An Inventory of Moments

lava lampMoment 1: I was about 6 years old when we moved from Montana to Michigan.  I was brought to my new school and left in the charge of Mrs. Smith, my new grade 1 teacher.  I sat alone in the classroom waiting for something to happen.  I imagine I was scared, but I don’t remember.  What I do remember is a blonde head popping up in the outside window, shrieking with excitement–“It’s a new boy!”

This was one of the moments from my life.  Objectively, time is composed of a series of identical units, but our subjective experience is that time is not homogeneous–time is less like a clock than a lava lamp.

In an attempt to understand time in this more subjective way, I have here described a few of the events that constitute a very large inventory of moments.

Moment 2: I was high up in the Canadian Rockies, far off any road–we had travelled up a frozen river bed till we could go no further.  It was too late to build a lean-to, and too cold, so we decided to sleep in the truck. It was too cold to sleep in the truck.  So at 3am we started climbing higher into the mountains and watched the sunrise from the top of the world.  At about noon I saw a huge mountain muley careening down the opposite slope.  Then he disappeared in the brush.  I waited.  He appeared in a small stand of trees to my left.  That’s when time almost stopped.  I didn’t even feel the recoil of my 30-06.  I didn’t hear the gun’s report.  All I saw was the deer turn and run back the way he had come.  He didn’t make it thirty feet.  A perfect shot.

Moment 3:  Dread poured from my chest into my belly.  I turned and ran home crying.  I had forgotten my cotton balls AGAIN!    I think we were going to make cotton ball igloos on construction paper and snow was impossible to represent without cotton balls.  I had forgotten to bring them several days in a row.  I still think this is way too much responsibility for a 5 year old and why the heck didn’t the school provide the necessary materials for our kindergarten projects.  I remember returning to school with a green Dippity Doo jar full of cotton balls.

Moment 4 occurred on May 20, 1980.  It was raining mud.  I was out in a field south of Olympia, WA at about 8:30 in the morning.  I was turning off water pumps because we didn’t move irrigation lines on Sundays.  When I was finished, I got into my truck and I couldn’t see through the windshield.  The wipers smeared grey mud.  Church was cancelled that morning because of volcanic eruption.  That was Mt. Helen’s first, one of the later ones happened on a beautiful clear day and I watched the ash bloom from the same field (another moment).

Moment 5: I was on the Oregon coast with my daughters in August 2008.  My sons weren’t there because of summer jobs.  My wife was leaving me so she didn’t come; it wasn’t a very happy holiday.  This had been my point of view for the previous 18 months–I had no happiness, nor any hope for future happiness.  I was watching my girls and the waves crash onto the beach; I sighed and said to my self, “So this is how live is going to be from now on.”  Then it hit me–I was in this incredible place with people I adored and we were going out for clam chowder later.  I said it again with an entirely different view of the world, “So this is how life is going to be from now on.”

Moment 6: Joe Carter’s homerun in 1993.

Moment 7:  In 1996 we bought a farm, a pigeon farm (we raised squab for the fancy Chinese restaurants in Vancouver and the other markets across North America).  One day we took possession I went for a walk by the barns.  I wondered what I had gotten myself into.  I knew little about raising squab and the flock was in bad shape; there was a lot of disease and very poor production.  It was a scary moment and I’ll never forget it.  10 years later I could diagnose diseases by smell and production was increased 20 times.

Moment 8 was at Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp outside of Munich.  I’ve always been interested in World War Two.  I took classes on it in both high school and university, read many books, and watched every documentary I could.  The Holocaust was particularly intriguing and baffling for me–how could people do this to each other, and on such a scale?  In spite of all I read, perhaps because of it, the Holocaust and Nazism were abstract concepts to me.  The incredible thing about Dachau was the realization that the Holocaust was made out of concrete, wood and barbed wire.  There was a road outside the barbed wire–if you were standing on that road in 1944 you were not in the camp, 20ft. over and you were in the camp.  That 20 feet made all the difference.  It was in that moment that I became aware of the spatial and material reality of the Final Solution.  Evil is not just a vague idea, it is a concrete reality.

