Outlines of Romantic Theology
Charles Williams

Charles Williams

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Outlines of Romantic Theology



the Inklings

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Outlines of Romantic Theology

Edited by Alice Mary Hadfield

Copyright © 1990 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Chapter I

The Term “Romantic Theology”
There is in love, as in religion, a hypocrisy, or at any rate a foolish optimism, which is exceedingly like the truth but is not the truth. [...] So in love it is most certain that the lovers are manifest to each other’s eyes in their original perfection; but this is not the same thing as the rather silly convention of romance that only a pretended criticism of the beloved should be allowed a place. The romantic mind must, if it is to be justified, work within the bounds of realism; as indeed love itself does, for of all proverbs that which declares that “Love is blind” is surely the most foolish. Love can only see the next world by virtue of that eyesight which sees and is not afraid to see the flaws in this; all other vision is blindness, all other faith superstition.



Chapter II

The Principles

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. Romantic Theology, like the rest, is therefore first of all a Christology.

It was said that marriage is to be identified with His life. [...] The emphasis of course varies with each pair of lovers, but the broad facts are the same everywhere, in virtue of that identity of principle, and the details will be understood by each pair separately. To some the Temptation, to some the Ministry, to some the Crucifixion, to some (most happy) the Resurrection, will seem to be the supreme facts. Each to his own experience, but none must deny the others, for the dogmas of the Catholic Church forbid.

The same Herodian house which slays the Innocents slays the Baptist, the greatest of the prophets, the greatest teacher of the lover before love is born in him—Justice or Fortitude or Temperance or any of their servants in literature or life. From this attack Love takes refuge in flight; and it may be that, in the lives of many lovers at any rate, he never returns from that inner exile, or returns only to dwell secretly even from them in some spiritual Nazareth of his choice. “Out of Egypt have I called my son”, and Egypt is perhaps the place of formally-accepted marriage. All the Holy Innocents, all the supernatural impulses, are destroyed save only this, and Egypt adores the God with feigned myths and by another name than Immanuel. These Egyptians, conventionally established in married households, hold him as an alien, and by their very conventions bear witness to the truth; as if Mrs. Grundy were a dim shadow of the holy and glorious Mother of God.
It is clear that the Baptism is a ceremony which Love insists on observing, yet a ceremony declared to be unnecessary, and performed by a minister who is less than the subject of the rite. The ceremony of Marriage, according to the Mind of the Church, is to be observed, yet is in itself unnecessary, and the priest performing it is less than the Love which undergoes his blessing.
The Temptation of Love is to overwhelm the lovers, to hypnotise them as it were, and reduce them, willing or unwilling, to a state of passivity which is actually, in the end, the state they desire. But this slowly attained passivity is to be a state throbbing with deliberate choice, vibrant with the infinite moments of choice by which it is slowly induced. In this sense many lovers would wish only that he would yield to the Temptation, and would compel them to be his slaves and puppets. Who would desire free will if by any means this most awful and bitter of all gifts could be removed from man, especially man in a state of love?


Free will

Must Church and State then slay this Divine Love? Except to the anarchic mystic of the heretical sects, this is a hard saying. For it means that all the proper activities of this outer world combine against Him. It is perhaps enough to say that this, in all likelihood, will happen. The mere process of things seems to destroy love—duties and obligations seem to abolish it. It remains certainly an awful warning to the Church lest she cannot recognize the Messias she proclaims; to the State lest the means become the end, and this Divine Contemplation between lovers, which must in the end be one of the chief objects which the State proposes to itself to maintain, be lost and destroyed in consideration of its own importance; lest the poor be sacrificed to an impossible stability, and Love be crucified lest Caesar should change, or the party-system be abolished.
Chapter III

The New Testament in Romantic Theology
Interpretation of texts has often led in other branches of theology to most unhappy results, and though it is difficult to imagine that a time will ever come when ecclesiastical prejudice will exercise itself on behalf of some defined meaning in Romantic Theology, yet even that possibility cannot wholly be ruled out, and meanwhile the danger to the individual is that he should limit some saying or act of our Saviour’s to this aspect only. The whole is greater than the part, and the Eternal Son is more than any understanding of him in any of His offices of salvation.
Alas, miracles are only appreciated—save in their subjects, perhaps rarely in the spectators—by the intellectual forces of man, and these do not convert the soul. But beauty, but energy, but clarity, but faith, but devotion, but purity, but joy, but peace—these produced, for however short a moment, in a man’s being so that he can never doubt that they were, so that they exist maintaining the lover and the beloved in themselves, and suddenly and without his own labours, in a world of utter confusion, these works are they which make a man say with the disciples—“By this we believe that thou camest forth from God.” “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Note (Hal’s):
The published edition follows the typed copy here. Following suggestions in footnotes, I have substituted “clarity” for “charity” and “works” for “words”; these choices reflect the editor’s judgment, based on comparison with the manuscript.

