Don’t forget to read the story I posted yesterday, about what would happen to the Inklings if the Germans won WWII!
“It’s Heaven to Be with Her”: Summary of “He Came Down From Heaven”
He Came Down From Heaven is not an unsuitable book to be reading and writing about on Good Friday, as it is really an extended meditation on Who came down from Heaven, what the Bible has to say about Him, what He suffered on our behalf, and how we relate to Him now and forever. I recommend taking some quiet time to read it, now or later, with a meditative, prayerful, open, but wary mind—wary, because CW’s usually oddities are all over the place, sometimes nearly inextricable from his lucid, orthodox truths.
This book is a commissioned piece in a series called “I Believe: A Series of Personal Statements” by Heinemann’s. It was published in 1938. The first four books were:
What I Believe by J. D. Beresford
Problems Of Religion by Gerald Bullett
Pan, Caeser And God by Renee Haynes
And He Shall Come Again by Kenneth Ingram.
Then came CW’s. I have been able to identify one other work from somewhere later in the series: The World To Come by Sir George Rostrevor Hamilton.
CW’s work, then, is a series of loosely connected thoughts prompted by the phrase “He came down from heaven” in the Creed (I don’t know whether he chose the phrase, or whether it was assigned to him). It is, essentially, the best place to find CW’s most deeply-held and distinctive doctrines in one place. Here you will find Romantic Theology, the Way of Exchange, an argument for the Via Affirmativa, the Schism at the heart of humanity, and a Theology of the City, as well as his peculiar approach to Biblical interpretation. In short, I think it is either the best of all CW’s works to read first—because it introduces all of his essential themes—or the best to read last—because it is very difficult to have any idea what he is talking about until you have read all his other books.
Alice Mary Hadfield gives a reasonable summary of the contents in Exploration, pages, 164-172, but I’ll give my own here.
The first chapter, “Heaven and the Bible,” is startling and beautiful. It jumps right in, without any explanation of the series of books or the purpose of this one, moves deftly through the etymology of “heaven,” divides concepts of Heaven into the spatial and the spiritual, and dives rapidly into literary criticism of the Bible. Without putting forward any credentials for his own startling interpretations, he boldly suggests emendations to the creeds, criticizes the main body of scholars for misinterpreting the Bible (but with a kind of sublime ignorance that that is what he is doing), and states the one theme of all of Scripture:
“the original nature of man, the entrance of contradiction into his nature, and the manner of his restoration.”
That, then, is what the Bible is all about, to CW, and what history and humanity and eternity are all about. It is, perhaps, a restatement of the simplest Gospel formulae, but in what original terms. Rather than “sin,” he observes “the entrance of contradiction.” I’ll return to this in a bit with his myth of the Fall.
He Came Down From Heaven is surprisingly epigrammatic. At moments, it sounds more like Chesterton than like Williams. There are well-balanced, memorable sentences: far more snappy than CW’s usual labyrinthine style. His section on interpreting the Bible is full of these:
“Its doctrine may be wrong, but without its doctrine it is, as a book, nothing.”
“To alter it so may be a moral virtue, but it certainly is not good literary criticism.”
“If, per impossible, it could be divinely certain that the historical events upon which Christendom reposes had not yet happened, all that could be said would be that they had not yet happened.”
“The famous saying ‘God is love’, it is generally assumed, means that God is like our immediate emotional indulgence, and not that our meaning of love ought to have something of the ‘otherness’ and terror of God.”
He then explains that in order to understand the Bible, you must understand its WORDS—since it is written in words. And in order to understand its words, you must empty the words of the many denotations and connotations they have gathered in their passage through the millennia since the composition of the Bible and in their passage through your own life and thought. They must be empty, so that you may honestly fill them up again with the meanings that they have in the Biblical text, alone.
And so he proceeds to do this. I’ll note, however, that he seems to forget that this was his beginning, as he drops it fairly quickly and never returns to it. I’m sure there are other studies of the Bible that do a far better, more scholarly job of emptying and refilling the words; I’d be glad to know about them.
In Chapter II, “The Myth of the Alteration in Knowledge,” Williams begins by emptying the word ‘God.’ But he forgets to fill it up again. Instead, he proceeds to present to the reader his Myth of the Fall of Man. It is a fascinating chapter. It shows how up-to-date CW was on higher criticism. It shows how ready he was to take the Bible figuratively. It shows how unafraid he was of the word “myth” in this context. (It shows, incidentally, how different his upbringing was from my 1980s and ’90s American Evangelical Fundamentalism!) It presents more memorable aphorisms:
“If heaven is a name for a state of real perfection, we ourselves have most remarkably ‘come down from heaven’.”
And it presents a new concept of the Fall that rocked my world and knocked my socks off when I first read it. Are you ready for it? It’s really good. I don’t know if it’s orthodox, but it’s really good, and I find it quite persuasive.
It’s the idea that only God can know evil and not be touched by it, not participate in it. Humans, then, desired the Knowledge of Good and Evil—but there was no way for them to know evil without being implicated in it. Against God’s command, they insisted. “We want to know evil!” they squealed. “We want to be like You, God!” And God, having granted them free will, consented. He let them know Evil. But they couldn’t just know about it; they could only know it in an experiential sense. In French, they couldn’t just know Evil in the sense of savoir; they must know it in the sense of connaitre. But the problem was, they not only got to know evil from the inside out—knowing death, knowing suffering, knowing cruelty—but they also then knew Good as if it were evil. Their relationship with the Good was also tainted. Interestingly, CW’s poem “The Vision of the Empire” in Taliessin through Logres is another retelling of this same myth of the fall, so do check it out.
