Each time I read through C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece, Till We Have Faces, I’m struck by some new layer of meaning, some new profound insight, and this latest (fifth, I think) time was no exception. One of the most emotionally wrenching and mentally jarring moments in the book comes on the very last page, the only bit not written from the perspective of Orual. “I, Arnom, priest of Aphrodite, saved this roll and put it in the temple. From the markings after the word might, we think the Queen’s head must have fallen forward on them as she died and we cannot read them. This book was written by Queen Orual of Glome, who was the most wise, just, valiant, fortunate, and merciful of all the princes known in our parts of the world….”
On their own, there is nothing particularly arresting about these words. However, to any reader who has traversed the pages of this book, following Orual on her psychological journey of love, hate, envy, insecurity, and pettiness, these words come like a splash of cold water on the face. This is the same Orual who has been consumed, up till the final days of her life, with jealousy and self-love, who is Ungit, the embodiment of sin and ugliness, devouring everyone around her: “It was I who was Ungit. That ruinous face was mine. I was that Batta-thing, that all-devouring womblike, yet barren, thing. Glome was a web–I the swollen spider, squat at its centre, gorged with men’s stolen lives.”
How can she be simultaneously the embodiment of wickedness and yet praised by her subjects as “the most wise, just, valiant, fortunate, and merciful”?
In this story, I think that Lewis has eloquently and beautifully portrayed what the Reformers meant when they spoke of the two kingdoms in man, the distinction between civil justice and true justice. Often the Reformers’ conception of total depravity sounds strange and harsh to us. Luther will say things like “Even just and pious men, whose justice might be found pure outside God’s judgment in the realm of mercy, are in his His judgment not at all helped by this justice but are equal to the last and most vile sinners.” Even our best works, he insists, are sins apart from Christ. How can Luther speak like this, we wonder? It is not just that he says that our good works cannot save us–he says that they are not even good. If a man practices justice, surely that counts for something? Surely it is better than committing injustice.
Luther goes on to endorse the importance of justice in the civil kingdom, but separates this entirely from justice in the spiritual kingdom. Any pagan, he says, can be just in the civil kingdom, just as much as any Christian. But this justice, whether pagan or Christian, however appreciated it may be in the eyes of men, counts for nothing coram Deo. Surely this is an unhelpful dichotomy, we say. If God’s standard of justice bears no resemblance to what we humans recognise as justice, doesn’t this make God’s justice arbitrary?
Lewis’s narrative, however, powerfully explains Luther’s logic. We each have two faces–the face which we show toward the world, and the face that only God sees, unless he enables us to see it for ourselves. Too often, our most loving actions toward other people turn out to be, as Orual realises, “a love that can grow to be nine-tenths hatred and still call itself love”–a love that devours and consumes others in its self-love. Our best works of justice and mercy, our labours for the common good, turn out to be only distractions by which we seek to escape from the emptiness within us:
“What did I not do? I had all the laws revised and cut in stone in the centre of the city. I narrowed and deepened the Shennit till barges could come up to our gates. I made a bridge where the old ford had been. . . . I did and I did and I did–and what does it matter what I did? I cared for all these things only as a man cares for a hunt or a game, which fills the mind and seems of some moment while it lasts, but then the beast’s killed or the king’s mated, and now who cares? It was so with me almost every evening of my life; one little stairway led me from feast or council, all the bustle and skill and glory of queenship, to my own chamber to be alone with myself–that is, with a nothingness.”
This darkness in our souls renders, from the eternal perspective, all the good works which we do outwardly worthless. But of course, that is not Lewis’s (or Luther’s) final word. We ought not think therefore that civil justice is pointless or meaningless. It does nothing for the person doing it, perhaps, if their soul is dark, but it does much for others. Arnom meant it when he penned those words with grief, “the most wise, just, valiant, fortunate, and merciful of all the princes known in our parts of the world….” Part of Lewis’s point, I think, is to remind us how much good is done in the world by people whose souls are consumed with rottenness within, how many, no doubt, of our great heroes and saints were men and women who would be ashamed for us ever to read the journal of their inner thoughts. And this can be a comfort to us, deeply mindful of our own sin and twistedness–that God works through broken vessels, through warped instruments, to accomplish good for his creatures upon earth. Remembering this profound distinction between these two faces, these two justices, these two kingdoms, can teach us to appreciate outward justice where it may be found, not demanding of it an inward perfection, but neither putting too much trust in it, forgetful of the darkness that lies deep within each of us.