October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
May 20, 2009
In his book The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty, Paul Evdokimov compares the Creator God to a divine poet who brings the world into being from nothingness, each creative act summed up with these words, “[H]e saw that it was beautiful.” Evdokimov contends that in the Greek text, the word used for what God sees is kalon (beautiful) and not agathon (good),1 and the word used in the Hebrew text can sustain both meanings simultaneously. What God has created, he has made beautiful; creation is fundamentally beautiful. As Evdokimov continues his narrative on the creation text, he demonstrates that in Genesis “the Hebrew word to create is conjugated in the completed mood (Genesis 1). That is to say, the world ‘has been created, is created, and will be created’ until its fulfilment.”2 Here we feel the pulse in language of the process of becoming: God in his divine wisdom began a drama in which he created in the “completed mood,” and in so doing, he invited the participation of his creation in its own fulfilment. As the twentieth-century Russian theologian Sergii Bulgakov teaches, all creation is longing to be revealed as what it is, as fundamentally beautiful, and “all things press towards beauty.”3
But how are we to understand beauty, and what does it mean that God has invoked the synergistic and historically bound participation of his creation into its consummation? In this essay, I consider these questions using the theology of Charles Williams, an early twentieth century lay theologian and poet. As I pursue the idea of beauty within Williams, I will invoke other authors whose thinking might fructify and enhance Williams’s thought. Then I will turn to the question of sanctification. If beauty is our fundamental nature and that to which we are pressed, then we must seek to know how “beauty saves the world,” as Fydor Dostoevsky once said. To explore this question, I will examine Williams’s understanding of the poetic and its relationship to the life of the church.
A Theology Culminating in the Beautiful
Charles Williams was a poet of the Incarnation, of the enfleshment of the Word. He was a sacramentalist who believed that God created a physical world, tangible and teaming with meaning and existence, all of which is substantiated only in him. But according to Williams, this world, though temporal, is vital and significant, pointing always to its cause and, through the Incarnation, its fellowship in the divine life. Creation and matter reveal naturally as fact what is manifested in the Incarnation and affirmed continually in the sacrament, what Williams calls co-inherence—mutual dependence, connectedness, and exchange.4
Williams derives his understanding of co-inherence from its use as a descriptor of the relationship between the divine and human natures in the Son as developed by the early church fathers. The fathers also used this word to describe the mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Holy Trinity.5 The source of this word is of utmost importance to Williams’s work. Only because the Holy Trinity exists in its perfect inherence, one with another, and only because Christ became incarnate and inhered with humanity, do we co-inhere, one with another, with the world, in him. Thus, creation and humanity must always be understood as having been incorporated into the triune exchange of love through the incarnation of the Son.
For Williams, “the Incarnation is the point of creation, and the divine ‘reason’ for it. It pleased God in His self-willed activity to be incarnate.”6 In other words, in creating, God enacts a desire to attach himself to matter.7 Williams is careful to assure us that “this union of Himself with matter in the flesh did not necessarily involve the creation of other flesh. It would have been sufficient to Himself to be Himself united with matter, and that ‘united with’ means a union very much beyond our powers to conceive; more than a union, a unity.” But this was not God’s way. Williams continues, saying that God “bade for Himself a mother and all her companions.” Thus, in the natural realm of creation, there is for Williams a “mystery of the mortal maternity of God.” He goes on to say that this “was the great and single act of active love, consonant with nothing but His nature [. . .] Our flesh was to hold to its degree the secrets of His own.”8 The Athanasian principle—“One, not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh but by the taking of manhood into God”—pervades Williams’s work. The Godhead takes us into its co-inherent reality by crawling into the womb and filling it with the divine.