Moment 9: Every time I’ve watched “The Sound of Music.”

Time is made up of such moments; they surge around us and engulf us and lift us and then dissipate–like a lava lamp.


Time is Like a Lava Lamp

Lava LampI don’t know why we think that every minute is like every other minute; we certainly don’t experience time in this way.

Shakespeare knew it.  I was teaching Romeo and Juliet in my grade 9 class and noted several comments on the flexibility of time.  Among them:

Sad hours seem long. — Romeo

In a minute there are many days. — Juliet

Cervantes records the same experience.  I just finished reading Don Quixote where I found the famous knight finds time moving slowly.

Night, longed for by Don Quixote with the greatest anxiety in the world, came at last, though it seemed to him that the wheels of Apollo’s car had broken down, and that the day was drawing itself out longer than usual, just as is the case with lovers, who never make the reckoning of their desires agree with time.

These great works of literature present time as we experience it ourselves. When drawing I lose all sense of time, but when cooking it moves quickly, often too quickly for me to get the potatoes mashed.  When sitting in a Christmas concert presented by young children with bells in their hands, time rasps slowly along, but it moves with even more heaviness in a hospital waiting room.

The trend in Western society is towards homogenizing experience–we’ve attempted to do the same with time.

I think our understanding of time is greatly influenced by the devices we use to mark it–they have become the metaphor by which we understand time.  Our modern clocks–both analogue and digital varieties–divide the day into homogenous hours, minutes and seconds.  Even old-fashioned hourglass divided time up into identical grains of sand.

We need another metaphor for time as we actually experience it so that we can begin to think about it differently.

The lava lamp!

Sometimes time moves slowly, other times quickly; the goo in lava lamps moves up and down in various speeds.  We experience time, not only as minutes, but moments; lava lamps have these moments.  That’s why we like to watch them; we are anticipating the next moment.  The moments we experience surge around us and engulf us and lift us and then they dissipate.  Moments of Joy and Sorrow and Grace move through our experience as rising and falling blobs of iridescent lava.

Not only is this a much richer way to think of time, it is much more descriptive of our experience that the mechanical tick-tock-tick-tock of the ubiquitous wall clock.


Ordinary Time

Time flatOur culture has one way of thinking about time, so we could call it ordinary time.  We could also call it secular time, mechanical time, material time or dead time.  Elsewhere, I’ve called it “zombie time” and for good reason.

Whatever you call it, it has the following characteristics:

  1. It is homogeneous — a minute is a minute; one hour is the same as every other hour.
  2. It is sequential — minutes, hours, days and years occur one after the other.
  3. structured by progress — we are, things are, improving, evolving, getting better as time passes.
  4. It has been emptied of the transcendent — there is nothing supernatural in our conception of time.
I will discuss each of these in the coming weeks.

Killing Time

In English we have only one word for time.  The ancient Greeks had two because they understood time in two ways.  First, there is chronos, or ordinary time, in which one thing happens after another.  The other is kairos.  We’ve mostly lost a sense of this kind of time, to our detriment.

chronos kairos


Chronological time refers to clock time–time that can be measured in fixed units–seconds, minutes, hours and years.  Kairos measures moments of flexible duration.  Chronological time is divided up into past, present and future, but kairos is the present and has an eternal element.  Chronological time is personified as Old Father Time carrying a scythe and an hourglass–it is a time that consumes all.  Kairos time is personified as a young man, lithe and handsome–it is a time that suggests “ripeness is all” (Lear 5.2.11).

Chronological time, named after the titan who ate his children, destroys and consumes.  All material things experience the ravages of time.  In the Hobbit, Gollum’s riddle in the dark is about chronos time:

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.

There is a monstrous quality to chronological time.  Chronos time is made up of past that doesn’t exist any more and future that doesn’t yet exist.  Because its made of these intangibilities, chronos time takes on a spectral quality.  To make matters worse, like Gollum says, it kills and consumes.  It is a terrifying creature.  Dead, but devouring and it never stops coming.  There’s something hellish about the eternal monotony of mechanical time.

