Friday, 16 October 2015

Romantic theology: Charles Williams versus the Mormons (Mormons win!)

I first came across the idea of a Positive (as well as a Negative) Christian theology in the writings of Charles Williams - he also called it Romantic Theology and the Via Affirmativa or the path of affirmation of images. The general idea was that Christian theology had typically been a path of negation, denial, asceticism, celibacy - but that there was also a (neglected) path focused on romantic love, art and poetry, richness of imagery etc. Williams regarded these as equal alternatives.

But it is hard to see how they could be equal, since they are so different - alternatives, yes, but in real life one or other of such vastly different paths is surely to be preferred; one or another must become the focus of societal aspiration and organization - one cannot aim both at being a celibate, solitary ascetic hermit or monk; and also at being a husband and father engaged with 'the world'.

Charles Williams knew (so far as I can find) nothing about Mormonism - and he would likely have found it to be boring or unpleasant if he had known anything - but Mormonism has for a long time been advocating and practicing something pretty close to Positive Theology: a Christian 'way' focused on marriage, family and engagement (and with no tradition of monasticism or the eremitic (reclusive) life.


Fundamentally I believe there are very different aspects of human psychology at work behind the positive and negative paths. The negative path aims at the relief of suffering, and the positive path at making life more fulfilling.

To feel the desire for the Christian negative path seems to me a desire to escape the sufferings of this world and live, instead, in a state of static bliss - absorbed in a permanent communion with God (who is, in essence, an abstract entity about which nothing positive may be asserted): doing nothing, simply being.

In the negative path, Love is seen as a sameness, a fusion of wills, the loss of barriers and all strangeness.

And there is no sex - indeed there are no sexes: maleness and femaleness are lost.


To desire the positive path is to wish that the best things in life be amplified and sustained - it also stems from the concern that static bliss would (sooner or later) become boring; and the conviction that the only thing which is not, ultimately, boring is actual, real, other-persons.

The dyadic goal of Mormon salvation can be seen in this light - the ultimate bliss is not the state of an individual soul in permanent communion with God, it is a man and woman in a permanent and divine Loving relationship at the centre of a network of loving relationships including God the Father and Jesus Christ (who are solid persons).

The difference between this version of the positive ideal and the negative ideal is profound - because in a permanent and eternal dyadic and sexual relationship between husband and wife, there would not be a desire for fusion and sameness but rather a delight in fundamental and complementary difference.


Sexual difference, and sexuality, both entail difference - a you and a me: not communion nor fusion nor loss of self nor consciousness. Instead a perpetual delight that 'we' are not the same, but 'fit together'. There needs to be the perpetual possibility of being delight-fully surprised; which means that there can never be full communion. Indeed if communion is full, it renders void the separateness and necessity of the dyad.

If a husband and wife become one, they stop being husband and wife.

There is indeed a desire for surprise, for open-ended possibilities. Once static bliss is put aside as a goal; it becomes essential that eternal life be interesting, rewarding, creative and (in some sense) progressive or evolutionary - changing, growing, developing without end-point or end. Otherwise - if life were static, or merely cyclical - it would become predictable and boring, and we would prefer a state of blissful loss of self.


It seems to me that Heaven must either be mostly like either the Negative or Positive ideal and that God would have a preference between these goals for Man - but I do not see why Heaven would have to be exclusively the one or the other.

So I see the Positive Way as primary, and God's first wish for us, and the basis upon which eternal life and Heaven are organized. But I see the Negative Way as an option available (on Earth and in Heaven) to those who - more than anything - wish to escape from suffering and hope to lose-them-selves in blissful communion with the divine.


Charles Williams descriptions of Positive Theology are at least difficult to understand, and probably fundamentally incoherent - this is because Positive Theology is metaphysically Pluralist - or at least implies this; while Charles Williams was very much a Monist who sought always to reduce apparent dichotomies (e.g. Good and evil) to unity. 

If relationship is an ultimate goal and possibility, then there must be at least two irreducible entities to have the relationship - because if Man and Woman can be reduced to one, and Man with God can be reduced to one, then reality is One; and Positive Theology merely an indirect and off-route means to the same end as that which Negative Theology aims-at directly: viz oneness. 

So Mormons - as pluralists - are the true Romantic theologians; and Charles Williams was fundamentally and ineradicably confused!





4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Would it be fair to say (going by the first parts at the linked Theoretical Mormon) that you are addressing a distinction between (A) Mormon and (B 1) the whole historical sweep of 'mainstream Christian orthodox' formulations in general and (B 2) Williams's among them in particular?