We therefore are created to create, to make incarnate, to be a womb in which God himself is enfleshed. His incarnation in us is a push toward the beautiful all the time. This is true because he he is the positive reality of beauty. As Dostoevsky says:
[S]o humanity might know that the nature of the human spirit could appear in such heavenly glory indeed and in the Flesh [. . .] There is only one positively beautiful face in the world—Christ, so that the manifestation of this one immeasurably, infinitely beautiful person is already, of course, an ongoing miracle (the whole sense of the Gospel of John is this; for him the whole miracle is in the incarnation alone, in the appearance of the beautiful alone).9
Created to bear God, we are meant to be the overflowing glory of God, constantly pouring forth into the world, arrayed in splendor. When paired with Williams’s thought, Dostoevsky’s statement that “Beauty will save the world” becomes suddenly clear: this is not religious aestheticism. It is Gospel. All beauty is derivative of God’s beauty, and he has invited us through his creation in the completed mood to participate in the culmination of beauty. In so doing, the glorious creative agency of the Godhead exposes itself to the risk of history and makes itself vulnerable to the vagaries of human response.
However, in the fall, humanity rejects its derivative nature, its co-inherence in the Godhead. Humanity decides to know schism and antagonism within the good, the true, and the beautiful. Sin and brokenness permeate each filament of creation. The human in her sin asserts the lie of self sufficiency, that is, the lie that one can know something other than God and therefore be free of God. In this way, she betrays a desire not to be co-inherent. She withdraws from a life of relationality, love, and substitutionary exchange.
Williams’s understanding of original sin might be extended by the contemporary philosopher-theologian John Milbank, who links the refusal of the plenitude of creation with “hatred of the works and person of Christ.” Jesus Christ exposes sin, shows that it is hatred of him because he is the only positive beauty—he is all plenitude, the whole of humanity, “the fullness of representation,” the culmination of the beauty of creation.10 In turning from Christ, the human rejects beauty and becomes, by virtue of her choosing the nothingness that cannot sustain, nothing—for in rejecting her derivation from Christ, she has rejected her own life altogether.
According to Williams, God as the first Cause understands and knows the fall, the unutterable horror and misery that would be the fallen world:
The Omnipotence contemplated that pain and created; that is he brought its possibility—and its actuality—into existence [. . . The Christian faith] has proclaimed that the Omnipotence recognized that responsibility in the beginning and from the beginning, and acted on it—not by infusing grace only but by himself becoming what himself had made, in the condition to which it had, by his consent, brought itself.11
The Beautiful sustains the web of co-inherence and holds it together in its brokenness because he loves his creation and creates it to come to fruition in him.12 After the fall, humanity still “has been created, is created, and will be created”; God does not revoke the process of creation because of our attempts to turn from it. God does not change.
And though marred, though humanity actively resists the push of beauty, humanity remains fundamentally beautiful and generative. We are imprinted with his image and created for the purpose of his incarnation, and the fall cannot change this, as he wills it.13 Thus, in God’s love, the Incarnation becomes redemption. The Incarnate One, willing that nothing be left unbeautiful, redeems his creation. Every act of rejection, every invocation of ugliness into the beautiful, every ensuing horror and suffering is taken into the life of the GodMan; both our materiality and our sin are attached to him:
They had refused the co-inherence of the original creation, and had become (literally) incoherent in their suffering. He proposed to make those sufferings themselves coinherent in him, and therefore to reintroduce them into the principle which was he.14
In order that humanity might again experience the good and know co-inherence within the web, an act of substitution was required. What humanity could not do, having deprived itself of goodness, the GodMan did, obeying the law of co-inherence: that we live one from another.
Williams believes that the salvation that Christ wrought is instituted by both his choice to be utterly dependent on his mother for life, and his chosen impotency for his own salvation on the cross. “He saves others but he cannot save himself,” the derisive insult thrown at Christ on the cross, is for Williams “the exact definition of the kingdom of heaven in operation.”15 In Christ’s crucifixion and in these words, Christ reveals that the universal principal of substitution is both natural and supernatural; we are created to live a life of substitutionary exchange with others, and God acts to redeem the world by this same principal. That he chooses to “owe to humanity the flesh he divinitized by the same principle”16 is the essence of the way he takes humanity into the Godhead.
