Descent of the Dove
Charles Williams

Charles Williams

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Descent of the Dove

A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church

Copyright © 1939 by Charles Williams


Chapter VIII.
The Quality of Disbelief
From being a threat heresy had become a continuous event—and this was true of the Reformed and Protesting Churches as of the Roman. That the event could finally endure was not supposed. It was not imagined that various formations in Christendom could maintain themselves side by side—in spite of the evidence to the contrary offered by the existence of the Eastern Churches. [...] Heresies, however huge, were imagined to be temporary, and therefore all agreements and treaties with them were also imagined to be temporary—as we see they are to-day among the extreme supporters of our different ideologies. A man, it is felt, cannot be expected to keep faith with something which contradicts and destroys the whole nature of faith and of life. “No faith with heretics” is not an ecclesiastical rule; it is a natural and inevitable human emotion. To make a frontier agreement with a nation of cannibals cannot really forbid an intention to interfere with the cannibals as soon or as much as is convenient; we cannot seriously be expected to let the cannibals against all basis of good go on eating their aged parents. It is inhuman, and with the inhuman there can be no treaty. This is the difficulty of toleration; it is also the objection to toleration. So, in the sixteenth century, the religious armies felt. Years were to go by before the secular governments were compelled by their own eventual impotency to recognize that other beliefs existed and would continue to exist.



Economics confused the process of the Reformation as they had been partly responsible for the beginning of the Reformation. But the general dreams of things to come were still dictated by the subconscious habits of a thousand years and encouraged by the discovery of the energetic habits of our Lord the Spirit at all times. Compromise was unthinkable, and toleration had to be a necessity before it could be a virtue. In fact, as a virtue it does not yet exist, though we once thought it did. For our fathers became bored and miserable and decadent through their incessant killing, and we, the children of that killing, supposed ourselves to be convinced of charity, when, in truth, we only shuddered still at the memory of blood.

Contrition and the taking of faith seriously had meant untold suffering, had meant fierce and continual horrors, within nations and between nations. Something general and very deep in man awoke to revolt, of which Elizabeth and Catharine and Henry of Navarre were the political signs. It may have been mere exhaustion, or perhaps mere humanitarianism (which at such times is seen to have a beauty all its own), which gave it an opportunity. But it rose. It was a quality of spirit, not clarity (though it may involve clarity), not charity (though it may lead to charity). It is a rare thing, and it may be called the quality of disbelief. It is a manner, a temperament, a nature, which may be encouraged or discouraged; it is most particularly not irony, though irony may be an element in it. It is a qualitative mode of belief rather than a quantitative denial of dogma. No doubt, since it is human, it had existed in the Middle Ages, and indeed all through the history of Christendom. But perhaps the best example earlier than the sixteenth century is in the story told of the Renascence notable, Lorenzo Valla. [...] It is an example of the old difficulty that what a wise man may say to himself it is rash for lesser men to say to others. They collected Valla and interrogated him; they invited him to state his views. He answered that he believed all that Holy Church believed. He added, with the accuracy of a scholar, that She did not know; She believed, and, with her, he. [...]

The answer is an example of this quality of disbelief. It is entirely accurate; it comes straight from the Creed. It covers all the doctrines. It is entirely consistent with sanctity. Yet undoubtedly it also involves as much disbelief as possible; it allows for, it encourages, the sense of agnosticism and the possibility of error. It hints ambiguity—nicely balancing belief and disbelief, qualifying each by the other, and allowing belief only its necessary right proportion of decisiveness.

Such a method has the same dangers as any other; that is, it is quite sound when a master uses it, cheapens as it becomes popular, and is undendurable when it is merely fashionable.



