Monday 5 September 2011

The bedrock of reality - according to Charles Williams


Although Charles Williams was superficially a highly sociable man, full of energy and apparent optimism; deep down he was far more pessimistic than his freinds C.S Lewis and JRR Tolkien.

This is revealed in the late, great flowering of theology in the last decade of his life, and most of all the essay "What the cross means to me" (published as The Cross in the selected essays entitled The Image of the City edited by Anne Ridler, 1958).

Here are some excerpts, in order but re-paragraphed and re-punctuated:


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 conclusion is that at least, alone of all gods, the Christian God subjected himself to the justice which He established. But the sense of outrage is there.

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

(If that is indeed what happens.)

For Williams, the bedrock of human existence was apparently as described above: finite choice leading to infinite distress; mitigated only by a God who suffered along with His creation.


CS Lewis may have had Williams arguments in mind when he wrote the 'Hell' chapter of The Problem of Pain (1940) - excerpts: 


In an earlier chapter it was admitted that the pain which alone could rouse the bad man to a knowledge that all was not well, might also lead to a final and unrepented rebellion. And it has been admitted throughout that man has free will and that all gifts to him are therefore two-edged. From these premises it follows directly that the Divine labour to redeem the world cannot be certain of succeeding as regards every individual soul. Some will not be redeemed.

There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason.

If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse.

I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts ‘Without their will, or with it?’ If I say ‘Without their will’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say ‘With their will,’ my reason replies ‘How if they will not give in?’  


The Dominical utterances about Hell, like all Dominical sayings, are addressed to the conscience and the will, not to our intellectual curiosity. When they have roused us into action by convincing us of a terrible possibility, they have done, probably, all they were intended to do; and if all the world were convinced Christians it would be unnecessary to say a word more on the subject.

As things are, however, this doctrine is one of the chief grounds on which Christianity is attacked as barbarous, and the goodness of God impugned. We are told that it is a detestable doctrine—and indeed, I too detest it from the bottom of my heart—and are reminded of the tragedies in human life which have come from believing it. Of the other tragedies which come from not believing it we are told less. For these reasons, and these alone, it becomes necessary to discuss the matter.

The problem is not simply that of a God who consigns some of His creatures to final ruin. ... Christianity ... presents us with ... a God so full of mercy that He becomes man and dies by torture to avert that final ruin from His creatures, and who yet, where that heroic remedy fails, seems unwilling, or even unable, to arrest the ruin by an act of mere power.


I said glibly a moment ago that I would pay ‘any price’ to remove this doctrine. I lied. I could not pay one-thousandth part of the price that God has already paid to remove thefact. And here is the real problem: so much mercy, yet still there is Hell.

I am not going to try to prove the doctrine tolerable. Let us make no mistake; it is not tolerable. But I think the doctrine can be shown to be moral, by a critique of the ob- jections ordinarily made, or felt, against it.


Finally, it is objected that the ultimate loss of a single soul means the defeat of omnipotence. And so it does. In creating beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of such defeat. What you call defeat, I call miracle: for to make things which are not Itself, and thus to become, in a sense, capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute to the Deity.

I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandon- ment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.


In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’

To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary.

To forgive them? They will not be forgiven.

To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.



baduin said...

This is, I think, the central point of the damnation of the West: the Western men hate and despise God, and want to pull him down from his throne, because the world isn't to their liking. And because they suffer, and God does not.

And at the same time they try to rebuild the world so that it fits better their idea what it good.

But even a brief acquaintance with the world created by God - and considered by him to be Good - shows that His idea of Good is quite different from the Western idea of good. God could have created a moral, pleasant world, in which men would seek what is morally good. In fact, he did create it. But next, when men turned from God, he did not left them with morality, happiness etc. Instead, after the Fall, the world is corrupt, and men know good, but desire and seek what is evil.

This situation is not necessary - we know that explicitly, because we are told that it was not so in the beginning.

It was not a natural result of the Fall - there are no results which are not designed by God. God created original sin, in order to lead men into temptation. Why? Because morality has no value to God. It was given to men, because it is good for them. But at the same time they were given the Original Sin - in order that they not stop at morality, but seek something better - God himself. Morality is useful, similarly like eating - man cannot live without either. But from the point of salvation, the only use of morality is to show men that they think they want to behave morally, but do not. Men are unable to behave morally without God - and this is only thing really good about morality sub specie eternitatis, because it makes them seek God.

There is a second reason why Western men hate God. They want him to care, to feel pain when something bad happens to them - to have some power over him. But God lives in unapproachable light and in perfect happiness, and whatever men do or not do, his happiness is unaffected.

Good men feel pain when they see pain - they feel compassion. There is no compassion in God. He loves people without any self-interest- he does good without deriving any benefit from this. Christ suffered as a man, but not as God.

Gnostics want this otherwise. They do not want Christ to suffer as a man (doketism), but they do want him to suffer as a God (Iesus patibilis). And modernity is finally descending through utopianism into Gnosticism - the worst heresy.

(But note that Voegelin's theory of gnostic influence in the West is exactly the wrong way round. West was anti-gnostic and utopian; Heidegger and Voegelin belonged to the first generation in Gnostics in the West).

And those who do not want to receive the best ie God, they are left to themselves - and to their master the Devil, who is the god of this world, and theirs. Devil, being an angel, perceived truth directly - as much of it as he wanted to perceive. Before he rebelled against God, he knew that he would win - and he will. He is the god of Hell for all eternity.

Morality by itself is not God, and therefore seeking morality - unless through God - leads to Hell as surely as seeking sexual pleasure or anything which is not God.