Where chronos suggests death, kairos suggest life.  The present is the only part of time that actually exists; it’s alive, and if you are experiencing it, you are alive too.  The term Kairos contains the idea that not all time is the same.  Sure there is the regular and mechanical passing of minutes, but there are also immeasurable moments that catch us by surprise, that bubble up from within time or flow into it from some where, or some when, else.  These interruptions of ordinary time by higher time suggest a link with the eternal–the “everlasting now” which is the time of heaven.

I want to suggest that when you think of time, don’t only imagine the hour glass of chronos, but a lava lamp of kairos time–irregular and surprising.

Our worldview both shapes and is shaped by our language.  Because we have only one word for time, we are in danger of thinking and living under the idea that time is simply chronological.  I’ve had students tell me that eternity sounds boring?  It certainly does if you think of it in terms of chronological–dead–time.  If we broaden our understanding of time, we will not only have a more positive view of an eternal future, but we also will understand the importance of the living present, which as C. S. Lewis says, “is all lit up with eternal rays” (The Screwtape Letters).








A God Shaped Hole?

WhyI admit that I wince every time I hear this phrase, but there is something here to think about it.

Everybody asks big questions at some time or another. Questions like “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “Why is there suffering and death?” “Why bother?” Asking big questions is so common that it is often be considered a quality that is essential or structural to humanity.

Human beings ask a lot of questions and we are strongly compelled to answer them.   We cannot live without seeking answers. Seeking answers to questions asked of the material world is at the core of our sciences.   But we also ask questions beyond the material using human reason. Asking questions and compulsion to seek answers and meaning is foundational to being human.

Giussani says that if we have a hundred questions and answer ninety-nine of them, the one we can’t answer drives us crazy.  And the thing about the so called “big questions,” they are not answerable.  Hamlet quite correctly says, “There are more things, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophies.” As we seek answers to our questions, we come to the conclusion that we can’t answer all of our questions. This is a tough situation for us. On the one hand, we have an insatiable desire to understand and on the other hand we are limited to what we can know. The tension created by the disparity between our ideals and our actualities suggests the existence of a source of ultimate fulfillment.

C. S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

This from Blaise Pascal in Pensées VII

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.

According to Lewis and Pascal, the big questions, which seem to be foundational to human consciousness, affirm the existence of an Ultimate. We cannot answer the big questions, yet we crave and even expect an answer. This expectation suggests that there must be an Other from which we crave the affirmation of our existence that an answer would give. Giussani says that our inability to answer these questions leaves us sad, but to deny the possibility of an answer is to disconnect man from himself because the desire for answers is structural–foundational to being human. To deny the possibility of an answer is to declare everything meaningless–this leads to the opposite of sadness–despair. As Macbeth says, it would be as if life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

There must be an answer; and a human being cannot live without seeking that answer. Giussani says that a human being can’t live five minutes without affirming “the existence of a ‘something’ which deep down makes living those five minutes worthwhile” (57).

The disparity between our questions and our inability to answer them leaves us sad. Denying the possibility of an answer leads us to despair.


Humans are Amphibians

FrogHumans beings are, as C. S. Lewis says, amphibians, “half spirit and half animal. As spirits [we] belong to the eternal world, but as animals [we] inhabit time.”

Lewis suggests that human beings experience two realities–one linked to the physical world and the other to the spiritual. Luigi Giussani (The Religious Sense 40-44) distinguishes these two realities as well, describing the first as measurable and the second is immeasurable.

The material world has the qualities of height and depth and weight and temperature–these are all measurable. To measure is to compare the whole to one of its parts. A can of Coke can be broken down into millilitres, a human body into pounds and inches. Giussani points out that by their very nature material things are can be broken down into parts. This divisibility is closely related to mutability. All material things are subject to change. If a student puts the apple on my desk on the last day of school, I will find the gift greatly altered by the following September. This holds true even if the gift was a diamond, although the time would be considerably longer for the alterations to be noticed.