Montaigne proposed another kind of co-inherence. He recalled men to the recollection that they began with a hypothesis; that faith—the kind of faith he beheld active round him, which had (it was estimated) killed 800,000 human beings and wrecked nine towns and two hundred and fifty villages—that faith had first been a hypothesis and had been generally translated into the realms of certitude by anger and obstinacy and egotism. [...] Man has always to proceed by hypotheses. But to accept a hypothesis as a hypothesis is precisely to admit that some other possibility may exist. Are we to comment on our own hypothesis in the light of other possibilities? and do not other people exist, holding other hypotheses? and must we not regard their convictions as some kind of “compensation” for our own?
Anything is possible—even that all things are possible or that nothing is possible. And “when we are angry we defend our proposition the more hotly; we impress it on ourselves and espouse it with greater vehemence and approval than in our cool and calm moments.” The history of Christendom itself would have been far happier could we all have remembered that rule of intelligence—not to believe a thing more strongly at the end of a bitter argument than at the beginning, not to believe it with the energy of the opposition rather than with one’s own. “I can maintain an opinion; I cannot choose one.” But if God has revealed one? He Himself can maintain it then; we need not be disturbed.
The science of casuistry ruled all, and to the precisians casuistry looked, like the Indulgences of an earlier day, very much as if it were a “permission to sin.” “Probabilism” had come in: the doctrine that if you were in doubt about the moral propriety of an act, and if you found a reasonable weight of opinion in favour of it among the casuists, that was good enough; even if an equal—some said, even if a greater—weight of opinion were against it. It does not seem a very perilous doctrine, except that it allowed for two opinions upon the details of right and wrong—a thing abhorrent to devout “Puritan” minds. The Dutchman Jansen and his followers saw and trembled; they invoked truth; they invoked sanctity; they invoked—inevitable and fatal error!—Augustine. The usual controversy broke out, and was settled at last in the usual manner; the Jansenist movement was crushed. [...] One claim of their rigid purity will serve for an example: they declared that Grace did not exist outside the Church.

Pascal was a friend and intimate of Jansenists. He was a mathematician, and knew the doctrines of chances and of infinity. He had known the workings of something like mystical experience. He turned all three elements in his nature on to a plan to convert the world around him; he proposed to write an Apology for the whole thing; he began to make notes for the volume. He proposed to controvert Montaigne; say rather, “subvert.” [...] Mathematician that he was, he knew infinity; Jansenist that he was, he felt the dangers of infinity—felt and feared them for others. “The finite to stake . . . the infinite to gain.” Could anyone consent to doubt? He conceded his imagined opponent a feeble if intelligent murmur: “The true course is not to wager at all,” and crushed himself with the awful answer: “Yes, but you must wager. It is not optional.”

He was, of course, right; it is no more optional than death. He was right; in the last analysis Christendom must choose belief and not any quality of belief, however fine. It is the more necessary therefore whenever possible to colour belief with the finest qualities, and not only with itself; the divine co-inherence allows and encourages all the shooting lights of human wisdom, human folly, human courtesy. Pascal, like all believers, was a public danger. But he was a danger of that kind by virtue of which only Christendom has managed to exist at all.

Intellectual enlightenment is apt to leave morals—especially public morals—where they were. The heavy mass of the ruling classes might be, within, witty and cultured, but on those without it lay with a heavy weight of self-indulged cruelty, luxury, and tyranny. [...] A dim horror begins to cover the ruling classes of Europe, a horror to which the later industrialists were heirs. The horror is of a body powerful, stupid, conservative, and cruel. In the eighteenth century the most famous man in all Europe found a name for it; he cried in a voice we cannot and must not forget: “Ecrasez l’Infame”: “destroy the Infamy.”

He did not altogether mean the Church alone by that, or if so, he meant the Church precisely when it had become an evil parody of itself. He was, however we take it, the first pure antagonist; he attacked the Church—and not in the name of Christ. He struck his blows so that the very memory of them has recalled her to her better self—that is, to the Holy Ghost. For thirteen hundred years she had not been in a position to be attacked from outside; there had, in fact, been no outside. She had been denounced only by her members, even if they were heretical members, except where the alien cymbals of Islam had challenged her. But the clash of these new cymbals refused membership—in favour of a God not so unlike the God of Islam. Intellectually the cymbals were a little brassy. Voltaire seems actually to have thought on a low level; he did suppose that the fact that there were a thousand reputed Saviours of the world proved that there was no Saviour of the world, and that the different circumstances and natures of many mothers of many gods disproved the Virginity of the Mother of God. We know that neither affirmation nor denial are as simple as that. But in matters of public morals Voltaire shocked and justly shook the Church. [...] He wrote across the brain of all future Christendom: “Ecrasez l’Infame.” Christendom will be unwise if ever she forgets that cry, for she will have lost touch with contrition once more. She had forgotten—or at least here rulers had forgotten—Man; the candles burned to the Incarnate, but the co-inherence of all men was being lost.

