The Timelessness of Charles Williams

Inklings, people, charles williams, study

Charles Williams is utterly distinctive. Some scholars think that Williams has something to say that both resonates with and challenges postmodernity. His work deals sympathetically with man’s suffering, contradictions, and impossibilities, in addition to the accompanying skepticism. Many postmoderns can find some common ground with his sensitivity to suffering and skepticism, but he also challenges the inherent relativism of our day with a fresh perspective of orthodoxy, through his fictional narratives as well as his theological works. This perspective aids one to think from a new standpoint and gain a different frame of reference, centering in Christ’s identification with man through His Incarnation and especially His Passion. Robert McAfee Brown writes,

What Williams does … is to give us Christian theology in a new key, transposed to a fresh register, so that it appears as a new and exciting thing. He is aware of the dangers of encrusted doctrinalism…. He has recovered different modes for the expression of Christian faith just as they are most needed. [1]

Aidan Nichols, and many other theologians and writers, not only believe that Williams’s work is important but also that it is well disposed to aid the reader in the twenty-first century.[2] Glen Cavaliero says that the Arthurian poems call for an imaginative use of intelligence because they are ahead of rather than behind their time.[3] Charles Moorman thinks that Williams’s works ‘speak more awesomely to one’s condition’ now than they seemed to decades ago because they ‘were not rooted in the issues and ideas of their age or, in fact, of any age, but rather in images of life which, as Chaucer demonstrates, do not change in the way that our perceptions of the meaning of life do’.[4] John Heath-Stubbs says, ‘Williams looked beyond the preoccupations of the 1930s and 1940s, anticipating what may be called a postmodernist vision’.[5]

These scholars suggest an enduring quality about his work due to its identification with man’s condition and an inkling that his response is an orthodox challenge to postmodernism.[6] Dorothy Sayers says that his work is freed from being bound by a sense of period because of his theological perspective. Williams, not being a historical or metaphysical relativist, has a different nonrelative view that stands in contrast with postmodernity:

He was singularly free from that hypertrophied ‘sense of period’…. Williams never forgot that every age is modern to itself, and that this fact, or illusion, links it to our own. Thus to all men in all ages he has the same direct approach;… the same charity, to which irony gives a certain wholesome and astringent edge. This freedom of judgement is not to be obtained except from the viewpoint of a theology which postulates an absolute truth, and which, moreover, sees in the material facts of history the symbol and expression of that truth.[7]

Williams’s perspective also challenges the fragmentation of postmodernism, as Brian Horne writes,

Williams will be disliked by those of our contemporaries who have surrendered to the fashion of ‘post-modernism’, who have accepted the proposition that the only truth we possess is that there is no truth, the only surety we have is that there is no surety. His work, from first to last, is a challenge to the current, prevailing philosophy of multi-valence and fragmentation; but, as will be seen,… it is precisely because he experienced, inwardly, the possibility of fragmentation and dissolution so acutely that he was able to expose the dangers of this ‘reading’ of life so cogently.[8]

As Horne suggests, Williams identifies with those who suffer and, at the same time, he shares a true deep sympathy with the honest questioning skeptic whose skepticism is often prompted by suffering. Williams’s identification with suffering and skepticism resonates close to postmodernism. But he has limits to his thinking because he brings God and Christ into the picture. He wrote a poem in honor of The Feast of St. Thomas Didymus, Apostle and Skeptic.[9] Williams allows his readers to ask, like Job, Mary, all innocent sufferers, and even critics, that God answer for the suffering and injustice in the world.[10] God’s words and the consequences of His acts must have an accounting. Williams makes Christianity plausible and credible for those who share such supposals. He develops a dialogue relevant to the impossibilities, suffering, and contradictions that man experiences, and questions, universally. His theological interrogation also allows the world to be narratable. He writes, ‘A great curiosity ought to exist concerning divine things. Man was intended to argue with God’.[11] For Williams, arguing means an honest dialogue and holding God accountable for the way things are. Williams says that the same philosophical curiosity accompanies the Annunication with Mary’s question: ‘How shall these things be?’

