My Life For Yours: CW’s “Co-Inherence” theme

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):1072632_10201505506582483_300234135_o
* 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.


Rublev's Icon of the Holy Trinity

Rublev’s Icon of the Holy Trinity

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:

"How They Met Themselves"  by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“How They Met Themselves”
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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.


About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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24 Responses to My Life For Yours: CW’s “Co-Inherence” theme

  1. I remember being much moved by this element in “Descent into Hell” when I read it a few years ago. It strikes me that this is a much more attractive way to understand the idea of “substitution” than the violent doctrine of substitutionary atonement & one that is much closer to the whole spirit of the gospels as I read them.
    Two other thoughts came to mind as I read this, one was walking down Worcester High Street with a colleague as he talked about his daughter’s debilitating illness. “I would take it for her if I could,” he said & I was very moved. The other came just a few days ago when I conducted the funeral of a 17 year old girl & the church was filled with her fellow High School students & teachers as well as her family. Here I was deeply moved by the dignity that these young people displayed, a stillness and attentiveness that they found within themselves. I am sure it gave a degree of comfort to this girl’s mother and sister. I wonder if both of these examples show an innate co-inhering that perhaps all of us are able to connect to as these folk did. Did CW seek to encourage a bringing of that innate co-inhering into consciousness? It is certainly something that I would like to develop more & to encourage although without playing the part of a magus when I do which I feel somewhat uncomfortable with.


  2. Sørina Higgins says:

    Thank you for sharing these stories. They are quite moving. Yes, indeed, that was CW’s main purpose related to co-inherence: to bring it into conscious practice. As a matter of fact, that is one of the most important steps he talks about in (among other places) his poem “The Founding of the Company.” There, he says there are three phases of co-inherence, very much like three levels of initiation into a secret society. The first is just everyone, co-inhering whether they like or know it or not. The only place this is not practiced is in Hell. The second level consists of those who know it — just what you’re talking about — and who participate in exchange willingly, whether simple exchange like carrying a box for someone else, or serious spiritual exchange like you described in your two moving stories. The third level is very hard to understand, but seems to be people offering themselves in exchange for the salvation of others? If you read the poem, let me know what you think.


  3. Andrew Stout says:

    I appreciate the post. I had a couple of thoughts. First, the more I read Williams, the more I realize just how deeply his influence runs with Lewis. The most subtle and profound example of that influence would have to be, I think, Lewis’ depiction of substitution in Till We Have Faces when Orual suffers substitutionally for Psyche. The whole question of the literality of substitution as a practice makes sense in the context of the novel, where Orual struggles with the reality of the gods. Whereas Williams simply presents substitution in an unambiguous way and leaves the reader wondering whether he could possibly be serious, Lewis depicts the practice in a way that could allow for a psychological explanation.

    Second, Tim Keller offers insight into the substitutionary character of personal relationships in his book The Reason for God: “In the real world of relationships it is impossible to love people with a problem or a need without in some sense sharing or even changing places with them. All real life-changing love involves some form of this kind of exchange” (193). I am fairly certain that this is an intentional allusion to Williams’ understanding of the way of exchange, or that it is at least in the back of Keller’s mind. He is an Inklings fan and he has referred to Williams in at least one of his other books. The language and the concepts employed in this passage simply appear to close to Williams’ use to be mere coincidence. Anyway, Keller gives a good description of the operation of exchange at a natural level.


    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Wow, thanks, Andrew. This is a great comment. Yes, CW had a HUGE influence on CSL: see this and this The influence is most obvious in “That Hideous Strength,” but you have pointed out what may be the most important influence, in “Till We Have Faces.” Well done. Did you know that CSL practiced a “Charles Williams substitution” with his wife, Joy, when she had cancer? I’ll blog about that later.

      Thanks for the Keller reference; I didn’t know he had read Williams, but I’m not surprised. Take a look at this:


      • Andrew Stout says:

        Thanks for the links. I’ve seen allusion made to Lewis’ substitution for his wife, though I can’t think where I read it of the top of my head. Anyway, I’m looking forward to your post on the subject!


  4. Sørina Higgins says:

    CSL talks about it in his letters; it’s also discussed in Humphrey Carpenter’s book. Maybe you came across it there.


