Tag Archives: Charles Williams

C S Lewis on desire as the road to God

Boy-Drinking-WaterThis is the last bit on Lewis and desire in the “affective devotion” chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis:

Lewis was not idiosyncratic among 20th-century Christian imaginative writers on this matter of desire’s role in bringing us to the gospel. Lewis’s close friend Charles Williams was captivated by Dante Alighieri’s belief that he had been led to salvation by a young woman with whom he had become infatuated with when he was a boy. From Dante’s vision of Beatrice, Williams elaborated a “romantic theology.” A key Christian influence on Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, discovered a similar romantic dynamic in the life of “God’s troubadour,” Francis of Assisi. Each of these writers, and Lewis himself, was thus drawing in fact not only from classical eudaemonism, but also from a distinctively medieval tradition of affective theology, exemplified in Boethius, Francis, Dante, and with special intensity in such late-medieval mystics as Julian of Norwich (one of Lewis’s favorite spiritual writers).

Lewis taught that our natural desires—our yearning that is triggered by our experiences of what is good and beautiful in the world—in fact can lead us toward God. Indeed he insisted that he himself had come to God in this way, so that he called himself an “empirical theist.”[1] He refused to believe that “the ‘vague something’ which has been suggested to one’s mind as desirable, all one’s life, in experience of nature and music and poetry” was “any product of our own minds.”[2] Our sensing self, interacting with the world through not only perception but also desire, leads us toward something real and objective beyond our subjectivity: it leads us toward God. Now, he confessed, with the Pseudo-Dionysians, that sometimes this happened by negative example and by suffering—by the sinfulness in ourselves that we stumble across as soon as we engage fully in that natural mode and world—as Gregory the Great had also taught. But this, too, was a mechanism of desire: we desire not to suffer and be sad, so we reach out to the God who forgives sins, heals hearts, dries eyes. Continue reading

C. S. Lewis and medieval Christians knew our bodies (and sex!) matter theologically – how ’bout us?

Christ ennobled and raised up all of humanity by becoming one of us. The truest things about ourselves are all areas where we reflect the image of our Creator.

Our embodiedness is important to our life with God both here on earth and at the resurrection (of the body): we receive all we know about God through our bodies, our senses, our experiences. Analogy is more than analogy: it is sacrament; to use a word Lewis used to title a key essay, it is “Transposition.”

To try to abstract mind from body, spirit from matter is to commit the gnostic error and destroy (be false to) what we truly are as human beings.

To speak in quasi-scientific sociological generalities and remove traditional understandings of what human beings are (including our embodied experience), and thereby to destroy traditional morality, is to, in fact, “abolish humanity”–to unmake us as creatures of God, and thus prevent us from reaching God as well (Abolition of Man). Continue reading

Story, the imagination, the sacramental: J R R Tolkien, C S Lewis, and Charles Williams

A fine essay in Colin Duriez‘s J. R. R. Tolkien Handbook (Baker, 1992) opens up the topic of the theology of story. Though the handbook focuses on Tolkien, this particular essay ranges richly between Tolkien, Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and even a bit of G K Chesterton. (Again, the following uses my typical abbreviations; “xn” is Christian, “xnty” Christianity, “T” is Tolkien.)

I appreciate in this essay especially Duriez’s keen grasp of the romantic underpinnings of the theological meaning of story and imagination for the Inklings, as well as the sacramental element in Williams’s and Tolkien’s thought (what Williams identifies as “the Affirmative Way”). My overall comment on the usefulness of this essay to my “Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants” project follows, and then the essay itself sprinkled with a few of my notes

[Duriez’s essay on Tolkien and Christianity, from the same book, is here.]

Continue reading

The intuitive medievalism of C S Lewis–a paper proposal for Kalamazoo 2011

Just submitted a paper proposal to the International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI, 2011, for a session sponsored by the Purdue C S Lewis Society. Whether or not it includes me, this session will be a historic event: as long as I or the convener can remember, Kzoo has done without even a single C S Lewis paper.

