In the Dust of This (Silent) Planet: Nihilsm, C.S. Lewis, and the End of the World

On a recent episode of NPR’s Radiolab podcast, the topic was nihilism. The host’s brother-in-law, Eugene Thacker, wrote an academic treatise (that, by his own admission, no one would read) on the idea of nihilism–a philosophy that argues “there might not be a purpose to existence, or to your life, or to the cosmos; there might not be an order to things; we might not be here for a reason; this all might be purely arbitrary, an accident,” according to Thacker.  The premise of the book was that we are foolish to think of the existence of the world in terms of humanity, because the world itself doesn’t care about the human species. Thacker traces this idea through culture and art.

Here’s the funny thing the show revealed: this little book (or at least its title, “In the Dust of This Planet”) has popped up in a few different places in pop culture over the last year or so (including a Jay-Z video).

This kicked off a discussion on pop culture’s flirtation with nihilism.  One of the key ideas of this discussion was that “nihilism” is the key element of cool–a repudiation of all that came before, all social structures or closely-held ideals.  Generations of young people throughout the last 150+ years have used this concept as a means of pushing out and away from their parents’ era. The show connects the dots to Dadaism, punk rock, and postmodern thought.

So, why is nihilism cool? One of the ideas the host suggests is that nihilism is a way to not be afraid of facing the end. (Though some of his guests suggest this is just a posture–a way to avoid really dealing with mortality.)

So what’s that got to do with C.S. Lewis?

I have to admit, I wasn’t sure at first. Here’s what really happened: I considered blogging about this fascinating podcast episode, and my mind immediately made a connection between the title of Thacker’s book and the title of Lewis’ first “Space Trilogy” book, “Out of the Silent Planet.” I hadn’t read that one in years, so I thought, why not check it out again?  And here’s what I discovered:

The briefest synopsis of OOTSP–a linguist named Ransom is kidnapped by an old schoolmate named Devine and his business partner, a cruel scholarly fellow named Weston.  Ransom is drugged and smuggled aboard a spaceship built by these two men and flown to another planet called Malacandra, that is incredibly inhabited by three races of rational creatures–the otter-like Hrossa, the frog-like Pfiffltriggi, and the tall and thin and vaguely-birdlike Sorns.  Ransom escapes his captors and becomes acquainted and then friends with these creatures, who all serve Maleldil (their creater/god) and his servant, the Oyarsa, who rules over their planet. Ransom is summoned by Oyarsa, and when he gets there, very shortly sees that his former captors have been captured and brought before Oyarsa to stand trial.

Here’s where I found a connection: while Devine is a greedy scoundrel who just wanted to mine the planet for gold, Weston was more interested in conquest. He reveals that he wants to eventually colonize this planet and subjugate its inhabitants, so that humanity can survive and propogate the universe. He uses grand language about the survival of his species, at any cost. He professes love for humanity, even as he demonstrates he’s willing to give up Ransom as a blood sacrifice to satisfy any god or monster on this planet.

Two vastly different books–two different approaches to the end of the world.  

On the one hand, the nihilist accepts his supposed destruction (and some of this mind even laugh in the face of it).  On the other hand, this character Weston is engaged in a desperate and self-destructive mission to save the human race, no matter what or who gets annihilated in the process.

The beauty of Lewis’s book is that he implicitly and explicitly repudiates the ideas of Weston.  The Oyarsa (think of it as a kind of angel or spirit) who rules Malacandra explains to Ransom that it’s natural for races of creatures to come and go, and that this is part of the Creator’s plan. When they die, their spirits go to be with their god. This life is not the ultimate; it’s merely the antechamber to the better life that is coming.

Lewis here illustrates the Christian view of life and death–something he also does especially well in his Narnia books.  As believers in Jesus, we recognize that life in this broken world is not the ultimate; it’s merely the beginning of life.

Jesus our King, in order to save the broken men and women made from the dust of this sin-stained planet, became one of us, in order to bear the penalty for our rebellion and provide the means of our redemption. The resurrection of Christ is our hope of renewal. We don’t have to be afraid of what comes next.

When we die, we who are in Christ will be taken to a better life, an eternal home. This is the very reason we don’t fear death. This is the reason we can accept Jesus’ words that we shouldn’t fear the one who can merely kill the body. This is why we believe that anyone who loses his life for the sake of Jesus and His Kingdom will find true life again.

This is why we believe that when our King returns, those who have died will be raised again, with transformed bodies–not mere spirits, but incarnate beings who have been freed from the shackles of death, disease, and decay, rescued from the curse of sin forever.

Nihilists sneer at the end of the world. Humanists rage against it.  But those who follow Jesus know that the end of this world is only the doorway to its rebirth and renewal into a beautiful eternity.

If you are in Christ, take heart.  He has overcome the world.

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