Overcoming the Great Divorce IV: Charles Williams

Overcoming the Great Divorce IV: Charles Williams July 24, 2008

Part I
Part II
Part III

No knight could offer any love to any lady till he had proved his worth; then he might, ‘and his friend was the more chaste as he was brave.’ The phrase suggests – as we might from other sources suppose, and those not only Christian or doctrinal but imaginative and poetic – that chastity was more than a negation of lust; it was a growing, heightening, and expanding thing. It was a state of spiritual being, and its spiritual expression was not at all inconsistent with marriage.

Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis. Taliessin through Logres. The Region of the Summer Stars. Arthurian Torso (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1974), 226.

Tolkien was married for most of his life, and was able to reflect upon the needs and requirements of the married life in a way that Lewis, as an outsider to marriage for most of his life, could not.[1] He experienced the joys, but also the sorrows, which burdened any couple; he understood that a marriage could last, but for it so so takes an act of willpower. Allowing society to treat marriage lightly will only train the youth to take it lightly, and they will not be prepared for the hardships to come; disaster is, of course, the only possible result. “A situation is being, has been, produced in which ordinary unphilosophical and irreligious folk are not only not restrained by law from inconstancy, but are actually by law and social custom encouraged to inconstancy.[2]

Tolkien and Lewis were not the only Inklings interested in discussing, debating, and meditating upon the institution of marriage. While Lewis primarily wrote upon it in his apologetics, and Tolkien wrote upon it from his personal experiences, giving sage advice to his friends and family, Charles Williams was interested in examining marriage under a theological light.[3] His thoughts take the matter further and deeper than what we find in the writings of Lewis or Tolkien. And in this way they can be used to set the stage by which we can overcome “the great divorce” between Tolkien and Lewis.

A central theme in the writings of Charles Williams was what he called “Romantic Theology.” One description he gave of it is that it was the kind of theological reflection which came out of great romantic moments.[4] Many great writers and poets had proclaimed it before him (such as Dante or Wordsworth). While love is often consummated in sex through marriage, especially in more modern times, it is not the only way love can be experienced. Some of the greatest representations of love are a-sexual, though of course, sexual conjugation clearly has an important place for married lovers. “The pre-eminent moment of romantic love is not, of course, confined to the moment of romantic sex love. There are other moments of intense experience combined with potentiality of further experience.[5] Indeed, chivalry, as exemplified especially in the Arthurian tradition, forbade such contact, but was capable of bringing its loves to the height of bliss. “The beloved (male or female) is seen in the light of a Paradisal knowledge and experience of good. Christ exists in the soul, in joy, in terror, in a miracle of newness.[6] Dante can be seen as the genius who grasped the depths of romantic theology and brought its attention to the Church; he joined what he learned to the sacramental life. It was, as he was to discern, his love for Beatrice which brought grace to his soul, giving him a spiritual rebirth, and led him, allegorically, to paradise. “There was, in the history of Christendom, a genius of the greatest power whose imagination worked with this theme, and that was Dante. The range of his whole work provides a complete account of the making of the experiment and of its success.[7]

Although marriage does not hold exclusive honors in Romantic Theology, it certainly is a central theme. Indeed, it is the primary way most come to understand it and experience the graces which are found in romantic experiences. This explains why Williams’s early, but important, work on the theme, Outlines of  Romantic Theology, is a discussion of marriage. In it he stated his central thesis in this fashion: “The principles of Romantic Theology can be reduced to a single formula: which is, the identification of love with Jesus Christ, and of marriage with His life. This again may be reduced to a single world – Immanuel. Everything else is a modification and illustration.[8] This means that marriage brings the couple into union with Christ; indeed, their sexual activity, in a fashion, unites them to the crucifixion: “Intercourse between man and woman is, or at least is capable of being, in a remote but real sense, a symbol of Crucifixion. There is no other human experience, except Death, which so enters into the life of the body; there is no other human experience which so binds the body to another being. The central experience of sanctity is to be so bound to another, though for the saints this other is God.[9] But, as with the crucifixion of Jesus the end was not in his death, but in his resurrection, so to must we understand that crucifixion in the married life also ends in joy. Love, as Dante has already shown us, ends with a spiritual rebirth, one which gives us a greater enjoyment of life and the world around us. “Each sacrament, in a sense, contains within itself all others, and marriage so contains them – not so that they should be neglected, but that by their outward practice in the Catholic life they should be felt, renewed, and developed in the life of marriage. For all the sacraments mean renewal in one way or another: and love perhaps most visibly creates the renewal in the phenomenal world.[10]

