Saturday 24 October 2015

The implications of believing everything is ultimately good - philosophical versus 'simple' Christianity

In her Introduction to The Image of the City, a collection of essays by Charles Williams, Anne Ridler states that 'At the centre of Williams's teaching lies this dogma, that the whole universe is to be known as good.'

She then goes on to describe how Williams lived in a state of underlying misery - that he said he would have declined the gift of life, if offered; that he had a death-wish, that he did not hope for eternal life but would prefer everlasting unconsciousness, that the world lived in a web of distress, that the life of young people was hell... and so on,

The question is how Charles Williams went from a core conviction that everything is good, to a life of such total distress.

I think the answer is quite simple, which is that Charles Williams really believed, really lived by, the idea that reality was outside time, that all times were simultaneous - that what applied now applied forevermore. He was a profound Platonist - in believing that time, change, decay and corruption were superficial - the reality was time-less, unchanging.

Many, many Christians have said such things throughout history - but few have really believed them: Charles Williams was one of the few - and he was intelligent enough to find the implications inescapable and deeply contradictory.

If Life is good - and this is Life - and real Life is eternally itself... then this must also be good - and it seems terrible.

In my understanding, Charles Williams was a victim of the poison of what might be termed Classical Metaphysics in Christianity: the kind which says that life IS good - always has been and always will be. Most people are too emotionally shallow or too lacking in philosophical rigour to feel what Charles Williams felt as the implications of mainstream, standard, Christian theology.

Williams could never find reassurance, or relief from this state; because he was correct - the implications flowed from the assumptions; and the implications were tragic. The life and resurrection of Christ was, by this account, tragic - as revealed in Williams's most heart-felt essay The Cross where he concludes that the thing, the only thing, which makes the underlying reality of a good universe to be bearable, is that God also and voluntarily submitted to its justice and suffered its agonies when he became Christ.

If that is not despair - it is a mere - unconvincing - whisker away.

And how often, how usual, has been this tragic interpretation of Christianity the prevailing emotion among the deepest thinkers?

And what a contrast this has been to the un-philosophical and optimistic 'Christianity' of Christ himself, of countless 'simple' Christians, and the 'good news' of the gospels.

The difference is, I think, quite simple - and it is related to time. The simple, commonsense Christian - the non-Platonist, the non-philosopher - naturally regards Christianity as being about a future state of good - not an eternal good, in which all times are and will be equal.

So 'simple' Christianity is about God as an aim, not about good as an actuality; and Christian hope has been based on faith that the state of good will happen, not that good has already happened.

Sophisticated Christian theology superficially seems to be positive and optimistic in its claims of Heaven being here-and-now-and-always because of the un-reality of time - but its philosophical implications are dark, miserable and pessimistic (and difficult/ impossible to square with the good news of Christ) - in that ultimately things can never be better than now. And if, as is the case, we cannot see this now, then there is no reason to assume things can ever become better.

This is a false distortion of the plain Christian message of hope based on the optimistic conviction that time is real. Because time is real - that is linear, sequential; things that seem bad now may really be bad (we don't need to assume that bad-seeming is 'in reality' good), but bad things really can get better than they are now, and the Christian faith is that we know by revelation  that things really will get better.

In sum, Charles Williams is a better, a more rigorous, a more honest philosopher than most Christian theologians - and he lived and experienced the consequences of his theology. Since these consequences were so dark and despairing, the life of Charles Williams in relation to his theology makes a reductio ad absurdum of Classical Theology: i.e. the consequences of Classical Theology demonstrate its erroneous assumptions.


Nathaniel said...

Do you argue that Tolkien & Lewis were not as intelligent, or not as vigorous, or not as orthodox to classical theology?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nathaniel - Not as rigorous.

Tolkien's faith was very simple and devout in the traditional lay Roman Catholic manner - based around regular Mass and obedience to the Magisterium - certainly not questioning or original, he regarded that as illegitimate.

Lewis worked mainly on refreshing the basics - and there were watertight compartments in the way that Lewis thought - he didn't try to connect everything or fill in the gaps, as did Williams; for example he was a mystic but would never defend mysticism, imaginative but denied any validity to imagination as a mode of knowing. Lewis regarded himself as incompetent to question or challenge Mere Christian Orthodoxy - he carefully avoided controversy whenever possible.

Of the three, Williams was the only one doing 'advanced', boundary-pushing theology (presumably, this is why Rowan Williams - ex Archbish of Canterbury - and a very prestigious academic theologian [although, sadly, not really a Christian; but rather a mildly-Christianized Socialist] was president of the Charles Williams Society).

Seijio Arakawa said...

I have also come to the impression that Lewis' worldview was somewhat compartmentalized: he had one foot in a fairly down-to-earth, commonsensical and philosophically original Christianity (the same apologetics work that gave us the frightful and disruptive heresy of Puddleglum), and one foot in a reconstruction of contemplative, static, Platonic Medievalism. He applied each philosophy to solve the problems it was most immediately suited for, and did not fuss much about the fact that the two worldviews, at their deepest, contradict one another.

That's the most reasonable conclusion I can come to for how the same man could come to write the Last Battle with its entirely concrete and compelling scenes of Heaven, and also the essay Transposition where he comes out and says the following incredible thing:

"Hence our notion of Heaven involves perpetual negations: no food, no drink, no sex, no mirth, no movement, no events, no time, no art."

If we forced Lewis to be entirely consistent with himself (a very unkind and uncharitable thing to do to any person), the direct and immediate implication of these words would be "almost everything that I wrote about Heaven in The Last Battle was not just fiction, but a deliberate humbug for the consumption of children who are too young to know their Plato and Aquinas". However, the author of the Narnia books could not have held this attitude even for most of the time, because then he would never have found the motivation to write the Narnia books.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Seilio - Lucid examples. My interpretation is that Lewis's - unconvincing - default position of negative theology was defensive. Nobody can refute negative theology, because there is nothing graspable to refute (rather like Zen).