Books from which I have benefitted are R.C. Zaehner's Mysticism: Sacred and Profane Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957) - with a scope enormously broader than Christianity, Illtyd Trethowan's Mysticism and Theology: An essay in Christian metaphysics (G. Chapman, 1975), and Andrew Louth's The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981) and hisDenys the Areopagite.

I have not read much Evelyn Underhill, yet.

This, as preliminary to an attempt at discusssion...

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - my particular interest is in this idea of Williams's - Romantic/ Positive theology. I think it was a very interesting, indeed profound, idea. However, of course, Williams was deriving this from the Classical Theological tradition - as he sketches it out (quite brilliantly) in Descent of the Dove: one of Williams very best books, in my opinion.

But, having more recently become knowledgeable about and convinced by the very different 'new tradition' of Mormon theology it is striking how the aims of Williams and the LDS church are very similar; it is the underlying metaphysical assumptions which differ.

I suppose I happen to be one of not many people in the world who know about, and feel positive towards, both CW and Mormonism! - so it is of conisderable interest for me to explore this.

Afalstein Kloosterman said...

CS Lewis seems to advocate a heaven of continual surprise and discovery in Last Battle, although even that was posed as a journey, he did seem to think there was a final center to it, and that what made everything beautiful was its resemblance to the center. That would fit in better with what he has in Perelandra, where Ransom has the outburst about a "trans-sensuous life" as opposed to a "non-sensuous life." There, its meant to support the idea that there is no sex in heaven, which again would fall outside of Williams view. Apparently this is one point where Lewis disagreed with CW.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your response! I did not remember if you knew The Descent of the Dove (DD), but was thinking of it while reading your post.

You write, "To feel the desire for the Christian negative path seems to me a desire to escape the sufferings of this world and live, instead, in a state of static bliss - absorbed in a permanent communion with God (who is, in essence, an abstract entity about which nothing positive may be asserted): doing nothing, simply being."

Williams writes (DD, p.54) of "the ascetics" as "those who concentrated on nothing but their relation with God, to whom the whole outer world and (but for one thought) the whole inner world had become temptation." Their spiritual warfare is not the same as "a desire to escape the sufferings of this world", but to acknowledge and be delivered from their sin, and the abuse of the world (including "the best things in life") into temptation to sin, by whomever - themselves, others, evil spirits. So, they are very active and aware of their frequent failings. Referring to the seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicea II, Williams says (DD, p. 95), "Men must use their piety and intelligence to avoid idolatry; they could not and would not be saved by the Rejection of Images, except as their private vocations might dictate." That vocational Negative Theology is not toward "an abstract entity" but to the radically distinct (but no way divided) Father, Incarnate Son, and Holy Spirit, One God, 'concrete' and 'positive' beyond any partial characterization. Nor, even at the highest level of communion enjoyed in this life, much less in Heaven (before the resurrectional restoration of the "holy and glorious flesh"; DD, p. vii) best characterized as "doing nothing, simply being." Here, I am thinking of St. Gregory of Nyssa's exposition of Philippians 3:12-14, the 'epektasis' of ever more perfectly loving and knowing and becoming like God.

(I think attention to this is largely indebted to the work of Jean Danielou. His Platonisme et théologie mystique: doctrine spirituelle de saint Grégoire de Nysse, (Paris: Aubier, 1944) was published while Williams was alive: whether he knew it, or his French was up to it, or he knew of it from attention to it in theological journals, etc., I do not know. I've only read in a translation of Danielou's Dieu et nous (1956) about this (not, as it happens, the English one, God and the Ways of Knowing, (1956), now reprinted by Ignatius Press). It is of course possible that Williams encountered this tradition or arrived at this by himself in his reading and thinking: consider his use of asymptote imagery in the late poetry, and the imaginative possibility of imagery of the opposite of Wentworth's experience in Descent into Hell.)

If "in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven" (Matt. 22:30), that is not to say there will be no "male and female"(Genesis 1:27) or that earthly man and wife will not know and love each other as persons and with remembrance of their earthly life together. Nor, for that matter, that knowing and loving others will be limited to earthly spouses: Williams's choice of frontispiece (DD, p. [ii]), a panel from around 1500 attributed to Ludovico Brea and apparently in the Church of St. Martial in La Brigue, and usually described as the Assumption or Coronation of the Virgin but here as "Paradise", is interesting in this respect - notice the interactions of those of the "great mass of created souls [...] beyond a line of angels, those 'in heaven' "(DD, p. vii).

David Llewellyn Dodds