Charles Williams clearly understood marriage as a sacrament, as a bearer of grace which works for the redemption of the couple under its confines, and not just a social convention.[11] It is because of this that he looks at divorce with horror: divorce is an attempt to nullify the work of God in the lives of the couple. “And, to refer again to the matter of divorce, it is because marriage is a means of the work of redemption that two lovers in whom it has begun are required by the Church to submit themselves to that work to the end. Divorce is an attempt to nullify a sacrament actually in operation; as if a man should attempt to begin the supernatural life by being rebaptised.[12] Or, as he stated in The Figure of Beatrice, Marriage is the great example, in this sense, of the Way of Affirmation. The intention of fidelity is the safeguard of romanticism; the turning of something like the vision of the eternal state into an experiment towards that state. Once that experiment has been formally begun, it cannot be safely abandoned, or so the Christian Church maintains. No other experiment of the same complete kind can be begun in the Omnipotence, once the Omnipotence has conjoined itself with the lovers’ assent to the first.[13] What he said about divorce, he also said about birth control; both are attempts to stifle the love formed in the couple. This is why the Church must oppose both, even though it makes the Church look foolish.[14]

If romance can lead to theology, then errors in that theology can be heresy. The kind of affection between a couple is like adoration.[15] This, of course, is dangerous, because it can lead to ruin. The couple can idolize each other, with each one of them looking at their beloved as impeccable instead of as the fallible human they actually are.[16] And the devil can tempt the couple in their great moments of love, and turn them away the reality of the situation, causing them to believe more of that love than they should. “Hell has made three principal attacks on the Way of Romantic Love. The dangerous assumptions produced are (1) the assumption that it will naturally be everlasting; (2) the assumption that it is personal; (3) the assumption that it is sufficient.[17] What he meant by the second, as he later clarifies, is that the lover is led to believe he possesses the beloved, objectifying them instead of seeing them as a rightful subject of their own right.[18]

Like Tolkien, Charles Williams looked at monogamy and its presence in history. When he does so, he doesn’t think it can be determined a success, at least if one looks at it with a natural light. But he also doesn’t think the Church defends itself in its promotion of monogamy by sociology. Rather, it looks to the demands given to it by Christ, and it uses those demands to judge what happens in the natural world. “It is extremely doubtful whether monogamy can be defended on the grounds of its being a cultural success; and to do the Church justice she never has tried to defend it primarily on any such unsatisfactory grounds. She has based her defence on the supernatural, and the supernatural and the cultural do not, always and habitually, agree.[19] Thus Williams ends up unconcerned with societal acceptance of monogamy. The Church must focus on its own truths, whether or not they can be confirmed by the natural sciences. Its truth is Christ. Yet, its truth is also the truth of love, as he explains, “In humility and goodwill Dante answered Love when things went well, but Love answers Love however things go. But beyond that is the state when there is, in effect, no circumference; or rather, every point of the circumference is at the centre, for the circumference itself is caritas, and relation is only between the centre and the centre. This is love-in-heaven.[20]


