Dylan Thomas once said to Charles Williams, “Why, you come into the room and talk about Keats and Blake as if they were alive.” That’s how I want to talk of Charles Williams—novelist, poet, dramatist, essayist, critic, biographer, and theologian.
But who is he? Few people know him, little is written of him, and his books are hard to find. Yet he was a major influence on C. S. Lewis, who edited Essays Presented to Charles Williams. T. S. Eliot counted him as a friend, and wrote an introduction to one of his novels. Dorothy Sayers wrote of Williams in The Mind of the Maker.
As soon as we mention Lewis and Eliot and Sayers, we think we know Williams—his geography, his interests, his theology. We can label him an “Oxford Christian,” a member of the Inklings, a lover of literature and beauty and debate. All that is true to an extent. But to name his associates does not name Williams, for in nature and thought he was unlike any of them. There is something elemental and root-like about Williams; he saw into the heart of God’s things; he understood the deepest implications of some of Christ’s enlivening, yet solemn sermons. Williams tells great tales while he teaches us the nature of the Christian life. He does not need to take us to other planets or worlds to give us new insights and experiences, as does Lewis, for example. (The third member of Lewis’s trilogy, That Hideous Strength, which takes place on earth, is not as effective as the otherworldly two, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra.)
His biography can be briefly summarized. He was born in London, September 20, 1886, and was educated at St. Albans Abbey School, St. Albans Grammar School, and University College, London. In 1943 Oxford University awarded him an honorory M.A. For four years he worked with a Methodist publishing house, though he was an Anglican all his life. In 1908 he went to work for Oxford University Press as an editor, and he remained there for the rest of his life. He married Florence Conway, whom he renamed Michal, in 1917, and a son, Michael, was born in 1922. During the war Oxford Press moved from London to Oxford, when Williams became a member of the Inklings and began lecturing at the university. He wrote about forty books and more than two hundred essays. On May 15, 1945, a few days after Germany’s capitulation, Charles Williams died.
Lewis describes the impression Williams made on people:
In appearance he was tall, slim, and straight as a boy, though grey-haired. His face we thought ugly: I am not sure that the word “monkey” has not been murmured in this context. But the moment he spoke it became, as was also said, like the face of an angel—not a feminine angel … but a masculine angel, a spirit burning with intelligence and charity.… No man whom I have known was at the same time less affected and more flamboyant in his manners: and also more playful. He was nothing if not a ritualist … [but was aware of ritual] as a glorious game, well worth the playing [Essays Presented to Charles Williams, Eerdmans, 1966, p. ix].
The power of Williams’s prose—though he often writes “purple but pleasing purple,” as one of his characters remarks about himself—would be evident to almost anyone. Eliot thought it was valid to stop with the story. If he were talking of Lewis or Tolkien I might agree, but what Williams says in his stories is too subtle to apprehend on the plot level. I do not mean that he uses plot to proselytize, but that his plots are the natural and effortless result of how he viewed the Christian life. As Eliot put it, “For him there was no frontier between the material and spiritual world.… To him the supernatural was perfectly natural, and the natural was also supernatural” (Introduction to All Hallow’s Eve). He saw both worlds simultaneously, not parallel but meeting and touching. He explains the phrase “in the world, but not of it” as existence in both at once; we are in this world but of another. As Williams says in He Came Down From Heaven, prepositions are vital. The importance of Williams for a Christian is just that ability. Although evangelicals tenaciously believe in the supernatural, it becomes suspect when acted out in someone’s life. Mysticism and miracles frighten us. Williams takes familiar Scripture passages—First John, John 15, Ephesians 4:25, for example—and not only builds novels around them but brings immediacy and practicality to their meaning. He impels us to examine how we have acted these ideas. I find in myself an intellectual assent without the physical and emotional incorporation that Williams so obviously had.