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  6. Joshua Pong says:

    Thank you for re-kindling my desire for CW. I wrote many posts to Co-inherence years ago. But after joining Mike Partridge’s Wingfold, I gradually withdrew from the former. Your piece reminded me of some posts I wrote on the same topic years ago. From one written in February 1997 I give you the following excerpts:

    “My attempt is mainly a clarification of concepts as represented by the three often repeated terms namely, Exchange, Substitution and Co-inherence. It is my hope that a clearer grasp of what these terms actually mean and can mean will enable us to better assess the merits or demerits of CW’s doctrine and in consequence make safer application of his doctrine to our lives.

    It will be in line with Charles Willaims’ own thinking to point our attention to the basic fact that as human beings, like it or not, we are inevitably bound up in the web of substitutions. Substitution means having some one (or something) else doing the job for (instead of) oneself that needs to be done in order that one and others may live and live well. Our well being depends on a vast number of people doing a vast number of jobs for and instead of us that must be done so that the community may survive and thrive. The scope is in fact much larger than that. Our well being in fact depends on all the elements of Mother Nature, even of the Universe Itself, doing the jobs that must be done. As finite creatures, lacking the divine attributes of Self-sufficiency and Absolute Independence, substitution is a necessary and essential feature of our existence. But in a community what we find is not mere substitution but mutual substitutions. I not only have others doing the necessary jobs for and instead of me, I also do for and instead of others the jobs that are necessary for their well being; hence we have Exchange, the exchange of substitutions. I grow rice; he hunts meat; we exchange the fruit our labour and each can have a happy meal. In modern communities we have money as a medium of exchange to facilitate the unimaginably complex process of exchange of substitutions.

    Exchange will inevitably bring in the matter of fairness or justice. But that is too complex an idea for us to handle here. More to our purpose is to point out, as Williams certainly would, that since our very existence is bound up in a vast and intricate network of inter-changing substitutions, to practise a special form of substitution on the spiritual level is certainly a form of submission to the TAO or WAY of the universe. What is this special form of spiritual substitution? CW describes it in details in the DIH and also in a pamphlet entitled “The Way of Exchange” published in 1941. Justice is the dominant issue where material, economic, emotional and intellectual inter-changing substitutions are concerned. On the spiritual level, the motive of substitution is love. That is why the practice is also called the practice of “substituted love”. The archetypal instance of it is of course Christ substituting for us in the work of perfect obedience and righteousness and thereby enabling us to become more and more obedient and righteous by virtue of mankind’s inherence in Him and His inherence in our individual selves. And that brings us to the concept of Co-inherence. Inter-changing substitutions do not necessarily involve co-inherence. As separate selves we can give and receive things to and from one another. The bus driver that takes me to work (doing the driving in my stead) and I who pay him the money (that encapsulates my work for him) are external to each other. But if you put the question to CW asking if his special form of spiritual substitution must involve the medium of co-inherence, I think he would definitely say “yes”. We can easily imagine one spirit inhering in another after the image of one (smaller) physical thing being placed inside another (larger) physical thing such as we being inside a house or as a fetus being inside the mother’s womb (CW’s analogy). But co-inherence is strictly speaking not imaginable after physical things. We can only employ two (mutually exclusive) physical images successively and alternately to let us grasp some kind of meaning conveyed by the term. But such is the case when we are dealing with spiritual matters. So it is by virtue of our co-inherence, we inhering in one another, that we can “bear one another’s burdens” in the sense of “taking over the suffering of troubles, and worries and distresses” one for another.

    It must be made clear that what CW had recommended is very sensible and prosaic, as prosaic as picking up a parcel for some one. He was well aware that the practice could be carried to a grand scale on the intense impulse of passionate natural love (CSL was reported to have asked God to let him bear Joy’s pain for her while she was suffering excruciating pain from cancer and his request granted) or that of true religious fervour. But he wanted ordinary Christians to be begin with the very ordinary. There should be no portentousness and no attempt or promise of anything one obviously cannot do. Like Stanhope and Pauline, a “man can cease to worry about x because his friend has agreed to be worried by x. No doubt this is only a part of casting all our burdens upon the Lord; the point is that it may very well be a part of it. No doubt the first man may still have to deal with x; the point is that his friend may well relieve him of the extra burden.”

