Saturday, 23 August 2014

Charles Williams takes classical theology to the limit

Unfortunately, I cannot find an online copy of Charles Williams essay "What the cross means to me" - which is published as The Cross in the selected essays entitled The Image of the City edited by Anne Ridler, 1958. 

But I have seen several scholars represent it as Williams deepest, most heartfelt and most characteristic essay on theology - the fruit of a life-time of study and intense reflection on Christianity.

It is a rigorous and unsparing, indeed shocking, following-through of the implications of classical theology - and God's omnipotence. Here are some edited excerpts:


The original act of creation can be believed to be good and charitable; it is credible that the Almighty God should deign to create beings to share His Joy. It is credible that He should deign to increase their Joy by creating them with the power of free will so that their joy should be voluntary. It is certain that if they have the power of choosing Joy in Him they must have the power of choosing the opposite of Joy in Him. 

But it is not credible that a finite choice ought to result in an infinite distress... that the Creator should deliberately maintain and sustain His created universe in a state of infinite distress as a result of the choice.

This is the law which His will imposed upon His creation. It need not have been.

Our distress then is no doubt our gratuitous choice, but it is also His. He could have willed us not to be after the Fall. He did not.


Now the distress of the creation is so vehement and prolonged, so tortuous and torturing, that even naturally it is revolting to our sense of justice, much more supernaturally. We are instructed that He contemplates, from His infinite felicity, the agonies of His creation, and deliberately maintains them in it. The whole creation groaneth and travaileth together. 


Williams confronts head-on the implication that (in its classical theological interpretation) Christianity attributes all the evils of the world to God, and the vast and (it is said) infinitely-prolonged suffering of creation is to be attributed to God as well. 

(In the sense that the sufferings in Hell of those who have chosen wrongly are here assumed to be infinitely prolonged.) 


For Williams, it was not ultimately acceptable to attribute evil and suffering to Satan and demonic activity - since although the 'War in Heaven' was absolutely real to Charles Williams (indeed a matter of direct daily experience), this situation of spiritual conflict between good and evil had also been set-up and sustained by God, and was equally His responsibility. 

This is merely the stage-setting of Williams argument. The focus and conclusion of the essay is that despite all that can be said against the Christian concept of God; at least, alone of all gods, the Christian God subjected himself (i.e. Jesus Christ) to that same justice which He established. This self-infliction of divine law is (but only this, and only just, we sense) regarded as sufficient to justify Christian justice. 

But the sense of outrage at the nature of this divine justice is there, and is the most striking thing about the essay.

The sense that God, surely, 'ought to' have annihilated the souls of those who chose against Him; rather than maintaining them eternally in torment.

"He could have willed us not to be after the Fall. He did not."


This essay of William's made a strong impact on me, because he follows through the implications of divine omnipotence so thoroughly and unsparingly - for example, pointing out that (according to mainstream Christian theology) the tree from which Christ's cross was made, and the nails driven into him - the instruments of torture - were, from the beginning, brought into existence in full knowledge of the purpose to which they would certainly be used. 

Williams implications are, I think, a correct, honest and necessary following-through of the implications of that standard, mainstream, classical philosophical Christian theology which goes back to the early church Fathers - very early in the history of the Christian church; but not back to its very beginning and the time of the Apostles: there is little or nothing of this kind of theology clearly or explicitly recorded in the New Testament.  

I therefore now read Williams essay as a reductio ad absurdum of standard, mainstream, classical philosophical Christian theology. And since, although this type of theology has been usual for maybe 1800 years of the history of Christianity, and among many of its greatest exponents - and it not therefore to be written-off lightly - it is not a necessary part of Christianity; because we don't see it in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles or the accounts in the Epistles. 


So, I interpret Williams great essay as an unflinching and insightful and true account of Christianity as it emerged in the form which - historically - became dominant. And Williams found that he could, albeit only just, endorse Christianity thus emerged and conceived.

But Williams did not - here - consider the possibility that these major difficulties were historically contingent, that they were additional-to, and not an intrinsic part-of, the mode of Christianity described in the Gospels and for the Apostolic era.


The Good News is that a rigorous and unflinching Christian does not have to accept the very-nearly-intolerable situation described by Williams. 

For what is to me, clinching evidence; just contrast the (joyous, hopeful) feeling you get from reading about and thinking about the life and message of Jesus Christ in the Gospels... with the bleak and transfixing horror from contemplating the implications of  standard, mainstream, classical philosophical Christian theology with its model of salvation-damnation and its description of Hell. 

Why Williams did not consider that the fault lay in later developments of theology rather than Christianity itself- or did not take it seriously - is a topic for another essay. But to reject standard, mainstream, classical philosophical Christian theology and to return to the plain and commonsense mode of thinking of most of the New Testament seems to me like a fair and proper and rigorous way-out from the impasse Williams described so memorably and chillingly. 



ajb said...

"it is not a necessary part of Christianity; because we don't see it in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles or the accounts in the Epistles"

Similarly, how many holy, rank-and-file Christians believe their prayers have no effect on God (who according to classical theology cannot be changed as He is perfect, simple, and changeless)? Or, how many invoke the backward-somersault-like theological justifications given in standard classical theology for various kinds of prayer?

Kristor said...

Or the doctrine of Hell could be not quite right. It might not last forever. That would solve the problem in a trice.

Indeed, classical metaphysics would suggest that it can't: Hell is alienation from God, who is the source of all being; so utter alienation from God would be utter privation of being - would, that is to say, be inactuality, complete personal extinction.

Bruce B. said...

Bruce, I’m not trying to put words into your mouth (you didn’t mention the LDS) but this could be used to argue for something like a simple, NT-based Protestantism as opposed to the need for a restored gospel and additional revelation. Something like certain Anabaptist groups, for example.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - I think there could be a place for something of the sort you describe, which might be much like a mainstream evangelical 'home church' kind of denomination - but minus the Calivinistic residues. And I would regard this as an absolutely fine type of Christian life. But I don't think it makes for a sustainable church - because what it has is fine, but there just isn't enough.

Bruce B. said...

One would think that a church based on a simple, NT faith would be sustainable if only because scripture would provide a base/anchor that is solid and unchanging (I know that Catholics will bring up the issue of authority & interpretation).
When I looked at the Anabaptists (a number of years ago) I was impressed. I think maybe it was conservative Mennonites I read about. They seemed to practice a simple faith with active charity but their charity didn’t seem to be showy, do-gooder left-liberal Christianity. When I looked at their faith, I can remember thinking “this seems like the spirit of the NT.”
But I guess their pacifism would doom them if they didn’t live around non-pacifists.
I do not care much for the Reformed/Calvinist branch of Protestantism.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - Well I think it is some of the extra (and more complicating) things like being a prescriptive (puritan), authoritarian, patriarchal gerontocracy that have made Anabaptsism so stable.

tgj said...

Not in the Gospels?

And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.

Bruce Charlton said...

@tgj - I don't understand your point.