Will Campbell on a Theological Implication of the Tragic

Suddenly everything became clear. Everything. It was a revelation. The glow of malt which we were well into by then seemed to illuminate and intensify it. I walked across the room and opened the blind, staring directly into the glare of the street light. And I began to whimper. But the crying was interspersed by laughter.

–Will Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly

If you are not an Episcopalian or a historian of the Civil Rights movement, then the name Jonathan Daniels might not mean much to you. Daniels was a young, white seminarian who was involved directly in the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s. He was murdered soon after being released from spending six days in jail over a protest. His death is rightly commemorated annually by the church as a martyrdom. He was killed by a shotgun blast fired by Thomas Coleman, a county engineer, who obviously perceived Jonathan and his group to be a threat to Lowndes county’s way of life. You can read and listen to more about his story here.

escru_jd_children3I just finished reading Will Campbell’s autobiography and elegy to his brother, Joe. Campbell was born and raised in Mississippi prior to the Civil Rights movement. The book tells a number of stories that lead up to his own involvement, as a Southern Baptist pastor, in that movement. The revelation above comes toward the end of the book when he is talking with his brother and the witty gadfly, P.D. East. East, a lapsed Methodist who calls the church “The Easter Chicken” (who now just looks like one more chicken in the world; but that’s another story), confronts Campbell with some tough questions. The two had a back-and-forth relationship. Previously, Campbell had written many times in response to his mostly satirical paper to “set him straight on one theological point or another.” In this face-to-face conversation, P.D. asks Campbell for a definition of the Christian Faith in just ten words or less.

“Okay. If you would tell me what the hell the Christian Faith is all about maybe I wouldn’t make an ass of myself when I’m talking about it….”

I said, “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.” He swung his car off on the shoulder and stopped, asking me to say it again. I repeated: “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.” He didn’t comment on what he thought about the summary except to say, after he had counted on his fingers, “I gave you a ten word limit. If you want to try again you have two words left.” I didn’t try again but he often reminded me of what I said that day…

“Was Jonathan a bastard?”

I said I was sure that everyone is a sinner in one way or another but that he was one of the sweetest and most gentle guys I had ever known.

“But was he a bastard?” His tone was almost a scream. “Now that’s your word. Not mine.”….


“All right. Is Thomas Coleman a bastard?”

That one was a lot easier…

P.D. …, pull[ed] his chair closer to mine, placing his huge, bony hand on my knee. “Which one of these two bastards you think God loves the most?”

For Will Campbell, this was the moment the implications of his definition came crashing in on him, turning his thinking inside out.

I was laughing for myself, at twenty years of a ministry which had become, without my realizing it, a ministry of liberal sophistication. An attempted negation of Jesus, of human engineering, of riding the coattails of Caesar, of playing on his ballpark, by his rules and with his ball, of looking to government to make and verify and authenticate our morality, of worshipping at the shrine of enlightenment and academia, of making an idol of the Supreme Court, a theology of law and order and of denying the only Faith I professed to hold but my history and my people—the Thomas Colemans. Loved. And if loved, forgiven. And if forgiven, reconciled…

George Wallace frees him to go and kill again. The other liberates him to obedience to Christ. Acquittal by law is the act of Caesar. Render unto him what is his….Acquittal by resurrection takes us back to our little definition of Faith. And takes us into a freedom where it would never occur to us to kill somebody.

The truth is, law is not restraining them. If law is for the purpose of preventing crime every wail of a siren calls out its failure. Every civil rights demonstration attest to the courts’ inability to provide racial justice. Every police chief who asks for a larger appropriation because of the rising crime rate is admitting his own failure. Every time a law has to be enforced it is a failure….

[F]rom that point on I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides. And I had taken sides. Many of us who were interested in racial justice had taken sides and there were good reasons in history for doing what we did…

Because we did not understand the nature of tragedy we learned the latest woolhat jokes, learned to cuss Mississippi and Alabama sheriffs, learned to say “redneck” with the same venomous tones we had heard others, or ourselves, say “nigger.” We did not understand that those we so vulgarly called “redneck” were a part of the tragedy.

