Saturday, 24 October 2015

Charles Williams's underlying personal misery and despair as a 'reductio ad absurdum' of his theological convictions

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.


Duke said...

Very interesting, thanks. BTW, Peter Kreeft wrote a book about Heaven in which he examines the concept of time, in several chapters, after the final judgment. He proposes that Christ will redeem all time, including the past, and essentially change the past to undo all the evil and mistakes. "Behold, I make all things new." Pity Mr Williams couldn't believe something like that.

Bruce Charlton said...

@D. Thanks. I have read a lot of Kreeft with profit and enjoyment, and also watched and listened to many talks. He has the right attitude, but his philosophy is probably not much different from CW, but I don't think Kreeft allows this to overwhelm the spirit of Christianity. In sum, CW is more vigorous and consistent but this is not a good thing for his Christianity - however it does illuminate the philosophy.

Anonymous said...

"The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true."

in: "The Silver Stallion" by J.B. Cabell

Bruce Charlton said...

Indeed - Correct for this world. This is why only an other-worldly religion can truly be optimistic.

Anonymous said...


Good point, and I tend to think alike. However, theology being mostly this-worldly, we probably should not rely too much on its statements.