A unity, in this case between intellect, emotion, and body, is another way of stating what Williams called the doctrine of co-inherence. The Trinity, the New Testament concept of community, and Paul’s metaphor of the body are all examples of that doctrine. From Lewis’s description, Williams, too, was an image of it. His six novels (War in Heaven, Many Dimensions, Shadows of Ecstasy, The Place of the Lion, All Hallow’s Eve, The Greater Trumps, and Descent Into Hell), his mature poetry (Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars), his criticism (The Figure of Beatrice), and his theological writing (The Descent of the Dove and He Came Down From Heaven, the title of which is taken from the Nicene Creed) explain his ideas of images, co-inherence, and love. Without co-inherence love would be impossible, for we would have no way to reach another person. Yet without love co-inherence would be concept without act. The disparate members of the body co-inhere only when love motivates all toward the same act. Williams’s ideas of images and co-inherence provide a basis for his most important theological concept, substituted love, or bearing one another’s burdens.
Williams was a “romantic theologian.” Lewis in his preface to Essays Presented to Charles Williams explains that “romantic theologian” means, not one who is romantic about theology, but one who is theological about those experiences that are called romantic. Williams saw two opposing views of Christianity, the Way of Affirmation of Images and the Way of Rejection of Images, summed up in the statement, “This also is Thou; neither is this Thou.” The romantic believes that anything loved “romantically” is an image of God. Thus the Way of Affirmation, which Williams chose, is the first half of the statement, i.e., “This also is Thou.” A book, a person, a tree, if loved, point to the Fountain and Source of Love.
Dorothy Sayers says that the Affirmative Way is that of the artist and the poet. The Way of Rejection, with which most of us are more familiar because it is the way of Calvin and John Knox, says that, as Shideler explains it, “all images, even the holiest, conceal God, not because they are evil; but because they are finite” (The Theology of Romantic Love). It is the way of asceticism, or, if you will, the cry of young evangelicals for a bare-bones life-style. It says, “Neither is this Thou”; nothing can image God. A balance between “This also is Thou” and “Neither is this Thou” is healthy. The person who accepts the Way of Affirmation needs to realize that ultimately God is unimaged, while the one who chooses the Way of Rejection needs to realize that all nature awaits its perfection as an image of God’s perfection, as Paul says in Romans 8:22.
The doctrine of co-inherence keeps these antitheses unified. The Incarnation and Jesus’ life on earth provide us with the pattern. Christ was both God and man; he existed simultaneously in physical and spiritual words and exemplified the balanced tension between “This also is Thou; neither is this Thou”; he was both imagist and ascetic. He was called a winebibber, but yet was without any trappings of the world, including a place to live. The relation between Christ and Christian and between Christ and the Church also reflects co-inherence. In John 15:4 Christ says, “Abide in me, and I in you—that is, coinhere together. John 17:22 and 23 juxtaposes Christ’s relationship with individuals and individuals’ relationships with one another: “The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me.” Ephesians 4:25 amplifies the idea that as members of the individual church we reflect a co-inherent community: “for we are members one of another.”
The conclusion of John 17:23 leads us to the reason for co-inherence: “so that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.” We become one through God’s love in Christ first, and then by loving one another. We cannot experience coinherence with God unless we love our brothers: “if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12).
How do we love one another? Here Williams becomes his most practical and, paradoxically, his most mystical. He has contributed something fresh and far-reaching for the Christian’s practice of what Williams calls substituted love.
Just as the Incarnation is the image on earth of coinherence, so the Atonement is the image of substituted love. Christ in love bore our sins and pain and guilt, and as his followers we too ought to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). First John 3:16 makes the connection explicitly: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” From the beginning of Scripture, with Cain’s sinful question to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?,” to Paul’s statement on the body of believers, the idea of substituted love is presupposed. Christ’s parable of the good Samaritan and his question regarding neighborhood indicate that substituted love ought to be common practice. Evangelicals tend to think that “bearing one another’s burdens” means sympathy or intercessory prayer, and certainly that is part of it. But we stop short of the kind of physical burden-bearing that Williams advocates.
