Saturday 22 June 2024

Charles Williams's false ideal of the mathematical impersonality of love

Mrs. Anstruther opened her eyes and met Pauline's. She smiled. "My dear," she said, "I've been meaning to ask you something for the last day or two." Pauline thought it might be the hot afternoon that gave the voice that effect of distance; it was clear, but small and from afar. The words, the tone, were affectionate with an impersonal love. Pauline thought: "She might be talking to Phoebe"—Phoebe being the maid—and at the same time realized that Mrs. Anstruther did so talk to Phoebe, and to everyone. Her good will diffused itself in all directions. Her granddaughter lay in its way, with all things besides, and it mingled with the warm sun in a general benediction.


As if in a last communion with the natural terrors of man, Margaret Anstruther endured a recurrent shock of fear. She recalled herself. To tolerate such knowledge with a joyous welcome was meant, as the holy Doctors had taught her, to be the best privilege of man, and so remained. The best maxim towards that knowledge was yet not the Know thyself of the Greek so much as the Know Love of the Christian, though both in the end were one. It was not possible for man to know himself and the world, except first after some mode of knowledge, some art of discovery. The most perfect, since the most intimate and intelligent, art was pure love. The approach by love was the approach to fact; to love anything but fact was not love. Love was even more mathematical than poetry; it was the pure mathematics of the spirit. It was applied also and active; it was the means as it was the end. The end lived everlastingly in the means; the means eternally in the end.

From Descent into Hell, by Charles Williams, 1937.  

Love is regarded as the primary value of Christianity; yet that statement leaves it unclear what is meant by love, and indeed by Christianity. 

Speaking from my personal understanding; I regard it as a profound error when Christians strive to assert of love that it is ideally impersonal, universal, unconditional, impartial... I mean the error that love is best to be understood by abstract metaphors drawn from mathematics, physics, astronomy, and the like. 

Charles Williams was certainly very prone to asserting this perspective - as illustrated above by descriptions relating to Mrs Margaret Anstruther; a character in the novel Descent into Hell, who is pretty-clearly intended to represent Williams's idea of a modern saint: a genuinely wise and good person. 

In this novel and elsewhere; Williams frequently referred to his ideal situation as mathematical, a geometric pattern; characterized alike by precision and abstraction. But in this respect, except for his emphatic and stark rhetoric, Williams was not at all unusual among the main-stream of theologians from very early in Christian history. 

Indeed; Williams's attitude seems to me the normal and mainstream Christian theologian's view that ideal love - i.e. the love of God for all of creation - is necessarily impersonal. 

This due to the assumption that God as Creator is of an utterly different nature and quality than any created thing; and because of God's attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and God's unchanging/ unemotional character (immutable and impassible); therefore it is supposed that love (like God) is best to be understood using impersonal metaphors such as mathematics, geometry, physics etc.

As I say; in contrast I regard love as necessarily personal; including ideal love, and God's love. 

I believe that such notions as universal, unconditional, impartial love are false importations from outwith Christianity - whether the pre-Christian Greek (e.g. Pythagorean, Platonic, Aristotelian) and Roman (e.g. Neo-Platonic, Stoic) philosophy (in the case of ancient Christian theologians); or from oneness-belief/ aspirations of (Western understandings of) Hinduism and Buddhism in the case of theologians of the past century plus. 

I believe abstract ideas of love are harmful to Christianity here and now. However; I do not think that such false theology did much harm in the past, in the pre-modern era. 

The reason is to do with the development of human consciousness; and the rather gradual but progressive loss of what Barfield terms Original Participation. I mean, that Mankind began having a natural and spontaneous, and largely unconscious, immersion-in the world of the divine and of spirits. But that Men have gradually (over centuries, and millennia) become more self-conscious, and more separated from this divine-spirit world; until now the separation is very nearly complete (except in early childhood). 

(This modern separation from the spiritual and divine - and from participation in The World - is sometimes called alienation.)  

This separation is also a development of the potential for freedom. But separation means that Men now need to make a conscious and active choice of beliefs, and we cannot (do not) unconsciously benefit from an implicit knowledge of God and Creation (and God's Will). 

In different words; Men used to find-themselves automatically aligned with divine creation and God (to a significant degree); whereas now Men find themselves alienated from creation to the point of denying the reality of creation and God.

What this meant was that in the past Men could hold all kinds of false beliefs, including the falsehoods of mainstream Christian theology; without coming to significant harm - whereas nowadays, because our theology is actively and consciously chosen - false theology is harmful; and indeed nearly always leads out of Christianity. 

As for Charles Williams; he was regarded by several influential intellectual Christians (especially adult re-convert authors such as CS Lewis, TS Eliot, Dorothy L Sayers, WH Auden; but also a significant following of "disciples") as an exemplary and inspiring Christian writer - and indeed person.  

IMO: For all William's many flaws; this informed positive evaluation of CW as Christian and theologian deserves considerable weight.  

On the other side; a knowledge of CW's biography (including autobiographical writings) suggests that he found his own religious understanding to be deeply unsatisfactory - indeed tragic to a degree only a hairsbreadth away from despair (and apostasy)... Yet, a hairsbreadth away (i.e. CW remained Christian, and continued to hope).


William's religion was rigorously derived from his theological assumptions - far more rigorously so than for most theologians. 

Yet, even among the mass of not-rigorous Christians, assumptions have consequences; and I believe that the assumption that Christian love ought to be impersonal, mathematical, has taken a terrible toll on the faith of individual people... Causing variously disbelief, confusion, disgusted rejection, and opening the door to assimilation of "Christianity" with the abstractions of Satanic totalitarianism.   

Therefore, what was (only just) possible for Charles Williams - i.e. to have a false understanding of love and yet be Christian - is probably not possible for those born several generations later and in our grossly-corrupted civilization. 

We (here and now) must be clear and explicit that love is personal and inter-personal - and that God is a person, and of the same kind as ourselves - else we will (sooner or later, whether acknowledged or denied) not be Christians



Thomas said...

When I talk to my friend, I say something and he says something back, and we thus relate. How do we personally relate to and love God as a person? I can speak to God in my mind, do I wait for an impression (maybe similar to what Mormomism talks about) as God's reply?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thomas - You might start in finding an answer by reading the linked references?