Christ declares in his incarnation and death that there is no life that is self-sufficient. He declares that the assumption of human nature into the Godhead happens when the Godhead becomes the GodMan. Now defined by his co-inherence and dependence on others who can only be saved through the death of the Other, the GodMan will not save himself, but he saves the rest of creation on the cross. Williams describes it in this in this way: “Its (Christ’s) impotency is deliberate. It denies its self; it loses its life to save it; it saves others because it cannot, by its decisions, save itself.”17
Through this act of substitution, which atones for sin, human actions are transformed. According to Williams, no act is obliterated, but instead, all is related back to Christ. In the crucifixion, Christ relates all suffering, all evil, and all brokenness to himself. In so doing, he makes it relevant again; human action is brought into the web which is he in whom humankind’s fundamental substance—the good, the true, the beautiful—is renewed:
All is most well; evil is “pardoned”—it is known after another manner; in an interchange of love, as a means of love, therefore as a means of the good. O felix culpa pardon is no longer an oblivion but an increased knowledge of all things in a perfection of joy.18
“Felix culpa,” the blessed fault, has now been transformed by his grace to participate in the splendor of his glorious web. This is not a causal blessing. In no way did our sin bring about our redemption, but our sin is blessed because it is part of the whole; it can be known as an occasion of God’s love, an occasion of his glory, and in this way, it is brought back into the relevance of the beautiful whole by Christ’s death and resurrection.
I will now describe what I believe this implies for our understanding of history and our participation in this “beauty which will save the world.” If, as in the words of Williams, the beautiful, with all of the meanings we have hitherto applied to it, can be envisioned as a “web of diagrammatized glory”19 held within the co-inherence of the Holy Trinity, then history might be understood as composed of what Williams calls “threads of Glory,”20 which come together in something like a web. David Mahan, one of Williams most recent interpreters, describes these threads of Glory as the “the convergence of historical and material existence with spiritual reality—each a substantial reality in its own right, and by virtue of the Incarnation, brought to a new substantial whole.”21
Each thread of glory is a unity of spiritual reality with history and matter. One could also describe such a thread as an “image of the divine,” and Williams often uses this phrase. However, the metaphor of a web with threads is most helpful for our discussion of history because it illustrates how all of our images are held together:
[W]hat is the web of the glory of heaven as a state? It may be said, roughly that certain patterns in the web are already discernible: the recognition of the good, everywhere and always, as good, the reflection of power, the exercise of intellect, the importance of interchange, and a deliberate relation to the Centre.22
A thread of Glory can be understood in a variety of ways, for example, the flash of meaning that is perceived in the beauty of an arm or hand or an act of love between persons. And there are also woven threads. The beginnings of Christendom, the history of the Papacy, the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent are all threads of glory: various characters play co-inhering roles that create and are created by the political structure, philosophical ideas, and the art of the time, all of which weave together in a meaningful way to create a thread of Glory in the course of history. There is a dynamism in Williams’ concept of threads of Glory; it reaches beyond itself but has a particularity, a unique quality, which contributes to the whole.23
These threads are derivative but cumulative and redeemed moments in the fullness of Being which is he the Incarnate One. Their cumulative nature is important to emphasize: each unique fragment of the web is insufficient in itself but relevant in the whole. This insufficiency is not a result of the fall; it is fundamental and it is affirmed and made the definition of the kingdom of heaven. In other words, this insufficiency is a principal of beauty in the Incarnation and death of Christ. If humans are co-inherent, they live from each other—they are derivative, incomplete. All human actions are not enough, but together they culminate in him who brings all things into himself and is all in all and is enough:
We are graced by one and by all, only never by ourselves; the only thing that can be ours is the fiery blush of the laughter of humility when the shame of the Adam has become the shyness of the saints.24
Knowledge of the pattern of beauty is for Williams a loss of consciousness of the existence of self. It is the way Christ has shown: to live is to die to self, to be a passing point and not an end, to be dependant and iconic, to be one unique strand in a large web which is Christ, who is all in all. This is a cruciform diagram of Glory, and in a fallen world, it is often experienced as anguishing and painful. Christ’s beauty is not soft, pleasant, and comforting; it is a terrible beauty, a beauty to be feared, one that demands of its followers that they lose their life to find it.
