Saturday, 7 November 2015

The nature of Charles Williams's failure to repent adultery

“I might almost have been capable of repenting, but as it would lead nowhere, I decided not to.” (p. 247, note 784). According to Grevel Lindop (p. 246) this has something to do with Phyllis Jones (by then, Mrs. Somervaille), and the two preceding sentences are “I was provoked by a temptation to wish that nothing had ever happened. And that surprised me.”

Cited by Davil Llewellyn Dodds from from The Third Inkling by Grevel Lindop, quoting a letter of 15 February 1935 to Anne Bradby (later, Mrs. Ridler) in the comments to a post at The Oddest Inkling blog.

This passage seems significant to me as evidence of a refusal to repent - but the argument that Williams failed to repent does not hinge on it.

My understanding of repentance is that it is not so much about feelings (and certainly not about feeling guilty or ashamed - although these feelings may be helpful), and certainly it has nothing to do with Christians sinning any less than other Men, nor is it about repentance being an effective way of improving behaviour - as it is about acknowledging God's law as Good, and admitting the failure to live by it.

In CW's case it would be saying that what he was doing with Phyllis (and the others) was adultery and wrong.

Even though the extramarital infatuation helped him write poetry, and even if he was not capable of stopping himself from continuing in his adultery, and even if repentance “would lead nowhere” in terms of behavioural change – Williams ought to have repented, he must be clear that adultery is against God's moral scheme.

Williams probably could not gather the strength to break his addiction, just as many drug addicts cannot - but that is not the Christian problem: humans are weak, and Christ did not come to save perfect Men but to save sinners (including far worse sinners than CW - whose transgressions were trivial in the scheme of things that includes murder, rape, theft etc).

When Williams says that repentance is futile because it “would lead nowhere” he is making a profoundly wrong statement – because repentance is not about worldly effectiveness; but about eternal effectiveness – repentance is nothing less than the difference between salvation and damnation: for a Christian repentance is the most important thing of all (CS Lewis certainly understood this).

So Williams certainly could and should have refrained from defending adulterous infatuation - even if in a hard-to-understand and roundabout way - in his writings on Romantic Theology including The Figure of Beatrice.

It is this considered written defence of his own personal sins that I would regard as Williams's most grave failure to repent; because he did not need to write it, indeed he went to considerable efforts to write and publicize it; and the fact that he nonetheless did write it meant that he was not merely sinning (everybody does that nearly all of the time) but was promoting sin in public discourse, by denying it was sin and instead saying it was a virtue - that is, by failing to repent.

See also my review of The Third Inkling


Anonymous said...

While "to wish that nothing had ever happened" might include wishing an "appearance" to which he could wholly have responded properly and not at all sinfully had not happened, rather than exclusively wishing he had not responded sinfully, it does seem bizarrely, thoroughly wrong-headed (and -hearted) not to have repented of failing to free himself "from concupiscence in regard to it.”

As you say, "When Williams says that repentance is futile because it 'would lead nowhere' he is making a profoundly wrong statement" - "even if repentance 'would lead nowhere' in terms of behavioural change – Williams ought to have repented, he must be clear that adultery is against God's moral scheme" and so against His loving purpose for Phyllis Jones Somervaille, her husband, and Williams himself.

Even if he is accenting the reality of his own 'culpa' and that it is from that fact of that sin that God - and he - must further proceed, and that that sin must be made 'felix' by God, an occasion of God doing some new good thing, it seems totally incoherent to "decide not to" repent, as repenting is basic to embracing any good God can bring from his (Williams's) evil.

David Llewellyn Dodds

David said...

@ Bruce - So, to clarify, are you saying that the essence of repentance is an *attitude* towards sin rather than the superhuman capacity of mere mortals to transcend their sins?

The important element being, no matter how many times a person succumbs to any temptation ranging from a broken self - promise to abstain from occasional Alcohol or flirting with girls (relatively harmlessly in a daily conversation) at one end of the spectrum and becoming a down and out drunk, pimp, serial adulterer or murderer at the other end of the scale of possible mortal transgressions; then as long as one trys ones *best* within the limits of agency to not do these things, feels a broken and contrite spirit after reflecting on their transgressions and then seeks repentance in prayer or confession...then presumably the slate is always wiped clean through the atonement of Jesus Christ and one can expect forgiveness and to begin again immediately on a fresh start irrespective of the degree of sin ie no one can sin so much they become beyond repentance (except sinning against the holy ghost, again, which is something I am yet to understand fully)?

Put another way, it is not the degree of the sin but the attitude of repentance and a determination to keep fighting our 'inner demons' and never give in or try to excuse ourselves that is important?!

Bruce Charlton said...

@DAvid - It depends what you mean by 'attitude' - that word may give the impression that repentance is about having a certain kind of emotion - which entails somehow 'manufacturing' an emotion which may not be spontaneous.

What I am talking about is more like knowledge than an attitude. Repentance is knowing that something is a sin - and because one knows that, then refraining from all voluntary excuses for it, and certainly refraining from promoting that sin as Good.