Chapter IX.
The Return of the Manhood
It may be conceded that slavery is not, formally, anti-Christian, so long as the slave’s natural and supernatural rights are preserved. But the proper preservation of those rights is apt to make nonsense of slavery.



He lived under a sense of judgment, of contrition, of asceticism; but also (and equally) of revolt, of refusal, of unbelief. Almost always before his days one of these two things had triumphed over the other; or if not, if there had been others like him, then their words had been so lightly read that it was supposed that one had triumphed. No doubt, as soon as Kierkegaard becomes fashionable, which is already beginning to happen, that fate will fall upon him. He will be explained; the other half of him (whichever that may be) will be excused. His imagination will be made to depend on his personal history, and his sayings will be so moderated in our minds that they will soon become not his sayings but ours. It is a very terrible thing to consider how often this has happened with the great, and how often we are contented to understand what we have neatly supposed that they have said.
The expansion of time and space caused both the scientific and religious leaders to talk as if the Omnipotence could not possibly devote as much attention to a minor star as to a central—as if that which underlies all proportion was bound to be dominated by size. There still faintly lingers in places the image of the Godhead abandoning the earth to its own affairs because it is “such a little one.”
Lecky and Huxley, in England, defined with the most admirably lucid moderation their case against miracles and made it clear that the only final case against miracles was the dogma that they did not happen. So it became clear also that the only final case against Incarnation was the dogma that the Nature of God could not or would not incarnate.



The close of the nineteenth century therefore saw the position of Christendom in Europe much like it had been after the conversion of Constantine. There was the mass of doctrinally active Christendom, and there was the other mass of opposition, also based fundamentally on dogma. There were, however, two great differences. The first was that, on the whole, the movement of the intellectual fashion of the day had set against Christendom, as in that earlier period it had set for Christendom.

But the second difference between that period and the years of Constantine was of very much greater importance. The movement of the dispossessed had proceeded all through the cnetury. The consciousness of the primal physical needs of the oppressed multitudes spread and became militant. In the thirteenth century the presence of the Sacred Body and Blood had been formally defined to exist in the Eucharist. But now, both without and within Christendom, the natural body and blood of common men asserted their rights. [...] Natural justice was a necessary preliminary to all charity. This, which had always been a principle, stirred like other doctrine in the nineteenth century—especially, but not only, in the Christendom of America. But it stirred even more violently outside Christendom.

The many problems of social justice tended to concentrate on one—the question of property. Is there in man a natural and inalienable right to own? Christendom had asserted that there was; those who had rejected the principle had in the past been dealt with as heretics, and those who had refused property had generally been professed as Religious. Nor would Christendom now deny that decision. But it was true also that never before the nineteenth century had there been so much property to be owned or (proportionately) so few allowed to own it.

Christendom was largely identified by the revolutionaries with the owners of property, as well as with the abstract defence of property. This view was not so incorrect as it ought to have been. The theologians might accurately define, and the saints might labour on behalf of the poor, but all this was hampered by three things. The first was the undoubted fact that the co-inherence of sensuality in substance, however true, however just, was of no great interest to those whose sensuality was only a continual despair. An anguish of need and more need can only be used as the Way by those already advanced in sanctity; the authorities of the Church were never intended to impose (or even too much to seem to impose) such a terrible Rejection of Images upon their co-inheritors of glory. [...] The second difficulty was that the mass of professing Christians were definitely not in want of food, nor did they show any signs of selling much of what they had and giving it to the poor. Morally perhaps they were not required to do so, but their retention of their possessions under the patronage of the Cross made the Cross too much a sign of their possessions. [...] The third difficulty was (briefly) philanthropy, using the word in its less bearable sense. Even those who wished to help wished also to direct. [...] Workers do not usually look with gratitude on employers who take care that they do not squander their earnings, or who attempt to shield them from corrupting influences.

