Tuesday 7 February 2023

Charles Williams - his disbelief in the devil, and his convergence with 'oneness spirituality'

I am surprised that so many self-identified Christians disbelieve in the devil; not only because there are so many biblical references, but also because a devil makes strong sense both metaphysically (in terms of an explanation for the world as a whole) and empirically (as an coherent way of explaining and predicting the specific occurrences of this world). 

I commented some time ago that a Christian who was as scholarly, influential and respected as Charles Williams; nonetheless didn't believe that the devil was real

I found this confirmed in my current re-read of his novel The Greater Trumps, where the character Sybil (who is clearly intended to be the depiction of a very-near Saint - although not convincingly to my mind) says this in her internal monologue:

She did not, in the ordinary sense, "pray for" Nancy; she did not presume to suggest to the Omniscience that it would be a thoroughly good thing if It did; she merely held her own thought of Nancy stable in the midst of Omniscience. She hoped Nancy wouldn't mind, if she knew it. If, she thought as, the prayer over, she put on her other shoe - if she had believed in a Devil, it would have been awkward to know whether or not it would have been permissible to offer the Devil to Love in that way. Because the Devil might dislike it very much, and then...* However, she didn't believe in the Devil...   

Elsewhere in the novel in several places, it is clear that Williams regards the most evil thing to be the Ego, the Self; because the characters who are depicted as doing Good are expunging their sense of self of agency, of separateness. 

This is a common trope, indeed, among many self-identified Christians through the past 2000 years - I mean that being a "Good Christian" entails a destruction of any recognition of oneself as a separate being from God - the goal is to merge with God, or at least allow God and Goodness to flow through oneself. The self is ideally to become transparent, immaterial - the self standing aside and - eventually - being discarded. 

In other words; I am suggesting that among those who regard themselves as Christian but who do not believe in the devil; it seems usual to believe that - in effect - The Ego is the devil. 

Sometimes this is even stated explicitly; but even when unstated it seems to be implicit in analysis and discussions of evil; because the attribution of evil tend to converge upon the separate and strong ego of a person - often the separated selfhood of the Christian himself is regarded as the primary evil in the world.  

This substitution of the devil by the ego in a context of the primary desire for oneness is, I think, one path by which someone who regards himself as Christian can come to deny the reality of the devil.

This fits with a metaphysical theology that all Good comes from God, and (therefore) for Men to become Good, requires that they cease to offer any obstacle to the shining forth of God's Goodness. 

When God is regarded as omniscient and omnipotent, it seems logical that Men can add - from themselves - nothing to Goodness; which is (by definition) already complete and perfect. 

Since Men can add nothing to Goodness but only obstruct Goodness by their innate evil; Men should, therefore, ideally become empty, become like conduits for the expression of divine Goodness.  

What I am getting-at here is that this is another version of my old bugbear "oneness spirituality" - the only officially- and totalitarian-approved modern spirituality - once again confusing people and masquerading as Christianity. 

I tend to think that oneness spirituality is a point of convergence both of Christians who really-believe in in a mono-omni-God with whom the Christian ought to assimilate; and those adherents of 'Eastern religions' (Hinduism, Buddhism) who believe in a more pantheistic and abstract non-personal deity - that is 'everything'. 

The conceptual gap is bridged by the soaring abstractions and infinitudes of 'Classical' Christian theology (i.e. using concepts from pre-Christian Greek and Roman philosophy - especially Platonism and Neo-Platonism). In other words; abstractions and infinites applied to God conceptually-merge the person of God into a de facto impersonal deity.   

I mean the "mainstream Christian" theology that has, as fundamental, assertions of the Oneness of The Trinity; God's supposed attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence etc.; and an infinite gulf posited between creator and created.   

What I am saying is that someone who takes seriously, and rigorously pursues the implications of, Classical Christian theology; will find that - one the one hand - he is converging towards a oneness spirituality (and the stance of 'perennial philosophy'); and on the other hand will disbelieve in the devil specifically and the operations of purposive spiritual evil more generally - and will regard Man's self/ego as the biggest spiritual problem in the world. 

Both of these are harmful in the context of the spiritual challenges for Christians in 2023. 

Firstly, because the Western Christian churches have been corrupted and enlisted on the side of evil; this implies that such a fact will be invisible to one who disbelieves that there is a 'side of evil'.

Furthermore, when the churches are corrupt, the individual Christian must operate from that which is Good in his own self/ ego - as the basis for discernment and seeking spiritual guidance. Unless there is the possibility of recognizing and committing to the Good within us, we cannot discern God's guidance from without-our-selves. 

If, instead, we are trying to dissolve our selves into the Omni-God, or into the divine-which-is-everything (it makes little practical difference which); then we are trying to destroy the only thing that might save us in an institutionally-evil world


*Note: This is a quite extraordinary sentiment for CW to put into the thoughts of a supposedly sanctified woman! To express concern that the Devil "might dislike" something we did, and that this should be considered as a reason for Not doing it! 