— end note

Mysteriously faithful among all her iniquities, the Church still contains an immaculate centre; and so the Beloved mysteriously remains at once immaculate in love and extremely maculate in everything else. She is, or she seems, miraculously preserved from sin in this alone. And as she, so to her the lover: in the mutual exchange of contemplative delight which we call love.
Chapter IV

The Mass in Romantic Theology
The Body of Christ is, in a hidden but assured way, one with the bodies of his saints—that is, with all true lovers. But this is in eternity, and it is with eternity that the body of his lady is seen to be illustrious. It is therefore that eternal body which he at once knows himself, and yet desires, to be contemplating; and this consciousness provides him with food for his exile, though it may make that exile more bitter, and may in some sense injure his ordinary relationship with her. For no belief in the dogmas of Romantic Theology will make ordinary give-and-take between two sensitive human natures an easy thing, any more than a belief in Dogmatic Theology makes it easier to be courteous to a man who has trodden on one’s toe in a railway queue. It is here that the otherness of the beloved is to be felt; and as it is one of the difficulties of marriage that that otherness is so acute, so it is one of its graces that it is delightedly accepted.
False witness is especially dangerous, for false witness (it must be remembered) need not necessarily be derogatory. The lover who deliberately cheats himself into a belief in his lady’s unreal perfections—who believes her to be tactful when she is clumsy, or good-tempered when she is irritable, or industrious when she is lazy, is as certainly bearing false witness as he who deliberately slanders her. If he honestly believes these things he is of course morally innocent (though perhaps intellectually weak), but to blind himself to the facts is one of the things that the Love of marriage never forgives. It leads to the murder of truth, the theft of delight, the adultery with illusions and sentimentalities; in the end, to the making and worshipping of a lie—the lie of the lover’s own selfhood blindly contented with itself.

And since Love and Christ are one, and the work of redemption, formation, and union is one with his dealings with man in whatever state He is known, it may even be that the operation of this work takes place for some by means of their marriage. There are souls to whom religion is not much more than a mere formal duty, if that, who are yet capable of heroic achievements in love, of temptation and crucifixion in marriage if not in the Church. Vigil and fast, devotion and self-surrender, are aimed in the end at one sole End, and holiness may be reached by the obvious ways as well as by the more secret. [...] In the devotion of many a wife and many a husband, when the evils of the world are upon them, Christ redeems them and draws them to himself; they are upon the cross none the less because they offer it in churches but a merely casual knee.

And, to refer again to the matter of divorce, it is because marriage is a means of the work of redemption that two lovers in whom it has been begun are required by the Church to submit themselves to that work to the end. Divorce is an attempt to nullify a sacrament actually in operation; as if a man should attempt to begin the supernatural life by being rebaptised. It is not that it ought not to happen; for Christians it cannot happen, whatever formula is pronounced or ceremonial enacted. When the work is once begun, for better or worse it cannot be stopped. [...] In the nature of things salvation demands an utter surrender, which is just what the known possibility of divorce prevents and forbids.

Chapter V

Dangers and Safeguards

Ingenuity arises from the delight—in its own degree a perfectly just delight—taken by an active mind in working out parallels between the symbol and the thing symbolised: or (in this particular matter) detecting points of identification. [...] This concentration on the symbol—for, in spite of its pleasant pretence, the concentration of the ingenious mind is always on the symbol and never on the fullness of symbol and symbolised—this concentration brings its own reward. The reward is the gradual death of all living meaning, the substitution of appearances for realities, of industrious toil at a jig-saw puzzle for the living recognition of a friend’s face.

The student who is anxious to avoid this trap will remind himself that in patience and confidence shall be his strength. [...] The kingdom of heaven may suffer violence, but it never yet for a single moment suffered, much less allowed itself to be taken by, a niggling curiosity.



The ingenious mind meandering among texts is a close friend of the ingenious body meandering among emotions. If the fellowship of our fair lord Love is to become a group of self-indulgent phantasts, it had been better that Dante himself should have had a millstone tied round his neck and been cast into the sea. [...] God, on the heights of mystical contemplation, has been seen by some, to make a plaything of humanity; it is a dangerous thing for humanity in the hitherward valley to make a plaything of its God.

Against this double danger, of ingenuity and sentimentality, the safeguard is alike two-fold. It is scepticism and devotion. That these two cannot always work together must, alas! be admitted. The entire dévot, the entire agnostic, each tend to be scornful of the other. [...] It is more normal, however, for even the student of Romantic Theology, even in the relations with his or her lover, let alone the relations with Love, to desire to keep back something of the price. So long as this desire is felt to exist, so long, that is, as the lover is terribly conscious of his own self-will (even when it masquerades as self-denial) existing with a defiant inertia within him, so long he will be advised to pray for a double gift of the sceptical spirit. He may very well pray “Lord, I believe: help thou mine unbelief”, and leave it to God to deal with the ambiguity as seems fit.

The other danger to which reference has been made, infidelity, is a danger common to all love; and though it has not, in this particular aspect, a greater moral guilt than in others, it has perhaps greater dangers about it. [....] Infidelity to love consists in the deliberate preference of some other meaner motive and occupation to love, and the identification of love in marriage with Christ involves something very like the identification of infidelity with Antichrist. States of vision and belief change in a moment into their opposite; it was, as has often been seen, by the gates of the Celestial City that there was a path into hell. [...]

