, or scope. Calvin and Hobbes doesn’t espouse any religious view of “predestination,” but it shadows the idea by presenting human volition as anemic in it capabilities. Human choice is simply holding on for the ride.

Wagon and sled rides specifically.

As we saw in Part 1, Calvin and Hobbes often goes overtly philosophical and theological. That is, Calvin and Hobbes frequently talk directly about philosophy and theology. More often than not, these philosophical conversations generally support the overall tone, philosophically speaking, of the strip. And, sometimes, the explicit dim commentary on human nature partners with the implicit depiction of human nature in the personhood of Calvin:

When the philosophical issues of Calvin and Hobbes become overt Watterson typically has Calvin and Hobbes rushing headlong down a hill, barely in control, on a wagon or a sled. As Watterson has noted, “…I mostly use [the wagon] when Calvin gets longwinded or philosophical.” (2) The juxtaposition is often hilarious. The wild, kinetic, physicality of the wagon ride is the perfect comic counterpoint to Calvin’s airy, cerebral, and philosophical speculations:

But of more interest for our purposes is when the wagon ride itself becomes a metaphor for or a commentary upon Calvin’s speculations. As Watterson has also noted, “Sometimes the wagon ride even acts as a visual metaphor for Calvin’s topic of conversation.” (2):

What is this “visual metaphor,” particularly when Calvin’s topic, as it frequently is, deals with human choice and volition? It clearly suggests that human volition isn’t very much in control. The wagon ride becomes a metaphor for forces being already in play with little that can be done to change direction or prevent the inevitable outcome. Like the theologian John Calvin, the wagon rides of Calvin and Hobbes present us with a very pessimistic picture when it comes to the capacities of human choice. A kind of predestination is depicted in the wagon rides.

Now we don’t have to agree with any of this. It’s just the theological situation we find in Calvin and Hobbes. But I do find this depiction in Calvin and Hobbes important for a number of reasons.

Regardless as to whether one agrees with Reformed or Calvinist notions of election or predestination, modern science is slowly eroding our confidence in radical notions of “free will.” Neuroscience, cognitive science, and behavioral genetics are slowing raising questions as to whether or not we can causally transcend biological forces. Further, the more we study environmental, cultural, and social influences upon us, we are struck by the uneven starting places people face in beginning the race of life. Some of us are rich and others poor. Some are raised in Iran and others in England. Some of us are white and others black. Some of us were loved by parents and others sold as slaves or prostitutes. And slowly, as we contemplate the uneven starting places, this race toward happiness, virtue, and goodness seems rigged, fixed. It starts to seem that there are no truly good people. Just lucky people.

There are a great many theological systems and structures within Christian theology that require a specific view of human will. Many of these systems require a radically free human will. Yet it seems that this view of radical freedom (often called libertarianism in the free will debates) is growingly untenable. Strong volitional formulations are beginning to give way to weak volitional formulations, where the will is a player in human affairs but is not omnipotent in range and power. Nature and nurture will have a say.

And if this diagnosis is correct, Calvin and Hobbes is theologically prescient. It seems we all, the church included, are looking forward to a wild and woolly wagon ride.

(1) p. 21 The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book
(2) p. 22 Ibid

The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 1, Chapter 3: "A Vindictive, Twisted Elf"

1. In my essays on The Theology of Peanuts one of the chapters was devoted to the duplex self, the experience of feeling morally divided, as if two warring impulses, one good and one bad, battle in the depths of our soul.

This experience of feeling morally divided was famously captured in the New Testament by Paul:

Romans 7: 14-24a
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am!
As I wrote we often see this struggle depicted in Peanuts:

Paul's description parallels a Jewish conception of the person, where the soul is viewed as a battleground with two competing impulses within it. There is an evil impulse, the yezer ha-ra, which corresponds with Paul's "sinful nature." Struggling against the yezer ha-ra is the impulse for good, the yezer ha-tov. The soul is duplex, divided.

Although the duplex self appears in Peanuts it is not a dominant theme. By contrast, in Calvin and Hobbes the internal battle between good and evil saturates the strips. Moral struggle is a major theme in Calvin and Hobbes.

Watterson has written that he uses the Christmas strips in Calvin and Hobbes to show Calvin's battles between his good and bad impulses. (1)

True to the dim view of human nature presented in the strip, Calvin mainly approaches the battle between good and evil from a punishment/reward stance. That is, he struggles to be good during the Christmas season so that Santa will bring him Christmas presents. As a consequence, Calvin and Santa have a very strained relationship:

Through the annual struggles with Santa Calvin and Hobbes highlights the yezer ha-ra and Calvin's Herculean attempts to manage it. More often than not, he fails:

However, sometimes he succeeds:

But even when Calvin succeeds we are acutely aware that his motives for being "good" remain self-interested:

This self-interest contaminates, morally speaking, all of Calvin's Christmastime efforts to be good. And it highlights a very real struggle we all face. We all desire that our goodness be rewarded. If it were not it is doubtful that goodness would ever gain a foothold on this earth. And yet, as Kant famously noted, for goodness to be true virtue it must be pursued as an end in itself, not as a means to an end. Calvin nicely illustrates Kan't point. Calvin's "goodness" is a means toward the end of getting Christmas presents and this strikes us as shallow and, well, not very good.