In her essay, Cath Filmer-Davies tackles these issues and demonstrates how ‘Williams’s approach, in The Place of The Lion, to skepticism is depicted as the nutrient agar of faith and faith is supported and energized by the constant challenge it receives from skepticism’. [12] ‘Williams believed that skepticism is not antithetical to faith but in fact informs and constitutes it’ (104). She goes on to say, “Postmodernist skepticism can become, as it has for Williams, a way of faith. And that premise—that faith arises from doubt, that ‘without contraries is no progression’—is at the heart of Williams’s argument in The Place of the Lion” (112).

However, in his overall understanding Williams goes to a different place than postmodernism and most postmodern scholars. He introduces Christ’s role into the picture, which fundamentally alters the whole understanding of suffering and skepticism. Williams’s response to postmodernity is in humility and trust. God expresses his definitive identification with all who innocently suffer, in answer to Abel’s and Job’s voices, in the cry of Christ’s passion: ‘My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?’ Williams expresses Christ’s identification with man:

There is no more significant or more terrible tale in the New Testament than that which surrounded the young Incarnacy with the dying Innocents: the chastisement of His peace was upon them. At the end … He too perished innocently…. He had put Himself then to His own law, in every sense…. This was the world He maintained in creation…. They crucified Him … He had shown Himself honourable in His choice. He accepted Job’s challenge of long- ago, talked with His enemy in the gate, and outside the gate suffered (as men He made so often do) from both His friends and His enemies.

Williams’s ultimate response to man’s suffering and skepticism is Christ’s response: ‘Father into thy hands I commend my spirit’ (Luke 23:46). As previously noted in Chapter II, Williams shares the conviction with Kierkegaard that, while experiencing these terrible impossibilities, man, in humility and trust, should leap into the arms of God.

 

[1] Robert Brown, ‘Charles Williams: Lay Theologian’. Theology Today July 10, 1953: 217.
[2] Aidan Nichols, A Spirituality for the Twenty-First Century. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2003. 11.
[3] Cavaliero,  Charles Williams: Poet of Theology, 172.
[4] C. Moorman, ‘Sacramentalism in Charles Williams’, The Chesteron Review 8, no. 1 (1982): 38.
[5] John Heath-Stubbs, Foreword to The Rhetoric of Vision: Essays on Charles Williams by C. A. Huttar and P. J. Schakel (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press; London: Associated University Press, 1996), 8–9. See also 17, 21–22, 101.
[6] Williams’ identification with man’s inner suffering may be one reason for the continual republication of his work and a hint as to his viability today. My italics; he was an Inkling and his work fits the description.
[7] Dorothy Sayers, Introduction to James I by Charles Williams (1934; London: Arthur Barker, 1951), xii–xiii.
[8] Brian Horne, Introduction to Charles Williams: A Celebration, ix.
[9] Williams, Divorce, 1920. Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2007, 105–06.
[10] Williams also uses critics such as Montaigne, Voltaire, Kierkegaard, Pascal, and D. H. Lawrence when they have exposed the hypocrisy in the Church.
[11] Williams, He Came Down from Heaven and The Forgiveness of Sins, 1938; 1942. Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2005. 4, 30.
[12] C. Filmer-Davies, ‘Charles Williams, a Prophet for Postmodernism: Skepticism and Belief in The Place of the Lion’, in The Rhetoric of Vision (London: Associated University Presses, 1996), 103.
[13] Williams, The Image of the City and Other Essays, Selected by Anne Ridler. 1958. Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2007, 133; Williams’s italics.
[14] Williams, Introduction to Kierkegaard: The Present Age and Two Minor Ethico-Religious Treatises. Translated by A. Dru and W. Lowrie. London: OUP, 1940. xii.

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