As human beings, we are aware of the measurable and the mutable–it is part of our identity. We are material, or animal as Lewis says.

But we are aware of something else that is just as essentially part of us as the material elements–an immutable element. Giussani identifies idea, judgment and decision as aspects of the human individual that are unchanging, indivisible and unmeasurable. He offers an example of each:

Idea: We have an idea in our head of something we call “goodness.” When I was a child, I thought my mother good. Even after all these years, I use the same criteria to determine that my mother is still good–this idea is unchanging.

Judgement: My declaration, “This is a piece of paper” will still be true in a billion years.

Decision: The act of deciding that I like a specific person establishes forever the definition of the relationship.

These things do not change on their own, like the diamond or the apple necessarily do. The ideas, judgments and decisions endure. The decision may be wrong, I may discover the person I liked had betrayed me and now I no longer like them, but this is a new decision. Both are indivisible and unchangeable in itself.

The point of all of this is to recognize that both the measurable and the immeasurable aspects are part of the experience of our “I”.  And we should not reduce our experience to one or the other of these two realities.

The important conclusion one can draw from all this is that the animal (body) and the spiritual (soul) are not reducible to each other.


A Case For an Explicit Liturgy

Liturgy 1When I was in about grade 4, I was bored in church. There was a long sermon and long prayers and a whole bunch of singing and some recitation that held little meaning to me. It just kept on going and going, on and on. I remember thinking that if I knew where we were in the service, I might it would be easier to endure. Since my father was the minister, I had an in. One Saturday, I asked him if he could write out the order of events in the upcoming service. He smiled and directed my attention to the familiar bulletin. One of the pages was entitled, “Order of Worship” and beneath this was written, in order, all the elements of the service. These included “Call to Worship,” “God’s Greeting,” “The Law,” “Call to Confession,” “Prayer of Confession,” “Words of Assurance,” “Congregational Prayer,” “Offering,” “Sermon,” “Benediction” with hymns of praise, adoration, repentance and thanksgiving, in appropriate places. I had no idea that every service proceeded through the same elements each week.

The “Call to Worship” always kicked things off. A Bible passage was usually read, different every week, but they all communicated that we are sitting in church that morning, not because we decided to come, but because we responded to a call. The one who calls us to worship is none other than the Triune God. I’ve noticed that without this sense of calling, I can easily fall into the mistaken idea that my arrival signals the beginning of worship.

“God’s Greeting” — It’s his house and as a host he greets us. The weekly repetition of this element reminds us that this building is not just bricks and mortar that we assembled and pay for with weekly payments to the bank. We were drawn in by God, and he welcomes us as host–in this sense we are on holy ground. Lots of churches do the horizontal greeting, congregants to each other, but without the vertical greeting coming first, isn’t the whole experience flattened?

The “Call to Confession”: This is a weekly reminder that we are sinners and in need of forgiveness. It is followed by the “Prayer of Confession” which is an acknowledgment of this fact. The Good News is that these are followed with the “Assurance” that God forgives. The Catholics do this individually. When I was a kid, we did it collectively. Nowadays, we do this occasionally–usually with a song. Does it pass unnoticed those unfamiliar with liturgical confession.

Prayer — my new church is good at this. The church is open for prayer on some weekdays. There’s a prayer room and there is communal prayer and the elders do a lot of praying. Prayer is a strange activity, when you think about it. We are talking to someone who appears to not be there. It is an enchanted activity.

Rituals and practices effect us on a deep level–they can shape who we are. When we weekly hear God call us to worship, we begin to learn that worship doesn’t start with us. When we regularly hear God greet us, we begin to learn that we are in His house, not He in ours. When we confess our sins, and are forgiven, we learn the gospel. When we sing and pray to someone we can’t see, we believe it because we are doing it.