But consider the mixed ethical messages we send children about virtue. Take, for instance, the Kantian muddle in this popular Christmas song:
You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I'm telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
He's making a list
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out Who's naughty and nice

Santa Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!
How confusing is this song? Are we to be good because Santa is making a list and checking twice, going to find out who is naughty or nice? Being good in this way, according to Kant, undermines the whole enterprise. This is amply demonstrated by Calvin. But perhaps, as the song goes on to suggest, we should be good for goodness sake? Good for the sake of being good. That's the Kantian goal. But it is so elusive when a reward is in the offing.

In the first three essays we've been dwelling on the dim view of human nature presented in Calvin and Hobbes. Thinking through Calvin's struggles with Santa we see how dim this commentary truly is. Even our moral apparatus is contaminated by self-interest. Kant's shining categorical imperative seems so lofty as to be unattainable to us, psychologically speaking. Can we ever pursue goodness with no thought about potential positive outcomes? Is that humanly possible?

But this is not to say that we should give up. Just that goodness might require something more than duty and categorical imperatives. Calvin and Hobbes does offer a nuanced portrait of Calvin's Christmastime goodness.

In the relationship between Calvin and Hobbes we see something that cracks Calvin's self-interest: Love. It is undoubtedly true that a cold adherence to moral duty can rescue us from evil. Duty is necessary to stand in the gap when feelings fail. But duty is too thin to carry the day all by itself.

I think Calvin and Hobbes shows us how human goodness ultimately works. Our passions must be engaged to get us to step outside ourselves.

We are often good simply because we love.

(1) p. 198 The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book

The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 1, Chapter 2: The Democracy of Sinners

Chapter 2: The Democracy of Sinners

In the last chapter we noted the places whenCalvin and Hobbes overtly, in a philosophical way, floats questions about the goodness of human nature. But the real commentary on human nature in Calvin and Hobbes comes from observing the personality of Calvin:

You could argue that Calvin and Hobbes is, at root, an extended meditation on the personality of Calvin. And what a personality it is! If John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes had dim views of human nature, six-year old Calvin is the incarnation of those views. Calvin is self-indulgent:



And not likely to feel remorse:

Is there anything therapeutic or helpful in dwelling on the personality of Calvin? I believe so. Obviously, we must begin with identification. Calvin is us. As Watterson has noted, "I suspect...that inside every adult (sometimes not very far inside) is a bratty kid who wants everything his own way." (1) We see ourselves in Calvin.

But we also laugh at Calvin. Here is this very dim portrayal of human nature and it is rendered funny, hilarious. Toward what end? Alan Jacobs, in his book Original Sin: A Cultural History, writes about the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of the doctrine of "original sin." Specifically, a dim view of human nature allows us to view the world as a "democracy of sinners," where pity is conferred upon those who fail and scorn is heaped upon those who attempt to elevate themselves above others as moral "superiors." Jacobs offers this wonderful quote from G.K. Chesterton:

Christianity preaches an obviously unattractive idea, such as original sin; but when we wait for its results, they are pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder of laughter and pity; for only with original sin can we at once pity the beggar and distrust the king.
Original sin, the democracy of sinners, when properly understood is a radically egalitarian notion. It flattens all human hierarchies.

Further, the great leveling mechanism, according to Jacobs, is comic exposure. Original sin is the revelation of human folly, and none of us are immune. The exposure of our folly, personally and collectively, leaves us with little recourse but to adopt a position of humility and to seek forgiveness from one and all. As Jacob writes, "truest excellence is to know that you deserve the 'comic exposure'--to know you need forgiveness." (2)

Calvin and Hobbes is a prolonged comic exposure of human folly. We see ourselves and each other in the "bratty kid" and join the "democracy of sinners." These realizations are not morbid nor symptoms of a Christian self-loathing. They are, rather, liberating starting places. You and I are sinners, equally so, no one of us is better than the other.

This perspective has been nicely articulated by William Ian Miller:
Various political movements and moral theories have tended to divide humankind into two groups. We thus have saved and damned, faithful and infidel, Christian and Jew, left and right, East and West, capitalist and proletarian, black and white, woman and man, gay and straight, and so on...But in the kind of moral psychology that I am drawn to, none of these contrasting pairs does so well at capturing human foible as my preferred pair: Knave and fool...The Knave-fool paring differs from others because it gets at human behavior at its most interesting...It forces us to contemplate, sometimes mordantly, sometimes even lovingly, the wondrous complexity of the simplest face-to-face encounters, the comic pretensions of our hopes and dreams, our postures and poses, all our various forms of fakery. Knave-fool does not reduce us to one dimension but keeps all our motives, desires, fears, and hopes, all aspects of us--as workers, friends, sexual beings, parents, children, believers or unbelievers--on the table for discussion and gentle raillery. (3)
There are, perhaps, more serious discussions to have about human fallenness. Foibles only go a short way toward understanding human evil. But the comic exposure found in Calvin and Hobbes, the gentle raillery that highlights our self-absorption and folly, does go a fair way to truly humanizing us all. We are Calvin. And we laugh at what we see.

Welcome to the democracy of sinners.

(1) p. 21 The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book
(2) p. 272 Original Sin: A Cultural History
(3) p. 235-237 Faking It