In the City and Under the Mercy

“God is Creator. All things are related,” read the African side of a Contrast in Worldviews chart in my orientation packet. “A set order in the universe, independent existence, a naturalistic view,” answered the Western side.

“There is a spirit world,” insisted the African side. “Many factors in life cannot be known, controlled, or predicted.”

It went on. I don’t idealize either perspective. A few people successfully integrate these worldviews.

One Englishman, who was very comfortable with the active existence of a spirit world, was Charles Williams. “For him,” T. S. Elliot claimed, “there was no frontier between the material and the spiritual world. Had I ever had to spend a night in a haunted house, I should have felt secure with Williams in my company. . . . To him the supernatural was perfectly natural and the natural was also supernatural” (Introduction, All Hallows’ Eve, xiii–xiv).

An editor and author, Williams was one of the company of thinkers that met regularly in C. S. Lewis’s rooms at Oxford or in the local pub to discuss their writings. His fantasy fiction is so fantastical that it takes a bit of work to tease out the theology that governs the stories.

In her 1982 biography, Agnes Sibley identifies three crucial points of theology that address the relationship between the spiritual and the material aspects of our world.

Exchange or Substitution

Williams reads the scriptural principles of Christ’s incarnation, his substitutionary atonement, and our summons to be like him as literal—literal enough to unsettle our Western sense of individualism.

Spiritual truth has material implications. Injunctions such as “he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16) and “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2) mean that we can carry even another’s physical infirmities and so lighten her load.

C. S. Lewis describes this experience in a letter: “‘I wear a surgical belt and shall probably never be able to take a real walk again,’ he told a friend, ‘but it somehow doesn’t worry me. The intriguing thing is that while I (for no discoverable reason) was losing the calcium from my bones, Joy [my wife], who needed it much more was gaining it in hers. One dreams of a Charles Williams’s substitution! Well, never was gift more gladly given; but one must not be fanciful’” (Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, 246).

Better still, as we are transformed into the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18), we act as God-bearers to those around us (2 Cor 5:18). If they see us and receive grace from us, they receive it as though it were straight from God (Matt 10:40).


Co-inherence described a broader application of substitution. By the power of the resurrection, our “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), in fact all of God’s people at any time or place, are bound together forever.

“In order to explain this unity, Williams unearthed the old theological term ‘co-inherence,’ which was originally used to explain the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. He widened the word’s meaning to include ‘our Lord’s relations with his Church: “we in him and he in us,”’ claiming that it could also be applied to the way ‘the Church itself in-lived its children,’ making them ‘members one of another’” (Suzanne Bray, “Between Death and Paradise: Charles Williams and the Intermediate State,” citing Charles Williams, “The Way of Exchange,” in The Image of the City and Other Essays, ed. Anne Ridler, 149).

Both Williams and Lewis explained this concept using fictional intermediate states, “where only truth and reality can exist” (Bray). Whatever was true in the material world—though it be hidden by good manners, mistaken motives, or even hurtful actions—would become dominant in the intermediate state.

Much of the action of Williams’s All Hallows’ Eve takes place in such a middle place. All of Lewis’s The Great Divorce unfolds there, where a teacher explains, “Hell is a state of mind. . . . And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakable remains” (69).

The fascination with life after death may have been replaced by a fascination with life, but Jesus’ promise remains, “Whatever we bind on earth, will be bound in heaven and whatever we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. . . If two of us agree on anything, and ask the Father for it, he will do it” (Matt 18:18–20).

In the City and Under the Mercy

Which brings us to In the City and Under the Mercy. This phrase functioned as Charles Williams’s favorite benediction, and self-assurance. When his offices at the Oxford University Press moved from London to Oxford, he was distressed at his loss of the city and his family life.

Yet, his sense of the Heavenly City pervaded every place that he lived. “The City” in this phrase, represented “London as it is to us but also as it is to God” (John G. Sullivan, “The Pathway of Love,” Second Journey).

As we enter Epiphany 2014, as we celebrate three wise men recognizing the supernatural truth in a natural phenomenon, may we too see the world as God sees it. May we bear one another’s burdens and agree on at least a few things for God to bind and loose on earth. May his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. May we be in the City and under the Mercy.



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