    CW was also well aware of the dangers in the practice; but he said there are dangers in any kind of practice. The abuse should not be allowed to abolish the use. There are two immediate benefits from the practice. First, it encourages humility in us. “If our lives are so carried by others and so depend upon others, it becomes impossible to think very highly of them.” Secondly, it enables us to achieve a faint sense of “loving from within”. “One no longer merely loves an object; one has a sense of loving precisely from the great web in which the object and we are both combined.”

    I must confess that I have never practised this special mode of bearing one another’s burdens myself. In Hong Kong, I doubt if many would have even heard of CW, let alone reading his works with understanding and appreciation. I can therefore only assess the merits of this as an outsider with common sense and the necessary limitations of an outsider. In the first place, the practice seems to be well-grounded in the metaphysical (not in Dave’s sense of the word but in the sense of being ultimate) structure of the universe. At so many levels of our life (material, social, emotional and intellectual) we already have inter-substitutions. To move one level up, to just take over another’s spiritual burdens in that special way out of love, seems to me to be entirely reasonable. This of course must be done in conjunction with other practical ways of bearing one another’s burdens rather than instead of them. CSL in his “The Four Loves” reiterates Kempis (?) dictum that the highest does not stand without the lowest. Carrying another’s burdens spiritually certainly does not release us from the duties of actually helping another by carrying his oversized suitcase or offering financial assistance where needed. Secondly, where there is genuine love, there must be real sacrifice. When CSL reportedly received Joy’s pain into himself, his body later was found to be losing calcium as Joy’s was gaining the same. The loss was real and the damage to his body was real, no less than the loss of a father who becomes a cripple for life in throwing his son out of the way of an onrushing car and getting hit by it himself. But that is a sacrifice the lover is glad to make for the beloved. Counting the cost is as necessary here as in other spheres of human activity. That one person has suffered while another has gained is definitely no good argument against the practice. If it were, it would be a good argument against love. Thirdly, all sorts of wrong motives can prompt a person to attempt the practice as with any kind of practice that bears the semblance of the extra-ordinary. Vanity, morbid curiosity, pride, the desire for dominance, the opposite desire for total subjugation, sexual and romantic desires masquerading as charity will intrude to make ugly what is meant for beauty, bad what is meant for good. Stephen mentions elitism as an additional danger. But this is a danger inherent in all friendships in the specialized Lewisian sense. If the Inklings is a good worth the risk of elitism, the practice is also a good worth the same risk. It has also been mentioned that Exchange is better and safer than mere (unilateral) substitutions. But I think it all depends on the special circumstances. Pauline happened to have a special need which Stanhope could at that point of time help. To insist on Pauline doing the same for Stanhope while no actual need was calling for immediate reciprocity is to follow a warped sense of justice or equality against the grand courtesy and humility of love. Of course, no man is needless. The helper this time will no doubt need help at other times. There will be plenty of opportunity for the grateful to reciprocate. But this has to be guided by the sensitivity of love rather than the dictates of flat equality. In short, the abuse, potential or actual, does not abolish the use. But could there be a situation in which the actual and potential abuse is so great that the use should in fact not be encouraged, if not positively discouraged or even forbidden? Yes, there could be. Dave believes that ours is the time when such a practice should not be encouraged and has given his reasons. I do not feel myself qualified to pronounce on general trends in human societies. But I should still keep my mind and eye open and should God give me an opportunity with the right persons at the right time and with all cautions exercised, I will not shrink from the attempt. “


  7. Sørina Higgins says:

    Dear Joshua:

    Thank you very, very much for posting this excellent material. You have done a great job summarizing, evaluating, and discussing this practice. Thanks for retelling the CSL story, which I will also retell in a post at the right time. Much appreciated.


  8. Joshua Pong says:

    You are most welcome, Sorina. And thank you for your kind words too. As I looked back on the old posts written many years ago I found another also dwelling on the same topic of Co-inherence. But that one is somewhat more metaphysical. If you don’t mind it, I would be glad to post it here next time. Blessings.


    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Joshua: Do you want to email me the material you’re interested in sharing? If I think it will fit here, I could put it up as a “guest post” at some point in the future to give my readers a break from me and a new perspective from someone else. What do you think? iambic[dot]admonit[at]gmail[dot]com.


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  16. yayyyyyyyy says:

    so great thanks


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