If it were possible for man—as it may be—entirely to reach this state, it would be true of love as of religion that there is a state in which forgiveness is impossible to man; and Romantic Theology at any rate would not shrink from such a deduction.

Doubtless in that supreme Simplicity which is God there is something to which our sex divisions correspond. But it is exceedingly dangerous to begin, unless after a long training in abstract thought, to begin speaking of the Masculine and Feminine principles in His Transcendence. [...] When he has trained himself to regard all sexual questions, and indeed the whole created universe, as a series of equations, of which the true working will give him the value of x (x being love), he may proceed to consider x, in thought as well as devotion, as entire and perfect Being, as Love. It is the old trouble of the substitution of the lesser for the greater; it is not on the lower levels that one should, even with the best intentions, dally with the images of promiscuity in Deity.
Chapter VI

Doctors and Documents
Of these masters the first, for the Christian West, is Dante. He is the spring of all modern love literature; on the flood of the mighty river which had its source in him float all the strong silent men, all the sugary heroines, all the innocent or guilty couples, all the natural or perverted lovers, from that time to this. The feuilletons of the Daily Mail were already prophesied in the stars at the moment when Dante, wandering one day through Florence, suddenly stopped, overwhelmed and bewildered by the sight of Beatrice. [...] By the writings of Dante and of minds like his the rest of us have been made aware of the profundities which are concealed in this fastidious and passionate devotion; for phrases which might be used, as it were colloquially, by any lover, take on a sudden significance when used by these men, and we become aware that we do not excusably exaggerate in saying, for example, “It’s heaven to be with her”, but on the contrary express without perhaps realising it an eternal and immortal truth.
In a sense, the Blessed Virgin is herself the Theology of the Church—the Seat of Wisdom. In the same way Beatrice was herself Romantic Theology, for Dante, and (as his guide and patron) in a degree for all later lovers. The Invocation of Saints will apply to her and to Dante, and to other holy lovers and poets; although of course, since, on the hypothesis, each lover has his own living Theology, the saints of love are remoter from his needs than the saints of religion. But it is a heavenly courtesy, and an appreciation of the unity of the Church Romantic, so to invoke and adore them.
The achievement of the Graal Quest by Galahad takes place at a Mass sung in Sarras by “a man surrounded by angels” who sings “a Mass of Our Lady”. He declares himself to be Joseph of Arimathea, but that (in view of the immense respect paid to the story of the Graal) seems a little unsatisfactory, and it may be—with all humility—suggested that the real Celebrant is here Christ himself, who has already appeared to the chosen knights at the Castle of the Wounded King.
On this interpretation Galahad, Percivale, and Bors express the three degrees of love—love in marriage, love between two persons who are in contemplation of, but without desire for, each other, their desire being only towards God, and love whose contemplation and desire is alike towards nothing but God.
Between the devout minds who insist that this book is nothing but a parable and the critical who insist that it is nothing of a parable, the Song of Songs has fared badly. The Church, having by Divine inspiration included it in the Canon, has felt uneasy about it ever since, just as she has felt uneasy about marriage. Of book and sacrament alike she has protested that they signify the marriage of Christ and the Church and has not allowed herself to insist upon the manner and value of the symbolism. The intense passion of the Song is a mortal passion moving and sustained by an immortal principle: it needs for its full perfection just the identification of Christ and Love which this theology proposes.
Chapter VII

Other Aspects of Romantic Theology

Virginal love is that which, arising normally between a man and a woman, finds its method in the rejection rather than the acceptance of the ordinary physical approach. It is not, in this sense, particularly ascetic; that is, it does not, deliberately and warring against itself, set aside the graces and gifts of the body: it may rather be defined as that kind of love which is so occupied with contemplation that it has no room for desire.

In its degree the process of friendship between any two individuals is a process of marriage, and in this connexion one of them has often been said to be ‘feminine’ to the other’s masculine. But in truth this parallel between the corporeal intercourse of lovers and the mental intercourse of friends is hardly stable. For two friends in any hour’s companionship are each of them both masculine and feminine; both give, both receive; now one dominates, now the other. It is a republican and not a hierarchical relationship taken as a whole, though the position of the two at any one moment may be hierarchical.
The term ‘romantic love’ has been used throughout to mean sexual love; but there are other manifestations of it—learning, art, sport, nature, politics, stamp-collecting. [...] Any occupation exercising itself with passion, with self-oblivion, with devotion, towards an end other than itself, is a gateway to divine things.
But productiveness is of many kinds and cannot be discovered until all things are made known. Children are the most obvious example, and one sign of the essential divinity of marriage; ideas are another and serve a like office for friendship; but what secret and holy states of consciousness may not be brought into existence by what appears a useless and wandering love? Nor are these states of consciousness without influence on the whole world of mankind, any more than the secret devotions of a nun. The pure devotion of a philosopher or an explorer plays its part in the search for the most holy Graal.

text checked (see note) Jan 2005

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Background graphic copyright © 2005 by Hal Keen