We don’t learn it in an intellectual sense. Very little of this occurs on a level we are aware of. Modern churches, like modern society, is very rational and emphasize knowledge and information with occasional forays into apologetics and worldview. These things are important, but our identity lives much deeper than these. Far deeper than the mind, deeper even than the heart. The Hebrew believed the soul was in the gut–that’s the level where we are shaped.

Worship services can shape us. Do you think they might be able to do so even more effectively with explicit liturgies?

This post was inspired in part by Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith. I strongly recommend it for church leaders.


Two Kinds of Language

Rothfuss2I have this theory that English is two languages. Maybe all languages are two languages, but I don’t really know any language but English.  I came across a passage in Patrick Rothfuss’ novel that got me thinking that English can be used in two distinct ways.  If we are reading something that the author wrote in one language as if it were another, we’ve completely missed the author’s intent.

It seems to me that it can be a very precise language so if you want to communicate to your son exactly what you expect from him regarding the cleaning of his room before he goes outside to play, English is more than capable of communicating these clear expectations. Although your son will likely dash out the door before the tasks are completed, it is no fault of English. The precise nature of the language also makes it effective for writing encyclopedias; it is the language of the academic.  In this type of writing, the meaning lies mainly “on the line.”

But the resources of the English language can also be turned toward more poetic purposes.  There are many types of writing which taps into the elegance of the English language. Where meanings lie between the lines, or beyond the lines.   This type of writing is inferential and is able to reach far beyond the sense of the words to transcendent meanings.

I’ve presented a passage from The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss before. I love the intelligence of Rothfuss’ work. This dialogue between Kvothe and his teacher Vashet as they discuss the illusive philosophy of Lethani, illustrates the dual function of language.


Vashet leaned forward seriously. “Part of the problem is with your language,” she said. “Aturan is very explicit. It is very precise and direct. Our language is rich with implication, so it is easier for us to accept the existence of things that cannot be explained. The Lethani is the greatest of these.”

“Can you give me an example of one other than the Lethani?” I asked. “And please don’t say ‘blue,’ or I might go absolutely mad right here on this bench.”

She thought for a moment. “Love is such a thing. You have knowledge of what it is, but it defies careful explication.”

“Love is a subtle concept,” I admitted. “It’s elusive, like justice, but it can be defined.”

Her eyes sparkled. “Do so then, my clever student. Tell me of love.”

I thought for a quick moment, then for a long moment.

Vashet grinned. “You see how easy it will be for me to pick holes in any definition you give.”

“Love is the willingness to do anything for someone,” I said. “Even at detriment to yourself.”

“In that case,” she said. “How is love different from duty or loyalty?”

“It is also combined with a physical attraction,” I said.

“Even a mother’s love?” Vashet asked.

“Combined with an extreme fondness then,” I amended.

“And what exactly do you mean by ‘fondness’?” she asked with a maddening calm.

“It is . . .” I trailed off, racking my brain to think how I could describe love without resorting to other, equally abstract terms.

“This is the nature of love.” Vashet said. “To attempt to describe it will drive a woman mad. That is what keeps poets scribbling endlessly away. If one could pin it to the paper all complete, the others would lay down their pens. But it cannot be done.”

She held up a finger. “But only a fool claims there is no such thing as love. When you see two young ones staring at each other with dewy eyes, there it is. So thick you can spread it on your bread and eat it. When you see a mother with her child, you see love. When you feel it roil in your belly, you know what it is. Even if you cannot give voice to it in words.”

Vashet made a triumphant gesture. “Thus also is the Lethani. But as it is greater, it is more difficult to point toward. That is the purpose of the questions. Asking them is like asking a young girl about the boy she fancies. Her answers may not use the word, but they reveal love or the lack of it within her heart.”

“How can my answers reveal a knowledge of the Lethani when I don’t truly know what it is?” I asked.

“You obviously understand the Lethani,” she said. “It is rooted deep inside you. Too deep for you to see. Sometimes it is the same with love.”