This is quite odd, given that, in the words of Norman Cantor, “Of all the medievalists of the twentieth century, Lewis and Tolkien have gained incomparably the greatest audience.” I’ve seen lots of Tolkien sessions at Kzoo, but nary a Lewis session.

Wish me luck . . .

ABSTRACT: The Intuitive Medievalism of C S Lewis

Lewis did not set out to be a medievalist, but from early in his life—before his conversion—medieval thinking and values drew him inexorably, eventually forming his deepest commitments. Continue reading

Dorothy Sayers on “romantic theology” in Dante Alighieri and Charles Williams

High resolution scan of engraving by Gustave D...

"The Souls of Paolo and Francesco," by Gustav Dore, illustrating Canto V of Dante's Inferno

The following are some reflections on Dorothy L. Sayers’s essay “Dante and Charles Williams,” published in The Whimsical Christian: 18 Essays by Dorothy L. Sayers (New York: Collier Books, 1987):

Dorothy Sayers rarely wrote an uninteresting word–much less when talking about her chief late-life passion: the great Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri.

Like C. S. Lewis, Sayers saw in the quirky novelist, Dantist, and romantic mystic Charles Williams something of enduring value. Especially, she saw Williams as having grasped a crucial point about why Dante–and countless other historical figures–are still important to us today. [I posted here on how Sayers, Lewis, and Williams all drew different sorts of sustenance from that great poet.]

The point is this: Dante, despite the fact that he lived “long ago and far, far away,” was a human like us, with experiences in many respects like ours, and he is still of great value to us because he had acute insights into the truths behind those experiences, along with a poet’s ability to express those insights deeply and brilliantly. Continue reading

Dorothy L. Sayers: The passionate popularizer

It’s always fun to find a reviewer or biographer who “gets” one of your favorite figures. Here is Adrian Leak, commemorating Dorothy L. Sayers on the 50th anniversary of her death.

Unlike the portrait of Sayers we derive from her Oxford magazine article I just posted on, here Sayers (an accomplished scholar of medieval French) separated herself from academia to position herself as a woman of the people, “no academic but a common popular soapbox lecturer.” The truth was at both ends of this paradox.

I recommend you click through to the full article, both for the pleasure of reading it and for the wonderful photo (which I had not seen before) of Sayers standing on stage with with actors performing in St Thomas’s, Regent Street, Westminster, and other photos:

Adrian Leak, “From Lord Peter to the Lord Jesus,” Church Times, Dec. 14, 2007.

THE FIRST THING that struck you about Dorothy L. Sayers was her magnificent size. It was not something that worried her, however. “The elephant is crated,” she gasped as, after a struggle, she subsided into the back of a friend’s car. At Marshall & Snelgrove, in Oxford Street, it took nine months to construct a corset robust enough to contain her.

Not that any conventional constraints ever restricted her for long. During a successful run of one of her plays in the West End she could be seen — and heard — entertaining the cast to large, bibulous suppers at the Soho restaurant Le Moulin d’Or. Wholehearted enjoyment characterised her approach not only to food and wine: when she lectured on Dante to the Society of Italian Studies at Cambridge, some of the academics were shocked by the vigour and élan of her delivery. Continue reading

Getting an “Inkling” of the medieval world

My forthcoming book Medieval Wisdom for Today’s Christians will use C S Lewis and “the Inklings” (including Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, and by extension others such as G K Chesterton) as guides to a usable medieval past. This is a good thing, because I myself am not a medievalist! So I’m having to do a LOT of reading on the period, and it’s good to have guides on this sort of journey. I’ve also traveled to the gargantuan Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo (and hope to do so soon again). Yesterday I re-posted my anticipatory Christianity Today history blog post on my first trip to that conference (“The monks did it: Mining medieval resources“). This is my follow-up to that post.