This suggests either that the devil is not really evil, and so ought not to be made miserable. Or else it confirms that he is being regarded by CW as so certainly unreal; that one may indulge idle fancies about his preferences, and how it might be desirable to 'keep in the Devil's good books...' The "and then..." seems to indicate that unspecified or implied bad things might happen to us, if the Devil regarded us as his enemy.

My interpretation is that Williams may here be hinting (esoterically, to his inner circle - albeit so vaguely as to be deniable) that the Devil does not exist; but that there are personal powers who get called demonic (by many Christians) who can be helpful, of treated with due respect. I would guess that this had something to do with Williams's ritual magical practices. 

Of course I cannot be sure; but we do know (e.g. from surviving letters and records of conversations) that this kind of subtle, deniable, esoteric hinting in his published writing was exactly the way he operated. 


Anonymous said...

In this handy world of searchable out-of-copyright texts, I went to fadedpage and did word-searches for devil in He Came Down from Heaven (1938) and in Witchcraft (1941): 8 results and 191 results respectively. All the He Came Down ones are worth reading, in context - the first two came in a passage where I remembered the first clause, but not where it appeared!:

"The devil, even if he is a fact, has been an indulgence; he has, on occasion, been encouraged to reintroduce into Christian emotions the dualism which the Christian intellect has denied, and we have relieved our own sense of moral submission by contemplating, even disapprovingly, something which was neither moral nor submissive. An ‘inferiority complex’, in the slang of our day, is not the same thing as humility; the devil has often been the figure of the first, a reverse from the second, and the frontier between the two. While he exists there is always something to which we can be superior.

"Of all this, however, the book of Genesis knows nothing (unless, indeed, in the sentence about the mist)."

That "mist" reference has a foot note:

"There is a reading which takes the ‘going up of the mist’ to be a clouding of creation, after which the separation of the Adam into two creatures took place. But it is not possible in this book to ascend to such speculations. I follow everywhere the most commonplace interpretation." This has to do with interpretations relating that mist to Lilith - something Williams had taken up in 1925 poem included in Heroes & Kings (1930/31) and in Descent into Hell (1937).

Witchcraft is (I would say) in any case a book worth (re-)reading. In his 'Preface', Williams says, "No-one will derive any knowledge of initiation from this book; if he wishes to meet ‘the tall, black man’ or to find the proper method of using the Reversed Pentagram, he must rely on his own heart, which will, no doubt, be one way or other sufficient."

The last two paragraphs of the book are particularly worth reading in the context of Williams and 'belief in the devil', especially from the middle of the penultimate (after he has effectively (with scholarly caution) affirmed the existence of satanists):

David Llewellyn Dodds

Anonymous said...

[continued from preceding comment:]

"Underneath all the tales there does lie something different from the tales. How different? In this—that the thing which is invoked is a thing of a different nature, however it may put on a human appearance or indulge in its servants their human appetites. It is cold, it is hungry, it is violent, it is illusory. The warm blood of children and the intercourse at the Sabbath do not satisfy it. It wants something more and other; it wants ‘obedience’, it wants ‘souls’, and yet it pines for matter. It never was, and yet it always is.

"Some such absurd contradiction is perhaps the nearest one can come to describing the impression left by the whole history. Among the great host of images raised up by man for seen and unseen things, for real existences and unreal, there is this image also, the image of an almost abstract perversion. Opinions have differed and will (humanly speaking) always differ about its reality. Some have supposed that it had no identity in itself, that its image was only a reflection of man’s desire and man’s capacity; others have thought that the image was of an actual being, allied to men only in the sense that men are spirit and that it is spirit, differing from men in the sense that men are matter and that it is not, and never can be, matter. Therefore it twists, defiles, and destroys matter. Some again have supposed that it has very great power and some that it has hardly any power at all—at least within the Christian Church. Those who have thought it powerful have used all the powers of the State and the Church to fight it. They have been led by it, or by their dreams of it and their fear of it, into madness and massacre beyond description: or rather, not beyond description. ‘All sorcery and all spells were dissolved’, wrote the holy Ignatius in the first new generation of Christian things. The Church annotated that sentence. If ever the image of the Way of Perversion of Images came into common human sight, outside the Rites of the Way, it was before the crowds of serious Christians who watched a child, at the instance of pious and intelligent men, scourged three times round the stake where its mother was burned."

This neither simply denies nor simply affirms. Insoofar as it implies a personal opinion, it seems to me not an example (to apply the words) of "subtle, deniable, esoteric hinting", but of an equally strong, conscientious refusal to affirm or deny something of which he is not certain.

When Witchcraft was published, Williams was working on the first, later abandoned draft of a novel about the devil trying to become 'incarnate', draft chapters of which were published in Mythlore. This was an idea he attends to in his early (c. 1912-23) Arthurian Commonplace Book as he worked on his abandoned "Holy Grail" epic, touched on here in the clause "it pines for matter". (Tangentially, it is interesting to compare Tolkien's earlier, independently-arrived-at idea of Ainur who become Valar and Maiar and take on the appearances of the Children of Iluvatar who are awaited.)