Vashet reached out and tapped me on the forehead. “As for this Spinning Leaf. I have heard of similar things practiced by other paths. There is no Aturan word for it that I know. It is like a Ketan for your mind. A motion you make with your thoughts, to train them.”

She made a dismissive gesture. “Either way, it is not cheating. It is a way of revealing that which is hidden in the deep waters of your mind. The fact that you found it on your own is quite remarkable.”

I nodded to her. “I bow to your wisdom, Vashet.”

“You bow to the fact that I am unarguably correct.”

She clapped her hands together. “Now, I have much to teach you. However, as you are still welted and flinching, let us forbear the Ketan. Show me your Ademic instead. I want to hear you wound my lovely language with your rough barbarian tongue.” 822-824

Zombies Represent the Crisis of the Modern Idenity

Zombie - id crisisThe zombie functions as a monstrous other, transgressing boundaries and unsettling the modern identity, as monsters have always done.  But, it goes beyond the scope of traditional monsters in that it also holds a mirror up to the secular self, and suggests, without the transcendent, we may nothing more than animated corpses, or worse.  The zombie film further deprives us of the security of civilization, exposing human beings as Hobbesian brutes.  The collective effect of these functions brings us to a crisis of identity and meaning.

In the pre-modern past, the self was a part of a cosmos seen as a “totality of existence because it [contained] the sense of ordered whole” (A Secular Age 60), and in this order held meaning for all things.  In modern society, with the loss of the transcendent, any external referent by which we might understand the self has been removed and the modern self’s construction became an entirely interior process—reality is solely in the mind–“in the sense that things only have the meaning they do in that they awaken a certain response in us” (A Secular Age 31).   To be a buffered subject, Taylor says, is to have “closed up the porous boundary between inside (thought) and outside (nature, the physical)” (A Secular Age 300).  With this move from cosmic meaning to meaning residing only in the mind, the modern identity, then, can be understood largely by what it is not—by the things of which it has been emptied.  It no longer has a place in a cosmic hierarchy of meaning, nor does it interact with spiritual forces or charged objects in an enchanted world.

The zombie, too, is defined by what is absent.  Much has been lost in the anthropocentric turn away from the transcendent, and the zombie brings us face to face with who we are in the context of this loss.  The zombie is the embodiment of this emptiness, for one of the key characteristics of the zombie is that it is “a body which has been hollowed out, emptied of selfhood” (Warner 357).  It is essentially a “description of human existential diminishment” (367) that has been diminished one step further than has the ordinary resident of modernity.  The zombie evokes despair and dread because it presents buffered selves with the potential of being absent from oneself.  This is part of the horror of the zombie, especially in the early twentieth-century; it terrorizes the rationalist understanding of selfhood by exposing the fragility of subjectivity.

The zombie, too, is defined by what is absent.

The destruction of subjectivity is still a significant part of the horror of the zombie, but the events of the mid-twentieth century changed the conception of the self and therefore the monster that threatened it.  After the horrors of the Holocaust and the use of the atomic bomb, faith in reason and the authority of science was abandoned, as had been faith in God in previous generations.  This left humanity without any external authority.  Sartre’s understanding of the self as existential agent is representative of the post WWII identity.  Because “it is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity,”  the new authority was the self.  He believed that unlike the objective world, the existence of the self precedes its essence; “subjectivity must be the starting point.”  Thus, we are completely free to choose our own purpose, our own meaning.  Additionally, ideals or beliefs are not reality; action is the only reality, for the only way to determine the value of ideals or beliefs is to perform and act which confirms or defines it” (“Existentialism is a Humanism”).