Oh, and, in case you’re interested, here are some other posts dealing with the same theme of “the Inklings and the medieval”: A piece on how Lewis, Charles Williams, and Dorothy Sayers were all inspired (in very different ways) by the great medieval poet Dante Alighieri. A piece on the medievalist work and thought of G K Chesterton. A posting of the summary of the introductory chapter from my Medieval Wisdom book proposal. A consideration of how the “Inklings” hated modernity and used medieval ideas against modern malaises. A summary of the medieval historian Norman Cantor’s assessment of C. S. Lewis as medievalist.

Now to the post at hand . . .

Getting an “Inkling” of the Medieval World

How to excavate a usable medieval past.

by Chris Armstrong | June 3, 2009


Well, I promised to report back on the Kalamazoo Congress on Medieval Studies, and so I will, at least for a moment before turning to another set of lenses on a “usable medieval past.”

In a word, the congress was overwhelming. With over 3,000 scholars and over 600 sessions (averaging 3+ papers each) stuffed into a few days, many of them on topics very esoteric and technical, my head was swimming. Navigating the sessions became an exercise in close reading and careful exegesis of the program-book. Fortunately, more often than not I did manage to hit pay-dirt. Continue reading

The monks did it: Mining medieval resources

My, how time flies. (In the words of the immortal Groucho Marx: “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” But then again, in the words of the immortal Douglas Adams: “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime, doubly so.”) Last May my Patron Saints for Postmoderns was not yet published, I was hoping against hope that my book proposal Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants [maybe Medieval Wisdom for Today’s Christians?] would be accepted by a publisher, and I was posting a blog entry over at Christianity Today’s history blog eagerly anticipating my first Medieval Congress at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

Now Patron Saints has been out for many months, Medieval Wisdom is due to the publishers (Baker Books) next December, and the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo is again just around the corner as May approaches. Here’s my CT blog post from last year anticipating my first Congress:

The Monks Did It

If we move beyond a piecemeal approach to medieval Christianity, we can mine the rich vein of its spiritual, intellectual, and practical resources.

by Chris Armstrong


This weekend I am attending the 44th International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. This is the largest and most prestigious international gathering for medievalist scholars, convening over 3,000 scholars in over 600 sessions of papers, panel discussions, roundtables, workshops, and performances.

Frankly, though I am no medievalist, just thinking about being there is making me drool.

What’s an American church history geek doing attending a meeting that will feature hundreds of highly technical papers in a field I hardly know, based on texts in languages I’ve never learned – Latin, Old English, Old Norse? Continue reading

C S Lewis, Charles Williams, and Dorothy L. Sayers: The three amigos and their three Dantes

What C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Dorothy L. Sayers felt the Divine Comedy has to say to us today.
Chris Armstrong | posted 3/09/2010 11:40PM

The Three Amigos  and Their Three DantesC. S. Lewis was a scholar and professor who became one of the premier lay theologians of the 20th century. He chose to communicate the truths of Christian faith both in essays and in fiction writing, with powerful effects that have resonated into the 21st century.

Lewis’s friend Charles Williams, arguably the linchpin of the “Inklings” literary circle to which Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others belonged, also wrote both essays and imaginative literature with a deeply Christian message.

Dorothy Sayers, detective novelist, playwright, and essayist, corresponded with both Lewis and Williams. And she developed her own powerful Christian apologetic, which she also expressed in both nonfiction and fiction.

These three “literary Brits” shared more than a lively Christian faith, the writing of imaginative literature, and a strong mutual regard. Together they launched a holy war on their era’s scientific materialism and the spiritual declension that accompanied it. Each lifted up in their writings a rich, world-embracing Christian vision against the grey deadness of secularization. For each, this was a life-and-death battle, with the future of the Western world hanging in the balance. They saw their age’s new creed of hard-nosed scientific pragmatism draining the world of spirit and meaning—indeed, as Lewis put it, threatening to tear out of us our very hearts, abolishing humanity itself.