[1] Like with Lewis, one must understand that I discuss marriage as an outsider looking in.
[2] J.R.R. Tolkien. Letters. ed. Humphrey Carpenter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981), 61 (Letter 49).
[3]There is no doubt about it; Charles Williams was more a rather odd individual. He did more in his position in life than he should have, demonstrating why one’s station in life is not necessarily indicative of one’s contribution to society. For most of his adult life, he worked for Oxford University Press, helping to produce important books, like Oxford’s collection of the poems of Hopkins. While not a qualified scholar with any academic status, his natural intellectual capabilities and vast storehouse of knowledge eventually led him to teach at Oxford. The students, for the most part, loved him. They saw him as someone new, someone undisciplined, someone capable of showing them a new way to think, a new way to act, someone who was not imprisoned by the normal contours of academic life. He brought his sense of purpose with him. The students were mesmerized, although, as John Wain admitted, what he said was often less important to the students than how he said it: “He ranted, and threw back his head, and clutched at the shoulders of his gown, and stamped up and down on the platform, but there was always the feeling that he was not doing it to impress us with his importance, but rather with the importance of the material he was dealing with. His mood never seemed to fall below the level of blazing enthusiasm. Great poetry was something to be revelled in, to be rejoiced over, and Williams revelled and rejoiced up there before our eyes. When he quoted, which he did continually and from memory, he shouted the lines at the top of his voice like an operatic tenor tearing into an area. It was not war, but it was magnificent,” John Wain. Sprightly Running (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1963), 149. Religiously, Charles Williams was a High-Church Anglican with a firm love of its pageantry. But he was also in love with the esoteric, the mystical, the supernatural; this not only led him to become a member of the Golden Dawn, but also to write fictional and non-fictional works which portrayed the wisdom he had gained from his pursuit of the mystical. There was, beyond this, another side to him. He was a romantic, and his love for the romantic not only connected him to the Arthurian legend, but also to Dante. He was especially fond of Dante’s Vita Nuova.   Through his studies and experiences he would many times write upon the spiritual power of love. In the end, having become a popular figure, his death was a shock many, friends and fans alike, the list of those who were both included C.S. Lewis, Gervase Matthew, Dorothy Sayers, and T.S. Eliot.

[4] See Charles Williams. The Image of the City.ed. Anne Ridler (Berkley, CA: The Apocryphile Press, 2007), 74.
[5] Charles Williams. He Came Down From Heaven and The Forgiveness of Sins (Berkley, CA: The Apocryphile Press, 2005), 65. He even points out that such love “is not limited to between the sexes, nor to any love. The use of the word (so spoilt it has become) in some sense colours it with the horrid tint of false adoration and a pseuod-piety. But grace remains grace whatever fruits are grown from it,” ibid., 81.
[6] ibid., 77.
[7] ibid., 66-7.
[8] Charles Williams. Outlines of Romantic Theology (Berkley, CA: The Apocryphile Press, 2005), 14.
[9] ibid., 24.
[10] ibid., 32.
[11] As a sacrament, the graces must be more than just reproduction, but uniting the couple to the life and work of Christ, for their own fulfillment. Marriage must be more than a natural, social morality which leads to reproducing the species. See ibid., 73.
[12] ibid., 47.
[13] Charles Williams. The Figure of Beatrice (London: Faber and Faber, 1953), 51.
[14] Charles Williams. Outlines of Romantic Theology, 11.
[15] Charles Williams. He Came Down From Heaven and The Forgiveness of Sins, 65.
[16] ibid., 77-8.
[17] ibid., 78.
[18] ibid., 79.
[19] Charles Williams. Descent of the Dove(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 129 – 30.
[20] Charles Williams. He Came Down From Heaven and The Forgiveness of Sins, 77.

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  • Zak

    Henry, this was very interesting. I didn’t know much of Williams at all. Along with a general appreciation for what he says here, it provokes a couple questions:

    What is the exact relationship between the love Dante expresses in La Vita Nuova and marriage? Dante writes his love poem to Beatrice here and in the Divine Comedy, and yet he himself was married (and not to her whom he encountered only briefly in life). This adoration-type of love seems to me far different than the earthier love in marriage that Tolkien seems to recognize so clearly.

