Thus far on this blog, I have posted about CW’s life, ideas, and personality. I’ve also provided this Reader’s Guide for Beginners. Here is my plan for how this blog will proceed over the next several months (and even years):
* discussions of each of his major themes
* lists of his writings
* bibliographical information on major studies of CW
* summaries of each book he wrote, in chronological order, interspersed with:
* posts on important people he met
* fun connections between CW and popular culture
* guest posts by other CW scholars
* abstracts of papers I’ve written on CW
* news, calls for papers, etc.
* After that, I plan to move in to a series of posts on Arthurian sources, and another series on the major scholarly studies of CW’s works. Let me know if you have any ideas for other topics!
Now then, it’s time to start going through his major themes.
CW’s Major Themes #1: Co-Inherence, Substitution, and Exchange
As you already know from my intro to Williams and from the preceding posts, Williams’ imagination took up ordinary ideas and made them extra-ordinary. He wrote about Christian doctrines in ways that made them sound like heresies, through unusual word choices and his habit of pushing ideas to their extremes. (CW scholar Richard Sturch has an article in this book about whether or not CW was, in fact, a heretic.) In spite of their startling originality—no, because of it—his ideas are always beautiful.
One such concept, which is perhaps his most distinctive theme, is the idea of CO-INHERENCE. Put simply, it is the idea that human beings are all dependent upon each other.
But Charles Williams never put anything simply. Instead, he took this concept—quite a common idea—and pushed and pushed and pushed it until it burst out into wild new blossoms and open spaces and sunbeams of glory.
Let me pause to explore the ordinary foundations on which CW built his extra-ordinary structure. There are two.
First, there is the universal human idea that everyone participates in physical exchange. I am dependent on the farmers who produce my food and the people who make my clothes; everyone is dependent upon everyone else via the division of labor; those who go to war die in the place of those who stay home.
Second, there is the Christian doctrine of “Perichoresis,” or the mutual interrelationships among the three Persons of the Trinity—like an eternal dance. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love one another and enact that love in such intimate community that humans can only make metaphors and mysteries to try to understand it. Add to this the doctrine of the Incarnation, in which Jesus is simultaneously and fully both God and human. These are both mysteries: How can someOne be Three and One? How can one of them be dual-natured? Then add to that the doctrine of salvation: Christ’s risen life is in each person who accepts Him; therefore, we can share in the divine interrelationship of the Trinity and live as members of one another. All Christians, in all places and at all times, are members of the one Body of Christ. Another mystery.
Those, then, are examples of co-inherence on the human plane, and on the divine. Charles Williams took those two foundations and worked upon them a structure of principle and practice that he called The Way of Exchange or The Doctrine of Substitution.
In Exchange or Substitution, William taught, people can make compacts to bear one another’s burdens—quite literally, physically, regardless of the nature of the burden. In chapter V of He Came Down from Heaven, Williams claims that the mockery hurled at Christ on the cross, “He saved others, but he cannot save himself,” was actually the rudimentary expression of a universal principle: nobody can save himself, but we can voluntarily substitute ourselves for others and “carry their burdens” quite literally, even though those burdens may be spiritual, emotional, or medical. For instance, if you are suffering from cancer, or from grief over the loss of a spouse or child, I can take that cancer or that grief and carry it instead of you. These principles can work among the living at any place and time, and also with the dead and the unborn. I can take the fear or pain away from a deceased ancestor, bearing it in her place. That is the idea.
In practice, Williams assigned people to carry the burdens of others. The clearest real-life example that I have encountered is related in Letters to Lalage. “Lalage” (Lois Lang-Sims) was one of the many young women whom CW gathered around himself in master-disciple relationships. Once CW assigned her the task of offering herself to the Omnipotence in place of a friend named Alice [Mary Hadfield], who was traveling across the Atlantic at a time when those waters were rife with German mines. In other words, Lois was supposed to bear all of Alice’s anxiety in her place.
I have found no evidence (yet) that CW practiced this himself.
There is a great story about C.S. Lewis and a Williamsian exchange that I will narrate at another time.
The best descriptions of Exchange and Substitution occur in Williams’ fiction. Descent into Hell contains three exchanges:
1. The main character, Pauline, is emotionally crippled by fear of meeting her doppelgänger; the playwright Peter Stanhope carries her fear for her, so she can meet her double without fear—and with glorious results.
2. Pauline’s grandmother offers hope to a man who committed suicide years ago, allowing him to find his way into the City of God.
3. Pauline meets an ancestor of hers who was martyred 400 years before; her doppelgänger takes from him his fear of the fire so he can go to his death rejoicing.
In 1939, CW’s disciples finally persuaded him to put these ideas into an organization with stated principles. He hesitantly founded an “order” called the Companions of the Co-inherence and laid down seven sort of by-laws for them to follow. The purpose of the Order was to practice co-inherence in both the natural and supernatural realms. It was also contemplative, with a touch of the mystical about it. The Companions of Co-inherence voluntarily carried spiritual, emotional, or medical burdens for each other and anyone else—living, dead, or unborn—by Substitution or Exchange.
This, then, is the concept of co-inherence: one of CW’s most distinctive, beautiful, and peculiar ideas. I would love to hear stories from anyone who has practiced Exchange, or who has questions about this concept. Meanwhile, may you walk under the Mercy.