To Know, to Utter, and to Become: Poetry and the Way into the Beautiful
How then shall we live? How do we who are created respond to the push of beauty, which is God waiting to be birthed in us:
The name of God is that which all creation, in its different kind and degrees, aspires to know, to utter, and to become. Its life is in that; all difference is in the mode of knowledge. It invokes the kingdom [. . .] let it emerge; let the name become the kingdom and the flashing and glorious moments of love be a pattern and an order and an instinct and no less themselves.25
To participate in creation is to know, to utter, and to become. If we seek to know, to utter, to become, we cry “let it emerge, let the beautiful emerge.”
Poetry, bodies, and romantic love are for Williams the best teachers of transcendent and metaphysical realties because they are external and experiential. By their beauty, they can inspire us to love them, drawing us out of ourselves and transforming us in that love. Moreover, they have a sacramental quality. Like the sacraments, we partake in them with our bodies and our souls.
Williams believes that all matter and all imagery surrounding the material, particularly the body, nature, the city, poetry, and art, are intended to lead us into the life of the Godhead. They are to be indexes of the divine, pulling us forward and taking us deeper. Beloved images awaken the intellect and reason. They are, in a sense, a heightened way into learning where all the senses are attuned and present to be taught. We see in the beloved a diagram of heavenly glory; we are taken in, we love—are inseminated with love, which then bears his fruit in us.
Williams follows the path which Dante lays out for us in the Vita Nuova and the Divine Comedy where he masterfully describes his pursuit of Beatrice, his beloved image, into the life of the divine. Williams believed that falling in love in the way that Dante fell in love with Beatrice is a transformative process that draws us out of self, renovating one’s being. At the greeting of Beatrice, sin and guilt fly away; repentance and virtue possess Dante, and he truly becomes love.26 This possession by love is not permanent, but it is transformative in that we glimpse what it is to be possessed by love.
Like Dante in his Vita Nuova we are visited by love in our dreams and shown that though we have been brought into the circumference of love by our natural and created desire for and delight in the beautiful, which for Dante was the loving of Beatrice, we are not at the center of the circle where love is.27 In this knowledge, we grieve, and we may in this grief, and in the loss of our momentary glimpse of the beautiful toward which we are straining, find ourselves with Dante, lost in a dark wood. But from there we are offered the opportunity to walk the way into paradise. This way is through the inferno and purgatory into paradisical beauty, the purpose of journey is to deepen our knowledge of the distance between all of our ways of living and creating and the Creator himself; we are to know our derivation and our distance from God in order to increase our desire for the him. The journey ends at that place where we are so possessed by Love—by Beauty—that God is the center of our being. We are then in him where he is—at the center.
Thus, knowing is loving attendance to the world in its particularity. It is giving one’s full devotion to the world, knowing the suffering and pain of the world, knowing our distance from God; it is knowing the spaces between the image and its derivation and reaching into the distance toward the beautiful.
To utter is to create, and in a particular way, artists, in Williams’s mind, specifically poets, are exemplars of incarnational utterance. As Bulgakov says, “Art is erotic, desiring and anticipating the eschatological transformation of matter.”28 Mahan claims that for Williams, poets are unifiers: they bring together form and substance and deal in both matter and spirit—word and flesh. In a unique way, the poet enacts an incarnational theology, recapitulating the Incarnation’s own mode and participating in the regeneration of the world through the discovery of knowledge of the Word in the form of a poem.29
Bulgakov, like Williams, believes that theosis or deification—being brought into the beautiful—is a participation in the divine creative economy, Williams’s diagram of Glory. Theosis involves the human shaping of images that facilitate through resonance and recognition a deeper knowing in action and word of the life of the Godhead. We are to “come to know by working, we arrive at new vision through the images we have made, the songs we have sung, the words we have uttered.”30 This is a theurgic invocation of God who comes and infuses our work with his life and his breath.