    How does the argument that the Church defends marriage on supernatural grounds coincide with a Catholic understanding of marriage and the natural law and with issues of public policy? If monogomous, indivisible marriage is not merely an instrument of divine law but natural law, then should there not be natural grounds on which we can defend it, without recourse to revelation (although revelation about marriage should be sufficient for all Christians to recognize its indivisibility)?

  • Zak

    I admit I did not go into the complexity of the situation in Williams’ work here; and what you draw out is indeed one of the questions one can raise to it (he does go into a discussion of it, but it seems to be more apologetical; in part because, there seems to be, a sense that he is also discussing his own love with his wife but also with other women).

    It is in this way that Williams tries to reject the notion of love as possessive and therefore, to show why jealousy and envy, which can come out of all kinds of love, are “mortal sins.” Of course, it is a different issue from fidelity. Just think, for example, how two men can love each other with philos, sometimes in a stronger love than the love of a man and his wife with eros; the wife can indeed become jealous of her husband’s friends. This is an example of how Williams would look at it; but he would also say that love as love can extend also to the kind which Dante had for Beatrice, which was pure, and didn’t limit him from his love for his wife. But it can become a danger, because humanity is fallen. And you are right, to an extent, I think Williams is quite different from Tolkien, though Tolkien, in his literary writings, can be seen as affirming much of the poetic theology of Williams.

    I would also say I think much of what Williams says is great but also raw; I won’t be able to answer all questions in the final post, but I will be dealing with the way I think Williams is pointing out to something more, neglected by Lewis and Tolkien, and picked up again in theological circles. I am also trying to address in it issues of the question of natural law; in my mind, much of the discourse on “natural law” is faulty, because it is a closed system of nature which it has in mind.

    Either way, I do think Williams is onto something, but like you, I also find elements of it troubling. I think what he is trying for is the kind of thing we can find picked up upon by Balthasar, among others, though with much more refinement. Interestingly enough, Balthasar employs much of Williams’ analysis in his writings.

  • JB

    Interesting again! I’m also pretty ignorant on Williams.

    How does the argument that the Church defends marriage on supernatural grounds coincide with a Catholic understanding of marriage and the natural law and with issues of public policy? If monogomous, indivisible marriage is not merely an instrument of divine law but natural law, then should there not be natural grounds on which we can defend it, without recourse to revelation (although revelation about marriage should be sufficient for all Christians to recognize its indivisibility)?

    Don’t we (the Church) also hold the marriage/family is the foundation and building block of society? This seems to be a sort of sociological defense of marriage.

    I am also trying to address in it issues of the question of natural law; in my mind, much of the discourse on “natural law” is faulty, because it is a closed system of nature which it has in mind.

    I’m very interested in your thoughts on this. I am no expert on natural law, but have had little to no success employing natural law thought in defense of natural/sacramental marriage and sexuality in conversations with friends of the post-modern (in the Rorty sense) atheist persuasion. I get responses like the following: Frankly, I find theological suppositions about the nature of gender, sexuality, and marriage to be a flimsy case for a policy decision or legal statute. … it’s best to argue from concrete facts rather than philosophical abstractions of an alleged “human nature.”
    I’m looking forward to the rest.

  • Zak

    You’re right about Tolkien and poetic treatment of love. It seems like most adoring eros-love relationships (as opposed to adoring philos relationships like Sam-Frodo) for Tolkien (e.g. Aragorn-Arwen, Beren-Luthien) occur in marriage or lead to trouble (Maeglin-Idril). Maybe the situation of Eowyn regarding Aragorn and Faramir in The Return of the King can be instructive for how Tolkien regards a Dante-Beatrice-like situation. I think this weekend I’ll force myself to return to the texts and look into it. 🙂

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