Brother to a Dragonfly pp. 218-227


Charles Williams: The Third Inkling [Review]

I wrote the following for The Englewood Review of Books in February.

Charles Williams: The Third Inkling Grevel Lindop OUP, pp. 493, ISBN: 9780199284153

Alice Mary (Smyth) Hadfield penned the earliest work about Charles Williams’ life. Because she had replaced Phyllis Jones as the librarian at the London branch of the Oxford University Press where Williams worked nearly his entire career, Alice was a beneficial source of information, but she was, arguably, too close to Williams to ever write a true biography. For some time this was all we had. Secondary literature, on the other hand, seemed ignorant of the facts that would begin to trickle out over the next decade. The introduction to Thomas Howard’s The Novels of Charles Williams (1983), for example, can confidently proclaim, “Charles Williams was not interested in the occult at all except during a brief period in his early life. One might be pardoned for forming the impression from his novels that he was quite caught up in the occult, but that would be a mistake.” We now know this to be false. Lindrop seconds previous research into this area. Williams was heavily involved in Jewish Kabbalism filtered through the modified Rosicrucian philosophy of A.E. Waite. There is also a hint that his parallel membership in the Lee-Nicholson group probably was not a casual preoccupation.

The same goes for his relationships. Details about his fantasy-romantic games were not initially revealed to the public. Enquirers were left with the understanding that he had an unusual appeal to a number of considerably younger women with whom he worked with or who attended his lectures; a phenomenon variously interpreted as everything from evidence of his holiness to a literal magical charm. Since the publication in 1989 of letters to one of his last interests, Lois Lange-Sims, we have learned more.

What we haven’t had is a complete story, weaving together the personal with the professional, poetic, dramatic, and theological strands of his life, which Grevel Lindop provides. Additionally, the author has added nine personal interviews conducted over a twenty-year period leading up to the publication of the book. The timeliness of the research cannot be underestimated, and the story is compelling. The biography both deepens ancharles-williams1d contradicts previous accounts, leaving the reader with a paradoxical portrait of a unique literary figure. Williams influenced many other writers, and indirectly shaped a generation of readers through his work as a senior editor. He should probably be given credit, for instance, for the introduction of Sören Kierkegaard’s writings to an English audience.

Lindop paints a detailed picture of William’s relative and continuing poverty which barred him from standard entrance into the world of academia in a class-bound society. The broken dreams of the working poor, together with Williams’ tenacity, create sympathy for him and hold the reader in the narrative when it threatens to become alienating. The author also does an admirable job of connecting William’s early experiences with his later life without becoming too intrusive with interpretations. For example, his poor eyesight combined with an intense imagination likely contributed, according to Lindop, to “… his lifelong sense that the world could at any moment dissolve into a magical realm of sinister unreality or heavenly illumination …” His father’s atheism and his association with a lively church-based discussion group in his teens are credited with providing the ground for his awareness of, and even sympathy for, pagan and secular perspectives.

These themes continue to be developed throughout the narrative. Of particular interest, especially in light of the church’s continuing dilemma in defining its relationship to sexuality and marriage, is his early fascination with Coventry Patmore (1823-1896). His writings were introduced to Charles by his enthusiastic friend and co-worker at Amen House, Fred Page. Williams later came to link Patmore’s hints about chastity, sexual
desire, and religion with Dante’s Vita Nuova and Milton’s Comus, to create his own vision of a world-accepting ‘Romantic Theology’. Set against the background of the cheap moralistic tracts aimed at the working class, the reader can’t help but sympathize with the revolt against the dour tendencies of the church of that age, but many will also feel that he didn’t display enough caution. As C.S. Lewis, in some of his earliest correspondence with an older Williams, summarizes, “…it all fits in perfectly and must seem to you almost like a trap…