Every image is only an image. No image can contain the Godhead, and therefore, every image is incomplete and easily errant. The image is not our end. Nevertheless, Williams also says that “Unless devotion is given to a thing which must prove false in the end, the thing that is true in the end cannot enter.”31 In this way we are always handing over something that is deeply meaningful and treasured in our participation in the beautiful—there is a death involved in the perception of true beauty: this is the nature of the poetic perception. The epigram “This also is Thou; neither is this thou” is found in almost every one of Williams’s works. To understand beauty is to suffer and to celebrate; it is to suffer the insufficiency of the self and all images, to endure their death, and to be given them back again by another. Poetic vision offers not comfort but, rather, it offers relationship and transformation.
On this path, one is confronted with a truth that is as inexplicable as it is unavoidable. The attendant one, in this case a poet, finds, as she plumbs the dark abysses of suffering and seeks to transfigure what is seen into poetic word, that beauty presents itself and cannot be refused. The poet, in her attention and careful apprehension, adores even the suffering she sees, and by her poetic treatment of the same, she participates in the process of transforming knowledge. She knows “after the mode of heaven” where one can know even evil as good because it is known as an occasion of love. Evil is known in its cruciform pattern.
The presence of beauty negates nothing of the reality of pain and suffering, but for a moment, a flash of heaven shows that all of this is an occasion for love, for God’s love, the one who created, who knew that we would fall, the Un-imaged One who through his incarnation took into himself all of our images, died with them, and rose again to ratify them all in his being. Commenting on Williams thought, one of his interpreters Mary McDermott Shideler explains:
On a fairly elementary level, Paradisal knowledge can be described in such terms as the tendency of confusion to stimulate the search for order [. . . . M]ore profoundly, it includes the supposition that errors of choice rest upon the magnificent fact of freedom and that cruelty implies the existence and acceptance of relationship, even while it is a wrong relationship or wrong action within the relationship [. . . . T]o know them (the evils of this world) as evil is to be accurate but also to be limited by nature. To know them as good, it is necessary to enter a world of being and discourse that transcends, but also includes, nature. In that larger context, evil has a double nature and it is up to us to have double sight.32
The poetic vision is to be double-sighted, to be the helpmate of the church in the provision of a larger context of vision, to see in the dark, and to perceive the pattern of heavenly glory that is constantly birthing new images of beauty.
Poetry awakens, as Williams argues; it calls us to an awareness that we have a capacity for participation in the beautiful; it helps us to feel its pull. Beauty—created and being created—fosters in us a sensitivity to both our separation from and our relation to the Beautiful One. It calls to our desire for him and heightens our awareness of our distance from him. It makes us utter and act, chastening us for our insufficiencies and sin. It drives us to penitence; it takes us to our knees to cry for mercy.33
It is here in this awakening that the task of poetry and the work of the church intersect. If the church has poets and recognizes them, then she has a resource that can help uncloud her vision of the beautiful, open her imagination, and theurgically invoke the pull of beauty. The church is the place of regeneration, faith, repentance, belief, and love—the place where we die with Christ in baptism and ingest his body to become his body. All images must come in their insufficiency and their fallenness to be broken with his body on his altar. The altar where the Beautiful Body was totally lost and broken for us salvages all of our images and feeds us in this mystery.
The church is she who knows what it is to be forgiven and who knows that the condition of her salvation is repentance, for what is repentance except, as Williams says, “the passionate intention to know all things after the mode of heaven.”34 She is the one who knows that in all her errors are found the meaning of her existence because her life is crucified with him and her error can be experienced through repentance as an opportunity for love.
The task of the Church, then, is to participate liturgically through word and sacrament in the fulfilment of the beautiful, bearing the darkness of our incoherent world, repenting all the brokenness in her temporal being, bringing it all to the altar so that, as Williams says, “at the junction of communion”35 hope might be revived in the body of the One who is beauty and who saves the world.