God is not like men, who feel pain when they see men in pain, and so are apt to kill sufferers out of compassion. God does good, not evil; and existence in Hell is better than non-existence - from definition. Devil cannot create anything which is not in God, because God is the source of everything. Therefore, the cruelty of Devil, which is incomparably greater than the crude cruelty of men, is like nothing compared to the infinite cruelty of God.
Alyssa Lyra Pitstick

"Balthasar is counted among the most influential theologians of the past century, being widely read and respected. Only his unexpected death, three days before the ceremony, prevented him from being made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II."

The Crow said...

I continue to be nonplused that men, through the ages, persist in imagining God as being, thinking, and reacting, as a humans do.
This, I see, as the central delusion of religion.
From this premise, all other foolishness must result.

There is truth in The Bible. Of course there is.
But only when read as a series of metaphors and parables.
Certainly not, when read as individual words.

God created man in His image.
Well yes.
That does not mean God looks like, acts like, thinks like a human.
It means humans have a soul.
And what is a soul?
That thing that survives when the body does not.
The eternal spark of the holy fire.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - for Christians there is the Man&God Jesus Christ, so things are somewhat different for us.

The Crow said...

Yes Bruce. I see that.
But Jesus didn't write The Bible.
Nor was he a Christian.
And I suspect he didn't actually claim that only through him, could The Kingdom be reached.
Although he may have indicated that he had discovered The Way, thereby realizing what he was, and that by following The Way, the kingdom would become accessible.
Only humans, being humans, could tell it the way it has been told.
Only humans could insist that God is like a human.

I feel relieved, sometimes to be a crow.
Often, in fact.
Crows have fun.
Even though they are keepers of The Sacred Law...

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - Yes, well... Christianity is what it was for most Christians for most of its history. As C.S Lewis memorably stated, Christ's claims for himself were so extreme that if they are not correct then he was a madman or worse.

You may have missed an earlier posting on 'fun'

I know that's not what you meant, but thought you might be interested anyway.

The Crow said...

I had wondered what the "F" word might result in :)
It actually serves very well, to illustrate the ambiguity that even a harmless word like "fun" can spawn.
This being the case, what gets understood by the excessively loaded term "God"?
Not a lot, I'd guess.
As many meanings as there are humans to get it wrong.

Fun, as I meant it, is what a crow has, every minute of every day. Nothing has more fun than a crow.
Yet they are potent and tireless go-betweens, spanning the physical and spiritual realms.
A serious vocation, undertaken with zeal and humour.
I have more respect for any crow than for most any human.
Yet crows guide humans.

Do you consider anything I say, Bruce?
Do you wonder why I say what I say?
Do you listen to crows?
You don't have to say...

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - I listen to blackbirds, larks and lapwings, for preference; and for me crows have the primary association of pecking-out corpses eyes.

This comes from a beautiful ballad which I first heard as the Twa Corbies (Two Crows) - although here it is three ravens:

THERE were three rauens sat on a tree,
(Downe a downe, hay down, hay downe)
There were three rauens sat on a tree,
(With a downe)
There were three rauens sat on a tree,
They were as blacke as they might be.
(With a downe derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe)

The one of them said to his mate,
'Where shall we our breakefast take?'

'Downe in yonder greene field,
There lies a knight slain vnder his shield.

'His hounds they lie downe at his feete,
So well they can their master keepe.

'His haukes they the so eagerly,
There's no fowle dare him come nie.'

Downe there comes a fallow doe,
As great with yong as she might goe.

She lift vp his bloudy hed,
And kist his wounds that were so red.

She got him vp vpon her backe,
And carried him to earthen lake.

She buried him before the prime,
She was dead herselfe ere euen-song time.

God send euery gentleman,
Such haukes, such hounds, and such a leman.

baduin said...

Christ is the only way of Salvation, because for Christians, what Salvation means is to be like Christ. And Christ is the perfect union of Man and God.

Christ is the only way to the Kingdom, because Christ is the Kingdom.

In different religions Salvation means different things - the difference is sometimes quite subtle. Generally, it means some kind of union with God. But the meaning of that union is quite different in different religions.

To conclude: one does not need Christ to seek Nirvana; but Nirvana is different from Christian salvation.

Bruce Charlton said...

@baduin - important point and easily forgotten. We are nowadays too quick to assume sameness.

Gabe Ruth said...

Baduin, thanks for the article you linked to earlier. You lost me a little with your first post, but that last sentence is nice, a sentiment I read almost verbatim elsewhere earlier today.

Arakawa said...

I'm currently in a similar place to Charles Williams, I think.

I am at a general understanding that God does everything for a good reason. (I am not sure there is a comprehensible reason. Perhaps comprehension of it is deliberately withheld as a test of faith.)

Since Salvation seems fairly important, there must be something even more important that would be lost if Salvation was made universal.

Some people suggest that Free Will is more important than Salvation. However, that replaces our mystery with an even deeper mystery. The more I think about Free Will, the less I understand it.

Another way to think about it is to ponder: if Hell is necessary, what is the thing worse than Hell that is being averted by it? I can imagine a thing worse then Hell:

(Linking to a post due to it being a huge digression. Spiritual danger warning also applies: I am absolutely serious about describing something worse than Hell in the linked post, and so not everyone may care to read it.)

You may think I am being melodramatic, but even the greater counterfeit image (the false Kingdom) is a potential concern with e.g. the Singularitarians. If a benevolent Singularity is made that, according to reason, resolves all of the problems and sorrows of mankind, why does something entirely contrary to reason in me cry out that the whole project is unutterably wrong?