The Body and Blood of Christendom had been declared to be divine, human, and common; the body and blood of Communism were thought to be human and common; the body and blood of the new myth were merely German. It set itself against the very idea of the City; it raised against the world the fatalistic cry of Race. There was, no doubt, every kind of excuse; Europe had not behaved well to the Germans, nor the City to the barbarian. But whatever the cause, all Christendom in Germany felt the result.

A thousand years before had been the Wars of the Frontiers and the mass-conversions. Those times had and have returned. The masses are still being re-converted to this or that principle or god. The doctrinal advance of Christendom has been checked by doctrine. The actual frontiers, even the geographical frontiers, upon which the new wars are to be fought are not yet entirely clear, as has been recently shown in Spain. There the natural co-inherence of dogmatic Communism and the supernatural co-inherence of dogmatic Catholicism fought each other with the most intense bitterness. The one side was already murdering and destroying in the name of liberty; the others called in the Moors of Islam and the German technicians of the Healthy Blood to support the crucifixes of the Blood shed to redeem the unhealthy. So extreme, so dreadful, is the inevitable delirium of fallen man. All that is certain is that, from the point of view of Christendom, whatever comes can be but a war of frontiers. The Centre cannot be touched; all that can possibly be done there has been done, outside Jerusalem, under Tiberius.

If Christendom indeed feels intensely within itself the three strange energies which we call contrition and humility and doctrine, it will be again close, not only to the wars of the Frontiers, not only to Constantine, but to the Descent of the Dove. Its only difficulty will be to know and endure him when he comes, and that, whether it likes or not, Messias has sworn that it shall certainly do.

At the beginning of life in the natural order is an act of substitution and co-inherence. A man can have no child unless his seed is conceived and carried by a woman: a woman can have no child unless she receives and carries the seed of a man—literally bearing the burden. It is not only a mutual act; it is a mutual act of substitution. The child itself for nine months literally co-inheres in its mother; there is no human creature that has not sprung from such a period of such an interior growth.

In that natural co-inherence the Christian Church has understood another; the about-to-be-born already co-inheres in an ancestral and contemporary guilt. [...] The fundamental fact of itself is already opposed to the principle of the universe; it knows that good as evil, and therefore it derives and desires its own good disorderly. It has been sown in corruption, and in corruption it emerges into separate life.

It has been the habit of the Church to baptize it, as soon as it has emerged, by the formula of the Trinity-in-Unity. As it passes from the most material co-inherence it is received into the supernatural; and it is received by a deliberate act. [...] It is this co-onherence which, at the confirmation, he heimself confesses and ratifies.

The Faith into which he is received has declared that principle to be the root and the pattern of the supernatural as of the natural world. And the Faith is the only body to have done so. It has proclaimed that this is due to the deliberate choice and operation of the Divine Word. [...] By an act of substitution he reconciled the natural world with the world of the kingdom of heaven, sensuality with substance. He restored substitution and co-inherence everywhere; up and down the ladder of that great substitution all our lesser substitutions run; within that sublime co-inherence all our lesser co-inherences inhere. And when the Christian Church desired to define the nature of the Alone, she found no other term; It mutually co-inheres by Its own nature. The triune formula by which the child is baptized is precisely the incomprehensible formula of this.

It is supernatural, but also it is natural. The dreams of nationality and communism use no other language. The denunciation of individualism means this or it means nothing. The praise of individualism must allow for this or it is mere impossible anarchy. It is experienced, at their best moments of delight, by lovers and friends. It is the manner of child-birth. It is the image everywhere of supernatural charity, and the measure of this or of the refusal of this is the cause of all the images.

text checked (see note) Sep 2012

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