Charles Williams on the Origin of the Church

[During my recent holiday to Charleston, I read The Descent of the Dove by Charles Williams. It’s a very difficult book to describe, review, or critique. What I can truthfully say is that I’ve not read anything quite like it. Over the next few weeks I will share passages that I found particularly striking.]

The beginning of Christendom is, strictly, at a point out of time. A metaphysical trigonometry finds it among the spiritual Secrets, at the meeting of two heavenward lines, one drawn from Bethany along the Ascent of Messias, the other from Jerusalem against the Descent of the Paraclete. That measurement, the measurement of eternity in operation, of the bright cloud and the rushing wind, is, in effect, theology.

The history of Christendom is the history of an operation. It is an operation of the Holy Ghost towards Christ, under the conditions of our humanity; and it was our humanity which gave the signal, as it were, for that operation. The visible beginning of the Church is at Pentecost, but that is only a result of its actual beginning—and ending—in heaven. In fact, all the external world, as we know it, is always a result. Our causes are concealed, and mankind becomes to us a mass of contending unrelated effects. It is the effort to relate the effects conveniently without touching, without (often) understanding, the causes that makes life difficult. The Church is, on its own showing, the exhibition and the correction of all causes. It began its career by arguing about its own cause—in such time as it had to spare from its even greater business of coming into existence.

Historically, its beginning was clear enough. There had appeared in Palestine, during the government of the Princeps Augustus and his successor Tiberius, a certain being. This being was in the form of a man, a peripatetic teacher, a thaumaturgical orator. There were plenty of the sort about, springing up in the newly-established peace of the Empire, but this particular one had a higher potential of power, and a much more distracting method. It had a very effective verbal style, notably in imprecation, together with a recurrent ambiguity of statement. It continually scored debating points over its interlocutors. It agreed with everything on the one hand, and denounced everything on the other. For example, it said nothing against the Roman occupation: it urged obedience to the Jewish hierarchy; it proclaimed holiness to the Lord. But it was present at doubtfully holy feasts; it associated with rich men and loose women; it commented acerbly on the habits of the hierarchy; and while encouraging everyone to pay their debts, it radiated a general disapproval, or at least doubt, of every kind of property. It talked of love in terms of hell, and of hell in terms of perfection. And finally it talked at the top of its piercing voice about itself and its own unequalled importance. It said that it was the best and worst thing that ever had happened or ever could happen to man. It said it could control anything and yet had to submit to everything. It said its Father in Heaven would do anything it wished, but that for itself it would do nothing but what its Father in Heaven wished. And it promised that when it had disappeared, it would cause some other Power to illumine, confirm, and direct that small group of stupefied and helpless followers whom it deigned, with the sound of the rush of a sublime tenderness, to call its friends.

It did disappear—either by death and burial, as its opponents held, or, as its followers afterwards asserted, by some later and less usual method. Those followers at any rate remained, according to all the evidence, in a small secret group in Jerusalem. They supposed themselves to be waiting for the new manifestation which had been promised, in order that they might take up the work which their Lord had left them. According to their own evidence, the manifestation came. At a particular moment, and by no means secretly, the heavenly Secrets opened upon them, and there was communicated to that group of Jews, in a rush of wind and a dazzle of tongued flames, the secret of the Paraclete in the Church. Our Lord Messias had vanished in his flesh; our Lord the Spirit expressed himself towards the flesh and spirit of the disciples. The Church, itself one of the Secrets, began to be.

The Descent of the Dove

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8 Responses to Charles Williams on the Origin of the Church

  1. Sterling says:

    I’m in the process of reading that book too! He’s a real brilliant writer, his theological prose far easier to understand than any of his fiction works.

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  2. Jonathan says:

    This is one of my two favorite works of his that I’ve read, the other being The Figure of Beatrice. In the latter book I think he summed up his unique theological perspective and simultaneously found the best genre to house his peculiar prose style. I’ve never yet succeeded in making it all the way through one of his novels, but Descent into Hell is coming up soon on my docket, and I am determined to see the job through. Do you have a preferred Williams novel?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      In my judgment *Descent into Hell* is the best of his novels. On the other hand, it’s not the one I would recommend to anyone coming to Charles Williams for the first time. *War in Heaven* is an easier entry. And I do love *The Greater Trumps*. *The Place of the Lion* was C. S. Lewis’s favorite.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I think I enjoy War in Heaven the most – and if you try it (again?) and like it, go on to Many Dimensions, which is a sort of sequel (and very interesting in its own right). I love the Greater Trumps, too, and have been becoming ever keener on The Place of the Lion. (Would this be a good place to mention Mrs. Higgins’ blog, The Oddest Inkling? She kindly suffered me to write one of several guest posts on The Place of the Lion, there, and I enjoyed going on commenting on angelology under it!)

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  3. brian says:

    I think All Hallow’s Eve and Descent Into Hell are the best written.

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  4. Looking forward to reading more of this. Thank you. I don’t own this book, although I have several of his novels.

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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    If I may be excused some ‘self advertisement’, I led an introductory study session about the earlier chapters of The Descent of the Dove and Williams’s late Arthurian poetry together, and there are some possibly useful resource materials from it online, here (if you scroll down far enough):

    http://www.holytrinityutrecht.nl/christian-classics-group/

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  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I just encountered (a year after it appeared!) A.N. Wilson’s review of Grevel Lindop’s biography – a review with various good and interesting things to say about The Descent of the Dove, beginning with “The Descent of the Dove, however, is without any parallel. […] It is a work of—this is the only word that fits—genius”:

    https://www.firstthings.com/article/2016/03/havent-an-inkling

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