As I posted last time, Charles Williams’ imaginative theology and creative writings revolve around eight interrelated themes:
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
Today we are talking about “The Two Ways.”
Throughout the history of Christianity (and many other religions, as well) there have been two alternative approaches to spirituality. They are the Affirmative Way and the Negative Way. (You will sometimes come across their Greek names: kataphatic and apophatic theology, or Latin: the via affirmativa and the via negativa). These might be summarized by saying that someone on the path of the Affirmative Way to God uses all aspects of creation to learn more about God, while a person on the Negative Way tries to separate him- or herself as far as possible from created things in order to experience God in His pure form.
Williams defines the Two Ways in The Figure of Beatrice:
One, which is most familiar in records of sanctity, has been known as the Way of Rejection. It consists, generally speaking, in the renunciation of all images except the final one of God himself, and even—sometimes but not always—of the exclusion of that only Image of all human sense…. The other Way is the Way of Affirmation, the approach to God through these images” (8-9).
John Heath-Stubbs (a student/friend and scholar of Williams) writes that there are:
two ways by which the human soul may come to God. These are the Negative and the Affirmative ways. Viewed from the point of view of the former, God is defined in negative terms. He is to be reached by detaching the soul from love of all things that are not God—the things of the created world. This is the way of the Rejection of Images. But the Christian God is immanent as well as transcendent. Hence, everything in the created world is also an imperfect image of Him. The Way of Affirmation consists in the recognition of this, and in the acceptance, in love, of all things, not for their own sake, but as images of the Divine.
The Way of the Affirmation of Images is the use of images and metaphors in the worship of God. The clearest example is in the veneration of icons. This Way emphasizes the working of general revelation and makes declarations about what God is through what we can learn by what He has made in creation and done in history and salvation. The Affirmative Way follows revelation all the way down from God himself through and into all of His creatures, seeing something of His attributes in everything He has made. This Way is traditionally associated with hedonism: enjoying nature, sex, food, art, music, poetry, friendship, etc. as good gifts from God and ways of getting to know more about God’s personality.
The Way of the Negation (or Rejection) of Images, on the other hand, rejects the use of all images as reductive, misleading, and ultimately idolatrous. Some Christian writers warn their readers to reject all mental pictures and metaphors for God, since none can adequately express God’s attributes. The Negative Way approaches the Divinity by saying what He is not. It puts all created things aside in its attempt to understand pure Divinity. In practice, the Negative Way has been associated with asceticism and has lead to voluntary celibacy, poverty, and solitude; vows of silence; or the rejection of artistic products as ways to God. Self-denial or even self-punishment may occur in its extreme forms.
Charles Williams on the Two Ways
Scholars have tended to call Charles Williams a proponent of the Way of Affirmation. However, I believe that CW was naturally inclined towards the Way of Negation, and actively strove for a balance between the two, believing that neither Way was correct by itself, but needed the other as a constant corrective.
It is true that Williams was a kind of prophet or preacher for the Way of Affirmation. You only need to read about his Romantic Theology to realize that. He joyfully embraced the body, the use of created things as images of God, the power of love and art to reveal God, etc.
In the Arthurian poetry, Williams personified affirmation in the three achievers of the Grail: Bors, Percivale, and Galahad. Bors is perhaps the clearest practitioner of this way, because he is married and sees in his wife’s body an index of God’s glory. This is Affirmation at its strongest: the beloved woman becomes the Kingdom of God to her lover.
But Williams was also an advocate of the Negative Way in his life and his work. He put off his marriage to Florence for nine years after writing her a series of sonnets about the renunciation of love. He kept his passion for Phyllis “platonic,” in at least two senses of that word (one of which, ironically, is an affirmation).
In his Arthurian poems, the Emperor (emblematic of God) is never seen visibly or physically present, and rarely referred to directly. Negation is personified in the character of Blanchefleur, Percivale’s sister and Taliessin’s beloved. We first meet her, more than halfway through the poetic cycle, at the moment when Taliessin falls in love with her at first sight. But their love does not come to fruition in marriage, a sexual union, and children. Instead, Blanchefleur joins an order of nuns at Almesbury. There is no discussion of why their love cannot find consummation in marriage.
Charles Williams allowed both sorts of characters into his novels, allowing both points of view talking time. Richardson in The Place of the Lion is the clearest expression of the Negative Way. He meditates himself into a mental place beyond image, beyond word, almost beyond thought, until he ends up calling God “Nothing” and subsequently committing suicide.
But then again the smallest or strangest events in CW’s metaphysical thrillers can represent God so strongly as to become almost identified with Him. The most extreme example is at the end of The Greater Trumps, in which one character asks if Nancy is the Messiah. Sybil answers, “Near enough.”
Above all, Williams was an advocate of the balance between the two Ways: he said that “our Lord the Spirit is reluctant to allow either of the two great Ways to flourish without some courtesy to the other” and that “Neither of these two Ways indeed is, or can be, exclusive.” He strove to hold the two in perfect tension, in delicate balance.
He expressed this balance in what may be his favorite quotation: “This also is Thou; neither is this Thou.” This means that every person, every object, even every event can “be God” to some extent (i.e., can show us something about God’s work and personality), as long as we simultaneously acknowledge that no thing (person, etc.) can ever some anywhere near being God or imitate His attributes in their glorious infinity. About every person we meet, then, every created object and every circumstance, Williams tells us to ask, “Is this the Messiah?” and to answer, “Near enough.”