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1. Paul Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty (Redondo Beach, CA: Oakwood Publications, 1990), 2. Italics in original.
2. Ibid., 2.
3. Rowan Williams, Introduction to The Unfading Light in Sergii Bulgakov, Towards a Russian Political Theology (Edinburgh, Scotland: T& T Clark Ltd, 1999), 128.
4. Gunnar Urang, Shadows of Heaven: Religion and Fantasy in the Writing of C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J. R. R. Tolkien (Philadelphia, PA: Pilgrim Press, 1971), 59.
5. Glen Cavaliero, Charles Williams: Poet of Theology (London, UK: Macmillan, 1983), vii.
6. Charles Williams, The Image of the City (Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, [1st ed. 1958] 2007), 76.
7. Maximus the Confessor, Meister Eckhart, and Duns Scotus also claim in their extremely varied ways that the Incarnation is the purpose of creation and would have happened without the fall.
8. Williams, The Image of the City, 76; 76; 76; 77.
9. Fydor Dostoevsky, Polonoe sobrani sochnenii v tridtsatykh tomakh, vol. 28, no. 2 (Leningrad, Russia: 1973-1990): 249-252. Quoted in Diane Thomson, Dostoevsky and the Christian Tradition (Cambridge. UK.: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 112.
10. John Milbank, The Word Made Strange (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1997), 137.
11. Charles Williams, He Came Down from Heaven/ Forgiveness of Sins (Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, [1st ed. 1942] 2005), 99.
12. Ibid., 128.
13. See Williams’s essay “Natural Goodness” for a full discussion of his nuanced understanding of created goodness in humanity which remains active after the fall. In The Image of the City (Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, [1st ed. 1958] 2007), 75-80.
14. Ibid., 132.
15. Ibid., 83.
16. Charles Williams, Descent of the Dove (Grand Rapid, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1939), 235.
17. Williams, He Came Down from Heaven, 57
18. Ibid., 59
19. Williams, Forgiveness of Sins, 121
20. Williams, He Came Down from Heaven, 92
21. David Mahan, An Unexpected Light: Theology and Witness in the Poetry and Though of Charles Williams, Micheal O’Siadhail, and Geoffrey Hill (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2009), 50.
22. Williams, He Came Down from Heaven, 33
23. To understand Williams’s concept of the web of Glory read his short history of the church, Descent of the Dove, where one gets an embodied sense of the way in which eras of church history co-inhere one with another to balance out strengths and weakness creating a sense of hope for completeness and perfection in the fullness of time
24. Williams, He Came Down from Heaven, 94.
25. Ibid., 101-102.
26. Charles Williams, The Figure of Beatrice: A Study in Dante (New York, NY: The Noonday Press, 1961), 37.
27. Dante Alighieri, La Vita Nuova (London, UK: The Penguin Group, 1969), section XII.
28. Rowan Williams, Introduction to “The Unfading Light” in Towards a Russian Political Theology, Sergii Bulgakov (Edinburgh, Scotland: T& T Clark Ltd, 1999), 129.
29. Mahan, An Unexpected Light, 34.
30. John Milbank, Sophiology and Theurgy: The New Theological Horizon. http://www.theologyphilosophycentre.co.uk/, 35.
31. Charles Williams, He Came Down from Heaven / The Forgiveness of Sins, 25
32. Mary McDermott Shideler, The Theology of Romantic Love: A Study in the Writings of Charles Williams (New York, NY: Harper & Bros., 1962), 87.
33. William Law as quoted in Williams, The Image of the City, 79
34. Williams, He Came Down from Heaven, 60.
35. Charles Williams, Region of the Summer Stars (London, UK: Nicholson & Watson, 1944), 50.
Kirsten Pinto Gfroerer
Kirsten Pinto Gfroerer is Pastoral Associate at Saint Margaret Anglican Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. She is currently studying at the University of Nottingham with Professor John Milbank, working to understand and articulate the incarnational theology of Charles Williams.