In that precarious moment of Western history, on the war-torn front of secularization, Lewis, Williams, and Sayers took cues from the venerable four-star general of 20th-century Christian literary antimodernism, journalist and amateur medievalist G. K. Chesterton. To be precise, although they never came to share Chesterton’s Roman Catholic faith, Lewis, Williams, and Sayers took a very “Chestertonian” approach to their own antimodern campaign: they turned for help to the pulsating, faith-filled energy of the medieval worldview.

This was hardly historical dilettantism. Each of the three was a professional medievalist with an Oxford University connection. Lewis was an Oxford (and later Cambridge) professor of medieval and renaissance literature whose imaginative works similarly marinated in the medieval. Williams was a polymath editor at Oxford University Press and sometime lecturer on Milton who dwelt long and lovingly on medieval themes in his poetry, plays, and novels. And Sayers did her graduate work at Oxford in medieval French and found time between writing detective novels and translating Dante’s Divine Comedy to publish translations of other medieval works.

Nor was their Chestertonian medievalism slavish. That jovial Catholic had looked to such figures as Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas, and to a medieval-guild-based economic vision of homesteading and small crafts. But Lewis, Williams, and Sayers found their inspiration in a medieval source that Chesterton had left largely unmined. Litterateurs all, they sat together at the feet of a different medieval master: the great 13th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri.

The Living Cosmos

Interestingly, while the three Oxonians joined in loving Dante, they could hardly have been more varied in their devotion. Each found in the great Florentine poet a distinctive tonic for the ills of modernity.

For Lewis it was Dante’s vivid rendering of the medieval cosmology—the “Discarded Image” of a pre-scientific age—that captivated him, transposing his own worldview into a more spiritual key. In the planetary spheres of Dante’s Ptolemaic universe Lewis found, not accurate science, but a vividly sacramental sense of the aliveness of all things, to be treasured in the face of much that was deadening in modernity. Lewis fell in love with the living cosmos and the individuality of the planets themselves, rooted in Pagan mythology but thoroughly Christianized by medieval authors. “The characters of the planets, as conceived by medieval astrology,” he said, “seem to me to have a permanent value as spiritual symbols.”

Michael Ward, in his book Planet Narnia, has now convincingly argued that the medieval planets (including the sun) make up the hidden pattern of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Carefully peeling back the layers of Lewis’s lifelong fascination with this older cosmology, Ward shows that even in his childhood, he was gripped by a fascination with the medieval idea that the planets are themselves living beings—something like angels or guardians of the heavenly realms. Lewis recorded in Surprised by Joy that when he was ten years old, “the idea of other planets exercised upon me a peculiar, heady attraction.”

It was Dante’s great Comedy, however, which Lewis found to be “the highest point that poetry has ever reached,” that plunged Lewis into full-blown infatuation with the Ptolemaic universe. In a 1930 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis described the Paradiso as “like the stars—endless mathematical subtility of orb, cycle, epicycle and ecliptic, unthinkable & unpicturable, & yet at the same time the freedom and liquidity of empty space and the triumphant certainty of movement.” The whole poem felt important to him; “its blend of complexity and beauty is very like Catholic theology—wheel within wheel, but wheels of glory, and the One radiated through the Many.”

Ward shows us that Lewis treasured Dante as the only poet to have infused the medieval model of the heavens with “high religious ardour.” Adds Ward: “Dante is no longer alone in this latter respect, because Lewis has joined him.” He did so in the hidden structure of the Narnian Chronicles, in the living, throbbing cosmos of the Space Trilogy, and in his erudite but accessible lectures on the medieval worldview, published as The Discarded Image.