Putting these ideas together, we can claim that, in the post-nuclear world we understand the self as existential agent.  Boon suggests that human action “in the absence of any external locus of truth—that is, in the absence of a reliable ‘other’ in whom/which faith can be placed—must face the threat of engulfment by the world.”  For the existential agent, the greatest fear, then, is that “it will be absorbed by the other and thus be irretrievably lost” (Boon [in Better off Dead] 55-56).  Taylor’s modern identity was buffered against anything transcendent, but now the self faces engulfment by the hostile immanent universe.  Many of the deaths presented in zombie films are of a single screaming protagonist being pulled by countless cadaverous hands into the mass of the undead horde.  This visually symbolizes the engulfment of the existential agent by the indifferent universe.  Romero’s zombies are the embodiment of the challenge to the modern identity.  When one becomes a zombie, one of many within the horde, the subjective self is annihilated and the existential agent is engulfed by a malicious world.

For a simple summary of this series of zombie posts visit:

Previous zombie posts:

Absence of Authority: Zombies and Hobbes

Zombie - hobbesZombie films evoke the fear of how people would respond if there were no authorities to keep the baser appetites in check.  I must admit, for me this is the source of zombie terror for me.  Without the authority represented by government or any transcendent moral authority, human beings turn on each other.  This fear of others—indeed, of one’s neighbours—is the basis of Hobbes’ analysis in Leviathan published in 1651.

For Hobbes, the natural state of man, which exists outside the context of society, is one of war.  According to Hobbes, all men are essentially equal in their vulnerability and weakness.  Our natural equality and our conflicting desires result in a state of constant war with our fellow man.  He also argues that competition, diffidence and desire for glory are in our nature, as we seek gain, safety and reputation.  We, therefore, live in constant fear because we realize that at any moment we can have everything taken from us, including our life.  This is a reasonable fear, for Hobbes says that we have a natural right to everything, “even to one another’s body,” but to avoid the constant state of war that would ensue, we create contracts in which we mutually transfer these rights.   To ensure that the contracts are performed, a society needs a sovereign who will compel adherence to the contracts through force or through institutional constraints.  We willingly subject ourselves to this authority because it protects us from the state of constant war with others.  The zombie invasion returns us to a state of “continual fear and danger of violent death, [in which] the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

The zombies usher in a world where this third group invokes their natural right “even to one another’s body,” and they can do this because there is no longer a “sovereign” to enforce the contracts that Hobbes describes.  The loss of authority is central to zombie narratives.  Zombies are certainly horrifying in and of themselves, but, as Bishop points out,  “such monsters would not pose much of a threat if actualized in the modern-day world; most probably police or military could quickly exterminate these aberrations” (22).  But zombie narratives are almost always set during (or shortly after) the collapse of civilization, and whatever remains of the police or military, or any other governmental organization, is completely ineffectual and more often, nonexistent.  Zombie movies, then, “offer a worst-case scenario of the collapse of all American social and governmental structures.  Once people start to die at an uncontrollable rate, panic rages through all levels of the government and the military—a literal ‘dog eat dog’” world” (Bishop 23). At the end of Night of the Living Dead, the zombies have been contained and are in the process of being eliminated; by the end of Dawn of the Dead, they have apparently overrun everything.  Government, military and all other forms of civil authority evaporate.  According to Hobbes, the sovereign is supposed to establish “security and order, enforcing our agreements with others, resolving disputes, and imposing punishment.  Hobbes’ sovereign also determines the ideology of the state (what is right and wrong, just and unjust).  Under his authority, good and evil are absolute” (Fahy [The Philosophy of Terror] 65).  In the absence of such authority, there is no absolute ‘good’ and ‘evil.’  Because culture has reverted to a raw state of nature, only desire and aversion exist.  In the absence of “good” and “evil,” each individual determines his or her own morality.  We desire what is good and have an aversion to what is bad.  But individual desires and aversions are pursued at the expense of those of others.  This is the role that the other, monstrous, humans play in zombie narratives.  The biker gang in Dawn of the Dead invades the mall to pillage it, and they will kill anyone—living or undead–to have their way.  Because the living and the undead are both driven by almost equally base desires to “consume” the other, the zombie holds up a mirror to man, revealing what he is in a world without authority.  The line between monster and human is blurred.

Next zombie post: Zombies and the Crisis of the Modern Identity

Previous zombie posts:

© 2018 crossing the line

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