So the first sin was a sin of knowledge, not of desire, or pride, or any of the other things that are often put forward.
What do you think of that?
I’m trying to remember where C. S. Lewis puts forward his own “Myth of the Fall.” I think it’s in The Abolition of Man? Somebody needs to write a paper comparing these two, and probably comparing them to The Silmarillion (although that’s fiction and so maybe not a good parallel).
So the myth of the fall is a meditation on “heaven” because heaven is the state from which we have fallen.
Then there’s Chapter III, “The Mystery of Pardon and the Paradox of Vanity,” which is first about Job. It’s about the “impatience” of Job—a reversal of the usual phrase. It’s about the necessity of questioning God. Then he goes on from there through the Old Testament, giving a remarkable survey of themes in Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, pointing out patterns, “the bright mathematics of the company of heaven.” He talks a lot about glory. He talks a lot about social justice—which is the kingdom of heaven on earth. He talks about covenants and about Israel (offering a fascinating apology to Jews in a footnote).
Then he comes to the Gospels. He finally gets to the Person who actually “Came Down From Heaven.” In Chapter IV, “The Precursor and the Incarnation of the Kingdom,” he again reveals his knowledge of contemporary Biblical studies. Here enters his very odd name for Christ: “The Divine Thing.” He uses this over and over through this book, also using the pronoun “it” to refer to Jesus, the Divine Thing. This is very disconcerting, but it (like many other approaches he uses) certainly serves to refresh the story of the Gospels, to enable me to read them afresh and anew, stripped of familiarity, freed from humdrum acquaintance.
I find this chapter impossible to summarize. As chapter II is a retelling of the Garden of Eden and the eating of the fruit from a totally new perspective, so chapter IV is a retelling of Jesus’ life and death with the same fresh eyes. His ideas about the Atonement are startling. His syntax and diction alone serve to make this feel like a story I’ve never read before. So I won’t say any more on that point. Just go read it.
Chapter V, “The Theology of Romantic Love,” is well set up by a sentence at the end of chapter IV:
“He [Jesus] exhibited the actuality of his body, carrying the lovely and adorable matter, with which all souls were everlastingly conjoined, into his eternity.”
He goes on throughout this book to state, blandly, as if unaware of the myriad objections to this claim, that Christianity is of all religions most friendly towards the material universe. He assumes that Christianity loves the body, loves the planet, loves all physical creation. Sadly, it often hasn’t done so, which frequently leads to sexism, among other ills.
This chronological blog-through of CW’s works is turning out to be very rewarding. I love watching him mature, watching his writing style improve, and noticing how his themes weave themselves in and out of multiple books.
In particular, right now I am observing how Williams kept returning to the idea of Romantic Theology over and over in his works. He had attempted to get Outlines of Romantic Theology published in 1924, unsuccessfully. The OUP Publisher, Humphrey Milford, claimed to have sent it out to the Bishop of Ripon for an official sanction of its new theology (Grevel Lindop speculates that Milford was “probably … disingenuous in seeking advice from the Bishop), and admitted to Charles that he was “afraid of it and of you.” In any case, he did not publish it. It remained unpublished until after CW’s death.
Williams continues to hint at this Doctrine of Romantic Love throughout articles published in the 1940s (and later collected in The Image of the City) and returns to it in full force in 1943 in The Figure of Beatrice, a full-size study of Dante.
So how did he smuggle it into a meditation on the phrase “He came down from heaven”? Well, because to Dante, Beatrice was a glimpse of Heaven. She was the splendor of God’s face shining on him. He saw her as she was in heaven, or as she would be in heaven, or as she had been before the fall brought us all (including herself) down from heaven.
Similarly, Chapter VI, “The Practice of Substituted Love,” is the clearest and most complete explanation of his Way of Exchange to date—well, besides the fictional, but (perhaps therefore) much more practical and understandable depiction in Descent Into Hell. It is almost as if CW assumed that everybody who reads He Came Down From Heaven would have read Descent Into Hell. I mean, I agree with him—but then why not say so? Why not give a nice, tidy definition of “Substitution” and “Exchange,” and then say “I have written about this elsewhere, in fictional format, in my 1937 novel published by Faber and Faber.” That would have been a nice bit of publicity, plus it would have made his whole schematic much plainer. But “Plain” and “Clear” are not his top virtues.
Chapter VIII, “The City,” is also an exploration of a major theme: how the heavenly order is enacted on earth, or seen on earth. Not that he ever says that anywhere. The most difficult thing about this book is that he provides no organizational aids: no introduction, no thesis, no transitional phrases, no topic sentences, no signposts, and no conclusion. He never explains how his various points relate to the subject of the book. He leaves that to the reader to figure out. But I guess I figured it out, and I’m not exactly the brightest lightbulb in the chandelier, so I guess it’s OK. –but then again, I’ve read [just about] everything else he wrote up to this point, which give me an advantage. If I have any readers for whom He Came Down From Heaven is or was your first CW book ever, I would especially like to hear from you! Is it comprehensible? What do you think?