Romantic Theology

For Charles Williams it was Dante’s lifelong obsession with the girl Beatrice that drew him to recover an older “Affirmative Way” of faith—the ancient Christian spiritual road of the “affirmation of images,” in which earthly things lead us on to spiritual realities. He found this Way embodied compellingly in the story of how Bice Portinari (Beatrice) became the poet Dante’s muse and spiritual guide. Williams drew from this exemplum a rich theological picture of how God works a kind of divine alchemy through human relationships, turning the mundane material of romantic love into the heavenly gold of salvation. Williams worked out this theme in his masterly exegesis of Dante’s work, The Figure of Beatrice. And he used this Dantean theme, along with his idea of “co-inherence”—the human possibility of indwelling each other to the point of redemptively sharing each other’s sufferings—to forge a “romantic theology.”

But Williams was not a romantic in the popular sense of a starry-eyed idealist. In his novels he also painted sin in all its hues—those stories contain some of the most penetrating and harrowing portrayals of human sinfulness in modern literature. And in this, too, he was formed by reading Dante. Dante was deeply Augustinian, and so in his Purgatorio and Inferno he showed the shades of sin and levels of depravity as so many variations on the theme of disordered love. In his novels and his Figure of Beatrice, Williams explored the many wrong turnings and sordid alleys of this Dantean/Augustinian disorder.

The Drama of the Soul’s Choice

For Dorothy L. Sayers, working in the wartime shambles of European life and mores, it was Dante’s striking and forceful rendering of humanity’s moral condition that made her blood rise and her pen flow over. The brilliant Sayers was an accomplished novelist, translator, and literary critic, who had been among the first class of women students at Oxford to receive their Masters’ degrees. Her area of scholarly specialty was “modern languages”—to be precise, medieval French. When she first encountered Dante, she had already translated key texts in that area. Then she read Williams’s Figure of Beatrice and the Comedia itself (which she started in a London bomb shelter as German V1 rockets screamed down over the city) and was stirred deeply.

Sayers loved Dante’s story-telling skill, the earthiness and vividness of his spirituality, and his masterful use of the fine details of everything from astronomy to Thomist theology in constructing his poem. And so she made the translation of Dante her last great life-work. But for her, Dante’s value went beyond his literary mastery. His moral worldview presented an antidote to modern malaises: She saw wartime Europe descending into passivity, blame-shifting, and an alarming susceptibility to propaganda. And there stood the Comedia, towering over world literature as “the drama of the soul’s choice”—a gripping, multi-layered narrative poem whose very theme is moral responsibility. For Sayers, the Comedia was a “tract for our times.”

May we read Lewis, Williams, and Sayers now as what they were: conduits of medieval wisdom for a modern, or postmodern, age. And may we also follow their footsteps to the feet of the master, Dante Alighieri.

Chris Armstrong is associate professor of church history at Bethel Seminary St. Paul, author of Patron Saints for Postmoderns (InterVarsity Press), and a senior editor of Christian History & Biography.

Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today International/Christian History & Biography magazine.
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The distinctive Dantes of C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Dorothy L. Sayers

Here’s a rough introduction to next week’s contribution to Christianity Today‘s history blog. The rest of the article will touch on such works as Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, Williams’s Figure of Beatrice, and Sayers’s translation of the Divine Comedy:

C. S. Lewis was a scholar and professor who became one of the premier lay theologians of the 20th century. He chose to communicate the truths of Christian faith both in essays and in fiction writing, with powerful effects that have resonated into the 21st century.

Lewis’s friend Charles Williams, arguably the linchpin of the “Inklings” literary circle to which Lewis, Tolkien, and others belonged, also wrote both essays and imaginative literature with a deeply Christian message.

Dorothy Sayers, detective novelist, playwright, and essayist, corresponded with both Lewis and Williams. And she developed her own deeply individual and powerful Christian apologetic, which she also expressed in both nonfiction and fiction.

These three “literary Brits” shared more than a lively Christian faith, the writing of imaginative literature, and a strong mutual regard. Together they launched a literary holy war on their era’s scientific materialism and the spiritual declension that accompanied it. Continue reading