Self or independence or the denial of co-inherence often interferes with our attempts to allow our burdens to be born. Selfishness often comes with our unwillingness not to bear another’s burdens but to give up our burdens to someone else. Here, Williams says, is a place where it definitely is more blessed to give than to receive, simply because it is harder to do so. But aren’t we to let Christ bear our burdens? Williams beautifully answers that:
We are supposed to be content to “cast our burdens on the Lord.” The Lord indicated that the best way to do so was to hand these over to someone else to cast, or even to cast them on him in someone else. There will still be work enough for the self, carrying the burdens of others, and becoming the point at which those burdens are taken over [He Came Down From Heaven, Faber and Faber, 1950, p. 88],
Williams goes on to outline the way of substituted love: “to know the burden, to give up the burden, to take up the burden. Burdens are not to be taken recklessly. We must consider exactly how far any burden, accepted to the full, is likely to conflict with other duties” (p. 89). In short, he says, there is the “necessity of intelligence.” And then:
The one who gives has to remember that he has parted with his burden, that it is being carried by another, that his part is to believe that and be at peace … The one who takes has to set himself—mind and emotion and sensation—to the burden, to know it, imagine it, receive it and sometimes not to be taken aback by the swiftness of the divine grace and the lightness of the burden [p. 89].
When we practice substituted love we “fulfill the law of Christ,” which is the last half of Galatians 6:2.
Williams shows the practice of substituted love principally in Descent Into Hell, The Region of the Summer Stars, and All Hallow’s Eve. The most explicit and complete use of substituted love is found in Descent, where he makes the idea a central theme of the story. Pauline, the main character, sees an exact image of herself, which the Germans call a doppellgänger, and the fear of it paralyzes her. According to the doppelgänger myth, if Pauline should meet her exact double, she will die. Her fear is the burden to be carried by someone else. Out of desperation Pauline tells Peter Stanhope, a poet, about her dopppoet, about her. In the chapter “The Doctrine of Substituted Love” he tries to explain the idea to her. At first she reacts strongly against the idea: “How can anyone else carry my fear? How can anyone else see it and have to meet it?” In denying the possibility of substituted love she also commits the sin of self-centeredness. The poet’s reply is significant:
If you want to disobey and refuse the laws that are common to us all, if you want to live in pride and division and anger, you can. But if you will be part of the best of us, and live and laugh and be ashamed with us, then you must be content to be helped. You must give your burden up to someone else, and you must carry someone else’s burden [Descent Into Hell, Eerdmans, 1965, p. 99].
God intends that we live in community with one another, and a result of our refusal to commune with him is that we cannot commune with one another.
Peter will not allow Pauline to accept a less-than-rich interpretation of Galatians 6:2. By understanding some Scripture passages too narrowly we sometimes cut ourselves off from the deepest life God intends for us. Peter explains, “He means something much more like carrying a parcel instead of someone else. To bear a burden is precisely to carry it instead of. If you’re still carrying yours, I’m not carrying it for you—however sympathetic I may be” (p. 98). The experiment works; Peter carries her fear in his flesh; Pauline enters the community of Christ. Substituted love cannot be separated from community, which is an image of co-inherence. Without community we cannot fulfill Christ’s law to love one another as he loved us. At the same time, without substituted love—Christ’s for us, ours for one another—we have no community.
The Region of the Summer Stars is one of two cycles of lyric poetry about King Arthur and the Round Table, and in one poem, “The Founding of the Company,” Williams succinctly explains the relation between community and love:
The Company’s second mode bore farther
the labour and fruition; it exchanged the proper self
and wherever need was drew breath daily
in another’s place, according to the grace of the Spirit
‘dying each other’s life, living each other’s death’.
Terrible and lovely is the general substitution of Souls
the Flesh-taking ordained for its mortal images
in its first creation, and now in Its sublime self
shows, since It deigned to be dead in the stead of each man [Eerdmans, 1974, p. 56].
