As you know by know, Charles Williams’ imaginative theology and creative writings revolve around (at least) these 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 City.”
Charles Williams was born in London, then lived there most of his life. He was only out of the city for two periods: for 10 years from 1894-1904 when he lived in St. Alban’s, and for six years from 1939-1945 when he lived in Oxford. London was his heart’s home. He did not care too much for nature; unlike his fellow Inklings, who reveled in the countryside and were heartbroken by industrialization, CW thought of the outdoors primarily as a place to walk in with a friend for the purposes of conversation. This was probably partly due to his short-sightedness: he couldn’t see the distant landscapes his friends could.
Far more importantly, there was a theological reason he preferred the City rather than the Country. Nearly everything he ever wrote is, in one way or another, in praise of community. He believed that faith can only be worked out fully in a network of close-knit relationships. Love, co-inherence, substitution, and exchange: these are all the ways that Christianity is practiced in daily life, and those are all possible only in community. It follows, then, that a City is the perfect place to practice co-inherence with friends, relatives, neighbors, and strangers.
There is more to his theology of the City, however; much more. Williams saw in the City an image of how God works. A City is a complex organism of interrelated systems, functioning on many levels at once. When any little part of it goes wrong—if the garbage collectors don’t show up, or the railway workers go on strike, or city government fails to pass a budget, or there aren’t enough firefighters, or the schools are rotten, or city officials are corrupt, or even if a traffic light breaks down—the entire multifaceted system suffers. This, CW believed, is a symbol of the Body of Christ. More than that: it is an example of the Body of Christ, of the way God works on the micro-scale (in individuals) and the macro-scale (in the Church as a whole, and human history) simultaneously, and each through the other. The large scale is influenced by every little part, how each works and how they work together, and the parts are influenced by the shape, health, and direction of the whole.
CW took this to an extreme when he created his imaginary Romano-Byzantine Empire as the setting for his Arthurian legends. Each person is only happy and able to pursue good work when the Empire is functioning well; when the Empire falls to Muslim armies and pagan hordes, people in Britain suffer from the Empire dysfunction. The Empire is only able to function when its constituent individuals are rightly oriented: the personal sins of Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, Mordred, and Balin destroy the entire continent-wide Empire.
And there is one final layer. The City of God also represents the Kingdom of God—Heaven. Yet this representation is more than just a symbol. Remember how sacramental CW was? So the City of God is not really a symbol for Heaven in his writings: it is an embodiment of Heaven, an enacting of Heaven, almost an Incarnation of Heaven.
Then it should not be surprising that London features significantly throughout his works, to be supplanted by the Empire in his Arthurian poetry. For the City shows forth God’s power and personality in its complex system of orderly, hierarchical behavior. When we get to Heaven, then, and I’m running through the daisies in an endless field, CW will be walking the City streets. I hope we get to meet at some crossroads, or maybe upon London Bridge.