We talk of Gnosticism as an early Christian heresy; it is better understood as an everyday Christian temptation. Loveless knowledge, implied St. Paul, does nothing but puff you up, and as Christians can hardly help claiming to know something about God, so the mere momentary absence of love threatens to leave us with swelled heads. Considering Gnosticism as a name for a certain intellectual and spiritual pride, I need only one supremely illuminating remark, worth libraries of commentary. It is this: “See, understand, enjoy, said the Gnostic; repent, believe, love, said the Church, and if you see anything by the way, say so.”
The man who wrote those words – Charles Williams, in Descent of the Dove – traveled both paths. Fans of the Inklings and of Christian fantasy generally have long known Williams as the great bromance of C.S. Lewis’s later life, and as the author of a series of “spiritual thrillers” (so T.S. Eliot, also a friend, called them) that readers invariably speak of in condescending tones, while continuing to devour them even as putatively worthier books lay untouched. Lewis and Auden revered him – not merely his writings, but what they considered his personal holiness. And yet Lewis’s finest biographer, Alan Jacobs, speaks for many when he calls Williams “creepy.” The scholar Sorina Higgins finds him sexist, perverse, theologically heterodox, and altogether deeply troubling – and she’s a fan. He is one of those permanent minor writers who clings to the great ship Literary Canon by the fingertips. Grevel Lindop’s Charles Williams: The Third Inkling makes a persuasive case for hoisting him aboard, while also helping to explain why this great Christian writer left, and continues to leave, such differing impressions.
The first thing to know about Williams is that he wasn’t rich. In chapter after chapter, Lindop describes a pace of work that would have crushed a man ten times healthier. Throughout his adult life Williams writes poems, novels, biographies, prefaces, closet and liturgical dramas, spiritual and devotional works, letters and lectures in a chaotic profusion that resembles the atmosphere of his “shabby-genteel” childhood home, where every adult seems to have had four or five sidelines. He did all this while shepherding the first complete English edition of Tolstoy, and the first English translations of Kierkegaard, through Oxford University Press, permanently changing literary history.
It was a hard, in many ways thankless life. Williams’s mystical, allusive mind probably helped to compensate. Born in 1886, Williams shared the general late-Victorian fascination with the occult – self-styled magicians, cultists, even Satanists were as hard to avoid in the intellectual and literary circles of that time as meditators in a Whole Foods. Lindop establishes that Williams was a member not only of A.E. Waite’s goofy Fellowship of the Rosy Cross (a mystical group with Christian leanings, probably no more spiritually dangerous than the Masons) but of a discussion group that may have had less savoury ties. His poetry can read like an attempt at sympathetic magic, as if he’s using names to influence the things they refer to. On the other hand, it’s equally easy to read much sympathetic magic and ritual as itself a kind of embodied allegory, an attempt to communicate a vision of wholeness or perfection through the manipulation of physical things: a kind of writing with objects. Did Williams’s occult mind influence his literary mind, or was it just that mind continuing to work in another medium?
I don’t think Williams’s many imperfections invalidate his books. Against a fascination with the occult and a penchant for being flattered by young women, we have to set great personal kindness, a ready sympathy for the downtrodden, and most of all, the books. They embody every spiritual quality that Williams sometimes lacked – and isn’t that the most we can say of any spiritual writer? Descent Into Hell (1937) offers a depiction of spiritual pride that will drive any reader to his or her knees. War in Heaven (1930) has one of the best opening sentences of its era (“The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse”). And there’s a scene in a country church in The Greater Trumps (1932) that says more about romantic love as an opening for spiritual transformation than a hundred songs. Most of all, there’s Descent of the Dove (1939), a visionary work of church history that sits with Orthodoxy, Mere Christianity and Unapologetic on the list of books that make Christianity interesting by reminding us, in forceful epigrams, what Christianity is. All his books, even the dullest, make the spiritual world seem as tangibly real as a cup of coffee.
Williams wanted to know the secrets of the universe. Sometimes he wanted only to see, understand, enjoy them. More often, he knew they could only be gotten at by love. At his best, he knew that Love was precisely who they were.
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