Hnau What?: C. S. Lewis on What It Means to be a Person

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Belief, Trust, and Obedience to God

The moral order is not a utilitarian one, nor is it subjective or socially constructed (though it is adapted to each kind of hnau). Being hnau involves belief, trust, and, rightfully, obedience to God. Whin’s explanation of the trouble they are having is that they have not been promptly obedient to the eldil who had told them Ransom must be taken to Oyarsa. When Ransom fears that if he leaves, the rest of the hrossa will think he has run away because he was afraid to face them after Hyoi’s death, Whin says, “It is not a question of thinking but of what an eldil says. This is cub’s talk” (p. 83). At that point, Ransom chooses faithful obedience, regardless of his feelings and questions. Almost immediately the fears and doubts awake with a vengeance, but he is able to keep going. The text records, “Now, in the clear light of an accepted duty, he felt fear indeed, but with it a sober sense of confidence in himself and in the world, and even an element of pleasure” (pp. 86-87).

Ransom later finds himself having to honestly answer embarrassing questions about humans concerning aspects of human history that astonish the sorns, such as war, slavery, and prostitution. “He had decided from the outset that he would be quite frank, for he now felt that it would be not knau, and also that it would be unavailing, to do otherwise” (p. 102). He understands that hnau-ness is related to virtue and character. The sorns respond to his revelations by perceiving human isolation from and rejection of spiritual order. “‘It is because they have no Oyarsa,’ said one of the pupils. ‘It is because every one of them wants to be a little Oyarsa himself,’ said Augray. ‘They cannot help it,’ said the old sorn. ‘There must be rule, yet how can creatures rule themselves? Beasts must be ruled by hnau and hnau by eldila and eldila by Maleldil. These creatures have no eldila. They are like one trying to lift himself by his own hair…” (p. 102).

When Ransom is finally in the presence of the Oyarsa of Malcandra, he learns the bitter truth that Thulcandra (earth) is the “Silent Planet,” quarantined from the rest of the planets. The Oyarsa says, “it was not always so. Once we knew the Oyarsa of your world-he was brighter and greater than I-and then we did not call it Thulcandra. It is the longest of all stories and the bitterest. He became bent. That was before any life came on your world. Those were the Bent Years of which we still speak in the heavens, when he was not yet bound to Thulcandra but free like us. It was in his mind to spoil other worlds besides his own…There was great war, and we drove him back out of the heavens and bound him in the air of his own world as Maleldil taught us. There doubtless he lies to this hour, and we know no more of that planet: it is silent. We think that Maleldil would not give it up utterly to the Bent One, and there are stories among us that He has taken strange counsel and dared terrible things, wrestling with the Bent One in Thulcandra” (pp. 120-121).

When Ransom has to explain the bent designs of Weston and Devine, the Oyarsa wonders if they are wounded in their brains, but concludes, “If you were my own people I would kill them now, Ransom, and you soon; for they are bent beyond hope, and you, when you have grown a little braver, will be ready to go to Maleldil. But my authority is over my own world. It is a terrible thing to kill someone else’s hnau“(p. 123).

Hnau Are Both Rational Animals and Spirit

Ransom gets to experience the honoring of the three dead hnau, learning that hnau are not only rational animals; they are spiritual beings as well. Ten of the hrossa begin to sing. The text records, “Through his knowledge of the creatures and his love for them he began, ever so little, to hear it with their ears. A sense of great masses moving at visionary speeds, of giants dancing, of eternal sorrows eternally consoled, of he knew not what and yet what he had always known, awoke in him with the very first bars of the deep-mouthed dirge, and bowed down his spirit as if the gate of heaven had opened before him” (p. 131). The song speaks of the body falling away and the hnau rising from it, a second and better life more real than the first. Then, as the song ends, Oyarsa says, “Let us scatter the movements which were their bodies. So will Maleldil scatter all worlds when the first and feeble is worn” (p. 132).

We Can’t Have It Both Ways: If Values Aren’t Real, Persons Have No Inherent Value

Most modern and postmodern accounts of what it means to be a person are not robust enough to support the meaning and values that their proponents seem to claim, yet they would find the account portrayed by Lewis to be quaint, if not laughable. My field of social work tends to hold either modernist materialist or postmodern subjectivist explanations of human nature and values, yet at the same time proclaims the inherent dignity and worth of each person as one of its core values. You really can’t have it both ways.

As Lewis pointed out in The Abolition of Man (1962), if human beliefs and behavior are only the result of environment and conditioning and values are only personal preferences, the jig is up. Nature has the last laugh. We may think that we are extending our control by developing ways to make human beings whatever we want, but in the end it is nature, not humans, that will have won. After we have “seen through” all the values and the motivations, the remaining motivations can only be the ones that can’t be seen through-whatever itch, desire, or lust we happen to be experiencing at the moment.

Yet, in spite of our philosophies, human beings continue to speak and act as though persons are more than products and values more than preferences. I know that it is true for me. Values and meaning have always been very important to me. I realized early on that not all understandings of the nature of the universe and the nature of persons are compatible with persons having inherent dignity and value, or with the words “love” and “justice” having any morally obligatory power. I understood the abyss of absurdity, meaninglessness, solipsism, and raw power that yawned before me, and that it could very well be true.

When I encountered C. S. Lewis’s writings as a freshman or sophomore in college, his theme of ultimate, real values immediately resonated deeply with me. I understood when he said that we can’t have it both ways. We may ultimately live in a purely materialistic and naturalistic universe, and our experience of that universe may ultimately be only radically subjective and bounded by cultural conditions. But if so, we must be honest and realistic enough to kiss love and justice goodbye.

Yet, bent as we are, human beings steadfastly persist in seeking some real meaning to love and justice. Notions and theories about human nature and behavior that ignore our tendency to shape our behavior, our communities, and ourselves based on beliefs and values are fatally reductionist. On one level, there will be new evidence every day that love is only lust, if we ignore the “inside” knowledge we have regarding human motivation and behavior. Lust may be present, but it is rarely the only thing. So, in spite of the considerable difficulties of believing in God, that morality is rooted in something really true about the universe and that it imposes real imperatives on me, I have always found the difficulties of believing that there is no God and that values have no real meaning even greater. This is what Elton Trueblood called the principle of “comparative difficulties” (1957, p. 13). In Mere Christianity, Lewis described his struggles with this:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?…Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too-for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. (1960, pp. 45-46)

That sounds right to me. Competing worldviews all have their difficulties and their prices. Love and justice could be only private fancies. But, finally, I find that very hard to believe.

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