Books and Code · A Miscellany

Outlines of Romantic Theology, by Charles Williams (A Review)


After reading several fiction works of Charles Williams that are clearly informed by his Romantic Theology (I’m thinking particularly of Shadows of Ecstasy and The Greater Trumps, but it can be detected in the love interest subplots of The Place Of The Lion and Many Dimensions and probably others), I determined to get this one under my belt for insight into exactly what he means by the mystical trappings of the romantic relationships portrayed in his novels.

It is tough and tedious reading, but has the benefit of being a relatively straight-forward explanation of the idea (for Williams standards at least). His summation reads:

The principles of Romantic Theology can be reduced to a single formula: which is, the identification of love with Jesus Christ, and of marriage with His life. This again may be reduced to a single word — Immanuel. Everything else is modification and illustration of this.

Oh! It is so clear now! :-D Let me unpack this… Immanuel means “God with us” in Hebrew, which Christians associate with Jesus, thanks to Matthew 1:23. So Williams is saying here that romantic love manifests Christ in some literal way and that the progression and development of that love mirrors his life. The Oddest Inkling blog does a great job explaining this further. Go there for the quick summary. I’ll discuss below my thoughts on the Theology.

If you are familiar with Christian theology (what are you doing here if you are not?!), then you notice he is alluding to the Incarnation above. He goes on:

To students who do not accept the doctrine of the Incarnation, the suggestions made will probably appear fanciful; it is at any rate certain, as a compensation, that to no Christian can they appear as anything but natural and probable, even if in the end they should have to be, for one cause or another, rejected.

I can’t speak for those who do accept the Incarnation (I do not), however I can confirm that it certainly appears fanciful to me. In fact, the whole theology appears like Christian post-hoc justification for non-Christian ideas on romantic love. Williams acknowledges that the Church has had an unsure relationship with romantic and sexual love since its inception.

In my opinion, this goes all the way back to Jesus himself. I am not implying that Jesus’ teachings were sexually repressive and whatnot; rather, I believe he was an apocalyptic prophet who was not concerned with long-term, earthly things. The Pauline writings carry this torch as well–see 1 Corinthians 7 on this point. Now there is a man setting down a convenient heuristic for the short-term–sex in marriage for the purpose of otherwise maintaining self control for those who would fail at celibacy. That’s a policy on sex that cares not at all for the long-term survival of the species. It was only after the disappointment of failed apocalypticism that the early Church began to look more kindly at marriage. Matrimony as a sacrament is a rather late development in Christianity. For that reason, Williams’ assertion that Romantic Theology is “natural and probable” is unfounded.

Williams does mean Love=Christ quite literally. Here’s some pull quotes about sexual intercourse to give you the flavor:

Intercourse between man and woman is, or at least is capable of being, in a remote but real sense, a symbol of the Crucifixion. There is no other human experience, except Death, which so enters into the life of the body; there is no other human experience which so binds the body to another being. […]

In that intercourse which is usually referred to as the consummation of marriage the presence of Love, that is, of Christ, is sacramentally imparted by each to the other. If this act is not capable of being a sacrament, then it is difficult to see in what way marriage itself is more sacramental than any other occupation; and its inclusion in that group of rites which have the Eucharist as their crown is undeserved.

Putting the creepiness of a ménage à trois with Jesus aside, he does have a fair point about Christianity here. Whether sexual repression is a flaw of Christianity (my view) or an unfortunate theological misunderstanding (Williams’ view), Williams is right to point out the importance of sex to the human experience and its power to create intimacy between individuals. But then, his theology does not strike me as particularly useful for cultivating intimacy and shared spiritual fulfillment with your partner. On the contrary, it seems to me more useful for extracting meaning from an otherwise dissatisfying relationship.

…which brings me to my feminist problems with the Theology. In theory the principles are applied both ways, but when he shows them in practice they are not. The women in his novels are simultaneously idealized as symbols of Christ and used as objects of veneration or as means for spiritual fulfillment. What’s more, these ideas are paired with his “submitted saint” trope wherein these women give themselves up to being used. It is a one-two punch that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Still, reverse the gender roles and I would reject this again. Self-immolation is not a virtue and all the mythologizing does not foster a healthy respect of your partner as an individual. If you are thinking about the Crucifixion while having sex with your spouse, I humbly submit to you that you are doing it wrong. Williams’ ideas on romantic love may not be perverted, but they are perverse.