Charles Williams’ soaring, syneisaktistic ideas on this topic would play themselves out in the mundane reality of a publishing house in London. One of the hidden strengths of the book, I mention in passing, are the carefully chosen details about the physical places Williams inhabited. His relationship to Phyllis, the first and longest of his extramarital ‘affairs’, was unconsummated. They both, for different reason, enjoyed each other’s company and even when the fantasy seemed to falter due to time, distance, or circumstance, it would rekindle with much the same passion as it had in the beginning. Phyllis never disappears entirely from the story. In one sense, his love for her was a surprise to him, but rather than reject his feelings, he seems to have accepted thbeatriceem as revelatory. This is understandable to an extent. Williams, and other mystics, would argue that the state of “Being in Love” is close to the experience of God. The true and painful oddity is not that he had an attractive and intelligent young girl who would play along, but that at some point he realized that a kind of sublimated sexuality released him to live and write creatively in a way that nothing else could. Hence, in her absence, he developed similar relationships with other women and, although there were periods of dormancy, this habit never entirely disappeared. Lindop sees this in terms of a growing addiction that increasingly agonized him as he saw what it was doing to himself and to others. He points to places in the novels and letters that expose this self-loathing, and retells his conversation with Lois where he admits of feeling incapable of having normal human relationships.

Charles Williams is considered a Christian writer. Many of his works provide an orthodox Anglo-Catholic perspective on a number of themes. Yet, they can be tantalizingly radical or, at times, even literal. The beautiful vision of a universe marked by fluid hierarchies, the broadening of divine providence into a co-inherence of all time and events, and the wrestling with pain and evil in unique ways, give the impression that he was straining to put into words truths just beyond his grasp. At his best, he is entirely believable, and even the most muddled parts can be useful for what they hint at. He was and continues to be an fascinating, if eccentric, lay theologian. The biography mentions all the important writings, but readers unfamiliar with Williams’ collected works will need to consult them to get a better sense of the theology.

While not discounting his importance as a Christian thinker, Lindop feels that Williams will, or should be, remembered mostly as a poet. He spends time tracing his belated development away from older, flowery forms after years of gushing praise from his early patrons. Sections of various chapters discuss his lifelong goal to publish his elaborate books of Arthurian poems and his influence on younger British poets, not all of who shared the same spiritual interests. Additionally, he makes a case that his most personal ideas are always encapsulated in verse.

It’s hard to imagine a figure as complex and interesting as Charles Williams not being rediscovered at some point, whether it is as a poet, theologian, or dramatist. Grevel Lindop has given us a valuable tool for doing that.


Grevel Lindop, a member of the Charles Williams Society and author of the new biography, speaking on the topic: Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, Who Was Charles Williams?.


The Glass of Vision Lecture 1: The Supernatural and the Natural


In 1948, a little-remembered scholar in the Anglican tradition, Austin Farrer, gave a lecture entitled “The Glass of Vision“. You can find a copy of it courtesy of a scan by a library in Kansas here. The list of Bampton lecturers that include my subject are full of forgotten folk, but you may have seen, like I have, an occassional reference to some of his phrases or ideas punctuating a paragraph of more recent theology or biblical studies. Observant readers of C.S. Lewis may even recall that the foreword to Reflections on the Psalms is dedicated to him. Unfortunately, few of his works stay in print and this contributes to his unfamiliarity to the church as a whole.

However that may be, those familiar with Austin Farrer’s work universally declare this particular lecture to be representative of his best and most interesting thought. I will be mostly summarizing, but partly interacting with the lectures as I read them for the first time myself, but first, some background.

As a child, Austin Farrer (1904-1968) was a part of the Baptist tradition in England. His father was a Baptist minister and it was only later that he became an Anglican (Anglo-Catholic) while attending university. His early formation in the Baptist tradition is referred to as “a personalism which might satisfy the most ardent of Dr. Buber’s disciples” in this first lecture. Eventually he became a priest. Today he is remembered, by those who do, as one of the more creative minds the Anglican tradition produced in the 20th century and also as being in the company of the group of Oxford Christians, such as Dorthy Sayers and T.S. Eliot, who were not Inklings.