I do not pretend to understand all that Williams says here. Lewis’s commentary on the poem helps, but he, too, confesses ignorance at certain points. For our purposes, the important words are exchange, substitution, and “dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.” Williams intends the company to be an image of the Christian community. We find contemplatives and actives, celibates and married people. We begin with Genesis, the “first creation.” We were created co-inherent; woman came from man and from then on man from woman. In that way we were made in the image of God, the three-in-one. This description of the company expresses God’s ideal for the Christian community. In these poems, as in our daily experiences, the ideal, if realized at all, soon fades in sin. But at the least Williams teaches us something of what the Christian community ought to be.
Community begins when we acknowledge our need for Christ and in turn our need for one another. Two people, bearing and being born, form the core of community. That is what happens in All Hallow’s Eve when the main character, Lester, exchanges herself for another character, Betty. The plot structure is complicated and foreign to everyday experience. Lester is killed during an air raid but exists throughout the story in a limbo-like London. (Remember that Williams saw natural and supernatural worlds simultaneously.) A man called “the Clerk” is an anti-Christ figure. Hoping to rule the world, he sends Betty, his daughter, into the supernatural London where Lester exists in death to gain information about the future. Eventually he wants to send Betty permanently into that dead world as a liaison for himself between life and death. Through her he hopes to rule both worlds.
The night the Clerk tries to send Betty permanently into that other world, Lester substitutes herself to save Betty’s life. As Betty sleeps, happily for the first time in many years, Lester takes all Betty’s pain into herself: “She had not at all died till now.… Better the vague unliving City than this.” In a symbolic sense Lester finally dies to self by sacrificing herself wholly for another. And such a death is more tormenting to the self than physically dying. To really co-inhere with Christ, we must first die in this way. Anything less will not do. Just as Lester’s self slips from her she is saved:
She was leaning back on something, some frame which from her buttocks to her head supported her; indeed she could have believed, but she was not sure, that her arms, flung out on each side held on to a part of the frame, as along a beam of wood. In her fighting and sinking consciousness, she deemed to be almost lying along it.… Between standing and lying, she held and was held.… She pressed herself against that sole support. So those greater than he [the Clerk] had come—saints, martyrs, confessors.… Neither her mind nor her morals had prepared her for this discovery [All Hallow’s Eve, Avon, 1969, p. 147].
Williams makes clear that her support is the cross, symbol of the Atonement, the first and last image of substituted love. With Christ come the “glorious company of all faithful people” to welcome her joyously into their fellowship. In that salvation Betty speaks: “ ‘Lester!’ As the word left her lips it was changed. It became—hardly the Name, but at least a tender mortal approximation to the Name. And when it had left her lips, it hung in the air, singing itself, prolonging and repeating itself.” The Name of Christ defeats the anti-Christ.
Few of us will see the universe as Williams saw it. Yet each of us can and is commanded to perform acts of love. These, Williams stresses, are to be the form and evidence of our Christian lives. In an essay entitled “The Way of Affirmation,” he says, “The rediscovery of such a high power as normal to the operative Christian is far enough away at present,” but we are not, he adds, to strive to make it normal. Our job is to adhere to the faith. “The Holy Ghost will then do what He will, and it seems possible that we may humbly believe that at the right hour He shall teach us ‘what we shall speak’—when to make offers and when to receive offers.”
Making and receiving offers of substitution depends, ultimately, on our Lord’s offer of himself for us:
The activity of the Christian Church may have to recover, more than is commonly supposed, our substitution, one for another. The most important thing is to get our minds accustomed to the idea of that activity: attention without fever, speed without haste. The Atonement of our Lord restored this power to man; the Holy Ghost now, as originally, confirms, nourishes, and directs it.… Adam and Eve were, originally, one being. It is a profound symbol. Justice, charity, union; these are the three degrees of the Way of Affirmation of Images, and all of us are to be the images affirmed [The Image of the City and Other Essays, Oxford, 1958, p. 158].
If Williams helps us understand these truths a little better, he has done a great deal.
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