Whether someone states explicitly that it is a sin is variable - that might be a very dangerous thing. Sometimes people will be better just saying nothing - but not actively excusing or supporting it.

And if someone if forced to excuse or promote a sin, then that act should be repented - i.e. it should be acknowledged that it is a sin to excuse sin, and we did it, and this requires repentance.

A persons inner attitude may be all sorts of things, probably it will be unstable - but the knowledge of the sinfulness of sin is solid, and within reach of anybody no matter how weak willed or vaccillating they may be.

Anonymous said...


One is tempted to think about all the changes in the Christian moral teachings (and non-Christian ethics as well) that happened in the centuries that passed. We understand many things differently now than our, say, medieval ancestors did, including issues that constitute various sins, their gravity etc. One cannot help but to think that in the course of all these changes always there were some people who understood things in a way that was ahead of their time. Thus perhaps one may have honest doubts about what is and what is not a sin.

Obviously, the trouble is in recognizing between self-cheating and honest doubts. It seems to me that the crucial part of the sin against the Holy Spirit lies in recognition of something as Good but yet calling it bad/evil. Thus, it would be not a fault of one's knowledge but of one's intentions.

Bruce Charlton said...

WHile what you say may have some general validity - in this instance the conflict of interest is too obvious.

Relabelling something as non-sinful in the face of hundreds of years of tradition which you claim to revere, an activity which just happens to be what gives you the biggest sexual turn-on and helps your poetry... it's a bit too obviously convenient to count as a probable moral breakthrough.

It is (although far more moderate) exactly the kind of self-serving, self-aggrandizing hedonism which we see as mainstream among the 'Social Justice Warriors' of the sexual revolution and political correctness.

Anonymous said...


I did not intend to judge the particular case of CW (I am not in position to judge somebody's sins, anyway), I rather tried to answer the comments above that seemed to refer to a more general situation.

We do not know what happened in CW's mind, we do not know all his natural limitations, so while we certainly may discuss how bad his attitude was in terms of harm done to other people, we should be extremely careful about condemning the man for his actions.

What should have warned him? Probably his need to keep things under carpet - this should have rung a bell. Yet, there are cases when a man does good things that need to be hidden from light (think for example about brave people who helped Jews during the second world war, which often involved opposing the dominant antisemitic sentiment, in many cases supported, directly or indirectly, by local Church authorities), and this leaves a window for some rotten self-justification in less honorable situations. You may be right that one should, first of all, make sure one is not promoting one's own interests when one decides to challenge the common morality of one's time. This is very difficult, however, since it is not in our human nature to act against our interests, and thus our minds are extremely capable of hiding our true motivations from us... And this is why we are supposed to pray: "Fiat voluntas Tua".

Bruce Charlton said...

@Anon - I presume you are DLD?

I think we are certainly called upon to judge everybody and everything! - and should not refrain from doing so.

To suspend judgement would be to refuse to practice discernment, and therefore a recipe for disaster.

But we must be prepared and willing to change our judgements in the light of further evidence and experience. And of course be clear that our judgements are not ultimate or divine judgement.

So with CW (as with anyone, but perhaps more obviously) my view is that we must form a judgement about the man in order that we can get good from him, and not be corrupted by him.

If we do not make a reasonably clear judgement about him, a clear and circumscribed judgement - knowing what we now know - then CW will simply be abandoned and avoided by Christians (as, indeed, he already was by some - for example Alan Jacobs in his excellent critical biography of CS Lewis - The Narnian).

Anonymous said...


I do not know what DLD means (not my initials, if this is what you asked about).

As for judging human actions, inluding our own actions, one is never reminded enough that we have only a very partial knowledge about their results - omniscience is a divine attribute, and luckily so (since, as we know now, by all sorts of "butterfly effects" the outcome of our actions propagate in such a manner that in the long run whatever we do, or do not, leads to some unwelcome and sad results; thus omniscience without omnipotence would probably only paralyze us or make us cruel). This makes any sort of judgement difficult, and even more since we do not know true motivations lying behind somebody else's behaviour (and behind our own as well, though for slightly different reasons).

And as for selflessness versus conflict of interests as a golden standard for moral judgement, quite many things have been changed for better (also according to nowadays Christian views) even though at their time the same changes were strongly condemned by the Church on moral grounds. Think, say, about the divine sanctions for the rule of kings. It was not monarchs themselves who decided that actually they are no more God's proxies than every other Christian (or perhaps every human being) is. Or, think about the earthly power of the Church, say, Papal States before 1870. Somehow, most Christians would easily agree now that the limitations of the Church's earthly power was in many ways an improvement rather than weakening of the Church's holy mission. Yet, popes did not let go of this power willingly. And so on, and so on, from Galileo to slave liberation and woman's suffrage, quite many good things resulted from people promoting their interests aginst the moral standards of their times.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I got it - I am not David Llewellyn Dodds, sorry, I did not notice that he also posted as Anonymous at the beginning of this thread. Mine are Anonymous comments starting from "14 November 2015 at 00:38".

(Since I am not an English native speaker and my command of English is quite shaky, I probably should feel flattered. That might be devastating to my morality! :)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Anon - this is why pseudonyms are necessary...