In my mind, negative theology goes with the trait - recurrent throughout Christian history - of arguing that is is incoherent not to be a Christian, that Christianity is logically entailed (rather than a choice and act of faith).

The idea of Lewis being compartmentalized, or that there were several different Lewises - is a major theme of his best friend, in the collection Owen Barfield on CS Lewis.

Interestingly, this trait is combined with a very obvious stylistic uniformity, a characteristic Lewis voice or flavour that seems to permetae everything he wrote, over several decades - whether that is academic, fiction, journalism, apologetics, or personal letters.

(An exception is the novel Till we have Faces - but that was written as a collaboration with Joy Davidman.)

Probably the 'voice' is what obscures the inconsistency - Lewis is such a strong character that we automatically assume he is unified and self-consistent.

Williams, on the other hand, probably always is consistent (or tries very hard to be) - which is why his writing becomes so tortured at times, but he has a much less characterful voice.

John Fitzgerald said...

All the Narnia books, in my view, are soaked with this sense of ultimate reality that Seijio speaks of vis-a-visThe Last Battle. The real C.S. Lewis - the spiritual, imaginative genius, created by God to bear witness to Him by his pen - wells up irrepressibly here, beyond the range of the inner theological or academic censor that perhaps weighs down the likes of Transposition and other non-fiction works.

The Great Divorce is another text which springs to mind here, with its similarly 'clear and compelling scenes of heaven') For me, however, the outstanding work in CSL's canon is That Hideous Strength. It has its flaws, artistically speaking, but frankly, so what? Till We Have Faces is flawless and fawned over by the critics but it's so bland and one-paced in comparison. There's a dynamic quality to That Hidoeus Strength - a spiritual electricity - a bounce and a zip - a wild, anarchic heave and swell between Good and Evil that's playful and serious by turns and never anything less than prophetically profound. It's like watching a defensively-minded batsman suddenly cut loose and start dispatching an array of shots to all corners of the ground.

I've tried for this freewheeling effect in my own fiction but it's hard to do. It can't be forced (though I know CSL laboured long and hard over That Hideous Strength). It comes from the core of one's being - from the depths - from that secret place where God lives. It comes, I believe, by grace.

Charles Williams, for me, never quite reaches these 'deep places.' All Hallows' Eve, for instance, is a remarkably intense and atmospheric novel, yet it seems somehow to pull its punches and convey something less than it might. Why this is so, I don't know, but I sense a kind of fear, a refusal to let go of mental constructs, a certain coldness, a fondness for abstraction that works contrary to the creative wellspring - that deep and resonant music that sings the universe into existence in both Lewis's Narnia and Tolkien's legendarium.

I'm currently reading the Zaleski's Inklings biography and am looking forward to Grevel Lindop's Williams book after that, so hopefully I might have more of a sense of things by Christmas of thereabouts.

All the best,


Bruce Charlton said...

@John - I was looking at some favourite parts of That Hideous Strength on the family walk today (see photo above) - it is indeed a remarkable work. It is as if Lewis tried to get *everything* that mattered most to him into that novel. I have noticed that several of Lewis's most well known scholars have it that their number 1 - e.g. Walter Hooper. Owen Barfield's favourite essay was The Abolition of Man - which is a companion piece to THS.

BTW - are you aware that there are two verions of THL available? - the original was significantly longer and the other was condensed from it by Lewis for a particular paperback edition. I had the shorter one for some years without realizing it. If you haven't yet read the longer version, it is worthwhile - because some of the extra bits are excellent.

Abolition of Man was a series of lecture given at Newcastle University (where I work) during which Lewis stayed in Durham - and the setting of the college in THL was loosely based on his impressions of that University.

Bruce Charlton said...

@John - I just came across this:

"That Hideous Strength" Is Evangelicalism's Text for the Future


Note that this is not a call for retreat. We should pull back from certain institutions that we probably should never have gotten involved with in the first place — such as, I think, our nation's public schools. But what I am describing is less about evangelicals retreating from the public square and much more about them being thrown out. For our part we must continue to create hospitable communities where the Gospel is preached, where sinners are welcomed, and the Christ life is practiced. This is not at all a call to take our ball and go home, but rather a series of sober predictions at how the world outside the church will see us in the years to come and an attempt to articulate what our response to that forced marginalization must be.

The good news is that the battle that is coming is not ours to win. In one of the essential texts for today's church, C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength, the insurgents rebelling against the sexual industrial complex of the modern west are not culture warriors assailing the institutions slowly consuming our earth and its creatures. Rather, their insurgency takes the form of faithful living in an out-of-the-way manor house out in the English countryside called St. Anne's. It was at St. Anne's that these people could live in fellowship with one another and with God's creation while they waited for the undoing of the NICE in a Tower-of-Babel-style collapse. The future of Evangelicalism will either look less like Willow Creek or Mars Hill and more like St. Anne's or it will not exist.

Bruce B. said...

“Life is good” sounds like a very modern phrase. Indeed it’s common on bumper stickers and wrist bracelets here in the U.S.

I don’t know if this is the traditional Christian view or not. My understanding is that God declared creation (the universe) good after he made it. Then it was corrupted by the free-will choices of some of his creations.

I also don’t understand how he arrived at his conclusion that things won’t get better. The good & faithful will be rewarded, the wicked will be separated and punished (“will be” from a linear time perspective leading to the point where we enter the eternal).

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - Well, my point here is that ultimately CW did believe this - it was in a sense at the very core of his belief - perhaps he believed this more deeply than he believed in Christianity.