My guess about the character Sybil in so far as she expresses Williams's thoughts in this passage is that the thought is, that even the freedom of the devil (if he indeed exists) to make wrong, evil choices must be acknowledged - and choices with real, weighty, lasting consequences - up to and including his eternal damnation. (I suppose the question, which I think enjoyed fresh attention in the Nineteenth century, of whether or not even the devil could finally repent and be saved, is in the background here: perhaps the "And than -" shows Sybil - for whatever reasons - refraining from pursuing that, even as a 'thought experiment'.)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Anonymous said...

[continued from preceding comment: third of three!:]

While it is a question which has keep me busy for years, my conclusion is that Williams is not a 'monist' or 'Gnostic' of the 'Eastern religions' or antique Gnostic variety. And his critique of 'self' is a critique of perversion of self into rebellious (devil-ish) selfishness rather than the proper radically distinct realization of coinherent human selves in the image of the Persons of the Trinity - the Triune God.

Interestingly, in an 18 April 1944 question and answer session, C.S. Lewis said, "No reference to the Devil or devils is included in any Christian Creeds, and it is quite possible to be a Christian without believing in them. I do believe such beings exist, but that is my own affair" - after which he goes on to put the case why it is prudent to believe in them, or the possibility of them and their activity.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - I don't believe that CW was a particularly distinctive kind of Christian (and my understanding of monism and historical gnosticism is that they are - in many respects - opposites!) - but I do regard him as more rigorous than most in terms of following through to the conclusions of his assumptions; especially in The Cross, which I regard as his profoundest meditation.

My disagreement is with the metaphysical assumptions; which are common to most Christians - and yet were not a part of Jesus's teaching IMO. For instance, CW's emphasis on omnipotence is rigorous and deep and given major emphasis in his discourse; but I think that the core-dogmatic belief in God's omnipotence is a very serious error for a Christian (no matter how common it has been through history among intellectuals).

As I have sometimes said, it was the insistence of Christian intellectuals that the Christian God was one and omnipotent (omniscient etc) - that created the impossible adequately-to-resolve contradictions with the divinity of Jesus Christ and the necessity for Man's agency; and this contradiction led to the successful rise and take-over of Islam in the Christian heartlands; with its reassertion of (much more coherent) pre-Christian pure monotheism with God straightforwardly omnipotent.

Anonymous said...

A couple more thoughts:

I wonder how far Williams is attending to a distinction between (1) acknowledging created selves can freely choose to betray themselves and their 'proper operation' and will particular evils - like Henry trying to kill Lothair (though I do not recall Sybil knew of this - I should reread the passage in context) - and (2) frustrating the enactment or achievement of those particular evils - I think first of War in Heaven, here, with its three sorts or degrees of self-conscious satanists: Julian Davenant retrieves the Graal and tries (with prayerful success at one point) to preserve it from abuse, Prester John prevents their wrecking Davenant and Pattison into each other (assuming that were possible - it seems to be starting to happen), and delivers Pattison from the bondage to which he had submitted (fearfully, not heartily), but Gregory is not prevented from willing and attempt evils up till that moment - presumably he is himself allowed, rather than being in any way forced, to turn from his evil willing, confess his murder, and submit himself to the consequences. Pattison is not spared from being murdered, but is finally delivered from evil.

I also wanted to mention Williams's sonnet, 'Thy Will be done', on page 116 of Divorce (1920), with its attention to the propriety of prayer, and its benefit to the person prayed for, to affect good and do them good, whether they join in willing it or not.

David Llewellyn Dodds

P.S.: My thought about monism and Gnosticism(s) together was with reference to "a destruction of any recognition of oneself as a separate being from God" - as much as I have read (e.g., in Hans Jonas and Kurt Rudolph and Gershom Scholem) about 'gnosticism(s)' in which the 'gnosis' that one supposedly arrives at, or receives, is that one is in fact God, a 'spark of the Divine', etc.


Anonymous said...

Oops! I meant to mention that Divorce is scanned in the Internet Archive, for anyone who want to read that (to my mind memorable and seriously enjoyable sonnet) - and to browse or read more of his early poetry (which was not pre-Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, but pre-Phyllis Jones and assorted later esoterically put-upon young women which is not to suggest good aspects of his later thought repudiated good aspects of this earlier poetry, however he betrayed the proper operation of his self, so to put it!).

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - BTW - I am working through the audiobook recording of The Greater Trumps, at a measured pace, and (as so often) having the book read aloud by a careful reader has brought out aspects which I had rather missed on previous readings.

In particular, it seems much more uneven in quality than I remembered (it's several years since I last looked at it) - the best parts are better, and the worst parts seem worse, more irritating. I feel the book could have been improved simply by cutting down some sections; because some of the least successful bits seem to go on the longest!

I also find that pretty-much everything I remember of the book has already happened in the first 2/3. I haven't yet reached the end yet, and am curious to discover what it is that I had forgotten!