Wednesday 26 August 2020

Charles Williams and the intoxications (and despair) of abstraction

One great service Charles Williams accomplished for me, was to take abstraction and reveal it in its most appealing and life-enhancing guise, but then to follow it through to its logical terminus in something close-to despair.

I felt this again just recently on re-engaging with Charles Williams - as I did on the first encounter back in 1987. Williams takes the everyday, the personal and inter-personal - and makes it into symbolic abstraction; and then he sticks-with that abstraction, and goes higher and further, until we are close to replacing the mundane with the abstract.

This produced a distinctive feeling in me. The everyday would be made strange, hazy and surrounded by a magical glow - yet Williams sought (explicitly, persistently) for absolute clarity, for pattern, for precision...

Thus the initial abstraction would be clarified by ever-more, more-precise abstractions; yet the effect of these explanations on me was that I never quite got to the clarity that would allow it to become a root or basis for life.

To my mind, Williams would 'solve' one problem - such as human suffering - by extraordinarily radical abstraction; that, if adhered to, ended by making everything an instance of that problem.

Yet it is almost unique to Williams, among Christian writers I have encountered, that he stuck-with his abstractions wherever they would lead - which was, in fact, to a condition that was close to despair. Not exactly despair, because of faith - but only a (crucial) hairsbreadth, only the thickness of gold leaf - between his abstract realism about this mortal life... and despair.

This can best be seen in perhaps his supreme work of theology 'The Cross' , which I would encourage you to read slowly and thoughtfully (if possible). Williams's apparently positive and optimistic ideas of Romantic Theology are based on co-inherence, substitution and exchange; which seem to offer great possibilities for present alleviation, for the assistance of future and past persons in our present lives (as in Descent into Hell, when a modern women and a long-dead Protestant martyr exchange their sufferings).

Yet in The Cross; Williams recognises that his use of a unity of Time to make all past, present and possible futures ultimately simultaneous; has some extremely stunning consequences. For instance, that the sacrifice of Christ's crucifixion is always now, always available - means that Christ is always being crucified. That any suffering by anybody is not only eternal, but actively willed by God.

That the historical reality of Christ is also absolutely non-historical because his life/ death/ cricifiction/ ascension always-was and always-will be.

But also that Satan, all demons, all the worst evil ever done by anyone (including all future evil) is simultaneous and experienced now; and part of God's plan.

At a mundane level; Williams's assertion that the City of London is really and ultimately the City of God; means that everything about London is part of the divine. On the one hand, this elevated the everday business of life in the Oxford University Press offices to a divine and eternal level; on the other hand it meant that all the pains, fears, boredom, dullness, spite and other sins of his actual life was incorportated into the City of God, forever.

And yet, actually grasping such a perspective, holding onto it, comprehedning it, explaining it... always this seemed to be slipping out of reach. And the more I really focused-in on William's explanations of his explanations; the more often it slipped away.

Eventually I recognised that this was intrinsic to abstraction itself; and that the only understanding that would ultimately satisfy me were the very simple and personal explanations of early childhood 'animism' - of a living and wholly personal creation.

So I ended at an opposite extreme from CW; but I am very grateful for him in getting me here; and I believe that he deserves great credit for taking his ideas to their extreme terminus - taking them to a point far beyond that which most philosophers or theologians are prepared to venture.

That point you can see for yourself - if you make the (significant) effort to read What the Cross means to me

Only at that point was the reductio ad absurdum of Williams's abstracting premises apparent to me.

Therefore, I would have to regard Charles Williams as a more important (because more rigorous and honest) Christian philosopher than many much-more-famous and more-widely-prestigious names. 


Gary said...

A great incitement to read Charles Williams. Honest, energetic, truly "child-like" thinkers with a deep passion to uncover the Truth are always helpful to other Truthseekers, even if we reach completely different conclusions.

I got the a similar type of Benefit-from-learning-clearly-what-doesn´t-work, not in relation to Abstraction but in relation to seeing what a Godless world actually entails and looks like, from reading Nietzsche as an atheistic young man.

It was by reading Nietzsche that I became interested in God (whereas before I wasn´t anti-God, just thought it was a superstitious relic not worth even thinking about), started thinking seriously about Christianity, and then ultimately abandonded Nietzsche (whom I held in extremely high esteem) and took up the Cross.

And the feeling of gratitude, of spiritual debt, is akin to the one you speak about in your last paragraph regarding CW.

Anonymous said...

I suspect it would be good to (re)read Williams's play Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury as well, after reading this post!:

with its attention to 'diagrammatic clarity', its astonishing figure of "Christ's back", and its vivid details of human suffering, on the part of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, the unnamed 'obstinate men" Cranmer has sent to the fire, and especially Cranmer himself.

David Llewellyn Dodds