Charles Williams’ imaginative theology and creative writings revolve around
eight interrelated themes or topics:
2. Romantic theology
3. The Two Ways
4. Ritual Objects
5. The Crisis of Schism
6. Mystical Tranquility
7. The City
8. Arthuriana and the Holy Grail
Last week, I wrote about Co-Inherence. Today’s post is about Romantic Theology, next week’s will about The Two Ways, and so on through the list. Please drop me a comment if you think I am leaving out any essential themes.
Throughout his life, Williams worked on developing a Theology of Romantic Love. This is most clearly expressed in a posthumously published work, Outlines of Romantic Theology, and in his final work of synthesized theology/literary criticism, The Figure of Beatrice.
Williams was an extreme sacramentalist who took the Church’s teachings about “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” quite literally. He believed that if the Church said something was a sign of grace, it was, exactly and precisely, grace manifested in some human activity or object. The Roman Catholic Church has seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and matrimony. The Church of England, of which Williams was a member, recognizes either just baptism and the Lord’s Supper as sacraments, while granting to the other five (confirmation, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and matrimony) the status of “sacramental rites,” or recognizes all seven as sacraments. Charles Williams attended St. Silas, a high Anglo-Catholic church. All this is to say: Williams would hold a high sacramental view of marriage.
As a side note, in my American reformed/evangelical tradition and in most “mainstream” Protestant churches in the U.S.A., we either don’t have any sacraments (we have “ordinances,” “memorials,” and “symbols”) or we have just two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We tend not to take them very literally: they are often said to be either mere metaphors, or at most the focus of a spiritual operation without any physical effects. I realized recently that this is part of what makes CW seem so strange to readers like myself: not having been brought up in an atmosphere of sacramentalism, mysticism, or contemplation, and removed by distance and history from the great monastic and contemplative traditions of the European church, we find his embodiments of doctrine too real for comfort.
I say all this not to alienate any particular class of readers, but to offer perhaps another way in for readers who find his works frightening at first. This may be one reason, but stick with him: if Christianity is anything at all, then it is real. If it is operative anywhere, it is operative here, in our times, places, rituals, and bodies. So give him a chance.
Now, on to this “Romantic Theology,” then.
Romantic Theology is the idea that lovers can get to know God by means of loving each other. To put it more technically, sexual love between a man and a woman is a form of “General Revelation.”
Williams believed that falling in love is a kind of Incarnation and that the lifelong interactions of a couple correspond to the events of Christ’s earthly life. Each individual romance tends to follow more or less the same pattern: ecstasy, rejection, agony, despair, a kind of death, and a kind of resurrection. To him, romance was more than an analogy for Christ’s Passion; it was an embodiment of that Passion. The events of Christ’s life are lived over in the lives of human beings.
On the one hand, part of the divine beauty of falling in love is that it makes the beloved appear as she really is (as God sees her). Falling in love with someone means that the lovers sees her as if she is perfect—unfallen, sanctified, or glorified—or as she was meant to be, or as she IS in God’s eyes through Christ. When a lover is in that first madness of obsession, thinking about the beloved’s perfections every minute of every day, Williams believes, that is not blindness or self-deception: it is seeing with God’s eyes. The lover has a vision of the “real” woman (ideal, essential—in a Platonic sense) and grows to love her nature more as that vision is clarified.
On the other hand, falling in love should not mean that the lovers stands gazing fixedly at the beloved: instead, he must use the beloved as a rung on a ladder to climb up to God. Since there is someone so beautiful and perfect in the world as my beloved, the reasoning goes, there must be Someone so much more beautiful and perfect who created and sustains her. The kinds of self-sacrifice and selflessness that love inspires can also be service to God. The lovers dedicate themselves to Love, which is actually another name for God, and follow it as their vocation and as their salvation. This leads to a glorious, sacrificial, heavenly renunciation of self. Love is the cause of all action, the union with all life in earth and in heaven.
Marital sex, Williams believed, re-creates a sense of order and meaning. Two separate individuals come together and unite their potentialities, restoring the single image of God that was divided by their separation. Sex is an act of co-inherence in which the lovers renew their mutual vigor through the most extreme intimacy of physical relationships. Even more than that: sexual union restores the single image of God and is itself an image of the mystical body of Christ.
I will be blogging more about Romantic Theology as it comes up in CW’s books: I’ll be posting a summary of Outlines of Romantic Theology in its proper chronological place, and then I’ll follow that with a post on the potential problems with this theory, and another on its positive aspects. In the meanwhile, feel free to start a discussion or to leave questions in the comments, and I’ll be happy to engage with you on this beautiful, peculiar topic (but not get engaged to you—sorry, I’m already married).