restricted access A Lay Theologian. A review of The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church, by Charles Williams
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748 ] A Lay Theologian1 A review of The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church, by Charles Williams London: Longmans, 1939. Pp. 245. The New Statesman and Nation, 18 (Dec 1939) 864, 866 This book is not quite what you might expect it to be; but nothing by Mr. Charles Williams – nothing, at least, that he has written because he wanted to – ever is; and the sort of people who would object that Proteus does not observe the rules of all-in wrestling, the very literal-minded, may sometimes complain of Mr. Williams that he is playing a game of his own.2 The easiest way to try to prove a foul is to accuse Mr. Williams of heresy. To those who believe that orthodoxy is for the Church to determine, not for the individual writer to expect to arrive at until his views have been published and tested, this will not appear a deadly accusation. One may even go so far as to maintain that a heresy from Mr. Williams would be, in its result (and Mr. Williams does assume that intelligent and educated minds exist), a real contribution to the explication of orthodoxy. Of three classes of Mr. Williams’s writings: his romantic thrillers, from War in Heaven to Descent into Hell, his later poetry, and his theological works (He came down from Heaven and the present book) it may be said that while they can all be enjoyed separately, they can only be partly understood unless they are considered together.3 Even Mr. Williams himself, in his preface, seems to be aware of this.4 Taliessin through Logres contained some beautiful poetry, but some of the most obscure poetry that was ever written: it becomes more intelligible after reading The Descent of the Dove.5 The obscurity of the poem was partly inevitable, because the author’s subject matter was difficult in itself, and difficult particularly for the present age to apprehend; it was partly innocent; but also it seemed partly wilful. There is an element of wilfulness in Mr. Williams’s expression – a temptation to which anyone is exposed who is trying to convey the beauty of colour to the colour-blind. It is necessary, in any case, to collate what are superficially different kinds of work, in order to see what Mr. Williams is about; and even then, it is very difficult to classify this extraordinary and [ 749 A Lay Theologian eccentric spiritual acrobat. One may say that the centre of Mr. Williams’s interest is mystical or ascetical theology: in the widest sense – for He came down from Heaven contains some profound remarks on Romantic Love and the Vita Nuova.6 But he enjoys all the privileges of being a lay theologian ; he can use his own form, such as that of thrillers as thrilling as any, and he can speak in the language of contemporary conversation. Indeed, it may prove that one of his greatest contributions to his science is a refreshment of the terminology in which it is expressed. The sub-title of the present book indicates that it is in a certain sense a history of the Church. It is not, of course, a history of ecclesiastical politics or constitution. To the reader who is not interested in, or does not recognise the identity of the Holy Ghost, the book is still very interesting, as a kind of review of the points of emphasis which Mr. Williams considers important in the last nineteen hundred years: to such a reader the book will be interesting as a survey of Mr. Williams’s mind. Such a reader will enjoy the review and appreciate the many good things by the way, but he will have missed the author’s intention, which is to chronicle the points of crisis and decision, at which the Church (in its widest sense) has been guided by the Holy Spirit. That is to say, Mr. Williams would wish his book to be judged, not as his “personal” impression of the history of the Church, but as an essay according to criteria quite as objective as those of the ordinary historian. His standpoint is certainly not Protestant, but it is Catholic in a larger sense than that usually attributed by Protestants to Catholicism, for it allows him to consider without prejudice the contributions of heretics and schismatics, as well as those of saints and popes. Popes, indeed, have no very conspicuous place as...


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