Ahead of his time, Farrer, was already combining various fields of study together in order to think more deeply about problems in theology. From the first lines of the preface we read:

The lectures which follow are no more than a modest attempt to state what I do, in fact, think about the relation borne to one another by three things- the sense of metaphysical philosophy, the sense of scriptural revelation, and the sense of poetry. Scsripture and metaphysics are equally my study, and poetry is my pleasure. These three things rubbing against one another in my mind, seem to kindle one another, and so I am moved to ask how this happens.

In this first of eight lecture, he sets up a problem for us. In part, the problem is driven by his self-defined ‘personalist’ upbringing. Accordingly, this caused him to expect to be able to converse with God “as one man faces another across a table, except that God was invisible and indefinitely great.” This is a state of mind, perhaps induced by childhood itself though often aided by sloppy language, that many readers will have passed through. Interestingly, Farrer credits his reading of Spinoza for the change of view, although he also makes it clear that, as an adult reader, he sees the problems that Spinoza’s pantheism creates. In some ways the current lecture could be read as Farrer exploring a middle way between his Baptist childhood’s flat reading of scripture and Spinoza’s “God, or call it Nature” conflation.

If neither of these are the case, how then do we describe our ‘relationship’ (I’m always reminded of how even this term is metaphorical) to God? Farrer here goes back to the time-worn definitions of first and second causes provided by Aristotle to set up an interesting dialectic between ‘natural reason’ and supernatural revelation’. Of course, these terms carry a certain amount of baggage. He further explains that “…we ought to throw the emphasis on the adjectives rather than upon the nouns. We have not to distinguish between God’s action and ours, but between two phases of God’s action- his supernatural action and his action by way of nature.” This creates more than a simple hierarchy with two mostly independent spheres of operation. Natural theology (he uses the broader term “rational theology”) and supernatural revelation are the ways that we perceive the action of God.  To us they appear separate, even contradictory. Farrer gives us these two principles, for example:

  1. If we believe in God at all, it is absurd and impious to imagine that we can find him out by our own reason, without his first being active in revealing himself to us. Therefore, all discovery of him is this self-manifestation, and all rational theology is revealed theology.
  2. If God does reveal himself to us, we cannot acknowledge or master what he reveals without the use of our reason. Therefore all his self-mainfestation is also our discovery of him, and all revealed theology is rational theology.

The second of these points will not be lost on the postmodern reader. We are quite accustomed to understanding all of our experiences and thoughts as filtered or interpreted by our presuppositions and culture. The idea that God is a first cause acting through secondary causes, however, is one that many in our contemporary situation have less experience with or may have even abandoned. For the sake of understanding what Farrer is up to, let us assume his Christian use of Aristotle and notice how he begins to solve the apparent contradiction.

In this view, “…nothing is supernatural to God…“, but from our perspective, if the realm of the supernatural is confined to a single First Cause, then it is left outside of and unrelated to our experience. Instead, for Farrer, “When the supernatural occurs, something in the existing world is supernaturalized..[my emphasis].” To illustrate this point, he uses an analogy from the world of fairy tales. In fairy tales, if a character does something on their own that is not within their power (nature), we would conclude “that we had defined his nature too narrowly, not that he had exceeded it. The idea of the supernatural is of a finite agent exceeding his natural power by higher assistance.

The problem’s solution should be clearer now. Every time the supernatural (that which is outside of, or beyond, nature) occurs, it must appear in a different medium, the natural. If this were not so, we would not be cognizant of it by definition. However, we can also fail to be aware of the presence of the supernatural simply because we are looking at the supernatural clothed, as it were, in the natural. While Farrer superficially appears to be distinguishing between ‘nature’ and ‘supernature’, he is actually bringing them into a tighter relationship given his starting point.

I’m reminded here of Edwin Abbot’s story Flatland: A romance of many dimensions. If you translate a world with multiple dimensions into one with fewer, what would geometric shapes look like in each world? Something would get lost, but would there also be hints that an object was more than what it appeared to be? I’ve yet to read the rest of Farrer’s lectures. Perhaps the similarity to Abbott breaks down in the idea that existing objects in our world are, in his words, ‘super-naturalized’ (i.e. become more than they were capable on the principles of the natural world), while in Abbott’s thought experiment figures from another dimension are still themselves but only appear differently.